Mexican food is the most popular ethnic food served in the United States. As our neighbor to the south, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Sales of flour tortillas and salsa surpassed those of hot-dog buns and ketchup. There are 38,000 Mexican restaurants nationwide, and I’m sure you’ve eaten at a handful of them, but what if I told you that what you ordered probably isn’t real Mexican food?
Most of what is served in the U.S. is actually described as “Tex-Mex,” a Mexican-American hybrid, named for the Texas-Mexico border. Nachos, burritos, hard-shell tacos and many more of your favorites fall into this category.
Here are some signs that you’re not as gastronomically well-versed as you might think, and tips on how to spot authentic Mexican food when you see it:
- Your burrito is bursting at the seams
Stuffing an entire meal into one bite? Sounds pretty American. Burritos, though tasty, are an American concept. The best Mexican food is simple. This version of a burrito is much smaller, and is only filled with a couple ingredients. Tacos de harina often contain a meat or seafood protein and rice, beans, soft white cheese, or seasonal vegetables or chiles.
- The only Mexican cheese you’ve had is yellow
If your tastes for Mexican cheeses has never gone further than a bag of shredded four-blend yellow-orange cheese from the grocery store. Queso blanco, queso Oaxaca, cotija and many more soft, white cheeses hail from many regions of Mexico, and have a huge range of flavors from mild to smoky.
- Your favorite salsa is from a jar
Salsa roja, salsa verde, and pico de gallo are three of the most popular Mexican salsas, and all pack much more flavor than the jar in your pantry does. Mole is another popular condiment, and also comes in many different varieties. The most well-known is made from various chiles and unsweetened chocolate.
- Your enchiladas are super saucy
Tex-Mex Enchiladas are often doused in sauce, covered with yellow cheese and baked. Traditional enchiladas exist, but they are much lighter. The tortillas are fried and lightly dipped in sauce before being rolled up with meat, vegetables, or cheese, then topped with fresh while cheese.
- Your tacos have a hard shell
In Mexico, tacos are made with small, soft tortillas that have been lightly steamed or grilled. They are filled minimally with meat, vegetables like avocado and onion, a small amount of white cheese, and are garnished with cilantro and lime. Oh, and skip the sour cream. Heavy sour cream has no place on a taco like this. Crema is much lighter and tangier than sour cream and is often drizzled on a variety of Mexican cuisines.
- You’ve never had nachos for breakfast
Not in the morning after a long night of partying, but a real breakfast that resembles a plate of nachos: Lightly fried corn tortillas simmered with salsa and topped with cheese, an egg, and other garnishes.
Authentic Mexican is much lighter, and strikingly healthier than the Tex-Mex that is probably served at your local taqueria. If you ever have the chance to try any of the real stuff, jump at it.