I think it’s fair to say Mexican food has to be one of the most misunderstood cuisines of all. People who aren’t familiar with it assume it’s all tortillas, beef and chilies, while those who eat at fast food outlets might believe those dishes are more authentic than they are. Eating authentic Mexican food in Mexico isn’t difficult but there are lots of tourist places you ought to avoid if you want to be eating the real deal.
And then you have Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex and all the other hybrids and regional variations, so it’s hardly surprising knowing what is authentic Mexican food and what is not can be confusing!
Let’s start with tacos. These are an authentic Mexican food, right? Many people are used to the bright yellow U-shaped fried kind filled with meat, copious amounts of cheese, sour cream and jalapeños, but head down south and enjoy authentic tacos.
Those are one of my favorite Mexican treats, and I love ordering mine from the taco vans on the street for a really authentic experience.
An authentic Mexican taco is a corn tortilla about the size of your palm, with meat or seafood, salsa, cilantro, onion and lime. Maybe cheese too.
Once you get your taco, squeeze some lime juice over the top and then add sauce, choosing from the green or red (or maybe yellow or orange too), and taking care not to take too much since it can be very spicy!
There might also be onion, tomato and/or chilies you can use to top your taco for an authentic Mexican food experience.
Other Authentic Mexican Food to Try
So how about authentic Mexican food appetizes?
Antojitos Mexicanos are little treats which can be made with meat or vegetables, and they come with lettuce, cheese, cream and salsa. These are based on tortillas.
Then you have pambosas, deep fried sandwiches covered in tomato paste, and those are every bit as good as they sound. Tostadas are fried tortillas topped with chicken. Sopes are similar but made with soft-fried, thicker tortillas.
Huraches are flat, oval tortillas with meat, beans, salsa, lettuce and cheese. Sometimes the base is stuffed with beans, while cooked cactus leaves or eggs might go on top.
A quesadilla is a couple of tortillas with cheese melted in between them. These might also have meat, poultry, seafood or vegetables in them. Gorditas are thick, hard-fried tortillas which are stuffed with meat and served with spicy salsa. This offers a nice example of authentic Mexican food.
Or Something More Hearty?
In Mexico, lunch is eaten sometime between 2 and 4PM, and often includes soup, meat, beans, and tortillas. Lunch is the largest meal of the day so a perfect opportunity to sample authentic Mexican food.
Dinner is eaten around 8 or 9PM and is often just a small snack. Head to a Mexican restaurant and you might find a set menu.
These are usually well-priced and come with soup, rice, beans, tortillas, meat, enchiladas, stuffed peppers or fish, and water or some kind of fruit juice. That will certainly keep you full until late evening.
Another famous Mexican dish is pozole. This is a red colored soup with chicken, radishes, corn, avocado, and spices, and then you have chiles en nogada, a seasonal dish from Puebla.
Take a look at the dish and you will see the white sauce, red pomegranate and green parsley represent the colors of the Mexican flag. The walnut sauce covers a stuffed poblano with a pork and beef filling, along with various types of fruit.
Have you heard of mole? Pronounced MOH-lay, this is a complicated sauce which can have as many as 30 different ingredients. It comes in many colors and flavors, and often has chocolate in there. Mole is served over chicken or turkey, with rice.
Treats of the Sea
Mexico is a great place for seafood fans because there is plenty of authentic Mexican food to choose from . The long coastlines along the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea offer plenty of possibilities.
Try a whole fish or a filet with salad, nachos or fries, choosing from a la diabla (spicy), al mojo de ajo (with garlic), frito (fried), or empanizado (breaded). Or sample a Mexican seafood cocktail with avocado, cilantro, tomatoes, red sauce, and onions. These come with crackers or nachos, and also beer, and are typical authentic Mexican food.
Try some octopus, shrimp and oysters too. Ceviche is a fish-based dish which often features cooked fish in Mexico but raw fish (‘cooked’ by the citrus juice) in Peru and Chile.
Shrimp or fish can be used to stuff an empanada before it is deep-fried, or consider a tostada with onion, avocado, lettuce and seafood on top. Look out for pescadillas, which are quesadillas with fish. They come with plenty of hot sauce.
Tips for Tourists
If you like to eat authentic Mexican food, beware of restaurants geared towards tourists because they make everything mild, assuming tourists don’t eat spicy food. They also have a bowl of tortilla chips on each table and weak salsa. Burritos and fajitas aren’t part of a traditional Mexican menu.
Nachos are an American invention as well, not authentic Mexican food in the slightest. You will also find foreign restaurants on your travels, everything from sushi to pizzas and burgers, which is fine if you want something different, but will cost more than authentic Mexican food.
Ask locals where to go for authentic Mexican food but make sure you tell them you’re looking for traditional Mexican food, not the Americanized stuff. As a rule, packed restaurants are a better option for authentic Mexican food than empty ones. Empty ones are empty for a reason.
Nearly all restaurants, clubs and bars use bottled water to make ice and drinks. Don’t drink tap water. You will find limes and salt on the tables in Mexico, like you might expect salt and pepper back home. The lime is good in soup, beer or squeezed over tacos.
As a rule, if you’re happy with your authentic Mexican food then tip 10% on food and drinks in bars. First look at the check to see if it wasn’t included already. But the most important tip for you is to open your mind and enjoy all the incredible and authentic Mexican food the country has to offer. You won’t be disappointed!