Before I talk about what this post is, Mexican foods you must try, I want to start with what it is not. Not included in this list is Tex-mex which is a different food category entirely from "real" Mexican food. I am also going with the basic assumption that most of you have had tortillas, guacamole, salsa and probably (what you think are) enchiladas. So I will not include these items.
In addition, whenever someone endeavors to write what are the best foods, there will always be differences of opinion. I have looked at some other lists of top foods and here are my thoughts on some frequently listed items. Birria, pozole, and menudo...in other words soup. Many of these soups are included on people's top Mexican food lists, but my honest opinion is, yes, they are good but every county in the world has their local version of soup...broth, meat, veggies, etc. Although good, this is not life changing food that you MUST try. Same goes for elote and esquites. Elote is corn in spanish and esquites are corn on a stick with sauce, spices, and cheese. Again I love eating these things from time to time but corn is corn! In my humble opinion dressed up corn is not as noteworthy as some other foods.
And let's talk about tamales for a second and just get it out of the way. I can respect the idea that this should be included. There are strong arguments in its favor...the tradition, the leaf packaging, the variety of flavors, etc. BUT if I am owning my truth, I have eaten so many bad tamales over the years. Dried out, flavorless, mouthfuls of pure masa (dough) that require a drink to aid its journey down my throat to my stomach or it might get stuck and require first aid to remove. When they are good, they are good, I can give you that. But they just don't make the cut into the top 5 for the above mentioned reasons.
So without further ado, the top 5 Mexican foods you MUST try (and where).
5. Chapulines and Escamole (BUGS)
Bugs, bugs, and more bugs. Yes bugs made my top 5 list and let me tell you why. I am in no way advocating that this is the most delicious food you will ever eat. This list is entitled "Top 5 Must Try Mexican Foods". The reason I include these items is because they can help you open your mind to foods and food groups that are not "normal" according to your upbringing. I can remember turning up my nose to chapulines (grasshoppers) in my first years visiting Mexico. Just the thought of a little leg stuck in my teeth made my stomach flip. But eventually I broke down and tried it and it was not nearly as disgusting as I thought. In fact now if they are served to me or ordered by others in a restaurant I will have a couple of my own volition. Because traditional Mexican food relied heavily on insects for a protein source, chapulines are a traditional food staple. Trying them will give you a more authentic Mexican experience in one handful then a lifetime of eating at Chevy's or Taco Bell. You become that cool, cultured traveler you always aspired to be and it will open you up to trying other exotic foods.
The other Mexican "bug" not pictured above but definitely worth mentioning is Escamoles (ant pupae and larvae). This description by Alex Tepper hits the nail on the head. "Escamoles, or ant eggs, is a traditional Mexican ingredient that tastes like nothing you’ve ever eaten. If you can imagine seeing a new color for the first time, escamoles do the same thing for your taste buds. Often served in omelets, tacos, or on their own, escamoles are hard to describe and totally delicious." They really are delicious and they were once served only to the highest members of society. It is also true that it is a taste like you have never tasted before. People often describe them as nutty and buttery and while true, it does not fully describe the ingredient. Just hush your thoughts about what they are and try them.
The chapulines pictured are from Diana Restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel but were likely sourced from Mercado de San Juan Pugibet. Pick either one depending on your style of travel. For escamoles please try this Mexico City institution, El Cardenal.
4. Chile En Nogada
Chile en Nogada might be the prettiest little dish in Mexico. The colors of the green chile, white sauce, and red pomegranates represent "la Bandera" the flag of Mexico. You cannot always find these bad boys, but if you visit Mexico in late summer or early fall you will likely run across these delicious creations on the menu. This is one of those dishes that is a season marker in Mexico like pumpkin spice in the US. People look forward to Chile en Nogada season to the point that the dish has its own internet memes to mark the occasion.
A dish with history. This patriotic plate was created by nuns in the mid 1800's in the city of Puebla when an army general came by for a visit. It consists of a chile stuffed with a sweet mix of meat, nuts, and fruit and topped with the white walnut sauce. Usually served chilled or room temperature, the combination of flavors makes a unique main dish and tastebud experience.
When in season I recommend El Balcon del Zocalo.
