Eat Like a Local: The Best Foods To Try In Mexico
As hungry and excited as you might be to eat your way through Mexico, sometimes the hardest part is knowing what to order. I've spent 6 months researching (read: eating) Mexican foods and wanted to share a bit more about the food culture with a beginner's list of the best foods to try in Mexico and tips on where to find them and when to order them.
When it comes to food, I like to think I had the best of both world's growing up. Despite having a Mexican background on my mom's side, I grew up in a house with mainly Italian foods (my other half). My favourite school lunch was a mortadella and provolone panino, Sunday dinners included pasta with my nonna's delicious meatball recipe and on special occasions I had my zio's famous tiramisu to look forward to. But the second I landed in Mexico for our trips to visit family, I'd make sure to get my fix of authentic Mexican food to last until our next visit. Last year, Wes and I spent six months travelling throughout the country and it wasn't until then that I really came to appreciate the local traditions in Mexico and learn more about how food differs throughout the country.
Due to its popularity worldwide, you've probably had your fair share of 'Mexican' food before even stepping foot in the country. The thing is, there are a lot of misconceptions about what real Mexican food is thanks to places like Taco Bell, Mucho Burrito and even Chipotle Grill. Travelling in the country is the perfect way to get to know authentic Mexican food and enjoy the flavours and dishes you won't find anywhere else.
Traditional food in Mexico varies significantly from region to region which is a common trait among large countries with varying climates and traditions. Food in the north is different than in the south. Coastal areas have an abundance of seafood while the central highlands specialize in other proteins. Dishes in Oaxaca are different than in Yucatan. Practically each state has their own version of mole and even the names of the same foods vary across the country.
This guide will touch on some of the different foods you can find in Mexico but is more of an introductory post offering suggestions for first-timers who come to Mexico hungry but aren't sure what to order aside from the infamous taco. Regardless of your level of dining comfort, please resist the urge to order fajitas at any TGI Fridays in Mexico (por favor!). Instead, follow your curiosity to the street vendors and local restaurants in search of the best foods to try in Mexico.
DAILY MEALS IN MEXICO
To make the most of your eating experience in Mexico, it helps to know when the locals eat. You're better off planning meals around local schedules in the city you're visiting even if it means straying from your usual meal times a bit. Like in every country, eating habits in Mexico vary according to work schedules and lifestyles but here's a general sense of what you can expect when looking for the best foods to try in Mexico.
BREAKFAST - DESAYUNO
Breakfast for locals is often just a cup of coffee and a nice pastry. Not much emphasis is placed on the first meal of the day in Mexico and many might end up skipping it altogether. Fruit stands are a good option for breakfast especially since the fruits in Mexico taste twice as sweet and many stands make fresh juices using your fruits of choice. It's also not uncommon to see taco stands bustling early in the morning. They're a quick and easy option, perfect for those on their way to the job. Often times, locals enjoy almuerzo around 11am to tie them over until comida in the afternoon. Popular almuerzo dishes include different variations of eggs and local dishes like chilaquiles.
LUNCH IN MEXICO - COMIDA
Unlike the typical lunch at 12 noon that you'll find in other regions of North America, Mexicans have their main meal later in the day. Lacomida is the biggest meal of the day and can be enjoyed as early as 1:30pm or as late as 4pm. More than once we've arrived at a restaurant at 1pm only to circle around the block because the food was still being prepared. The meal typically consists of a starter soup or salad, a main dish (guisado) and often a small dessert. It's served with fresh tortillas, a whole spread of salsas and agua fresca to quench your thirst.
For an enjoyable comida of your own, keep your eyes peeled for 'Comida Corrida' or 'Menu del Dia' signs outside of local restaurants. This refers to a set lunch menu with a couple of options for you to choose from. Depending on the city you're in, a lunch meal can range from 50 to 150 pesos which is definitely a bargain for the budget travellers out there. These meals usually change daily so, if you find a place you like, come back the next day and you're likely to find an entirely new menu.
DINNER IN MEXICO - CENA
It's best to get your fill at lunch because dinner in Mexico is typically a lighter meal later in the evening, anywhere between 7:00 to 9:00pm. Like with breakfast, tacos are a popular option for those looking to grab a bite on their way home from work and are practically mandatory before (and after) a night out with friends.
At my grandparent's house on our holidays, it was common to have something very light for dinner. The grownups would have their decaf coffee or atole with sweet bread while my sister and I would have our cereal or yogurt before bed. In a sense, it was kind of like having another breakfast.
