My (Unofficial) Guide To Authentic Mexican Food

Derek Food, Mexico 28 Comments

Guide To Authentic Mexican Food
Over the years, eating has played a major role in my travels and not a day passes without me spending at least a few minutes exploring the culinary delights of wherever it is I may be. I don’t just eat to eat, I instead eat in order to taste and savor the flavors of the world’s food creations. Usually, I seek out local specialties and tend to stay away from large restaurants, instead preferring to frequent small, out of the way, family-owned eateries, places not accustomed to serving travelers and simple food stalls scattered around the streets.

The problem is that when I end up traveling through a region of the world that is home to some generally uninspiring cuisine, my mind begins to act strangely. And this was the case last summer when I backpacked through Central America and began to hallucinate, with visions of Indian samosas, platefuls of Pad Thai, hand-made falafel and hundreds of other delicious food items floating in front of me, taunting and teasing me all day long.

Luckily, when the end of August arrived, it was time for me to cross the border into Mexico, the thought of which, at least from a culinary perspective, was more than appealing. All I could think about were tasty burritos and flavorful hard shell tacos, both of which I planned to stuff into my mouth at a rate on par with Kobayashi and his hot dogs.

Well, getting straight to the point, when I sat down for my first Mexican meal while waiting for a bus in the town of Tapachula, I was quite disappointed, heartbroken actually. I didn’t recognize a single item on the menu and I had to glance outside at the license plate of a car just to confirm that I had indeed crossed the border from Guatemala earlier that day. Instead of the burritos and tacos I had so desperately craved, my options were now tlayudas, chilaquiles and huaraches.

And that meant absolutely nothing to me.

FAST-FORWARD SEVEN MONTHS…

These days, I don’t even hesitate when handed a menu loaded with previously unheard of, and in most cases, unpronounceable dishes. And I’m happy to declare that I’m far more in love with authentic Mexican food than I was with the less authentic versions I’d eaten on approximately 174 occasions while growing up in the US.

But adjusting to authentic Mexican food wasn’t easy and truthfully, I don’t wish that kind of struggle on anyone. And so, I thought I’d help out by offering descriptions of what have become my favorite Mexican dishes so that you won’t be as unprepared as I was on that dreadful day in Tapachula.

WANDERING EARL’S GUIDE TO AUTHENTIC MEXICAN FOOD

Guide To Authentic Mexican Food
Photos:  Tostadas / Pozole / Huarache

Alambres – Chopped chicken, beef or vegetables, heavily marinated and roasted on an open-flame. It is normally mixed with onions and peppers, covered with melted cheese and served on a plate that is far too small for the amount of food placed onto it. Grab a fresh tortilla, fill it up, dunk it in some spicy green salsa and chances are, you’ll be more than satisfied, as well as in need of a new shirt from the juices that tend to spill out with each bite.

Chapulines – While I never thought I’d be a huge fan of fried and salted grasshoppers, this snack, most commonly found in the state of Oaxaca, is not nearly as bad as it may sound. The grasshoppers simply taste like potato chips, with perhaps a bit more mushiness than one might be excited about biting into. I only ate a small bag of them on one occasion, so I do wonder from time to time if I really did enjoy the taste or if I simply enjoyed the accomplishment of eating grasshoppers without vomiting. Either way, I recommend trying it out, although be warned that you’ll need to spend ten minutes picking grasshopper parts out of your teeth once you’ve finished your bag.

Chilaquiles – Small, fried pieces of tortilla simmered in a red or green salsa, piled high onto a plate before having a bucket full of eggs and/or chicken, sour cream and cheese thrown on top and a healthy dollop of re-fried beans plopped onto the side. This dish is generally served for breakfast and has a remarkable ability to expand rapidly inside of your stomach, keeping you full for approximately 9-12 days.

