A beginner´s guide to Mexican food that will save you hours of studying the menu

Being popular all over the world, you can imagine that Mexican food is a huge topic and in fact, the attempt to try everything kept me quite busy for five months. I was pretty overwhelmed by the food guides I found – most of them using words and ingredients I´ve never heard of before and all of them praising Mexican food to the highest.
I decided to approach the topic step by step while featuring an ambivalent view, so that you can make the most out of your stay. Because to truly experience Mexico, trying its food is simply a must (like it´s the case for every country, I think)!


First, let me give you an introduction to the basic ingredients you probably won´t regret to remember, because you will barely find a Mexican dish that doesn’t have at least one of them.

Frijoles/Frijolitos (small, purple beans)

Usually cooked and fried, they are the classic side to many dishes.

Arroz (rice)

You’ll find it classic white, red with chili, mixed with elote (maiz), beans or other vegetables. It´s a popular side as well.

Tacos (corn tortillas)

While before your first visit to Mexico you probably thought tacos were one single Mexican dish and that’s it, you’ll quickly realize that besides the typical meal, they are as well basically what bread is in Italy. They come with nearly EVERY dish.


And don´t believe your order doesn´t include tacos just because the menu doesn´t mention “taco”. If they are processed, Mexicans consider them a completely different thing and they get another name. Some examples are Enchilada, Enfrijolada and Enmolada: Tacos soaked in chili souce, mashed beans or Mole (traditional Mexican chocolate-chili sauce), usually filled with meat (see picture below).



A classic example of what I just explained: basically, a fried, crunchy taco. Tostadas are sometimes served with meals in restaurants as an optional “add-on” and they are often found on the streets to make eating the corresponding street food easier.

Salsa (sauce)

The selection of sauces in Mexico is endless! At taco stands you’ll at least find ten different ones and for every meal they’ll put numerous jars on your table, so you can choose. They all have one thing in common though: they are usually spicy.
One of the most common and least spicy sauces is “Salsa Verde“. If you´re brave, you can try “Salsa Habanero”, the corresponding chili of the same name is one of the spiciest.



Talking about it, did you know there are over 3.500 different types of domesticated chilis? In Mexico there are barely dishes that don’t have at least a little bit of chili inside and if they don’t, Mexicans would put a sufficient amount of salsa to compensate for that.
If you’re sensitive, you can check if a dish is spicy by asking “Pica?”. If the answer is “no”, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t find it spicy, but at least it tells you it could be spicier ;-).


Pico de Gallo

A mix of tomato, onion, chili and cilantro. You’ll get it with most dishes and at taco stands as a separate “topping”. While in the touristy areas it’s not really spicy, in most other parts of Mexico it can get quite hot. I personally like it a lot!


A mixture of salt, lemon and chili. Sounds weird to you? It gets better: this is what Mexicans like to eat with sweet stuff. You’ll get your Margarita glass decorated with it and at fruit street stands they’ll ask you if you want it as a topping. I personally don’t like it on mango or pineapple, but I think it tastes great on orange and pomegranate!


An overview

Now that you are familiar with the basic vocabulary, let´s go a little further.

If you think about Mexican food, probably the first that comes to your mind inevitably are tacos and guacamole. Let me tell you: There is A LOT more to Mexican kitchen! (Although those two are pretty great as well.)

The country is huge and besides the fact that obviously there are different specialties in different regions, sometimes the same things just get a different name or the other way around: the same name describes two completely different things. So, the whole topic can get quite complex.

If you´re here just to get a short insight, or you only have a few days in Mexico and want to make sure not to miss out on something, I think I have quite a helpful reading for you:

Click image below to read “5 dishes you cannot miss when in Mexico and the reasons why.


What I loved about Mexico and what I will definitely miss A LOT back home is the street food. On basically every corner there´s a very simple food stall with the vendor often being the same person that plants, harvests and prepares what he´s selling. The prices are unbeaten and the election of street food, both sweet and spicy, is endless in Mexico!

Most of the very famous Mexican dishes are found on the street and streetfood makes up a big part of the Mexican kitchen in general. So, if you know everything about that, you´re already an advanced learner on Mexican food.

Click the image below to read “Your gapless Mexican street food guide“.


