Mexico is known for having one of the amazing cuisines in the world. One of the reasons why I keep returning to Mexico to travel, is because the food is so delicious and mouth-watering and I love sampling new dishes! What I love about Mexican food, is that most of it is all gluten-free (everything is made from corn and not flour)! As someone who has Celiac Disease (I cannot ingest any food or drinks containing gluten, wheat, flour, etc.), this is hugely important.
Every region of Mexico has their own specialties. They have different variations of dishes using corn tortillas, and unique combinations of ingredients for their sauces.
The basic staples of Mexican food includes corn, beans, and chili peppers.
Here are some traditional Mexican dishes, desserts and beverages, and Yucatecan specialties, that I ate during my solo trip to Mexico this past May. These are some of my favourites! I recommend sampling these next time you find yourself in Mexico:
Tacos are the most well known and traditional Mexican dish. However, Mexicans make their tacos differently than what Americans and Canadians consider tacos. Hard shell tortillas are not used in in the making of authentic Mexican tacos.
Traditional tacos consist of a soft, flat corn tortilla, topped with a multitude of ingredients that could include various meats (chicken, pork, chorizo, beef, fish, etc.), beans, lettuce, cooked or raw onions, jalapeno or chili peppers and others. When you order tacos in Mexico, they are often accompanied with a variety of other toppings such as fresh limes, red pickled onions, radishes, avocado slices, cilantro, pico de gallo (fresh chunky salsa made from chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lime juice and peppers) and spicy sauces that you can choose to add. There are many varieties of tacos, depending on the area of Mexico you are visiting.
I will warn you… the green sauce that looks like guacamole (which often accompanies your tacos in a small dish or is an option at the salsa bar), is not guacamole! It is a very spicy sauce, so don’t make the mistake I did and lather it all over your tacos. My mouth felt like it was on fire for quite awhile after that and nothing helped to calm it down!
I definitely recommend trying the tacos al pastor. “Al Pastor” is pork that has been marinated in a combination of dried chiles, spices and pineapple. It is slowly cooked on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo. When ready, the meat is thinly sliced off the spit with a large knife. It is served on small tortillas with finely chopped onions, cilantro, a small slice of pineapple, and topped with lime juice and spicy salsa.
Chilaquiles are a popular breakfast or brunch dish. On the bottom, they feature lightly fried crisp corn tortillas which are cut into quarters. On top of that, is green or red salsa, then fried eggs, pulled chicken, and finally, fresh cheese, cream, raw onion rings and avocado slices. They are often served with refried beans and guacamole as side dishes. This meal is very filling! I ate this in a small family-owned “loncheria” (lunch eatery) in Tulum and it was absolutely amazing.
Guacamole is a sauce made from mashed avocados mixed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, lemon or lime juice, cilantro and chili peppers. It is most often served with fried tortilla chips for dipping. Authentic Mexican guacamole is like no other. It’s like they add a special ingredient, because every time I attempt to make guacamole at home, I can never get it to taste like the ones in Mexico.
Sopes are a traditional Mexican dish originating in the central and southern parts of Mexico. The base is made from a circle of fried masa (of ground maize or corn flour) soaked in lime with pinched sides. This thick tortilla is then topped or stuffed with refried black beans and served with crumbled cheese, chicken, lettuce, onions, red or green salsa (made with chiles or tomatillos) and cream. Pickled red onions and pickled jalapenos can also be added on top or on the side. Salbutes and panuchos are the Yucatecan versions of the traditional sope.
Panuchos are a Yucatecan specialty. They are made with a refried or partially fried crisp corn tortilla that is stuffed with refried black beans, and topped with chopped cabbage or lettuce, pulled chicken, tomato, pickled red onion, avocado and pickled jalapeno pepper. They are often accompanied by fresh limes and habanero chiles. I ate panuchos more than once in Valladolid, at the restaurants La Selva and the El Bazaar food court. They were one of my favourite dishes!
