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10 Mexican Dishes You Need to Know

Since you already love tacos and guac
October 26, 2017
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by Gabriella Gershenson

You understand the difference between salsa verde and salsa fresca. You’d never dream of making guacamole with peas (though maybe you’d order it at a restaurant). You already know that quesadillas use flour tortillas, and real corn tortillas and tamales are made from nixtamalized corn. You get that there’s more to Mexican food than fast-casual chains, and seek out taco trucks during your lunch hour — and not just on Tuesdays. In other words, you’ve got the basics of Mexican food down, and you’re ready to branch out. Good news is, there's much to explore. Houston chef-restaurateur Hugo Ortega won Best Chef Southwest honors at this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards for his finely honed Mexican cooking, such as legendary crispy cabrito (baby goat) at Hugo’s and seasonal moles at Xochi, which celebrates the food of Oaxaca. In New York City, fine-dining destinations Empellón, from chef Alex Stupak, and chef Enrique Olvera’s Cosme, were both awarded three stars from The New York Times. And Los Angeles continues to be the reigning metropolis for Mexican food in the U.S., with authentic regional cooking and chef-driven restaurants that reliably blow people’s minds. In other words, there’s a lot of good stuff out there that you may not have tried yet. And while Mexican food is highly regional, meaning there are actually hundreds of dishes to know from all over the sprawling country, we took a stab at boiling that list down to 10 important dishes that you might call quintessential. Consider the list below during your next Mexican food adventure.

Courtesy of Empellon

Chilaquiles

The consummate breakfast comfort dish (and hangover cure) doubles as a clever way to use up leftovers. To make chilaquiles, day-old tortillas are sliced into quarters, fried until crispy, then fried again in salsa (tomato-based rojo and verde, made with green chiles and tomatillos, are both common). It's almost like Mexican matzoh brei. Stir in some broth, black beans, sprinkle with crema, raw onions and some crumbled cheese. Breakfast is served! Fried runny eggs are optional, and delicious.

Where to try it
The homemade tortillas at Empellón Taqueria in New York City are put to excellent use in the brunchtime chilaquiles. Chef Alex Stupak fries day-old tortillas, sautés them in a salsa made from roasted tomato purée, chipotles and pig's foot broth, then adds black beans. The dish is topped with plenty of crema, cilantro, raw white onion and queso fresco, plus an egg.

Courtesy of Oyamel/Rey Lopez

Tortas

A torta is a Mexican sandwich, for all intents and purposes, though according to Hugo Ortega, “It’s a perfect sandwich. It’s equivalent to a hamburger in the States.” There are regional variations — in Puebla there are cemitas, which are usually made with a local herb called papalo, that’s like a cross between cilantro and mint. In Guadalajara, there’s torta ahogada, a roast pork sandwich “drowned” in chile de arbol salsa. Though fillings can run the gamut from a breaded, pounded beef cutlet called milanesa to hot dogs and American cheese, you can usually count on a torta to be made on a crusty-on-the-outside, fluffy-chewy inside telera roll.

Where to try it
At Oyamel in Washington, DC, chef Jose Andres serves his tortas on bolillo rolls, torpedo-shaped buns sourced from La Flor De Puebla, an area Mexican bakery. His milanesa torta features a thin, breaded chicken cutlet with black beans, Oaxaca cheese, avocado and crema. If you've ever flown into Chicago, you might know that the best airport eats can be found at Tortas Frontera, where you can pre-order a torta (say, a Cubano, or shrimp-garlic) online to grab and go on the way to your gate.

Courtesy of Cosme/Fiamma Piacentini 

Barbacoa
​​If the word sounds like barbecue, that's not an accident. Barbacoa is a method of cooking meat low and slow that's prevalent throughout Mexico. Depending on what part of the country you're in, you might be eating lamb, beef, goat or pork. What all barbacoa has in common is the method — traditionally, a whole animal is marinated, then wrapped in banana or avocado leaves and lowered into a pit that's been lined with glowing-hot stones. The pit is covered, and the meat cooks in the smoky makeshift oven overnight. The following day, there are the makings of a feast that can feed a family, or several.

Where to try it
Lamb barbacoa is served family-style during brunch at Cosme in New York City. Chef Daniela Soto-Innes braises a leg of lamb overnight with garlic, tomatoes, chiles and other spices, and sends it to the table in succulent shreds, along with cilantro, fresh chiles, lime wedges, sliced onions, creamy avocado and a stack of soft tortillas. You also must try the painstakingly scratch-made version at Philly's El Compadre, which also specializes in lamb. The spot opens at 6 AM and sells tacos till they run out.

Courtesy of El Atoradero/Will Engelmann

​Cochinita pibil
This slow-roasted pig from the Yucatán may be the ultimate celebratory meal. Some families even raise their own pigs for the delicious preparation, which involves rubbing a whole pig in achiote, a bright orange paste made with garlic, citrus and annatto seeds, which give it its color. Like barbacoa, the animal is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground in a pit lined with hot stones.