Chinicuiles – This is the only item on the list that I have no desire to ever eat again, so I thought I’d provide you with a friendly warning. Chinicuiles are Maguey worms sauteed with cilantro and chiles, and I kid you not when I say that each crunchy bite will be a struggle beyond comprehension. I’d already eaten a couple of fried worms in Asia before this experience, but when you’re required to dump a large spoonful of them into a tortilla, dip the thing in salsa and then take a large bite as everyone else at the table eggs you on, well, that’s just too much worm for me to handle. At least it’s common to down a shot or two of tequila after polishing off your worm taco, so you’ll have the chance to quickly wash the foul taste out of your mouth.

Enchiladas – Much narrower and smaller than the North American versions, these pickle-sized, rolled tortillas are stuffed with chicken, beef, pork or vegetables and covered with either red or green salsa, bean sauce or if you’re lucky to find it, a tasty mole sauce (see below). Normally, you receive four or five splendid enchiladas in an order, and unless the tortillas aren’t fresh (in which case they taste like cardboard dipped in sawdust), you’ll finish every last bite of enchilada on your plate and wish there were more of them to devour.

Esquite – Ladle-fuls of hot corn kernels scooped into a small cup and mixed with a nauseatingly large spoonful of mayonnaise, some sour cream, a spoonful of chili powder, lime juice and shredded cheese. Sounds nasty, looks nasty, smells even nastier…but it’s actually quite tasty.

Guide To Authentic Mexican Food
Photos: Enchiladas Mole / Chapulines / Panuchos

Huaraches – An oblong shaped, half-inch thick piece of semi-soft tortilla about the size of my left foot, loaded with a layer of re-friend beans, followed by layers of lettuce, shredded cheese, red onions, sour cream, salsa, chicken or meat and any number of other ingredients that may be laying around the kitchen, including and not limited to the chef’s hair, ants and a piece of wood, none of which were actually listed on any menu, but have appeared on my huaraches nonetheless.

Mole – While this word is used to label a wide variety of sauces in Mexico, my personal preference is mole poblano, made of fried chili peppers, ground nuts, seeds, spices, onions, garlic, chocolate and over 15 other ingredients. The result is a rich, flavorful sauce that is either poured over enchiladas or over a piece of chicken and in most instances, leaves me more thankful for my taste buds than anything else in my life.

Panuchos – Similar to a tostada (see below), except that these small, fried tortillas are stuffed with beans before being topped with the usual list of goodies – lettuce, chicken or vegetables, cheese, salsa and sour cream. The result is a softer, puffier tortilla base, which certainly helps the inexperienced Mexican food-eater maintain decent control over this potentially sloppy treat.

Pozole – A typically red soup that consists of small, white balls of something, the texture of which reminds me of the chicken knuckles I was once forced to eat in Thailand. According to Wikipedia, those balls are actually nixtamalized cacahuazintle corn, which is exactly why I chose to call them ‘something’. It’s a tasty soup nonetheless, just be prepared to order something else along with it as it’s about as filling as eating a spoonful of saliva.

Tostadas – When I first ate a tostada, I hated it. It cracked, it crumbled, it spilled onto my lap and I somehow managed to get cheese stuck to my forehead after only the first bite. But now, after a few more tries, they hold the honor of being my all-time favorite Mexican dish. I now consider the tostada to be the perfected combination of all the Mexican staples – tortillas, beans, lettuce, vegetables, chicken, cheese, salsa and sour cream. Most people eat two or three of these in one sitting, but seldom am I able to refrain from ordering four, five or sometimes six. In fact, I ate four tostadas this afternoon at my favorite tostada restaurant here in Playa del Carmen and when I told the woman behind the counter, “Hasta manana!” as I left, I wasn’t just being friendly. I literally meant, “I will see you tomorrow!”

So there you have it, an unofficial guide to the Mexican food I’ve been eating over the past seven months. I sincerely hope that if you’re ever in this wonderful country, there will be no need to run off to McDonald’s or Subway when you discover that you’re not familiar with any of the dishes on a typical Mexican menu. As you can now see, even without burritos, nachos, hard shell tacos and chimichangas, authentic Mexican cuisine is loaded with culinary delights that deserve to be sampled.

Buen provecho!


Have you tried any of the above dishes? Are you a fan of authentic Mexican food?

