While I don’t totally love the word “authentic,” when it comes to Mexican food, there is definitely a difference to the Tex-Mex that I grew up on in she US and the Mexican food I now eat here in Mexico City. This is a huge list of all of the truly authentic Mexican foods that you will find if you cross south of the border.
Meal Times in Mexico
Meal times are a little bit different in Mexico than they are in the US or the UK (and most other places I’ve lived to be honest). It’s hard to find a cafe that opens before 9am. If you head to a restaurant for lunch at 12pm, you’ll likely be the only person in the restaurant (unless it’s full of other tourists).
Most restaurants are busiest between 2pm and 5pm and then they stay open nice and late for dinner around 8 or 9pm. Some taco places and cafes around Mexico City are even open 24 hours!
Embrace Eating With Your Hands
Every restaurant in Mexico, from street stalls to fine dining spots like Pujol and Quintonil give you tortillas with your meal. Whether you’re pulling a napkin from a plastic bag above your head or you have a white linen one draped across your lap, eating with your hands is part of the culture here in Mexico. Take part, lift the taco, dip the tortilla chips, make a mess with the huarache, and enjoy the flavors and sensory overload you’re bound to experience when you eat with your hands.
How to Handle Salsas in Mexico
There is absolutely no way to tell how spicy a salsa is unless you taste it first. There’s no reason to be embarassed about dabbing a tiny bit of salsa on your plate for you can sample it first. In fact, most Mexicans sample the salsa before they scoop it onto their tacos, so you’ll look more like a local!
Even green salsas that look like guacamole tend to have serrano or jalapeño chilis in them. That goes for bowls full of pickled onions. In places like Merida or other parts of the Yucatan, the pickled onions are usually made with habanero chilis, so they are quite spicy indeed.
If you don’t like spice and you are having a taco at a food stall, be sure to ask for your tacos sin salsa so that they don’t put the spicy salsa on when they make your tacos. While most places are self-serve when it comes to salsas, there are the odd stalls that put the onions, cilantro and salsa on for you.
They will usually say something like, con todos? which means, with everything? If you don’t like cilantro or onion, you can say sin cilantro or sin cebolla.
Authentic Mexican Foods to Try for Breakfast in Mexico
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day in Mexico. There are so many delicious dishes that are filling, over the top, a little bit greasy, but mostly just utterly delectable. These are my favorite Mexican breakfast foods that you’ll find all over the country.
This is by far my favorite breakfast food here in Mexico. It’s filling, it’s indulgent, and you’ll probably need to take a nap afterward, but it’s also incredibly delicious and very filling for a reasonable price.
If you’ve never heard of chilaquiles, it is a dish made of tortilla chips piled high and topped with a mildly spicy sauce, a meat of your choice, cheese, cream, and onions. I usually get it with two fried eggs on top, but Luke really likes his with steak (bistec) or pork chops (chuleta).
You can find chilaquiles on the menu at most Mexican-style diners or cafes where they do breakfast. Even fancier restaurants in Mexico City tend to have a good selection of chilaquiles on the menu.
This is another quite common breakfast food here in Mexico City. It’s usually made with a baguette style bread, but I’ve also had it served to me on thick slices of toast and freshly bakes sourdough bread. It depends totally on the quality of the restaurant you go to as to what type of bread you get, but the base of molletes is always bread
Then it’s usually topped with refried beans, cheese that’s melted under a griddle or in the oven, a salsa of your choice and then other toppings that you can choose from. You can have it simply with cheese as described above, or you can have it topped with fried eggs, with steak, with chicken and even with chorizo. It’s the Mexican version of avocado toast.
While I grew up thinking that enchiladas were a meal you have for dinner, living in Mexico has helped me realize that it is actually traditionally a breakfast food.
The basis of enchiladas aren’t too different to what you can find in most Tex-Mex restaurants in the US. They are made with tortillas, usually flour tortillas, and filled with chicken or eggs, then topped with a sauce as well as onions, cream, and cheese.
