Markets & Restaurants
Exploring the culinary delights of a tianguis, or traditional market, is one of my favorite pastimes. The people-watching is top-notch, and the food stalls harbor creative surprises ranging from strawberry shortcakes covered in fresh cream to juicy cheeseburgers and onion rings. To ensure your chances of getting the healthiest food possible, visit stands that seem to be popular among the locals. Word spreads fast in Mexico, so it doesn't take long for customers to root out the stalls with less than stellar hygiene practices. On the other side of the spectrum, avoid eating at those inviting sidewalk restaurants that you see beneath the stone archways that border the main plazas. These places usually cater to tourists and don't need to count on any return business. But they are great for getting a coffee or beer and watching the world turn.
In most nonresort towns, there are always one or two restaurants (sometimes it's a coffee shop) that are social centers for a large group of established patrons. Over time, they become virtual institutions, and change comes very slowly. The food is usually good standard fare, cooked as it was 20 years ago, and the decor is simple. The patrons have known each other and the staff for years, and the charla (banter), gestures, and greetings are friendly, open, and unaffected. If you're curious about Mexican culture, these are fun places to eat in and observe the goings-on.
You'll see multitudes of taquerías (taco joints) everywhere in Mexico. These are generally small places with a counter or a few tables set around the cooking area; you see exactly how they make their tacos before deciding whether to order. Most tacos come with a little chopped onion and cilantro, but not with tomato and lettuce. Find one that seems popular with the locals and where the cook performs with brio (a good sign of pride in the product). Sometimes a woman will be making the tortillas (or working the masa into gorditas or sopes, if these are also served) right there. You will never see men doing this -- this is perhaps the strictest gender division in Mexican society. Men do all other cooking and kitchen tasks, and work with already-made tortillas, but will never be found working masa.
- Nearly all restaurants and bars that serve middle-class Mexicans use filtered water, disinfect their vegetables, and buy ice made from purified water. If in doubt, look for ice with a rough cylindrical shape and a hollow center, produced by the same kind of machinery across the country. Street vendors and market stalls are less consistent. I've never gotten sick on any of my travels to Mexico, but people who live there say a good way of keeping your stomach happy is by drinking one of the tiny Yakult yogurt drinks found in the dairy section of just about every grocery store or corner market.
- For the afternoon meal, the main meal of the day, many restaurants offer a multicourse daily special called comida corrida or menú del día. This is the most inexpensive way to get a full dinner.
- In Mexico, you need to ask for your check; it is considered rude to present a check to someone who hasn't requested it. If you're in a hurry, ask for the check when your food arrives.
- Tips are about the same as in the U.S. You'll sometimes find a 15% value-added tax on restaurant meals, which shows up on the bill as IVA. This is effectively the tip, which you may augment if you like. Just make sure you're not tipping twice.
- To summon the waiter, wave or raise your hand, but don't motion with your index finger, which is a demeaning gesture that may cause the waiter to ignore you. Or if it's the check you want, you can motion to the waiter from across the room using the universal scribbling motion against the palm of your hand.
desayuno -- Breakfast.
comida -- Main meal of the day, taken in the afternoon.
cena -- Supper.
botana -- A small serving of food that accompanies a beer or drink, usually served free of charge.
entrada -- Appetizer.
sopa -- Soup course. (Not necessarily a soup -- it can be a dish of rice or noodles, called sopa seca [dry soup].)
ensalada -- Salad.
plato fuerte -- Main course.
postre -- Dessert.
comida corrida -- Inexpensive daily special usually consisting of three courses.
menú del día -- Same as comida corrida.
Degree of Doneness
término un cuarto -- Rare, literally means one-fourth.
término medio -- Medium rare, one-half.
término tres cuartos -- Medium, three-fourths.
bien cocido -- Well done.
Note: Keep in mind, when ordering a steak, that medio does not mean "medium."
Miscellaneous Restaurant Terminology
cucharra -- Spoon.
cuchillo -- Knife.
la cuenta -- The bill.
plato -- Plate.
plato hondo -- Bowl.
propina -- Tip.
servilleta -- Napkin.
tenedor -- Fork.
vaso -- Glass.
