10 foods to try in Mexico

Photo: Rob West

Forget the murky blobs of refried beans, gooey overcooked cheeses, packaged flour tortillas, dull strips of chicken and flavorless tomatoes that pass for Mexican food in so many places. Here are 10 things you’ve gotta try to get a real taste.
1. Tacos

Photo: Alaskan Dude

You may think you know the taco. You’ve met it in Chicago or even Beijing. But you do not know the taco until you are standing on the corner of a sun-flooded street at 7 AM, elbow to elbow with hungry Mexicans on their way to work, watching the taquero carve meat off the spit, spoon it into warm corn tortillas, fold said tortillas into small moons, and repeat the process, fluently, rapidly.

You do not know the taco until you dress it with delicate thin guacamole, cilantro, and perhaps a dabbling of red chili sauce, and it fills your mouth with the flavors of corn, meat, and spice. Until you use your fingers to pick up the little biteful of filling that fell out onto the Styrofoam plate. Then you know the taco.

2. Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles are yet another Mexican food invented by an enterprising woman faced with a pile of stale tortillas. Nowadays, they’ve moved from creative leftovers to the star of the breakfast show. They should come sizzling, the green or red sauce bubbling in a clay pot, the white cheese popping with freshness.

There should be raw sliced onions, epazote (a Mexican herb used in many dishes), white cheese, and sour cream to create that blend of tangy and creamy that defines this dish.

You can order red chilaquiles, made with a blend of tomatoes and dark purple and red chiles, or green chilaquiles, made with the sharp, seedy goodness of tomatillos. If you’re in Oaxaca, you have to head to the Merced market for the best chilaquiles in Mexico.

3. Tortillas Fresh Off the Comal

Photo: Francisco Chaves

The comal is a round, clay Mexican grill, upon which señoras heat fresh hand-pressed tortillas. Watch and you’ll see the tortillas puff up a little, at which point the señoras will flip them briskly. When they’ve firmed and cooked through, they’re filled or topped to make quesadillas, empanadas, or memelas.

Quesadillas and empanadas are tortillas filled with mushrooms, squash flowers, chile-rubbed pork, or huitlacoche. They’re delicious, but in my opinion the way to really experience the simply joy of this tortilla is to try a memela. A warm tortilla, a thin layer of black beans, and queso fresco. Nada mas.

4. Molé

Photo: Moody 75

“You first need to get the peanuts, you get the salt and the bread, you grind and you fry the chiles, you boil the chocolate…get cinnamon and bananas, get cloves and oregano, get thyme and the blackest pepper, you grind it in México!”

Look no further than Mexico’s beloved Lila Downs for a celebration of molé. An indigenous specialty, it is used to celebrate weddings, funerals, birthdays, Sunday afternoons, and the richness of life. You can’t leave Mexico without a little molé in your blood.

5. Fruta con chile

Photo: Michale

Yes, I know it’s quite simple. Take a mango, sprinkle some chili powder and sauce on it, douse it in lime, and you’re done. But the flavor combo is so quintessentially Mexican, and so ubiquitous, that you can’t pass it up. Literally—there are stands hawking mangos, jicamas, cucumbers, and whatever else is in season con chile on just about every street corner.

You’ve got the vibrant sweetness of the fruit with the slightly dangerous spark of the chile—a bite of Mexico, in a word.

6. Micheladas and Sueros

Photo: Sette

As the caipirhina is to Brazil and the mojito is to Cuba, so micheladas and sueros are to Mexico. The michelada is a squint-and-tear-inducing combo of chile sauces mixed with beer. If you can drink it and not wince, you’re meant to stick around Mexico for a while. A suero is beer with salted lime juice.

Drink either down with a Dos Equis, Indio, Corona, or Victoria.

7. Tamales

Photo: phil_g

“Taaaaaammaaaaallllleeeeeeeeeess!!” goes the refrain, an ear-splitting ululation heard blocks away. Or sometimes, when a man pedaling a tamale cart passes, “Tamales, tamales, tamales, tamales,” the hypnotic mechanical repetition drawing people from their houses like zombies.

The tamal, swaddled in banana leaves or cornhusks, tasting of moist maize and meat and slow-cooked sauce, is the heart of all things Mexican.

Opening it is like opening an intimate secret, a gift. Inside you’ll find soft grainy maize, and nestled within it (depending on the type of tamal you’ve chosen) chicken with black, yellow or green mole, strips of poblano or jalapeno pepper, thick bean paste, or a simple sprinkling of herbs.

8. Elotes

Photo: Sarah Menkedick

At around 5 PM, the elote carts roll into the streets. Steam bellows from the huge metal pots, in which thick hominy is cooking in herbed juices. Order either an elote, which is corn on the cob smothered with mayonnaise, fresh white cheese, chile powder, and lime, or an esquite, which is corn in a cup with the same concoction.

