Mexican cuisine is renowned worldwide for its bold flavors, diverse ingredients, and variety of dishes. From tacos and enchiladas to pozole and chiles rellenos, Mexican food offers something for everyone. But what are the most popular and iconic Mexican meals that you should try?
In this article, we will count down the 10 most popular traditional Mexican dishes that are a must-eat for any fan of Mexican cuisine. We’ll explore what makes these dishes so special, their key ingredients, and where you can find authentic versions in Mexico and abroad.
What makes Mexican food so special?
There are a few key factors that set Mexican food apart and make it so crave-worthy:
- Vibrant flavors – Mexican cooking relies heavily on herbs, spices, and chiles which create dishes with exciting and vibrant flavors. Cilantro, onion, garlic, oregano, cumin, chili powder, and lime are all quintessential.
- Ingredient diversity – Mexican cuisine uses a wide variety of ingredients including veggies like corn and squash as well as various meats and seafood. This diversity leads to very interesting food combinations.
- Regional variations – Each region of Mexico has its own culinary specialties that differentiate it. For example, Northern Mexican food relies more heavily on meat while Southern Mexican cuisine uses more seafood.
- Cooking techniques – Techniques like slow braising and grilling over open flames are commonly used to maximize flavors. Other techniques include roasting chiles and grinding dried corn into masa.
- Cultural significance – Food is the heart of Mexican culture, with each dish telling a unique story. Cooking and eating in Mexico is about bringing family and friends together.
With this context on what makes it so special, let’s look at the 10 most popular and important Mexican meals you should try!
Kicking off our list is pozole, a satisfying soup made from hominy and pork. Pozole is a traditional Mexican dish that originated in pre-Columbian Mexico where it was first made with turkey instead of pork. It is a celebration food most often served on special occasions but is also popular on weekends and at casual lunch spots throughout Mexico.
The base of pozole is dried maize kernels called hominy that have been cooked in a lime solution to remove the hulls in a process called nixtamalization. The hominy is cooked into a rich, hearty broth along with pork and a variety of seasonings and garnishes. Every region in Mexico has its own spin on pozole with unique chiles, herbs, and preparation methods.
Some classic garnishes and additions to pozole include:
- Shredded cabbage
- Radish slices
- Lime wedges
- Chili powder
- Chopped onion
- Toasted chili peppers
Pozole is the ultimate Mexican comfort food. With each scoop of hominy and sip of the hot, hearty broth, you get a taste of authentic Mexican cuisine and tradition.
Enchiladas are one of the most quintessentially Mexican foods. They are made from stuffed tortillas that are dipped in a chile sauce. Enchiladas originated in Mexico City but are now popular all over Mexico and beyond.
There are endless varieties of enchiladas made with different fillings, sauce styles, and toppings:
- Fillings – The most common are cheese, shredded chicken, and ground beef but you can find enchiladas filled with veggies, pork, seafood, etc.
- Sauces – The most ubiquitous is a red guajillo chile sauce but enchiladas can also be topped with green tomatillo sauce, mole sauce, or cheese sauce.
- Toppings – Common garnishes are shredded lettuce, chopped onions, queso fresco, and Mexican crema.
Regardless of the specific recipe, enchiladas are always made by dipping a softened corn tortilla into the sauce so it absorbs flavor. You then roll or fold it around the filling before topping with more sauce, cheese, and garnish.
Enchiladas are the ultimate comfort food, exploding with the rich flavor of chiles and melted cheese. They make a satisfying meal any time of day.
Carnitas are a popular Mexican braised pork dish that epitomizes the meltingly tender meat that you expect from great Mexican cuisine. To make carnitas, pork shoulder or butt is slowly braised in lard or oil until ultra soft and tender before being shredded.
Traditionally, carnitas are made by cooking the pork in seasoned lard or oil in a copper pot over low heat for several hours. As it cooks, the fatty outer layer of the meat crisps up, providing delicious textural contrast. Once falling apart tender, the pork is shredded into long pieces and strands.
At their best, carnitas deliver succulent, juicy meat with crispy edges that packs a serious punch of pork flavor. They are served alongside tortillas, beans, salsa, and other accompaniments and are perfect tucked into tacos and burritos.
