Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in the United States, with tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and other dishes gracing menus across the country. But not all cities are created equal when it comes to authentic and delicious Mexican fare. Some destinations are well-known hot spots for top-notch tacos and margaritas, while others still have some catching up to do. So which US cities truly offer the best Mexican food?
What makes for good Mexican food?
Great Mexican food usually starts with high-quality ingredients like fresh tortillas, tasty proteins like carne asada, al pastor or chorizo, and flavorful salsas. You’ll want to find restaurants using authentic ingredients and traditional cooking methods for favorites like tacos, enchiladas, tamales, mole, and more. The best Mexican food balances complex flavors like smoky chiles, citrusy lime, refreshing cilantro, and creamy avocado. A vibrant Latino community and culture will also lend authenticity to the cuisine. Keep an eye out for street food spots focusing on classic specialties too. When all of these elements come together harmoniously, you’ve found amazing Mexican food well worth seeking out.
Leading contenders for the best Mexican food
Certain cities are consistently recognized as top destinations for mouthwatering Mexican cuisine. Based on reputations earned for outstanding ingredients, beloved restaurants, and local culture, here are some leading contenders for the best Mexican food in the US:
- San Diego
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
These cities all have vibrant Latino communities that have shaped the local food scene. You’ll find plenty of family-run taquerias and renowned Mexican eateries serving up beloved specialties as well as creative new fusions. Any Mexican food lover visiting these cities will be in very good hands. But a closer look is needed to determine which destinations truly rise above the rest.
To decide which US cities can claim the best Mexican food, we’ll dig into the details of the leading contenders. Key criteria include:
- Variety – Does the city offer diverse options from street food to upscale eateries?
- Authenticity – Are restaurants using high-quality ingredients and traditional cooking methods?
- Local popularity – Is Mexican food woven into the city’s culture and identity?
- Critical acclaim – How are eateries recognized on “best of” lists and reviews?
- Innovation – Does the scene balance tradition with new fusions and creativity?
Cities will earn points in each category, with the highest total scores indicating the best Mexican food. A detailed breakdown follows on how the top destinations fared across all factors. While subjective, this aims to highlight what truly makes for an exceptional Mexican food city. Now let’s see who came out on top!
Variety: 9/10. Hundreds of eateries covering street tacos, food trucks, casual spots, and upscale restaurants. Iconic venues like Lucha Libre, City Tacos, and Old Town Mexican Cafe.
Authenticity: 8/10. Strong focus on traditional dishes and cooking techniques. High-quality ingredients like handmade tortillas. Authentic ambiance at many restaurants.
Local Popularity: 10/10. Mexican food is deeply ingrained in local culture and a source of pride. Tacos for any occasion!
Critical Acclaim: 8/10. Eater, Thrillist, The Daily Meal recognize city as top destination for Mexican food.
Innovation: 7/10. Modern twists like Korean beef tacos at City Tacos, but scene deeply respects traditions.
San Diego finishes very strongly, clearly elevating Mexican food as central to local identity. Variety, authenticity and popularity are hard to beat. The scene balances innovation with tradition for an overall delicious offering.
Variety: 10/10. Perhaps the most diverse Mexican food in the US covering all styles. Legendary venues like Guelaguetza, Guerrilla Tacos, Border Grill.
Authenticity: 9/10. Uses authentic ingredients and cooking techniques. Many eateries with direct Mexico City and Oaxacan roots.
Local Popularity: 9/10. Incredibly beloved part of LA food scene and culture. Tacos a dietary staple!
Critical Acclaim: 10/10. LA’s Mexican fare constantly highlighted by food media as a standout.
Innovation: 10/10. Celebrated chefs putting unique twists on classics like tacos de guisado at Guerrilla Tacos.
With outstanding variety, innovation, and critical acclaim, LA narrowly tops the list. The range of options and creativity on display is unmatched while still maintaining authenticity in recipes and ingredients. The city embraces Mexican cuisine to the fullest.