The difference that I’ve noticed from the ones that I grew up on in the US are that here in Mexico they are much wetter. They’re almost borderline soggy, but the tortillas hold up well and the sauce is usually quite thick, so it’s a nice combination with the chicken filling. It’s usually served with bread that you can use to mop up the sauce and cheese.
This is a popular style of enchiladas that are made with a special sauce. Enchiladas suizas are made exactly like the ones I just described, but it’s always topped with a sauce that is sort of like a bechamel. It’s creamy and made with cheese (not usually Swiss cheese as the name may suggest). This sauce is on top of the green or red sauce that is already used on the enchiladas, so it adds a creamier element to the dish. It also makes it incredibly heavy and indulgent.
This is a very traditional way to start the day. Tamales in Mexico are made with corn masa and usually have a savory filling like chicken with green sauce, mole sauce, pickled vegetables, cheese, and/or jalapeños and steamed in corn husks. However, you can also find sweet tamales with fillings like piloncillo, which is unrefined cane sugar, or with dried fruits inside.
Usually, you buy tamales at markets in the mornings or from street vendors who have set up their steaming pots on a street corner. They will give it to you still wrapped in banana leaf and they may or may not also five you a plastic fork to eat it with. Beware, they’re usually steaming hot!
You’ll also hear people shouting about Oaxaqueños and chiapanecos which slightly different. Oaxaqueños are slightly wetter than tamales and are steamed in banana leaves rather than in corn husks and Chiapanecos are also steamed with banana leaves and usually have vegetarian fillings like corn and chilis, but they can also be made with meat.
Guajalota is most commonly found in Mexico City and is basically just a tamal in bread. Another name for it is simply torta de tamal. If you happen to find this on the menu at a restaurant, they may also serve it topped with salsa and cheese, but the most common way to find this is on the street.
I find it a tad dry since there is no sauce and usually the bread is a little bit crunchy (aka stale), but it is truly one of the most common breakfast foods that you can have here in Mexico City. The people who sell guajalotas also usually sell atole, which is a thick drink made from oats. It helps to wash down all the other carbs you’re eating!
While this is a dish you’ll find on almost every breakfast menu around Mexico, it’s likely it will be slightly different everywhere you go. The base of the dish is fried eggs served with a tomato-based sauce. The sauce usually has chili in it, but I’ve had some that are very spicy and some that are not spicy at all. Sometimes it’s served with tortillas on the side and sometimes it’s served where the egg is on top of a slightly crispy tortilla. The plate also usually has some refried beans and some avocado or guacamole.
Huevos a La Mexicana
This is one of my favorite things to order when I don’t want anything fried or too greasy. While the eggs are almost always cooked in a tons of vegetable oil, the basis of the dish is simply scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions, and chilis. It’s usually served with tortillas and some refried beans on the side.
This is a dish that you’ll mostly find only in the Yucatan, and more specifically, in Merida. While Merida is full of interesting dishes (read more about marquesitas below), this is a truly weird breakfast in my opinion. That’s not to say that it doesn’t taste pretty good – especially if you’re a tad hungover.
The dish consists of two tostadas topped with fried eggs and a tomato sauce with ham, peas, and black beans (sometimes whole, sometimes refried). It’s usually served with some fried plantains, and everywhere I’ve had it, a few slices of toast.
Can’t decide what type of sauce you want on your eggs? Get them divorced (I’m still trying to work out the name of these, to be honest). You’ll find not just divorced eggs on a menu but molletes and enchiladas too. It basically just means that you can have both the salsa roja and the salsa verde on your food. In the instance of the huevos, you’ll get one tortilla and a fried egg topped with one sauce and the second egg topped with the other sauce.
This is a breakfast food, it’s an afternoon snack, it’s dessert after a family dinner. I put it under the breakfast section because I think it’s when you see it most. Pan dulce just means sweet bread and that exactly what you’ll get. Head into any panaderia in Mexico and you’ll be confronted with an enormous choice of sugary bread that you can dip into your coffee.