Carnitas originated in the state of Michoacán but have become popular across Mexico. When cooked properly, they represent the pinnacle of Mexican pork cuisine.
Mole is Mexico’s famed sauce made from toasted dried chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, and chocolate. It originated in the state of Puebla but mole sauces can be found across Mexico with infinite regional variations.
There are 6 main types of mole sauce:
- Mole poblano – The most famous, containing chocolate and chili peppers.
- Mole negro – A darker version containing more chili peppers and chocolate.
- Mole rojo – Made with guajillo, ancho, and chipotle chili peppers.
- Mole verde – A green version made with herbs and green tomatillos/peppers.
- Mole amarillo – Containing yellow chile peppers and tomatoes.
- Mole coloradito – Reddish mole with ancho chili peppers and seeds.
While the variations are endless, moles are always complex sauces balancing sweet, savory, spicy, and earthy notes. Chocolate adds depth and richness. The sauce is very labor intensive to make requiring hours of roasting and grinding ingredients.
Chicken and turkey are classic mole pairings, but the sauce also goes well with beef, veggies, pork, or fish. Mole represents Mexico’s incredible culinary diversity and penchant for colorful, flavorful sauces.
#6 Chile Relleno
Chile relleno features roasted poblano peppers that are stuffed with ingredients like cheese or ground meat before being coated in a fluffy egg batter and fried. Chile rellenos originate from the state of Puebla but are now popular fare all over Mexico.
To make chiles rellenos:
- Poblano peppers are roasted until charred.
- The peeled, seeded chiles are filled with cheese such as queso fresco or Monterey Jack, shredded meat, or other fillings.
- The stuffed chile is coated in a flaky egg batter.
- It is then fried until golden and crispy.
When done right, chiles rellenos feature a smoky, roasted poblano pepper with a molten, gooey filling encased in a light crispy batter. They make a great vegetarian dish when filled with cheese but are also fantastic with a carnitas or picadillo filling.
Chiles rellenos are a famous staple of Mexican restaurants everywhere. Be sure to try some on your next visit to Mexico or your favorite local Mexican eatery.
Tortas are a popular Mexican sandwich traditionally served on a crusty bolillo roll. They are stuffed with an array of fillings like meat, beans, cheese, and vegetables. Tortas are ubiquitous lunch fare found across Mexico sold at food carts, restaurants, and sandwich shops.
Some classic torta fillings include:
- Milanesa – a thinly pounded, fried beef cutlet.
- Carnitas – slow-cooked pork.
- Chorizo – spicy Mexican sausage.
- Jamón – cured ham.
- Refried beans.
- Quesillo – stringy melted cheese.
Tortas are customizable depending on preferences and the region. They are often topped with avocado, onions, jalapeños, tomatoes, lettuce, and crema or mayo.
A freshly pressed torta loaded with juicy meat, melty cheese, beans, veggies and condiments is incredibly satisfying. Tortas are Mexican sandwiches at their finest!
Tamales are a beloved Mexican dish with a long history extending back to the time of the Aztecs. Tamales consist of masa dough that is stuffed with fillings then wrapped in either a corn husk or banana leaf before being steamed.
The masa dough is made from nixtamalized corn mixed with lard or vegetable shortening. Typical fillings include shredded meat, cheese, vegetables, chiles, beans, potato, or salsa. Fillings vary greatly by region with both sweet and savory tamales.
Making tamales is labor intensive and a cherished holiday tradition. Families come together to assemble and cook hundreds of tamales to share on occasions like Christmas, New Years, and the Day of the Dead.
When perfectly steamed, tamales have a soft, moist corn exterior that gives way to the savory, hearty filling inside. Their portability makes them ideal for celebrations and festivals.
Tamales hold a special place in Mexican food culture. Trying traditional homemade tamales while in Mexico is an absolute must.
#3 Tacos al Pastor
Tacos al pastor are a popular taco variety made with spit-grilled marinated pork. The method of grilling vertically on a spit was brought over by Lebanese immigrants who adapted shawarma spit-grilling to Mexico.
