Mexican food has become increasingly popular in the UK over the past few decades. Many Brits have embraced Mexican cuisine, with its bright flavors, spicy chilies and fresh ingredients. However, Mexican food in the UK is still working to gain the widespread popularity it has found in places like the US.
How popular is Mexican food in the UK?
Mexican restaurants can be found in most major cities across the UK, especially in London which has over 200 Mexican eateries. There are a mix of independent restaurants and larger chains like Wahaca, Chiquito and Las Iguanas bringing Mexican flavors to British diners.
According to market research, the growing popularity of Mexican food is being driven by Millennials and Gen Z who appreciate the bold, global flavors. A 2019 survey found that tacos were the second most popular global cuisine for Brits after Chinese.
The cuisine is definitely gaining ground, but has yet to achieve the same mainstream popularity that Italian, Indian and Chinese cuisines have long held in the UK. Many smaller towns still lack good dedicated Mexican restaurants.
When did Mexican food first arrive in the UK?
Mexican food made its first real inroads into the UK back in the 1980s. This is when chains like Chiquito and restaurants like Café Pacifico helped introduce Brits to enchiladas, fajitas and burritos.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the scene continued to grow. More immigration from Mexico and Central/South America brought even more influences and authenticity. A new wave of trendy, buzzed-about Mexican restaurants popped up in London.
However, Mexican food was still largely seen as a niche, ethnic cuisine and had yet to go mainstream across the whole of the UK.
How has the growth of Mexican food in the UK accelerated recently?
In the 2010s Mexican food started to gain major momentum across the UK, moving beyond just London. Some factors in the growing popularity:
– Influence of American media and food culture spreading dishes like tacos and quesadillas.
– Wave of trendy Mexican taquerias and mezcal bars breathing new life into the scene, especially in London.
– Major supermarket chains like Tesco and Asda began stocking Mexican ingredients making cooking more accessible.
– Celebrity chefs like Rick Stein, Thomasina Miers and Wahaca’s Thomas Pellicer helping spotlight authentic Mexican cooking.
– Growing appreciation for bold, global flavors and spice among younger generations.
– Increasing number of Mexican and Latin American immigrants naturally spreading the cuisine.
The Current Popularity of Mexican Cuisine in Different Parts of the UK
While Mexican food is gaining popularity across all of Britain, there are still major regional differences in its availability and the extent to which it has been embraced.
As the UK’s largest, most multicultural city, London unsurprisingly has by far the biggest Mexican food scene. There are taquerias popping up across the city, often with late night or 24 hour service to satisfy after-pub cravings.
In trendy East London, Soho and Shoreditch, some of the coolest, most innovative new Mexican restaurants and mezcal bars are opening. There are also Mexican street food vendors bringing classics like tacos and quesadillas to food markets and events.
Yet Mexican still lags behind Asian cuisines in popularity among Londoners. In a 2019 Time Out reader survey, only 5% named a Mexican restaurant as their favorite compared to 13% choosing an Asian restaurant.
Other major UK cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds have also seen growth in Mexican restaurants, though on a smaller scale. Manchester now has almost 50 dedicated Mexican eateries.
The selection is steadily improving in urban areas as regional Mexican and South American restaurants gain a following. However, Mexican still lacks the ubiquity that Indian and Chinese cuisines have achieved across British cities.
Smaller Towns and Countryside
In smaller, more rural towns across Britain, good quality Mexican restaurants remain rare. The local pub or Indian restaurant is still the default dining choice for many.
Some residents of these areas have limited familiarity with Mexican flavors or ingredients. Education is needed to create demand and encourage restaurants to open.
That said, tastes are slowly changing as people travel more. Some multi-cuisine restaurants are starting to add Mexican dishes onto their menus even in remote country villages.
Factors Contributing to the Growing Popularity of Mexican Food in the UK
It’s not just restaurant numbers and survey data that point to Mexican food’s rising popularity – a nexus of cultural and economic factors are coming together to drive interest in the cuisine nationwide.
