This is my second of several articles highlighting travel to Mexico. The first was Travel to Mexico.
Once you have arrived in Mexico, whether after a 5-day driving trip or a 5-hour flight, you will want to know what you should (and perhaps, should not) eat. When thinking of food in Mexico, generally the first thing that people think of is tacos! While tacos are certainly one of the most common foods in Mexico, they are equivalent to us eating sandwiches —important, but hardly memorable!
In this article, I hope to provide an appreciation of the culinary delights that await the adventurous visitor to Mexico. First though, I must tell you that Joan and I have only sampled a small variety of the many foods that are available. So, I am no expert! There are different cuisines that reflect the various regions of Mexico, just as there are different specialties of foods in any country. These foods highlight the various influences of the country – Spanish, French, German, and Indigenous – and the variety of ingredients that are locally available.
Lead us not into affliction
Before I begin though, let me dispel the most-common myth about eating in Mexico – namely the likelihood that eating results in Montezuma’s Revenge! Not that long ago, the possibility of getting an intestinal affliction in Mexico was not only possible but almost a given. In the more than two decades that Joan and I have been visiting Mexico, I have had one instance (she has had none) where the food caused a major G.I. problem. This occurred in 1999 after eating a hamburger at Señor Frog’s (the Mexican equivalent of a MacDonald’s restaurant).
Since then, we have become increasingly more adventuresome, eating at the same places as the locals. Many years ago, the Mexican government recognized that the country had a poor reputation among tourists and made a concerted effort to improve the safety of food preparation and handling. Food handlers were educated on the importance of food safety and were trained to ensure that correct food-handling methods were followed. One of the most important safety concerns that was addressed was drinking water and by extension, ice. Bottled water in Mexico is inexpensive and readily available. The sources of water include purification by reverse osmosis, distillation, and sourcing from mineral springs. Ice that is served at restaurants and sold in grocery stores must be made from purified water. The easiest way to recognize that the ice in your margarita is safe is if it is cylindrical, with a noticeable hole in the core – something that indicates that the ice was commercially-made. It is against the law to serve ice that is not commercially-made.
The greatest thing since…
Tortillas are to Mexicans what bread is to Canadians and Americans. Almost every meal is served with, or on tortillas. As mentioned previously, tacos are an important part of most Mexicans daily routine. Unlike the tacos that we find at Taco Bell or typical “Mexican” restaurants in Canada, tacos in Mexico are served on soft corn tortillas made from Masa Harina, which has been combined with water and salt, flattened to a diameter of about 6 inches and heated on a grill. Taco toppings will have some sort of meat or seafood, which is lightly spiced with onions and cilantro, which will then be served with sides of radishes, chopped habanero, roasted jalapeño, and a selection of sauces (salsa) from mild to fiery. The meat selection ranges through the usual pork, beef, tongue, chorizo, chicken, shrimp, crab and lobster, but may also include other toppings. Tacos Pastor (one of my personal favorites) is made with spiced pork that is roasted like Shawarma and then cut off the rotisserie with a very sharp knife and served with a bit of pineapple on tortillas. Another common style is Tacos de Cabeza (which literally translates into tacos of the head), and is made from meat taken from a cow’s (or pig’s) head that has been slowly roasted. Joan enjoys tacos de cabeza, but I’m a little less adventuresome, since the meat may include brain and eye —hmmm, I think not!
While tacos are also served in restaurants, the most common place to find tacos is at ubiquitous street vendors. Although most “gringos” are reluctant to eat food that is cooked at a street vendor in open air, Joan and I have eaten from numerous fine “establishments” without any problem. Indeed, many of the homemade taco toppings have flavours that are unique to the “chef”. One of the outdoor “restaurants” in Bucerias provides deliciously tender beef roasted over a charcoal grill that uses a wheel rim as the base and unsurprisingly, the restaurant is referred to by tourists as “The Rim”.