For tacos al pastor, pork is marinated in a blend of dried chiles, spices, vinegar, pineapple, and orange juice. It is stacked and roasted vertically on a spit alongside pineapple chunks. As the pork rotates, it bastes in the dripping juices and salsa and caramelizes.
The roasted pork is thinly sliced off the spit to order. It is served in a double corn tortilla and topped with onion, cilantro, and pineapple. Tacos al pastor offer a perfect blend of savory, sweet and spicy flavors in each bite.
Whether at a taqueria or street stall, tacos al pastor are a can’t miss Mexican street food. Their unique flavors and cooking method make them one of the most iconic Mexican tacos.
#2 Enchiladas Suizas
Enchiladas suizas are a classic green enchilada dish originating from Mexico City. They are made by rolling chicken or cheese stuffed tortillas in a bright green tomatillo salsa.
To make the sauce, tomatillos and serrano chiles are simmered to create a vivid green, tangy and slightly spicy sauce. Corn tortillas are dipped in this sauce then filled with chicken or cheese fillings.
Once assembled, the enchiladas are topped with more tomatillo salsa along with sour cream and queso fresco or shredded cheese. Chopped cilantro or avocado garnish the dish.
Enchiladas suizas deliver a wonderful combination of contrasting flavors and textures. The soft corn tortilla, creamy cheese, tart and spicy green sauce, and cooling sour cream all complement each other perfectly in each bite.
This dish has become popular internationally but nothing compares to eating authentic enchiladas suizas in Mexico City where they originated.
Topping our list are tacos, the quintessential Mexican food. Tacos are made from small, folded tortillas filled with meat, vegetables, cheese, beans or other ingredients. They originated in Mexico City in the early 20th century, becoming popular nationwide.
Some taco essentials include:
- Small, soft corn tortillas
- Protein filling – steak, chicken, pork carnitas, chorizo, fish etc.
- Onions, cilantro
- Wedges of lime
Regional taco variations abound based on local ingredients and cultural influences. Fillings also range from traditional meats to organ meats and even insects!
Tacos are highly customizable to order and can be simple or loaded up. This versatility and original Mexican street food style made tacos incredibly popular internationally. They are generally cheap, quick meals not meant for utensils.
Without a doubt, tacos are the most famous and widely-recognized Mexican food. Their variations are limitless, but their compact size and explosive flavors will keep you coming back again and again.
Where to Find Authentic Mexican Food
Now that you know the 10 most popular traditional Mexican dishes, your next goal is to try authentic versions of these iconic meals. Here are some tips for finding genuine Mexican food in Mexico or closer to home:
- Visit taquerias, street food stalls, and fondas (family-run diners) in Mexico as these make the most authentic Mexican food.
- In Mexican restaurants, choose ones with a specialty like mole, tamales, pozole etc. rather than generic menus.
- Search for restaurants that source ingredients from Mexico and employ Mexican chefs.
- In the US, try restaurants certified as authentically Mexican by the Mexican government.
- Look for recommendations from Mexican nationals living where you are.
- Avoid Tex-Mex chains and places that use flavorless ground beef everywhere.
Making Mexican specialties like mole and tamales from scratch is very time consuming. Your best bet for authentic dishes is getting them straight from the source in locally-owned Mexican joints. With some detective work, you can find genuine Mexican food far from Mexico.
Here are the main takeaways on the top 10 most popular traditional Mexican meals:
- Iconic Mexican dishes like tacos, tamales, and mole boast incredible diversity across regions.
- The essential flavor trio in Mexican food is spicy chiles, fresh herbs, and tangy lime.
- Popular Mexican meals feature simple preparations that allow the fresh ingredients to shine.
- Beyond the classics, Mexican cuisine has endless regional specialties to discover.
- Food carts, street stalls, and family-run restaurants serve the most authentic Mexican dishes.
Mexican food is all about vibrant flavors, quality ingredients, and generations-old cooking traditions. Eating authentic Mexican is a joy because each dish tells a unique story rooted in culture and family. Hopefully this list of the top 10 Mexican meals provides a perfect starting point to begin your exploration of genuine Mexican cooking!