Mexican food is regionally diverse and flavorful, with origins dating back to the Aztec Empire.
Yet Americans are more likely to mention Chipotle and Taco Bell when they think of “Mexican” cuisine.
Many of the so-called Mexican foods we love — like hardshell tacos, burritos, and nachos — are Tex-Mex inventions. Though they have their own interesting history (and are obviously tasty), calling them Mexican is as accurate as saying General Tsao’s chicken is Chinese.
Here are nine real Mexican dishes you should try instead of the American knock-offs.
Instead of hardshell tacos, make soft-shell tacos:
The hardshell tacos we make in the U.S. have spiced-beef, shopped tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and “Mexican” cheese — but these are purely an American invention.
Mexican tacos are small and soft, and the tortillas are either lightly grilled or streamed. A taco can be made with a variety of meat, including beef, pork, chicken, or seafood.
Vegetables like avocados, home-made salsa, and chopped onions are added, and garnished with fresh lime juice and cilantro. If cheese is used, it won’t be the shredded “Mexican” cheese commonly found at U.S. grocery stores, but fresh white cheese.
And don’t add a dollop of sour cream on top. Instead, try crema, which is less sour and runnier than sour cream (similar to authentic French crème fraîche).
Instead of a burrito, order tacos de harina (wheat flour tacos):
The burrito as we know it today is an obese foodstuff, stretched to its limits with rice, veggies, beans, cheese, sour cream, and almost anything else we can imagine.
But America’s burrito is not authentic. Tacos de harina (wheat flour tacos), which hail from provinces in southern Mexico, are much thinner and smaller than the American version, and usually only include two or three ingredients such as a meat or seafood base with rice, beans, white cheese, or chiles.
Instead of buying “Mexican” cheese, try an authentic Mexican white cheese:
The “Mexican” cheese that you see in grocery stores are what most Americans use to top their tacos and nachos. But it could not be more different from the white, nuanced, tangy cheeses of Mexico that help balance the heat of the peppers.
There are many types of authentic Mexican white cheese, each with its own unique flavour profile. They include queso blanco, queso Oaxaca, queso panela, añejo, chihuahua, cotija, and many others, and range in taste from mild to strong-flavored and aged.
Just as string cheese is different from Monterey Jack, so too is queso de Oaxaca (the “mozzarella of Mexico”) different from añejo.
Instead of nachos, order chilaquiles (Mexican breakfast nachos):
Though nachos are technically a Mexican dish in the sense that they come Mexico, they don’t really count since they were invented for the American wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan. The dish soon became a Tex-Mex staple.
If you want a more traditional Mexican dish, try chilaquiles. They are made with quartered corn tortillas that are lightly fried and simmered with salsa (green, red or mole), and then topped with eggs (scrambled or fried) and sometimes pulled chicken.
Add some queso fresco and crema, and serve with refried beans. Though this is a morning dish, who cares? — it’s delicious.
Instead of buying jars of salsa, make your own pico de gallo:
The store-bought, jarred salsa we all eat with Tostitos chips pales in comparison to spicy, fresh, and flavorful Mexican salsas.
The most common Mexican salsas are salsa roja, salsa verde, and pico de gallo. Though all three are fantastic, we recommend trying pico de gallo — it’s a raw, salad-like tomato salsa with diced and chopped vegetables mixed with cilantro that will be the biggest change from your prepackaged salsa.
Instead of fajitas, try cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork):
That sizzling plate of fajitas is another American invention. Fajita basically means “little strip,” referring to the pieces of chicken or beef that arrive on the hot skillet to your table.
If you’re craving a meat-rich dish, try cochinita pibil instead. It’s a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish that involves marinating the meat in citrus juice, colouring it with annatto seed, and roasting it while it’s wrapped in a a banana leaf.
Just like fajitas, cochinita pibil is then eaten with corn tortillas and sides like pickled red onion, refried black beans, and habanero chiles.
Instead of Tex-Mex enchiladas, make some easy Mexican enchiladas:
The Tex-Mex enchiladas that most Americans are familiar with are tortillas wrapped around ground beef and cheese, and doused with enchilada sauce or gravy. These are then topped with even more cheese and baked in an oven.
Mexican enchiladas vary widely, but are typically tortillas that have been fried and dipped in spicy enchilada sauce and then rolled up with a small amount of meat, vegetables, and/or cheese. These are then garnished lightly with white cheese and served immediately.
Though both versions are admittedly delicious, it’s very easy to make your own authentic Mexican enchiladas at home.
Instead of chilli con queso, order queso flameado (cheese fondue with meat sauce):
Chilli con queso is yet another Tex-Mex invention with processed cheese, garlic, cumin, onion, and chopped jalapeños.
It’s likely a descend ent of the native dish in El Paso, queso flameado. It’s basically a cheese fondue with a meat sauce and chorizo, tomato, onion, chile, and spices.
Queso flameado is flambé, which means that liquor (rum, brandy, or tequila) is poured on the cheese and ignited. The server then folds in the meat sauce as the dish burns, and you eat it by spooning the queso flameado onto small tortillas for individual servings
Instead of eating churros for dessert, try paletas:
Churros are actually descended from an ancient Chinese salty dish called youtiao. The Portuguese took it and introduced it to Europeans, who promptly replaced the salt with sugar. Eventually, the Spaniards introduced the churro to Mexico during the Conquistador era.
A more authentically Mexican dessert is a paleta, or Latin American ice pop made with fresh fruits and usually sold at kiosks and carts. They’re basically fresher and healthier popsicles with fruit inside, and are the perfect way to end your meal.