The most important tip I can give you on Mexico local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Mexico, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Mexico
Mexican cuisine can be described better as a collection of various regional cuisines rather than a standard list of dishes for the whole country. Because of climate, geography and ethnic differences, we can classify Mexican cuisine broadly in 4 great categories according to the region:
Northern – Mostly meat dishes done mainly from beef and goat. This includes Cabrito, Carne Asada (Barbecue) and Arrachera. Is influenced by international cuisine (mostly from the United States and Europe), but it retains the essential Mexican flavor.
Central – This region is influenced by the rest of the country, but has its own well-developed local flavor in dishes such as Pozole, Menudo and Carnitas. Dishes are mostly corn-based and with different spices.
Southeastern – Is known for its spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes. Caribbean cuisine have influences here because of the location.
Coast – Is composed heavily with seafood and fish, but corn-based recipes can be easily found as well. Ask for the “platillo tipico” of the town, which is the local speciality that may not be found elsewhere, a variation, or the birthplace of a recipe, also consider that most of the recipes change from place to place, like tamales, in the south are made with the banana plant leaves, and in the Huasteca region tamales are very big, one is OK for a complete family.
Traditional Mexican food can often be very spicy; if you are not used to peppers, always ask if your food includes it. “(¿Esto tiene chile? Es picante?).” There are many food carts on the streets of Mexican cities and towns. Travelers are advised to eat from these carts with caution, as hygienic preparation practices are not always reliable. In doing so, you may (or may not) find some of the most unique and genuinely Mexican dishes you’ve ever had.
From these vendors, you may find tacos, burgers, bread, roasted field corn or elote served with mayonnaise, or a light cream, and sprinkled with fresh white cheese, roasted sweet potato called camote, and almost any kind of food and service you would imagine.
Try Chicharrón – deep fried pork skin, quite crunchy and if well-prepared slightly oily. Heavenly spread with guacamole. Or sometimes cooked in a mild chili sauce and served with eggs.
Enchiladas – Chicken or meat stuffed soft tortillas covered with green, red or mole sauce. Some may have melted cheese inside and/or on top.
Tacos – Soft corn tortillas filled with meat (asada (steak strips), pollo (shredded chicken), carnitas (fried shredded pork), lengua (tongue), cabeza (meat from cow skull), sesos (cow brains), tripa (cow gut), or pastor (chili pork beef). In the north sometimes flour tortillas are used. Do not expect the crispy taco shell anywhere.
Tamales – corn dough shell with meat or vegetable fillings. Tamales Dulces contain fruit and/or nuts.
Tortas – Fancy Mexican sandwich. Bread roll that is grilled lightly, meat fillings are same as tacos and/or American styled charcuterie, lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeños, beans, onion, mayonnaise and avocado.
Quesadillas – Cheese or other ingredients grilled in between corn tortillas. Note: heavy on cheese and and lighter on other items such as chicken, pork, beans, squash flower blossoms and such.
Mole – Mild to medium chili based sauce made with cocoa and a hint of peanut over meat, usually served with shredded chicken or turkey. (‘Pollo en mole’ and this is known as Puebla or poblano style).
There are many regional moles and some are green, yellow, black and can vary greatly in flavor depending on the artistic talent or preferences involved.
Pozole – Chicken or pork broth with hominy corn, spiced when served with oregano, lettuce, lemon juice, radish, chopped onion, dried ground chile and other ingredients such as chicken, pork, or even seafood, usually served with a side dish of tostadas, fried potato and fresh cheese tacos. When it is made with beef stomach and beef feet it is called Menudo. Menudo is often eaten at breakfast on weekends and is considered a hangover cure. Very fortifying.
Gorditas – corn patty stuffed with chicharron, chicken, cheese, etc. topped with cream, cheese and hot sauce. Guacamole – crushed avocado sauce with green serrano chile, chopped red tomato and onion, lime juice, salt, and served with somewhat thick (1/8 inch)fried tortilla slices or “totopos”.
Tostadas – fried flat tortilla topped with fried beans, lettuce, cream, fresh cheese, sliced red tomato and onion, hot sauce, and chicken or other main ingredient. Think a corn chip dippers, on low dose steroids, for salsas and as above.
Note that you do not usually get a plate of this automatically in many parts of Mexico as you would in the US, although they are starting to show up in resort areas that cater to US nationals automatically.
Huaraches – a bigger (think shoe shaped) version a gordita.
Sopes – corn patty topped with a wide variety of ingredients such as chicken, cheese, mashed beans, and various hot sauces. Carnitas – deep fried pork meat served with a variety of salsa”, to get them dry with less grease. Chile en nogada – A big green Poblano chile with a beef or pork apple stuffing, covered with a white nut (usually walnut, known as nuez) sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds which happen to be red. The three colors represent the national flag and the dish is served nationwide around Mexican Independence Day 16th September.