Anyways, there are some dishes you´ll rather want to eat in a restaurant. Most of the time, because eating them standing and without cutlery just wouldn´t be very sexy. Usually Mexican restaurants serve huge portions and a variety of unexpected side dishes at amazing prices.

TIP: Mexicans judge the quality of a restaurant based on quantity and taste rather than visual details, so if you´re craving for “the western kind of good food”, don´t rely on google ratings. I´ve only seen a few “fancy” Mexican restaurants and none of them was actually in Mexico.

What I didn´t expect to encounter in Mexico is the big difference in drinks compared to Europe! There´s an endless number of both anti-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks that barely found their way to the other end of the Atlantic, although some of them are really delicious and ridiculously simple to prepare!

Click image to read “Mexican drinks you will want to be exported



A word of warning

If you´ve already read other articles about Mexican food, you might arrive in the expectation you will love EVERYTHING you find there and when I tell people, I was studying in Mexico, the reaction is often “Oh my god, the food must have been amazing!”.

To be honest with you: Yes, the Mexican food is way better in Mexico than back home and there are some great dishes we don´t even know in Europe. BUT (forgive me, Mexicans) it took me only about two months until I needed a break from Mexican food. Why? Because they love fat, sugar and carbs, usually too much of all of them.

In the supermarket you would often find the same products we have in Europe, just with double the amount of sugar and sometimes I wanted to cry when they put three big spoons of it in the best, sweetest smoothie.

Fruits in Mexico are just naturally a lot sweeter than we know them and they are SO good! What I learned there: It´s impressive how much sugar can dissolve in fluid.

I´m not saying this to downgrade Mexican food, I´m saying this to prepare you. And I wouldn´t want to eat traditional Austrian food everyday either. So just make sure to find your balance, which isn´t hard with all the fresh exotic fruits and veggies you can get there.


A comment on Mexican desserts

I know, coming from Europe I´m probably spoiled with exceptionally good desserts and pastries and I don´t want to depreciate the Mexican ones, but I did Mexican cooking classes during my time there and I prepared all those sweets, I´m talking about in a second, by myself. My unbiased conclusion was: If you think there´s too much sugar in it, Mexicans will add more.

To name some examples on that, for completeness:

  • Conchas: Sweet bread topped with a decorative flour-sugar mixture. In my opinion not describable with any other taste than “sweet”, which is probably the reason why Mexicans don´t really eat it without soaking it in coffee or milk before.
  • Jericalla: Milk, eggs and sugar (of course, too much of it) baked until it gets a bit brown on top. For me, nothing but a bad version of the French Crème brûlée.
  • Arroz con Leche: I usually love this combination of milk, rice and sugar and I thought it was one of the desserts you cannot do wrong. In Mexico I couldn´t eat more than a few spoons of it without getting a sugar rush.


As the smoothies are prepared freshly, you can usually tell them to do it without or with few sugar (same counts for cocktails) and you´ll probably get used to add that comment to your orders pretty fast.

The desserts and pastries are just like that and you might want to try them to see what I´m talking about and to experience the Mexican taste, but I´m pretty sure if you´re from Europe, you won´t get a big fan.

My biggest mistake: Cueritos

Mexico is home to some food you want to avoid (or try, now more than ever) and there are a lot of blogs on weird Mexican food online (for example, I really enjoyed this one), but here comes something I didn´t find in any other post. Maybe because people managed to avoid it – it honestly is one of those things you would probably naturally shy at eating – or because they simply didn´t immediately figure out what it was (like it happened to me).

“Cueritos” are small stripes of raw pork skin. You get them on Tostadas and Tostilocos as a street snack along with vegetables. So, after figuring out they are not onions (like it might seem in the first place, with a bit of imagination), you´d maybe still end up thinking it´s an exotic veggie you don´t know.

Well, it´s not. And Cueritos don´t taste like anything, to be honest, so I really don´t know why people eat them, especially after knowing what they are.


(This picture was taken BEFORE we knew what the “white thing” there was and we found out about it only months later. Well, you´re prepared to avoid this mistake now.)


I hope this post helped you to find your way through the Mexican food jungle and if it did, leave me a comment or a like below!

Further readings on the topic:

5 dishes you cannot miss when in Mexico and the reasons why

Mexican drinks you will want to be exported

Your gapless Mexican street food guide

The 7 best places to eat in Guadalajara for every taste


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