Mexican Food Guide: Top 10 Mexican Dishes You Must Try!

In Search of the Best Mexican Food

If you’re searching for the best Mexican food—whether it’s at a Mexican food restaurant, or if you’re visiting Mexico, this Mexican Food Guide is for you! You’ll discover the traditional Mexican food by region, and the best Mexican dishes that you must try!

If you’re a food lover like me, when you travel, in addition to a list of things to see (I’ll pretend I do this), I always have a list of things to eat. If I were traveling to Mexico, I’d read about Mexican cuisine and traditional Mexican food, so that I could sample the best Mexican dishes, preferably in the region where they come from.

In essence, I’d create something like this Mexican food guide of top 10 Mexican dishes! To me, learning about Mexico food and culture is the most interesting and fun part of traveling there. I’d savor learning about different types of Mexican cuisine, popular Mexican dishes, and the Mexican national dish.

I know food may be more important to me than to the average person, but if you’re visiting Mexico, you need to know what to eat in Mexico! You need to know the famous Mexican dishes in each region, and the Mexican restaurants that specialize in them. You need a Mexican food guide with the 10 Mexican foods you must try!

It may even help to have a Mexico food guide at home, wherever that may be, if you go to Mexican restaurants, or cook Mexican recipes.

I can’t believe I didn’t eat Mexican food until I was a teenager. I moved to California when I was 14 and that was my first exposure to Mexican food--well, something other than a Jack in the Box taco. Nope, when I was a kid in New York, we didn’t have a Mexican food restaurant, or even a Taco Bell in my hometown.

Not only could we not google “best Mexican food near me” or “best Mexican restaurants near me”, there just wasn’t a Mexican restaurant near me, or places to eat Mexican food of any kind.

When we moved, my family had to live in a hotel for a couple of weeks in San Jose with many Mexican restaurants in the area. Not only was there Mexican near me, it was abundant! So, we found ourselves eating at Mexican food restaurants quite often. Soon a whole new world of must-try Mexican food opened to us: enchiladas, salsas, quesadillas, nachos and more. And, I learned that I love Mexican food—especially guacamole!

Different types of traditional Mexican dishes.

If you are any kind of foodie or food lover, you’ve also most likely had some Mexican food somewhere along the line, and probably at least know the basics. However, just like with most food, Mexican food is different in its place of origin! It is no surprise that the best Mexican food in the world is in Mexico.

Not only does it taste better in Mexico, but you’ll find more variety, and some regional specialty dishes that you’ll rarely see outside of Mexico (hint: one of Mexico’s national dishes).

I’ve also found that the further you are from Mexico, the worse the Mexican food gets. Luckily, in California we have access to some of the best Mexican food in the states. I can tell you it far surpasses that of Mexican food on the East coast, even in our foodie capital, New York City. The worst Mexican food I’ve ever had was in France (it was not my choice); it didn’t even come close to New York City Mexican food, and it cost a small fortune to boot!

Traditional Mexican cuisine and the food in Mexico varies by region. Sometimes it’s not enough to know what to eat in Mexico—where to eat it may be equally as important! So, to make this list of top 10 Mexican dishes, I asked some authorities on traditional Mexican food (chefs, expats, food bloggers and travel writers) what the best loved dishes of Mexico are, and this is the result!

Mexican Food Guide: Top 10 Mexican Dishes

1. Chile en Nogada—National Dish of Mexico

By Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

If you surveyed 100 people & asked “What is the national dish of Mexico?”, I’m sure those 100 would likely say tacos! It’s a great answer, though incorrect.

The correct answer is actually two answers — mole & chile en nogada — the debate rages on over which is actually Mexico’s national dish! Mole, while not as famous as tacos, you’ve likely heard of, and probably even sampled a time or two!

Chile en nogada, however, is relatively unknown for a Mexican national dish. Once you see it though, you understand how it got this distinction. The plated dish is green, white & red — the colors of the Mexican flag!