In September and October, keep your eyes peeled for Pan de Muerto, bread eaten for Day of the Dead. This is one of the most delicious pan dulce in my opinion, but I am also partial to a chocolate concha. You can see a nice comprehensive list of Mexican pan dulces here.
Authentic Mexican Food to Try for Lunch and Dinner
I will put the rest of the food into this category because really lunch and dinner are interchangeable. I know a lot of Mexicans who have their biggest meal around 2 or 3pm. It’s called comida here in Mexico, rather than lunch when it’s served at this time. Then they might have a smaller dinner around 8pm.
Some of these foods were completely new to me when I first moved to Mexico. I was expecting empanadas (not Mexican) and hard shell tacos like a total amateur. Some of the foods on this list are the names of the actual dishes that you would find in a restaurant. Others are simply the ingredients or meats that are incredibly popular around Mexico. I’ll explain what each item is and do my best to include photos wherever I have one.
Let’s talk about the king of Mexican cuisine. Served with basically every meal, tortillas are usually made with corn masa and water. In some parts of the country, it’s totally authentically Mexican for them to be flour tortillas (in the north, mostly). If you have tacos in some parts of Tijuana, Juarez, or Monterrey, you’ll likely be getting your trompa (what is typically called pastor in the southern and central parts of Mexico) in a flour tortilla.
I personally prefer the corn variety myself, especially when it’s made fresh and by hand from locally sourced corn. If it’s made with yellow corn, it’s been mass-produced and usually comes from imported American corn.
If you order a meal at a restaurant, it almost always comes with tortillas, even at fancy restaurants. Once you use them all up, 99% of restaurants will top up your basket with more tortillas for no extra cost. They are truly the backbone of the country and you’ll find tortillerias churning out freshly made, piping hot tortillas in big cities and tiny towns all over the country.
These little corn delights, translated as “little fatties” are a very popular street food around Mexico. Gorditas are made using the same type of corn masa that’s used to make tortillas, but they are much thicker. Most people also mix in a few pieces of chicharron for good measure. They are then cooked, usually in oil or simply on a flat top grill. They are then cut open and filled with all types of good things.
If you get a gordita “sencilla,” then it will just come with cheese, cream, lettuce, and refried beans inside. You can also have it with a meat filling depending on the food stall and what they offer.
After traveling to Colombia, I have come to think of gorditas as the Mexican version of arepas.
Huaraches are a similar thickness to a gordita. Again, they are made using corn (you’ll notice the majority of all authentic Mexican food on this list include corn in some way). Huaraches are so named because they are shaped like the Mexican sandal, the huarache. They are usually quite long and are big enough to be a full meal.
A “sencillo” huarache is topped with refried beans, lettuce, cream, and panela cheese (or other type of white crumbly cheese depending on location). Huaraches are fantastic with a grilled meat like bistec (thin slices of steak) or arrachera (nicer, thick slices of flank steak).
Most people know what a quesadilla is I think. At least, you will definitely have seen it on a menu if you’ve been to a Mexican restaurant in another country. However, in places outside of Mexico, quesadillas are usually made with flower tortillas. In most of Mexico, including central and southern Mexico, quesadillas are usually made with corn tortillas. Find a good street stall and they’ll be making the tortillas fresh to order.
Something worth noting if you are traveling to Mexico City. Quesadillas don’t actually come with cheese here. So if you ask just for a chicken quesadilla, all you’ll get is a tortilla with chicken in it. Many here claim that the word quesadilla doesn’t come from the word queso (cheese), but actually from a Nahuatl word (the language the Aztecs used) meaning to fold over. I cannot find anything to verify this fact on the internet, but it’s a story I’ve heard many times since moving to Mexico.
If you would like your quesadilla to come with cheese in Mexico City, be sure to ask.
Tostadas are the closest thing you’ll find to a “hard shell taco.” These are flat, fried tortillas that are used, similarly to tacos, as a vessel for eating delicious meats. You’ll find them most often in seaside places topped with ceviche, but I’ve also had them with chicken, mole sauces, and as a side to cooked seafood dishes.