Where to try it
At El Atoradero in Brooklyn, chef Denisse Lina Chavez slow cooks pork shoulder with achiote, sour orange and chiles, and serves it wrapped in tortillas she makes herself, or as an entrée, with black beans and rice. For the cochinita pibil at Hugo’s in Houston, Ortega marinates a whole 25–35-pound pig in achiote paste for six hours, breaks it down, wraps the meat in banana leaves and roasts it. Once the pork has cooked and cooled, he debones it, mixes the crispy skin with the flesh, and serves it as individual parcels wrapped in banana leaves.​ 

Courtesy of Xochi/Paula Murphy

Mole

The term mole, which is derived from the pre-Spanish Nahuatl word "molli" and roughly translates to "sauce," is broadly applied. There are countless styles, each distinct — the one that's best known in the U.S. is mole poblano, a rich sauce from Puebla made with dozens of ingredients, the most famous of which is chocolate. There's also mole rojo, made with several types of pepper, mole verde made with herbs and pumpkin seeds, and mole negro, tinted black by charred chiles, to name just a few. Most variations are based on a paste of chiles, aromatics, nuts, seeds or some other kind of thickener, fruit (fresh or dried) and vegetables. The sauce is cooked for hours, developing layers of complexity, and is usually served with a protein or a vegetable. 

Where to try it
“Oaxaca is the land of moles,” says Ortega, who opened his Oaxacan restaurant, Xochi, in Houston earlier this year. “There are hundreds of moles in every little village.” The variety at Xochi is pretty impressive too. Duck with tomato-almond mole, black-footed chicken with mole negro and rib-eye with ant (!) mole, are among several offered. America’s most famous spots for mole may be Guelaguetza, a Los Angeles institution singled out by the James Beard Foundation as an American Classic. You can buy its moles, including the Coloradito, made with plantains, sesame seeds, nuts and raisins, at the restaurant or via mail order by the jar.

Courtesy of Cantina La Veinte

Chiles en nogada

This delicacy of roasted poblano pepper stuffed with pork, fresh and dried fruit and nuts, and lavished with a milky walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds, has a fascinating history. According to lore (and the Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy), the residents of Puebla came up with the recipe in 1821 at a banquet honoring a key victory that resulted in independence from Spain. (The colors of the patriotic dish mirror the colors of the Mexican flag.) Others say it was created by nuns in Puebla around the same time. Whatever the origin, the dish took hold. And it just so happens that the key ingredients are all in season around Mexican Independence Day, which falls on September 16.

Where to try it
This labor-intensive dish is a perfect one to leave to the experts. At Cantina La Veinte in Miami, chef Santiago Gomez stuffs poblano peppers with a pork and beef hash that's sweetened with fruit, then bathes them in creamy walnut sauce and dusts them with pomegranate seeds.

Courtesy of Coni'Seafood

Pescado zarandeado

"Zarandeado" refers to a pre-Hispanic cooking tool and technique developed by native Mexicans on the country's Pacific coast that's still used in current-day Nayarit. The zaranda is a hand-held grill of sorts that can hold a butterflied fish splayed open over a live fire. The marinated fish is toggled back and forth until it's cooked to your satisfaction. 

Where to try it
At Coni'Seafood in Inglewood, chef Connie Cossio, the daughter of Vicente Cossio, who owns several restaurants devoted to Nayarit-style seafood in and around Los Angeles, is known for her pescado zarandeado. She seasons then grills a fish called snook until it's crisp on the edges, and serves it with plenty of lime wedges, an array of raw vegetables and a basket of tortillas on the side. 

Courtesy of Border Grill/Elizabeth Lippman

Esquites
The little brother of the ultimate Mexico City street food — that would be elotes, aka cheesy ears of young corn — are these dressed kernels, sold curbside in the capital. Esquites are boiled corn kernels cut from the cob and mixed with chile powder, crema, cotija cheese and sometimes, mayonnaise.

Where to try it
Cilantro butter adds an herbal element to the textbook esquites at Border Grill in downtown Los Angeles. Also try Mesa Coyoacan's (Brooklyn) soupy version served in a parfait glass.

Courtesy of Cala

Aguachile

The word "aguachile" translates to "chile water," but it's also the name of a Pacific coastal Mexican dish, which quick-cures super-fresh raw shrimp in lime juice, hot pepper and sea salt. Though shrimp is the traditional seafood used in aguachile, chefs are experimenting with different types of raw fish in similar preparations.

Where to try it
Cala in San Francisco, which specializes in Mexican seafood dishes (think abalone tostadas and mussel tamales), serves tender kampachi aguachile with celtuce and pickled onions. You can also try them at Los Mariscos in NYC's Chelsea Market, the sibling concept to the popular Los Tacos No. 1.

Courtesy of Nopalito

Pozole

This ultimate meaty comfort stew, traditionally made with pork and dried nixtamalized corn, aka hominy, is a Mexican staple. The earthy, celebratory dish, especially popular around Christmas time, comes in all sorts of variations (even seafood), but the most traditional is pozole rojo, made with roasted tomatoes and guajillo peppers. Raw onions, shredded cabbage, crunchy radish, Key limes for squeezing and Mexican oregano are the classic accompaniments. 

Where to try it
Taste a traditional pozole rojo at Nopalito in San Francisco, where chef Gonzalo Guzman makes the hearty stew using pork shoulder, ancho chile and the usual fixings. Port Fonda in Kansas City, Missouri, puts an egg on its pozole verde, green chile–marinated pork shoulder in a spicy tomatillo broth.

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