Traditional Mexican Dishes you Must Try!

Food in Mexico: 15 Traditional Mexican Dishes You Must Try!

Mexico might be famous for its Aztec pyramids, Mayan temples, and white-sand beaches, but we know the real reason you’re planning a trip to this exciting destination – it’s for the Mexican food! Forget fajitas, and don’t even think about visiting Taco Bell because the best Mexican dishes are so much more inspiring than the Tex-Mex counterparts found north of the border. 

The joy of Mexican food is found in its diversity. Mexican food can be fiery; it can be sweet; it can be cheesy, meaty, or vegetable-filled. Every state has unique local dishes, and you’ll find that the food changes distinctly with the landscapes and climate. 

You have to try chilaquiles or huevos rancheros for breakfast. If you’re still hungry, then you’ll find tamales and tortas being prepared on every street corner, while tacos and quesadillas are firmly on the menu for lunch or dinner. And if you’re in an adventurous mood, then you can always snack on chapulines (fried grasshoppers) or order up a Oaxacan-style tlayuda smothered in a thick mole sauce. 

With so many delicious Mexican foods to choose from, you might not know what to order first. That’s why we’ve compiled our list of the best Mexican dishes that you have to try on your next trip to Mexico. Give these Mexican foodie favorites a go, and there’s no doubt you’re going to have an amazing time eating your way around this flavor-filled part of the world!

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15 Popular Mexican Dishes to Try in Mexico

1. Tacos al Pastor

Unique Foods to try in Mexico: Tacos al Pastor

Tacos al pastor is one of the most famous Mexican dishes. Take a stroll through any Mexican neighborhood, and you’ll see huge hunks of pork meat being grilled on spits. It’s actually really similar to the shawarma meats you see being spit-grilled in the Middle East.

In fact, the similarity isn’t a coincidence because the “al pastor” cooking method was brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants who missed their shawarmas! Instead of cooking with lamb or chicken though, the Lebanese adapted the shawarma to Mexican tastes and began spit-grilling pork marinated in a mix of chili, garlic, cumin, and many more Mexican spices.

The pork is slow-cooked on the spit, and once it’s ready, it’s carved directly from the spit onto the tortillas. Al pastor is generally served with maize (corn) tortillas, and the tacos are complemented by juicy chunks of pineapple that are often grilled with the meat. 

This is one of the best types of taco that you’ll eat in Mexico. Plus, you’ll love how they’re served with added extras like freshly chopped cilantro, a wedge of lime, spicy salsa, and of course, some guacamole. 

Tacos al pastor are found across Mexico, although in some regions, they are served differently. In Puebla, for example, the same meat is served in pita bread, and the dish is called tacos Arabes!


2. Tamales 

Local Foods to try in Mexico: Tamales

Tamales are one of the oldest dishes in the world and one of the most popular Mexican foods. Long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, the Mayans, Aztecs, and other indigenous nations and groups stretching from Mexico to the Andes were steaming corn dough into deliciously portable meals stuffed with hearty fillings.

The thousand-year-old tradition of making tamales continues today, and you’ll find them being sold on almost every street corner in Mexico. Tamales are made primarily from masa, a type of corn dough that’s been prepared since time immemorial in Mesoamerica. 

The dough is stuffed with vegetables or meat (or both), then wrapped in a banana leaf or a corn husk. Once wrapped tightly, the tamales are slowly steamed to perfection.

The outer wrapping makes tamales easy to carry and transport, but it also makes for a wonderful plate (that can simply be discarded) when you’re hungry. As with many classic Mexican foods, each region tends to have its own style of tamales (Oaxacan tamales are served with a thick mole sauce, for example), but you’ll find three major staples across the country. 

Tamales verdes (green tamales) are cooked with green chili and tomato sauce and often feature slow-cooked chicken or pork fillings. Tamales rojos (red tamales) are similar but cooked with red chili and tomato sauce instead. Tamales dulces (sweet tamales) are prepared with copious amounts of sugar and are perfect for a sweet breakfast or dessert!


3. Tortas

Mexican Foods to eat: Tortas

You can’t leave Mexico without enjoying the tasty delights of a torta. The problem is, everywhere (and everyone) prepares tortas differently, and you’re going to want to try every variation you see (and there will be a lot to try!). 

In Mexico, tortas are sandwiches. There’s no one, single recipe, but the best tortas will be prepared fresh by food vendors in public squares and parks or by your local torta-seller in the market.  

Anything can go inside a torta, and you can expect the thick bread to be piled high with different meats (carne asada, chicken, chorizo, turkey, ham, etc.) and then packed with salad, perhaps a few vegetable toppings, and plenty of Mexican cheese and salsa to finish. 