One of the best Mexican dishes, it is considered a patriotic dish, and commonly eaten around September 15th, Mexican Independence Day. In fact, one version of the chile en nogada’s origin story claims they were first made by nuns in the city of Puebla to celebrate Mexico’s independence after the signing of the Treaties of Cordoba.

Some historians, including José Luis Juárez López, a research professor from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology & History, say chiles en nogada were cooked in Puebla long before that.

According to Lopez, this Mexican specialty is only made in the month of September because that’s when it’s three key ingredients — chile poblano (green), walnuts (white) & pomegranates (red) — are in season. He says it’s purely coincidental Mexico’s independence later occurred in September.

Aside from the “green” ingredient of this dish, the chile poblano, the white & red components are uncommon in traditional Mexican cuisine. To make this unique dish, the poblano is stuffed with meat, the walnuts are cooked down into a white cream sauce, called nogada, and the red pomegranate seeds are sprinkled on top.

Throughout Mexico, you’ll find chiles en nogada as menu specials all September long. During this time, everyone gets their fill, because on October 1, restaurants stop serving this Mexican national dish until the following year.

Mexican Food Guide #1: Mexico’s national dish, Chile en Nogada.

Mexican Food Guide #1: Mexico’s national dish, Chile en Nogada.

2. Mole Negro—Famous Mexican Food & National Dish

By Cynthia Clotzman

No Mexican food guide would be complete without Mole, the more famous of the Mexican national dishes, is one of the most complex regional Mexican foods. A specialty of Oaxaca, Mexico, moles are thick, rich sauces made from seeds, nuts, chilies, chocolate, and—I kid you not—about 20 other ingredients. Moles are spicy, but not super hot. They are so important to Oaxaca cuisine that the area is known as the land of the seven moles!

For travelers, there is probably no better state in Mexico than Oaxaca if you like browsing at food markets. They can be a little overwhelming, but that is part of the fun. Plus, you’ll find an array of moles to sample. If you ever get the chance, head to puesto Tonita (no. 80) in Mercado Benito Juárez (in the capital) for a great selection of mole pastes.

There are several kinds of mole, but my favorite traditional Mexican food dish is mole negro. It’s the richest, and is almost black, hence the name. A special chile is used—chilhuacle negro—and theoretically can’t be substituted. This rare and ancient chile has notes of cocoa, tobacco, and dried fruit. Since it’s hard to find, I recommend upping the amount of pasilla chile, which also has a complex flavor, especially when dried.

Making mole is a labor of love in the kitchens of Oaxaca, where women use the opportunity to socialize, share family recipes, and show their kids and grandkids how to prepare their family’s version of this iconic Mexican national dish.

Mexican Food Guide #2: Mole pastes at a Mexican food market. Image courtesy of Cynthia Clotzman

Mexican Food Guide #2: Mole pastes at a Mexican food market. Image courtesy of Cynthia Clotzman

3. Barbacoa—Traditional Mexican Food of Hidalgo

By Tiffany from Epicurean Expats

Mexico is a country of traditional regional cuisines, and one of my favorite traditional Mexican food dishes is barbacoa from the state of Hidalgo. Driving through the state you will see herds of sheep grazing in unfenced pastures watched over by cowboys and a handful of half-feral dogs. Barbacoa is the art of pit roasting an animal until the meat is so tender, it practically melts in your mouth.

Not much is known of regional Mexican Cuisine before Cortez arrived, but the people of Mexico probably had a version of barbacoa. It’s been written that barbacoa was brought over from the Caribbean Taino Indians when Cortez landed in Mexico, but the way to slaughter the animal respectfully was from a Jewish commander in Cortez’ army.

One of the most traditional Mexican recipes, Hidalgo style barbacoa is typically lamb or sheep covered with agave leaves and buried in an underground pit filled with hot stones to cook overnight. A pot is placed beneath the meat to catch the juices and make a richly intense consommé served with an order of meat, tortillas, and toppings. If that doesn’t earn a spot on the top 10 Mexican dishes, I don’t know what does!