Barbacoa – Sheep or goat meat cooked with maguey leaves in a oven made at a hole in the ground. Think BBQ heaven without the hickory smoke or catsup based BBQ sauce. Served with condiments and salsas in corn tortilas and sometimes in a torta bread roll.
Sopa de Tortilla – tortilla chips soup usually of chicken broth, plain or with a touch of tomato flavor, and usually mild and not at all hot. Commonly served with diced avocado and fresh crumbled white cheese on top.
Chilaquiles – tortilla chips with a green tomatillo, or red tomato, or mild chili sauce, usually served with chicken or eggs on top or within. Usually a mild dish.
Migas – is a typical dish in the center of the country which is a guajillo chile broth with soaked bread, which you can add the pork bones with meat or eggs.
Important tip: You can measure the quality of food by popularity, do not eat on lonely places, even if they are restaurants or hotels. Consider that Mexicans eat their main meal in the middle of the afternoon (around 3 o’clock), with breakfast or “almuerzo”, a mid-morning affair after a very light something, like a small plate of fruit or a roll with coffee, in the very early morning. Although, many mexicans have large breakfasts in the morning. Later, at night the meal varies from very light, such as commonly sweet rolls or breads, coffee or hot chocolate, to heavy dinner, such as pozole, tacos, tamales, etc. Schedule your meals accordingly and you will get a better perspective on the gauge of how busy (popular) a restaurant is.
What to Drink in Mexico
Non alcoholic beverages: Tap water is potable, but generally not recommended for drinking. Some exaggerated people even claim that tap water is not good for brushing teeth. Hotels usually give guests one (large) bottle of drinking water per room per night. Bottled water is also readily available in supermarkets and at tourist attractions.
Absinthe is legal in Mexico. Tequila, distilled from agave (a specific type of cactus) Pulque, ferment made from maguey Mezcal, similar to tequila but distilled from maguey Tepache, made from pineapple Tuba, made from coconut palm tree .
There are also several Mexican beers, most of which are available outside Mexico, these include: Corona (popular, but not necessarily as overwhelmingly popular in Mexico as many foreigners think), Dos Equis (XX), dark or lager. (both good mass-market beers), Modelo Especial (medium lager), Negra Modelo (darker, flavorful ale), Modelo Light (typical light Mexican beer – Corona, Pacifico and Tecate also have “light” versions.
Pacífico (Pilsner beer, one of the better lighter beers), Tecate (perhaps the most common beer, especially in the north, light with a slight hoppy taste), Indio (good amber, not commonly exported), Bohemia (nice malty taste), Carta Blanca (mass market beer), Sol (very light, similar to Corona), Superior (pretty common beer), Victoria (A light Vienna-style beer, usually not exported), Montejo León (red Vienna-style beer), Estrella Corona “de Barril” or Barrillito (fun to drink) ,Chamochelas Modelo Chope (Draft beer only available in select bars & restaurants, comes in Light & Negra varieties, with the latter being a Munich dunkel.)
Lighter Mexican beers are often served with lime and salt, though many Mexicans do not drink beer in this fashion. In some places you will find beer served as a prepared drink called “Michelada” or simply “Chelada”.
The formula varies depending on the place, but it’s usually beer mixed with lime juice and various sauces and spices on ice served in a salt rim glass. Other variation called “Cubana” includes Clamato cocktail, soybean sauce, salt and a little bit of hot sauce.
Northwestern Mexico, especially Baja California and Sonora, is well-known for wine production. Mexican wine is often quite good, but most Mexicans tend to prefer European or Chilean imports. Chocolate Atole (traditional corn based beverage) Horchata (rice based drink) Pozol (maiz based drink) – traditional drink from Chiapas Tejate (maiz and chocolate based drink)- traditional drink from Oaxaca Agua de jamaica (hibiscus iced tea, similar to karkadai in Egypt) Licuados de fruta (fruit smoothies and milkshakes) Champurrado (Thick chocolate drink) Refrescos (common sodas, generally sweet and made with cane sugar, not corn syrup as in the United States).
The legal drinking age in Mexico is 18, but not strictly enforced. In many places, consumption of alcohol in public (“open container”) is illegal and usually punishable by a day in jail.
Be aware of waitresses and barmen, especially at night clubs. If you are not aware of your consumption and how much you already spent, they can add a few more drinks to your account. Some do this, not all.
Sobriety checkpoints and breathalyzers are widespread in major cities and tourist hotspots. If drinking, always have a designated driver or take a taxi. Driving under the influence of an alcoholic beverage will result in several days in jail.
Mexico, especially the southern state of Chiapas, produces excellent coffee. Café con leche, usually one part coffee to one part steamed milk, is very popular. Unfortunately, many places in Mexico that are not cafés serve Nescafe or other instant coffee – you may have to search for the good coffee, but it’s there.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.