If you grew up in the Western U.S. (or Texas), you may have some preconceived notions about what “Mexican food” is. I put that in quotes because it’s highly up for interpretation. If you’re like me, the first time you visit Mexico, your mind will be blown by all the different types of cuisine! Oh yes, Mexican food is so much more than burritos, quesadillas, guacamole and margaritas! My husband and I had the privilege of living and traveling in Mexico for half a year, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that Mexican food is immensely diverse and complex, and each state in the country has its own unique regional cuisine. During our time living and working abroad in Mexico, we visited 7 states and 10 cities, each with their own flare of how they make the dish, whether in restaurant kitchens, en la casa (in the home), or on the street. In this blog post, I bring to you the top 33 must-try authentic traditional dishes to eat in Mexico, including where to find them and which region they’re native to or most popular in!
First let’s learn how to say some basics in Spanish as it relates to food!
Breakfast = Desayuno
Lunch = Almuerzo
Dinner = Cena
Food = Comida / Alimentos
I’m hungry = tengo hambre (I’m pretty sure this is the very first phrase I learned when I started studying Spanish at the age of 6. 😉 Sasha is learning Spanish, and he often makes the mistake of saying tengo hombre, which means “I have a man.” 😂
When ordering, it’s polite to say:
I would like = Quisiera…
May I please have = Puedo Tener Por Favor…
When ordering coffee, they’ll ask you if you want sencillo (single shot) or doble (double shot)
When your mesero (server) drops off your food, they will probably tell you, Buen Provecho! This is the Spanish way of saying Buon Apetito (Italian) or Bon Appetit (French). It means “enjoy”, and is common to say when you see others eating. For example, if you’re walking on the street and you pass somebody who is eating, you smile and say, buen provecho! The response to this is simply gracias! (Thank you).
Food Safety In Mexico
Before I jump into the best Mexican foods, I’d like to quickly address a concern that many first-time travelers have when they’re planning a trip to Mexico. Will I get sick from Mexican food? Can I eat the street food? Just like traveling to any new country, your body will likely take a few days to adjust to the new oils, new foods, and new bacteria, so take it easy the first few days. But yes, absolutely you can try the street food, and I encourage you to do so! I would just advise taking a few precautionary measures:
- Avoid iced beverages on the street (sometimes they don’t use ice cubes from filtered water, or tap water may be mixed in)
- Ensure seafood is cooked thoroughly (ceviche is an exception), though I personally would not order it from a street cart
- Don’t eat meat that has been sitting out or not properly heated under a heat lamp or fire
- Avoid anything raw (cut fruits or vegetables, salad, etc.) during your first week or so, until your body has time to adjust
If you’ll be visiting Mexico, check out my blog post on The Ultimate Guide To Visiting Mexico – Everything You Need To Know Before Traveling To Mexico
If you’ll be moving to Mexico, check out my blog post on Everything You Need To Know About How To (Temporarily) Move To Mexico
Top 33 Authentic Mexican Dishes To Try, Plus Our Favorite Place To Try Them!
In Mexico, corn is king. Using corn in food dates back to the Maya, Aztec and Inca cultures, who revered corn and even had rituals and ceremonies around the growing cycle of corn. You will find this as a common base for almost all Mexican cuisine.
I’m going to warn you right now – once you visit Mexico, you will be ruined for life. You will never view Mexican food the same way, and nothing will meet your new standards back in your home country. In fact, we just returned to Seattle, and I ordered a burrito from a food truck run by two guys from the Yucatan, and the fillings were tasty, but the wrap was awful. I could taste the chemical preservatives in it! And I immediately longed for the lady down the street from where we used to live, making fresh tacos from scratch. And so it goes…whenever you travel, it expands your culinary palate and imagination, and you are forever changed for the better.
MAINS (Platos Fuertes)
- Chilaquiles – breakfast dish consisting of corn tortillas cut into quarters and lightly fried, served with eggs and topped with salsa verde (green) or rojo (red).
- Pozole – soup or stew made with hominy
- Mole – marinade paste often containing up to 100+ ingredients. There are 8 main types of mole, and contrary to popular belief, not all contain cacao or chocolate! Often seen atop enchiladas, or as a marinade for meat. Whilst living in Puerto Vallarta, we took a mole cooking class, and let me tell you, it is a labor of love! It took us four hours to prepare (including shopping for the ingredients), but we had mole paste for months!