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Comments 28

  1. Pingback: I Have Worms

  2. Ricky

    Didn’t like yor descrption of the pozole, next time you are in mexico city look for a restaurant named “Casa de Toño” and DO NOT order anything else, That pozole will fill you up for a whole day. Just order the big size.

    I really liked that you loved our food, I have been living in Mexico for more than 17 years and still get amazed about so many things I haven’t tried.

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  4. Evan

    I will be on a cruise in June and only have one day in Cozumel. I am a total foodie and would love a good authentic restaurant recommendation. I Would consider the ferry to Playa del Carmen if that was my best option for great authentic food. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Earl

      Hey Evan – I can recommend two places for authentic local food. First, is a tiny eatery in the neighborhood just to the north of the center of town called “El Fish”. When I used to work on cruise ships, I went here almost every time we visited Cozumel as they cook some excellent food (while serving a nice variety of tequilas as well!). The focus is on seafood and it really looks like a dive but everyone on Cozumel knows it and it’s super-popular for a reason. You probably won’t find any other foreigners here.

      The second place would be “La Choza” which is located in the center of town, just one block from the water. This place has been around forever and you’ll probably find it full of both foreigners and locals alike. They are famous for their salsas and the serve up a variety of traditional Mexican food from this part of the country, with several specialties from the Yucatan region.

      Both of those places are excellent and I don’t think there’s a need to take the ferry all the way to Playa del Carmen. I’ve taken my friends and family to both La Choza and El Fish since I started spending time in Mexico lately and every experience has been rewarding!

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  7. Priyank

    Oooh baby, how long should my comment be? I ordered tostadas at a market without actually knowing what they were. It was the first “authentic” food I ate in Mexico and perhaps that’s why it became my favorite. Next comes Panuchos because I especially love the contrasting frijoles – fried tortia – lemon taste. Eating Pozole on thursday is quite popular in Guerrero it seems but I absolutely hate the fried pork thing that comes with it and people adore it. How come you didn’t mention “y una coca” in this list? LOL I almost started thinking that that refresco was a part of the Mexican food. ^_^

    1. Earl

      Hey Priyank – Well, I was debating whether or not to respond to this comment because I’ve been missing Mexican food for the past 5 months now. I’m on the verge of a breakdown if I don’t get a good tostada in front of me soon!

      And that’s funny about the refrescos. It does seem that they are a Mexican staple. But for me it was Agua de Jamaica with every meal!

  8. Dina

    Earl, your post makes me hungry. When I went to Mexico a couple of years ago, I was in all inclusive resort (I needed the leisure-full break after a crazy 2 years finishing my master degree), so I didn’t get the change to explore much of the traditional and authentic Mexican food (except the ones that the hotel made, delicious but I don’t know about it’s authenticity). My closest experience with authentic Mexican food was when I visit Los Angeles, and eating the tacos from some obscure (probably illegal) tacos stands. It was superb, so much different with tacos that I ate in Ontario. Totally love it! On my next visit to LA, it was only a short transit, and I was so disappointed that we didn’t have the time to visit a taco stand.
    .-= Dina´s last blog ..Itchy and Scratchy: Bed Bugs, Sand Flies, and Other Travel Hazards =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dina – I know exactly what you’re talking about with those taco stands in LA! I spent a couple of months there many years ago and went to the same Mexican food stand every other night. But there’s nothing like the real thing, so the food is another reason why Mexico should be on your list of places to visit once again…

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    1. Earl

      Hey Moon – Well, your spiced egg sandwich sounds quite tempting as well and now I’m in the mood for one of those. Good thing I haven’t eaten anything yet today!

  10. Laurie

    Awesome list! Could have used it when I was in Mexico a bit ago, had the same American/Mexican lost in food translation experience. I tried sopes when I was in Aguascalientes, did you like those?

    1. Earl

      Hey Laurie – Thanks so much for commenting! I actually do like sopes as well, although I haven’t found them too much in this part of Mexico. But luckily, there are plenty of decent huarache stands around here, and a huarache is basically one huge sope!

      Also, I just checked out your post on Colonial Mexico and I think I may have to add Zacatecas to my list of places to visit while I’m here. I never even heard of it before reading your article…

  11. Carlos

    Or for the less adventurous the mexican torta (sandwich).

