Street food is an integral part of the culture, daily life, and local flavor across Latin America. From lively Mexico City to colorful Cartagena, you’ll find vendors selling quick, inexpensive, and mouthwateringly delicious foods from carts, stands, and food trucks on practically every busy street corner and market.
For many locals, grabbing a warm taco, juicy empanada, or refreshing ceviche is a daily ritual and the perfect way to snack on the go. Street food not only satisfies hunger but also provides a vital window into regional cultures, histories, and ingredients.
The sights, sounds, and smells of sizzling grilled meats, bubbling stews, frying batters, and fresh-squeezed juices fill the air of bustling outdoor markets and city streets across Latin America. The aromas draw you in while vendors call out their specialties, attracting lines of eager patrons.
Locals know which stand makes the perfect picada, whose pupusas come with the ooiest cheese, or where to find the freshest catch of the day for ceviche. Purchasing and enjoying street food fosters an exchange as you interact with proud food purveyors and strike up conversations with fellow snackers.
Beyond major cities, small towns also come alive at market times as people flock to buy produce and beloved regional street foods. Remote villages may have just one stand dishing up specialties passed down for generations. Everywhere from urban metropolises to rural communities, street food provides an edible connection to place.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most popular and iconic Latin American street foods, their origins, ingredients, and cultural significance. Whether you’re a foodie traveling the region in search of authentic eats or just want to experience Latin American cuisine from your own kitchen, get ready for a mouthwatering journey across some of the most craveworthy street foods south of the border!
No list of iconic Latin street foods is complete without the mighty taco. Tacos are one of Mexico’s most famous culinary exports, with countless regional variations found all over the country.
The origins of the taco date back at least to the 18th century in Mexico, though their popularity exploded in the decades after the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Back then, tacos were an affordable, convenient food for urban workers. From humble beginnings as antojitos (little cravings), tacos are now an essential part of Mexican cuisine.
The classic taco starts with a soft or crunchy corn or flour tortilla layered with meat, onions, cilantro, and salsa. Common taco fillings include al pastor (spit-roasted marinated pork), carne asada (grilled beef), chorizo (Mexican sausage), carnitas (braised pork), barbacoa (slow-cooked lamb), lengua (beef tongue), and a diverse range of non-meat options like potatoes, beans, mushrooms, and cactus.
Beyond the fillings, the regional diversity of Mexican tacos is enormous. Tacos al carbón from Sonora are filled with smoky grilled meats. Baja California is known for fish tacos stuffed with beer battered mahi mahi or shrimp.
Tacos de canasta from Mexico City are literally “basket tacos” that are wrapped in towels to steam and absorb flavors. No matter what’s inside, tacos make for a satisfying, portable meal you can enjoy while walking down the street.
Another iconic handheld Latin American street food is the empanada. These stuffed pastries can be found all over Latin America, from Chile up to Mexico, across to Argentina, with many regional variations.
Empanadas trace their origins to the Portuguese empanada which was brought to Latin America in the 16th century. As the pastry spread, it was filled with local ingredients, creating distinctive styles across different countries.
The basic shape is a half-moon, though some countries make round empanadas or enclose the filling in rectangular dough. A common preparation is to bake or fry the empanada until the exterior pastry shell is flaky and golden. Empanadas can be made with masa or wheat flour doughs. They are stuffed with fillings like spiced ground beef, chicken, cheese, corn, and other veggies.
Argentinian empanadas are often distinguished by their crimped edges, juicy beef fillings, and the fact that they are typically eaten as an appetizer. Chilean empanadas are baked with a sweeter pastry dough and filled with pino – a mix of ground beef, onions, olives, and hard boiled egg. Mexican empanadas frequently contain aromatic fillings like pumpkin, sweet potato, and plantains. No matter the country, empanadas make for the ultimate handheld street food.
Arepas are one of the most ubiquitous street foods in Colombia, Venezuela and surrounding regions. These thick corn cakes can be grilled, baked, or fried into delicious discs.
The origins of the arepa date back thousands of years to maize cultivation in Colombia and Venezuela. Arepas were originally cooked on hot stones or griddles by indigenous peoples in the region. Today, you’ll find arepa vendors lining the streets of cities like Bogotá and Caracas.
The essential ingredient in arepas is masarepa, or pre-cooked corn meal. This gives the arepa its unique dense, yet fluffy texture. The masarepa dough is shaped into rounds and cooked until the exterior gets a nice crust. Arepas are cut open like a pita and can be stuffed with ingredients like cheese, avocado, meats, beans, eggs – you name it.
While most arepas are stuffed after cooking, some regions make arepas rellenas where the filling is inside the dough ball before cooking. Popular fillings include the traditional Venezuelan reina pepiada with chicken, mayo, and avocado. Ranging from plain to elaborately filled, arepas make for a hearty and quintessentially Latin American street food.
The ultimate Latin American street seafood is ceviche. This bright, citrus-marinated seafood dish originated in Peru and can be found all along the Pacific coastline.
