At a Glance
Searching for “Real” Mexico [Through Its Cuisine]
Unless you’ve been to “real” Mexico before, or have parents from there, you’ve likely never tasted real Mexican cuisine.
The Mexican food we eat in America— despite the signs that say “Authentic” at the top— has barely any connection with the true Mexican cuisine.
By the way, the cuisine we want to call “true Mexican” is a broad term in itself.
Before Spanish colonization in the 16th century, numerous and diverse cultures already lived in modern-day Mexico.
Many of these indigenous groups were a conglomeration of several cultures, including giant civilizations 8,000 years in the making like the Aztecs and the Mayans. They had their own architecture, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and gastronomics before the arrival of Europeans. Despite colonization by Europeans, many examples of the indigenous Mexicans’ legacy stands today. The cuisine, as well as the procedure, ritual, and even agricultural techniques, have also stood the tests of time [and colonization].
However, below, the al pastor tacos actually reflect Mexico’s immigration history. This technique to cook the pork looks a lot like shawarma, right?
That’s due to Lebanese immigrants to Mexico many years ago.
This is just one example of Mexico’s “melting pot” culture.
While many of us equate yellow cheese, beef, and tomatoes with Mexican food, this is NOT traditional Mexican cuisine.
The true “holy trinity” (if I may) of traditional Mexican cuisine is corn, beans, and chili peppers.
Corn is probably the most important of those. Maze, after all, is the beginning and end of humanity according to Mexican tradition, and it’s been grown there for over 7,000 years.
Since food holds such a symbolic power in Mexican culture, we think it’s the best way to get to know the real Mexico.
If you’re in Mexico or planning a stay there, we’ve got you a list of the best destinations for food in Mexico.
We’ve included tips on how to find the best, from Michelin-star luxury to the everyday, local street food experience. We’ve also thrown in advice and info on how to make the most out of your culinary tour of Mexico.
If you’re looking for the soul of Mexico, we think you’ll find it beyond the tourist traps and instead in the everyday foods that true Mexicans love. We also want to acknowledge the colonial Spanish heritage of Mexican cuisine. You’ll see quite a few Spanish-influenced dishes there, too.
You can think of Mexico like a melting pot of Hispanic, indigenous, and even some German influence.
However, despite colonization, many of the ancient practices of indigenous cultures have lasted throughout history. Every day, locals eat them in the form of traditional Mexican dishes.
Lastly, remember that Mexico is quite a big country (3 times the size of Texas) and therefore incredibly diverse. It’s actually one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. It shouldn’t surprise you that each of its regions has a unique gastronomic heritage; although, you’ll still find certain national favorites everywhere but just done a little differently.
After you read our in-depth list of the best food destinations in Mexico, don’t be surprised if your mouth is watering and you’re already booking your flight. When you do go out to any of the best destinations for food in Mexico, we encourage you to also give authentic Mexican tequila a shot. However, we don’t mean to take it as a “shot” like we do in America.
Authentic tequila is meant to be sipped slowly like bourbon, and you can even attend tequila tastings in Mexico. That’s a topic for another article, though!
The Best Destinations for Food in Mexico
Oaxaca is the capital city and namesake of its state in the southern tip of Mexico. This colonial town is always bustling with locals and travelers, either chilling outside at a café or quickly grabbing a bite from the street vendor.
You’ll need to check out the market called 20 de Noviembre and its Carnes Asadas aisle. If you don’t know, carnes asadas is a specially prepared beef that’s popular in tacos; however, you’ll see all sorts of dishes in this aisle.
Here’s a list of the food you must try in Oaxaca:
- Memelas (for breakfast)
- Sopa de Mariscos
- Tamales Oaxaqueños
- …and more!
These are dishes we recommend you try from the street vendors. While you can get these in the restaurants, it’s quite a sight to see it made in front of your eyes.
There’s one dish on here you might recognize: empanadas. Empanadas are usually small pastries with vegetable or meat fillings; however, in this city they’re quite a different dish, instead a large tortilla with toppings.
Tamales can be found all over Mexico, but Tamales Oaxaqueños is unique to this city. Here, they wrap the tamales with banana leaves instead of corn husks and fill them with mole negro.
Another must-try— Tlayudas. They’re sort of like a Mexican pizza, but with a bean base sauce, and it’s also a tortilla “crust” if you will.
Also, this region has a signature drink called Tejate. This is a frothy, filling drink made from cacao beans, cacao flowers, maize, and other ingredients.
You’ll see women making in the streets and ladling it out of these big ceramic pots. This is something you must try (although you may not have much room left for eating), and they’ll usually pour it up for you in a special cup called a “jicara.”
Popular Oaxaca Restaurants
- Las Quince Letras: Calle de Mariano Abasolo 300, Centro, Oaxaca
- Levadura de Olla: Murguía 304, Centro, Oaxaca
Here’s a list of the must-try food for Puerto Vallarta:
- Tacos al Pastor
This central Mexican beach town on the Pacific Coast, is an overall fun, resort city where you can get great views and fresh seafood.
Since so many tourists come out, Puerto Vallarta has lots of tastings or— my favorite— a street food tour that you should totally take advantage of— and it’s not all seafood!
You’ve probably heard of Tacos al Pastor. These reflect the large number of Lebanese immigrants who came to Mexico, as the pork is prepared similar to the way shawarma is.
These, along with the Chilaquiles and Ceviches are something you can enjoy from either the outdoor food markets, slightly “off-grid” traditional restaurants, and Michelin-star restaurants in Puerto Vallarta.
However, a cold Micheladas (a mix of beer, tomato juice, lime juice, and spices) should be sipped near the water in a warm breeze. You’ll find these topped with fresh seafood, vegetables, and more spices for that extra kick. All we can say is— don’t have too many!
