The wonderful world of Mexican cuisine can be baffling at the best of times, but if you don’t speak Spanish, have never visited the country or don’t understand the cultural culinary quirks of the Mexicans, you might have a hard time when it comes to ordering something suitable. With that in mind, here’s our practical rundown, including tips and tricks, for when it comes time to place your order.
To order your food in Mexico, the chances are you’ll need to grapple with at least a few basic phrases in Spanish:
¿Me puede dar…?’/ ‘¿Me da…? = Both basically mean ‘Can I have…?’
¿Me trae la cuenta por favor? = ‘Can I have the bill, please?’
¿Cuánto va a ser?’/ ‘¿Cuánto es? = ‘How much is it?’
‘Soy vegetariano/a’: ‘I’m vegetarian.’ Be careful when you tell people you’re vegetarian in Mexico, though, as they might not fully understand what it implies. We’ll explain this in more detail momentarily.
Finally, as an added bonus, the very Mexican phrase ‘¡me enchilé!’ may come in useful if you eat something spicy. It literally means ‘I chillied myself!’
You might think it’s odd to have a section dedicated specifically to meat, but with much of the cuisine centring on one cut of meat or another (rather than just specifying beef, pork or chicken, for example), its crucial you understand the lingo. You don’t want to end up with a cow’s eye taco when you just wanted a simple bit of steak, after all…
The main cuts / menu items to look out for, especially when it comes to ordering tacos, are as follows:
Carne de res/ Bistek = This is your straightforward ‘beef’ in most cases, with bistek (or bistec) usually meaning a thinly cut steak. If you want to play it safe, order something with this in the name!
Chuleta = A thicker-cut steak. It can also be applied to things like pork chops (chuleta de puerco).
Carne asada = Grilled steak.
Al pastor = A classic taco filling, al pastor is seasoned pork that’s often flavoured with pineapple and served from a spit. It can also be known as trompo, particularly towards the north of the country.
Guisado = This is a stew and will often include the type of meat in the title. For example, guisado de res is ‘beef stew’.
Milanesa = This means the piece of meat is breaded. It will usually be followed by the type of meat. For example, milanesa de pollo (breaded chicken).
Pechuga = Breast meat, usually chicken or turkey. Pechuga de pollo is chicken and pechuga de pavo is turkey.
Pancita/ Tripita = Tripe.
Suadero = Usually brisket beef cuts.
Carnitas = Deep fried pork shoulder, popular in Michoacán.
Chorizo = Spiced sausage, also known as chorizo in English. You may also see this listed as longaniza, which is pretty much the same thing.
Cueritos = Pickled pig skin, usually unsettlingly slimy in texture and appearance.
Chicharrón = Pig skin, but more akin to a not-so-tooth-destroyingly-hard pork scratching.
Chamorro = Pig calf.
Ojo = Eye, usually from a cow.
Lengua = Tongue, usually from a cow.
Labio = Lip, usually from a cow.
Cabeza = Head meat, again usually from a cow.
Costillas = Ribs.
Arrachera = Skirt steak.
Carne molida = Ground meat, usually beef.
While there are, of course, many more cuts of steak, the options listed above should see you safely through most street food encounters and restaurant menu items in Mexico.
Tips and Tricks
Order your tacos ‘con todo’ for the full experience
This will include ‘cebollita y cilantro’, which basically means diced onion and cilantro (or coriander for British readers!). As well as the cebollita y cilantro, you’ll want to dive into the smorgasbord of salsas that are available. There are usually four types to choose from: a salsa roja made from chili and sometimes tomato; salsa verde (often confused for guacamole), which is made from tomatillo, chili and cilantro and is generally spicy; pico de gallo (diced onion, tomato and cilantro), and finally a simple but far runnier guacamole.
Always specify you want cheese in your quesadilla when in Mexico City
It’s the one region in the country that doesn’t see cheese as a crucial part of a dish that literally has the word ‘cheese’ (queso) in the name. Don’t go home disappointed with a cheeseless quesadilla, although it’s happened to the best of us.
Horchata and Agua de Jamaica are key drinks choices
Horchata, made famous by the Vampire Weekend song, is a delightfully refreshing, creamy, cinnamon flavoured rice-water that often has a hint of vanilla. Agua de Jamaica is literally hibiscus flower water and ranges from very sweet to very tart. Both make for excellent spice-combatting beverages.
Keep your wits about you if someone says ‘no pica’
Always go for the mildest sauce if you’re very spice-phobic, as the chances are it will still have something of a kick to it. Those who always stick to korma curries may not fare well at a Mexican taco stand – let’s put it that way. If you like a bit of spice, though, you’ll be okay with the pretty spicy ‘no pica’ sauce. A good trick is to dab a bit of the sauce onto your hand and sample it first to see if you can handle the heat.
Just saying you’re vegetarian isn’t enough!
Some people will assume that if you’re vegetarian you still eat chicken and fish, so always be very careful to rule out the presence of meat in your dish by saying ‘sin pollo o pescado’ (‘no chicken or fish’). Good dishes to stick with for veggies include those with champiñones (mushrooms), queso (cheese), flor de calabaza (squash blossom) or huitlacoche (corn smut). Similarly, you can never go wrong with nopales (cactus). If you’re a strict vegetarian, though, you might want to check just what that masa (dough) was made from and what they’re frying up your veggies in – quite often the answer to both of those questions is manteca (lard).
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