I honestly think Mexican cuisine may be one of the most underrated in the world. Call me dramatic, but it never ceases to amaze me. It’s wildly diverse and ridiculously complex. Of all the things Mexican food represents to people, the most powerful has to be flavor.
But the abundance of Tex-Mex restaurants has changed many people’s ideas of what real Mexican food is and the cuisine is suffering somewhat of an identity crisis. Armed with some recipes and knowledge from incredible Mexican chefs like Alejandro Ruiz and Enrique Olvera, I put together a list of simple and (relatively) classic Mexican dishes that anybody interested in Mexican food should learn.
These dishes are from different parts of Mexico and they’re all simple to put together. Some take five minutes to prepare and some take hours, but the wait is worth it.
Disclaimer: I understand there are obviously a lot more dishes that are considered classic or real Mexican that could have been on this list. This is simply my take on what dishes are good to start with when getting into Mexican cuisine.
I don’t think even a week passes where I don’t make Bocoles. Similar to Arepas and Pupusas from other parts of Latin America, Bocoles are corn cakes made from masa (corn dough). For those that are familiar with Mexican cuisine, you’re probably thinking, isn’t that just a Gordita? Well, kind of. Bocoles differ from Gorditas in that they typically include a little lard and they’re grilled on a comal (griddle) and not fried in oil, so they’re arguably healthier. For the vegetarians/vegans out there, you can easily sub butter/oil for the lard and call it a day with pretty similar results.
Bocoles are typical of the Huasteca region, known for its extraordinary biodiversity. It includes parts of the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro and Guanajuato.
Bocoles are a quintessential snack who’s condiment limits know no bounds. They’re one of the most humble meals in the Mexican repertoire yet infinitely adaptable. They can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and take no longer than 20 minutes to prepare. Your topping choices are limited only by your imagination and you can take them from a simple snack to a full meal by adding cheese and protein — shredded chicken or pork work great, or try grilled mushrooms if you don’t eat meat.
The versatility of maíz (corn) is difficult to overstate. Used to create ethanol fuel, cornstarch, grain alcohol, animal feed, and an endless array of delicious dishes throughout the world. One of those dishes being Elotes — grilled corn on the cob, slathered with mayo, chili powder, lime, cilantro, and Cotija cheese.
Elotes is a beloved street food favorite and it’s easy to see why. Charred corn on the cob is the perfect vehicle for all sorts of savory add-ons. It’s dead-easy to prepare and takes relatively boring corn on the cob to another level. For the clean eaters out there, there is also a version you can eat with a spoon called Esquites.
Elotes only kicks ass if the corn is well-charred. If you don’t have a grill, you can achieve similar results by charring in a skillet on med-high. If you can’t find Cotija cheese, you can sub crumbled Feta.
Something Al Pastor Style
Most people are familiar with Tacos al pastor — the iconic taco which features pork cooked on a Shawarma-style vertical spit served on small corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and pineapple. What most people don’t know is that this vertical-spit method of cooking was actually introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the 19th century So it’s very much the Mexican equivalent of the Shawarma in the Middle East.
Now, I say “something al pastor style” here because maybe you don’t like pork — the meat traditionally used for tacos al pastor — or maybe you don’t eat meat at all. Also, ‘al pastor’ technically describes the style of cooking as well as the flavor, but there’s no rule book in cooking so we can take the adobo marinade and apply it to different foods — think fish, chicken, roasted cauliflower, mushrooms and so on.
The adobo marinade that normally slathers the pork in tacos al pastor is made up of a mix of chilies, achiote, garlic, oregano, and some other delicious stuff. If you’re a fan of fish, I seriously recommend marinating a nice fillet of white fish and grilling. Serve atop some corn tortillas and top with some pineapple pico de gallo, cilantro, and lime. A delicious alternative to the traditional pork recipe and a nod to the fish tacos from up north.
Almost everybody that loves Mexican food has heard of Pozole, but very few people bother to make it. For me, Pozole is like the ultimate Mexican comfort food that ticks all the boxes — it’s filling, salty, spicy, acidic, fatty, and can be topped with whatever the hell you have on hand.
Pozole is basically a cross between a soup and a stew and features pork, garlic, chilies, and lots of hominy (Cacahuazintle in Mexico).
I’ve chosen Pozole rojo here because it’s the tastiest in my opinion. It originates from Jalisco and, because of the pork, has a heartier broth that its cousin Pozole verde (green Pozole) which hails from Guerrero and normally features chicken. Pozole itself is totally pre-hispanic in origin and Pozole blanco (white Pozole) is said to be the very first version. You can still find places slinging Pozole Blanco and it has a much lighter, clearer broth.
A lot of purists will vote against using canned hominy because it goes mushy and supposedly tastes funny, but not everybody has 3+ hours to cook it in its dried form. I say go ahead and use the canned stuff, just be sure to add it very late in the cooking process to avoid it turning to mush.
Apart from being cheap to prepare — Pozole calls for cheap cuts like pork shoulder — it’s mainly a hands-off process and requires little intervention. It normally takes 2–3 hours to cook but you can easily cut this down to 20–30 minutes with a pressure cooker. Will the results be the same? I don’t think so.
Aguachile is like ceviche’s spicier, more flavorful cousin. It hails from Mazatlan, on the coast of the state of Sinaloa in the west. For anybody that’s a fan of ceviche, I say aguachile is a must-try — You’ll never go back to ceviche.
