How to Spot Authentic Mexican Food


Mexican restaurant

There are over 38,000 Mexican restaurants across the United States. Mexican food is the most popular international cuisine in the U.S., representing 42% of all ethnic food sales. It’s represented on the menus of one in every 10 restaurants in the United States. With so many Mexican restaurants to choose from, the real question becomes how to spot authentic Mexican food.

How to spot authentic Mexican food

  1. Your beans aren’t covered in cheese. For Mexican chefs, cheese is an ingredient, not a garnish. If everything you order is covered in melted cheese, you’re likely dining on an Americanized rendition of classic Mexican cuisine.
  2. Your tacos aren’t covered in shredded lettuce and tomatoes. Authentic Mexican tacos call for a topping of diced onion, cilantro, and lime; no shredded lettuce and tomatoes.
  3. Your tacos also aren’t crunchy. Mexican tacos are served in two corn tortillas. The only time you’ll get a crunchy shell is in a tostada or vampiro.
  4. The tacos don’t come in anything but corn tortillas. If lettuce wraps are on the menu get out. No authentic Mexican restaurant would let you eat a taco in anything other than corn tortillas.
  5. Your tamale came in a corn husk. If there’s no husk, it likely isn’t authentic and you should head for the door.
  6. The margaritas come in one flavor and one flavor only. While margaritas are native to Mexico, you won’t find them blended with fruit slush south of the border. An authentic Mexican margarita consists of tequila, lime, and a splash of sweetener on the rocks. Nada mas.
  7. You can’t find fajitas on the menu. But fajitas are delicioso, you say? We agree. They just aren’t Mexican. You won’t find fajitas in any Mexican restaurant; in fact, you wouldn’t have found them in the U.S. until the 1960s, either.
  8. You also can’t order corn tortillas. Corn is a Mexican staple and while flour tortillas are tasty, an authentic Mexican restaurant will have corn.
  9. There’s no Tabasco sauce. In Mexico, there are only four acceptable forms of bottled salsa: Tapatio, Cholula, La Victoria, and El Yucateco. If your waiter brings you anything else that wasn’t bottled in their kitchen, you’re not sitting down to a truly authentic Mexican experience.
  10. There’s no pico de gallo, either. Mild salsa is nonexistent in Mexico. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the authentic Mexican kitchen.
  11. Your burrito is long and thin. Burritos that are as big around as your bicep are all-Americano. An authentic Mexican burrito will be long and thin.
  12. The meat isn’t ground or crumbled. Authentic Mexican food doesn’t use crumbly meat. Your taco should be filled with asada, chorizo, tripas, adobado, cesos, or lengua.
  13. Almost everything comes with cilantro. Like corn, cilantro is a Mexican food staple. If you don’t care for the herb, best stick with Tex-Mex.
  14. It’s the weekend and there’s soup on the menu. Every weekend should feature a homemade soup. Look for a menudo or pozole option to know you’re in good hands.
  15. There’s Mexican bottled Coke and aguas frescas available. An authentic Mexican restaurant won’t serve Coke in a can. They will offer guava, cantaloupe, strawberry, or some other fruit juice blended with sugar and water, though.
  16. You can’t order “low-fat” versions of the food. Any authentic Mexican chef would throw you out for asking for a “reduced fat” rendition of his cuisine. Authentic Mexican food demands the use of lard or, maybe if you’re at a “healthier” joint, vegetable oil. That’s as low-fat as it goes.
  17. Your waiters aren’t dressed in costume. The only time a charro costume (the black suits with little red ties) is used in Mexico is for a mariachi band. So unless the costumed man approaching you is also carrying an instrument, he isn’t for real and neither is your food.

We all love Chipotle and El Torrito from time to time, but if you want the best Mexican food, you need to know how to spot authentic Mexican food before you order. If you want cheese on your beans, a different Margarita for every color of the rainbow, and waiters dressed in costume, head to your favorite Tex-Mex joint. If you want an authentic experience, these 17 tricks on how to spot authentic Mexican food will help you spot the best Mexican restaurants in town.

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