Tacos. 1 word. 5 letters. Publish.
To be serious for a moment, Mexico is home to an incredibly expansive gastronomy. It’s so well regarded that (along with the French meal), in 2010, became the first UNESCO-protected cuisine.
Current menu offerings include long-lasting traditional foods that are a blend of pre-Hispanic ingredients like peppers and maize with Spanish-brought ingredients like domesticated animals.
After spending the past couple months exploring the country, I feel like I have had a decent-sized sampling of the entrees and antojitos and can tell you the top 10 foods you have to try in Mexico. Stay tuned until the end for the best drinks as well.
This took a few attempts to nail, but gorditas were a food that I searched out more than any other. After seeing it on a vlog of must-try foods in Querétaro, I made it a mission to find some delicious ones. Our first attempt took us on a journey across the historic center where we Tarzan-Spanished our way through an ordering process before getting some heaping mess of a handheld tortilla filled with a chicharrón-based guisado. After that experience, we found it all over Querétaro and Mexico City.
The gordita is a hefty masa tortilla stuffed with meat, cheese, and whatever topping you want. It was the perfect way to fill up my belly with deliciousness.
I’m not always in the mood for soup, but I admit that sometimes its the perfect meal. Hot and homey, our first experience with pozole was a great one. It’s not incredibly complex, comprised of just hominy and pork in broth, but the customization of toppings really lets you tailor the flavor to exactly how you want. I added a few slices of avocado, pieces of chicharrón, a bunch of diced onions, and all of the lime juice and picante sauce I could fit in the bowl.
Read about our conversation over pozole here.
I was a little apprehensive before trying esquite or its more famous counterpart, elote. I’m not a big mayonnaise guy and I envisioned it as a cup of mayo and corn. I was wrong. The mayo carries the flavor of the spices through the whole dish making every bite scrumptious. My favorite was made with habanero and topped with a spicy picante sauce.
At first, the idea of chapulines was mostly a novelty to me. I have eaten bugs before (hello scorpions in Bangkok,) and thought this would be a quirky thing to send my family pictures of. But no, these are eaten regularly in all sorts of settings. On top of eggs benedict, inside of a tlayuda, and on its own with a pour of mezcal or a cerveza. They offer a salty crunch and protein-packed bite akin to nuts.
You can also find more exotic temptations, but after biting into a Madagascar hissing cockroach, I’ll stick with the more tame bugs from hereon.
6. Al Pastor Tacos
Okay, we’re almost halfway through the list and I haven’t mentioned tacos until now. I hope once you’ve tried one of the incredible dishes listed above, you’ll find it in your sated heart to forgive me. (In my best Bruce Buffer voice) It’s time! No surprise, but you can find tacos everywhere in Mexico. In a restaurant, on a truck, on a boat, on a stand, around that corner. Everywhere. These aren’t the American, Taco Tuesday style hard tacos with ground beef and shredded lettuce. These are the idealistic symbol of simplicity perfected.
Most places specialize in a type of animal, be it cow or pig, etc. and you can pick out your desired cut of that animal. Standard cuts like shoulder or belly are available or you can go with something a bit more exotic like tripe. Feeling
daring authentic? Order a cabeza taco which includes cuts like tongue, snout, or eyes.
The perfect taco, to me, is the common al pastor taco. Introduced to Puebla (and Mexico City by proxy) by Lebanese immigrants in Mexico, they began opening shawarma restaurants in the 20th century. Locals started marinating the pork in adobo to create the currently known variation of tacos al pastor. Order this con todo and get slices of pork served on a corn tortilla with diced onion, cilantro, and diced pineapple grilled on the same spit as the pork. You can find these as low as 10 pesos per taco.
5. Mole Negro
While I couldn’t eat this all the time due to its incredible richness, a properly made mole, specifically the famous Oaxacan black mole, is something that everyone should try at least once in their life. Containing 34 different ingredients, including 6 different toasted chilis and chocolate, they are ground and combined on a metate until they form a paste that is mixed with broth on a low and slow heat setting. Usually served over chicken and rice, this is a fantastic flavor experience.
Take a tortilla and deep fry or toast it. Now top it with all the tasty stuff you can find. Boom, tostada. I found these often offered as inexpensive, single order umm… orders. Seafood-specialty marisquerías often served them topped with a variety of ceviche ingredients. In order to stay in for a few nights, I picked up a pack of toasted tortillas, some refried beans, avocado, pickled some onions, and some quesillo (which, now that I’m thinking about it… Oaxacan cheese deserves its own spot on this list, so consider quesillo as spot 4b.)