I haven’t seen sopes everywhere in Mexico, but I know for certain you can find them in central Mexico (Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara, and Guanajuato areas). They are somewhere between a gordita and a tortilla. They are thicker than a tortilla, but not quite as thick as a gordita. They are pinched at the edges like a pizza so that you can fill them full and they don’t fall out. They’re a totally different texture to other types of corn-based dishes, so be sure to sample them.
It’s like a “Mexican pizza” as someone said to me when I first asked what it was. This is a dish you’ll find all over the state of Oaxaca and there are two main ways that you’ll see it served. It’s either flat and open and really does resemble a pizza. It’s made of very thin, very crispy corn masa and is usually topped with refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, Oaxacan style cheese (simply called quesillo in Oaxaca), and a meat of your choice (I’ve been given cream on it about 50% of the time I’ve eaten them). This is usually cold except for the meat. I had this most often inside nicer restaurants or in mercados.
The other way that this is served is my personal favorite. The flat tortilla is filled to the brim and then folded in half (and somehow does not break?). It’s then roasted over charcoal so that the cheese melts to perfection and the meat heats through. You’ll see this most often inside taquerias or on street corners.
Panuchos & Salbutes
I put these two together because, although different, you’ll find them both in Merida and around the Yucatan most often. Panuchos are tortillas that have been separated in the middle and filled with refried beans. They are then fried until crispy and served topped with a meat of your choice.
Salbutes are made the same way except without the refried beans. In some places they puff up and are a beautiful fluffy, almost chewy texture. In other places, they are crispy around the edges and softer in the middle. The quality of a salbute depends largely on the quality of the taco stand. Choose wisely.
This is another corn-based dish that you’ll find a lot in the smaller neighborhoods, towns, and cities around Mexico City. I always think of it as a mini-huarache because it is the same shape, but much fatter. Inside they are usually stuffed with fava beans, refried beans, or cheese. They are then heated on a comal and topped with refried beans, cheese, cream, onions and sometimes nopales (I’ll tell you more about them below).
Tortas & Pambazos
While in Spanish, the word torta literally means cake, tortas here in Mexico are sandwiches made on fluffy white bread rolls. Usually, they are hot and filled with delicious meaty things, although you’ll also find them cold being sold for a quick lunch from street vendors. You can truly have anything in a torta from fried and breaded pork (called a milanesa) to roasted turkey to slices of sandwich ham (I don’t really recommend the last one).
A pambazo is a type of torta that really just embarrasses all other types of tortas. Pambazos are bread rolls that have been soaked in tomato sauce and then filled with a chorizo-potato mixture, cream, crumbly cheese, and lettuce. It’s all heated on a flat top and served piping hot. Add a squeeze of lime and a salsa of your choice to cut through the fat and you’ll be in heaven.
There are truly too many moles to even mention in one single blog post. There’s Pueblan mole (my personal favorite), there are moles from Oaxaca that are rich and deep and spicy and wonderful. There are modern takes on old moles. There are some with peanuts or almonds. There are moles with dozens of ingredients and others with only a few. You can buy them in a jar in the supermarket, in a paste from the market, or dip your tortilla in the mole madre at Pujol (I highly recommend this last one).
This is a popular soup that’s made differently all over the country. In some places, it’s red and spicy. In others, the broth is clear and rich with pork flavor. The base of any pozole is hominy, which is corn that has already been soaked and nixtamalized. If you’re in Mexico City, you shouldn’t miss the pozole at Casa de Toño. If you’re in Oaxaca, you’ll find plenty of street vendors and markets serving up bowls of the clear broth. I’ve tasted totally different types in Guadalajara filled with pork and onions and enjoyed a bowl made with chicken bones in Baja California.
Many argue about where the best birria in the country is, and while I haven’t had it all over the country, I have had it in the original location: Guadalajara. In much of the country, birria is made with beef, but in Guadalajara it’s almost always made with goat or lamb. The flavor of these meats makes it so much more unctuous, so much stronger and richer. Served in a broth that has been bubbling away for house, it’s a meal where you’ll close your eyes after each and every bite.