As for fresh seafood restaurants, you have these all over the place. As for the big ones, Ok! Jose and The Blue Shrimp are among the most popular seafood spots for contemporary Mexican cuisine.
In Puerto Vallarta, you can’t leave without finding some baja style fish tacos, red snapper, shrimp cholula, and lobster in this beach town. Puerto Vallarta will also have plenty of seafood alternatives for those on a Kosher, Halal, or vegetarian diet.
You can find potato tacos, guacamole, vegetarian salads and fajitas, beans, salsa, and plenty of beef / chicken options in Puerto Vallarta.
This central Mexican city has a rich history and some of the most beautiful architecture in the country.
Many come to this relatively cooler (in terms of temperature) area of Mexico to wander around the Baroque-style buildings and taste the amazing street food.
Must-try dishes in Puebla:
- Mole Poblano
- Chile en Nogada
If you’ve never heard of Mole, the word comes from the Aztec word for “mix” or “sauce.” It’s a indigenous traditional dish, made from a mixture of more than 40 ingredients including cacao. Overall, we don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the other signature dishes of Pueblo.
When in Puebla, check out these top-rated restaurants:
La Silla: Av. Juarez 1725, Barrio de Santiago, 72160 Puebla, Pue., México
Casa Barroca: Av 7 Ote 205, Centro histórico de Puebla, 72000 Puebla, Pue., Mexico
Then, you need to try this signature pomegranate-topped dish called chiles en nogada. They take a large poblano pepper and stuff it with ground meat, apple, pear, peach, and spices.
Here are some Michelin star restaurants in Puebla:
La Zanahoria: Av 5 Ote 206, Centro histórico de Puebla, 72000 Puebla, Pue., México
Celias Café: Av 5 Ote 608, Centro histórico de Puebla, 72000 Puebla, Pue., México
If you’ve heard of any city in this country, you’ve definitely heard of Mexico City. Mexico City is the capital of the country and by far its largest city.
Because of that, it’s honestly a melting pot. However, that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own regional specialties, too, though!
Must-try dishes in Mexico City:
- Frutas en tacha
Truly one of my favorite Mexican dishes, pozole is a comfort food soup that dates back to prehistoric Mexico and that was used in ancient ceremonies.
Nowadays, it’s something just perfect for cold weather but also so good that you’ll still enjoy this warm, hearty broth even in the summer.
Of course, don’t forget to check out the massive street food scene. You’ll have to try the tacos, of which they have from every region of Mexico.
While you’re in Mexico City, you’ll notice more familiar-sounding dishes in addition to all the cuisines carried over from other regions. While you’re strolling down this grand metropolis, you’ll have access to even more major, Michelin-star restaurants
Here are some popular, Michelin-star restaurants in Mexico City:
Azul Historico: Calle Isabel La Catolica 30 Col. Centro Histórico, Mexico City 06000 Mexico
La Docena: Av. Álvaro Obregón 31, Roma Nte., Cuauhtémoc, 06700 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
This Yucatan Peninsula city is actually the largest in the Peninsula and its capital. It’s known for having both a rich Mayan heritage, as well as Spanish colonial influence.
When you come, you’ll notice an abundance of activities and old Mayan ruins to view. Even better— you’ll also notice some amazing street food and culinary scenes here. The Yucatan Peninsula has its own unique culinary traditions, and, honestly, there are too many must-try foods for us to list.
We recommend that you go out to street vendors and local cafes to try it all!
Here are just a few of the signature dishes of Merida:
- Poc Chuc
Salbutes came from street vendors, although you will find them in some restaurants nowadays.
They’re fried tortillas topped with turkey, cabbage, pickled red onion, jalapenos, and avocados. Besides the fried aspect, they’re not the least healthy option.
Panuchos are similar, except for a few changes like refried beans.
Something you probably have never heard of are the Padadzules. These might look like enchiladas at first glance, but they’re actually made of pumpkin seeds and hard boiled eggs and topped with chili-tomato salsa.
They’re a total comfort food, but you’ll likely need to take a seat to eat this one. For meat lovers, poc chuc is like a tangy pork steak. It has a special marination process and is usually served with rice and pickled red onion.
Here are some popular restaurants in Merida:
La Chaya Maya: C. 57 x 62, Parque Santa Lucia, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., México
Museo de la Gastronomía Yucateca: Calle 62 #466 x 55 y 57, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., México
Frequently Asked Questions
Will I get sick if I eat street food in Mexico?
Some people hear stories of the street food making them sick because of allegedly low hygiene standards.
Most of this is caused by our gut bacteria not being adjusted to a foreign diet, and food poisoning and intolerance can happen almost anywhere you travel.
It’s recommended to take a probiotic in preparation for your trip, as well as try to stick to mainly cooked foods (less raw).
You’ll also have to remember to drink only bottled water.
How is real Mexican food different from the Mexican food in America?
This is a great question.
For some reason, the American Mexican restaurants tend to leave out most of the traditional Mexican dishes and street foods like empanadas, tacos al pastor, mole, Tlayudas, ceviche, and more.
In addition, the Mexican foods they do have tend to be “off.” if you didn’t already know— crunchy taco shells with lettuce and tomato are not the traditional way to fix a taco.
Traditionally, tacos have a soft, corn tortilla shell, some meat (like carne asada, al pastor, etc.), onion, fresh coriander, and maybe some sauce and pepper. This is a broad generalization, of course, but we assure you the tacos in Mexico won’t look like the tacos you slam down from Taco Bell after a night out.
Another fact— the quesadilla is an American invention. Quesadillas are not a traditional Mexican dish.