Eating your way around the country is a real treat, whether you're grazing at late-night taco stands in small towns or digging into multi-course extravaganzas at Mexico City's most exclusive establishments. One of the world's most vibrant cuisines, Mexican food delights with its variety, with its abundant use of herbs and chilies, and ingredients as diverse as fresh coastal seafood and the dried beef of the desert-like northern states.
Mexico has a wide range of dining options, from world-class contemporary restaurants in Mexico City and beyond, to humble taco stands found everywhere, and food stalls attached to markets serving cheap local specialties.
- Taquerías Taco stands or small eateries specializing in filled tacos.
- Comedóres Budget, canteen-style restaurants serving simple meals.
- Mercados Produce markets, usually with food stalls attached.
- Fondas Small, often family-run eateries, with comida corrida (fast food) and economical meals available.
- Restaurantes Restaurants range from simple setups serving regional dishes to swanky, minimalist affairs where multi-course menus, dress codes and reservations (up to three months in advance) apply.
Mother of Mexican Cuisine
Josefina Velázquez de León (1899–1968) is considered the mother of Mexican cuisine. She ran a successful culinary school and wrote more than 140 cookbooks, the most ambitious being Platillos regionales de la República Mexicana, considered the first book to collect Mexico’s regional cuisine in one volume.
Top Mexican Cookbooks
- Authentic Mexican, 20th Anniversary Edition: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico by Rick Bayless
- The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy
- Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen by Stacy Adimando, Gonzalo Guzmán
- The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Traditional Recipes from Mexico’s Heart by Zarela Martínez
Under the Jaguar Sun
Under the Jaguar Sun by Italian writer Italo Calvino is a compelling account of a husband and wife discovering Mexico and its cuisine. The couple in the story becomes so enamored of the cuisine that their passion is transferred from the bedroom to the dining table.
In Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City), chocolate was considered the ‘drink of the gods’ and it was called tlaquetzalli (precious thing) in the Náhuatl language. Chocolate was so valued by the Aztecs that the cacao bean, from which chocolate is derived, was also used as a form of currency.
There is a 16% value-added tax (IVA) on restaurant prices, nearly always included in the menu prices.
The Mexican Kitchen
In Mexico, we love food, especially our own. Ask a group of Mexicans where to find, say, the best carnitas (braised pork) in Mexico City, and you're launching a passionate, well-informed, lengthy debate. Visiting Mexico, you’ll find out why. The food will be fresh, often locally grown, and enormously varied from one place to another, a far cry from most 'Mexican' fare served in restaurants outside the country. If you want to know Mexico and its people, you must try our food.
Mauricio Velázquez de León.
This chapter was written by Mauricio Velázquez de León, a food writer born in Mexico City; his food writing has been published in Mexico and the US. He is the author (under the name Puck) of My Foodie ABC: A Little Gourmet’s Guide (duopress, 2010). Additional research by Kate Armstrong and Anna Kaminski.
What’s on the Menu?
A Mexican menu will vary with the region you are visiting, but in most cases you can find food that is made with a few staples: corn, dry and fresh chilies, and beans. Contrary to popular belief, not all food in Mexico is spicy. Chilies are used as a flavoring for ingredients and to provide intensity in sauces, moles and pipiáns, and many appreciate their depth over their piquancy. But beware, some dishes do indeed have a kick, sometimes reaching daredevil levels. The habanero chili in the Yucatán is one of the world's spiciest peppers, and the chile de árbol can be fierce. A good rule of thumb is that when chilies are cooked and incorporated into the dishes as sauces they tend to be on the mild side, but when they are prepared for salsas (relishes or sauces) they can be really hot.
There are other staples that give Mexican food its classic flavoring. Among them are spices such as cinnamon, clove and cumin, and herbs such as thyme, oregano and, most importantly, cilantro (coriander), epazote and hoja santa. A pungent-smelling herb (called pigweed or Jerusalem oak in the US), epazote may be the unsung hero of Mexican cooking and is used for flavoring beans, soups, stews and certain moles. Hoja santa is an aromatic herb with heart-shaped leaves; it's an essential ingredient in mole verde and is often used to make tamales.
Eating as a Whim
Antojitos are at the center of Mexican cooking. The word antojo translates as ‘a whim, a sudden craving,' so an antojito is a little whim but, as any Mexican will quickly point out, it is not just a snack. An antojito can be an entire meal, an appetizer, or a tentempíe (quick bite).
Markets are perfect places to munch on some really good antojitos. In the gargantuan Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City, the best antojito may be the huarache, a 30cm-long tortilla shaped like the shoe for which it is named, grilled and topped with salsa, onions, cheese and a choice of chorizo sausage, steak, squash blossoms and more. The huarache competitor can be found in the markets of Oaxaca city, where large flat tortillas called tlayudas are spread with refried beans and topped with Oaxacan string cheese, salsa and pork strips.