4. Chilaquiles

Unique Foods to try in Mexico: Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles are the best way to start your day in Mexico! This is one of our all-time favorite Mexican breakfast dishes, and we know you’re going to love gorging on sauce-soaked corn tortilla chips in the morning!

Chilaquiles are prepared by cutting corn tortillas (at home, this is a great way to use up old or leftover tortillas!) into triangles and frying or baking them. The tortilla triangles are then smothered in either red or green chili sauce, with added hot sauce if you like your breakfast to have a kick to it.

Once smothered in sauce, the chilaquiles are then cooked in a pan until they’re soft enough to eat with a fork. That’s your basic chilaquiles recipe, but you’ll want to add chopped onions, freshly chopped cilantro, and perhaps even a spoonful of crema (sour cream).  

Chilaquiles can be served simply or elaborately. This is a wonderfully versatile dish, and you can add a runny egg to finish, sprinkle cheese all over, mix in sour cream, spice it up with jalapeño, enjoy it with a side of refried beans, and much, much more. 


5. Huevos Rancheros

Must Try Foods in Mexico: Huevos Rancheros Mexican

Huevos rancheros is another much-loved breakfast staple across Mexico. One of the most popular Mexican foods out there, huevos rancheros translates into English as ranch-style eggs or rancher’s eggs, as traditionally, it was a hearty way to prepare for a long day of manual labor on the ranch!

The primary ingredient in huevos rancheros is eggs, and they should be fried but runny because you don’t want to miss out on that yolk-ey goodness. The fried eggs are served on a base of corn or flour tortillas (whichever you prefer), and you’ll need to top it off with a pico de gallo

Of course, this being Mexico, rest assured that huevos rancheros can be spiced up (literally) with many optional extras. Why not add a few jalapeños for a fiery start to the day, for example? Or, if you’re feeling hungry, then a portion of refried beans makes for an even heartier ranch-style breakfast. 


6. Quesadillas 

What to eat in Mexico: Quesadillas

Quesadillas, like many of the best Mexican dishes, need very little introduction. Quesadillas are a magnificently simple concept, but you’ll find that Mexicans have also found a million ways to spice them up!

Quesadillas, in their most basic form, are simply grilled tortillas stuffed with melted cheese. It’s a dish that’s hard not to like, and you can eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or frankly, at any time of the day when you’re feeling hungry. 

Their simplicity hides a long history. Quesadillas are thought to have emerged around the 16th century, just after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and traditionally, they are cooked on a comal, a type of cooking pan that’s been used for centuries in Mesoamerica. 

Aside from the primary ingredient (cheese), quesadillas are often served with meat or vegetable fillings, similar to the fillings you would find in tacos or burritos. Corn or flour tortillas can be used, depending on your preference or where you are eating in Mexico. 

They can be eaten on their own or served up with a side of refried beans, rice, or guacamole, as well as plenty of salsa and hot sauce!


7. Pozole

Unique Foods to try in Mexico: Pozole

If you’ve got a taste for hominy, you’re in luck because one of the most popular Mexican foods is pozole

The base for pozole is hominy, dried corn kernels that have been “nixtamalized. Nixtamalization is an ancient process that sees corn mixed with an alkaline substance (usually lime). It’s a process that has been used for millennia in Mesoamerica to ensure that corn can be as nutritious as possible!

Pozole has been made for millennia too, and depictions of this soup even appear in the Aztec codices (Pre-Columbian books and literature). The Spanish made out that pozole was prepared using human meat, but this was most likely a way to dehumanize the Aztecs they were conquering.  

Regardless, pozole continued to be prepared and consumed despite the Spanish conquest. Today, it’s a dish that’s deep-rooted and commonly served as a “fiesta food” at Christmas, for birthdays, or on national holidays. 

Pozole is prepared using a base of hominy, which is then supplemented with pork or chicken, alongside vegetables and seasonings (including onion, chilies, cabbage, and radish). There are three distinct pozole flavors. Green pozole is prepared using green sauce, red pozole is prepared using red sauce, and white pozole is prepared without either a green or red sauce. 


8. Sopa de Lima

Must Try Foods in Mexico: Sopa de Lima

Soup fans will find themselves at home when they visit the Yucatan Peninsula because one of the region’s most famous dishes is sopa de lima (or lime soup). 

Sopa de lima is hearty, it’s brothy, it’s traditionally meaty, and it’s deeply seasonal and regional in character (and, of course, it’s limey!). It’s a soup that’s prepared using distinctly local vegetables, fruits, and seasonings, including, of course, the lime, of which Yucatan is one of the world’s largest exporters. 

Predominantly, you’ll find that in restaurants in Yucatan, sopa de lima is prepared using chicken, but you may find that turkey is also used in the recipe (despite the name, it’s not commonly vegetarian friendly!). 

