Many “Mexican” dishes found in the U.S. and elsewhere are not authentically Mexican
Mexican cuisine is popular worldwide, but many dishes thought of as “Mexican” are actually Mexican-American hybrids or Tex-Mex dishes not commonly found in Mexico.
Authentic Mexican cuisine varies by region, relying on local ingredients and cooking styles. However, there are some commonly found “Mexican” dishes in the U.S. that are rare or nonexistent in Mexico.
Hard shell tacos and ground beef
The hard shell taco filled with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, and sour cream is an American invention.
Soft corn or flour tortillas are preferred in Mexico, and tacos are traditionally filled with stewed meats rather than ground beef. Ground beef is not common in Mexican cooking.
Burritos and burrito bowls
Large, meal-sized burritos wrapped in flour tortillas are generally not found in Mexico, where smaller street-style burritos are more common.
Burrito bowls and other “Mexican rice bowls” are also American creations. Rice is not as common in Mexican cuisine as in Tex-Mex and Mexican-American cooking.
Nachos with neon yellow cheese sauce
Nachos topped with a bright yellow, processed cheese sauce are a Tex-Mex creation. In Mexico, nachos are usually simple – just tortilla chips topped with shredded cheese and sliced jalapeños. The neon yellow cheese sauce is not used.
Sizzling platters of grilled steak, chicken or shrimp fajitas are a Tex-Mex specialty that’s rare in Mexico. Regular Mexicans don’t recognize the term “fajitas”. The dish is similar to carne asada, but traditional versions don’t contain peppers and onions.
A chimichanga is a deep-fried burrito generally served with salsa or sour cream for dipping. This heavy dish was created in Arizona or California and is not found in Mexico. Simple bean or shredded chicken burritos are sometimes fried in Mexico, but these large, fried flour tortilla burritos are an American creation.
Cheese-based dips are not common in Mexican cuisine. Queso fresco and queso blanco are used sparingly as toppings or fillings rather than being melted into dips. The quintessential “queso” dip made with Velveeta and Rotel tomatoes is a Tex-Mex original.
Crispy tacos with hard shells
The iconic U-shaped crispy taco shell is an American innovation. Tacos in Mexico are made with soft, steaming corn tortillas, making crispy shells unheard of. Hard shells are also impractical for traditional fillings like cactus and offal.
“Refried beans” is a misnomer – in Mexico, pinto or black beans are simply well-fried in oil or lard, mashing some against the pan. Traditional Mexican beans have a looser texture than the smooth, dense refried beans commonly served in the U.S. They’re also not served with every meal.
Tex-Mex favorites like cabrito and machaca
Dishes like cabrito (roasted goat), machaca (dried meat, usually beef) and calf’s liver and onions are considered Tex-Mex originals that didn’t originate from Mexican culinary traditions. However, cabrito is growing popular in Norteno cuisine.
Enchiladas with cheese sauce
In Mexico, enchiladas are typically served with a tomatillo or chili-based sauce, not a cheese sauce. Mexican-American enchiladas with cheese sauce originated in New Mexico. In Mexico, cheese is more lightly sprinkled as a topping.
Elotes as Mexican street corn on the cob
Elotes are Mexican street corn slathered in mayo, Cotija cheese, chili powder and lime. In Mexico, elotes are simply boiled or grilled corn on the cob with butter, mayo, salt and cheese on top. The additional spices were likely later Tex-Mex additions.
In the U.S., churros are crisp-fried dough coated in cinnamon sugar. Mexican churros are longer, softer and unsweetened – more like doughnut sticks. Sugar, chocolate and caramel coatings were added later in Mexico and the U.S. Authentic churros also aren’t served with dipping sauces.
Massive fried taco salad bowls overflowing with tortilla chips were invented by American fast food chains and restaurants. Traditional salads are uncommon in Mexico, and taco ingredients aren’t served on crunchy tortilla bowls. However, some taco spots dress shredded salads with typical taco toppings.
Sour cream is not common
Sour cream is rarely used in authentic Mexican cooking. It’s applied sparingly, if at all. Mexican crema fresca has a looser texture and milder flavor. Tex-Mex cuisine liberally tops tacos, nachos and more with cooling sour cream. But it’s just not done in Mexico.
Margaritas and Mexican beers are less common drinks
Americanized Mexican food is consumed with margaritas, Dos Equis, Corona and other Mexican beers. In Mexico, margaritas are more of a tourist drink. Mexicans actually drink less beer than Americans on average, and prefer regional Mexican beers, soda, licuados and agua frescas with meals.
