The Surprising World of Mexican Food

I’m not going to bother writing one of my “What is ___ Food” posts, because you guys know already, right? At least I hope you do: If you’re American there is a Mexican restaurant on every block, and if you’re not American you’ve at least had a taco before, right? If not I suggest you get on it immediately because you are missing out on one of the greatest cuisines in the world.

Which is to say that despite spending basically no time in Mexico before this trip, I still thought I knew Mexican food pretty damn well. I’ve mixed a margarita or 12 before in my life and even thrown a couple Mexican themed parties.

But of course there is a difference between American-Mexican food and legit Mexican-Mexican food (although American-Mexican is still far more authentic than the monstrosities posing as Mexican food I’ve sampled in England, Australia and even Vietnam). This is particularly true if you are mainly familiar with Tex-Mex which is kind of like Mexican food on steroids.

I still have a lot to learn, and a lot to share with you guys, but let me start out with these interesting surprises I’ve found from eating Mexican food every day for the past two months:

Corn is King

My favorite way to eat tortillas: chilaquiles

From tamales to corn on the cob to the giant kernels of hominy floating in pozole stew, so many Mexican dishes are corn-based. The other night Mike and I managed to sample half a dozen Mexican street foods and nearly every single one of them contained some form of corn.

The most ubiquitous corn-staple is probably the tortillas made from corn flour which are the building block for tacos, quesadillas, chips and more. Every morning trucks deliver coolers of warm fresh tortillas to the store underneath our apartment, and every day they are totally gone by noon.

It’s Not that Spicy

Choose your own adventure taco toppings

Despite the huge variety of rainbow colored peppers and sauces, we haven’t found Mexican food to be particularly spicy. Or rather, Mexican food is like a choose your own spice adventure: you can have your food boringly plain or face-meltingly spicy. All of the heat-filled condiments are served on the side and you can add them to your liking. There are a huge variety of different salsas and hot sauces, enough to merit their own article (coming soon).

Tacos are Everywhere

That in itself is not surprising- tacos are probably the most Mexican of all Mexican foods. They are available in restaurants, on the street, by the beach and filled with nearly anything you can think of from fish to grilled veggies to cow brains. Unlike in the US, Mexicans only use soft corn or flour tortillas- none of those hard Taco Bell shells we’ve gotten so used to.

UPDATE: Last night after I put this post to bed I learned that crunchy tacos do exist- they are called gringos, naturally.

Other foods that I associate with Mexico it turns out are not Mexican at all! Fajita for example are a Tex-Mex creation. Burritos are only popular in one region of Mexico, not ubiquitous like in the states. You can get (really good) burritos here in Sayulita but they are here mostly for the tourists that expect them.

It’s Not that Cheesy

Grilled fish with cilantro pesto and avocado

Another thing we can probably blame on Tex-Mex food is the idea that Mexican food is heavy, with oppressive sauces, mountains of cheese and huge scoops of sour cream. Thank goodness that is not true or I would have eaten into a heart attack weeks ago.

Instead of mega-heavy ingredients, the general focus seems to be on fresh ingredients in moderation. Sour cream, guacamole, rice and refried beans are still present but serving sizes are obviously much smaller than in the US. Deep fried taquitoes, chimichangas etc don’t really exist.

In general I’ve found that tacos and other meals are not usually topped with cheese- onions and cilantro are far more likely. Quesadillas involve cheese of course, as do enchiladas, but it’s more likely to be a mild queso fresco or monterey jack type cheese than a sharp cheddar.

Mayonnaise however is unfortunately popular as a topping for almost anything (I’ve found this true all over Latin America).

Mexicans Have a Serious Sweet Tooth

As do I… Mexican chocolate cake

Is it uncharitable to say I totally get why Mexico is overtaking even the United States in terms of obesity? People really love their sugary snacks…. which of course suits me just fine!