As you’d expect, sopa de lima has an overriding taste of citrus, and it’s often garnished with extra wedges of lime before being served with freshly chopped cilantro. You may find your soup is also served with a side of crispy tortilla chips, which you’ll love dipping into the broth! 

Sopa de Lima is for sale everywhere in the Yucatan. The Sunday food market in Mérida, Yucatan’s capital, serves up some of the best and freshest soups every weekend (let’s just say it’s a revitalizing dish if you’ve had a late night on Saturday!). 

But while sopa de lima is one of the Yucatan’s prized regional dishes, its popularity is immense, and you’ll find it’s not uncommon to find it on the menu across Mexico and in Mexican restaurants abroad. 


9. Cochinita Pibil

Best Foods to try in Mexico: Cochinita Pibil

The Yucatan has provided Mexico with some of the country’s best dishes, including the delights of cochinita pibil, a type of slow-cooked pork tenderized in a juicy marinade.

Cochinita pibil is a very traditional type of Yucatec food, and historic recipes will have the chef slow-roasting an entire suckling pig for hours in a covered barbecue pit that’s been dug out of the ground. 

If an entire suckling pig isn’t available, you might find cochinita pibil is prepared using pork shoulders or pork loins. The pork meat is first marinated in a unique Yucatec sauce, which uses lemons, limes, and oranges mixed with local spices such as achiote to give the meat its distinctive flavor when it’s slowly barbecued.  

The orange gives the slow-cooked pork a unique orange tinge, and the cochinita pibil will be served up in much the same manner as pulled pork is. You can eat your cochinita pibil with corn tortillas, and you’ll love the soft, succulent pickled onion that’s commonly added for garnish.   

The best place to enjoy an authentic cochinita pibil is, of course, in Yucatan. You’ll find it on the menu in local restaurants across the state, with some of the best being served in Mérida, the capital of Yucatan!


10. Cajeta

Traditional Foods to try in Mexico: Cajeta

If you’ve got a serious sweet tooth to satisfy, you picked the best destination for a vacation. Mexico is renowned for its sweet and sugary treats, and one of the tastiest (and also the most historic) Mexican foods is cajeta.

Cajeta is similar to dulce de leche. It’s a super-thick and dangerously sweet type of caramel that’s prepared exclusively from goat’s milk. It’s often made with cinnamon, vanilla, and a dash of salt, and it’s slowly cooked in large pans over high heat to really bring out the flavorings.

You’ll love how versatile cajeta is. You can spread it over your toast in the morning, make sweet sandwiches for lunch, or use it to sweeten up your next baking session. You can purchase cajeta in large tubs or vats (industrial-sized, if you need it!), or you can purchase cajeta-based products like cajeta sweets at the sweet shop or cajeta frappes at Starbucks!

This sweet caramel-like product is found all over Mexico, but it traces its origins to a very specific time and place. Just north of Mexico City, the hometown of cajeta is said to be the city of Celaya. Here you’ll find some of Mexico’s oldest sweet shops, where cajeta has been prepared for two centuries. 

As Mexican history has it, cajeta was accidentally created in Celaya during the Mexican Wars of Independence. Locals were cooking up batches of sweetened goat’s milk for the Mexican soldiers fighting for independence from Spain. The milk was accidentally left to burn, and the result was a thick, sticky caramel – cajeta.  

Because of this association with the Mexican Wars of Independence in the early 1800s, cajeta was named the Bicentennial Dessert of Mexico on the 200th anniversary of the war in 2010!


11. Carnitas

Must Try Foods in Mexico: Carnitas

You don’t need to visit Mexico to eat carnitas – which attests to this pork dish’s popularity all over the world! – but you do need to visit Mexico to enjoy the best, the most sumptuous, and the most authentic carnitas!

Carnitas come from Michoacán, where there’s no doubt you’ll find some of the best carnitas if you’re willing to travel to this off-the-beaten-track Mexican state. Carnitas literally means “little meats,” and if you’re a fan of slow-cooked pork, you’re going to love this famous Mexican food.

Cooking carnitas the traditional way takes a long time, but the results, in the end, are to die for. You take a large chunk of pork meat, smother it in lard, then simmer it ever so slowly until the meat literally falls off the bone. Carnitas chefs will spend hours slow-cooking the pork until it’s super juicy, super tender, and super delicious. 

Carnitas is a popular burrito filling outside of Mexico, but in Michoacán, it’s simply served taco-style with cilantro, your favorite salsa, and fresh corn tortillas. 


12. Mole

Mexican Foods to try list: Carnitas

In the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs, mole means sauce, and in modern Mexico, this ancient saucy tradition is one that continues to get better and better!

In this sense, a “mole” can refer to many sauces, the most famous being guacamole. But mole can also refer to more specific sauces prepared in either Oaxaca or Puebla, which are incredibly complex and contain as many as 30 different ingredients. 