Increasing Cultural Diversity
The UK population is becoming far more multicultural with large immigrant communities from Mexico, Central and South America. Over 200,000 Mexicans now call London home.
With more Mexican people comes more Mexican restaurants and groceries, exposing Brits to authentic cooking in their neighborhoods. Inter-cultural friendships and marriages also spark interest.
Millennial-Driven Interest in Bold, Global Flavors
Younger UK generations are much more adventurous eaters seeking out bolder, spicier flavors from around the globe.
Millennials in particular have fueled interest in Mexican cuisine, a 2015 survey finding it their 5th favorite ethnic cuisine. Their palates have been expanded through travel.
American Media/Food Culture Influence
American TV shows, movies and other media have exposed Brits to Mexican dishes like tacos, quesadillas and burritos. Chains like Taco Bell have made them more familiar.
When popular American food trends like tacos and mezcal cocktails emerge, they quickly ripple across the Atlantic to the UK – London especially.
Increasing Accessibility of Ingredients
The range of Mexican ingredients available at mainstream UK grocers has ballooned. Foods like tortillas, black beans, avocados, Mexican cheese and hot sauce are now widely accessible.
Brits are therefore finding it easier to cook Mexican food at home – crucial for really learning to appreciate and embrace the cuisine.
Celebrity Chef and Restaurant Spotlight
Leading chefs like Rick Stein, Thomasina Miers and Thomas Pellicer have made Mexican a focus – writing cookbooks, hosting TV shows and launching restaurant chains.
Their guidance on techniques and ingredients has inspired more British home cooks. The food media hype around new Mexican restaurants also drives interest.
The Question of Authenticity
With Mexican food’s growing exposure in the UK, there have been questions around how authentic it truly is. Are Brit-Mex adaptations better satisfying local tastes?
Adaptations to Suit British Preferences
Some Mexican restaurants in the UK tone down the spice level and simplify dishes to suit British palates. Corn tortillas are sometimes swapped for flour.
Rice and chips are common sides – less authentic but familiar to Brits. Dessert nachos and burritos also land far from traditional Mexican.
Transporting Authentic Mexican Flavors
That said, there are also many restaurants striving to transport authentic Mexican flavors by using traditional recipes, ingredients and cooking methods.
Some are run by Mexican expats or chefs trained in Mexico. Places like Breddos Tacos, El Pastor and Temper are seen as genuinely authentic.
Finding the Balance
In the end, most UK-based Mexican chefs aim to strike a balance – retaining fundamental flavors and dishes but applying adaptations to prevent intimidating British diners.
Small tweaks like less spicy salsas can introduce beginners, while traditional options satisfy purists. Education is key so diners eventually acclimate to authentic Mexican.
The Most Popular Mexican Dishes in the UK
When it comes to what Brits are actually eating, some signature Mexican dishes have emerged as favorites. These are the current tops.
Tacos have risen to incredible popularity in the UK in recent years. Corn or flour tortillas filled with meats, veggies, cheese – the variety is endless.
Tacos have become a food trend, with late night taco vans and restaurants popping up everywhere. Their versatility and customization appeals.
Sizzling steak, chicken or veggie fajitas are served at every Mexican chain. Many Brits first experience Mexican food via fajitas at places like Chiquito.
Their theatrical tableside service and fun DIY assembly make fajitas a appealing shareable meal.
Corn tortillas rolled around fillings like chicken, beef, cheese or beans and covered in sauce are a familiar and well-liked choice at UK Mexican restaurants.
Enchiladas provide a comforting, approachable and customizable introduction to Mexican flavors for the uninitiated.
Hulking burritos stuffed with rice, beans, meat and more inside a flour tortilla have become another Mexican favorite.
Burritos are a hearty, portable and efficient meal that appeals to British preferences. Chains like Tortilla do swift business selling customizable burritos.
