The 23 best dishes in Mexico to try

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Mexican gastronomy is one of the most beloved cuisines on the planet, known for the convergence of indigenous and European influences. Corn, vanilla, chocolate, tomatoes and chiles are indigenous ingredients from Mexico that have inspired recipes around the world for generations.

It is consistently among the top five most popular food styles in the United States, known for its tacos, burritos, chips and salsa, and margaritas. But within these broad categories of the genre are a multitude of options, and there are hundreds of dishes that rarely appear on menus outside of Mexico.

Most gastronomy scholars agree that the basis of much of the Mexican culinary tradition is nixtamalization, a very laborious pre-Hispanic process. It consists of soaking the corn kernels with lime (calcium hydroxide) to extract their nutrients and turn them into the dough needed to make tortillas, tamales, and other corn dough-based dishes that are fundamental to this cuisine.

From Lebanese-influenced dishes to the citrus flavors of the coastal regions, to the almighty torta and the myriad ways corn can be transformed, here are 23 traditional Mexican dishes that tell the story of this beloved cuisine.

Chilaquiles

A classic breakfast dish, chilaquiles are made with hard tortillas that are cut into triangles, fried, and tossed with either a red or green sauce to strike a balance between crunchy and soft at the same time. It is an all-terrain dish for excellence. Got a bunch of old tortillas left over from dinner? Well, make chilaquiles. The dish is accompanied with some fresh cheese, cream and maybe a fried egg.

Concha

Don’t know what to accompany your spiced pot coffee? The traditional concha is a much appreciated option in many Mexican cafeterias and bakeries. The sweet bread bun is airy yet dense, while the shell-shaped topping is a bit crunchy. It’s usually pink, yellow, off-white or, in more modern places, fantastic pastel unicorn shades.

Tecolota

Another typical Mexico City breakfast option, the tecolota, takes traditional chilaquiles to another level. The tecolota is a toasted bolillo, stuffed with refried beans, chilaquiles, cheese, cream, cilantro and chopped red onion.

Tacos al pastor

The taco al pastor is the base of the basic offer of taqueros throughout Mexico. Its origins date back more than a century, when Lebanese immigrants brought the traditional shawarma grill to Mexico, inspiring a whole way of slow-cooking meat.

Here, the Mexicans use pork marinated in a mixture of chiles and simmered in a top or spit. It is often topped with a whole pineapple, whose juices add a hint of tropical flavor to balance out the spiciness of the meat and is often sliced in pieces to add a pinch of pineapple garnish on top of the taco.

Barbacoa

Historically, the term barbacoa refers to the cooking style of the Taínos of the Caribbean. In Mexican cuisine, barbecue refers to the slow cooking of meat over a fire or in a hole dug in the ground. The protein used depends on the region. In areas of northern Mexico or southern Texas, veal head or cheek or cabrito are common, while lamb is more typical of southern areas of the country, such as Oaxaca.

Seafood

Mexicans love seafood and have plenty of sources for fresh fish, shrimp, and shellfish, whether in the heart of the Mexican Riviera or in the Pacific coastal regions of Baja California or Nayarit. In Baja California is the cradle of the fish taco, whose influence is attributed to the Japanese who immigrated to the Mexican Pacific coast in the early 20th century. Here, white fish fillets or cooked shrimp are battered, fried, and topped with shredded cabbage or lettuce, pico de gallo, and cream.

Ceviche is also a common choice in coastal regions, in which raw fish or shrimp are cured in citrus juice, often accented with jalapeño slices, cucumber cubes, and a cold tomato-based broth, and served with toast or crackers.

Burritos

In northern Mexico, the border city of Ciudad Juárez is the birthplace of the burrito, often derided as an American version of Mexican food, but no less authentic for that. This region of the country is flour tortilla territory. As such, a burrito is made up of a large flour tortilla filled with at most a few ingredients, such as stewed meat, beans, or barbacoa.

These burritos are on the thin side compared to their much thicker relatives, the Mission-style burritos, popularized by chains like Chipotle. These versions, first introduced in the 1960s in San Francisco’s Mission District, also contain rice, beans, cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and onion, before the tortilla is rolled into a tight roll and left ready to enjoy.

Birria

Birria is the classic dish of Jalisco and, in recent years, it has become tremendously popular in the United States and beyond its borders. Birria is a spicy meat stew, traditionally goat, but increasingly also beef, marinated with guajillo chiles, often some sort of citrus like orange, and other ingredients that create a red broth that stains your fingers. Protein bites can be served on tortillas and garnished with cilantro and onion.

It is also the base for quesabirria, in which part of the meat and white cheese are stuffed into a corn tortilla that is usually first soaked in that red broth and then placed on a hot griddle, where the juices and cheese melt to create a sticky, burning container that can be dunked in the bouillon.

Carnitas

Carnitas is the term that refers to pork that is slow-cooked for several hours in its own fat until it reaches its sweet spot of tenderness, and then deep-fried until crisp.

The Mexican state of Michoacán is carnitas territory, and it can be argued that they are among the earliest adopters of the “nose to tail” tradition in North America. Almost every part of the pig is used in the preparation of carnitas, from the juicy ribs to the crispy cueritos (skin) used to make chicharrones and the gelatinous crop (stomach), all of which are excellent options for filling tacos.

Torta

The torta is what most would consider the official sandwich of Mexico, with origins in the state of Puebla and influence from the French occupation of yesteryear. It is made with a bolillo, a type of crispy white bread, which can be filled with any type of protein, often with refried beans, avocado, jalapeño, and tomato.