9. Pozole

In my experience, all cultures have their traditional soups. In France, it’s French onion thick with cheese and bubbling, in China it’s a combination of medicinal herbs and fruits, in Russia it’s borscht…and in Mexico, it’s pozole. A steaming bowl of pozole should clear out the sinuses and give you a tangy, lime-infused jolt of energy.

You can order a variety of broths, all of which should come with chewy hominy, crunchy radishes, shaved cabbage, and plenty of lime to squeeze over the top.

10. Barbacoa

Want to find the roots of Texas BBQ? Head to one of Mexico’s markets and order up a plate of barbacoa. Traditionally a dish reserved for village festivals and weddings, barbacoa is made by roasting a whole sheep or lamb in a pit dug in the ground.

The meat slow-cooks for days underneath the cover of maguey leaves. No marinades or sauces are used. When the meat is tender and pulling apart, it’s taken out of the pit and served with a variety of sauces, guacamole, and lime.

So forget your experiences with Mexican food up until now and remember—you can’t leave Mexico until you’ve wept from the power of the chile, and held a warm tortilla in your hand.


Can’t make it to Mexico just yet? Then test drive some of the Best Taquerias in San Francisco, instead.

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  • http://www.noc.com Barbra

    Pozole is a great first meal. Think of it as chicken soup to prep your system for all the other incredible (exotic) dishes to come!

  • http://travelojos.com/ Steven Roll

    Tengo hambre! Great pics and descriptions of classic Mexican food. It’s amazing how they combine sweet (fruit) with spice (chili powder). Plus, if you’ve ever looked at a recipe for mole, it’s so hard to make, you might as well avoid the hassle by just booking a trip to Oaxaca.

    BTW, The Jan. 5 edition of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations features some great food from Mexico. It’s available to download from iTunes. I highly recommend it.

    Interestingly, not all food from Latin America is the same. The food in Costa Rica was very mild compared to Mexican food. Where I was expecting spicy, I often got sweet and fruity instead. I’ve heard the food is pretty mild in Argentina too.

  • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal

    Sarah, nobody can write about food like you! I always find myself in the kitchen after reading your posts. :)

    Mexican is my favorite cuisine, and echoing Steven’s comment, it’s too bad it’s not more of a universal in Latin America. Haven’t been blown away by Bolivian eats so far…though street food is delicious anywhere it’s made.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/k-crimini Kate

    Oh. You have made me green with envy. It sounds so good. I’m sorry to say that I hate you a little now (maybe the jealously will wear off the next time I get to go for Korean – not much spicy food ’round these parts) – but enjoy it! Beso.

  • http://bayarea-wedding-photography.com/about.htm Amanda is a Traveling Photographer

    I’ve tried about half on the list and need to get the rest taken care of soon! ~Amanda

  • http://chowandchatter.com rebecca

    oh what a wonderful post thanks so much for sharing

  • http://unomos.blogspot.com Hansen (Unomos)

    I feel so lucky to have tried all of these amazing foods in Mexico. Thank you for the post Sarah, a couple of them have recently slipped my mind (Chilaquiles) and I will make it a point to get some this weekend.

  • Abu

    Lovely post..thank you so much!!!

  • Olga

    the correct spelling is mole, not molé. other than that, great post. :)

    greetings from Mexico City

  • Irving

    I have to say that this is probably the best article I’ve read regarding Mexican food.
    and I am Mexican. Born and raised in Monterrey Mexico and now I’ll go and have some Pozole followed by a delicious barbacoa with home made corn tortillas. :)

  • http://beatnomad.com/ Jessie

    *gurgle* you have my stomach wishing I were a few thousand miles south right now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000177709875 Octavio Ba Fo

    “Pida sus ricos y deliciosos tamales oaxaqueños!. Acerquese y pida sus ricos tamales oaxaqueños”

    • Gestavillo

      Tamales calientitos !! Hay de rojo hay de verde hay de dulce !! Tamales calientitos ……….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=643842107 Meaghan Harvey

    Wow this article is making me feeling very hungry! Wish I was in Mexico right now.

  • Gestavillo

    Great article ! I hope all my gringos learn that fajita tacos with sour cream and yellow cheese have no place in Mexico.   

    • Ramon12315

      asi es primo,  eso es tex mex, alla ser taquero es como tener profesion, aqui cualquier guey ya se cree taquero por que hace tacos de fajita, sin contar que muchos que venden tacos aqui son de centroamerica, o mexicanos que en mexico no sabian ni guizar un huevo.