While ceviche recipes vary, the base is raw fish or seafood “cooked” by marinating it in citrus juices, most classically lemon and lime. Onion, chili pepper, cilantro, and corn are common crunchy additions to cut through the tangy citrus marinade. The cooling flavors combine to create a light, refreshing dish that’s perfect for enjoying on the go on a hot day.
Some of the most iconic ceviche comes from Lima, Peru which claims to be the birthplace of the dish. Peruvian ceviche tends to have a lighter marinade to showcase the fresh fish. Ecuadorian ceviche has a spicier kick while ceviche in Mexico often adds tomato, cucumber and avocado. No matter the preparation, ceviche is a bright street food you can dig into with some fried corn, sweet potato or crunchy corn nuts on the side.
In Puerto Rico and Cuba, you’ll find pasteles being sold along roadside stands and street carts. These handheld packetes contain stewed meat wrapped in a masa dough casing.
The Taíno people of Puerto Rico and Cuba originally made pasteles by wrapping seasoned meat in leaves and tying the bundles with string. When the Spanish brought plantains to the Caribbean, pasteles evolved to use a plantain leaf wrapper. Today’s pasteles swap the leaf for a more portable masa dough seasoned with annatto oil and achiote.
Inside each pastel is a savory stew-like filling called guiso with ingredients like chicken, beef, olives, capers, garlic, and raisins. The masa casing soaks up the delicious flavors of the stew. Making pasteles is labor-intensive so they are often reserved for holidays and special occasions. Luckily, you can get your pastel fix any time of year from street vendors across Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Pão de Queijo
These irresistibly chewy cheese bread buns are a beloved Brazilian street food and breakfast staple. Pão de queijo is found all over Brazil, especially in the cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte.
The bite-sized snacks trace their origins to Minas Gerais where they were traditionally made with cassava flour. Today, the dough uses a combination of cassava and regular wheat flour. Inside the fluffy exterior is a distinctive gooey cheese filling, typically made from queso fresco (fresh cheese) or queso minas cheese.
Pão de queijo are baked into perfectly round buns that are crispy on the outside and molten on the inside. The irresistible contrast of textures along with the cheesy interior makes them an addictively snackable street food. Grab a bagful on your way to work or school and you’ll be set until lunchtime.
A beloved sweet street food in Peru, picarones resemble doughnut holes but with a unique flavor all their own. These squash and sweet potato fritters are drizzled with chancaca, raw cane sugar syrup. The combination of crispy exterior and molten center with sweet syrup makes for an incredible treat.
Picarones originated in colonial Lima, inspired by Spanish doughnuts but with native ingredients like squash and sweet potato. They were traditionally sold by street vendors who walked the streets yelling “¡Picarooones!” Today, you can find picarones sold from food carts and market stalls across Peru.
The secret to great picarones is getting the consistency just right by mixing the squash and sweet potato into a batter-like dough. After a quick deep fry, they develop an irresistible crispy exterior that contrasts wonderfully with the gooey, syrup-soaked interior. Every crunchy, sugary bite explodes with the rich flavors of Peru.
A staple street food in El Salvador and Honduras, pupusas are thick corn tortillas typically filled with cheese, pork, or beans. The chewy masa exterior encases oozy fillings like quesillo cheese or chicharrón (fried pork belly).
Pupusas originated in pre-Columbian times amongst the Pipil people of El Salvador. The direct translation of pupusa is “stuffed”. They are made from a basic masa dough with added fat and water, then filled with savory fillings and pressed into thick discs.
Street vendors expertly stretch the dough and assemble pupusas to order. Once cooked on a griddle, they develop a wonderful crispy crust. Pupusas are served alongside curtido, a crunchy cabbage slaw with onions and chiles, along with a watery tomato salsa. The cool, tangy curtido perfectly balances the rich, hearty pupusa.
With their crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside texture and sweet taste, it’s easy to see why churros are a favorite snack across Latin America. These fried-dough pastries originated in Spain but became popular street fare throughout Latin America.
Churros are typically made from just a few simple ingredients: water, flour, and salt fried into long sticks and coated in sugar. Some variations add eggs or butter to the dough. In parts of Central America, churros are filled with dulce de leche for extra decadence. Across Mexico, churros are shorter, fatter and looped into oval shapes.
In Peru and Bolivia, churros are sometimes made using potato starch rather than wheat flour, giving them their signature crispy texture. Vendors sell churros from street carts accompanied by warm chocolate dipping sauce, making them the perfect sweet treat on the go.
This tour across empanadas, ceviche, tacos, pupusas, and other iconic dishes just scratches the surface of the incredible diversity of Latin American street food. Every country and region has its own specialties that reveal local culture, history, and ingredients. Street food vendors proudly serve these classic specialties as quick meals and snacks for locals and visitors alike.
Beyond the delicious flavors, the experience of roaming lively Latin American streets, markets, and food stalls creates an unforgettable atmosphere. The sights, sounds, and smells of sizzling meats, frying batters, tangy citrus, and wafts of spice transport you into the heart of Latin culture.
So next time you’re traveling or just hungry for authentic local cuisine, go out and explore the wonderful world of Latin American street food!