Mexican food is one of my favorite cuisines. It’s exciting spicy, delicious, and very unique. While Mexican food is popular all over the world, the vast majority of Mexican restaurants outside of Mexico serve Tex-Mex.
In Mexico, even simple well-known nachos in Mexico are completely different than those in the US or Europe that are served with greasy cheese. Moreover, as explained before you shouldn’t make a mistake between nachos and nacos.
I have put together a detailed guide on Mexican cuisine, including the most popular foods in Mexico, traditional Mexican dishes, and where to eat what in Mexico.
Mexican Food Culture
One thing that surprises many foreigners when they come to Mexico are meal times. It’s not easy to find a cafe opened before 9 am or even later. Lunch at 12 pm? You might be the only one at the restaurant, and that’s if it’s even open.
Mexicans eat lunches between 2pm and 4pm, and dinners from about 8pm to 10pm. Lots of places stay open until midnight.
Unless you go to fine dining places like the infamous Pujol (which personally I don’t recommend as I don’t think it’s worth the hype and price), you’ll be eating with your hands.
Most Mexican food dishes are eaten by hands and if they’re not you’ll be given tortillas or totopos (tortilla chips) to dip in things. It’s just part of the Mexican culture.
Is Mexican Food Always Spicy?
One myth about Mexican food is that every single dish is spicy. Many Mexican chefs will always tell you pica mucho (very spicy) when they see a foreigner, but it’s not always the truth.
You can easily find dishes that aren’t spicy at all or simply not put salsa on it (ask for sin salsa). Many salsas might look innocent but they might contain serrano or jalapeño chilis.
There’s no reason not to put a tiny bit on your plate first, try it and then decide whether to dump more on your food. Mexicans do that very often actually.
Mexican Breakfast Dishes
Chilaquiles are actually my favorite dish from Mexican food, but it may seem odd for some to eat it for breakfast. Don’t worry, I thought it was odd too, but now I’m hooked.
It’s a dish made of tortilla chips (totopos) with either green or red salsa, topped with your choice of meat, onions, white Mexican cheese (usually Panela) and cream. It can also be topped with fried egg.
You can try chilaquiles pretty much at every restaurant, but some only serve it in the morning. Actually, if you can still order chilaquiles in the evening – run. It’s probably going to be awful and old (I have a few friends who made this mistake).
Molletes are simply baguettes cut in half and covered with refried beans and cheese melted in the oven. You can get a variation of them like with chorizo on top or with salsa.
It’s a very filling dish, trust me.
Surprise! Spicy enchiladas are a breakfast dish as well. Enchiladas are one of a few dishes that don’t change when served in another country or as Tex-Mex. It’s a tortilla filled with a meat of choice, rolled and topped with salsa.
They’re typically served with chopped onions, cream and cheese on top. You can pick your salsa: roja (red), verde (green), mole or suiza. The last one is a creamy greenish looking sauce made of cream, cheese and salsa verde. Personally,, it’s my favorite salsa.
If you ever go to especially Mexico City or Oaxaca you’ll hear people on the street or inside metro yelling “tamales!” or “tamales oaxacenos”. It’s a common dish that’s being sold by many vendors, usually on the street.
Tamales in Mexico are made with corn masa and usually have a savory filling with chicken with salsa verde, mole, cheese. All wrapped in corn husks, then steamed.
Unless you’re in Oaxaca. There tamales wrapped in banana leaves.
Unlike in Spain, torta in Spanish isn’t a cake. It’s basically a thick sandwich on a white bread roll. They should be served hot, but many stores and vendors will sell them cold and prepared to quickly grab for lunch.
Cold tortas aren’t really worth your attention if you ask me, but if you have a chance to try Pambazo – do it! In Mexico City, a Pambazo is a sandwich made of a particular type of bread stuffed with potatoes and chorizo, cheese, cream and then drenched in a guajillo chile.
We cannot forget about breakfast eggs in Mexico. If you visit a restaurant you might be surprised by how many different types of eggs are on the menu.
A la Mexicana
Huevos a la mexicana are the most popular dish. The eggs are lightly scrambled and cooked with tomatoes, onions, and serrano chile. They’re usually served with beans and tortillas on the side.
Huevos rancheros are fried eggs with tomato salsa and often avocado or guacamole, usually served on top of a warm tortilla.
Huevos divorciados are basically fried eggs covered with two different salsas – roja & verde.
Huevos motuleños are popular in the Yucatan Peninsula, as it’s originated from the town called Motul. The dish is made with eggs on tortillas with black beans and cheese, often ham, plantains or something else.