If you like tripe (stomach and intestines) then you’ll enjoy this soup. If you don’t, well, then you won’t. Depending on where you are in the country, it will be called one of these names. In the Yucatan, they also use the name Mondongo. All of these soups are made with tripe and other intestines. The broth is usually dark and rich and in addition to chopped up pieces of tripe, there will also be pieces of meat, vegetables, and is served with tortillas or tostadas for dipping.
Chiles en Nogada
This is a dish that comes from Puebla and is most popular around Independence Day in Mexico, September 16th. Leading up to the 16th, in early September, until about mid-October, you’ll be able to find this dish in most markets, restaurants, and little family-run cafes all over Mexico City and Puebla.
It’s made with a poblano pepper which is stuffed with picadillo, a ground beef mixture with vegetables and seasoning. It is topped with a cold cream sauce made from walnuts and topped with pomegranate seeds. It’s normally served at room temperature.
While it’s said chapulines were most popular in the state of Oaxaca, you can find these little critters all over Mexico now. Chapulines are crickets that are usually dried, fried and tossed in salt. You can have them just as a snack. At markets all over the country, you’ll see buckets full of them and for about 30 Pesos ($1.50 USD), you can have a bag full of them.
Other popular ways to have it nowadays in Mexico is as a snack with your mezcal, crushed up and rimmed along a cocktail, mixted into your guacamole, in a taco, or on top of a pizza.
Nopales are a type of cactus plant here in Mexico that is perfectly edible. They are stripped of their spikes and usually cut into slices before being boiled and/or grilled. At taco stands, you’ll see cold nopal salads with onions and tomatoes to put on top of your taco. I’ve had it grilled and inside a taco on it’s own. I’ve had it with Oaxaca cheese inside a quesadilla and I’ve had it grilled whole with the spikes removed and topped with a soft requeson cheese.
I haven’t mentioned any other seafood on this list because most of what you find at the seaside here in Mexico these days isn’t exactly authentically Mexican. They’ve given ceviche it’s own twist here and is usually served on a tostada, but aguachile, in my opinion, is uniquely Mexican.
Aguachile is always made with shrimp (camaron) unless otherwise specified. It’s cut up raw and mixed with lime juice, chili, cilantro, onion, and usually a soy-based sauce like jugo.
Esquites & Elotes
These two things are incredibly popular Mexican street snacks. Both are corn. Esquites are corn that has been removed from the cob and cooked with chile. It’s served in a cup usually topped with mayonnaise, lime juice, cheese, and chili powder. Elotes are basically the same except it’s the corn still on the cob and it has been cooked usually on a barbecue so it’s slightly charred. Toppings are the same. You can usually just tell them what you want and don’t want if you prefer it without some of the toppings.
Authentic Mexican Tacos That You Need to Eat on Your Next Trip to Mexico
There’s nothing more Mexican than a taco, right? If you haven’t already watched the Taco Chronicles on Netflix, I highly recommend it. While at the moment there are only six episodes and therefore only six types of tacos to talk about, it really gives a wonderful Mexican perspective on tacos all over the country.
You can’t come to this country and avoid the taco stands. In my opinion, you’d be missing out on what is the most incredible food experience you may ever have.
This is a weekend classic that is slow-cooked lamb, traditionally underground surrounded by maguey leaves. The best places start serving it for breakfast and run out before lunch, so be an early riser and cure your hangover with a few barbacoa tacos. The meat is always so tender, a little bit fatty, and so flavorful. Top it with some onions and cilantro and don’t forget the salsa.
No trip to Mexico City is complete with a few pastor tacos. Pastor is made with pork that has been marinated in adobo sauce and then layered onto a skewer where it cooks over a flame. It is sometimes topped with pineapple and onions and cilantro and always needs a touch of lime and salsa. It’s perhaps the only dish to come from Mexico City and you won’t find it better than inside the city limits. However, you will find it all over the country.
