Think you know Mexican food? If you’re from Mexico, you certainly do! If you’ve visited Mexico, maybe you do. But if you’re from Texas (like me) and you’re only thinking of tasty fajitas, burritos and margaritas… you probably only know Tex-Mex. And if you’re from anywhere else, you probably don’t even really know Tex-Mex, either. (Sorry guys!)
So, especially for the gringos, here is our list of the top 10 Mexican dishes/foods that you MUST find and try if you ever come to visit us in Mexico City. These are some of my personal favorites, out of everything I have tried here so far. That said, I’ll go ahead and apologize to my Mexican friends who might be reading this post: I am sorry – I know that this isn’t a comprehensive list, and I know that I’ve missed a LOT of great things, especially many of the regional dishes around Mexico. However, please post a comment with your favorite dishes to share with everyone!
10) Chilaquiles. Tex-Mex fans, this is probably your equivalent to “nachos.” Only without the beans and American cheese and pretty much everything you’re used to. You’ve got toasted tortillas covered in green or red salsa, shredded chicken, and a little crema (kind-of like sour cream). Mmmm!
9. Esquites/Elotes. When you’re strolling through a quaint Mexican plaza at dusk, craving a snack, there are almost too many street-food options to pick from. Everywhere you look someone is selling something delicious, and you definitely must try them all! My go-to street food snack, however, is usually something called “esquites,” a piping hot cup of maiz (a lot like corn, but chewier here) with epazote spice, salt, mayonaise, lots of lime, and chile – eaten with a spoon. Elote is similar – it looks a lot like corn on-the-cob but it will be a little tougher than the summer sweet-corn from the States that you might be familiar with. It’s almost always topped with a messy but delicious mixture of chile, lime and mayo.
8. Tacos Arabes. The city of Puebla about an hour away from Mexico City is especially famous for it’s “Arab Tacos.” Much like shawarma, the meat is heavily seasoned, cooked on a spit and shaved off to order. These are some of the only tacos I’ve found that are typically served in a pita or a flour tortilla (corn tortillas are the standard for almost everything else). The seasonings on the meat and the delicious middle-eastern inspired toppings are what I go to Puebla for! Well, that, and the next dish…
7. Mole. Mole comes in many different flavors and varieties depending on where you are in Mexico. It’s famously difficult to make and contains a complex mixture of more than 20 ingredients from chili peppers to chocolate. The black and green moles are most common here in Mexico City, but they are all different – and they all taste different too! For example, when you find a great Mole Poblano, a popular version originating from the city of Puebla that is black in color, it will taste a little bit like a deliciously spicy chocolate barbeque sauce. The city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico is also famous for their many different moles, which is not surprising since Oaxaca is also famous for their handmade chocolate and diverse spices.
6. Tamales. There are many, many different varieties of tamales. Most commonly, they come wrapped inside corn husks or banana leaves, depending on where they originate. (Tropical states like Veracruz traditionally made them in banana leaves, but many central, southern, and northern Mexican traditions use corn husks.) Here in Mexico City the calls of the “Tamales Oaxaceños” man traveling through the neighborhoods on his bike with a huge pot of tamales can be heard all over the city. When you buy one from him, the corn masa mixture is usually wrapped inside large corn husks. Depending on your mood, you may choose one that is meaty, spicy, or even sweet. There are tamales that taste like pineapples, green salsa with chicken, chorizo (sausage), and some that are sweet and pink, like desserts. When you buy a tamale off of the street, you might also want to try washing it down with “atole,” a thick hot chocolate-flavored drink made from watery cornstarch, the by-product of tamale-making.
5. Torta Cubana. Let me begin by saying that nearly ALL tortas are delicious. There’s something very special about spreading beans, avocados, onions and mayo on a soft warm bread and layering just about anything inside. However, the Torta Cubana is the supreme “everything sandwich” in my opinion – just add every kind of meat and cheese along with some crunchy thick pickles, and viola! Very very good, but only for people with a big appetite!
4. Tacos Campechanos. This is a “country style” taco. If Torta Cubanas are the “everything sandwich” then Tacos Campechanos are the “everything taco”. At the place we went to regularly outside Mexico City, you could walk up and essentially build your own tacos campechanos, as if it were some kind of salad bar. You can mix your meats – including Mexican chorizo (sausage) and add many different veggies, including nopales, or cactus) – even mashed potatoes and salsa. Whenever we go, I usually save a lot of room for the grilled cebollitas (little onions) that many places will grill for you. Give them a sprinkling of salt and a squeeze of lime… Mmmmmmm!!!
3. Enchiladas Verdes. My mind was blown recently when I realized that in English, you can essentially translate the word “enchilada” into something like “chillified.” That is, if we had that word in English. But that’s essentially what an “enchilada” is meant to be: something covered in chile. Green enchiladas are corn tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken and smothered in green salsa with a little crema and a sprinkling of white cheese. Sounds pretty simple, but they are delicious. If you come visit, we’ll take you to a place that is popular with students where you can get a big plate of green enchiladas for $2.50.
2. Pozole. This is one of my favorite dishes in all of Mexico, and I have promised myself that I will to learn how to make it before I leave. It’s actually a very very old dish passed down from Pre-Columbian and Aztec tradition. It’s made from hominy corn, and is stewed for hours typically with chicken, pork, or veggies. It is typically cooked and simmered for hours – often overnight – so that the hominy has had a chance to soften up and the meat can really start to flavor the broth. Different herbs and spices are added to change the flavors and it usually means that it comes in various colors and levels of spice – white, green, or red. But don’t fill that bowl up all the way when you serve it! Leave a lot of room for fresh toppings, which is one of the things that makes pozole so special. Typical toppings include big handfuls of lettuce, radish and onion. Don’t forget the lime, oregano, and chile!
1. Tacos al Pastor. In my opinion, tacos al pastor, roughly translated as “shepherd tacos” are, hands down, the best tacos that you can possibly get in Mexico City. It’s not really important what the meat is, so don’t worry about it (but it’s usually pork). What is important is that it is seasoned and marinated well, and layered onto a large spit where it is cooked and kept warm. Thin slices will be shaved off into small round corn tortillas (usually no bigger than your hand) when you order it, and it absolutely must be topped with fine shavings of pineapple, onion, and cilantro. Add a squeeze of fresh lime and maybe a little salsa to the mix and WOW – the taste is incredible. If you come to visit us, we will make you will try one!
Finally, the thing that seems to bring almost every Mexican dish and drink together is lime. Here’s a rule of thumb: if you don’t have the urge to squeeze a little bit of lime on it, it might not be from Mexico!