Mexican Side Dishes
Elotes & Esquites
Mexicans love corn and they have many different types of it. The most popular ones are elotes & esquites and if you ask me, the best place to eat them is on the street in Coyoacan in Mexico City.
They’re actually my favorite snacks and I get them wherever I see them.
Elotes is a corn on the cob covered with mayo, lime juice, queso fresco and chili.
Esquites is shaved corn that has been removed from the cob and cooked with chile. It’s served in a cup topped with mayonnaise, lime juice, Mexican white cheese, and chili powder.
Some top both with a Mexican spice called Tajin which combines chilli and lime flavor.
Guacamole can easily be found everywhere in Mexico. Many restaurants will make it fresh at the table, some will just give you some on the side.
Tortillas are served with everything, everywhere. They’re thin crepes made of mushed corn and water masa pressed together.
If you walk around any city you can often peak into a tortilla making shop where they press them. You can even see them being made just like bread at any major supermarkets.
Tortillas will slightly defer in taste depending on where you are. My favorite ones are northern ones which are often made of flour. They’re slightly wetter than regular corn ones
Totopos are Mexican chips. Every restaurant or cheap hole in the wall place will give you some of them to start with, along with salsa, as you wait for your meal.
Tacos need no introduction. But, there are many different types of taco – in fact, more than 60 kinds of tacos. Unlike in the US at Tex-Mex places, on Mexico tacos are ALWAYS served in a soft tortilla. You can always add cheese (queso).
What you get on top depends on your choice, but onions, cilantro and lime are usually placed on top. Vendors will confirm with you by asking “con todo?” before they place onions and cilantro on.
Tacos al Pastor are pork marinated in adobo sauce and cut directly down from the giant vertical skewer where it’s been cooking. They’re topped with a slide of pineapple on each taco.
Tacos suederos contain meat that hangs from the breast bone on a cow. It’s quite tender with a bit of fat.
Tacos con chorizo are pork sausage with spices. It usually comes not in a form of sausage, but more chopped up.
Tacos con bistec is the simple beef cooked on top of the stove.
Traditionally, xampechanos tacos are filled with beef (carne de res), chorizo and queso.
Carnitas is slowly cooked porn. Maciza is what most people usually ask because it’s white meat.
Slow-cooked pork marinaded overnight containing citrus and achiotes chilis. It’s usually served with pickled red onions.
Traditionally, a whole pig was wrapped in banana leaves for an added dimension of flavor and then buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom. These days, it’s usually not done this way.
Tacos de chicharron is basically fried pig skin. It’s chewy and thick and you either love it or hate it.
Tacos de barbacoe contain different types of meant – basically whatever is available at the time. The meat it cooked on a grill with lime.
Quesadillas | Nopales & Huitlacoche
Quesadillas are made of thinly pressed corn masa grilled together with cheese (unless you’re in Mexico City, then you need to ask for cheese).
They can be filled with many different fillings. It can be chicken, chorizo, but also vegetarian fillings like rajas (chiles), nopales or huitlacoche.
Nopal is a pad of cactus. It has a unique flavor but I quite like it.
Huitloche is a mushroom that grows on corn. It’s black, tasty and often called a Mexican truffle.
Gorditas, as the same translates to little fatties, are somehow like thicker quesadillas. They’re first deep-fried.
Then, they’re cut in the middle, stuffed with cheese, cream, lettuce, refried beans and optionally some meat, and grilled.
Huaraches are different version of gorditas, but longer – shaped like a sandal called huarache. Stuffed with the same ingredients as gorditas.
You just need one for a meal, trust me.
Sopes are another example of what one can do with masa. It has nothing to do with a soup. They’re thicker than tortillas, but not as thick as gorditas. Always pinches on the edge so the topping doesn’t come off.
They’re grilled with ingredients on top – queso, crema, lettuce, frijoles (refried beans), salsa – either roja or verde, and your choice of meat. Some call it a Mexican pizza.
Tostadas / Aguachile
Tostadas are the closest to Tex-Mex hard-shell tacos. They’re flat and crispy tortillas, topped with meats, cheese, lettuce or whatever you want them to be.
If you’re in the Yucatan or any seaside town, they’ll be topped with ceviche or grilled seafood. Always with onions.
They’re extremely messy to eat, but also very delicious.
Pozole is a soup made of broth, corn and meat. The recipes change across the country – in Mexico City it’s a red thicker broth, while in Oaxaca it’s clear.
