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Hot, Sour, Sweet And Mobile: Loco Border Street Food

Tijuana street vendor Fidencio Rodriguez displays a freshly made batch of <em>tostilocos,</em> a unique border snack making inroads in the U.S.
Kainaz Amaria
Tijuana street vendor Fidencio Rodriguez displays a freshly made batch of tostilocos, a unique border snack making inroads in the U.S.

Thousands of people cross the U.S.-Mexico border everyday. An untold number buy tostilocos — chips loaded with toppings many might consider loco, as in crazy.

The gastronomic marvel that is tostilocos involves a snack-sized bag of salsa verde-flavored Tostitos piled with hot sauce, pickled pork rinds, chopped cucumbers, jicama, deep-fried peanuts, tamarind candy, pickled fruit sauce called chamoy and a squeeze of lime. All those toppings go straight in the bag, and often spill out over the sides.

This combination of salt, sour, sweet and heat will set you back about $3. And it is not for the faint of heart.

"I pride myself on trying everything at least once," says NPR photographer Kainaz Amaria, who crossed from Tijuana to San Ysidro, Calif., in March. But with the combination of the exhaust fumes at the border crossing, the "electric pink" fruit sauce and the pickled pork rinds plucked from a bucket, she says: "I just couldn't do it."

Amaria, Morning Edition Host Steve Inskeep and several producers traveled 2,428 miles along the Mexican-U.S. border this spring to gather stories of the area's unique culture for the Borderland radio and Web series. (For a slowed-down look at tostilocos, go here.)

They found Fidencio Rodriguez, 46, making tostilocos in a stall he's had for 25 years near the port of entry where pedestrians and cars line up to cross. "I like working here. I have my own schedule, and it's good work," he tells NPR. He's from Querétaro state, and says the tostilocos craze took off in 2011.

But Southern food expert John T. Edge puts the snack's birth date back farther. It probably began popping up in Tijuana about 10 years ago as a cheap, fun filler at soccer games and along the town's Avenida Revolución after the bars closed, he says. Now the unique flavor profile is attracting the attention of everyone from high-end American chefs to Taco Bell.

As Edge sees it, tostilocos is quintessential border food.

"It's almost like a Mexican reclamation effort," Edge tells The Splendid Table. "It's like if American companies took tortilla chips and packaged them and sold them to everyone, that would be Tostitos. Then Mexican-Americans and Mexicans from Tijuana are reclaiming Tostitos chips for Mexico by adding all these things to them and creating a new product."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fulton
April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to Shots, NPR's health news series.