6. Cochinita Pibil
This is a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish originating from the Mayan in the Yucatan Peninsula. The meat is marinated in an acidic citrus juice (with red onions and orange juice) and seasoned with annatto seed (also called achiote). The achiote gives the dish its characteristic burnt orange colour and adds flavour. The meat is then roasted and wrapped in a banana leaf. I had the opportunity to sample this dish in Valladolid and the sauce was so tasty. The word “cochinita” means “baby pig” and “pibil” means “buried” in English, so true cochinita pibil will be cooked with a baby pig. This dish is usually served with corn tortillas, red pickled onions, refried black beans and habanero chilies. Traditionally, cochinita pibil was buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom to roast it (hence the “pibil” portion of the dish).
7. Poc Chuc
This dish is a signature specialty of the Yucatan state. It is comprised of a thin slice of pork, which is prepared in citrus marinade (a bitter orange sauce) and cooked over a grill. It is often served with a side of Mexican-style rice, warm refried black beans, chopped onions, and avocado slices.
8. Arroz con Leche
Arroz con leche means rice pudding in English. This is a popular dessert dish in Mexico. It is made from rice mixed with water or milk, cinnamon, sugar, egg yolk, vanilla, and raisins (soaked in rum or tequila). Chocolate, butter, lime zest or nutmeg can also be added.
9. Agua Frescas
Aguas Frescas are a popular, refreshing and fruity beverage. They contain fresh fruits blended with sugar and water to make a light, non-alcoholic drink. My favourite flavours included watermelon (“sandia” in Spanish), jamaica (made from steeping hibiscus flowers in warm water, but served chilled), strawberry (“fresa” in Spanish), and mango. They also come in many other flavours including melon, guava, papaya, banana and more.
Horchata is a milky drink made of rice and also includes ingredients such as cinnamon, vanilla, sugar for flavour. It is absolutely delicious! Once I discovered this drink in Tulum, it was my go-to beverage to order during every meal.
11. Huevos Rancheros
Huevos Rancheros are another popular breakfast dish that is composed of fried eggs served upon lightly fried corn tortillas topped with a tomato-chili sauce. They are often accompanied with a warm black bean sauce, Mexican-style fried rice, slices of avocado or fried bananas/plantains. I tried huevos rancheros at the El Bazaar (food court across from the main square) in Valladolid. They were one of the best meals I ate in Mexico and I continue to cook my own healthier version of this meal at home. You can find my recipe here.
Ceviche is a seafood dish that is popular in coastal regions. It can be made with fish, shrimp, oysters or crab. I tried cevice in Tulum, which is a small town located on the Gulf of Mexico. There are a few popular seafood restaurants in Tulum; Barracuda and El Camello. La Malquerida, where I sampled my ceviche seen below, also sells it and it was delicious. It is made from fresh raw seafood mixed with citrus juices (lemon and lime) and spiced with chili peppers. Chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro are added and the dish is topped with avocado slices.
Salbutes are similar to panuchos and they are also a Yucatan specialty. It is a puffed deep fried crisp corn tortilla topped with chopped cabbage or lettuce, shredded chicken, tomatoes, pickled red onions, avocados, and pickled jalapeno peppers.
Paleta is a Spanish word meaning “popsicle” in English. These Mexican popsicles can be found at places called “Paleterias y Neverias” meaning popsicles and ice cream. They are popsicles are made from juices, are sweetened with sugar and also include whole pieces of fresh fruit inside of them, and they come in either cream or water based varieties.
You can get “paletas de agua” which are made from water and fruit juice. The flavours can include strawberry, mango, watermelon, pineapple, guava and more.
You can also order “paletas de leche” or “paletas crema,” which are made with milk and fruits and other ingredients like vanilla, chocolate or nuts. These are creamy and milk-based.
There are many other dishes authentic to Mexico that I have yet to try, but I look forward to sampling more of them in two months when I return to Mexico!
Reading menus that are displayed in Spanish-only can be overwhelming at first, especially if you know little to no knowledge of the Spanish language. Menus in family owned loncherias (lunch places) are often displayed on a colourful piece of poster board with the menu hand-written in black felt market on it. It can be difficult to decipher what it says to begin with, and also what everything translates to! In these small eateries, most (if not all) of the staff will only speak Spanish. It’s very difficult to communicate with them and ask questions, unless you want to practice some of your Spanish and test it out with them. I was asked a question by my server at a small eatery in Tulum (in Spanish) and I had no idea what she was asking, so I asked her if she spoke English (in Spanish, “Habla ingles?”) but she shook her head and said no. That was the end of that conversation and I will never know what she was trying to ask me.