Many Mexican families will eat pozole on a weekly basis, as it’s so easy to prepare. Personally, I think it’s too blend but to each their own.
Sopa de Fideo Seco
Sopa means soup in Spanish. Fideo is Mexico’s version of angel hair pasta, just cut into 1-inch pieces. Although sopa de fideo seco is not a soup per se (pay attention to the word seco – dry), I made this mistake before.
It’s made of noodles smothered in a savory and mildly spicy tomato sauce. It doesn’t have a broth, it’s just a soggy portion of noodles.
Mole is a very interesting part of Mexican cuisine. It’s a sauce that you either love or hate. It’s hard to describe a taste, just something you need to try.
The main misconception about mole is that it contains chocolate, it just may look like chocolate. The ingredients of mole includes chillies, cloves, anise, coriander, raisins and almonds, all ground to a smooth paste and slow-cooked for hours. fMole poblano for example, contains 35 ingredients – chiles, spices, seeds, fruits.
Note that there are many different types of moles (poblano, verde, oaxaceno, negro), but the most famous mole comes from the state of Oaxaca.
Chiles en Nogada
A dish so popular that’s seasonal and most popular around Mexican Independence Day on September 16th. It contains poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo peppers and beef, topped with a walnut-based cream nogada sauce and pomegranate seeds.
It’s neither hot or cold, simply served at room temperature.
Originated in a city of Puebla, near Mexico City, chile relleno is surely my favorite dish. It’s a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with plenty of cheese and if you like – seafood or minced meat.
Then covered in fluffy batter and deep-fried. Chile relleno is usually served with rice and beans and covered in salsa roja.
Menudo is a dish that many love, but as soon as they find out the ingredients they refuse to eat it. To me, coming from Poland, it wasn’t weird at all as we have a similar dish.
Also known as pancita, it’s tripes – usually cow’s stomach. The broth is dark and red with onions.
Ceviche needs no introduction to those who visit Latin America. Mexico adopted ceviche from Peru. It’s made of fresh raw fish or other seafood with lots of onion, lime and spices.
The best places to eat it are naturally coastal towns. When I lived in Playa del Carmen I had my favorite local spot – so much fresh ceviche for a cheap price.
Weird, but worth mentioning:
Chapulines & Escamoles
Have you ever tried fried grasshoppers, crickets or worms’ eggs? Now it’s your chance! Chapulines are crickets that serve as dry snacks or topping for some dishes. Escamoles are ant larvae and considered a Mexican version of caviar.
It sounds gross at first, but I can assure you it’s not as bad as some make it seem. I actually like it.
Pulque is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. It has a milky consistency due to the presence of yeast.
Although it’s alcohol it doesn’t get you drunk.
If you look at any menu you’ll notice cerveza – beer, michelada, as well as cerveza con clamato.
Michelada is a beer with lime juice, spices and salt. If you order clamato you’ll basically get a michelada with spicy tomato juice on the bottom.
Churros are popular in Mexico, but not as popular as some foreigners may think. When I lived in Mexico I think I ate them a few times over the course of the years.
Now there’s Churreria el Moro, a popular chain of cafes specializing in churros.
They’re basically fritters that are crispy on the outside and soft inside. The best way to enjoy churros is to dunk them into a chocolate cinnamon-infused dip, or dulce de leche.
Pan Dulce (Pan de Muerto)
Panaderias, where you can buy bread and sweet pastries (pan dulce), are everywhere in Mexico. Usually, Mexicans eat them for breakfast or right after.
There are MANY different types of pan dulce, so you can never get bored of them.
While there are many types of pan dulce (sweet bread) the most well-known and best, in my opinion, is pan de muerto. It’s being sold in September and October for the Day of the Dead.
Arroz con Leche
Arroz con leche is basically what it says: rice with milk. It’s a traditional rice pudding with sugar, cinnamon and sometimes raisins. It has a thick gooi consistency.
The best way I can describe gelatina or jello, is as a more firm, slightly more flavorful panna cotta if made with milk. They’re extremely popular in Mexico.
For the Mexican Independence Day in September you’ll see plenty of gelatinas in 3 different colors symbolizing the Mexican flag.
Candies: Skwinkles, Pulparindo, Pelon
Most Mexican candies are sour, not sweet. My favorite one would be Skwinkles – sweet and spicy long and thin jellies. I cannot skip spicy Tamarindo fruit candies and very very spicy candies or drinks made of Chamoy fruit. Mexicans love chamoy, but as my friend described it: ‘tastes like a rotted jam’.