Native to: Puebla & Oaxaca
Best Place To Get It: Oaxaca
Read more: Mole Cooking Class in Puerto Vallarta
15 Incredible Cultural Things To Do in Oaxaca
- Flauta / Taquito – rolled up and fried corn tortillas with fillings
- Cochinita Pibil – slow roasted pork stew with fresh squeezed acidic orange and annatto seed, causing a deep orange color
Native to: Yucatan
Read More: The Perfect Two-Week Itinerary for a Yucatan Peninsula Road Trip
- Aguachile – shrimp submerged in liquid, seasoned with chili, lime, cilantro, salt, slices of cucumber and onion
- Enchiladas Mineras – “miner’s enchiladas”
Native to: Guanajuato (this city got its start as a mining city, and this heavy dish was popular amongst the workers in the mines so that they could eat quickly and be full for a long time so that they could work long hours and sustain their energy)
Read More: A Weekend in Guanajuato
- Birria – meat stew, traditionally made with goat meat, but has adapted in modern times to beef
Native To: The State of Jalisco
Best Place To Get It: Birria 9 Esquinas in Guadalajara
Read More: Top 15 Things To Do in Guadalajara
- Tamales – I was quite surprised to find that tamales are not as commonly found as I would have expected them to be, at least not in the regions of Mexico we visited. We saw them in La Comer (a local grocery store similar to Safeway, Cole’s or Woolworth’s), but the only other time we were served a tamale was during a five-course meal in Puerto Vallarta
Best Place To Get It: Makal in Puerto Vallarta
Read More: Top Restaurants in Puerto Vallarta
- Chapulines – grasshoppers! These crunchy buggers are salty, earthy and frequently served with alcoholic beverages with slices of orange as a chaser.
- Sopa Azteca – tortilla soup made of fried corn tortilla pieces submerged in a thick broth of garlic, onion and tomato, served with cilantro, slices of avocado, fresh cheese cubes and sometimes chicharrones (pork rinds). Some tortilla soups will have a clear base, made from a stock of vegetables, chicken or beef broth.
Best Place To Get It: Rayon Pochote Organic Market in Oaxaca
- Pulpa Tostada – toast with octopus. Octopus is commonly found in the coastal cities of Mexico. We never had a poorly cooked octopus a single time! It’s always delicious and tender.
Best Place To Get It: La Gallega in Versalles, Puerto Vallarta
- Ceviche – Fresh raw fish cured in fresh citrus juices and seasoned. Though this dish is not native to Mexico (it originates from Peru), it is commonly served throughout Mexico in many forms, including tomato ceviche, tuna ceviche and the traditional shrimp ceviche.
Best Place To Get It: La Negra in Bucerias (get the tuna ceviche)
Read More: Why Bucerias Is Our Favorite Place To Live And Work Remotely In Mexico
STREET FOOD (Comida de la Calle)
- Elote – street corn, typically smothered in butter, cotija (crumbly Mexican white cheese), and spices
Best Place To Get It: on the street in Oaxaca
- Tlayuda – dinner plate-sized corn tortilla cooked on a comal (large flat pan or cooking surface), covered in lard, refried beans, queso fresco and meats. Think of it like a Mexican pizza
Native To: Oaxaca
Best Place To Get It: Oaxaca
- Tlacoyo – thick, torpedo-shaped masa cakes stuffed with ingredients such as fava beans, pinto beans and cheese, and nopal (cactus)
Native To: Oaxaca
Best Place To Get It: Any Oaxacan market
Read More: 6 Must-Visit Markets in Oaxaca
- Sope – fried masa base with toppings
Best Place To Get It: La Matona in Versalles, Puerto Vallarta
- Torta Ahogada – a sandwich filled with different types of meat, cheese and other ingredients, and topped with a red sauce (think of of it like a soggy sandwich – this was my least favorite regional food in Mexico.)
Native To: Guadalajara, Jalisco
Best Place To Get It: Las Tortugas Ninja – Ahogadas, Adolescentes, Mutantes in Guadalajara, Jalisco
Read More: Top 15 Things To Do in Guadalajara
- Chicharrones – pork rinds. Typically served in soups, or eaten plain
Best Place To Get It: Any market in Mexico
- Marquesita – sweet crunchy wafers filled with cheese, nutella, or the traditional Cajeta (caramel made from soft condensed milk)
Native To: Yucatan
Best Place To Get It: on the streets in Merida
Read More: The Perfect Two-Week Itinerary For a Yucatan Peninsula Road Trip
- Tacos Al Pastor – Tacos are hands down, my favorite Mexican food. They’re like tiny disc rockets of flavor that pack an enormous and delightful punch, and you can add all the toppings your heart desires! Also, tacos is what makes it entirely possible to eat dinner in Mexico for under $5 USD. Tacos al pastor is made on a spit with grilled pork, and should always have the pineapple on top!