IVA -- Value-added tax.
fonda -- Strictly speaking, a food stall in the market or street, but now used in a loose or nostalgic sense to designate an informal restaurant.
Popular Mexican Dishes
a la tampiqueña -- (Usually bistec a la t. or arrachera a la t.) A steak served with several sides, including but not limited to an enchilada, guacamole, rice, and beans.
adobo -- Marinade made with chiles and tomatoes, often seen in adjectival form adobado/adobada.
albóndigas -- Meatballs, usually cooked in a chile chipotle sauce.
antojito -- Literally means "small temptation." It's a general term for tacos, tostadas, quesadillas, and the like, which are usually eaten for supper or as a snack.
arrachera -- Skirt steak, fajitas.
arroz -- Rice.
bistec -- Steak.
bolillo -- Small bread with a crust much like a baguette.
buñuelos -- Fried pastry dusted with sugar. Can also mean a large, thin, crisp pancake that is dipped in boiling cane syrup.
cajeta -- Thick caramel sauce made from goat's milk.
calabaza -- Zucchini squash.
caldo tlalpeño -- Chicken and vegetable soup, with rice, chile chipotle, avocado, and garbanzos. Its name comes from a suburban community of Mexico City, Tlalpan.
caldo xochitl -- Mild chicken and rice soup served with a small plate of chopped onion, chile serrano, avocado, and limes, to be added according to individual taste.
camarones -- Shrimp. For common cooking methods, see pescado.
carne -- Meat.
carnitas -- Slow-cooked pork dish from Michoacán and parts of central Mexico, served with tortillas, guacamole, and salsa or pickled jalapeños.
cebolla -- Onion.
cecina -- Thinly sliced pork or beef, dried or marinated, depending on the region.
ceviche -- Fresh raw seafood marinated in fresh lime juice and garnished with chopped tomatoes, onions, chiles, and sometimes cilantro.
chalupas poblanas -- Simple dish from Puebla consisting of handmade tortillas lightly fried but left soft, and topped with different chile sauces.
chayote -- Spiny squash boiled and served as an accompaniment to meat dishes.
chilaquiles -- Fried tortilla quarters softened in either a red or a green sauce and served with Mexican sour cream, onion, and sometimes chicken (con pollo).
chile -- Any of the many hot peppers used in Mexican cooking, in fresh, dried, or smoked forms.
chile ancho -- A dried chile poblano, which serves as the base for many varieties of sauces and moles.
chile chilpotle (or chipotle) -- A smoked jalapeño dried or in an adobo sauce.
chile en nogada -- Chile poblano stuffed with a complex filling of shredded meat, nuts, and dried, candied, and fresh fruit, topped with walnut cream sauce and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.
chile poblano -- Fresh pepper that is usually dark green in color, large, and not usually spicy. Often stuffed with a variety of fillings (chile relleno).
chile relleno -- Stuffed pepper.
chivo -- Kid or goat.
cochinita pibil -- Yucatecan dish of pork, pit-baked in a pibil sauce of achiote, sour orange, and spices.
col -- Cabbage. Also called repollo.
consomé -- Clear broth, usually with rice.
cortes -- Steak; in full, it is cortes finas de carne (fine cuts of meat).
cuitlacoche -- Variant of huitlacoche.
elote -- Fresh corn.
empanada -- For most of Mexico, a turnover with a savory or sweet filling. In Oaxaca and southern Mexico, it is corn masa or a tortilla folded around a savory filling and roasted or fried.
empanizado -- Breaded.
enchilada -- A lightly fried tortilla, dipped in sauce and folded or rolled around a filling. It has many variations, such as enchiladas suizas (made with a cream sauce), enchiladas del portal or enchiladas placeras (made with a predominantly chile ancho sauce), and enchiladas verdes (in a green sauce of tomatillos, cilantro, and chiles).
enfrijoladas -- Like an enchilada, but made with a bean sauce.