    A woman in one of our offices makes them for breakfast for everyone who wants them – fresh bread, ham, picked jalapeno and avocado.

    In Guadalajara they are known for the torta ahogada – a sandwich dunked in sauce. Not my favorite as the bread becomes soggy..

    I’m still planning on coming down to Cancun this Sunday Earl. If you’re still game I can head down to the Playa or you can come up if you want to have lunch/beer or something. Not sure how long I’ll be there, maybe till Tues or Wed (such is the schedule of work travel).

    Saludos!

    1. Earl

      Hey Carlos – I actually had torta on the original list but couldn’t think of anything interesting to say about them! Although I do eat my fair share and have my favorite torta stands here in Playa. I haven’t heard of the torta ahogada, but I doubt that would be my favorite either.

      I’ll definitely be around when you’re here and would love to meet up. I’ll fire off an email to you in a few minutes…

  12. Andi

    Ay Dios mio, I’m drooling over here!!! Sadly, I can’t find a decent Mexican place here in town. I’m a die-hard fan of Mole btw. Absolutely delish!
    .-= Andi´s last blog ..imgp2629 =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Andi – Haha…it’s hard for me to be anywhere that doesn’t have decent Mexican food, authentic or non-authentic! How do you survive??? And I’m happy to hear you’re also a member of the mole fan club!

  13. Nate

    I’m a HUGE fan of tamales and I’d be interested to know if you’ve had any good ones in Mexico. My wife is 50% Mexican and her family makes homemade tamales (a time intensive process), which are simply AMAZING! They also have a wonderful mole recipe, which I love as well. They use peanut butter in it, which gives it a great flavor!

    Damn…I’m hungry now!

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate – So what did you eat just now??? Hopefully you have some homemade tamales with you! I actually have only eaten a couple of tamales down here and they weren’t the best, so I’m still on the hunt for some better ones. But now I just want to try some peanut butter mole…I can’t imagine what it tastes like but I’m quite sure that you’re not lying when you say it’s wonderful! Alright, I need to go eat as well. I guess that was the danger of this post, every time I reply to a comment I begin to crave more food…

      1. Nate

        Nothing fancy! Just a sandwich 🙂

        Yeah, it’s hard to find good tamales. Most of the time there is too much masa (the corn mixture used to make the tamales). The best ones I’ve had have had a good mixture of masa and then a lot of meet (I like pork).

        And…yes, I do have some homemade tamales in my freezer at home, so I may be having some soon!
        .-= Nate´s last blog ..You Have Only This Moment To Live =-.

  14. Dave

    Mmm… I miss Tex-Mex food from the States! In Germany there’s really nothing unless you cook for yourself. Standard ingredients are carrots, mushrooms, and zucchini… once I was served sweet chili spring-roll sauce on my fajita veggies.

    Next RTW trip (in a year or two?) I’ll have to swing through Mexico for a taste of the real stuff! 🙂
    .-= Dave´s last blog ..6 Things to Love About LA =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dave – Thanks so much for commenting! I know that feeling of missing certain foods when you’re somewhere that doesn’t have much to offer. And unlike many Asian cuisines which are found almost all over the world, it always seems like good Mexican and Tex-Mex food is much harder to find. But I definitely recommend stopping by Mexico for the real deal on your trip…I must eat at least four or five meals per day and still can’t get enough of this stuff!

  15. Kyle

    That’s a pretty good roundup! I’m wondering how much of that we ate, but failed to remember the name 🙂

    It’s also worth noting that Mexico’s cuisine varies quite a bit from place to place and is way less static than most people think.
    .-= Kyle´s last blog ..Now Departing AnywhereInTheWorld =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Kyle – That’s very true. Every region I’ve visited has offered an almost entirely different cuisine, with only a handful of items consistently found throughout the country. And even those dishes look and taste completely different depending on where you are in Mexico.

      And I have no doubt that I’ll start to forget the names of the dishes as soon as I leave! And next year I’ll have to re-read this post to remember what it was I ate.

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