BEST FOODS TO TRY IN MEXICO
It all starts with the tortilla, a staple in Mexican food. I mean, would there be Mexican food without tortillas? Tortillas are either corn or flour based though corn is the most popular in Mexico by a long shot. They are a type of unleavened flatbread and can be bought by the kilo at a local tortilleria. Some grocery store chains will even make their own tortillas in house. These days most are being made by machine but if you see them being made by hand, you're in for a treat. Like nearly everything on our list of the best foods to try in Mexico, you may find a slight variation to tortillas throughout the country. In some areas where blue corn is common, your tortillas will be deep purple in colour. In other regions, more yellow. If they're made by hand, they'll be a bit thicker. Some are small in size, others large. For those more familiar with the hard taco shell, the closest you'll come to that in Mexico is the tostada: a tortilla that has been deep-fried until crunchy and is usually topped with beans, meat, lettuce, avocado, cream and cheese.
Whenever I think about tacos, I find myself wishing I were at a taco stand in Mexico (at El Paisa in Guanajuato if we're getting technical). The tacos in Mexico are most commonly made using small corn tortillas and many stands will actually use two tortillas per taco before filling them with your meat of choice. Some of my favourite meats for tacos include al pastor (pork shavings), chorizo (pork sausage) and carne asada (beef slices). They usually come in sets of three, topped with cilantro, onion and an obligatory dash of lime.
The variations of tacos in Mexico are endless. The adventurous eaters might be keen to try tripa (tripe), lengua (cow tongue) or sesos (cow brains) in their tacos. There are tacos dorados which are rolled up tacos that are fried and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, sour cream and fresh cheese. And a new favourite after visiting Mexico City are tacos de canasta which literally translates to basket tacos. And even though we could write a book about tacos, let's continue because there's so much more to Mexican food than just tacos...
If you enjoy cheese as much as I do, I think you'll like quesadillas. It's essentially a taco but filled with cheese and nicely toasted. A popular cheese used for quesadillas in Mexico is Oaxacan cheese that looks and feels kind of like cheese curds before it's melted. My favourite quesadilla is the gringa, a flour tortilla stuffed with cheese, al pastor meat and pineapple.
Tamales are made of a corn-based dough known as masa and fillings range from savoury mole to sweet strawberry (yes, there are pink tamales!). Tamales are wrapped in banana leaf or corn husk so you'll have to unwrap them before eating. On February 2nd, Dia de la Candeleria is celebrated with tamales in Mexico. They're also a popular choice among locals for breakfast. Still on my list to try: a guajolota (tamal sandwich). Speaking of sandwiches...
Forget the typical sliced-bread sandwich and enjoy a warm and filling torta when in Mexico. Tortas are sandwiches served in oval-shaped buns called bolillos that are very similar to a baguette or panino. The most common meat fillings are ham, chicken and milanesa (breaded cutlet) and veggie toppings include lettuce, tomato and avocado. In Guadalajara we noticed that the torta ahogada is pretty popular which means your torta will be 'drowned' in tomato sauce. These better-than-Subway sandwiches can be found at local markets, street food vendors/trucks and are a popular lunch item for those on the go.
My favourite of all soups in Mexico. I've been enjoying pozole my whole life and only recently found out that it means 'hominy'. Don't worry, I didn't know what hominy was either. The hominy is cooked in broth with meat and if you can't choose between pork or chicken, order a mixto. The fun part is adding in all the condiments you can imagine. You'll find this hearty soup throughout the country but I really like the way it's prepared in the state of Jalisco. Depending on where you're headed, you might hear the term 'jueves pozolero' meaning pozole Thursday. In the state of Guerrero (specifically in Acapulco) pozole is traditionally enjoyed late in the afternoon on Thursdays.
You'll likely find mole on a menu with chicken, rice or both and it's popular as a main dish during your comida. This thick and savoury sauce usually starts with some sort of chili pepper base with added flavours like chocolate, nuts, cloves and tomatoes. Enmoladas are worth a try too and are a variation of enchiladas but in a mole sauce instead. Different regions throughout Mexico will have their own versions of this sauce but the mole negro I had in Oaxaca stands out in my books.
Chilaquiles are hands down my favourite breakfast in Mexico. Corn tortillas are cut up in either strips or triangles (think nacho chips) and fried until crispy. They're served in a red or green salsa and there's usually an option to add shredded chicken or a fried egg. Chilaquiles are topped with sour cream and queso fresco, often served with beans and are a popular way to use up leftover tortillas.
