Lively, refreshing Mexican fruit salad brings LA street food to the dinner table

by Terry B on June 3, 2009

A popular treat offered by Los Angeles push cart vendors, fresh fruit sprinkled with salt, chili powder and fresh lime juice makes a quick, healthy snack or a vibrant side for a barbecue. Recipe below.

mexican-fruit-salad

A story in the current Chicago Reader reminds me once again that Los Angeles just gets street food. In “Legalize It,” Claire Bushey reports on the plight of Chicago’s mostly Mexican push cart food vendors, who face fines and other legal problems because the city won’t license them. Even though it already issues licenses to the same kinds of vendors in Chicago’s parks. And even though it would allow the city to regulate sanitation and collect license fees and taxes.

By contrast, LA embraces street food as part of its culture. Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe, for instance, is more than just a charming, welcoming place to enjoy an everchanging menu of regional tamales from all over Mexico and Central America.  According to the Institutes for Urban Initiatives that operates Mama’s, it’s a training ground to help low-and-moderate-income residents “begin a career path toward success in the culinary world.” For many, the road to success leads back to the street, operating their own street food business. Significantly, Mama’s is “approved by the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services and the City of Los Angeles Building and Safety Department.”

Street food is everywhere in LA, available in a dazzling array of flavors and cultures. From all stripes of Latin American to fiery curries, tamales, tacos, chicharrones and the latest sensation, Kogi BBQ, Korean fusion tacos sold from a truck that announces its locations via Twitter. And then there’s this fresh, slightly spicy fruit salad that Marion first discovered outside a fabric store in LA’s fashion district. But it is truly ubiquitous, sold on random corners all over Los Angeles County.

And we even see it here in Chicago, especially in Pilsen and sometimes in our Logan Square neighborhood, albeit without the city’s blessing. Here’s how to bring a little street cred to your own table.

When you buy Mexican fruit salad on the street, it’s assembled right then. The fruit is put in whatever container the vendor uses, most often a cardboard french fries kind of cup. Then lime juice is squeezed over it and salt and chili powder sprinkled on top. When you make it at home, assemble it at the last minute like this—the salt begins leeching juice from the fruit right away.

A quick note about this recipe. I’m usually very careful about giving specific ingredients, measurements and instructions. This time, I’m not even giving you the number of servings. Consider this more a guide than a legitimate recipe. But don’t let that deter you. Making this is brainlessly easy, and you will love the results. It’s delicious and healthy as a snack, and it makes a wonderful side for just about any kind of grilled meat, poultry or fish.

Mexican Fruit Salad with Chili Powder

Choose 1, 2, 3 or more fruits and/or vegetables—here are some that work well:

  • mango
  • pineapple [see Kitchen Notes]
  • watermelon
  • cantaloupe or other melon
  • cucumber or fresh pickles [see Kitchen Notes]
  • jicama [see Kitchen Notes]

lime juice
chili powder [see Kitchen Notes]
salt, to taste

Prepare the fruit. Slice up the fruits [and vegetables, if you're using them]. For the salad you see here, I used pineapple, mango, watermelon and cucumber. Slice them into big chunks and spears—this is street food, often eaten with your fingers. You can make the salad ahead, up to this point, and chill the fruit until you’re ready to serve.

Assemble the salad. Place the fruit in a large, shallow bowl. Squeeze lime juice over it [for a generous salad for two, I used the juice of one lime]. Season generously with salt and chili powder. Stir gently with a rubber spatula to avoid damaging fruit and taste. You’ll probably want to add more chili powder; keep adding, stirring and tasting until you pick up the flavor of the chili powder and a little heat. Add as much chili powder as you and your dinner guests can comfortably take—that’s a key part of this salad’s charm. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

First, a couple of quick general notes. There are countless variations on this theme. Coconut was one ingredient that turned up on occasion, as was lemon juice, but some recipes warned that the latter would be overly tart. I agree. A couple of fruits that were called out as not working well in this dish were bananas and berries. Feel free to experiment.

Picking a pineapple. This was the surprise hit of the version we made. Here is Marion’s no fail tip for picking a nice, ripe pineapple: Pull on one of the leaves at the top. If it pulls out easily, the pineapple is ripe. Period.

Cucumbers: Peel or no peel? Cucumbers add a particularly nice palate cleansing taste. The cucumber I used was relatively thin skinned and not waxed, so I didn’t peel it—the skin added an extra crunch and a nice dark green to the salad. If the skin is waxed, or if it tastes bitter [sample heavily as you make this salad], peel it. If you can find “fresh pickles”—also referred to as pickling cucumbers, smaller than salad cucumbers or, well, cucumbers—these work well in this salad. They can also be served alone with the lime juice, salt and chili powder as a refreshing salad or side dish.

What the heck is jicama? Pronounced hee-kah-ma, it is often referred to as the Mexican potato, according to Epicuirous.com. It is a large, bulbous root vegetable with “a thin brown skin and white crunchy flesh. Its sweet, nutty flavor is good both raw and cooked. Jícama is available from November through May and can be purchased in Mexican markets and most large supermarkets.” It is a particularly popular ingredient for Mexican fruit salad.

