From behind a plexiglass window, Teresa Dorantes Hernández slices open a crusty Mexican bread roll called a bolillo, carefully lays down meat and stringy Oaxaca cheese on a sizzling flat top, and cuts up an avocado. Minutes later, she has deftly assembled the sandwich known as a torta — a towering monument to street food, replete with perfect layers of fat and flavor, crunch and spice.
In a country that worships comida callejera, the torta is holy — a mainstay of the food groups known as Vitamina T, which includes other delicacies such as tacos, tamales, and tlayudas. Often stacked so high that they require jawbreaking bites, tortas offer the fuel for the lunch crowd, for partiers looking to soak up alcohol, or for people who just need an excuse for a long nap.
Food stands like Hernández’s line the streets of towns and cities across Mexico. In 2018, the government estimated that over 1.6 million people worked in street food establishments, which represent almost 50% of total businesses in the country.
Some have government-issued licenses, while others operate informally, often from small pushcarts and bicycle baskets. While a small minority are beginning to enter the age of technology — accepting digital payments and even hawking their fares on delivery platforms such as DiDi and Uber Eats — they overwhelmingly operate outside of Google Maps. As our tastes become increasingly dictated by algorithms and user-generated reviews, street carts like Hernández’s are at risk of being left behind.
“There’s no way to know where these stands are located, and often they don’t have the economic resources to promote themselves on these platforms,” Baruch Sanginés, a freelance Mexican data analyst and visualizer, told Rest of World.
So, over the summer, he had an idea. Sanginés realized that by using a Google feature called My Maps — where users can create custom, shareable maps — he could crowdsource people’s favorite stands and make the findings public.
Sanginés started out with a map of two culinary favorites, elotes and esquites — corn on the cob and corn in a cup, respectively. It went viral, and Google Mexico took notice, approaching him about collaborating for the next phase — creating a My Maps that would encompass all types of puestos, street stalls like Hernández’s.
According to Fiorella Fabbri, the communications product manager of Google México, this is the company’s first global attempt to bring the informal food economy on the platform.
“It’s a project born in Mexico,” she told Rest of World.
After posting a call on Twitter for people to share their favorite stands in September, Sanginés and Google released the initial results at the end of October, with input from 400 users. Hernandez’s torta stand was included amid the early entries in Mexico City.
When Rest of World stopped by her Roma Sur stand in mid-November, a few weeks after the first map came out, Hernández said she hadn’t yet noticed a change in clientele. On a good day, she gets about 30 customers, often taking home just $10 daily after accounting for overhead costs and paying the owner —a different woman named Teresa.
Business got even slower during the pandemic, so she welcomed the idea of attracting more customers. Even so, she wasn’t familiar with Google Maps, using her phone only to communicate with her family. Rest of World asked her if being on the platform was important.
“I wouldn’t even know how to answer,” she responded.
Hernández is the ideal target for Google’s project — the type of business that would never be able to create its own profile on the platform but could benefit from having more foot traffic. “Part of Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it accessible,” Fabbri said.
There is the risk that added visibility will change the stands, if they cater more to tourists. Fabbri isn’t worried about that type of growth. “We would like to see more and more people coming,” she told Rest of World, “and [for the stands to] become an iconic part of the community that represents its touristic, cultural, and culinary wealth.”
For now, Sanginés and Google just want more people to fill out the still-active survey and access the map, which around 20,000 people have visited.
For Google, this is the primary interest in the project: to test the underutilized My Map function. Sanginés believes that’s one of the reasons the company became interested in the first place. “People aren’t using [the function] like [Google] would like them to, and they were impressed how this [street food initiative] was using the tool,” he said. Fabbri hopes that, if the project works, they can expand it into other countries.
Even if the crowdsourced map does find an audience, businesses like Hernández’s will likely not see much other than a slight uptick in business.
That was the case for Birria Don Rafa, a stand in the trendy Condesa neighborhood. The owner, Rafael Santiago, has been operating on the same corner for about 12 years — his brother has a torta stand just down the block. About four years ago, his son created a Google Business Profile for him, and the stand has appeared on Google Maps ever since.
Santiago said that he’s gotten more customers as a result, but nothing dramatic. Even in this wealthy part of town, right across the street from a high-end white tablecloth restaurant, his stand mostly caters to the usual crowd of regulars — withstanding the gentrification of the neighborhood and without needing to bend to different tastes.
On a Friday night in November, Santiago carves up the fatty meat with a cleaver, plumes of smoke and vapor billowing out around him.
“Do you think technology has changed the culture of street food in Mexico?” Rest of World asked Santiago.
“It has changed because it’s faster now,” he said. “It’s useful because you can find more options, like through [last-mile delivery app] Rappi.”
“Do you use Rappi?”
“No,” said Santiago. “It’s too complicated to learn.”