If you’ve learned anything about Mexican food from eating at Chipotle or Qdoba a few times each week, it’s time to forget everything you thought you knew. To help get you acquainted with real, authentic, south-of-the-border flavors, here’s our guide to eating your way through Mexico on tour.
With a nickname like “the land of the seven moles,” it’s not all too surprising to find that Oaxaca’s (wah-ha-ka) culinary claim to fame is its rich and flavorful mole (moh-lay) sauces. While local recipes tend to vary from town to town (and even family to family), each type of mole is made from blends of roasted ingredients that typically include spices, tomatoes, a mix of chilies and sometimes even chocolate. All differences in recipe aside, the secret to the perfect mole lies in how well the sauce is blended. When it’s impossible to detect the flavor of any single ingredient, you know you’ve tasted a good batch.
Taste it on tour Head to Los Pacos, located in the city of Oaxaca, for a sampler of all of the region’s seven moles.
Mexico City, Central Mexico
Drawing influences from an array of other regions throughout the country, the culinary landscape in this Mexican capital is a reflection of the city’s culturally diverse makeup. With such a wide array of traditions all converging upon the same place, Mexico City is home to a thriving street food scene. From market stalls to sidewalk vendors, it’s not difficult to find a quick (and authentic) bite to eat while you’re out exploring.
Taste it on tour Make your way to Sullivan Market to get a taste of everything from barbacoa and carnitas to hot-off-the-grill tlacoyos (oval-shaped corn cakes typically topped with cheese, beans and salsa). You’ll also find chorizo and queso fresco-filled pambazo sandwiches, fresh tacos and much more. Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of food stands set up shop along Avenida James Sullivan to cook for the city’s hungry shoppers.
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo
With its long coastline and island territories, Quintana Roo—the Mexican state that’s home to both Playa del Carmen and Cancún—has a close relationship with the ocean. As a result, fresh seafood is prominently featured in the region’s fare. For a fish dish that gets high marks for presentation, try tikin-xic (tee-keen shee). Often prepared with the catch of the day, this traditional meal consists of a fish that’s rubbed with achiote paste, baked whole and served on a banana leaf with onions and tomatoes.
Taste it on tour To dive into your own tikin-xic, grab your travel companions and get a table at Carboncitos. This Playa del Carmen spot also has a reputation for its unique style of drink service (spoiler alert: the servers here deliver your cocktails balanced on their heads!), so be prepared for a memorable time.
A state with deep Mayan roots, Yucatán’s ancient heritage can still be seen in its local recipes today. Pibil and tamales—both prevalent regional specialties—pay homage to the area’s history. A method of cooking that involves wrapping marinated meat in banana leaves to be slow-cooked in a pit that’s been dug into the ground, pibil is a technique that the people of the Yucatán have used for centuries. Additionally, tamales have been a staple here since before the Common Era, when (due to their portability) they were the food of choice for Mayan armies.
Taste it on tour For cochinita pibil (a kind of pulled pork), La Socorrito in Mérida’s Lucas de Galvez market serves up flavorful helpings of this classic dish. If you find yourself with a tamale craving instead, head to Los Platos Rotos. With a menu that rotates by the day, it might take a bit of luck to track down a tamale, but if you show up on the right day, we can assure you won’t be disappointed.