Mexican Food – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

While we were travelling in Mexico, the number one question we were asked by friends and family back home was simple – how is the food?!

Given that so many people seemed interested in it, I thought I’d do a little post on some of the best and slightly more bizarre things we tried.

Tacos, tacos and more tacos

Hands down the most popular food in Mexico. Served everywhere, from tiny roadside shacks (4 for $20 pesos is common – around 80p) to the nicest of restaurants.

Most are filled with beef, pork or chorizo. Salsa is usually self serve so you can adjust your spice level. Any type of vegetable in a taco is very uncommon. I ate very few; Martin ate a million. The best he tried (by a mile apparently!) were from Tacos Don Juan in the Condesa area of Mexico City. The fish & shrimp tacos from Pez in Oaxaca were a commendable second place.

Side note: Tacos & enchiladas = Mexican. Burritos & nachos = Tex-Mex.

 

 

Chilaquiles

A popular breakfast dish of chopped-up fried tortillas covered in red or green salsa, cheese and sometimes frioles (refried beans). Usually vegetarian but most cafes will add chicken or a fried egg for you too. It looks pretty ugly in photos but actually very tasty on a hangover with a strong cup of coffee!

 

 

Tamales

Tamales are steamed parcels of ground corn mass filled with sweet or savoury ingredients. Most common are pork and chicken, but I favoured the sweet raisin variety. Very filling and easy to find. We often picked a few up from local markets before going on day trips as they stay warm for hours in their corn-husk wrappers and make a great lunch on the go.

 

 

Esquites

This common street-food snack is essentially a cup of corn topped with mayonnaise, cheese and chilli sauce. Cheap, simple, delicious.

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Huitlacoche

I need to begin this one by saying it sounds WAY worse that it actually is. If you’re in Mexico make sure you try it, you’ll be presently surprised!

Described in English as “corn smut”, huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on the maize plants while still in the fields. In most countries this is seen as a disease, whereas Mexicans see it as a delicacy. When cooked, the corn kernels look swollen and blueish-black in colour – almost like mushrooms. Served in a taco with a little cheese and salsa it’s quite delicious, like corn with a stronger flavour.

I don’t have a photo, because trust me, it doesn’t look appetising. But have a Google if you’re brave…

 

Mole

The most disappointing food that we tried in Mexico.

Literally “mole” means “sauce”. There are over 20 recognised varieties, with mole poblano and mole negro probably being the most popular. It’s usually made with chillies, chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, tomatoes, chicken stock (vegetarian versions occasionally available) and other variable ingredients. Commonly served over a bed of rice and chicken or meat, or enchiladas. Sounds good right? Wrong.

Oaxaca and Puebla are the two regions known for their mole, and many locals had told us how amazing / mind-blowing / life-changing this dish was going to be. We tried 3 different versions in 3 different restaurants – just to be sure we hadn’t sampled a bad batch – and each time was as disappointing as the last.

At it’s best, it’s a thick bitter sauce that masks all other flavours in the dish it’s served with. At it’s worst, it’s an inedible tar-like substance.

 

 

Chapulines

Crunchy toasted grasshoppers flavoured with salt, lime and sometimes chilli sold as a snack at most markets in central and southern Mexico. They’re cheap and apparently make a good beer snack, although most of the flavour comes purely from the added seasonings. I’d rather just have a crisp…

 

 

Hot Chocolate

This is another one is pretty specific to the Oaxaca region. They’re known for producing amazing cocoa and the most common way to consume it (aside from in the dreaded mole sauce!) is as a hot chocolate drink. Traditionally made with water and not too much sugar, it’s richer and slightly more bitter than any hot chocolate I’ve tasted before. I thought it was absolutely delicious. Probably my favourite thing I ate / drank over the 3 weeks!

I would recommend Mayordomo in Oaxaca City. They’re one of the biggest chocolate brands and it’s for a good reason. You know your in the best place if they mix it individually for you in a terracotta jug table-side…

 

 

Tejate

Yet another Oaxaca one – can you tell it’s the culinary capital of Mexico?!

A milkshake-like drink made from maize and cocoa which dates back to pre-Hispanic times. You can buy it in most markets and it’ll usually be served in a little bowl with a spoon. Don’t let the weird frothy appearance put you off – it’s meant to look like that. It’s very filling so useful for vegetarians who can’t find anything else to eat and need a quick energy boost!

 

 

Mezcal

Tequila’s big brother.

While tequila can only be made from blue agave, mezcal can be distilled from any type of the agave plant meaning there are 100s of varieties. The colour can vary from clear to amber depending on how it is aged, and the alcohol percentage can fluctuate wildly given the mostly unregulated small-batch production style. Most taste distinctly smokey but it can also be very smooth and easy to drink.

Traditionally it is consumed straight, like a good whisky, however it’s getting more and more common for trendy bars to create mezcal cocktails.

Many people will tell you that it’s only mezcal if there’s a worm in the bottle – this is false! The story goes that many years ago the worm was put in mezcal to distinguish it from the “purer” tequila (before labelling and mass production). However to every barman’s knowledge (and I asked a lot!) this isn’t done as regular practice anymore and if you do see bottles containing worms, it’s usually a tactic to sell it to tourists.

 

 

Pulque

Specific to the central regions of Mexico. This one definitely falls under the “bad” and “ugly” categories but is still worth a try! You’re not likely to find anything quite like this elsewhere in the world.

Pulque is a fermented alcoholic drink made from agave, similar to mezcal and tequila, but which has been produced for over 1000 years. It is the colour of milk and has a bizarre viscous texture. The smell is the most off-putting thing – a strong fermented, rotten egg scent.

If you can get past the smell and the texture, the actual taste isn’t too bad. There is a slight sourness similar to a strong cider but you certainly don’t want one of these on a hot day!

You can only find pulque in specific “pulquerias” – brightly coloured working class bars in the towns which produce it. We visited one in Mexico City on a Friday night, it was packed, sweaty and the pulque was served out of plastic buckets. Bizarre, but one of the most culturally unique experiences we had.

 

 

Coca-Cola

It’s not possible to talk about Mexican food & drink without mentioning the one-and-only Coca-Cola. The hold that the brand has over Mexico is unreal – you see it EVERYWHERE. Coca-Cola logos are plastered over every market and billboard. In most shops and restaurants it’s actually cheaper to buy Coke than water.

With diabetes now the leading cause of death in Mexico and obesity figures on the rise – currently 64.4% of Mexicans are overweight; 28.1% are clinically obese – it’s no stretch of the imagination to think that Coca-Cola is a major contributing factor to both of these issues. But that’s another discussion entirely…

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(Apologies for the poor photo quality in this post – most were quick iPhone snaps taken before Martin devoured whatever was in front of him!)

One Comment

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  1. You have confirmed everything I thought about Mexican food and drink. Thanks x

    Regards, Allan Lewis +44(0)7740 823219

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