Both Oaxacan and Pueblan moles are famous, and both cities are in a never-ending culinary dispute over which city is the birthplace of this rich and delicious sauce. Oaxacan and Pueblan moles are dark and thick, containing everything from tomatoes and chili to chocolate and sugar, while other variants include lighter mole rojo and mole verde

Moles are used for smothering meats, like chicken or pork, as well as enchiladas, in a delectable sauce, and we know you’re going to absolutely love it!


13. Tlayudas 

Mexican Foods to eat: Tlayudas

Oaxaca has one of Mexico’s richest culinary traditions, and we know you’re going to love sampling all of the popular Mexican foods in this food-loving region. But did you know that Oaxacans have been making pizzas for centuries? 

That’s right, one of Oaxaca’s most famous dishes is the tlayuda, or as gringos like to call it, Oaxaca pizza. Tlayudas consist of a large (and we mean, large!) crispy tortilla base that’s smothered and covered in sauce and toppings.

The thin tortilla is first fried on a traditional comal before the main ingredients are added. Typically, a layer of refried beans is spread over the tortilla before the Tlayuda is then garnished with layers of vegetables (including cabbage, onions, and avocado). You can add shredded meat, your favorite spicy salsa, and then finish with a thick layer of Oaxacan cheese!


14. Chapulines 

Unique Foods to try in Mexico: Chapulines

Some of the most popular Mexican dishes aren’t for the weak of stomach, but when traveling, why not try something new? One of the more adventurous Mexican foods to try is chapulines, which in English means grasshoppers!

Grasshoppers are a favorite in large areas of Central Mexico and Oaxaca, where this crunchy and surprisingly tasty snack was prepared as a delicacy long before Europeans ever set foot in Mesoamerica. 

Chapulines are traditionally eaten between May and August when the grasshoppers are found in abundance. However, you’ll find them all through the year now as their popularity continues to soar. Chapulines are roasted on a comal and seasoned with chili and citrus, and they can be eaten as a quick snack or used to garnish other dishes. 

Chapulines are almost always served when you order a glass of mezcal, too, which for many travelers is their first introduction to this crunchy insect snack. Interestingly, chapulines are high in protein and sustainable to source, which means we could be seeing grasshoppers, and other insects, on more and more menus around the world in the future! 


15. Burritos and burros

Mexican Foods to try list: Burritos and burros

Okay, so we can’t write a Mexican food guide and not include the burrito. After all, it’s one of Mexico’s most famous dishes, even if traditionally it was only ever prepared in certain regions in the north.

Burrito means “little donkey” (don’t ask!), and unlike the California-style Mission burrito, authentic Mexican burritos are small and skinny and contain just a few ingredients. Burritos will be stuffed with chilies, cheese, and some sort of meat or vegetable filling, and you can add spicy or non-spicy salsa to your tastes.

Burritos became popular in the north, where wheat rather than corn tortillas are a staple, and because of this proximity to the border, the dish inevitably made its way into Tex-Mex cuisine, from where it took over the world!

If you’re looking for something more substantial, the larger burro percherón hails from the Mexican state of Sonora. These burritos are stuffed with grilled meat, avocado, Mexican cheese, and tomatoes. From food trucks to upscale eateries, you’ll find the burro percherón all over the Sonoran cities of Hermosillo and Guaymas.

There you have it! The 15 best things to eat in Mexico. What are some of your favorite Mexican foods?


Planning a trip to Mexico? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!


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Author

  • Richard Collett

    Richard is an award-winning travel writer based in Southwest England who’s addicted to traveling off the beaten track. He’s traveled to 75 countries and counting in search of intriguing stories, unusual destinations, and cultural curiosities.

    Richard loves traveling the long way round over land and sea, and you’ll find him visiting quirky micronations and breakaway territories as often as he’s found lounging on a beach (which is a lot).

    When he’s not writing for BBC Travel, National Geographic, or Lonely Planet, you can find Richard writing for the Wandering Wheatleys or updating his off-beat travel blog, Travel Tramp.

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3 thoughts on “Food in Mexico: 15 Traditional Mexican Dishes You Must Try!”

    1. Valerie Wheatley

      Hey Julz, it’s not meant to be a cooking post, it’s just meant to tell you what foods to try when you visit Mexico. Apologies for the confusion…

  1. I guess I didn’t realize that one of the most well-known Mexican cuisines is tacos al pastor. You mentioned that if you walk through any Mexican neighborhood, you’ll see enormous chunks of pig being roasted on spits which actually has a lot in common with the Middle Eastern shawarma meats that are spit-grilled. Okay, this is simply drooling in my mouth! It might be time for my buddies and me to venture out and look for the greatest Mexican food in the neighborhood.

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