A Mexican Grilled Snack That Tempted The Conquistadors

Tlacoyos can be filled with beans, potatoes, mushrooms or cheese and are often topped with grilled cactus, onions, cilantro, and salsa.

For the last in a summer series of grilled food from around the world, we head to Mexico, where a small doughy treat is found everywhere from street corner grills to high-end restaurants. It's called a tlacoyo (pronounced tla-COY-yo) and although it may sound novel, it's an ancient food that's older than Hernan Cortes.

To taste the best tlacoyos, I was told I had to go to Xochimilco, the sprawling suburb in southern Mexico City. Juana Pina Gonzales has been selling them in the region for 25 years. She only uses blue corn masa — the dough used to make a tortilla — and stuffs the dough with all kinds of fillings, including smashed pinto or fava beans, a potato puree, mushrooms or a light cheese similar to ricotta.

Once filled, she shapes them into a small oval with pointed ends so they look like little footballs, grills them on a hot comal — a smooth round griddle — then wraps them in cloth towels before she puts them in big wicker baskets and heads to the market.

She says she usually sells all 40-50 dozen she's made in about four hours. While Pina's are still warm out of the basket, I really wanted one hot off the grill. So I headed to the market's open food court, where a roving guitarist serenaded customers sitting on rickety benches around a dozen small food stalls. Each is equipped with a large hot grill teaming with all types of Mexican antojitos, or snack food; quesadillas, tacos and of course, hot steamy tlacoyos.

Isabel Salazar Cabrera claims her tlacoyos are the best and original, because her mom was the first to ever sell tlacoyos in Xochimilo. She says they're the best because of the way she cooks the bean filling, but can't share the recipe since it's a family secret.

Once cooked, Salazar slides a hot fried tlacoyo on a plastic plate, and generously tops it with a big spoonful of grilled nopales (catcus slices), chopped onions, cilantro, crumbled fresh cheese and spicy green salsa.

She says tlacoyos have been the favorite food for generations. Her mom told her stories about making the tlacoyos for the farmers who worked the fields or Chinampas of Xochimilco, the floating gardens in the freshwater canals that made this southern stretch of the Mexico City valley so famous.

But Edmundo Escamilla Solis, a historian at the Culinary School of Mexico, says tlacoyos date back even further. He's seen the small corn masa treats mentioned in the writings of the conquistadors of Mexico in the 16th century.

He says Hernan Cortes and other Spanish chroniclers wrote about Mexico's indigenous outdoor markets and the stuffed corn masa breads sold in small food shacks. He says back in those days, tlacoyos were not only healthy — pre-Hispanic street vendors never used oil to grill them like now — they were also ideal to eat in a hurry or to take on long trips. He jokes that tlacoyos are the first fast food of the Americas.

While pre-conquest Mexicans may have eaten their tlacoyos in a hurry, chef Martha Ortiz prepares a more leisurely tlacoyo experience at her high-end restaurant in Mexico City's swanky Polanco district.

"We are going to make it beautiful with a small Mexican fish, sardina, and a beautiful Mexican salad," she says.

Topped with rich cheese and cilantro, Ortiz says she likes to dress up and surprise her clientele to the food of the streets.

"I love Mexican street food, I love Mexican food," she says. "For me, it's a passion; it's a way of living."



Makes 12 tlacoyos; serves 6

Oval Masa Turnovers

Throughout Mexico City and the surrounding states, people in all walks of life—bankers in suits and ties, college kids in T-shirts and jeans, women cradling babies—cluster around the tlacoyo vendor who makes their favorite version of this miniature football-shaped masa snack. Most are made with ordinary white or yellow corn, but a few vendors still serve tlacoyos made from the scarce blue-black corn.

One day on the way from Mexico City to the popular getaway of Tepoztlán, Ricardo took me on a back road that was virtually enveloped on both sides by fields of nopal cactus. In this area, known as Milpa Alta, the tlacoyos are typically topped with a green salsa and nopales, and not surprisingly, we stopped for a quick, tasty snack. For a more colorful variation, add a contrasting tomato red salsa on half of each tlacoyo.


For the Tlacoyos
  • 1 pound freshly made masa for corn tortillas, or 1 3/4 cups masa harina for tortillas reconstituted with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons quite warm water
  • 1/4 cup freshly rendered pork lard
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • About 3/4 cup Frijoles Refritos
For Frying the Tlacoyos
  • 1/2 cup freshly rendered pork lard or canola or safflower oil
For the Topping
  • 2 cups Salsa Verde Cruda
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
  • 1 cup crumbled queso fresco or queso panela
  • About 2 cups cooked, diced nopales, from about 1 pound paddles (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, thick stem ends removed
  • 10 red radishes, julienned (optional)


Put the fresh masa or the reconstituted masa harina in a large bowl, add the lard and salt, and mix with your hands until a smooth dough forms. A little warm water may have to be added to the masa mixture to achieve the correct consistency. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions and shape each portion into a 1 1/2-inch ball. Flatten each ball lightly with your hands to form a thick tortilla about 3 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick, or use a tortilla press, pressing down rather lightly so the masa is 1/8 inch thick.

Press a hollow in the center of a tortilla large enough for 1 tablespoon of beans. Add the beans to the hollow and close the tortilla, forming it into a ball. Flatten the ball between your hands to form a football-shaped turnover about 5 1/2 inches long, 2 3/4 inches across at its widest part, and 1/2 inch thick. Repeat with the remaining masa balls.

Heat the oven to 200°F. Place a large, heavy skillet or a griddle over low heat. Add as many tlacoyos as will fit without crowding and cook, turning often, until the masa is cooked through and the tlacoyos are slightly charred on both sides, about 10 minutes. Lightly cover and set aside while you cook the remaining tlacoyos. (This step may be done up to a day ahead. Let cool, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.)

Heat the lard over medium heat just until sizzling hot. Working in batches to prevent crowding, add the tlacoyos and fry on one side only, spooning the hot oil over the top until golden, 30 to 60 seconds. Using a slotted spatula, lift the tlacoyos, allowing any excess fat to drip off, and drain on absorbent paper. Keep warm on a heatproof platter in the oven until all are fried.

Drench each tlacoyo with a spoonful of the Salsa Verde Cruda . If using both salsas, spoon them on opposite ends. Sprinkle each tlacoyo with a little onion, some queso fresco, about 2 tablespoons of the cooked nopales (if using), and some cilantro and radishes (if using) and serve hot. Tlacoyos must have hungry people waiting to eat them on the spot.

From La Cocina Mexicana: Many Cultures, One Cuisine by Marilyn Tausend with Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, © 2012 University of California Press