Variety: 7/10. Has options but Mexican food scene is smaller than CA cities. Institutions like Mi Nidito and BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs.
Authenticity: 8/10. Many eateries stay true to Sonoran Mexican roots and cooking.
Local Popularity: 10/10. Incredibly beloved component of Tucson food culture and identity.
Critical Acclaim: 7/10. Destinations like Mi Nidito earn nationwide praise but fewer critical spotlights than LA/SD.
Innovation: 6/10. Traditional preparation is prized over new twists. But city takes Sonoran cuisine seriously.
Tucson finishes respectably due to the city’s passion and pride for Mexican food. Variety is smaller than California but the authenticity and popularity of cuisine is unmatched. Sticking close to traditions prevents more innovation.
Variety: 8/10. Taquerias, Tex-Mex joints, and upscale eateries well represented across city.
Authenticity: 6/10. Reliance on Tex-Mex traditions sacrifices some authenticity.
Local Popularity: 8/10. Houstonians clearly love Mexican food, but lagging behind California/Southwest.
Critical Acclaim: 6/10. Earned attention for Tex-Mex but not to the extent of leading destinations.
Innovation: 7/10. Fun fusion tacos like Korean brisket from Komasa Tex Mex BBQ.
Houston scores well for variety but loses points for leaning Tex-Mex rather than Mexican authentic. Still an underrated food city with creative fusion tacos starting to shine.
Variety: 9/10. Tacos of all types along with interior Mexican cuisine well represented.
Authenticity: 7/10. Core focus on Tex-Mex traditions though some very authentic eateries.
Local Popularity: 10/10. Right up there with the California cities for Mexican food obsessives.
Critical Acclaim: 8/10. Earns attention for bacon jam tacos and fusion.
Innovation: 8/10. Love of tacos drives creativity like brisket tacos.
Austin scores very well for the passion locals place on Mexican food. Tacos are an obsession. The variety and innovation is impressive, though held back slightly by Tex-Mex roots.
Variety: 7/10. Has options but trails other major metro destinations in depth.
Authenticity: 5/10. Interior Mexican rare. More casual Tex-Mex and Americanized eateries.
Local Popularity: 6/10. Locals enjoy but doesn’t define Chicago’s dining identity.
Critical Acclaim: 5/10. Not a frequent highlight for Mexican cuisine.
Innovation: 4/10. Little modern fusion represented.
While Chicago has devoted fans of Mexican food, the city hasn’t developed the depth or devotion found farther south. More casual and Americanized than authentic. Room to grow.
Variety: 8/10. Mission district taquerias, street food vendors, and upscale eateries.
Authenticity: 7/10. Solid but trends behind SoCal and the Southwest.
Local Popularity: 7/10. Enjoys Mexican but lags cities where cuisine is central.
Critical Acclaim: 7/10. Earns praise but not to LA/SD level.
Innovation: 6/10. Some creativity but not to Austin/LA degree.
San Francisco finishes middle of the pack.Mexican food is popular but has not reached the beloved status found farther south. Authenticity and innovation also trail leading destinations.
Evaluating the top contenders makes clear where elevated dedication to Mexican cuisine pushes the eating experience to new heights. Here are key learnings:
- Passion for Mexican food becomes most intense in California and the Southwest.
- Variety and authenticity peak in destinations with strong direct ties to Mexico.
- Innovation thrives where chefs balance tradition with creativity.
- Critical acclaim follows rising local obsession in LA, SD and Austin.
Mexican food remains popular across the US, but achieving the ideal balance of authenticity, innovation, and local devotion is truly special. Our analysis finds Los Angeles to be America’s premiere Mexican food destination, with San Diego a close runner-up. Passion runs deep in California and the Southwest overall. But there are also opportunities for up-and-coming cities to continue growing their scenes. Hungry for more? Let the search for the best tacos, moles and margaritas continue across America!