Because barbacoa takes time and one of the most labor intensive Mexican foods, it's mostly served on weekends. Many farmers prepare the meat during the week, then drive into a larger city where they have a rented space to sell their barbacoa. Our favorite barbacoa place has its own pit and makes everything from the salsas and drinks to the tortillas from scratch. In Mexico City, you’ll see plenty of barbacoa street stalls, but for a more relaxed and comfortable restaurant experience, El Hidalguense in Roma is the place to go. Only open Friday through Sunday, you can watch Chef Moisés Rodríguez Vargas choose and chop the meat from his stack of agave leaves in the front of the restaurant.

Variations of barbacoa can be found in many cultures around the world, but there’s nothing quite like Mexican barbacoa. This is truly one of the best dishes in Mexico, and should be on your must-try Mexican food list!.

The fall-off-the-bone tender lamb meat wrapped in a warm handmade tortilla with a sprinkle of onions, avocado, cilantro, and traditional salsa barracha (drunk salsa) made with pulque and serrano peppers. Barbacoa is so good and addictive, it’s hard to stop at 3-4 tacos. It’s perfectly acceptable to gorge on the tender meat and take a nap later that day. That’s probably another reason why barbacoa is the special meal served on weekends.

Mexican Food Guide #3: Lamb Barbacoa. Image courtesy of Tiffany from Epicurean Expats

Mexican Food Guide #3: Lamb Barbacoa. Image courtesy of Tiffany from Epicurean Expats

4. Elote—Popular Street Food in Mexico City

By Denise from Chef Denise

Elote, or Mexican street corn, is one of the most popular street foods in Mexico, especially Mexico City. Corn dates back to the Aztecs in Mexico and holds a central place in Mexican cuisine. Most often, corn is ground to make masa, a key ingredient for Mexican staples like tortillas, gorditas, and tamales. But corn is also eaten in Mexico as a snack or a side dish.

The name of this regional Mexican food literally translates to corn cob, and that is the base of this simple dish. If the corn is off the cob, it is not elote. It is probably elote’s cousin, esquites. Esquites are corn kernels served in a cup with the same toppings as elote. Both are often sold from the same Mexican street food vendor.

What makes it a top 10 Mexican food must try? To prepare elote, street vendors cook the ears of corn on an open Mexican grill to char or brown the typically white corn. Then they slather the corn with lime juice, butter, mayonnaise or crema fresca, cotija, and chile powder. Often the corn is served on a stick, but the stick is not mandatory.

Mexico City, famous for its street food and antojitos (little cravings), claims to be the origin of elote. It is most often eaten as a late night snack. In fact, in Mexico City, many elote street vendors are only open late at night.

Mexican Food Guide #4: Elote

Mexican Food Guide #4: Elote

5. Tacos: 2 Best Mexican Dishes!

Fish tacos—The Baja Food Specialty

By Maria from San Diego Explorer

The famous Mexican food, Fish tacos are an absolute staple in Baja California, Mexico, earning a spot on any respectable top 10 Mexican food guide. They are cheap and because you are right by the coast, the fish is always fresh and delicious.

One of the best dishes from Mexico, what’s not to love about a fish taco? A soft shell corn tortilla with crispy fried fish filet, shredded slivers of cabbage, drizzled with a chipotle sour cream sauce, fresh onion, and cilantro. Fried fish is the most common, but you can also mix it up with shrimp tacos or pulpo - octopus, which are equally delicious.

Fish tacos were supposedly invented in Ensenada by a Japanese fisherman who combined his love for tempura with the local tacos. A marriage made in heaven; don’t you think? You can get fish tacos at most taco stands and restaurants, from hole in the wall places to fine dining Mexican restaurants. My favorite way to eat them is from a local street food stall, where the locals grab their lunch, soaking up the atmosphere with the delicious food and wash it all down with a cool cerveza.

