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.
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
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.
“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
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.