Since pre-Hispanic times food has been an integral part of Mexico’s national identity. Mexican food has made its way all over the world in various forms like tacos, fajitas and enchiladas, but the cuisine in Mexico itself often surprises visitors with its fresh flavours and creativity.
From street taco stands, to fine dining and fusion restaurants, the country takes gastronomy seriously. Although spice is a key ingredient, it’s corn that defines the world of Mexican food. There’s a saying in Mexico; ‘no pais sin maiz’ which translates literally as ‘there’s no country without corn’.
The humble elote, a seasoned corn on the cob, is served up on almost every street corner throughout the country. It’s a good place to start on your culinary journey of Mexico, but you will soon discover corn masquerading in almost every dish and cultural tradition of the Mexican people.
Dining is generally quite casual in Mexico. Some of the best food can be found at street stalls and markets, humble taquerias with plastic chairs, or in bustling local panadería or pastelerías (bakeries). In places like Mexico City and Oaxaca however, there is more of a focus on fine dining and fusion restaurants.
Like much of Latin America, the service in Mexican eateries is unhurried and non-invasive (you will usually need to ask if you want something as it’s considered rude for a waiter to disturb you). There is no rush to leave the table so take your time and enjoy the atmosphere.
The same applies if you are invited into a Mexican home, it’s best to arrive at least 30 minutes late and leave a little food on your plate to convey that you are full. It’s also good to know that it’s considered rude in Mexico to have your hands under the table during a meal.
You will generally pay after your meal, just let the server know what you ate. Most restaurants accept credit cards, but cash and small change is needed for street stalls and smaller cafes. A 10-15% tip is standard at sit down restaurants, some will include it on the bill so make sure to always check.
It’s best to not drink the tap water in Mexico, but most eateries will serve bottled or filtered water as a default. It’s also advised to steer clear of unpasteurized or raw food as the standards aren’t necessarily the same as you may be used to back home.
Breakfast is typically enjoyed between 7 am to 10 am. Light breakfasts like pan dulces with coffee, conchas, or tamales con atole are popular at small cafes. Other popular vegetarian-friendly breakfast dishes include huevos rancheros (fried eggs and tomato salsa) and chilaquiles (eggs, crumbled queso fresco, avocado and sliced onion over tortillas).
Comida (lunch) is the main meal of the day in Mexico. Usually consisting of four courses including soup, meat, beans, and tortillas. Traditionally Mexican comida is served at a fondas/fonditas with unlimited agua, it’s a slow meal that’s often enjoyed with friends and family. Comida is eaten in the afternoon anywhere between 2 pm to 4 pm.
Cena (dinner) is a smaller meal or light snack that’s eaten at around 8 pm. This is usually just a bite to eat at a cenaduría or hot food from a street vendor, maybe a sweet bread, taco, or buñuelos - a thin round dough dusted with granulated sugar or broken into pieces in a bowl and drizzled with sugar syrup. Some younger people also have a late night snack known as a merienda.
Ubiquitous around the country, tacos al pastor is a widely enjoyed dish that roughly translates to "in the style of the shepherd". Soft corn tortillas are filled from large spits of grilled pork and pineapple.
The meat skewers are reminiscent of shawarma as the dish is actually believed to be Lebanese in origin. Regional variations can add ingredients and seasonings, but they are always a tasty and reliably cheap snack.
The Aztec stew pozole is a popular dish for family events and large gatherings. The main ingredient? You guessed it corn, but there’s also tender pork, tomatoes, red chiles, and other spices. Another Aztec dish popular with the rest of the world is guacamole, a fresh side made with mashed-up avocados, onions, tomatoes, lemon juice and chilli peppers.
Two familiar favourites are burritos and enchiladas, dishes that have grown popular around the world. While burritos are flour tortillas (filled with meat, rice, cooked beans, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese), enchiladas instead use a corn tortilla, and are then served on a plate covered in extra salsa and cheese.
Enchiladas don't always have similar fillings to burritos though. A Mayan enchilada would have been as simple as a corn tortilla wrapped around a small fish.
Another food popular in Mexico is steamed tamales, a stuffed corn dough wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks. Fillings can include meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, mole, and chillies. Tostadas are another must try food in Mexico, corn tortillas are fried in boiling oil and served with toppings like frijoles (refried beans), cheese, cooked meat, seafood and ceviche.
Although it can be difficult to cater to a specific diet in Mexico, like vegetarianism, certain dishes lend themselves to becoming fast favourites. Camote is a tasty snack involving roasted sweet potato on a stick, usually served with condensed milk, it’s particularly popular in Mexico City.
Another vegetarian dish to try is stuffed peppers, or Chile rellenos. Poblano peppers are filled with cheese and then coated in a fluffy egg batter and fried until golden brown. Many Mexican dishes are already gluten free (thanks to corn), but dairy is more difficult to avoid.
For drinks, nothing is more authentic in Mexico than the pulque. Drunk by indigenous people for over 2000 years, it’s made from the sap of the maguey plant, a type of agave native to Mexico. Then of course there is tequila, and mezcal, which can be found almost everywhere.
In Oaxaca, strong themes dominate the culinary scene; like mole (a slow-cooked sauce of around 20 or so ingredients), chapulines (grasshoppers), and mezcal (a distilled spirit made from agave).
Another local favourite to try is tlayudas, or “Oaxacan pizzas”. These crunchy tortillas are topped with cheese, lettuce, and refried beans, they are usually folded in half before being barbecued on a charcoal grill.
In the Yucatan Peninsula, Mayan cuisine like cochinita pibil is a must try. Made by slow roasting a suckling pig or pork joint in an underground pit, the meat is marinated in spices and served with corn tortillas. For drinks, try horchata and xtabentun - an anise and honey liqueur based on a Maya ceremonial drink.
A must try in Guadalajara is torta ahogadas. Discovered by accident, these “drowned” sandwiches are literally smothered in spicy pasta and a tomato-based sauce. Inside a bread roll is filled with fried pork that’s been marinated in citrus and garlic.
In Puebla, chillies en nogada is the go to dish - especially on Mexican Independence Day. It features the three colours of the Mexican flag; green Poblano chillies filled with picadillo (a mix of meat, fruits and spices), white walnut sauce, and red pomegranate seeds.
Although the dish can be found all over Mexico, the traditional recipe uses chiles from San Martín Texmelucan, ground beef from Cholula, pomegranate from Tehuacán, and walnuts from San Andrés Calpan.
In Northern Baja, you can find one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the New World; Valle de Guadalupe. Some of the best places to try wine from the ‘new Napa’ include Monte Xanic, Vena Cava and Adobe Guadalupe. The area is also well known for fresh seafood from the nearby Pacific Ocean.
A casual meal for one - 150 MXN
A three-course meal for 2 at a mid-range restaurant - 600 MXN
Domestic beer (draught) – 40 MXN
Imported beer (bottle) - 70 MXN
Coffee - 50 MXN
Coke/Pepsi - 20 MXN
Water - 15 MXN
1 litre of milk - 25 MXN
Excuse me (to get a waiter's attention) - Con permiso
No onion please - Sin cebolla por favor
Spicy - Picante
Cheers! (Good health) - Salud!
Enjoy your meal - Buen Provecho
Delicious - Que rico
Check please - La cuenta, por favor
Planning a trip to Mexico? Read our travel guides