Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in the United States, known for its bold flavors, fresh ingredients, and regional diversity. From crunchy tacos to complex mole sauces, Americans can’t seem to get enough. But with Mexican restaurants found in every state, how can you determine where to find the very best?
What makes great Mexican food?
Authentic Mexican cuisine comes from a rich blend of cultures and ingredients. Here are some of the key elements that set the best Mexican food apart:
- Fresh, quality ingredients like ripe tomatoes, zesty limes, smooth avocados, and spicy chiles.
- Traditional cooking techniques like slow braising meats, hand making tortillas, and balancing complex flavors.
- Regional diversity ranging from the delicate seafood of Baja to the hearty stews of central Mexico.
- Balance of textures and colors with crunchy, creamy, crispy and soft elements.
- Vibrant, robust flavors from chili peppers, tangy citrus, earthy spices, and herbal undertones.
The top Mexican restaurants in the country excel at bringing out the best of these elements while also putting their unique spin on traditional dishes.
Most famous regions for Mexican food
Mexico has a incredibly diverse regional cuisine. Here are some of the areas most famous for their iconic dishes:
- Central Mexico – Known for flavorful moles, fresh corn masa, and famous dishes like Pozole stew, chiles en nogada, and tortas.
- Baja California – Specializes in fresh seafood tacos, ceviches, and fish preparations with Mediterranean influences.
- Northern Mexico – Features meat-heavy dishes reflecting cowboy culture like carne asada, machaca, and cabrito (goat).
- Yucatan Peninsula – Uses tropical ingredients like achiote spice and citrus along with complex salsas and tamales.
When searching for the best Mexican food in the US, looking at restaurants who authentically prepare regional specialties is key.
Where to find the best Mexican food by region
Here is a breakdown of where to find excellent Mexican food in major regions across the United States:
The Southwest has always been a hub for Mexican cuisine in the US, both from immigrants establishing restaurants and the blending of cultures along the border. Cities like Phoenix, Santa Fe, and El Paso have no shortage of authentic Mexican flare. But here are some highlights:
- Tucson, Arizona – Known for incredible Sonoran-style Mexican food, an offshoot of Northern Mexico’s rustic dishes. Try famous restaurants El Charro Cafe and Mi Nidito.
- Santa Fe, New Mexico – Boasts hatch chiles in everything and delicious New Mexican cuisine including stacked enchiladas and carne adovada.
- San Diego, California – Offers fresh Baja-style seafood tacos everywhere plus dishes like Californian burritos.
Everything is bigger in Texas, including its obsession with Mexican food. Tex-Mex cuisine gives a local spin on Mexican dishes, while interior cities also boast excellent authentic Mexican restaurants. The top spots for Mexican food in Texas include:
- Austin – A food truck mecca with amazing tacos everywhere you turn and interior-style Mexican food at restaurants like Veracruz All Natural.
- Houston – Known for its interior Mexican cuisine including Oaxacan-style mole, complex salsas, and dishes like gorditas and tlacoyos.
- Dallas – Excellent tacos and Tex-Mex classics like cheese enchiladas, fajitas, and chili con carne.
Chicago has a thriving Mexican food scene with restaurants throughout the city serving authentic cuisine from different regions. Top picks include:
- Pilsen – The heart of Chicago’s Mexican community serves delicious Yucatecan food and signature tropical-flavored tacos.
- Little Village – Specializes in the authentic Mexican dishes of Puebla like mole poblano, cemitas, and chalupas.
- Topolobampo – High-end Mexican tasting menus overseen by renowned chef Rick Bayless.
New York City
In the melting pot of NYC, you can find incredible Mexican restaurants representing cuisine from all over Mexico. The city’s top spots include:
- Cosme – Elevated, modern Mexican tasting menus by superstar chef Enrique Olvera.
- Tacos Morelos – No-frills, 24-hour taco spot dishing out specialties from the owners’ home state of Morelos.
- La Morada – Oaxacan fare like tlayudas, moles, and memelas in the Bronx.
California boasts an abundance of Mexican restaurants ranging from taco trucks to celebrity chef establishments. Here are some standout cities:
- Los Angeles – Fantastic street tacos and regional specialties from states like Oaxaca and Michoacán.
- San Francisco – Top options like Cala, michoacana-style seafood at Mariscos Jalisco, and La Taqueria’s legendary burritos.
- San Diego – Close proximity to Mexico provides access to fresh Baja seafood reflected in cuisine.
The best Mexican restaurants in major US cities
Looking more closely at major metropolitan areas, here are some of the most beloved, critically-acclaimed Mexican restaurants that are considered the best in their respective cities:
- Barrio Cafe – James Beard-award winning Southwestern Mexican food dishing up cochinita pibil and mole colorado oaxaqueño.
- Tacos Chiwas – Popular neighborhood taqueria serving handmade flour tortillas and authentic fillings like beef tongue.
- Carolina’s – Friendly and affordable spot for hearty Sonoran-style dishes and the famous Sonoran hot dog.
- Mexicali Taco & Co – Chef Esdras Ochoa’s downtown LA taco shop crafting Baja-style tacos and quesatacos.
- Mariscos Jalisco – Go-to food truck for Mexican seafood cocktails and their signature shrimp tacos dorados.
