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Mexican food: top dishes you need to try on your next trip

mexican tacos

Vibrant colours, bold flavours, and truly unique dishes: Mexican food is renowned for its complexity and delicious taste, but to truly experience it at its best you need to indulge while visiting the Latin American nation.

The specificity of the ingredients means that it’s often hard to export the most authentic dishes outside of the Americas without paying a premium, so many Europeans are left with the notion that it’s just tacos and burritos — but that couldn’t be more wrong. 

From mole to birria, there are dozens of different dishes in the Mexican food world that are unlike anything else around the globe. If you’re a foodie who’s going on a Mexico trip, then check out our ultimate guide to Mexican food, and plan all the dishes you’ll have to try.

1. Chiles en Nogada

This dish isn’t available year-round in much of the country as it is typically served around Independence Day in September. However, it can usually be found at any time in the Puebla region, as that’s where it’s said to have come from.

The dish consists of a large, green poblano chile stuffed with picadillo, and covered with pomegranate seeds and a walnut sauce (nogada). The contents of the picadillo vary from place to place, but it’s usually some kind of ground meat mixed with tomatoes and raisins.

This dish is associated with independence as it was allegedly first made in honour of Agustín de Iturbide after he’d signed the Treaty of Córdoba. It is said to be representative of the Mexican Flag thanks to its green, red, and white colouring.

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2. Tacos al Pastor

The meat from which Tacos al Pastor comes from will be incredibly familiar to any European who has been into a kebab shop after a night out.

Pastor refers to the meat which goes into this dish: boneless pork shoulder, which is put on a spit and rotated much like kebab meat. This isn’t surprising as both come from the same source: immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, people escaping the instability that came alongside the fall of the Ottoman Empire came to Mexico and the surrounding countries, bringing with them their method of cooking meat, and the rest is history. 

Al Pastor is usually served alongside diced white onions, salsas, and slices of pineapple, and is one of the most popular dishes in all of Mexican cuisine.

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3. Tamales

One of the most common street foods in all of the country and also a firm favourite during celebrations, the humble tamale is an immovable fixture of Mexican cuisine, and makes good use of the nation’s most popular staple since pre-Hispanic times: corn dough, or masa.

The dish is so simple, versatile, and popular that it’s managed to become a hit north of the border in the United States, and when you try a good one it’s easy to see why. The dough can be filled with sweet or savoury ingredients, at which point it’s pressed into a corn husk and steamed.

The result is a spongy, cake-like texture that absorbs any flavour given to it. Beloved by Mexicans of all ages, and from all regions, this is a must-try Mexican food if you’ve never been given a chance to sample it.

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4. Birria

This traditional Mexican food has its origins in Jalisco, and was originally made with goat, though nowadays other red meats are substituted. The chunks of meat swim in a rich, ruby soup that packs a flavourful punch, and looks as good as it tastes. The stew is best enjoyed in its home state, and is a great way to start off on the first day of your busy Mexican Fiesta tour.

Birria has belied its humble, working class origins to become a much loved dish in Mexico and North America, and can be found all over the continent. The deep, complex flavours shine through and complement the gamey taste of goat well. 

Traditionally, the dish is eaten with corn tortillas, but nowadays you’ll find it served alongside all kinds of other carbs, from rice to baked potatoes. Make sure to top it with a squirt of lime juice and some finely chopped white onions to get the full experience.

5. Aguachile

Fans of seafood dishes will adore Aguachile, Sinola’s answer to ceviche. The dish consists of raw fish and shrimp that’s cooked in lime juice that’s been flavoured by chiltepin peppers, red onions, and cucumbers. 

The refreshing dish is available all over the country and is the perfect way to cool down under the scorching Mexican sun. Top with some pico de gallo for a flavour bomb.

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6. Mole

When it comes to traditional Mexican dishes, mole is the gold standard. With its roots in the central regions of the country (specifically Oaxaca and Puebla), the term is a catch-all name for complex, time-consuming sauces that can be slathered on all kinds of different meats, or used to marinate them.

Mole differs in all manner of ways, but generally speaking it contains a variety of nuts, chiles, and spices, which is why it has such a unique flavour profile. The dish is often named after its colour, and Mole Negro, made with chocolate, is one of the most popular, especially in the Oaxaca region, which you can explore on Contiki’s Sol Seeker trip

However, there’s also Mole Coloradito, Mole Poblano, and a whole constellation of other moles which are not named for their colouring. 

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7. Chilaquiles

If you need proof that Mexicans know how to start the day right, then all you need to do is look at Chilaquiles. The dish consists of fried tortilla chips covered in salsa, sour cream, beans, and cheese, and topped with a fried egg (or eggs, if you have a generous cook). 

For a bit of extra heft, meats like marinated pork or shredded chicken can be added, and you can usually choose between salsa roja, salsa verde, or a mixture of the two (known as Divorciados). No matter what combination you go for, this dish is delicious, and remains one of the best Mexican breakfast foods.

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8. Pozole

Another rich, flavourful soup, the key ingredients in Pozole are the meats, hominy, and chiles. The dish can come in either red, green, or white (depending on the chiles used) and is often topped with thinly sliced cabbage, radishes, coriander, and a squeeze of lime. 

One of the key comfort Mexican foods, Pozole can be found all over the country. Pork is the most commonly used meat in the dish, but as with much of Mexican cooking, it can be substituted for a different red meat. 

