Mexican food conjures up images of burritos and tacos and quesadillas, guacamole and salsa, and if you’re into Tex-Mex, queso. But as it turns out, almost everything I thought I knew about Mexican food is wrong.
Tacos, tamales and tortas may rule the international perception of Mexican cuisine, but there are so many more weird, wonderful, and authentic Mexican dishes that most people haven’t heard of, like poisoned tacos or sweetcorn cake.
Mexican cuisine is incredibly diverse and varies from region to region – even two cities in the same part of Mexico may have different cuisines! This goes way, way back, as Mexican cuisine was first influenced and developed by the diverse Indigenous peoples that have lived in the Mesoamerican region for thousands of years, where corn, beans, tomatoes, and chilis served as staples.
After the Spanish invaded and colonized Mexico in 1521, Spanish ingredients like dairy products, garlic, wheat, and meats became more prominent in local cuisine and Mexican dishes. Over the next several hundred years, Caribbean, French, South American, West African, and even Portuguese influences made their way into regional cuisines.
The pure spread and breadth of flavors in dishes across different regions is a good reason to spend LOTS of time eating your way through Mexico. If you can’t get to Mexico, head to your nearest authentic Mexican restaurant and try something different from the Mexican dishes that you already know! In this post you’l find 15 suggestions for Mexican foods that you might never have heard of before.
- Editor’s Note: This post was originally written by Lauren, the Mexico City based Brit blogger behind Northern Lauren, and has since been updated with a few contributions from our research team. We at Practical Wanderlust do our best to vet information before publishing, but occasionally our guest writers share their personal opinions. Please note that our guest writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect our personal opinions! If you’d like to write a post for us, please take a look at our contributor guidelines.
Planning a trip to Mexico, or just feeling hungry and adventurous? Take a look at some of our other posts:
- 12 Sun-Soaked Things to Do in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
- The Best Colombian Food: 19 Delicious Things to Eat in Colombia
- 6 Traditional Danish Christmas Foods to Eat in Copenhagen in Winter
Mexican Foods You’ve Never Heard Of
Menudo is first because it’s the least obscure Mexican food on this list. You’ll likely find Menudo available at authentic Mexican restaurants all over the world! Menudo is a traditional Mexican soup made from red chile and cow stomach.
If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind the spongey texture of tripe – or knowing where it came from – then menudo’s rich broth is absolutely delicious.
But if you’re the type who prefers not to eat cow’s stomachs, then menudo may not be for you.
That said, many claim that it is the hands-down best hangover cure money can buy.
But most of the time I’d rather have a torta ahogada (baguette-style sandwiches filled with fried pork and fresh onion, doused in spicy tomato sauce).
- Author’s Note: Jeremy, who is Mexican and grew up in a family that regularly wins Menudo cooking competitions, swears by Menudo and craves it on a regular basis. Lia, who is not Mexican, is not a fan of the tripe bits, although she loves the broth. We think an appreciation of Menudo might be a bit of an acquired taste!
Tacos are nothing revolutionary and everyone knows that the Mexican fondness for this soft tortilla, meat and sauce concoction knows no bounds (I can’t stress enough how much hard taco shells are not Mexican).
However, if there’s anything you can say about Mexico, it’s that nothing is basic when it comes to Mexican dishes and there are a wealth of specialty, region-specific tacos that you can find in different parts of the country.
One of my favourite examples of this taco pride are the tacos envenenados from Zacatecas, which literally translates to poisoned tacos.
But don’t freak out: the only poisoning you’ll be at risk at after eating tacos envenenados is a cholesterol overdose because my god are they greasy. The tacos are stuffed with cheese and spicy chorizo and potatoes and refried beans, and then – for good measure – deep fried, for extra crunchiness and “venom.” Uh, YUM.
As the story goes, their name is meant to protect the secrecy of the ingredients. Or perhaps it’s because they’re so unhealthy, meant to warn you not to eat too many of them. But who knows? That story is just part of the mystery and the allure of tacos envenenados!
If you can’t make it to Zacatecas to give these a try, you can always whip out your deep fryer and attempt to make them yourself.
Cabrito is barbecued goat and a popular dish in all the northern states, but can principally be found in Nuevo León.
It may look wildly unappealing when you see it hung up before serving, but listen – it’s delicious.
One of the tastiest ways to try cabrito is barbacoa, which is slow-cooked barbequed meat. Traditionally, the goat meat is coated with spices, wrapped in leaves (primarily agave or banana leaves), and cooked in an underground oven – essentially a hole in the ground filled with coals and covered – for hours until the meat is succulent and tender.
The resulting broth, called consomé, is often drunk as an appetizer, and the flaky, juicy meat is used in tacos.
While the central states are well-known for the dish, barbacoa is prepared with regional variations throughout Mexico – Oaxaca, for example, often uses oranges along with chilies to sweeten and flavor the meat.
- Fun Linguistics Fact: The word “barbacoa” comes from the Taino, a native Caribbean tribe, and was then adopted by Spanish colonizers, eventually making its way to Texas, where it morphed into “barbeque!”