enmoladas -- Enchiladas made with a mole sauce.
entomatadas -- Enchiladas made with a tomato sauce.
escabeche -- Vegetables pickled in a vinegary liquid.
flan -- Custard.
flautas -- Tortillas that are rolled up around a filling (usually chicken or shredded beef) and deep-fried; often listed on a menu as taquitos or tacos fritos.
gorditas -- Thick, fried corn tortillas, slit open and stuffed with meat or cheese.
horchata -- Drink made of ground rice, melon seeds, ground almonds, or coconut and cinnamon.
huazontle -- A vegetable vaguely comparable to broccoli, but milder in taste.
huitlacoche -- Salty and mild-tasting corn fungus that is considered a delicacy.
jitomate -- Tomato.
lechuga -- Lettuce.
limón -- A small lime. Mexicans squeeze them on everything from soups to tacos.
lomo adobado -- Pork loin cooked in an adobo.
masa -- Soft dough made of corn that is the basis for making tortillas and tamales.
menudo -- Soup made with beef tripe and hominy.
milanesa -- Beef cutlet breaded and fried.
mole -- Any variety of thick sauce made with dried chiles, nuts, fruit or vegetables, and spices. Variations include m. poblano (Puebla style, with chocolate and sesame), m. negro (black mole from Oaxaca, also with chocolate), and m. verde (made with herbs and/or pumpkinseeds, depending on the region).
pan -- Bread. A few of the varieties include p. dulce (general term for a variety of sweet breads), p. de muerto (bread made for the Day of the Dead holidays), and p. Bimbo (packaged sliced white bread).
panuchos -- A Yucatecan dish of masa cakes stuffed with refried black beans and topped with shredded turkey or chicken, lettuce, and onion.
papas -- Potatoes.
papadzules -- A Yucatecan dish of tortillas stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and topped with a sauce made of pumpkinseeds.
parrillada -- A sampler platter of grilled meats or seafood.
pescado -- Fish. Common ways of cooking fish include al mojo de ajo (pan seared with oil and garlic), a la veracruzana (with tomatoes, olives, and capers), and al ajillo (seared with garlic and fine strips or rings of chile guajillo).
pibil -- See cochinita pibil. When made with chicken, it is called pollo pibil.
picadillo -- Any of several recipes using shredded beef, pork, or chicken and onions, chiles, and spices. Can also contain fruit and nuts.
pipián -- A thick sauce made with ground pumpkinseeds, nuts, herbs, and chiles. Can be red or green.
poc chuc -- A Yucatecan dish of grilled pork with onion marinated in sour orange.
pollo -- Chicken.
pozole -- Soup with chicken or pork, hominy, lettuce, and radishes, served with a small plate of other ingredients to be added according to taste (onion, pepper, lime juice, oregano). In Jalisco it's red (p. rojo), in Michoacán it's clear (p. blanco), and in Guerrero it's green (p. verde). In the rest of Mexico, it can be any one of these.
puerco -- Pork.
quesadilla -- Corn or flour tortillas stuffed with white cheese and cooked on a hot griddle. In Mexico City, it is made with raw masa folded around any of a variety of fillings (often containing no cheese) and deep-fried.
queso -- Cheese.
res -- Beef.
rompope -- Mexican liqueur, made with eggs, vanilla, sugar, and alcohol.
salbute -- A Yucatecan dish like a panucho, but without bean paste in the middle.
sopa azteca -- Tortilla soup.
sopa tarasca -- A blended soup from Michoacán made with beans and tomatoes.
sope -- Small fried masa cake topped with savory meats and greens.
tacos al pastor -- Small tacos made with thinly sliced pork marinated in an adobo and served with pineapple, onion, and cilantro.
tamal -- (Not "tamale.") Masa mixed with lard and beaten until light and folded around a savory or sweet filling, and encased in a cornhusk or a plant leaf (usually corn or banana) and then steamed. Tamales is the plural form.
taquitos -- See flautas.
tinga -- Shredded meat stewed in a chile chipotle sauce.
torta -- A sandwich made with a bolillo.