Fish tacos are an absolute must try, when you visit Baja California, Mexico. I live in San Diego and sometimes cross the border just to get my fish taco fix. Yes, they are that good!!!

Mexican Food Guide #5: Fish Tacos. Image courtesy of Maria from San Diego Explorer

Mexican Food Guide #5: Fish Tacos. Image courtesy of Maria from San Diego Explorer

Tacos al Pastor—King of Mexican Tacos

By Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

Here’s a fun fact about Mexico: If the deliciousness of Mexican food wasn’t obvious enough, in 2010, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, declared traditional Mexican cuisine an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind.

In their words, Mexican food is “a crucial element of national identity...” meaning, the UN considers Mexican food one of mankind’s cultural treasures! Truer words have never been spoken.

Reigning supreme in the Mexican culinary hierarchy — the taco. Mexicans often joke about getting their daily dose of “Vitamin T” --the T standing for, of course, tacos! If you’re unfamiliar with Mexican food, this is one of the best Mexican food dishes to start with. Even with all of the incredible Mexican specialties, there’s a reason tacos are the most popular Mexican food worldwide!

The undisputed king of Mexico’s many varieties of tacos is the taco al pastor, a must on any best Mexican food list. Funny enough though, these tacos originated in the Middle East — which you may have guessed based on the look of the trompo, the Arabian-style spit the pastor (pork) meat is cooked on.

Here’s a not-so-known fact about Mexico: It had a tremendous influx of Middle Eastern (largely Lebanese) immigrants from the late-1800s through about 1935. These immigrants brought with them their customs, design esthetics, and of course, their food.

Mexican cooks took the Middle Eastern meat-on-a-spit cooking technique, what many of us know as a gyro or shawarma, and made some adaptations. The most notable is the change of meat; in Mexico, the meat is pork instead of the beef and lamb used throughout the Middle East.

Next, Mexicans had to alter the meat’s spices. They marinate & season the pastor meat with chile guajillo & chile de árobl (tree chile), among other indigenous spices. This adaptation came of necessity, as the native plants differ from those common throughout the Middle East.

The final change from gyro & shawarma to pastor, was the addition of piña (pineapple). If you look atop the tompo, you’ll see an entire peeled pineapple dripping its juices onto the meat as it cooks! In fact, many will argue no taco al pastor is complete without a thin slice of pineapple.

Mexican Food Guide #5: Tacos al Pastor. Image courtesy of Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

Mexican Food Guide #5: Tacos al Pastor. Image courtesy of Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

6. Marquesitas—Mexican Sweet Treat from Yucatan

By Faith from The Worlds Kitchens

If you have been lucky enough to travel to Merida or Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan Peninsula you may have spotted many street vendors serving Marquesitas.

Marquesitas are a delicious Mexican sweet treat found all over the Yucatan. A delightfully crispy crepe made on the spot and filled with either jam or the favorite on the gulf side a Marquesita filled with queso and caramel sauce or Nutella.

Watching the vendors spread the batter on the flat griddle and anticipating which filling you are going to choose is a street food treat Mexicans have known since these delights were invented in 1938 in Merida.

Invented in Merida by an ice cream vendor who wanted to add a treat onto his ice cream stall for the winter months when ice cream didn’t sell as well. He used his flat griddle that he made cones with and invented a filled crepe Mexican style.

The name is believed to have come from a local Marquis living in Merida whose two daughters came to love the treat and ask for one every day. Don Polo called it the Marquesita in honor of his best customers. Stories are also told that Don Polo’s son Vicente named it in honor of his wife, who was called Marquesa.

Marquesitas are now found all over the Yucatan and they are the best portable treat you can find in Mexican food cuisine, and thus they earned a spot on our top 10 Mexican foods list.