Native To: This concept was originally brought to Mexico by Lebanese Immigrants (shwarma)
Best Place To Get It: our favorite taco place in the Puerto Vallarta area is La Matona in Versalles (note: the photo below is not al pastor meat – it’s chorizo, but they do serve Al Pastor at La Matona.
- Nopal – cactus. Nopal is commonly eaten throughout Mexico, and it comes from the prickly pear for its smooth pads (once the spiny thorns are removed). In the photo below, the long green item on the left is nopal. It’s got a bit of a slimy consistency similar to okra.
- Flan Napolitano – I love flan. But when I saw Flan Napolitano on the menu in Mexico, I was confused. What’s the difference? I learned that Flan Napolitano is made by adding cream cheese and / or queso doble (double cheese) to the custard, giving it a more rich and creamy texture. And that caramel sauce on top is just to die for. I could eat spoons of just that!
- Paletas – literally translating to “palates”, paletas are ice cream popsicles, typically made from fresh fruit and filtered water
- Maracuya – passion fruit (or as we say in Hawaii, Liliko’i) – this is one of the most commonly found fruits in Mexico that you’ll see in helado (ice cream) or drinks such as agua del dia or in delicious cocktails with mezcal or tequila. The pulp is sour, and has edible crunchy seeds in the middle. There are several variations throughout the world (in Ecuador we saw purple ones!) but the most common is yellow. Our favorite mid-day drink was to spoon out the pulp, mash it up in a molcajete (pestle & mortar) and add it to agua mineralizada (sparkling water) – yum!
- Cacao – the delicious fruit from which chocolate is made (that’s right, chocolate comes from a fruit!) We have taken many a cacao farm tour throughout our world travels, and some of the best chocolate experiences we’ve had are in Mexico. However, we learned that Mexico actually imports most of their chocolate from neighboring countries such as Ecuador and Colombia, but they make their own special concoction using cayenne pepper, vanilla and cinnamon, which give it a unique Mexican flare which we’ve not tasted anywhere else.
Best Place To Get It: Oaxaca En Una Taza, in Oaxaca (try their mocha) and Mexicolate (several locations, including Sayulita and San Pancho)
Read More: San Pancho, Mexico Is Your Hippy Dream Come True
12 Best Things To Do in Sayulita
Cacao Farm & Chocolate Tour in Waialua, Oahu
- Agua Del Dia – Water of the day. (Most of) Mexico is hot, so a refreshing beverage is always a welcome reprieve, especially when walking around in the hot sun. Nearly all restaurants will have a water of the day, which you can have with mineral (how they call sparkling water in Mexico), or natural (still) water. It’s usually a fruit such as mora azul (blueberry) or maracuya – whichever is fresh that day and in season.
- Jugo de Jamaica – Juice of hibiscus (Jamaica is not pronounced like the island country, rather, HA-MAI-KA), and is the tea of boiled hibiscus leaves. It’s a beautiful deep maroon color like Merlot, and has a very subtle taste. If you’re not a fan of sweet drinks, ask for it sin azucar (without sugar). Jamaica leaves on their own are not sweet at all.
- Pulque – an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant (the plant from which mezcal, raicilla and tequila come from). It is very sour and definitely an acquired taste. I didn’t care for this one.
- Tuba – a non-alcoholic beverage made from coconut sap, mixed with ice, sugar and topped with nuts and fresh minced fruit. This is sold all over the streets of Puerto Vallarta, but I was too nervous to try it on the street because I’m not sure if the vendors use ice cubes from filtered water (I’m sure it’s fine because the locals drink it, but I have a sensitive stomach and didn’t want to chance it), but I did try an alcoholic version at our favorite restaurant in PV.
Best Place To Get It: Makal (restaurant) in Puerto Vallarta
- Mezcal / Raicilla / Tequila – All the delicious spirits that come from the maguey plant. Mezcal and Raicilla are exactly the same, they just have a different name because Oaxaca has already coined the word Mezcal, so the State of Jalisco calls it Raicilla. These are the three most common spirits you’ll find in all the delicious cocktails of Mexico.
Read More: From Plant To Bottle – A Mezcal Tour in Oaxaca
- Horchata – a sweet rice milk beverage, served iced and topped with cinnamon. Now it’s becoming more common to see alternative milks used to make it, such as home made coconut milk or oat milk.
- Tejate – a beverage made of toasted maiz (corn), fermented cacao beans, toasted mamey pits, and cacao flowers, ground up into a frothy mixture that has a chunky appearance.
Native To: Oaxaca
So, now you know the top authentic and traditional dishes you must try in Mexico! Buen provecho!
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