Wherever you live, you probably know where to find your closest Mexican restaurant. You’ve likely tried tacos, burritos, and margaritas, but what about the myriad of other Mexican dishes that exist? When you travel to Mexico, stopping at the nearest taqueria or local restaurant will give you a richer and more authentic view of this country’s exquisite gastronomy. From north to south and coast to coast, the immense array of ingredients in each region make Mexico’s most popular dishes possess many variations on the same recipe.
These dishes share the basic ingredients ever-present in a Mexican diet, such as tortillas, corn, tomatoes, pork, beans, fresh and dried chiles, and cilantro. As you plan your itinerary, make a list of these foods you can’t pass up. Not only would it be a vibrant and flavourful experience, but there’s no better way to get to know Mexico and its people than one bite at a time.
Dating back to prehispanic times, tamales are a revered food and staple of Mexican dining. Its role as a comfort food and celebratory dish for festivities such as Dia de Muertos makes tamales a very important part of Mexican culture. The tamal is made of corn dough that is filled with meats, salsas, vegetables, or dried fruits, then wrapped and steamed. In Mexico alone, there are hundreds of recipes for tamales, with as many flavor combinations. They can be savory or sweet, wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks. Some of the most popular tamales in Mexico are corundas, chipilin, oaxaqueño, and Zacahuil.
The chile en nogada is an emblematic Mexican dish that proudly presents the colors of the flag on your table. A green poblano chile is filled with prepared pork, coated with a white Nogada sauce, and topped with ruby red pomegranate seeds. There are many other great recipes for stuffed poblano chile—battered or not, served warm or cold, stuffed with potato, cheese, or seafood—but none are as emblematic as chile en nogada.
The ancient recipe for pozole has maintained its status of celebratory feast since the time of the Aztecs. To this day, pozole is a popular choice for special occasions, such as patriotic holidays. The broth consists of hominy grains and meat, usually pork, but some types use different ingredients. With seafood, chicken, dried chiles, and spices to mix with, there are almost unlimited options. Regardless of the kind you eat, a good pozole is always garnished with oregano, lettuce, onion, red radishes, and lemon.
Without a doubt, chilaquiles take the title of the most popular breakfast option in Mexico. Chilaquiles are famous for being a satisfyingly simple meal and a cure for hangovers. They are made with tortilla chips — preferably from old tortillas — coated with salsa and garnished with cheese and crema; lettuce and onion can also be served as toppings. To this base, proteins and sides can be added for a more filling meal. You can have your chilaquiles with eggs, chicken, mole, beans, mushrooms, and so much more to really make it your own.
Not every great dish in Mexico is wrapped in a tortilla. While it may look like one, a torta is not a sandwich — not quite. A torta consists of a bolillo or telera roll that’s buttered and filled with just about anything: avocado, beans, cheese, chicken, beef, chiles, and even chilaquiles. Given how versatile the torta is, there are many varieties throughout the country, but some of the most popular are the ham torta, the torta ahogada, cubana, and the guajalota torta, which is filled with tamales. Convenient, cheap, and delicious, tortas are a great meal for any time of day.
This ancestral dish from the Mayans originated from Yucatan, but you are lucky enough to find it in most states. Cochinita pibil consists of pork seasoned with achiote that is wrapped in fresh banana leaves and slow-cooked underground. To better enjoy its earthy and acid flavors, you should accompany your cochinita pibil with pickled red onion and a spicy habanero sauce. This exquisite dish adapts to every form, so you have the option of eating it with tortillas, as a torta, or even in tamal presentation.
For breakfast, lunch, or dinner, enchiladas are always a safe bet. This dish consists of rolled tortillas stuffed with meat or vegetables and coated with salsa. Enchiladas are a versatile meal that can be stuffed with chicken, eggs, or potato and covered in spicy green and red salsas or coated with a mild sauce of tomato, beans, or mole. The classic toppings for enchiladas are cheese and crema, but you can also add to it freshly chopped onions and lettuce and serve it up with a side of red rice or refried beans.
Made of spices, corn dough, peanuts, chocolate, dried chiles, and tomatoes, mole is an aromatic paste that is served over meat and has been a festive meal since colonial times in Mexico. There are more than 300 types of mole in Mexico, thanks to its ability to adapt to the ingredients and cooking methods of each region. The most renowned moles are from Puebla and Oaxaca, where legend says were the birthplaces of this dish, but others like the green, red, almond, and black moles are just as exquisite. Mole can be eaten with a side of rice, or add it as a side to enchiladas and tamales. There’s no limit to mole!
Of course, tacos should be a must in your culinary list for Mexico. Tacos are more than a dish, tacos represent Mexico’s cultural identity. You’ll be able to satisfy your craving for tacos anywhere at any time. The varieties are infinite, but some tacos transcend the national food scene. In central Mexico, the most famous are al pastor, canasta, cecina, and barbacoa. Carne asada, mañaneros, and seafood tacos are favored in the north. Add homemade salsa, lots of lemons, and an agua fresca to better enjoy your taco experience.
Corn is a classic street snack that is much beloved in Mexico. There are esquites — corn grains usually served in a cup — and then there’s elote, which is just an ear of corn. As a general rule, they’re prepared with epazote, salted water, and onion, then topped with mayonnaise, queso fresco, lime juice, and chile powder. There’s nothing better than eating an esquite or enjoying an elote while you’re relaxing at a park, visiting a local fair, or in want of a treat at the beach.