Tex-Mex chili has beans while Mexican chili does not
Given Texas’ cowboy history, it’s not surprising their official state dish – chili – contains beans. However, true Mexican chili is thick and rich with peppers, with no beans. Beans are served on the side. Traditional Texas chili didn’t contain beans either – it was a later addition.
Flautas and taquitos
To many Americans, a taquito and flauta are indistinguishable types of deep-fried, rolled tacos. However, in Mexico a taquito is small and thin while a flauta is larger and fatter. Also, flautas are made with wheat tortillas while corn tortillas are used for taquitos.
Chipotle peppers and adobo sauce
Smokey chipotle chilis and tangy adobo sauce flavor many Tex-Mex dishes. However, chipotles are mainly found in central and northern Mexican cuisine. Adobo sauce also originated in Spain, not Mexico, and traditional versions contained neither chipotles or tomatoes.
In Mexican Spanish, gordita describes a fat woman. However, the puffy cornmeal snacks known as gorditas in Tex-Mex eateries are not Spanish slang. Salted and fried corn masa “gorditas” do exist in Mexico – but the name is still slightly taboo.
Baja fish tacos
Baja fish tacos with battered, fried white fish, cabbage, pico de gallo and chipotle crema are beloved in Southern California. But these oversized tacos are not traditional Mexican street food. Simpler fried fish tacos with mayo do exist in Baja California, however.
Carne guisada is Mexican-style stewed or braised meat, often beef. In northern Mexico and Texas, it’s a popular taco filling. But in central and southern Mexico, carne guisada is largely unheard of. However, Mexican birria is similar – just made with goat or lamb.
Arepas are thick cornmeal cakes that can be split and stuffed with meat, cheese and veggies. They’re the national street food of Colombia and Venezuela, not Mexico. However, gorditas are somewhat similar. Confusingly, “arepa” also means sandwich in Mexico.
A wet burrito drenched in enchilada sauce is a comforting Mexican-American dish. But in Mexico, burritos are often eaten on the go, without sauce. If served wet, the sauce is thinner and more brothy than the rich blanket of sauce in a California wet burrito.
Tamales in corn husks are rare outside of central Mexico
In the U.S., tamales wrapped in dried corn husks are a holiday tradition. But in most of Mexico, fresh plantain or banana leaves are preferred for wrapping tamales. Corn husks are only common in central Mexican states like Oaxaca, Michoacán and parts of Veracruz.
Giant overstuffed quesadillas
American “quesadillas” layered with heaps of cheese, meat and vegetables bear little resemblance to traditional Mexican quesadillas. In Mexico, quesadillas are simply small melted cheese pockets made with corn or flour tortillas. Overstuffed quesadillas are likely Mexican-American.
Huevos rancheros drowned in sauce
In Mexico, huevos rancheros are sunny side up or over easy eggs served atop lightly sauced corn tortillas. The Americanized versions smother the eggs in heavily spiced tomato or chili sauce. Traditional huevos rancheros let the egg flavors shine through more.
Orange “Mexican rice”
Rice colored orange from tomatoes or chili powder is served with almost all Tex-Mex meals. Mexican rice is not as ubiquitous south of the border. Rice in Mexico also tends to be white or browned, not orange-hued. When rice is served, plain white is most common.
Chicken tortilla soup and southwestern corn chowders
From the creamy chicken tortilla soup at Chevys to the spicy, hearty soups at Chili’s and Chipotle, American chains love their Mexican-inspired soups. But traditional Mexican soups and stews generally aren’t as thick and creamy. They let the fresh vegetables shine through in lighter broths.
Some Texas chili parlors serve hearty chili ladled over spaghetti noodles. However, pasta is not common in Mexico, and chili is traditionally served with corn tortillas, rice, or eaten solo in bowl. Chili spaghetti fuses Mexican and Italian-American comfort food traditions.
Chicken fajita pizza
Fusing Mexican flavors with American pizza, chicken fajita pizzas contain grilled meat, onions, peppers and Mexican blend cheese. But ultra-cheesy pizza is not part of traditional Mexican cuisine. Modern pizzas with Mexican toppings are an American creation.
Hard shell taco salads
Taco salads served in crunchy fried taco bowls piled high with lettuce, tomatoes, beef and cheese originated from fast food chains like Taco Bell. Salads are not common street food in Mexico. And those iconic fried shells don’t exist in authentic Mexican cuisine.