Torta Ahogada

Torta ahogada is very popular in Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco. With marinated fried pork, this sandwich is submerged in a tomato and vinegar-based bath flavored with spices like chiles de árbol and cumin.

Tamales

Tamales, one of the favorite dishes that families prepare at Christmas, are as varied as tacos. Tamales are made with a bit of dough spread on a corn or banana leaf, then filled with protein, such as marinated pork or chicken, wrapped tightly, and cooked until fluffy.

Pozole

A dish that dates to Aztec times, pozole is a delicious, hearty, and comforting soup made with corn kernels and pork (although chicken or vegan options are becoming more popular). It is prepared red, with guajillo or ancho chiles, or green, with tomatillos, cilantro, jalapeños or pumpkin seeds. It is also available in white, without either of the two spicy bases. It is garnished with chopped onion, shredded cabbage, sliced radish, a squeeze of lemon, oregano, and dried chili powder.

Menudo

Another hearty stew-like favorite for a weekend hangover cure, the menudo comes with beef tripe and corn masa simmered in a broth flushed with a melody of red chiles, oregano, and garlic.

Pambazo

Another member of the broad category of tortas, pan de pambazo is the drier relative of the bolillo, as well as the name of the dish itself. It is filled with a mixture of chorizo and potatoes, dipped in a spicy red guajillo sauce and fried. People also like to top the pambazo with fresh cheese, lettuce, and cream.

Mole

Mole is considered one of Mexico’s most iconic dishes, with colors ranging from deep brown and fiery red to green, yellow and black, to name just a few. The word mole comes from the Aztec language, and derives from the word molli, which means “sauce”.

Flavor profiles are extensive, and many recipes call for the use of Mexican chocolate to add sweetness or bitterness, depending on how it is combined. Recipes vary by region and can call for dozens of ingredients, such as Mexican chocolate discs, plantains, raisins, animal crackers, pumpkin or sesame seeds, peanuts or tortillas, that add thickness. Everything is combined into a thick paste using a mortar and pestle before thinning it with liquid until it reaches a velvety sauce consistency.

It is usually considered a celebratory dish, due to all the work involved in its preparation. It is usually served over a protein, such as chicken or turkey. Others like it as a base for enchiladas, and more and more world-renowned chefs have developed their own mole madre—similar to the sourdough concept—delicious enough to eat on its own with a tortilla.

Cemita

The cemita is a specialty of Puebla, and consists of a brioche-type bun covered with sesame seeds, stuffed with breaded and fried protein chops such as pork, beef or chicken. If you add cheese, avocado, chipotle and the fragrant papalo grass you won’t have to worry about having to eat again in a while, as these ingredients fill the stomach.

Cochinita pibil

Slow roasted for many hours, cochinita pibil is a popular pork dish in the Yucatan peninsula.

Part of one of the many innovations in southern Mexico, especially in the Yucatan peninsula, cochinita pibil consists of a suckling pig marinated in bitter orange juice, seasoned with annatto seed and spices, and then wrapped in a leaf in which it is roasted for several hours.

Traditionally, it is cooked underground in the Mayan style and served many hours later with corn tortillas with pickled red onions. The Yucatecan Mayan word “pib” means “earth oven”. The pork featured in the dish and widely consumed in the region was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors.

Tlayuda

Are you going to Oaxaca? The tlayuda is a delicious snack. Composed of a flattened, crispy tortilla, it is usually topped with refried beans, chorizo (or some other protein), strings of Oaxaca cheese, and garnishes. Oaxaca cheese, also known as quesillo, is a stretched cottage cheese that is rolled up like a ball of string.

Chiles en Nogada

This delicacy comes from Puebla and is often associated with Mexican Independence Day, as its main ingredients — a dark green poblano pepper, an airy white nut-based cream sauce (nogada), and red pomegranate seeds — have the colors of the country’s flag. The chiles are stuffed with a mixture of meaty, fruity, and nutty hash.

Chapulines (grasshoppers)

Increasingly, the topic of eating insects has become part of the climate change conversation. In Mexico, the tradition has been around for centuries. Chapulines (grasshoppers) are known to be a delicious option.

Derived from the Nahuatl language, grasshoppers can often be found dried, roasted, and flavored with just a hint of lemon juice, garlic, and chili. It’s a protein-rich, earthy, and crunchy snack on its own, but it can also be sprinkled on top of tacos.

Elote

Eating snacks, It’s a popular hobby anywhere, but Mexicans have a knack for it. One popular form of snack is elote, a grilled corn on the cob that is spread with mayonnaise, cheese, chili powder, and lime. Its cousin, esquites, are corn kernels in a cup with the aforementioned ingredients on top.

For the more daring, the “Doriloco” is an amalgamation of Mexican and American junk food. To make it, bags of Doritos are ripped open lengthwise and dressed in a mix of flavors and textures like chili powder, jicama or carrot strips, cucumber cubes, and of course, corn. Find them for sale on Mexico’s street corners, ice cream parlors, and most other casual eateries.

Paletas (popsicles)

This summer delight, with origins in the town of Tocumbo, Michoacán state, is a creamy or water-based ice cream (some would say similar to popsicles) that is combined with berries, cookies, nuts or tropical fruits, sometimes dusted with chili powder. They can be found in ice cream shops, on the streets that are sold by paleteros who push carts and in other places where ice cream is found.

Source: CNN