Carne en su Jugo
If you speak Spanish, and can understand exactly what carne en su jugo means, there’s a chance this doesn’t sound all that appealing. I mean, ‘meat in its juice’, who wants that?
DON’T BE DECEIVED, because carne en su jugo is, honestly, so, so delicious. It’s like a watery meat stew and I know I’m not selling it with that description but you’ll just have to go with me.
Usually, you throw in a ton of fresh diced onion, cilantro, and spicy sauce before slurping it down and the best carne en su jugo in all of Mexico – yes, prepare yourself because this is a bold claim – is to be found at Guadalajara’s Karne Garibaldi in Santa Tere.
Corn smut. I’m not being rude, that’s what huitlacoche translates to.
That said: although I am personally not a fan of the taste, and the origin stories of huitlacoche don’t exactly inspire my mouth to water, huitlacoche is hands-down one of the most unique Mexican delicacies!
Huitlacoche is actually an edible fungus that sometimes grows on organic corn (corn which isn’t sprayed with fungicide), turning the corn kernels into blue-gray mushroom-like balls.
In the U.S. and many other countries, this fungus is actively destroyed (called “corn smut”), but in Mexico, it’s considered a delicacy. Think of Huitlacoche like any other mushroom, with an earthy flavor sort of like a black truffle.
The flavor is described as smoky and earthy, almost like mushrooms and corn. It’s also high in protein and quite good for you!
In Mexico you can find baskets of fresh huitlacoche in mercados. For the rest of you, look for huitlacoche as an ingredient in many high-end Mexican restaurants.
Tacos de Canasta
Another taco entry, that’s one of the more popular variations found in Mexico but perhaps not as well known outside the country – tacos de canasta, a.k.a. basket tacos. They’re named as such because they’re literally served out of a basket.
To be honest, it’s for that reason I shied away from trying them for ages, even though they’re super common in Mexico City, because everyone knows you shouldn’t eat lukewarm meat products.
In the end, I ended up eating them outside a bar one night while mildly tipsy (FYI, this is the way all tacos should be eaten). Verdict? Amazing. I recommend you order the potato ones.
Maybe you’ve heard about chapulines, a.k.a. grasshoppers, but many people fail to realise that they’re not the only creepy crawlies that are part of Mexican gastronomy.
Everything from ant larvae – that’s what escamoles are – to worms (chinicuiles) are pre-Hispanic delicacies on the streets of cities like Oaxaca and the upscale menus of trendy Mexico City restaurants.
Speaking of which, that worm at the bottom of your probably not-that-great-quality mezcal? That’s called gusano de maguey, and yes, you can eat those as well!
Only really available in chilangolandia (Mexico City), pambazos are essentially tortas – soft, overstuffed sandwiches – whose bread has been soaked in guajillo sauce prior to preparing and serving.
For that reason, they have a distinctive red colour and are typically filled with potato and chorizo.
Although nothing can live up to my love for Guadalajara lonches, crispy bread sandwiches served cold and stuffed with salad, meat and cheese (my favourite is ham and panela), these sure come close!
Pay de Elote
Pay de elote is a cheesecake-esque dish with an intriguingly cool and creamy texture and a summery aftertaste of sweetcorn.
Corn (‘maize’) is not just considered an ingredient in Mexico – it has been an integral part of Mexico’s culture, identity and cuisine since ancient times. First cultivated around 7,000 years ago, maize allowed early nomadic peoples to settle down, thereby fostering the development of early Mesoamerican cultures.
Since then, maize has continued to be an important and versatile part of Mexican cuisine – you will see corn featured in a lot of art and in cultural celebrations. Even today, some Mexicans call themselves the “people of the corn.”
As a Brit, I wasn’t brought up with corn as a staple part of my diet – I somehow always associate eating corn on the cob with butter rather than a biscuit crust. But sweetcorn, when properly done, is something truly special!
Other Mexican corn-based dishes to sample include sweetcorn ice cream and sweetcorn bread. Yum!
Pay de Elote can be found on street corners as well, where you can often get a generous slice to go. This sweetcorn cake is also really easy to make at home with sweetened condensed milk, corn kernels, and a few other common ingredients – try out this great recipe!
Pulque is kind of, not really, definitely not even an obscure Mexican food, but rather an obscure Mexican alcoholic beverage.
Pulque is a milk-colored, fermented alcoholic drink made from the sap of the agave plant, with a sour and yeasty flavor. It’s actually insanely healthy and is filled with all sorts of minerals and vitamins.
Pulque’s history is ancient: it’s a traditional drink that has been drunk for thousands of years by the Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican cultures. Used in important festivals and celebrations, pulque was often featured in Mesoamerican mythology – one story has the drink originating from the powerful deity’s, Quetzalcoatl, wish to give humanity greater happiness.
But, despite its long and important history, given its unstable consistency as well as production and storage methods that make it practically impossible to export further than the central regions of Mexico where it’s produced, this this unique Mexican drink is little known and lives in the shadow of big brothers Tequila and Mezcal. So, you’ll just have to go to Mexico and try it yourself.