There are the traditional Mexican desserts like flan and tres leches cake, there are tons of ice cream places (Sayulita even has a traditional Italian gelateria), and there are the churro trucks. Then there are the mass produced sweets: ubiquitous Mexican Coke, aisles full of different cookies and plenty of candy too.

Our favorite churro truck parks directly underneath our apartment every evening, so that the smell of fried dough can waft in through the window. Self control is… difficult.

There’s a Lot of Regional Variation

Beach food

I’m hesitant to make too many proclamations about Mexican food, because I’ve really only been eating it in this one small corner of the country. Regional cuisine varies greatly based on history, geography etc. I personally can’t wait to explore the food of Oaxaca, Puebla or Mexico City sometime next year.

Until then I’ll be investigating (that’s my excused at least) the food in my own back yard.

Have you been to Mexico? What surprised you about the food?

42 thoughts on “The Surprising World of Mexican Food”

    1. Seriously I live in mexico permanently after my husband’s deport Mexican day in and day out on a 300 a month budget is enough to cause tears I’ve literally cried over eating chilequiles or beans lol but for tourists I could see the appeal

  1. My God. Refried beans are probably one of my favourite things EVER!! This post is brilliant but I think my keyboard may be broken now because of all the drool!!

    Cathy x

  2. I have a recurring debate with my (British) boyfriend pretty frequently. It usually starts because I’m annoyed he can’t remember the difference between a taco and a burrito, or why a burrito is different from fajitas. Of course these are simple things, but things us Americans just understand! Of course, this all being about the Tex- mex variety, but he also doesn’t understand why I say real Mexican food is in an entire different category of food!

    Real Mexican food to me is exactly how you described and I’m hungry looking at your photos!

    I think a good mole sauce is my favorite 🙂

    1. I have the same debate with my british boyfriend! haha we had fajitas the other night (homemade.. i real treat in india) and he didn’t know what they knew at first. I spent some time in Sayulita and the main things I noticed was the corn tortilla instead of flour , and the lack of cheese and sour cream. i actually love tex mex just as much as real mexican!

  3. Really great post! I’m hungry now… and that fish with avocado on top of it looks AMAZING!

    I like that you’ve discovered that “Mexican food is like a choose your own spice adventure” – I don’t like spicy food, so this is very good to know!

  4. This has made me SO excited, my partner and I are traveling to Mexico on our six month adventure next year and Mexican is BY FAR my most favourite cuisine.

    Good to hear it isn’t as heavy as the mexican we have here, I was worried about being the size of a house by the time I left the country.

  5. Mexico was our first stop in our RTW, although we have been there twice already we definitely love Mexican food. Really goes well with their beer! Yum yum!

  6. In America there was a small very authentic mexican restaurant near me, that’s probably the closest I had ever had to food from Mexico, but you’re right, England gets it all wrong! It’s depressing. Man I miss the flavours!

  7. I love that hard shell tacos are called gringos! haha

    Seeing all of this food just kills me. I adore Mexican food and after living in Asia for the past almost 3 years, I really miss eating it!

  8. I am really, really, really keen to properly get to grips with Mexican food. The news that corn is everywhere and it’s perhaps less cheesy than its international reputation might lead us to believe is definitely good news in my book!

  9. Such great info here! I grew up in California so Mexican food is everywhere, you can easily take it for granted. I was so surprised when my Canadian in-laws needed me to explain the difference between a taco, a burrito and an enchilada. It was a good reminder that what’s commonplace for some isn’t for everyone. Hopefully more people will think beyond the cheesy/greasy Mexican food they typically find and try some of the dishes you pointed out!

  10. Oh-my-gawd. I’m trying to pick a favorite from all of your photos, but I just can’t. The fish with avocado looks like a pretty delicious option. Boulder seems to be devoid of good Mexican/Tex-Mex. And fish. And pho. Okay, living there makes me miss a lot of cuisine types, but Mexican is at the VERY top of that list.