Also popular at breakfast, molletes are made using bolillos (like a mini baguette). The bread bun is sliced lengthwise and topped with a generous layer of refried beans, lots of cheese then toasted and served open-faced. These are also pretty simple to recreate when you're craving a Mexican snack at home.
I've seen different variations of gorditas all over the country and all our delicious but I'm still not quite sure which version is considered the 'norm'. For instance, in Sinaloa the gorditas were more like mini pancakes but very thick so that you cut slice them length-wise and have them filled with the jam or syrup of your choice. But then in other parts of the country they resembled mini pita pockets and were instead stuffed with savoury fillings. Whichever version you come across, you'll probably be asking for a second (or third!).
Enchiladas are made with corn tortillas stuffed with anything from chicken to veggies. They're either rolled or folded over, baked in a red or green sauce and then topped with cream, cheese and onion. The verb enchilar literally translates to 'season with chili' so don't be surprised if yours are spicy!
CHILES EN NOGADA
This is considered a patriotic dish because you'll find all three colours of the Mexican flag on your plate when you order chiles en nogada. Poblano peppers are filled with a mixture of diced meat called picadillo, topped with a white cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
Sopes are very thick tortillas where the edges have been pinched all the way around. They're usually small in size, sometimes only as big as the palm of your hand. Toppings vary but beans, chicken, avocado, cream and salsa are common. In Oaxaca we had our fair share of memelas which are nearly identical to sopes but I noticed they were generally a bit thinner and bigger in size.
Similar to sopes, huaraches are also made with a masa base and topped with your favourite meats and salsas but the shape is oval. This makes sense since huarache translates to sandal in Spanish. You'll likely find these in and around Mexico City since that's where they originated several decades ago.
I didn't know about the wonderful tlayuda until our first visit to Oaxaca, where you're most likely to try one. These consist of large (like bigger than your head large!) tortillas that have been baked or toasted so they have a crispy texture to them. Most tlayudas have a base layer of refried beans and Oaxaca cheese before the meat and salsas are added. Some are served open-faced and others folded. These can get messy!
MEXICAN SNACKS - BOTANAS/ANTOJITOS
You're likely no stranger to guacamole but in Mexico it's made fresh so don't expect to find it in a plastic container at the grocery store. There are different variations to this addictive avocado dip but my favourite includes a bit of onion, cilantro and lime juice. Also, don't be fooled by some of the bright green sauces in Mexico. You might think they're guacamole at first glance when they're actually super spicy green salsas. #lessonlearned.
Elote is essentially corn on the cob but on a whole 'nother level in Mexico. Expect to find it at street food stalls and especially at local fairs and festivals. The corn is boiled or grilled and served on a stick topped with cream or mayonnaise, cheese, chili powder and lime. Best to bring some dental floss too ;)
Where there are elotes, there are usually esquites. These corn cups offer the same delicious flavours of elote except served in a cup and not as messy to eat. The toppings are usually layered pretty heavy so if you don't want yours too creamy, ask for less mayonnaise.
You'll probably find this on menus as a starter and queso fundido is perfect for sharing with your table before the mains arrive. Served with tortillas and commonly topped with chorizo, Chihuahua or Oaxaca cheese is melted until it's perfectly gooey so that you can make your own stringy tacos.
Dorilocos is perhaps the most interesting snack I've ever tried in Mexico. A bag of Doritos is sliced lengthwise before being topped with anything from spicy salsa to peanuts and even pickled pork rinds. The combination is surprisingly tasty but, even then, I have yet to try them a second time...
If you need more pork rinds in your life, you'll probably enjoy chicharonnes. These fried pork rind chips are a popular snack enjoyed with lime and (of course) salsa. You'll find them at pretty much any corner store in Mexico but chicharonnes are also really tasty when they're cooked in salsa and served with beans or even in tacos.
MEXICAN DESSERTS - POSTRES
I'm a sucker for sweet breads and that's exactly what pan dulces are. There are as many types of Mexican pastries as there are tacos (maybe even more!) but the most notable ones are conchas, bunuelos, cuernos and campechanas. Mexican bakeries are no joke and you're guaranteed a fresh and varied selection of sweet breads when you visit a local panederia. The standard protocol is to grab your aluminum tray and set of tongs by the entrance of the bakery, pile on as many sweets as you wish and then proceed to the register where they'll be wrapped and tallied up. Most bakeries open at the crack of dawn so early bird gets the worm here for sure.