Pulque can be served at different strengths – some kids drink the sweet, lightly-fermented version – as well as different flavors and fruits. Try it in ‘pulquerias,’ where they only sell pulque and will often let you sample different flavors before you commit to a whole glass – start with a taste of the curado form, where it comes with an added flavor like mango or tamarind! Pulque is also used in cooking in some areas – try out Carne en Pulque if you are in Jalisco.
Drinking it certainly makes for an interesting experience, but one that you can’t leave Mexico without having!
Sopa de Lima
Sopa de lima is a hearty traditional chicken and tomato soup from the Yucatan Peninsula. Flavored with habanero peppers, bittersweet Yucatan limes, and topped with crunchy corn tortilla bits, sopa de lima makes a great comfort food.
This spicy soup is said to be derived from an ancient Mayan dish – the Yucatan Peninsula was part of the vast Mayan empire until the 17th century.
Native Yucatan limes, which are not really limes but rather a unique citrus fruit resembling a lime but sweeter in taste, grow throughout the peninsula, so you will frequently see these tangy citrus fruits in Yucatecan cuisine.
Mérida has many great spots to try sopa de lima, or you can even try your hand at making the soup at home!
In the central-western state of Jalisco, you will find tacos and sandwiches smothered – or drowned, which is what ahogada means – in a delicious spicy sauce.
Torta ahogada, or drowned sandwich, is made from pulled pork, onions, and a mild tomato garlic salsa stuffed in a thick salty bun, which is soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Then the sandwich is ‘drowned’ in a spicy tomato and chile de árbol sauce . You can ask for the amount of sauce you like: a quarter portion, half portion, or fully drowned (‘muerte’).
Torta ahogada is commonplace in Guadalajara, and it’s considered by the city as its signature sandwich – but it’s not as easy to find elsewhere in Mexico.
The sandwich is said to be created in Guadalajara in the early 1900s by accident: a street vendor accidentally let a sandwich fall into a bowl of salsa, but the customer insisted on taking it and ended up loving it. Soon the word spread about the intense flavor and heat of this ‘drowned’ sandwich, and the rest is history!
- Bonus Mexican Dish: Tacos ahogados, or drowned tacos, are similarly made with pork and the spicy árbol sauce – try them with a squeeze of lime
Tacos gobernador are cheesy shrimp tacos named after the governor of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, in the early 1990s.
As the origin story/myth goes, the governor had mentioned that he loved his wife’s shrimp tacos, so a local restaurant tried many recipes to outdo his partner’s cooking. When the governor finally tasted the tacos, he liked them so much that he called them Tacos gobernador, or governor’s tacos!
To make the dish, tortillas are filled with a combination of Pacific shrimp, coriander, onions, tomatoes, and LOTS of cheese. The tacos are then grilled and brushed with butter until slightly crispy and all the cheese is melted.
The best place to find tacos gobernador is in Sinaloa and Baja California, where they are also quite popular. You can make tacos gobernador at home as well – try them with lime and some chili sauce!
Looking for a sweet Mexican dessert to end your meal? Try Chongos Zamoranos, a dessert made of curdled milk that may look unusual – it looks a bit like a cooked brain – but tastes like a cinnamon-custard soup. The texture of the sweetened curds are somewhat chewy and served in a caramel-colored sauce.
Chongos Zamoranos were first made by nuns in covenants in the Mexican state of Michoacán during colonial times. These nuns perfected Spanish-influenced sweets using local ingredients, which are now favorite local desserts, like ates, which are cubed jellies made in different fruit flavors that you can now find in many Mexican sweet shops!
Morelia, the colorful capital of the state of Michoacán, has its own unique spin on fruit salad with Gazpacho Morelia. It has nothing to do with the Spanish tomato soup, Gazpacho, but is more like a pico de gallo fruit salad.
Made with pineapple, melon, mango, and jicama (a sweet, crunchy root vegetable), Gazpacho Morelia is like a layered fruit cup – first, a layer of fruits (and slightly sweet tasting vegetables), then a sprinkling of salt, chilli, orange juice, vinegar, lemon, cheese, and a tiny bit of chopped onion. Repeat until the dish is full.
Definitely give Gazpacho Morelia a try on a hot day in Morelia – you can often find it sound from street carts around the city.
By the way, once last tip before we part: eating fruit sprinkled with salt and chilli may sound strange, but it’s a quite popular and delicious Mexican flavor combination! If you try just one thing in this post, it should be watermelon sprinkled with tajin, a Mexican spice mix that’s sold pretty much everywhere in the US. Once you start eating watermelon smothered with tajin, you’ll never be able to go back to plain watermelon (or canteloupe, or mango….) ever again.
We also managed to publish a total of 1 post about our month and a half in Mexico (we are very good bloggers). Take a look!
Editor’s Note: This post was created by a guest writer. We at Practical Wanderlust do our best to vet information before publishing, but occasionally our guest writers share their personal opinions. Please note that our guest writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect our personal opinions! If you’d like to write your own guest post for us, please take a look at our guidelines.
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