THE QUINTESSENTIAL MEXICAN FOOD GUIDE: MUST-TRY DISHES AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
Mexico isn’t just about tropical white-sand beaches, historic sites and vibrant party scenes, believe it or not. Its incredible culinary culture is a hotbed of delightful gastronomic creations and a treasure trove for food lovers. From world-famous antojitos (appetizers) like tacos and quesadillas to the best-kept-secrets of pozole and birria, Mexican food will surely leave you spoilt for choice! We’ve rounded up the top 10 dishes that you can’t leave Mexico without trying.
You can find tacos anywhere in the world, but this traditional Mexican dish tastes the best in its homeland. Corn tortillas are folded and filled with cooked meat, fish or vegetables, then garnished with salsa, guacamole, cilantro, tomatoes, onions and lettuce. One of the most famous taco variety is tacos al pastor (featuring spit-roasted pork paired with onions, cilantro, pineapple and salsa). You'll find more than just fish, beans and meat stuffed into these snacks, with ingredients as strange as ants’ eggs of Oaxaca on the menu!
Where to Eat: The best place to experience real Mexican culinary are street vendors who serve unpretentious, yet incredible tacos. For a dine-in experience, try beef tacos at Taqueria Los Cocuyos or achicalada tacos (mixture of various pieces of pork) at Zacapu in Mexico City. Los Itacates in Guadalajara is also known for its huge taco selection.
You won't travel to Mexico without seeing mole on the menu, a rich sauce that’s considered to be the country’s national dish. It's an acquired taste, but given its numerous varieties, you’re sure to find your own flavour! This Mexican take on a classic curry consists of roughly 20 ingredients, including chillies, cloves, anise, coriander, raisins and almonds, all ground to a smooth paste and slow-cooked for hours. The most popular version of this savoury-turned-sweet dish is mole poblano, in which the sauce is made with chilli pepper and chocolate, served with turkey or chicken with a sprinkling of sesame seeds to garnish.
Where to Eat: Although three Mexican states claim to have invented mole, Oaxaca is believed to be its originator. There are seven varieties of mole in Oaxacan cooking tradition, so you’ll find the best flavours here. In Mexico city, Pujol, Angelopolitano, El Familiar and El Cardenal offers some of the country’s best moles - so grab a spoon and try.
Looking for a filling snack that gives a real taste of Mexican street food? Nothing can beat heavenly tamales. Corn dough (masa) is stuffed with a sweet or savoury filling, wrapped in cornhusks or banana leaves, and then steamed. Fillings can vary between chicken, cheese, vegetables, chilli pepper, fruits and a selection of other delicious ingredients. Tamales taste best when accompanied with atole, a hot chocolate flavoured drink made from corn starch, a by-product of the tamale-making process.
Where to Eat: The best place to enjoy tamales are street food vendors which you'll find dotted across Mexico. A must-go destination in Mexico City for street-style tamales is the Xochimilco Market. But if you want a sit-down place, head to Turtux in San Angel or Café Tacuba in Centro Historico. Tamales Emporio in Roma Norte serves regional specialties of tamales from states like Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz and the Yucatán.
Ah, enchiladas. They originated during the Mayan period and are still, naturally, much loved by locals and tourists alike. A perfect breakfast item, lunchtime snack or delicious dinner, these corn tortilla rolls are stuffed full of hearty ingredients including potatoes, beans, cheese, meat, seafood and vegetables, and covered in chilli sauce or salsa. One of the most popular varieties is enchilada suisas – corn tortillas filled with chicken, covered in sauce, melted cheese and cream - heaven. If you love them as much as we do, shimmy down to the Enchilada food festival which runs every September in Iztapalapa!
Where to Eat: Some of the best venues to grab an enchilada or two is El Regreso, Café el Popular and Casa de los Azulejos – Sanborns. For a more local flavour, try La Casa de Las Enchiladas. La Chata in Guadalajara and Los Dorados de Villa in Zacatecas serve unmissable enchiladas, too.
This traditional Mexican soup – a ceremonial dish in pre-Hispanic Mexico – is the best way to start your day. Essentially a hominy corn porridge with meat (chicken or pork) or vegetables, pozole is traditionally cooked for hours and often left simmering overnight. This one-dish meal has a mild flavour but you’ll find ample variations with herbs and spices added to it. Lettuce, cabbage, radish, onion, lime, oregano, cilantro and chili are sprinkled on top and served with salsa or sour curd.