California burritos/mission-style burritos
A California burrito contains french fries while a mission-style burrito comes smothered in burrito sauce. Neither oversized burrito is from Mexico. Burritos there are smaller with simpler fillings like meat and beans. Fries and extra sauces are American additions.
Quesadillas with flour tortillas
Cheese quesadillas made with white flour tortillas are standard Tex-Mex fare. But in Mexico, quesadillas are traditionally cooked on lightly greased comal griddles using fresh corn tortillas. Flour tortillas are more common in northern Mexico though.
Chile verde and chili Colorado
Americanized Mexican restaurants offer chili Colorado and chile verde as “authentic” meat options smothered in sauce. However, gloppy pork or beef in green (verde) or red (Colorado) chili sauce isn’t traditionally Mexican. More brothy, less heavy meats are favored.
Chili con carne
What Texans dub “a bowl of red” – meaty chili con carne loaded with beef chuck, spices and chili powder, is nowhere to be found south of the border. Beans are also used in the stew. Traditional Mexican stews contain milder dried chilis, not chili powder.
The chimichanga, a burrito fried into a crispy wrap then topped with sauce, originated in Arizona or California. It’s more American than Mexican. In Mexico, some simple burritos are occasionally fried, but these fried flour tortilla wraps stuffed with rice are a Tex-Mex creation.
Taco Bell’s iconic Mexican pizza layers refried beans and taco fillings between two crisp fried flour tortilla shells. While creative, these over-the-top pizzas are not authentic Mexican food, but an American attempt to fuse Mexican flavors with pizza.
Giant stuffed burritos and burrito bowls
Those massive stuffed burritos slathered in sauce and the burrito bowls served at chains like Chipotle or Qdoba are not Mexican in origin. Small street-style burritos are more authentic. And rice served burrito bowl-style is also not traditional in most of Mexico.
Cancun-style fish tacos
Fish tacos with fried white fish, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, avocado crema and Mexican rice and beans are standard Baja/Southern California fare. They’re not traditionally found around Cancun. However, simpler fried fish tacos topped with mayo do exist in this region.
Tex-Mex taco fillings like barbacoa
Shredded barbacoa (typically beef cheek) tacos are popular Tex-Mex options. But slow cooking meats like barbacoa is more common in central and southern Mexico, not the north. Nortenos favor simple grilled carne asada instead.
Chili cheese fries
These American bar food staples smother French fries in spicy ground beef chili, melty cheese and onions. You won’t find chili cheese fries sold by street vendors in Mexico. French fries themselves aren’t common in Mexican cuisine, nor is ground beef chili.
Bacon-wrapped street foods
From bacon-wrapped hot dogs to bacon-wrapped shrimp, Mexicans don’t typically wrap other foods in bacon before frying. American bacon is also not readily available. Bacon-wrapped foods were likely invented by Mexican-Americans attempting to fuse flavors.
These bar snacks stuff spicy jalapeño halves with cream cheese or cheddar before frying. However, chili poppers made with fresh jalapeños are an American creation. Stuffed, fried chiles were first created by Applebee’s before becoming popular bar fare.
Nachos individualized rather than shared
Sharing a large communal platter of nachos is standard Tex-Mex practice. But in Mexico, nachos are often served on individual small plates. Cheese and other toppings are also used more sparingly than on the overloaded Tex-Mex versions.
Refried beans flavored with bacon fat
Traditional Mexican frijoles have a looser mashed texture than American refried beans. Bacon fat is also not used – beans are simply fried in oil or lard. The smooth, dense refried beans flavored with bacon so popular in Tex-Mex cuisine are an American creation.
Jalapeños on everything
Today, many Tex-Mex dishes from nachos to tacos are served with sliced or chopped jalapeños on top. But jalapeños are not always included or needed to give an “authentic” flare. Much authentic Mexican cuisine doesn’t even contain chilis. Their use is more regional.
Corn chips and chili powder do not define Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine goes far beyond the chips, salsa, chili powder and cheese Tex-Mex is known for. From moles to tamales, regional Mexican food offers incredible complexity and diversity. Americans thinking chili powder equals spicy Mexican food don’t grasp authentic Mexican cuisine’s depth.
Mexico has far more to offer than Tex-Mex
Tex-Mex and Mexican-American food is delicious when done right. But it only scratches the surface of real Mexican cuisine. With regional diversity spanning spice levels, ingredients and techniques, Mexico has so much more to offer than combo platters, taco bowls, queso and margaritas.