This gets the bronze medal for two major reasons. One, they’re delicious. Two, they’re eaten for breakfast. I am not much of a breakfast fan; brunch is cool, but I usually don’t get hungry for a few hours after I wake up. With chilaquiles, it’s different. I switch back and forth between the tangy verde sauce and the more savory rojos sauce and enjoy the party in my mouth with each bite.
Okay, I slept on these for the first 90% of our trip thinking they were a cop-out for the non-adventurous out there. I mean isn’t it just cheese inside of a tortilla? Yes, yes it is. A freshly made, warm tortilla filled with melty, stretchy cheese and any other filling you could want. You can find these for 30 pesos and up all over Mexico.
The first time I ordered one of these, we were walking down a street that seemed to specialize in hardware and home improvement. One shop was filled with light fixtures, the next four were one-stop shops for remodeling your bathroom. We rounded the corner and sitting, unassumingly, against the wall was an older lady and slightly younger business partner tending a comal griddle. We were exploring Mexico City’s street food scene with our new friend, John, when he introduced us to the pombazo sandwich.
Comprised of a white telera bread (pombazo comes from the Old Spanish, pan basso, which indicates low status, but my understanding is only the well off were eating white bread at this point vs whole grain bran bread left for the underprivileged.) dipped in a guajillo sauce and toasted then filled with a chorizo and potato mix with crema, lettuce, and queso fresco. A little bit of spice, a little bit of tanginess, and a lot a bit of delicious. We returned on our own to pick up one of these 20 peso beauties and it now sits atop my list of favorite Mexican foods.
Okay, since you’ve been kind enough to read all the way through my Top 10 list of best foods to eat in Mexico (plugging my SEO in here), I’ll try to reward you with a little extra content. In addition to eating our way through the beloved country, we also got to try new drinks that were equally incredible and interesting. Here’s a quick top 6 list of our favorite drinks in Mexico.
Since we started our trip in Oaxaca, we were quickly introduced to tejate, a maize-based cacao drink traditionally made in the southern state. After taking the base ingredients and grinding them into a paste, they are mixed with water until a chocolately foam rises to the top and is served in an earthen bowl or para llavar (to go) in a plastic cup.
I recommend La Flor de Huayapam in Mercado Benito Juárez, Oaxaca.
I had heard of pulque before the trip, but had forgotten about it until Mexico City when we were taken to a pulqueria. A fermented, agave-based, alcocholic drink, pulque is a mid-day starter drink. Similar to beer in alcohol content, it was considered a low-class beverage in the early 20th century when beer companies started coming into the area and spreading pro-beer propaganda.
You can find pulque in a variety of daily flavors and its a perfect way to start a night of drinking or to find a break from the mid-day sun.
I recommend Pulquería Las Duelistas in Centro, Mexico City.
Similar to the chilled tejate, atole is a warm, masa-based drink found in Central Mexico. Besides temperature, it is also served with a smooth consistency. Add cacao and you get the chocolatey version, called champurrado.
I recommend La Atolería in Oaxaca.
Lesser known than its partying, shot-taking cousin, tequila, mezcal is an agave-based spirit that is seeing a resurgence as of late. Mezcal is not limited to one type of agave and thus can be presented in countless ways. Different regions of growing, different varieties of plant, and different aging techniques give mezcal such a wide assortment of styles and tastes.
You don’t shoot mezcal, but rather take little “kisses” or sips and let it wash around your mouth. You can find smoky, fruity, and spice. It creates a wonderful mouthfeel and offers an abundant history and current culture that I would love to delve into.
While there are plenty of mezcalerias all over Mexico, I recommend joining an expert for a tasting in Oaxaca where the majority of mezcal is made. They can help guide you to the perfect bottle based on your preferences.
2. Cafe de Olla
This really is a simple drink – coffee ground with cinnamon and raw sugar (and sometimes an aromatic like anise or clove.) The real key is that it is mixed in an earthen clay pot that gives it a distinct flavor. You can find this all over the place and its an inexpensive source of caffeine.
I recommend anywhere that it is served from a clay pot or if you want a cheap coffee in the morning or afternoon.
Read about how we found our favorite coffee in Oaxaca here.
1. Agua del Dia
Oh baby, these need to be adopted everywhere. This infused water changes daily with different flavors and they’re almost always great. Order an agua del dia with your food and your server will tell you what it is, asking if that flavor is okay with you, before presenting a refreshing elixir to wash down your tasty dish with. Tamarind and hibiscus (Jamaica) are the most common flavors you’ll probably see, but you can also find mango, passionfruit, and our favorite – lemongrass – varieties on some days.
Thanks for taking me along this mouth-watering journey and I hope you’re ready to take your taste buds on a trip around Mexico.
How about you? What’s your favorite Mexican food? Let me know in the comments below.