  • Katie Mills

    After living in Mexico for 2 months you’ve helped me re-live some favorites and given me more to look forward to! (And also explained some of the food that I have been handed and told to eat with no explaination)

  • http://staybank.weebly.com StayBank

    Why go to Mexico when one can get everything is San Antonio, TX? (If you’re coming, let us know ahead of time.)

    How about Huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche)? Sometimes this is called Corn Smut. (Eating smut is better than reading it.) Huitlacoche  is a fungus which grows naturally on ears of corn. The fungus is harvested and treated as a delicacy. The earthy and somewhat smoky fungus is used to flavor quesadillas, tamales, soups and other specialty dishes.

    We like the soup.

    For bebidas (drinks) try “tequila y sangrita”.  It’s a common way to drink Tequila in certain parts of Mexico. The sangrita will accompany a good anejo or reposado since it’s  a sweet/savory/spicy chaser of tomato juice, citrus juices and spices. With some salt and limes on the side, it can make for a pleasantly mellow Sunday, or a  wild-ass weekend depending on how much you want to drink.

    An easy way to get this from your local bar: Tell the bartender to make a Bloody Mary with no vodka. Have them leave room for a shot of Orange Juice and Grenadine, and get a shot of tequila on the side. BAM! You got it!

    • Ramon12315

      nunca es lo mismo, yo he comido tacos, tamales, atoles, etc etc en san antonio, en dallas, en califas, si las venden pero el sabor no es el mismo.

    • alex

      You can get delicious Mexican and Tex-Mex in San Antonio. But there are so many reasons to go to Mexico. I like San Antonio, it’s a great town but let’s not compare it to a whole country full of delicious food, amazing culture and landscapes with tropical jungles, beaches, mountains, deserts, and everything in between.

  • http://livlovelaugh.wordpress.com/ L.

    Love it! I’ve tried 10/10…. I would only add flan to the list =)

  • Lucy Atkinson

    Tortas from a small shack in Puerto escondido

  • http://www.facebook.com/sgewehr Sasha Mei Gewehr

    I’ve certainly had 10/10, this article makes me want to walk out my door and do it all again!

  • Ramon12315

    mannnn. just 10?? I can make you a list of the rest, at least 50+

  • http://beatnomad.com/ Jessie

    Oh man, what I’d do for a tamale right now! Mail me one?

  • Kenneth Edwards

    I just spent about just under a month in Morelia, MX and Mexico City. Hands down, I love the Chilaquiles and tamales, but I was introduced to a new (well new to me) greatness called the Corunda. In my own poorly concocted definition, it is like a Tamale, but without the meat inside. It reminds me of tamale without the meat and shaped like a triangle wrapped in a banana leaf. Loved it!

  • José Ramón

    You mention guacamole everytime you mention tacos and that’s not correct. Putting guacamole to a taco can be done (and it’s delicious) but usually we don’t (guacamole it’s expensive so street vendors often don’t offer it). Other than that, those are true mexican dishes and indeed the most representative onesl

  • Orquidea Vara

    In my experience, tacos al pastor are not served as breakfast, but at night. Taquerías open at 1 or 2pm, and might close at 6am or so. Some close earlier, and they use the morning for washing the whole place, not always styrofoam plate, but sometimes plasric plate covered with a plastic bag. Chilaquiles can also be made with mole or a sauce made of beans, and they may be spicy or not, depending on the place you buy them. As far as I know, empanadas are not Mexican, here are quesadillas, and peneques. Mole is written without the accent as is a baroque dish. Elotes can be found all day round, mostly from noon, or in markets since before. Pozole is not a soup, as it is a main dish and not an entreé. It’s a prehispanic dish and it was made with human meat in the time of the aztecs.

  • gus gus

    Who told you chilaquiles are an invention from an enterprising woman? That’s wrong. As far as I know, chilaquiles have been part of mexican food from ages.

    • A person

      It meant that chilaquiles(probably) were invented by a woman who wanted to save money, or had to make dinner with leftovers, it is a great creation made from simple ingredients.

      It doesn’t refer to a specific woman

  • Claudisan

    Also, the pozole is served with lettuce not cabbage. :) Those are the basics, but we really have a lot of mexican dishes to share with the world. Great post!

  • hh

    Especialmente las tortillas, they just don’t get it right, leave tortillas to doñitas.

  • Winkster

    What, no mention of pibil? Nopales? Cebollitas? Albondigas? Sopapillas? This article is a mere sophomore class in Mexican dishes. Most Americans with a clue west of the Mississippi have already tried most of the dishes mentioned. BTW the first time I ever tried elotes many moons ago, from a street vendor in La Paz, I got horrible food poisoning and was bed ridden for a couple days. Never again.