Suadero is a beef taco filling, usually cut from near the breast bone of the cow. It is cooked until it’s incredibly tender and often in fat to keep it soft. Around Mexico you’ll find it flavored slightly differently, but in Mexico City you always know you’ve found a suadero taco stand if you see a deep pool of fat filled with bubbling meats and there’s a metal dome in the middle to finish off the meat on.
If you get a bistec taco, you are getting a simple beef taco. It’s usually very thin slices of meat that are cooked directly on the flat top. These are best from places that are cooking them from raw. If you get a bistec taco that has been simmering, it will be quite dry and chewy.
Longaniza & Chorizo
While they aren’t exactly interchangeable, you’ll often find chorizo or longaniza tacos at a taco stand, but usually not both. Chorizo is what you may already know, a pork sausage with a decent amount of fat in it and lots of paprika. Chorizo is cut into segments and usually tends to be slightly cured.
Longaniza usually has slightly less fat, isn’t usually cured at all, and the meat is minced much finer. It doesn’t need to be cut into segments and usually you’ll notice at a market that the longaniza is one long piece of sasuage that hasn’t been broken into segments.
A campechano taco is a combination of two types of meats. Usually, without specifying, a campechano is bistec and longaniza (or chorizo). It’s a very flavorful taco and one that I get often.
Cow head is an incredibly popular taco filling in Mexico. You can opt to have a mixture of lots of different pieces, or you can specify. You can simply have eye, you can have tongue, brain, or cheek. The meat in these tacos is usually steamed, so it’s very soft and then just before serving they will flash it on the flat-top to give it a slight crunch.
Chicharron varies slightly depending on where you are in the country and varies greatly depending on who you talk to. In general, chicharron is fried pig-skin or crackling as you may have heard it called before.
Up north, Chicharron tends to have actual pieces of meat still stuck to it. It’s crunchy and chewy and meaty and fatty. As you head south, there is less meat on the chicharron, but it is puffier and crunchier. If you do have it in a taco, it will likely have already been mixed with a sauce, so there is less crunch to it than if you just buy it fresh to eat as a snack.
Slow roasted pork, carnitas tacos truly are nose to tail tacos. You can almost always specify what piece you want. If you just want chamorro (the meat around the foot) or if you want white meat (maciza). I usually like to have one or two maciza tacos and then one or two surtido which is a mixture of all of the parts of the pig.
This is a type of taco filling that is most common the Yucatan region. It’s slow-cooked pork with a marinade of citrus, usually orange juice and achiote chilis. This gives it a nice vibrant color and thanks to the citrus and slow cooking, it is almost always incredibly tender. Traditionally, the meat is cooked underground, but I rarely find places that do it this way anymore.
Typically this is a food that you find in the mornings and early afternoons, especially in places like Merida. After around 2pm, you won’t find this in many places. It’s usually served with pickled red onions and spicy habanero salsa.
Final Thoughts on Authentic Mexican Food
While I’ve never been a lover of the word authentic, I understand the thought behind wanting to enjoy truly Mexican Mexican food, especially coming from the US and other Anglo countries where we tend to mostly get Tex-Mex.
This 5,000-word article barely scratches the surface of all of the amazing authentic Mexican foods out there. However, if you are just getting started on your Mexican culinary education, I believe this is a fantastic place to start. When you travel the country, ask questions if you see something you don’t know. People are so kind and are so excited when foreigners want to learn more about their culture.
You may get sick. It’s a fact of traveling. Mexico has different bacteria to those that you’re used to. It doesn’t mean things are dirty, they’re just different. I’ve been living in this amazing country for over three years and every now and again I still eat something that doesn’t agree with me. That being said, I know people don’t want to ruin a week-long vacation with three days in bed (and in the bathroom).
I highly recommend going to street stalls and restaurants that are busy. They will have a high turnover. Also, look for places with hot grills that are cooking the meat to order. This is much gentler on the foreign stomach than the meats that simmer away in the fat and oil.