- Broken Spanish – Progressive Mexican restaurant run by star chef Ray Garcia.
- Xixon – Elevated Mexican food celebrating unique regional ingredients like ant eggs and huitlacoche.
- Tacology – Creative tacos like pastor de langosta (lobster) and brisket barbacoa in a fast-casual setting.
- El Tucan – Classic Mexican and Nicaraguan dishes in Little Havana including delicious tres leches cake.
- Cala – Stylish Mexican restaurant crafting modern dishes like roasted cabbage with pine nut salsa macha.
- La Taqueria – Legendary Mission taqueria serving famously massive and tasty San Francisco burritos.
- Nopalito – Upscale, sustainable Mexican food with regional twists served in a rustic-chic setting.
New York City
- Cosme – Flagship Mexican restaurant from celebrity chef Enrique Olvera whipping up creative tasting menus.
- Empellon – Chef Alex Stupak puts a Mexican-American twist on tacos, mole, and midtown lunches.
- Casa Enrique – Cozy, critically-acclaimed spot for elevated Mexican cuisine in Long Island City.
- Topolobampo – The reservations-only fine dining jewel serving Mexican tasting menus from Rick Bayless.
- Frontera Grill – Bayless’ iconic, casual Hyde Park restaurant dishing up inventive plates and famous moles.
- Mi Tocaya – Diana Davila’s lively Logan Square hot spot for creative antojitos and build-your-own tacos.
Key factors in choosing the best Mexican restaurants
When searching for excellence in Mexican cuisine, here are some of the most important factors to consider:
The restaurant should represent an authentic regional Mexican cuisine, whether it’s Oaxacan moles, Sonoran carne asada, Veracruz-style seafood, or Baja fish tacos. Furnishings and decor from Mexico are a good sign.
Quality of ingredients
Fresh, high-quality ingredients are essential for letting the true flavors shine. Things like ripe avocados, handmade corn tortillas, quality proteins, and fresh produce make a difference.
Complexity of flavors
An exceptional Mexican meal balances flavors and textures perfectly. There should be the right mix of spicy heat, sweetness, acidity, creaminess, crunch, and more.
The proper regional cooking techniques should be used, like handcrafting tortillas to order or slow simmering tough cuts for hours to create tender carnitas.
Though authenticity is key, the very best Mexican chefs put their own creative touch on traditional dishes in ways that respect their origins.
Atmosphere & service
Warm, gracious hospitality and a festive, energetic atmosphere enhance the whole Mexican dining experience.
Trends and innovations in Mexican cuisine
Like any cuisine, Mexican food continues to evolve as chefs add their own twists while respecting traditions. Here are some trends shaping Mexican restaurants today:
Plating & presentation
In high-end establishments, more care is being put into artistically arranging and presenting dishes, often with modernist touches. Vibrant colors and beautiful textures take center stage.
Many Mexican restaurants aim for an elevated yet warm atmosphere with details like stylish decor, intimate lighting, and handcrafted dishes served on beautiful ware.
Chefs incorporate innovative global influences and modern techniques while staying true to core Mexican flavors. Think dishes like pork belly al pastor or chocolate mole sauce over duck breast.
Vegetarian and vegan Mexican options are becoming more prevalent to accommodate dietary restrictions. Jackfruit carnitas tacos and huitlacoche quesadillas are just some examples.
Outstanding Mexican dining experiences now have thoughtful cocktail programs featuring traditional margaritas, Mexican spirits like tequila and mezcal, and fresh ingredients.
Local & sustainable
Using local, seasonal, and sustainably-sourced produce, meat and seafood allows restaurants to have top quality ingredients with a smaller environmental impact.
The future of Mexican food in America
Here’s a look at what may be on the horizon for Mexican restaurants and cuisine in the US in coming years:
- Continued expansion of regional Mexican cuisines – More Oaxacan, Pueblan, Yucatecan and other regional food will become available.
- Chef-driven Mexican fast casual – Creative toppings and build-your-own style tacos, bowls, etc. with fresh ingredients at affordable prices.
- Vegan Mexican – Plant-based dedicate restaurants & more meatless/dairy-free options at traditional establishments.
- Mexican seafood – Fresh fish, shrimp, octopus, and other Baja/coastal ingredients will be more widely available outside the Southwest.
- Heirloom Mexican ingredients – Wider use of traditional heirloom corn, chiles, beans, squash, herbs and ancestral grains.
- Tradition-inspired street food – Food trucks and casual spots focusing on authentic street foods like elote, tacos de canasta, picaditas, etc.
The possibilities for innovation in Mexican cuisine are endless. America’s passion for south-of-the-border flavors shows no signs of waning!
When it comes to finding the very best of Mexican food in the US, there are delicious options coast to coast. Seeking out regional authenticity is crucial – be it smoky Tex-Mex enchiladas, Cal-Mex fish tacos, Sonoran carne asada, or Mexico City-style tacos al pastor. Equally important is fresh, quality ingredients and chefs who balance tradition with creativity. With Mexican cuisine only growing in popularity across America, both established and up-and-coming restaurants will continue to innovate while staying grounded in true Mexican cooking. But for the most satisfying experience today, visit acclaimed spots like the ones in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities highlighted here. Buen provecho!