Pile-it-high nachos loaded with melted cheese, sour cream, guacamole and jalapeños are a Mexican standard at every pub and game night.
Nachos are more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican, but their crowdpleasing shareability has won over Brits.
Simple melted cheese or filled quesadillas appeal as a versatile fast food. They’ve been growing on UK menus and are now offered everywhere from restaurants to cinemas.
Quesadillas are an easy intro to Mexican flavors for the wary and great snackable, custom comfort food for all.
While less known than in Spain, Mexican-style churros dusted in cinnamon sugar have carved out dessert niche in the UK via restaurants like Chiquito.
Their satisfying sweetness after a Mexican meal has converted many Brits.
Influential Chefs and Restaurants Pushing Mexican Food Forward in the UK
Certain chefs and restaurants have been instrumental in bringing quality Mexican food to Britain and influencing its ongoing evolution and popularity growth.
Thomasina Miers – Wahaca
Thomasina Miers brought the flavors of Mexico home after she won BBC’s MasterChef in 2005. Inspired, she launched her Wahaca chain of street food style restaurants in London in 2007.
Wahaca has shown Brits the regional diversity of authentic Mexican street food in a casual, upbeat setting. The chain now has 25+ locations across the UK.
Thomas Pellicer – Santo Remedio
London’s Santo Remedio led by head chef Thomas Pellicer is considered one of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in the UK.
Pellicer was born in Mexico and trained under Rick Bayless. He’s committed to exemplifying the true depth and complexity of Mexican cuisine using traditional techniques and Nahua ingredients.
Rick Stein – Padstow Seafood School
Celebrity chef Rick Stein fell in love with Mexican food and in 2015 opened the Padstow Seafood School focusing on Mexican seafood recipes and techniques like ceviche and Baja-style fish tacos.
His TV shows, restaurants and cookbooks have given Brits fantastic guidance on cooking quality Mexican food at home.
Benito’s Hat has done fantastic work exposing Brits outside of London to authentic regional Mexican cuisine in a casual, communal setting. Started in Oxford, they now have locations across the UK.
Their freshly made tortillas, tacos, tostadas and other Mexican street food are some of the best quality found outside the capital.
Originally a taco truck started by two Americans, Breddos Tacos has become one of London’s finest taco destinations.
Using heirloom corn tortillas and high-quality fillings, they’ve shown Brits how incredible tacos can be when done right. They’ve forced other UK taco spots to up their game.
The Future of Mexican Food’s Popularity in the UK
Mexican food has clearly gained a real foothold across the UK in recent years. But does it have the potential to truly join the upper ranks of Britain’s most popular cuisines?
Forecast for Continued Growth
Market research forecasts point to continued rapid growth for the Mexican food segment in the UK – more than doubling in value between 2015 and 2023.
As younger generations drive demand and Mexican restaurants expand beyond urban centers, adoption is expected to keep rising.
Potential to Rival Indian and Chinese
Given its versatility, fresh/healthy perceptions, bold flavors and increasing ubiquity, Mexican has a chance to genuinely challenge Indian and Chinese someday in terms of UK popularity.
To get there, further familiarizing Brits with core ingredients and dishes is key. Higher-quality, more authentic offerings across all price levels need to be accessible.
Required Ongoing Innovation
To keep growing, the Mexican food sector can’t be complacent. Continued innovation is needed – special seasonal offerings, fresh takes on classics, new restaurants celebrating regional diversity.
If the scene stagnates, interest may wane. But active ongoing engagement should help build British lifelong love for Mexican.
While once a niche player on the UK dining scene, Mexican food is now gaining real mainstream popularity thanks to cultural diversity, food trends and creative chefs. Certain dishes like tacos and fajitas are almost ubiquitous today.
Yet Mexican still has room to grow, especially outside urban areas. Ongoing innovation and focus on authenticity are key to inspiring a lifelong fandom similar to Indian and Chinese food. The future certainly looks bright for continued Mexican flavor cravings across the UK.