Mexican Food Surprises, Disappointments, and Discoveries

Ummmm, salbutes

Mmmm, salbutes


After nearly three weeks in Mexico we’ve still only just scratched the surface of the country’s cuisine. And having only traveled in the Yucatan we haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore its regional nuances. But first impressions still matter. So here are some of ours about this foreign cuisine that we Americans know so well.

U.S. Mexican food is really quite excellent

Several years ago I was inspired to write a post asking “Is Regional Cuisine Still Relevant” after traveling the U.S.  and discovering that no region had a monopoly on its signature cuisine. We found, for example, that legendary Texas barbeque was routinely better in other states and that Southern Fried chicken was done just as well in the north.

Since then we’ve also discovered that Italy doesn’t have a hammerlock on great Italian food, especially pasta, or Thailand on Thai (the U.S. has yet to master Vietnamese cuisine, though, but that’s probably for lack of really trying).

So it’s no surprise to report that U.S. Mexican food can be every bit as delicious and “authentic” as what’s served south of the border. We really do have some terrific Mexican cooking in the U.S. (Taco Bell notwithstanding.) 

What’s more, we’re starting to come to the conclusion that the U.S. is the single best destination in all the world for food. That’s not to say we invented great cuisine. Most of the stuff we invented is crap (corn dog, anyone?). But we copy other cuisines brilliantly, and we probably copy more of them better than anyone anywhere else on the planet. Mexican food is no exception.

Mexican food is relatively healthful in Mexico

One of the things U.S. cooks do to Mexican food that isn’t an improvement is load dishes with tons of grease, cheese, and rice. So far we’ve encountered very little of that in actual Mexican cooking. And while many of the dishes and flavors are similar to the ones we’ve eaten in the U.S., they tend not to be the huge calorie bombs that are so common up north.

But where did all the vegetables go?

This is a pretty typical produce section

This is a pretty typical produce section. What you see here is pretty much what you get.

The lack of vegetables here in the Yucatan is both a shock and a disappointment. We wrongfully assumed that this tropical region would overflow with an abundance of unique and wonderful produce. Instead we discovered that it’s not unusual to get served a dish with almost no vegetables at all.  

Even markets have a woeful selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Mostly we’ve seen tomatoes, onions, limes, avocados, bananas, cucumbers that look like zucchinis, and a few assorted other things. That’s about it. We’re not quite at the point of worrying we’ll contract scurvy, but it’s not completely out of the question either.

Habaneros, heat with flavor

One of the many varieties of habanero sauce we've encountered. Fiery and addictive.

One of the many varieties of habanero sauce we’ve encountered. Fiery and super addictive.

In the U.S. the jalapeno, a mostly tasteless pepper who’s overwhelming virtue is its mouth warming properties, reigns supreme. In the Yucatan, however, the habanero is the go-to pepper for adding that flavor-enhancing heat. It is a far, far superior choice. Not only are habaneros hotter than lowly jalapenos, they also pop with a savory toasted flavor that just makes everything wonderful.

The many different kinds of habanero “salsa picante” we’ve tried here are all truly works of art. There are green ones and brown ones and red ones, too. They come in chunky salsas and thin sauces. We even encountered one that looked exactly like stone ground mustard. The only thing they all had in common is their universal awesomeness. 

Fresh corn tortillas kick ass

Corn tortilas

I hate soft corn tortillas. Those dry, brittle, grainy rounds of dirty-sock tasting wrappers that destroy whatever food has the misfortune of being imprisoned inside are an affront to everything that is good and holy. They’re an abomination . . . in the U.S., that is, where they’ve undoubtedly sat on a shelf for weeks after being “enhanced” with preservatives for “freshness.”

Here, and I’m guessing throughout all of Mexico, you actually watch as goops of fresh dough get pressed either by hand or by a contraption into little discs of deliciousness. You can then watch as those discs get cooked on a grill minutes before they’re handed to you for consumption. They’re everything U.S. tortillas are not – soft, flavorful, even nuanced. And they’re a revelation.

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24 Comments on “Mexican Food Surprises, Disappointments, and Discoveries”

  1. KKHPhotos.com January 27, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    Looks great. Mexican food is some of my favorite!

    Like

  2. mytimetotravel January 27, 2016 at 10:46 am #

    “But we copy other cuisines brilliantly, and we probably copy more of them better than anyone anywhere else on the planet.”