9. Menudo/Pancita

Menudo can be a bit of an acquired taste as its main ingredient is tripe, which can be a little too flavourful for some visitors. Made from chiles, hominy, and the aforementioned cow stomach, it’s a dish that’s shared on social occasions, and also widely considered to be a hangover cure after one too many mezcals. 

The dish is known as Pancita in some areas of the country, but regardless of what it’s called, remains one of the most popular Mexican foods in the nation.

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10. Burritos

These wrapped up bundles of joy are probably the most commonly known Mexican food around the globe, but in the country itself they are most ubiquitous in the north, nearer the U.S border. 

With that said, you’ll find burritos in most regions of the country. And, while corn is king in most of Mexico, in the northern regions flour tortillas are a little more popular, so they tend to be the wrap of choice for this beloved dish. 

Fillings may vary, but the satisfying first bite of a burrito will always be a pleasure.

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11. Flautas

Flautas are another much loved Mexican food that are named after their appearance, in this case flutes. Tacos are filled, rolled, then deep fried so they hold their shape, leading to a crispy snack that can be dipped in a number of salsas. Simplicity is key here, with cheese and bean flautas among the very best kinds to eat.

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12. Chanclas

Named after flip-flops thanks to its shape, this dish consists of a soft bread sandwich filled with meats and cheeses, then drowned in salsa. Chanclas are a specialty in Puebla but can be found in other parts of the country too, and are well worth looking for if you’re feeling peckish thanks to the fact they’re incredibly filling.

Although they are technically a sandwich, the texture is more reminiscent of lasagne because of the way the bread absorbs the tomato salsa that covers it. 

While you’re in Guadalajara on the Mexico Grande trip you can also try Tortas Ahogadas, which means drowned sandwich. It’s very similar, although the bread is slightly different.

13. Arroz con leche

Rice pudding is popular all over the world, but in Mexican cuisine it’s usually served cold, adding a refreshing element to the usually warming dish. Rice is cooked in milk and with several flavourings, including cinnamon and cane sugar, and then put in the fridge to cool down before being served. Berries and fruit slices often accompany this Mexican food favourite.

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14. Memelas/Sopas

These toasted masa cakes are usually topped with meats and cheese, as well as sour cream and guacamole in some regions. A pinch of pico de gallo or some other fresh ingredients add lightness to the dish, which can be served throughout the day but is mostly enjoyed in the morning.

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15. Tacos barbacoa

Barbacoa refers specifically to the way the meat in this dish is cooked. Usually the main filling is goat, sheep, or beef, which has been wrapped in maguey leaves and slowly roasted in an underground oven alongside spices and a little liquid until it’s soft and succulent.

The melt-in-the-mouth meat is then served alongside corn tortillas, salsas, white onions, coriander, and a squeeze of lime juice. The juices are also served alongside the meal as a kind of consume, which you can dip your taco in for an additional burst of flavour. 

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16. Tortas

Considering the hold tacos have on the Mexican food scene, you might not think a humble sandwich would gain much of a foothold in the country’s culinary culture, but you’d be wrong. This street food favourite is enjoyed all over the Latin American nation, and to be fair is so much more than just a sandwich.

Soft white bread is put on a griddle to give the top and bottom an extra crunch. The fluffy insides are then slathered in refried beans and avocado, and topped with whatever filling you fancy, as well as garnishes like spiced pickles, tomatoes, and white onion. 

Popular fillings include all kinds of meat, although you can get vegetarian options if you so choose. In Puebla they’re sometimes called Cemitas as a different, seeded bread is used. However, you still get the same delicious outcome.

17. Sopa de Lima

An east coast classic that you can enjoy on your Yucatan Highlights trip, Sopa de Lima might sound like a simple dish, but it manages to be both fiery and refreshing. Ingredients include a base meat, which is then cooked alongside habanero, cinnamon, clove, and limes to produce a taste explosion.

The limes used in the Yucatan are a slightly different variety to what the rest of the country consumes, which gives this dish a unique flavour profile in its home state. 

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18. Chapulines

Chapulines are more of a snack than a dish, and they aren’t for the faint-hearted. The pre-Hispanic treats consist of fried grasshoppers, which are usually tossed with different chiles and spices to add some extra flavour. Alongside a squeeze of lime, they’re incredibly moreish, even if you’re a bit squeamish.

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19. Gorditas

After your Mexican trip there’s no doubt you’ll be dreaming of Gorditas. Translating to “little chubby girls,” the dish is made by filling some corn dough with meats, cheese, and other fillings, then deep frying the result. While the name isn’t the nicest thing in the world, the outcome of the dish is a handheld treat that will hit the spot. From a taste perspective, the only problem with gorditas is the fact you have to stop eating them eventually!

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20. Tlayudas

Oaxaca is widely considered to be one of Mexico’s most culturally interesting regions, and part of that is its unique food culture. Tlayudas are one of the most popular dishes in the area, and it’s not hard to see why.

A large, crispy tortilla is topped with refried beans, pork lard (vegetarian options are often available), greens like lettuce or cabbage, avocado, meat of some kind (mushrooms are a common substitute), Oaxaca cheese, and salsa. The toppings add a little more moisture to the base, making it easier to fold so it can be eaten almost like a calzone — hence why it’s sometimes referred to as a Mexican pizza.

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