Few cuisines on this planet are as fresh, varied, creative and downright delicious as what you’ll find in Mexico. Tasty and affordable, Mexico’s well-spiced food goes beyond tacos, and it’s worth planning your trip around.
You’re guaranteed to find something flavorful and delicious from coast to coast in Mexico, from simple street taco stands that won’t cost you more than a handful of pesos to refined contemporary fusion restaurants from renowned chefs.
Here are some of the top dishes to try on your trip to Mexico.
Immerse yourself in the best experiences the world has to offer with our email newsletter delivered weekly into your inbox. Kick off a day of sightseeing around Mexico with a heaping portion of chilaquiles © carlosrojas20 / Getty Images
Start your day with chilaquiles
A vegetarian-friendly breakfast found across Mexico, chilaquiles are a combination of eggs, crumbled queso fresco (white cheese) or crema (thickened cream), avocado and sliced onion over tortillas with a red or green sauce poured on top.
Where to try it: La Cafetería in Guadalajara is known for its delicious, spicy chilaquiles. Try them with both sauces.
Unravel a tamale to eat like the ancients
A pre-Columbian dish, tamales are pressed masa (corn dough) mixed with lard, stewed meat, fish or veggies and steamed in corn husks or a banana leaf. Unravel the plant-based shrink and open up the tamale, but be careful not to get a face full of steam and burn your tongue because they can be hot.
Where to try it: Get a tamale and a hot atole (masa) drink at Tamales Yo’o Moc in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Vegan and vegetarian options are available.
Trying tacos al pastor is a must in Mexico City © Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez / Getty Images
Dig into tacos al pastor, Mexico City’s beloved street food
Tacos al pastor means “in the style of the shepherd,” and to make them, corn tortillas are filled with sliced pork and pineapple grilled on a stick, shawarma style, because the dish originated from Lebanese immigrants (originally they used lamb). Don’t forget the onion and cilantro.
Where to try it: Every region of Mexico has their own taco, and the capital claims al pastor. While you’ll find many places to try it, Taquería Orinoco, which has four locations in the city, might be the best. They call it trompo there, and it’s hard to say what makes it so great, but the huge chunks of pineapple certainly help.
Feel patriotic with chiles en nogada
Combining green, white and red ingredients — the colors of the Mexican flag — chiles en nogada is the pride and joy of Puebla. It’s a poblano chili stuffed with picadillo (ground meat, fruit and spices), bathed in a cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
Where to try it: El Mural de los Poblanos, a classy restaurant with beautiful murals in Puebla, offers a quintessential chiles en nogada experience.
Mole is made with a variety of recipes © Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez / Getty Images
Experience the complex flavors of mole
Iconic for its flavor, complexity and mystery, mole is a sauce and marinade attributed to both Puebla and Oaxaca. It’s often falsely associated with mole negro, a sauce with a closely guarded recipe that takes hours to make and tastes of smoked chiles, fruit, chocolate and spices. There are actually dozens of recipes for mole, many of which don’t even have chocolate.
Where to try it: In the center of Oaxaca City, La Olla’s chef Pilar Cabrera makes exquisite moles that you can try on the rooftop terrace.
Spice things up with enchiladas
Americans will be familiar with this one. Enchiladas are lightly fried tortillas with fillings like beans or meat, covered in a chile sauce. The dish dates back to Aztec times when they used to roll cooked fish in tortillas.
Where to try it: Known for its four-course weekday menú del día (menu of the day), Casa Valadez in Guanajuato makes chicken enchiladas smothered in mole.
Crunch into a tlayuda
Frequently called “Oaxacan pizzas” in English, tlayudas are crunchy tortillas topped with cheese, lettuce, refried beans and sometimes chapulines (grasshoppers) and smoldered on a charcoal grill. Unlike pizza, tlayudas are usually folded in half.
Where to try it: Oaxaca is the motherland of tlayudas, and Tlayudas Libres in the capital is one of the best places to try them. Doña Martha grills them up with Oaxacan cheese, tasajo (beef), cecina (pork steak) or chorizo (spicy pork sausage).
Fill up on cochinita pibil, Mexican barbecue
As in many places around the world, Mexico has a storied tradition of barbecuing meat underground. Originating from Mayans in the paradise-like Yucatán Peninsula, cochinita pibil originally involved slow roasting suckling pig in an underground pit and marinating it in a delicate combination of local spices and bitter Seville orange juice. The meat was then served with corn tortillas.
You won’t likely find cochinita pibil made as extravagantly as the Mayans did. Now it’s usually made from roasting pork shoulder or loin, but it’s always good.
Where to try it: Popular La Chaya Maya in Mérida serves cochinita pibil in a variety of ways, including with eggs in a dried machaca, in tacos and on masa dough panuchos.
Vegetarians will find plenty of dishes to eat in Mexico, such as grilled corn © Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez / Getty Images
Vegetarians and vegans
While the smell of meat wafts from street carts across the country, it is possible to be a vegan or vegetarian in Mexico, especially in busy cities and tourist hubs where many are experimenting with plant-based meals.
Keep an eye out for tacos stuffed with seitan (wheat gluten), nopales (cactus), huitlacoche (corn truffles) and chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers). Otherwise, opt for classics like mushroom tacos, quesadillas with flor de calabaza (zucchini flower), nachos with guacamole, elotes (freshly steamed or grilled corn on the cob, usually coated in mayonnaise and often sprinkled with chili powder). Be sure to ask if moles and beans are cooked with meat – they often aren’t veggie-friendly.
A year in food
With food festivals happening year-round and many ingredients always available, there’s never a bad time for foodies to visit Mexico. However, some dishes are only available at certain times.
Meatless dishes such as romeritos (seepweed, a wild plant that resembles rosemary, boiled and served in mole) show up on many vegetarian Lent menus.
It’s chiles en nogada season in Puebla thanks to the pomegranate harvest, and there’s an annual event – the Festival del Chile en Nogada – to go along with it.
Día de Muertos means it’s time for pan de muerto, a sweet bread loaf in different shapes across Mexico. It’s in the shape of huesos (bones) in Mexico City, and Oaxaca’s have caritas (faces) baked inside. They are best dunked in a cup of hot chocolate.