    Maybe, certainly not all. The best Indian and Pakistani food is probably in the UK, it’s certainly not in the US! Aside, possibly, from DC and NYC, the Indian restaurant scene is pretty bleak. Chinese food in China is nothing like Chinese food in the US. And I have yet to encounter a decent (Breton) galette.

    Like

    • Brian January 27, 2016 at 11:17 am #

      Funny, because we had near universally mediocre Indian experiences during our 5 month tour through the UK, which included several weeks and several attempts in London.

      Granted, we never visited any high-end Indian joints which might account for our misses. But we haven’t had to spend big bucks for good Indian anywhere else we’ve traveled. Great UK Indian food is one of those things “everyone knows” to be true but I haven’t actually experienced it my self.

      Meanwhile we spent 4 years road tripping through the US and found good Indian at many stops outside the big cities.

      We haven’t been to China yet and I suspect you’re right. Although I haven’t really heard anyone rave about truly authentic Chinese food either.

      Like

      • mytimetotravel January 27, 2016 at 11:33 am #

        I grew up in England, and was very disappointed when I moved to the US and failed to find good Indian food. There are one or two restaurants in my area now with interesting food, but much of it is one dimensional and there are far too many buffets. Sorry you didn’t find good Indian food in the UK, I never seem to have trouble when I go back.

        Some Chinese food is definitely an acquired taste (and I’m not saying I acquired it), but that’s true of Japanese food, too (raw egg for breakfast?).

        Like

        • Brian January 27, 2016 at 11:40 am #

          Where do you recommend in the Uk as we’ll surely be back.

          And when did you move to the US? US food and beer have radically improved over the past decade.

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        • Brian January 27, 2016 at 11:48 am #

          PS I also wouldn’t disregard my general comment because one cuisine may debatably be done better elsewhere. Have you tried Mexican food in the UK?

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          • mytimetotravel January 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

            That was odd – this set of comments just disappeared for a while.

            Can’t think that recommending the Indian at the top end of the street my sister lives on would help. In London I usually just pick somewhere close with good yelp reviews. (But not on Brick Lane.) If you want some recommendations I’d look for a copy of the Good Food Guide.

            i agree that the food scene in the US has improved considerably since I moved here, but I think it still falls short when it comes to Indian food – especially at lunch time. I rarely eat Mexican, if I want spicy food in the US I eat Thai and in the UK I eat Indian. There are a few good Mexican restaurants in my area, but most of them serve the same boring menu with rice and beans on the side.

            BTW, I thought you weren’t too keen on the Indian restaurant scene in the US either: https://everywhereonce.com/2015/03/05/are-americans-too-cheap-for-indian-food/

            Like

            • Brian January 27, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

              My bad about the mysteriously disappearing comment. I was trying to reply from my phone while in the airport and fat-fingered something that sent this comment thread into some kind of interweb purgatory. We’re back now. 🙂

              Good memory pulling up that old post (I definitely don’t mind being called on my own bullshit if that’s what I happen to be up to at the moment). But in this case if you click through the link you’ll see that what I was discussing is not the quality of U.S. Indian food, but the quantity. From the post . . .“there are, after all, more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants around the country, and roughly the same number of Mexican restaurants, but only about 5,000 Indian restaurants. Why?”

              Me loves them U.S. curries. 😀

              Thanks for the Good Food Guide reference. That’s a new one for us. We definitely stayed away from Brick Lane, so at least we did that right. LOL.

              Like

            • Brian January 27, 2016 at 4:31 pm #

              P.S. The Indian food shown in that link’s blurry photo is from Hoi An Vietnam and was pretty excellent. Those Tandoori chickens you see cooking were in Melaka Malaysia and were a huge revelation. I haven’t eaten Tandoori anything for a very long time because I only ever had it in the U.S. and it wasn’t very good. The Tandoori we had in Asia was way, way better. Now that I know what Tandoori can be, I’ll have to try it again in the U.S. to see if we’ve stepped up our game.

              Like

            • mytimetotravel January 28, 2016 at 8:58 am #

              I wouldn’t get my hopes too high about Tandoori. But I rarely eat it because I don’t find the spicing interesting.

              Like

            • Brian January 28, 2016 at 9:20 am #

              Boo. 😦

              Like

  3. Julie Cao January 27, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    I agree that Mexican food in Mexico is so different and tasty without the bombs of greasy and cheese. And to add to your list, I also love their coffee and fish dishes! T

    Like

    • Brian January 27, 2016 at 2:38 pm #

      Hi Julie. Where should we look for coffee? Haven’t really encountered any yet. Just landed in DF.

