A Beginners Guide to Eating in Mexico
Even if you eat plenty of Mexican food in the United States the transition to the Spanish menus at Mexican street carts and local restaurants can be daunting. Here is a beginners guide to eating in Mexico and a list of some of the most common things you will see on the menu and what you can expect.
In Mexico, the main meal of the day is lunch and takes place between 1:30 – 4:00 pm. Therefore many restaurants are only open for breakfast and lunch. It is a good time to take advantage of the comida corrida, which is a low price set menu with several courses.
Tacos, quesadillas and even enchiladas are often considered small plates or snacks, and are eaten more often in the mornings and evenings. You should not be surprised to find that there are few to no taco carts in the streets at midday. Please also note that Mexican people often eat dinner late, and so many popular dinner spots do not open before 7:00 pm.
Finally, you will often see plates that are more expensive, such as Carne Asada, or Pork Pibil. You might picture a plate with nothing but meat, but don’t worry, these dishes will not only come with rice and beans, but a huge stack of tortillas, fresh salsas and likely some avocados. Now onto the Mexican food guide:
Huevos (Eggs) – A common Mexican breakfast dish there are many types of Huevos. Some of the most common are Huevos Rancheros – a crispy tortilla with fried eggs (often runny), tomato sauce, refried beans and cheese; Huevos Mexicanos – scrambled with vegetables and often meat, served with refried beans and lots of tortillas; Huevos al Gusto – Eggs made however you like, with whatever you like, and Huevos Motuleños – see picture and description below.
Common Fillings – Before going into the different types of vessels for your meat, here are some of the most common you will encounter – pollo (chicken), pavo (turkey), pescado (fish, unfried unless called ‘Baja’), chorizo (spicy, oily mexican ground sausage), carne asada (grilled steak), carnitas (stewed pork which is often charred), al pastor (pork thinly sliced and cooked on a spit like gyro meat, often served with pineapple), barbacoa (beef or goat, usually the head, cheek or other fatty pieces – has a strong gamey flavor).
Toppings – every establishment has their own specialties, but onions, cilantro, chopped tomatoes, refried beans, lettuce, cabbage and avocados are the most common. Many places will also top with crumbled queso cheese, crema (a thin tangy sour cream) or both. You may be asked ‘con crema o queso?’ – ‘with cream or cheese?’ If you are lucky, you might also get some bright pink pickled onions.
Salsas – Each establishment has their own specialties but the most common you will find are roja (deep red and smoky, usually less spicy but not always), verde (green, tangy and often fiercely spicy), pico (coarsely chopped tomato, onion, hot pepper, lime), chopped onions in vinegar or lime, chopped onions with peppers in vinegar or lime, and chopped peppers in vinegar (these ones can be killer hot).
Tacos – almost always a soft corn shell, double wrapped. They are smaller than you would think, and 3-4 are necessary for a decent meal.
Tostada – A crispy corn shell like an American taco, but flat, topped with meat of your choice and assorted toppings.
Salbute – A crispy fried tortilla cooked in a way that it puffs up, topped with meat of your choice and assorted toppings.
Panucho – Just like a salbute, except it is slit and stuffed with refried beans before topping.
Quesadillas – Can be a corn or flour tortilla, always containing queso and the toppings of your choice. There is usually also the option for jamon (ham) which is similar to the American sliced deli meat.
Enchiladas – Can be a corn or flour shell, usually considered a snack even though an order will contain 3 – 4. You will be asked if you want roja or verde (see sauces above) although others like mole are sometimes available.
Flautas / taquitos / tacos dorados – These are all basically the same, either corn or sometimes flour tortilla, rolled into a tube shape with your choice of filling and then deep fried until crispy. Usually topped with lettuce, crema and other diced veggies.
Empanadas – A thick flour of corn or wheat which is stuffed, sealed and deep fried. A very heavy dish, especially since it is often topped with crema.
Huraraches – Like a taco, but with a thicker, oblong dough which is usually pan fried in oil, then topped with your choice of meat and assorted vegetables.
Tamales – One of the most ancient foods that is still eaten to this day. Masa corn flour (often mixed with lard) is stuffed with your choice of filling and then steamed, traditionally in corn husks although in the Yucatan they often prefer banana leaves. These are filling and cheap, and a good late night snack after a few drinks. Topped with a mild red salsa.
Chili relleno – A mild poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, battered and fried. Usually though not always vegetarian.
Torta – Your choice of meat with assorted veggies and sauces, served on bread. The varieties are countless.
Ceviche – Raw seafood which is ‘cooked’ in acidic lime juice and tossed with diced tomato, onion and pepper. Choices usually include fish, shrimp, octopus / squid, or mixed.
While this list is by no means extensive, it will be a great way to get you started through your first few weeks in Mexico. Good luck and happy eating!