Chili powder, pure and simple. Every recipe had a different opinion on chili powder. Some advocated mixes meant strictly for fruit and found in Mexican markets. I’m sure it’s wonderful, but the brands vary and so do their sodium levels—and other ingredients, for that matter. One source called for grinding your own chiles; if you can find them, this sounds like a great idea. But honestly, I say go for the best pure chili powder you can find. Make sure it doesn’t contain cumin or other flavorings and you’ll do fine.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Swedish Mike June 3, 2009 at 7:16 am

This looks just awesome! The colours and the flavours makes it a must try.

Many thanks for the inspiration!

// Mike

Laura June 3, 2009 at 2:04 pm

This is such an inspired idea! And perfect for summer weather…just out of curiosity, would I blow my head off if I tried to use cayenne here?

altadenahiker June 3, 2009 at 2:37 pm

That organization is sensational and inspired.

How’s this for service? I buy my tamales from a woman who is supporting five children. Her son delivers them once a month, to my door.

Great story, pictures.

Terry B June 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Swedish Mike!

Laura—I think cayenne pepper would give it a nice kick. Even though we use a generous hand with the chili powder when we make it, a little more heat wouldn’t be amiss. But start with the chili powder to get the flavor you want, then add the cayenne if you want extra zing to it.

altadenahiker—Could you ship some of those? The mother of one of Marion’s colleagues makes tamales at Christmastime and we buy some then, but the rest of the year, we’re without. And there is a tamale man who pops into a couple of the bars we frequent, selling tamales to hungry drunks. I have to admit, we’ve indulged on occasion.

Toni June 3, 2009 at 7:07 pm

In our local farmer’s market, there’s a vendor who serves cucumbers and tomatoes this way. It’s a surefire way to sell more of them – the line is usually out the stall and down the path!

As for chili powder, I’m a rabid fan of my New Mexican red chili powder. It’s just chilis – that’s it. I haven’t bought any other kind in years and years!

Ronnie Ann June 3, 2009 at 11:58 pm

Yummy post, Terry! Just want to add a little spice to the topic of tamale availability while also giving you a heads-up on some great totally legal New York street food: http://gothamist.com/2006/02/08/street_eats_che_1.php Oh. Just noticed the post I linked to is from 2006. Guess you’ll have to come to NYC and see for yourself if she’s still there. If not, there’s always beautiful Brooklyn: http://www.yelp.com/biz/the-tamale-stand-at-evelyn-mini-market-brooklyn#hrid:ToGo8ECIXqR2tTMjjGx1CA/src:search/query:tamales

And almost everywhere you go here, one thing you can find on the street is fresh mangoes nicely sliced and ready to be gobbled.

Am I hinting at a visit? Naaaah!

dani June 4, 2009 at 2:02 am

Another great idea for summer! I’ve seen something similar to this on television years ago, but can’t remember if it was Rick Bayless or Martha Stewart. I don’t think they included pineapple or cucumber. I love jicama. While reading the post, my granddaughter and I were debating salt on watermelon (really brings out the sweetness, doesn’t it?) and pepper on cantaloupe. Thanks for the tip on picking a ripe pineapple!

Christina Viering June 4, 2009 at 2:39 am

I am hungry reading about the food!

Terry B June 4, 2009 at 4:26 am

Toni—Funny you should mention your chili powder. What I used here was “ground New Mexican chile pepper” made of Anaheim peppers from The Spice House. And I think you’d find me in that line at your farmers market if I were in San Diego.

Ronnie Ann—I suspect you know how long my list of reasons to visit New York already is.

dani—Oh, yeah, salt is great on watermelon! I must admit, I’ve never heard of pepper on cantaloupe. Anyone else?

Christina—Thanks for stopping by!

hopeeternal June 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

This sounds simply (literally) wonderful and makes an alternative to classic fruit salad, though I know there are lots of variations on that!

I have never come across jicama here in London, UK. I checked on Wikipedia and it implies it is a type of yam, yet the yams on our market are on the West Indian stalls and look very different. Can they be substituted do you know are are they a totally different thing – a bit like the difference between a Conference and Avocado pear?!…

…and while I am on Avocadoes, I eat mine sprinkled with a very little salt and black pepper, which brings out the flavour beautifully – sometimes a little lemon or lime juice too and occasionally chilli powder or cayenne in place of the black pepper. Will have to experiment with Cantaloupe and pepper.

Thanks for the great ideas!

Lydia June 4, 2009 at 11:23 am

I remember the first time I tasted jicama with chile powder and salt, served at a market in a small village outside Oaxaca, Mexico. The taste, heat and crunch were a revelation, and I found myself craving that sensation throughout our trip. What a wonderful idea to replicate this wonderful street food as a side dish to a barbecue.

Terry B June 5, 2009 at 2:23 am

hopeeternal—You’re right, jicamas really are nothing like yams. You’ll find a good description and pictures at Sally’s Place. Also, Marion suggests looking for jicamas in Asian markets in London, since they’re used in Vietnamese, Indonesian and Chinese cuisines. I’ve always just put salt—and maybe a little lemon juice—on avocados. Your treatments sound delicious!