    …and pho. I can’t lie, that’s also at the top.

  11. Drool. We are going to Mexico next year and I can’t wait! Our friends recently went there and said that the food isn’t like ‘Mexican’ food outside of Mexico. And with these photos, I can’t wait to try it! (Especially like the fact that they have a sweet tooth – so do we!)

  12. Thanks for putting this out there. I had no idea about the Mexican sweet tooth! I went to Puerta Vallarta for a press trip a few years ago, and while we ate REALLY amazing gourmet meals on the trip, the one thing that has stayed with me all this time later was the fish tacos from this little stand somewhere outside the touristy area. I’ve never had a fish taco like that since, and I’m dreaming about it all these years later.

  13. You know, I never understood why my friends from the USA lamented the quality of Mexican food in Korea. Upon going to the USA, I found out why. And then Americans STILL told me I hadn’t eaten good Mexican food because I’d only had it in Boston and NYC. Screw that. I’LL JUST GO TO MEXICO. And make everything face-meltingly hot. It actually looks pretty similar to Colombian food IMO, but since I’ve never been to Mexico but you’ve been to both countries, you’d be better placed to make that comparison methinks.

  14. great photos! I am personally a huge fan of Mexican cuisine. I went crazy eating street food in Mexico City on my last visit. I just love the flavors and you can’t go wrong with tacos! 🙂

  15. As a mexican, I’m just so happy that you’re discovering the difference between what americans have for mexican food and what it really is. It’s not your fault, but it really pisses me that they think burritos is a legit food down here. Keep on blogging! 🙂

  16. OMG! We are going to Mexico for the first time in 2.5 weeks and cannot wait to try the delicious Mexican Cuisine. You have just made me so much more excited! Nom nom!

  17. This is why people look at me crazy when I try to explain that TexMex and Mexican food are two different animals. I love both – for very different reasons.

    Also, the only place in Texas you can get hard shells is Taco Bell. I think they are gross.

  18. I’m sadly one of those people who’ve only had “the monstrosities posing as Mexican food” in England, which I love! Haha so I do wonder how amazing Mexican food must be in Mexico or even the states. Also, NEED to know what that bright green sauce is in the second picture? I thought it was paint at first glance.

    1. That was a night time photo so the colors are a little bit warped I think- it’s a typical spicy green sauce made with tomatillos. The green is always milder than the red.

  19. The longer I’m away from the US, the more I miss Mexican food (or the US version of it). I really would love to try the real deal in Mexico though. We had planned on being there for 3 months early 2014 but things changed. We’ll save it for another time. I’ve been trying as much Mexican food as possible while we’re in Berlin for a few months, and it’s definitely better than what we have in Freiburg, but still not as good as in the States. I will admit I’m not a fan of corn tortillas (maybe/hopefully I just haven’t had the “good” ones?) so I’m not so excited about that part whenever we do make it to Mexico, but other than that, everything looks delicious!

  20. That actually is not real Mexican. That is American Mexican. In their country tacos, salsa and chocolate are things that are given to the US travellers. Many people who have gone there say there is not clear evidence on what really is Mexican and not with all such food around here that passes off as it in the stores and restaurants. I have been told that good grilled reasonably spiced meats is more their good cuisine and the tacos is something that is an American representation of it though I dont know if this is the case

    1. Interesting idea, but I’m pretty sure Mexicans eat a lot of tacos. You can find taco stands literally everywhere, even in non-tourist parts of town and history says they date back to the 198h century at least: Maybe you’re thinking of burritos?
      Grilled meats are absolutely a big part of the food culture as well and more likely to be found in a nice sit down meal. Tacos are more like cheap street food.

  21. The Mexican food is really a surprising food because it has a lot of mouthwatering dishes, especially cubana Mexicana, corn tortillas, roasted tomato salsa and gourmet sandwiches. My personal favourite from the Mexican food world is Mexican seafood.

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