      Like

      • Julie Cao January 27, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

        Hi Brian, I usually drink complimentary coffee at my hostel during breakfast time, and they are equally as good as the one at the local coffee shops. If the place you stay offers free coffee, I recommend you to go for it.

        Like

        • Brian January 28, 2016 at 8:49 am #

          Thanks Julie,
          First impressions of Mexico City Centro Historico . . .

          Liked by 1 person

  4. andytallman101 January 27, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

    Is it fair to say that lack of veges seems to be a common theme with south of “the border” America? (I mean everything to the south of USA on both continents).

    That’s probably a massive generalisation, but when I was in Miami for example, we were disappointed with the lack of vege options in the South American/Central American/Carribean restaurants (of which there are many). And I don’t mean that there weren’t enough vegetarian options – I mean there just wasn’t a lot of options for eating any vegetables.

    Maybe someone can set me straight on this, or make me understand why it at least appears that way to me?

    Like

    • Brian January 27, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

      You’ll have to look to someone other than me to “set you straight” on this one because I honestly don’t know. We’ve been only to Guatemala, Belize, and now Mexico when traveling south of the U.S. border. And now, come to think of it, I don’t remember a lot of vegetable options in Belize. Guatemala may have been better but we weren’t paying as much attention to food in those destinations so I’m a little hazy on the specifics.

      Like

  5. Maggie January 28, 2016 at 6:55 am #

    I am just envious of your ” strong constitution “. When I spent 2 yr. traveling I saw more toilets than temples! So It was good to return to US and try the cuisines here, less risk but less flavor. I am surprised you are not enjoying Mexico. I hesitate to return since I have such great memories. I don’t see Zihuatenjeo on your itinerary . There, we spent extra$ and experienced some of the best food in the most romantic settings ever.
    Wondering …..could you share your daily food budget plan . ….and what you bring with you for any food related development illness.

    Like

    • Brian January 28, 2016 at 8:59 am #

      Hi Maggie,
      I don’t think we said we’re not enjoying Mexico. In this particular article I’m simply conveying my surprise at how well good U.S. Mexican stands up to the real deal. Because we love good U.S. Mexican it stands to reason, then, that we also love good actual Mexican. 😉

      You’re right we’re not making it to Zihuatenjeo this time. We’re done with beaches for this trip. Always something for next time.

      And we don’t have a strict food budget. Every city is so radically different we just try to sniff out the best values wherever we go. In Mexico we’ve spent as little as USD 1.50 per person for lunch to as much as USD 20 per person for dinner.

      Like

  6. Les Petits Pas de Juls January 28, 2016 at 12:39 pm #

    Been living in Mexico since 2012, on and off, when I’m not in France; in Merida, as stated in another comment section.

    I’m so happy to learn that you too have fallen for Mexican food! Being French, I’m addicted to good food and gastronomy; I find it fabulous that Mexico has such a variety of dishes and its own gastronomy.
    My mother was very surprised and amazed by its rich flavors and variety, the first time she came.

    Best of:
    https://lespetitspasdejuls.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/how-to-get-addicted-to-mexican-food-part-1/

    Enjoy the rest of your trip in Mexico!
    Cheers!

    Like

  7. Marilyn Albright January 30, 2016 at 4:21 am #

    I see that you will be visiting Oaxaca in February – I would be glad to recommend some places to try excellent local food. And if you want to see mountains of fresh produce, we have ’em!
    I don’t know your plans or what you like to do, but I’d be happy to make some suggestions, as there are a million interesting things to do here!

    Like

    • Brian January 30, 2016 at 8:38 am #

      We love recommendations so lett’er rip. If you don’t want to do it in comments you can e-mail us at everywhereonce@gmail.com

      Thanks!

      Like

      • Marilyn Albright January 31, 2016 at 9:13 am #

        I’ll do that – and I’ll ask my friends and neighbors for their recommendations.

        Like

  8. vanessa304 May 27, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    Admin, if not okay please remove!

    Our facebook group “selfless” is spending this month spreading awareness on prostate cancer & research with a custom t-shirt design. Purchase proceeds will go to cancer.org, as listed on the shirt and shirt design.

    http://www.teespring.com/prostate-cancer-research

    Thanks

    Like

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