1. You have no idea what a real taco is.
If you’re about to try a taco in Mexico for the first time, please erase everything you think you know about a taco. Other than the word “taco,” there’s not much else in common between a Mexican taco and an American or international one.
First off, you probably think tacos have the following ingredients: sour cream, cheddar cheese, flour tortilla (or corn shell), and lettuce. Wrong. In Mexico, it’s practically impossible to find a self-respecting taco stand that would allow these ingredients to be put together.
2. You’re imagining “big-ass burritos.”
Negative on the boot-sized Chipotle-style burrito, although you can find something of similar size in Baja: a plethora of meat, veggie, and salsa options added to a massive baked potato.
3. You’ve never heard of mole, pozole, blue-corn tortillas, elote, esquite, chiles en nogada, chicharrón en chile verde, tacos al pastor, alambre, gringa, atole, champurrado…the list goes on.
None of the above-mentioned dishes are easily found outside of Mexico, but they are some of the most popular things Mexican people eat. So as you venture into various eateries around the country, be open to the possibility of eating something you’ve never heard of, seen, or tasted before in your life.
4. You’re expecting flour tortillas.
Although flour tortillas are relatively popular in northern Mexico and sometimes used to make quesadillas at suppertime around the country, they’re not featured in Mexican cuisine. To avoid disappointment when craving flour tortillas, find a restaurant that serves fresh-made corn tortillas hot off the comal.
5. You’re ready for margaritas and popping limes in your beer.
Although the world thinks of the margarita as a Mexican drink, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find one outside of the tourist destinations. And if you think Mexicans love to shove slices of lime down their beers, think again.
Sticking a foreign object into a beer is frowned upon — with the strange exception of the Michelada, wherein beer poured into a salt-rimmed glass with soy sauce, tamarind paste, clam juice, chili powder, lime juice, etc is somehow okay. Go figure.
6. You’re expecting Tex-Mex guacamole.
Don’t expect to find the chunky, pureed guacamole you’re used to seeing everywhere in the States. Many places don’t even serve the heavenly dip, while others mix it with green salsa, making a soupy guacamole with strong lime and tomatillo flavors and less emphasis on the avocado.
7. You have no context when it comes to chili content.
Many salsas in Mexico have a chili content that makes typical American / international-Mexican-restaurant-style salsa look like tomato sauce.
8. You fail to grasp the power of the tamal.
When you see doñas with buckets of tamales, you’re not seeing just another street vendor, but the product of half a day’s work (or more) tending a fire, shaping corn masa in husks, adding chicken mole, or beans, or chapil leaves, or sweet elote. And then boiling them for hours.
On days when it’s so hot you have no appetite, unwrapping a few steaming tamales can literally save your life. That’s how good they are.
First published on September 18, 2014.