When in Rome…
For anyone who is squeamish about eating al fresco, Mexican sit-down restaurants provide similar fare, though generally at a higher price. As anywhere, restaurants run the gamut from “little holes in the wall” to gourmet establishments where the prices rival those that are found in similar places in Canada or anywhere else. Some of the best food that we’ve had was served in small establishments that cater primarily to Mexicans. Since it is impossible to write about all of the wonderful foods that one is likely to encounter in a Mexican restaurant, I will give a sample of what we have found to be uniquely flavourful and representative of what one can expect.
Chilaquiles is a very common Mexican dish, which is generally eaten as a breakfast dish when diners have a bit more time on their hands. Although each restaurant has its own style, chilaquiles starts with a base of crunchy, fried tortillas (totopos) covered in either a red tomato sauce (salsa rojo) or a green tomatillo sauce (salsa verde). To this, are added avocado slices and onion slices, all topped with a creamy Mexican cheese. The meal will generally be served with an order of eggs and of course, refried beans. Absolutely delicious!! Many places near the west coast of Mexico will complement the breakfast with coffee made with a hint of cinnamon (café con canela).
Molcajetes are an evening meal served in a bowl made from lava stone. The bowl itself is called a molcajete and is heated in an oven until it is very hot. At this point it is filled with meat (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, etc), broth, onions, roasted jalapeño, and other vegetables such as nopales (cactus), and jicama (a crunchy root, similar to turnip, that has very little flavour on its own). This is generally served with a side order of corn tortillas and washed down with a Mexican cerveza. Mexico is famous for Corona, Sol, and Pacifico beers. However, they also have many other varieties that range from rot gut to artisanal, light to very dark (negro).
Mole (pronounced mo-lay) is a word that comes from the Indigenous Nahuatl language that means sauce, but is used to describe dishes that involve cooking meat (generally chicken, beef, or pork) in a rich dark sauce made from raw cocoa. (It has absolutely no similarity to chocolate other than colour!) Mole tends to be very flavourful and many people really enjoy the flavour. I must admit, it’s not something that I will order as my first choice. Once again, the meal will come served with corn tortillas and is complemented with a fine beer.
Pozole (pronounced po-ZO-lay) is a delicious soup made from chicken stock with hominy corn and generally comes with large pieces of chicken. Depending on the cook, the soup will be served with side dishes of fresh vegetables, including radishes, lettuce or cabbage, onion, and avocado, all of which are added to taste by the diner. No Mexican cook would serve this soup without also having key lime wedges to squeeze into the soup.
Other Mexican dishes that are well-worth sampling include enchiladas, empanadas (fried pockets of dough filled with meat and vegetables), grilled whole fish, chilis relleno (stuffed peppers), pollo asado (grilled chicken), and a wide variety of seafood that includes fish, crab, octopus, and lobster.
Nota a pie de página (footnote)
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I would describe the food that a visitor should sample on any stay in Mexico. However, not all foods are enjoyed equally by all people. I have eaten some Mexican dishes that I will NEVER try again. The one that immediately comes to mind is elote (pronounced eh-LO-tay), which is nothing other than Mexican corn on the cob – sounds good, doesn’t it? While elote looks delicious, when cooked up I have found it inedible! It is tough, starchy, and generally tasteless. Mexicans enjoy this “delicacy” sprinkled with hot sauce, salt and lime. Frankly, I don’t think that anything can redeem the flavour.
The beauty of visiting Mexico is that fruits and vegetables are grown in abundance throughout the country and tend to be priced much lower than similar produce in Canada. (For example, one key lime costs the equivalent of about 5 cents! A pineapple grown in the Banderas valley will cost about 20 pesos or about $1.40 each.) While most tourists visiting Mexico are understandably cautious given Mexico’s dubious culinary past, it has been my experience that the local food is not just delicious but safe.
This is Will Miller‘s second contribution to both our Celebration of (Retired) Life and his own Travel to Mexico series. Nice to have you back, Will!
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Great follow-up to Gail’s article, Will. You have served up a mouth-watering guide that I will be sure to reference the next time I’m in Mexico.
I am salivating reading your article Will. Thanks so much for all the info. I will refer to this the next time I go to Mexico.
Thank you for sharing Will.