I have included a helpful list of menu and food words and their translations, that you will likely see often on restaurant menus in Mexico. Hopefully this helps you to decode the mysteries of the menu and know what you are ordering.
Jugo = juice
Leche = milk
Cafe = coffee
Refresco = soft drink
Con (leche) = with (milk)
Sin (azucar) = without (sugar)
Agua = water
Aguacate = avocado
Ajo = garlic
Arroz = rice
Arroz con leche = rice pudding
Azucar = sugar
Bistec = steak (beef)
Camaron = shrimp
Carne = meat
Carne de res/vaca = beef
Cebolla = onion
Champinones = mushrooms
Chaya = type of spinach
Chorizo = spicy pork sausage
Churro = long doughnut covered with sugar
Elote = maize/corn
Espinaca = spinach
Frambuesa = raspberry
Fresa = strawberry
Frijoles = beans
Helado = ice cream
Hielo = ice
Huevos = eggs (fritos = fried, revueltos = scrambled)
Fruta = fruit
Verduras = vegetables
Lechuga = lettuce
Lima = lime
Limon – lemon
Maiz = corn
Masa = ground, cooked corn mixed with lime and used for tortillas
Naranja = orange
Nuez = nut
Pan = bread
Papas = potatoes
Pastel = cake
Pavo = turkey
Pepino = cucumber
Pescado = fish
Pina = pineapple
Platano = banana/plantain
Pollo = chicken
Queso = cheese
Sandia = watermelon
Tomate = tomato
Trigo = wheat
Vino = wine
Zanahoria = carrot
Helpful Restaurant Phrases:
Quisiera la carta, por favor = I would like the menu, please.
Puedo vera la carta, por favor = I would like to see the menu, please
Quisiera una mesa para (uno/dos/tres), por favor = I would like a table for (one/two/three), please
Tienen una carta en ingles? = Do you have a menu in English?
Quisiera la cuenta, por favor = I would like the check/bill, please
Por favor, nos trae la cuenta = Please bring us the bill
Estaba delicioso! = That was delicious!
Soy alergico/a (al gluten)= I am allergic to (gluten)
Tienen comida vegeteriana? = Do you have vegetarian food?
Soy vegetariano = I am vegetarian
No como (carne) = I don’t eat (meat)
Esto es sin gluten? = Is this gluten-free?
Desayuno = breakfast
Almuerzo = brunch or late-morning snack
Comida = lunch
Cena = dinner
Comer = to eat (verb)
Beber = to drink (verb)
Un Comedor = eatery
Un Restaurante = restaurant
Un Cafe = cafe
Postre = dessert
Antojitos = snacks or small portions of classic Mexican dishes
Botanas = appetizers
Sopas = soups
Ensaladas = salads
Bebidas = drinks
Refrescos = soft drinks
I highly recommend visiting these places when you are in Mexico.
Tulum – El Rincon Chiapaneco (Calle Jupiter Sur, just south of the main avenue and across the street from the ADO bus terminal), Loncheria Mati (family owned local lunch place, Calle Sol between Jupiter Sur and Alfa Sur), Antojitos La Chiapaneca (main avenue of Tulum, near the ADO bus terminal. Open in the evenings), La Hoja Verde (vegetarian, Calle Beta Sur just south of the main avenue)
Valladolid – Loncheria El Amigo Casiano (Calle 39 at Calle 40 in the food court, open for lunch), La Selva, Taqueria Mr. Taco, Taberna de los Frailes (Calle 49 next to the Convent de San Bernardino), Yerba Buena (Calle 54A #217 in front of the Convent de San Bernardino, healthy Mexican food).
Mexican food has such a variety of ingredients, spices and sauces, depending on where you go! There are so many dishes I still want to try.
What are your favourite traditional Mexican dishes? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/SimplyTravelBlg)!