This is the first dessert I'll look for when I'm at a fair in Mexico. Platanos fritos are fried ripe plantains and commonly topped with lechera (condensed milk) and/or strawberries. You might also see them as a small side dish when ordering breakfast at a restaurant. These are popular all over Latin America with slight variations throughout.
Camotes are essentially candied sweet potatoes. The potatoes are cooked with cinnamon and piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar) which is similar to brown sugar but with a molasses flavour. Usually served warm in a bowl and sometimes topped with sweet milk.
Though churros are not technically Mexican, this tasty fried dough is a pretty popular street food. The standard version is coated with sugar and cinnamon but there are all sorts of innovations throughout Mexico from chocolate to dulce de leche filled churros.
If you find yourself outside of a church in Mexico just as Sunday mass is ending, chances are you'll see someone selling raspados. Or at least that's the memory I will forever have tied to this refreshing treat. Raspado means 'shaven' or 'scraped off' and we're basically talking about snow cones here. In Mexico the toppings are more flavourful and exotic than the usual very cherry berry variations and you'll find everything from tamarind to rompope (similar to eggnog) flavoured syrups.
Other desserts you're likely to find in Mexico include gelatina, flan, paletas, sweet tamales, and pan de elote (sweet cornbread). On top of that there's a long list a Mexican candies you'll want to try. If you have a sweet tooth, keep your eyes peeled for obleas, dulce de tamarindo and mazapan.
MEXICAN DRINKS - BEBIDAS
Literally translated to 'fresh waters', aguas frescas are a perfect way to quench your thirst in Mexico. They come in many different flavours and are usually included in your comida corrida set menu. These non-alcoholic beverages are sometimes made using mineral water and might be served to you in a little plastic bag with a straw. My favourite is agua de jamaica which is made from the hibiscus flower, is bright red and tastes like Mother Nature's version of fruit punch. Agua de horchata is another popular choice. It looks milky and is made with rice and cinnamon. Restaurants and street vendors will usually have a different flavour each day depending on what's in season and you'll see large plastic jugs filled with ice and the flavour-of-the-day. "Que aguas tienen hoy?" to ask for what waters they're serving today.
Atole is a corn-based beverage served warm and is pretty thick in consistency. It's sweetened with sugar and comes in a variety of flavours like cinnamon, vanilla, honey and even chocolate. You'll usually see vendors serving atole from large pots or coolers and can also buy powdered atole packets at the grocery store to make yourself using water or milk. Enjoy yours with a sweet tamale and you'll be set. 👌
CAFE DE OLLA
For those who can't live without a cup of joe, be sure to try Mexico's version of coffee. Olla in Spanish means pot which makes sense since cafe de olla is traditionally prepared in clay pots. In addition to ground coffee, piloncillo and cinnamon is added. Piloncillo is a type of unrefined cane sugar that you'll find in various recipes of Mexican food and it gives the coffee a distinct flavour. I'll admit that it took me a couple of times to get used to cafe de olla since it's noticeably different than your regular coffee but now I look forward to it every morning when in Mexico.
Attention all beer lovers: don't leave Mexico without having at least tried a michelada, si? You'll find different variations all throughout the country but almost all will involve a salt-rimmed glass filled with some type of Mexican lager, lime juice, hot sauce, soy or Worchestire sauce and Clamato juice. This beer cocktail is served over ice and also doubles as a hangover cure. That I can attest to.
WHERE TO EAT IN MEXICO
For those on a budget, seek out the busiest street food vendors and you'll be full after having spent only a few dollars. It's not uncommon to see vendors walking through busy beaches or town squares selling anything from fish on a stick to homemade paletas. Markets are also a great place to find authentic dishes and snacks. Some of the larger local markets in Mexico will have a dedicated cafeteria-like section with tons of food stalls to choose from. Small local restaurants with a 'comida corrida', 'cocina economica' or 'comida casera' sign will serve a lot of the dishes featured in this post. If you see meat cooking on a spit outside of a restaurant, you're likely about to enjoy some great tacos or tortas al pastor.
This is honestly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the best foods to try in Mexico but it's enough to give you a good starting point for knowing what to order. My head is spinning with thoughts of dishes that didn't make the list so I have a feeling we'll be writing about Mexican food again soon.
So there you have it! Our list of the best foods to try in Mexico. We're already looking forward to more 'research' on our next trip but, until then, buen provecho!