Mexican Food Guide #6: Marquesitas

Mexican Food Guide #6: Marquesitas

7. Cochinita Pibil—Traditional Mexican Dish of Yucatán

By Maartje & Sebastiaan from The Orange Backpack

Mexican cuisines vary by region as its one of the most diverse countries in the world to visit. It has tropical beaches, impressive Maya city ruins, charming villages, bustling cities, and some world-famous dishes. Whenever visiting the Yucatán peninsula in southern Mexico, many unique places should be on your Yucatán wish list, and trying Cochinita Pibil should be on your must-try list of delicious Mexican food.

Cochinita Pibil is a traditional Mexican dish of Yucatán. It’s the Yucatán version of slow-cooked pulled pork. Preparing the dish the traditional way takes days, roasting an entire marinated pig in a hole in the ground. You’ll rarely find a restaurant cooking their cochinita pibil the traditional slow way. They’ll probably go for a speedy oven version, but don’t let that stop you from trying this local dish—either way it is a top 10 Mexican dish!

You can find Conchita Pibil in the best Mexican restaurants in the U.S. But if you visit Mexico, you’ll find the best places to try Cochinita Pibil are in the Yucatán peninsula, especially the colorful cities Mérida or Valladolid.

Mexican Food Guide #7: Conchita Pibil

Mexican Food Guide #7: Conchita Pibil

8. Ceviche—Mexican Seafood Dish

By Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

Though the words seafood & Mexico aren’t exactly synonymous, no country with 5,800 miles of coastline—which Mexico surprisingly has!—doesn’t also have delicious seafood dishes.

For example, have you ever tried Mexican ceviche (pronounced see-vee-chay)? Though most Americas have only heard of Baja style fish tacos (mentioned above in this Mexican Food Guide), Mexican seafood dishes extend far beyond tacos, and include dishes like aguachile (water chile), marlín ahumado (smoked marlin), and ceviche!

You can order it in most seafood restaurants, but the place to really enjoy ceviche is the beach. This cold, and relatively light dish, tastes so refreshing on a hot beach day.

On beaches throughout Mexico, you’ll usually find these four options: shrimp ceviche, fish ceviche, octopus ceviche, and ceviche mixto, a mixture of the three. Beyond the protein, ceviche consists of the same simple ingredients.

To make it, you cut the seafood into bite-sized pieces, squeeze fresh lime juice so it coats everything, add in diced tomatoes & onion, and finally cilantro, salt & pepper. This is where the magic of ceviche happens: the juice from the lime “denatures” the seafood.

Denaturing means “to take away or alter the natural qualities of.” In the case of ceviche, that’s what the citrus juice does — it takes away the raw qualities of the fish, and in essence, makes it more firm—like the cooking process would.

The citrus juice in ceviche is sometimes incorrectly referred to as having “cooked” the fish, but to cook there must be heat. However, some ceviche spin offs do involve cooking.

In the Yucatan Peninsula city of Merida, Mexico, many restaurants are serving a local dish called ceviche de pulpo frito (fried octopus ceviche). This dish is essentially two dishes in one — and the best of both worlds!

Merida seafood chefs take traditional ceviche & add fried octopus on top. The breading of the fried pieces soaks up much of the citrus juice, so none of the ceviche’s flavors are wasted.

Mexican Food Guide #8: Ceviche. Image courtesy of Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

Mexican Food Guide #8: Ceviche. Image courtesy of Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

9. Pozole—Traditional Mexican Soup

By Cynthia Clotzman

I love soup. I make many kinds and love them all, but pozole—another treasure from Mexico, which, like mole, has pre-Colombian roots—tops my list. Pozole is not just a soup, it’s a meal, and traditional Mexican soup should definitely be on your must-try Mexican food list!

A true Mexican delicacy, a good pozole is thick and more like a stew than a soup. The common ingredient, whether you’re making red, white, or green pozole, is hominy.

Coincidentally, the colors of pozole are the colors of the Mexican flag. You can find all 3 throughout Mexico, however, in certain states you are more likely to find red pozole in Jalisco, or green pozole in Guerrero.

