This is an excerpt from the Food & Drink chapter of Lonely Planet's Mexico guide.
Specialties vary dramatically from region to region, but there is no doubt that mole and antojitos are in the center of what represents Mexican cooking. The problem with the word antojitos is that it can encompass everything, as the word antojo translates as ‘a whim, a sudden craving.’ Hence an antojito is a little whim, but as any Mexican will quickly point out, it is not just a snack. In my view, antojitos are more like the Spanish tapas. You can have an entire meal of antojitos, or have a couple as appetizers, or yes, eat one as a tentempíe (quick bite) before hopping in the subway or while standing outside a bar.
The American award-winning chef and author Rick Bayless has a great way to define antojitos by grouping them according to the one component present in all: corn masa (dough). Using this criterion we can say that there are eight types of antojitos: tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tostadas, sopes, gorditas, chilaquiles and tamales.
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, an array of stews in tacos de guisado or with griddle-cooked meats and vegetables in tacos a la plancha. When tacos are filled with chicken, barbacoa, potatoes or cheese and lightly fried they are called tacos dorados. If you are in northern Mexico, chances are you will find tacos with flour tortilla (tortilla de harina) and the fillings will be more meat-based than vegetarian.
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, beans, stewed chicken or meat.
In Spanish enchilar means to put chili over something, therefore enchiladas are a group of three or four lightly fried tortillas filled with chicken, cheese or eggs and covered with a cooked salsa, such as tomatillo (enchiladas verdes), tomato (enchiladas rojas) or enchiladas with mole. Enchiladas are usually a main dish, and can also be baked, like the famous enchiladas suizas (Swiss-style enchiladas).
Tortillas that have been baked or fried until they get crisp and and then are cooled. The idea is that 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).
Small masa shells, 2 or 3 inches 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.
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. In some regions, gorditas have an oval shape and are known as tlacoyos.
Started as a way to utilize leftover tortillas, and typically served as breakfast. Corn tortillas are cut in triangles and fried until crispy. At this point they are indeed tortilla chips, or totopos, as they are known in Mexico. When cooked in a tomatillo (chilaquiles verdes) or tomato salsa (chilaquiles rojos) they become soft and then are topped with shredded cheese, sliced onions and sour cream. If you want a hearty breakfast order topped with shredded chicken (chilaquiles con pollo) or topped with two fried eggs (chilaquiles con huevo).
Made with masa mixed with lard, stuffed with stewed meat, fish or vegetables, wrapped and steamed. The word comes from the Náhuatl word tamalli and refers to anything wrapped up. Every region in the country has its own special tamal, 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.