Banish thoughts of boring burritos and tasteless Tex Mex; it’s not just chillies that are making Mexican food hot right now. The country’s diverse cuisine is so good, it’s been granted UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status (French is the only other gastronomy), and there’s everything from tasty tacos to fine-dining fusion. Here are some of the country's best destinations for foodies.
Mexico City’s world-renowned restaurants may be taking traditional cuisine to a new level but street food is as much a part of the city’s culture today as it was in pre-Hispanic times. There’s a makeshift stall on every corner and enough local treats to keep you busy for days. One way to sample them is on a tour with Club Tengo Hambre who can also arrange an artisan mescal tasting from La Fiera Mezcal.
What to try: Tacos al pastor (meat on a spit, similar to a kebab), tlacoyos (blue corn cakes stuffed with ground fava beans), quesadillas (huitlacoche and flor de calabaza are traditional flavours – you’ll have to ask for cheese) and pulque (a mildly alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant).
Where to eat: Enrique Olvera’s Mexican haute cuisine at Pujol makes a regular appearance on the world’s best restaurant lists. Martha Ortiz creates colourful art on a plate at Dulce Patria. Maximo Bistrot in Roma is a local’s favourite, with creative dishes from young chef Eduardo Garcia.
With mountains, jungle and coast, Oaxaca is a mix of ecosystems and cultures, with an equally diverse cuisine. Now native chefs are transforming classic dishes into gourmet plates inspired by the wealth of endemic and seasonal produce. Mescal, Oaxaca’s traditional tipple, is also enjoying a renaissance. Try a tasting of this smoky spirit at Mezcaleria or go to the source with a tour of an artisan producer, such as Real Minera.
What to try: Mole (a famous sauce made of a rich mix of ingredients, including chocolate and chillies), tlayudas (the Mexican take on pizza), tamales (steamed, stuffed corn dough wrapped in banana leaves), chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and mescal (a unique spirit distilled from the maguey plant).
Where to eat: Alejandro Ruiz at Casa Oaxaca is known as the godfather of Nuevo Oaxacan cuisine. Jose Manuel Baños had a stint at Spain’s legendary El Bulli before opening Pitiona and Rodolfo Castellanos returned to his roots to open Origen. Or learn to make it yourself on a Casa Crespo cooking class.
Just a 90-minute drive from San Diego, an increasing number of creative, homegrown chefs and pioneering winemakers have turned Northern Baja into a booming culinary hotspot. Ensenada’s bountiful seafood is perfectly paired with the wines of the boulder-strewn Valle de Guadalupe. Billed as the ‘new Napa’ it’s actually one of oldest wine-growing areas of the New World – Jesuit priests planted the first vines there in the eighteenth century.
What to try: Try wine tastings at innovative boutique wineries such as Vena Cava or Adobe Guadalupe, or larger producers, such as Monte Xanic. Don’t miss the varied seafood on offer – everything from clams and oysters to abalone and goose barnacles – and there’s great beef from Baja’s inland ranches.
Where to eat: Diego Hernandez, one of the region’s top chefs, goes local at Corazón de Tierra. Jair Téllez creates weekly-changing farm-to-table fare at rustic Laja. Baja meets the Mediterranean at Benito Molino’s Ensenada restaurant, Manzanilla.
Mexico’s second city, in the state of Jalisco, is the birthplace of tequila, mariachi music and the Mexican hat dance. Its cuisine is based around many archetypal Mexican ingredients: chilies, corn, beans, tomatoes and pork. Sample the country’s iconic spirit at an historic distillery in Tequila, perhaps Jose Cuervo or Casa Herradura, in an easy day trip from the city.
What to try: The torta ahogada sandwich (fried pork “drowned” – the literal translation of “ahogada” – in a tangy salsa), birria (a spicy stew usually made with goat), pozole (a thick, pre-Hispanic pork or chicken strew) and gusanos (deep fried maguey worms wrapped in a tortilla).
Where to eat: Native chefs transform local produce into gourmet fare at Allium. Tortos Toño is the place to try the city’s signature sandwich. For really cheap eats, pick up traditional favourites at the Mercado San Juan de Dios.
Yucatecan cuisine is a mix of Maya and European ingredients – including pork and oranges brought by the Spanish and Edam cheese by the Dutch. Distinctive flavours are often based on pastes, elaborate blends of spices, including achiote made from ground annatto seeds. Kahlua, the coffee-flavoured liqueur also hails from Yucatán but Xtabentun is more authentic, an anise and honey liqueur based on a Maya ceremonial drink.
What to try: Cochinita pibil (pork or chicken marinated in achiote paste, made from ground annatto sees), relleno negro (turkey cooked with black paste made from chillies), sopa de lima (chicken and lime soup), panuchos (fried tortillas with shredded turkey or chicken and black beans) and horchata (a drink made from rice, almonds and cinnamon).
Where to eat:K’u’uk fuses local flavours with sophisticated culinary techniques in its 15-course tasting menu. La Chaya Maya for authentic dishes. Wayan’e is a brightly painted kiosk that serves up Yucatan-style tacos.