Not going to lie. I probably eat these bad boys once a week! This is the closest thing you can get to nachos here in Mexico, but they are served for breakfast and arguably better than nachos. I say better because instead of concentrating on cheese as the main ingredient over tortilla chips, they focus on the salsa. Since salsa is mashed up veggies it just feels healthier to me (read less guilt haha). Also these are considered breakfast food and can be ordered with eggs, chicken, or any other protein you desire. This is the singular dish that changed my idea of breakfast. Growing up I was used to the typical American idea of sweet breakfast. Cereals, toast with jam, donuts, pancakes, fruit, etc. When I came to my first Mexican breakfast buffets I was surprised by all the meat, salsa and savory dishes served as breakfast food. But a few bites into this heavenly combination and I was hooked. I am much more open to what "breakfast" can consist of now and I often opt for savory over sweet.
Warning: Chilaquiles are everywhere and they will taste different at every single restaurant you go it. After 18 years as an unofficial taste tester, I can say some are better than others, but I still have yet to meet a plate of chilaquiles I did not like. Adios nachos...a plate of tortilla chips covered in orange cheese just doesn't do it for me anymore.
My favorite version can be found at Ojo de Agua which has several locations.
When you eat mole you are eating complexity and tradition. Mole comes from the Aztec word for sauce and is considered the national dish of Mexico. The origin of mole is disputed and as Jeff Gordinier wrote, "Studying mole is like studying the universe: The quest goes on and on." Recipes in Mexican kitchens were never written down before the 1800s, but the origins of mole are hundreds of years old. The mole dish featured in the photo above includes three types of mole. Mole pipian, mole verde, and mole poblano. Most people picture the dark mole poblano made with chilies and cholcolate, but there are many many types.
Mole is one of the most complex sauces in existence, sometimes made up of more than 30 ingredients. It is incredibly time consuming, but thank goodness you can buy the pre-made paste and whip some up in a jiffy. The flavors are layered and rich and usually paired with a protein and rice. It is nothing like you have ever tasted before. An absolute cannot miss when visiting Mexico, like eating a spoonful of history and culture.
The dish above can be found at Corazon de Maguey in the center of Coyoacan.
1. Tacos al Pastor
Tacos. I mean tacos are the symbol of Mexican food around the world and no list is complete without these. But I am not just including any taco in my top 5, it has to be specifically Tacos al Pastor on my must try list. Tacos Al Pastor was voted #1 of 100 best foods in the world by Taste Atlas. The best food in the world!!! Need I say more? That is a big title for such a small little street food item.
Tacos al Pastor was a result of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico and their spit fired shawarma. Mexicans made it their own using pork instead of lamb and marinating it with spices. Then someone had the brilliant idea of adding pineapple (who invented this is still a culinary mystery). Just a dash of onion and cilantro and there you have it. This simple combination of flavors is...put simply...magic!
I will shamefully admit I did not try the famous tacos for many years. Here's why. Touring around Mexico City you often see the "trompo" or stack of meat being cooked right on the street at various food stalls and sidewalk restaurants. Mexico City is a gritty and sometimes grimy place, and the meat just looked like it was being cooked right there with all the street dust and car fumes. It was not appealing. But lucky for you and me, you can find delicious drippy trompos of pastor being cooked off the street and inside restaurant kitchens. No joke, I eat tacos al pastor once a week now that I am living in Mexico and know where to go. It is definitely a staple amongst my family and friends and most Mexico City inhabitants.
I mean really, how can you not try the world's #1 food dish?
Found everywhere, but El Tizoncito is a steady go to in Condesa.
Just in case your are curious, if I had to pick one more dish to try, my #6 if you will, it would have to be Cochinita Pibil. Man that stuff is delicious!
In Love & Tacos
Rants of a Diplomat's Wife
Hola, I am an American married to a Mexican Diplomat. I am on my 3rd post as a trailing spouse. The first two posts I joined were in the US, and in July 2018 we moved to Mexico City. Maybe it was the fact that I was pumping out my diplo-babies, or maybe I didn't think anyone would be interested in diplomatic life at my US posts, but I didn't blog then. Now I am in Mexico, and perhaps you might find it interesting to know what life is like here. This is where I share my adventures and thoughts at my current post.