Where to Eat: As with most other Mexican dishes, pozole too has regional variations. El Pozole de Moctezuma, located in Mexico City’s Garibaldi area, dishes up hearty Guerrero-style pozole. Another go-to place is the city is Pozole Doña Yoli, next to Museo de San Ildefonso in Centro Historico. Don Juanito in Oaxaca serves pozole in Oaxacan style.
Literally meaning toasted, tostadas are crisp-fried tortillas garnished with a variety of toppings that include frijoles (refried beans), chicken, cheese, salad, guacamole and sour cream. A must-try version of tostadas is the irresistible tostada de salchicha, which comes with the topping of minced salchicha Oaxaqueña (beef sausage), guacamole, lettuce, tomato and salsa - a perfect small bite. If you’re more of a seafood person, enjoy tostadas de atún with raw tuna, avocado, corn, cilantro and green onion, instead.
Where to Eat: Whether you want a street treat or a gourmet dish, you’ll find tostadas everywhere in Mexico. Mercado Coyoacán is home to some of Mexico’s best tostada stalls – Tostadas Coyoacán is an ever-popular spot. Roma Norte’s Restaurante el Contramar prepares amazing tostadas de atún. You can also find traditional tostadas at Don Cafeto Centro in Tulum.
Derived from the Spanish word “queso” (cheese), quesadilla is similar to a taco but with a softer tortilla base that's stuffed with cheese, vegetables or meat (chicken, beef or pork) and cooked on a pan until the cheese turns gooey. The filling options are endless, from salsa, onion, guacamole, sour cream, choripapa (potato and chorizo), squash flowers, huitlacoche (corn fungus), spinach, mushrooms, chicharrón (fried pork fat) and beans. Plus, you can either have them grilled or crunchy and deep-fried.
Where to Eat: You’ll find the best quesadillas at street vendors such as Ricas Quesadillas in Mexico City’s Roma Norte. There are a great variety of quesadilla stalls in Tianguis Condesa in Condesa and the Mercado de Antojitos in Coyoacán – the latter famous for deep-fried quesadillas. For restaurant-style quesadillas, head to El Bajío or La Casa de Toño for fine dining full of flavour.
A culinary treat for meat lovers, birria is a spicy meat stew that originated in the Jalisco state of Mexico. It's prepared by slow cooking a variety of meats such as beef, goat, lamb, veal or pork in spices until the meat becomes melt-in-your-mouth succulent. Interestingly, chicken is not used in the making of this typically rustic dish. While in Jalisco, birria is usually made with goat, it's commonly prepared using beef, mutton or pork in Mexico City. So if you’re looking for a ‘meaty’ meal, there's not much better than a bowl of birria.
Where to Eat: The best birrias are found in its land of origin – Guadalajara in Jalisco. You’ll find lots of food stalls selling birria at Mercado Benito Juarez; check Lopez Diaz Birrieria for tacos filled with birria. In Mexico City, Birria Santa Bárbara, La Polar and Ricos Tacos de Birria are birria hotspots.
If you’re looking for a traditional Mexican breakfast to start your day in the sunshine, chilaquiles should top your to-eat list. Corn tortillas are cut into triangles and fried until crispy, cooked in mole sauce or salsa (red or green, depending on the chef’s affinity to spices) to tenderise them, and finally topped with sour cream, shredded cheese, onions, avocado, scrambled or fried eggs and pulled chicken. A hearty portion of frijoles (fried beans) are often served with chilaquiles too.
Where to Eat: You’ll find this spicy yet satisfying dish at practically every breakfast spot in Mexico, but some of the best chilaquiles venues in Mexico City are Chilakillers, La Esquina del Chilaquil and Cafebrería El Péndulo. For an eat-like-a-local experience, come to Don Chava y Doña Judith which has been serving legendary chilaquiles for the last 40 years. Las Cazuelas in Ensenada offers a classic take on chilaquiles.
Spain may take the credit for inventing this delicious sweet treat, but these crunchy, golden churro sticks made from deep-fried dough have made their way to the top of Mexico's dessert menu. This classic Mexican dessert is dusted in sugar and cinnamon powder while hot, so that the ridged, baton-shaped sticks are crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. The best way to enjoy churros is to dunk them into a chocolate dip, or better still, Mexican cinnamon-infused hot chocolate (with a cup of coffee to sip on too). If you thought it couldn't get any sweeter, you can also try stuffed churros with sugary fillings such as vanilla, chocolate or dulce de leche (caramelized condensed milk).
Where to Eat: Churrería el Moro in Centro Histórico, Mexico City is an institution specializing in fresh, hot churros. You can also head to Churros y Restaurantes El Dorado in Coyoacán, which serves up stuffed churros with fruity fillings like peach and blackberry.