American award-winning chef and Mexican food expert Rick Bayless has a great way to define antojitos by grouping them according to the one component present in all: corn masa (dough). There are eight types of antojitos:
- Tacos The quintessential culinary fare in Mexico can be made of any cooked meat, fish or vegetable wrapped in a tortilla, with a dash of salsa and garnished with onion and cilantro. Soft corn tortillas are used to wrap grilled meats in tacos al carbón, a range of stews in tacos de guisado, or with griddle-cooked meats and vegetables in tacos a la plancha. When tacos are lightly fried they are called tacos dorados. If you are in northern Mexico, chances are you will find tacos with flour tortillas (tortillas de harina) and the fillings will be more meat-based than vegetarian.
- Quesadillas Fold a tortilla with cheese, heat it on a griddle and you have a quesadilla. (Queso means cheese, hence the name.) But real quesadillas are much more than that. In restaurants and street stalls quesadillas are stuffed pockets made with raw corn masa that is lightly fried or griddled until crisp. They can be stuffed with chorizo and cheese, squash blossoms, mushrooms with garlic, chicharrón (fried pork fat), beans, stewed chicken or meat.
- Enchiladas In Spanish 'enchilar' means to put chili over something, so enchiladas are a group of three or four lightly fried tortillas filled with chicken, cheese or eggs and covered with a cooked salsa. Enchiladas are usually a main dish, and can also be baked, like the famous enchiladas suizas (Swiss-style enchiladas).
- Tostadas Tortillas that have been baked or fried until they get crisp and are then cooled. In this state they can hold a variety of toppings. Tostadas de pollo are a beautiful layering of beans, chicken, cream, shredded lettuce, onion, avocado and queso fresco (a fresh cheese).
- Sopes Small masa shells, 5cm to 7.5cm in diameter, that are shaped by hand and cooked on a griddle with a thin layer of beans, salsa and cheese. Chorizo is also a common topping for sopes.
- Gorditas Round masa cakes that are baked until they puff. Sometimes gorditas are filled with a thin layer of fried black or pinto beans, or even fava beans.
- Chilaquiles Typically served as breakfast. Corn tortillas are cut in triangles and fried until crispy. At this point they are indeed tortilla chips (totopos). When cooked in a tomatillo sauce (for chilaquiles verdes) or tomato sauce (chilaquiles rojos) they become soft and then are topped with shredded cheese, sliced onions and Mexican crema.
- Tamales Made with masa mixed with lard, stuffed with stewed meat, fish or vegetables, wrapped and steamed. Every Mexican region has its own, the most famous being the Oaxacan-style tamales with mole and wrapped in banana leaves, the Mexico City tamales with chicken and green tomatillo sauce wrapped in corn husks, and the Yucatecan style, made with chicken marinated in achiote (annatto paste) and wrapped in banana leaves.
A Day of Eating: From Sunrise to Sunset & Beyond!
It’s easy to find a place to eat in Mexico. From an early antojito at a small puesto (street or market stall) to a lavish late dinner at a fine restaurant, food is always available.
- Desayuno (breakfast) Usually served in restaurants and cafeterías from 8:30am to 11am; it tends to be on the heavy side. Egg dishes are popular morning fare. Huevos rancheros, two fried eggs atop lightly fried tortillas with a layer of black beans and topped with a tomato, onion and chili salsa, are widely served. In the Yucatán region, you will find huevos motuleños, a similar preparation that also includes diced ham, peas and plantains. Many cafeterías offer an array of pan de dulce (sweet breads) with amusing names such as bigotes (mustaches), conchas (shells), besos (kisses) and orejas (ears).
- Almuerzo Those who have a light breakfast or skip it altogether can have an almuerzo (a mid-morning snack) or an antojito or other quick bite. Taquerías (places specializing in tacos), torterías (small establishments selling tortas) and loncherías (places that serve light meals) are good options for almuerzo.
- Comida This is the main meal in Mexico. It is usually served from 2pm to 4:30pm in homes, restaurants and cafes. Places called fondas are small, family-run eateries that serve comida corrida, an inexpensive fixed-price menu that includes soup, rice, a main dish, beverage and dessert. In many big cities it’s common to see people enjoying long business lunches or gatherings with friends where food, conversation and drinks mingle for a couple of hours. Popular comida fares are soups, such as sopa de fideo (vermicelli noodles in a soupy tomato broth), or sopa de frijol (bean soup), while main dishes include guisados (stews), such as slowed-braised meats and vegetables in cooked chipotle, tomatillo or tomato salsas.
- Cena Frequently dinner is not served until 9pm and it is usually light when eaten at home. In restaurants, however, dinner is often a social gathering where eaters share a complete meal that can last until midnight.