Lydia—What a lovely memory! I love some of the cool connections we make with various foods.

Lisa June 5, 2009 at 2:45 am

What a fabulous dish Terry! You know how much I love fruit – I can’t wait to try this. And big thanks to Marion for the pineapple tip – I’ll buy more of them now that I know how to pick ‘em.

Melissa June 5, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Simply wonderful. I love this dish, great for summer, so refreshing. The post was so informative, well written, as always & beautiful photograph. It is such a shame that Chicago just doesn’t “get” street food. That addition of street food would make this so much more of a vibrant city. Even Madison “gets” street food. There are trailers set up around the capital selling lots of different ethnic food. They are licensed & inspected & well presented. It is such a great way to own your own business, when you can’t or don’t want to rent a storefront, which can get quite expensive, let me tell you! There are so many reasons why street food should be legal. They don’t even allow cooking at the City of Chicago Framers Markets (only at privately run markets such as Logan Square & Green City) I tried writing letters & everything at one point to get to the bottom of it, to no avail. So contradictory. Legalizing street food would make it safer & more consistent. Sorry for the rant. It is something I am very passionate about. Thanks again for the wonderful post & idea.

Terry B June 5, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Thanks, Lisa! Let me know what Bryant thinks of the heat on this [which is quite modest].

Always happy to hear from you, Melissa. Thanks for bringing the professional kitchen point of view to the discussion. We just got to the Green City market last weekend, where we had crepes cooked on the spot. Didn’t realize we were able to do it because it’s not one of the City of Chicago markets.

Shawna June 7, 2009 at 1:09 am

I feel like I’ve been eating/reading about so many new spiced up versions of fruity normality! The other night I had coconut ice cream in a ginger cookie bowl. That was interesting. Now this!

dick June 10, 2009 at 12:56 am

My family hails from WV/Southeastern Ohio originally and we always put salt and pepper on melons. It is a given within the family.

Chip June 15, 2009 at 3:46 am

I love this kind of fruit salad. I was first introduced to the concept at my favorite farmers market where they sell a chile seasoning for fruit by a company called Klass.

And, yes, I grew up salting watermelon (and grapefruit). Never peppered cantaloupe but I do love to dip those fat, soft peppermint sticks in peanut butter (you have NO idea)!

My current favorite use of watermelon is running it through a blender with nothing more than a few leaves of mint. Nothing quenches better!

–Chip

Terry B June 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Shawna—Oh man, that ice cream sounds heavenly!

dick—Don’t you just love regional differences in how we eat various foods?

Chip—Mint and watermelon? Sounds totally refreshing! Besides blending it, I could see just sprinkling chopped mint over chunks of watermelon.

dani June 19, 2009 at 10:39 pm

I used Marion’s tip of pulling a leaf to know when the pineapple was ripe and it was perfect! My niece has been to Hawaii several times, and she told me to place the pineapple upside down for a day or two before cutting to make the sugar spread from top to bottom (bottom to top?) making the entire pineapple sweet. We had it with mango, pickling cucumbers, cantaloupe and jicama. Truly a summer treat! Thanks so much for the recipe.

veena June 22, 2009 at 9:26 pm

I grew up in India and my mom would make similar snacks for my brother and I. Sliced green mangoes rubbed with a mixture of red chili powder, salt and sugar was my favorite! Some pepper and salt on peeled oranges is yummy as well!

George Olivos June 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm

I live in East Los Angeles and there is a fruit vendor on nearly every major intersection. Your description is perfect. Pretty much all the street fruit vendors have a 2 pound bottle of a chili seasoning called PicoDeGallo’s Brand Pico de Gallo seasoning. The bottle says that is is a special blend of peppers and salt. No other spices or MSG. You got to try it. Cheers.

Jennifer February 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I recently had this vender dish in Florida.
It was served this way:

Watermelon
Pineapple
Coconut
Cantaloupe
Mango
Cucumbers
Kiwi

They used Cayenne Pepper Powder of sorts
Sugar
Lime Juice

carlos June 1, 2012 at 9:01 am

i like adding oranges peels and apples too :)

haylady January 14, 2013 at 7:58 am

I saw this on a cooking show, and tried it. I made it at work and shared it with everyone. It tasted amazing, but we all preferred it after it had blended the flavors for an hour or so, (second helping was better than first). One gal said this had such an exciting and zippy flavor that it ruined her own lunch which now tasted blah, compared to this chili-fruit. We also drank the liquid at bottom of bowl. Every time I make it at work, the folks congregate around the bowl, and new ones beg for the recipe.

Shaunab September 12, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Mmmmmmm…..all that talk of tamales! I love mine with salsa verde!

My real point in commenting is, what the heck is the best way to peel and cut up a mango? The dang thing fools me every time.

Terry B September 12, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Shaunab, depends on the use. The wonderful intertubes are filled with videos for peeling and slicing mangoes. For this recipe, peel off the skin, then slice big chunks from the pit. For other approaches, just turn to the Google.

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