After experimenting with several recipes, I found a red pozole with pork in “The Daily Soup” cookbook that I modified, and it’s since become my favorite. While the original recipe calls for calve’s foot, I leave that out as I tend not to have that laying around. I add about five guajillo peppers, which are dried chiles commonly used in Mexican cooking that lend an earthy and fruity note. (I discard them at the end.) Otherwise I follow the recipe exactly.

The result is a rich soup of shredded pork, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano, and, of course, hominy; brightened with lime juice and topped with chopped scallions. If you are lucky enough to live near a Mexican market and can use epazote instead of oregano, do that!

One secret to the unique flavor of my version is the addition of a minced chipotle pepper in adobo with 1/2 a teaspoon of the adobo sauce. Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce are found in Mexican specialty shops, usually in small cans. And additional toppings of sliced radishes, cotija cheese, white onions, and sliced limes add the finishing touch to this homey soup.

In Mexico, pozole is a festive dish served at celebrations like Mexican Independence Day, birthdays, and Christmas. I like to make Christmas dishes from different places around the world during the holidays, and this one has become a holiday staple at my house. I am also told it is the perfect hangover food, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Mexican Food Guide #9: Pozole

Mexican Food Guide #9: Pozole

10. Tamales—Popular Mexican Food in Every State

By Denise from Chef Denise

Tamales are one of the most popular Mexican dishes in Mexico and no list of the Mexican food top 10 would be complete without them!

When were Tamales invented? This popular Mexican food has been traced back to at least 5000 BC (some estimates say 8000 BC) and are probably one of the oldest foods that we still currently eat!

Tamales can be sweet or savory filled masa dough wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. There are literally hundreds of kinds of tamales filled with almost anything you can think of. The tamales themselves are traditionally steamed in their wrapping, but you will see street vendors selling day old fried tamales.

Tamales are one of the best Mexican dishes to try in every state as each state has its own traditional tamales based on regional ingredients and traditions. Try as many as you can!

The word “tamale” is thought to come from the Aztecs' word for wrap. It is believed that the tamale was invented as a wrapped, portable food so that warring tribes could easily transport them.

Tamales were considered sacred by ancient cultures and were therefore incorporated into rituals and celebrations. Today tamales are eaten all year round, however, they are still served on special days as well. Mexicans eat tamales any time of day, often even for breakfast.

Making tamales can be a labor intensive project so it is often a communal event especially at Christmastime.

On Kings’ Day, January 6, Mexican tradition has the person who finds the small figurine of the baby Jesus in his sweet bread buying the tamales!

Mexican Food Guide #10: Tamales being made

Mexican Food Guide #10: Tamales being made

The Wrap-Up on Our Mexican Food Guide

So, from our Guide to Mexican Food, you know the top 10 Mexican foods you must try, can answer “What is Mexico’s national dish?”, and maybe learned a little more about Mexican food and Mexico’s regional cuisine.

As you can see, in Mexico, food specialties abound! There are so many different traditional Mexican foods across the country we couldn’t possibly list all Mexican dishes. Instead, we created this list of the best traditional Mexican dishes to help you find the Mexican food we think is truly the most special and deserves your attention whether you’re eating in Mexico, or at a Mexican restaurant.

I sincerely hope the Top 10 Mexican Dishes you must try will be used to guide you to some amazing travel meals in Mexico, or to help expand your repertoire to different types of Mexican foods at your favorite hometown Mexican restaurant, or to inspire you to learn new Mexican recipes. In other words, I hope it’s helpful!

Do You Love Mexican Food?

I’d love to hear what you think about our Mexican Food Guide! How many of these traditional Mexican dishes have you tried, whether in Mexico, or elsewhere. What would be on your list of Top 10 Mexican Food Dishes? Let me know in the comments!

Click it to Pin Mexican Food Guide: : Top 10 Mexican Dishes!

Pin for Top 10 Mexican Dishes

Pin for Top 10 Mexican Dishes

Pin for Mexican Food Guide.

Pin for Mexican Food Guide.