- And… When people go to a bar, a club or a late movie, they often stop off for a quick taco before returning home. Many famous taquerías cater to hungry insomniacs and don’t close until the wee hours. On Fridays and Saturdays so many customers visit these places that sometimes you have to wait for a table at 3am!
Have You Heard the Word ‘Fiesta’?
Food and fiestas go hand-in-hand in Mexico. They can be national holidays, religious festivals, local fiestas or personal celebrations, but chances are you will get caught in one of them during your visit. During national holidays, food’s always present, but toasting with tequila is a prerequisite, especially during Día de la Independencia (September 16), which celebrates independence from Spain. The largest religious festivity is the Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (December 12), where tamales, mole and an array of antojitos are traditional fare. During Lent, meatless dishes such as romeritos (a wild plant that resembles rosemary served with dried shrimp, potatoes and mole) show up on most menus. On the Día de los Santos Reyes (Three Kings Day; January 6) Mexicans celebrate by eating rosca de reyes, a large oval sweetbread decorated with candied fruit. The rosca is served with corn tamales and hot chocolate. During Christmas, a traditional Mexican menu includes turkey, bacalao (dried codfish cooked with olives, capers, onions and tomatoes) and romeritos.
There is no celebration in Mexico with more mystique than Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead; November 2). Its origins date to pre-Hispanic times and it commemorates lost relatives and loved ones. By celebrating death, Mexicans salute life and they do it the way they celebrate everything else, with food, drinks and music. An altar to death is set up in a house or, as some families prefer, in the graveyard. It is decorated with bright cempasuchil (marigold) flowers, plates of tamales, sugar-shaped skulls and pan de muerto (bread of the dead: a loaf made with egg yolks, mezcal and dried fruits). The favorite foods of the deceased are laid out so that they feel welcomed upon their return.
Eating with Kids
In most restaurants in Mexico you’ll see entire families with kids eating together, especially on weekends. Waiters are used to accommodating children and will promptly help you with high chairs (silla para niños or silla periquera) and in some places they will bring crayons or toys to keep them entertained. Across Mexico it is common to see children having dinner in restaurants after 8pm or 9pm.
Mexican chef and author Zarela Martínez once told me that in mole the sauce is the dish. What she meant was that when we eat mole we eat it because we want the sauce. The meat – whether it be chicken, turkey or pork – plays a secondary role. A complex sauce made with nuts, chilies and spices, mole defines Mexican cuisine. Although mole is often called chocolate sauce, only a very small percentage of moles include this ingredient. The confusion is understandable since the recipe for mole poblano (mole from the state of Puebla), the most widely known mole in the country, includes a small amount of chocolate. But most Mexicans would agree that when it comes to mole, Oaxaca is the place to go. It’s known as ‘The Land of Seven Moles’.
The New Breed of Chefs
The typical Mexican kitchen is very much a matriarchal place, where the country's culinary traditions are preserved and practiced year in, year out. But it's mostly men who are garnering celebrity status from the new wave of creative contemporary restaurants that meld the traditional and the innovative in ingredients and recipes with a flair for presentation. Mexico City is the epicenter of this movement and Enrique Olvera of the famed Pujol is often considered the father of New Mexican cuisine. He has been mentor to other leading lights in the capital like Eduardo García of Maximo Bistrot Local. Ricardo Muñoz is famed for his reinventions of traditional recipes at Azul y Oro, while Monica Patiño of Taberna del León and Elena Reygadas of Rosetta (Mexico City) keep the flag flying for women. Benito Molina of Manzanilla in Baja California and Pablo Salas of Amaranta (Toluca) are known for their progressive cuisine. Chefs such as Alejandro Ruiz at Casa Oaxaca and Diego Hernández Baquedano at Corazón de Tierra, in Baja California's Valle de Guadalupe wine region, are spreading the word to the regions.
Vegetarians & Vegans
In many parts of Mexico, 'vegetarian' is not a word in the local lexicon. Many Mexicans still think of a vegetarian as a person who doesn’t eat red meat. Many more have never even heard the word veganista (vegan), though this is changing, particularly in Mexico City, where 'vegan food' is now a byword for hipness. The good news is that almost every city, large or small, has real vegetarian restaurants (some even have vegan ones) and their popularity is increasing. Also, many traditional Mexican dishes are vegetarian: ensalada de nopales (cactus-leaf salad); quesadillas made with huitlacoche (corn fungus), cheeses and even flowers such as zucchini flowers; chiles rellenos de queso (cheese-stuffed poblano chilies); and arroz a la mexicana (Mexican-style rice). Be warned, however, that many dishes are prepared using chicken or beef broth, or some kind of animal fat, such as manteca (lard).