Eating a good aguachile is like getting slapped in the face. Its flavor is bold and its spice is undeniable. Call it Mexico’s equivalent of Peru’s leche de tigre, it’s the perfect breakfast (at noon) when you find yourself a little hungover.
The most classic version is made with shrimp, not fish, and I can’t stress enough how important the quality of the seafood is here. The integrity of the meal depends on it so use the absolute freshest shrimp you can find. Frozen, old, or low-quality shrimp won’t be able to hide behind cucumber, lime, and cilantro.
Aguachile is typically made with Chiltepin chilies but you can substitute serranos for a similar final product — Puerto Vallarta style.
Chilaquiles kind of sounds like shit when you first hear of it — soggy corn chips (totopos) soaked in a spicy sauce — but it’s actually pretty delicious and makes for a pretty badass hangover cure. You’ll find it’s infinitely adaptable, like a lot of Mexican dishes, and insanely addictive when made well.
The star of the show here is, of course, the sauce — usually red or green and made from either tomatoes or tomatillos. If you don’t like anything picante, you can omit the spice or, if you like spice, turn it up a notch with a habanero or two.
Chilaquiles is also a good way to use up dry, aging tortillas since they’re going to be soaking up some of that sauce. Most Mexicans swear by using freshly-made, fried tortillas but unless you have an abundance of tortillas or live near a tortilleria (unlikely), I suggest you use up some old ones or just buy a packet from the grocery store.
Chilaquiles shouldn’t be confused with Migas — they both use fried tortillas but the similarities pretty much end there. Migas is more like scrambled eggs and a drier dish in general.
The thing I love about Mexican cuisine is how one ingredient is changed or added and the dish takes on a new name. Enter Enmoladas — enchiladas with Mole sauce. Enchiladas are already a kickass meal they way they are, but they’re taken to the next level with mole sauce.
The obvious star of the show here is the mole, which is mainly from Oaxaca and Puebla. If you haven’t tried mole before, you’re in for a treat. It’s delicately sweet, spicy, and one of the most complex sauces I’ve had the pleasure of trying. It often has over 20 ingredients and takes hours to prepare so I suggest picking it up as a paste or powder if you can find them. They’ll save you a ton of time and they’re still top-notch quality. For those that want to brave it and make a mole from scratch, check out the recipe below.
Enmoladas can easily be made vegetarian/vegan by substituting mushrooms for chicken and making the mole with vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. Top with something funky like pickled onions to balance out the rich flavor.
Ah, suckling pig…
I honestly don’t know many people (that aren’t vegetarian/vegan) that haven’t enjoyed Cochinita Pibil or at least thought it sounded enticing. Cochinita means baby pig and pibil is a mayan word that means “cooked underground”. I doubt many people reading this are going to go dig a huge fucking hole to cook a pig so I suggest the more modern approach of smoking on a grill for a similar flavor.
Cochinita Pibil is from the Yucatan peninsula, where they use a lot of orange juice as their acid instead of vinegar. The trademark color of Cochinita Pibil comes from that orange juice and achiote.
The high acid content of the marinade and long cooking time gives you a stupidly tender, mouth-watering final product. It’s also a good way to use cheap cuts of meat as they’re cooked for hours on low heat. Don’t go using expensive cuts here, it’d just be unnecessary.
Cochinita Pibil is normally eaten with tortillas, pickled red onion, black beans, and a habanero salsa. Most recipes call for bitter orange in the marinade but if you can’t find it, you can use regular orange juice with some lime juice for added acidity.
The key here is to marinate your meat for a really long time. Like, at least 8 hours. Don’t try to take any shortcuts here, you’ll just affect the final flavor of the dish.
Another recipe from the Yucatan peninsula, Chiltomate is a cooked tomato and habanero salsa — considered one of the world’s oldest tomato sauces. Obviously not really a dish in and of itself but what list of Mexican dishes would be complete without a salsa or two?
While traditionally used with grilled meats, Chiltomate can be used on basically everything and it’s dead simple to make — 5 ingredients and about 10 minutes.
Make a big batch and store in a jar in the fridge so you’ve always got some on hand. It’ll keep for a long time due to the amount of spice from the habaneros.
Use this shit on everything — It’ll take your fried eggs to the next level, I promise.
Chile de Arbol salsa
Again, not really a dish but a sauce is arguably more important than the meal itself in Mexico so here we have one of the most popular — Salsa de Chile de Arbol.
You will literally see this sauce everywhere in Mexico. Pretty much every taqueria has it available, with some thick and made in a blender, and some chunky and made in a molcajete.
Anybody that likes to cook Mexican food should be making this sauce from scratch. Like Chiltomate, it’s super easy to prepare and only has about five ingredients.
It’s worth noting that it’s a much more approachable sauce for people that can’t tolerate too much spice — Chiles de arbol are far less spicy than Habaneros. They’re also available pretty much everywhere, so everybody should be able to make this recipe. If you can’t find Chile de arbol, just substitute Thai Bird’s eye chilies or whatever typical red chili you can get your hands on.
For an even better version, try caramelizing the onion for an added sweetness.
Mexico is not only a privileged territory in terms of biodiversity, it also has a history of uninterrupted cultural exchanges. The food is unique and allows you to find your own language of expression. Mexican food has completely changed my cooking and I’m forever grateful for it.
Whether it’s spicy and acidic or rich and sweet, there’s a flavor profile for everybody in Mexican cuisine.
Remember, there are no rules in cooking and you’re limited only by your imagination. Take these dishes and put your own spin on them.