Mexico has a lot of sayings for everything, and, of course, we have many of them for our gastronomy. A popular Mexican food saying is: “A barriga llena, corazón contento”, (belly full, happy heart) and, once you are able to learn the depths of our gastronomy, you will understand not only why our food is so popular, but also why Mexicans are always so happy.
We already talk about Mexican food culture and tradition and this time we will go over the most popular Mexican food in more detail, including specific main dishes, popular Mexican breakfast dishes, soups. Get ready to become hungry mid-way!!
Mexican eating habits
As part of the Mexican culture, we have specific eating habits which you should know before diving into our delicious Mexican dishes list.
- During the week day, the main lunch in Mexico usually happens at around 2:30 or 3:00 pm. The parents might have a couple hours break from work and everyone sits at the table.
- Godines (9 to 5 working people) generally have lunch between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm. In many cities we have the “Cocinas economicas” (cheap kitchens), where a 2 or 3 course meal is served and is mainly homemade style food.
- On weekends we eat out either with family or friends, and, usually later than normal. A brunch instead of breakfast and a very late lunch instead of the usual lunch time in Mexico.
- Hangover food: This is definitely one of the funniest among Mexico facts on food. If you ever go partying with a Mexican, make sure that you prepare your stomach for the next day meal. One of the dishes to choose can be anything from this list: pozole, barbacoa, cochinita, birria, or, something else with equal amount of fat and spice.
15 Popular Mexican dishes (main dishes)
As shared before, one of the Mexico facts about food is that there are as many dishes as there are villages in the territory, and, for easy reference, we think of our gastronomy in between 6 to 8 regions, so, my list of the most popular Mexican food for you, will represent Mexican regions from the South East to the North West of Mexico.
This dish belongs to Yucatan food culture, but it’s commonly consumed throughout the peninsula that includes Quintana Roo and Campeche. The main ingredients are pork, naranja agria (bitter orange), achiote (a red blend of spices).
History has it that this dish was originally made by the Mayan people using the meat of 3 different endemic animals: the wild pig, the pheasant or the deer, and, as it is done now, it was wrapped up in the banana tree leaves and cooked in an underground oven called “PIB” in Mayan language. This dish is eaten on its own, with no sides, and we turn it into tacos (with corn tortilla), or into tortas (Mexican sandwich). Usually, the cochinita is garnished with pickled purple onion and habanero sauce. I would say that Sunday mornings are when a lot of people in the peninsula enjoy a few of the cochinita tacos or tortas.
El pescado a la Tikin Xic
This dish is typical of the Quintana Roo state and it is also Mayan but it is from the coast. The meaning of Tikin Xic is “dry fish fin”, and, the name mainly describes the way the fish is cut and served. The fish that is used is grouper, and, it is marinated in achiote (the red spices mix) and bitter orange. It is cooked along with veggies like bell pepper, tomatoes, and onion. It is also wrapped in the banana tree leaf and cooked in a manmade underground grill heated by wood logs and stones.
This dish is also served for special occasions, but, in my experience, locals have it almost every time they are in Isla Mujeres for a beach day. It is super traditional and it is offered on almost every Isla Mujeres tour. It is usually served with pickled onion, black beans, and rice.
El Pan de Cazón – (Dog fish bread)
This dish belongs to Campeche. Some describe it as the fish Mexican lasagna. The cazón is a type of shark (dogfish or school shark). This dish is made of layers of tortilla, fried fish, beans, tomato sauce, and a static pepper on top of the “bread”.
This is a very traditional dish and its origins come from fishing being one of the main activities in the state and the abundance of this shark in its ocean. This dish is found in pretty much every local restaurant of Campeche, and so, we can eat it any time.
Pejelagarto asado (grilled Tropical gar)
This is one of the most popular Mexican dishes from the state of Tabasco. This is a freshwater fish, and, it is considered one of the most ancient fish in the world. In Mexico, we also call it the “dinosaur fish”.
Pejelagarto is a main dish of Tabasco because it is abundant in several of its municipalities, and so, local people fish it often and cook it as a regular meal in many other versions besides grilled.
The 7 moles of Oaxaca
The Oaxaca mole is a very popular sauce made with many different ingredients including cacao and a mix of species as a base. There are 7 types of moles of Oaxaca
- Black – Mostly served with chicken and white rice and a special dish for the times of the Day of the Dead tradition.
- Amarillito – (Yellow). Served with any kind of meat or even veggies. The yellow color is given by the peppers used to make it.
- Coloradito –(red colored). Again, the color is given by the peppers, and, this is the one that includes chocolate, bread and sugar in its ingredients.
- Verde (Green). This one is the only one that can be served with fish as well as the rest of the meats. The main ingredients that give the color are the pumpkin seeds, the epazote (herb), the “hierba santa” (endemic herb) and the parsley.
- Chichilo – This one is the least popular, but, in its ingredients, besides the many different peppers, what gives its aroma, color and consistency is mainly the avocado tree leaves, the clove, the pepper and the burnt tortillas.
- Manchamanteles -This one is served with pork meat and it is garnished with several fruits like banana and ripe pineapple.
- Rojo – (red) The Mole Rojo one is more like a stew and it is flavored with dry shrimp and it contains olives.
Mole is eaten without distinction both on a special occasion or daily with family or in the cocina economicas (cheap kitchen)
There are many different versions of the origin of the Mexican and it is attributed to many different locations, but, we can definitely trace it back to pre-Hispanic times because by many it is said that the name comes from “Mulli”, a Nahuatl language word that means “sauces”. It is said that from the indigenous times, people would mix many endemic peppers with herbs, pumpkin seeds, and a tomato sauce. It is said that this preparation was offered to gods in ceremonies. After the Spanish influence arrived at the native gastronomy, many spices and other elements were added to the dish.
Pozole Guerrero style
The Pozole is found in many states in Mexico, but, in Guerrero, we have its own style and it comes in “Green” and “white”.
The white pozole is traditionally served in a broth with corn grains and the meat from the head of the cow or the pig. This dish is seasoned and garnished with radish, pork skin, avocado, onion, chili pepper and “fresh cheese”.
The green pozole is traditionally a broth that gets its color from its ingredients: pumpkin seed, epazote (a herb), green chile, and green tomatoes. This dish is part of special occasions or big celebrations, but, as a potential visitor, you should not leave Guerrero or Mexico without trying Pozole.
Pozole offers one of the weirdest Mexican facts on food. It is a pre-Hispanic dish, and, according to several sources, it is said that in its origins, besides being served with endemic animal meat, it was also served with human meat. Yikes!
Chiles en Nogada
This dish is from Puebla and it’s only available between August and October when its main ingredients are in season, especially the pomegranate. One of the versions of its origin says that this dish was created by “Agustinas” nuns when they participated in a gastronomy contest to celebrate Mexican independence. The ingredients of this dish besides the pomegranate are breaded poblano pepper, ground beef with dry fruits, and several nuts and cheeses creamy sauce. The dish consists of the pepper being stuffed with the beef and the fruits, covered in the creamy sauce, and garnished with the pomegranate seeds.
The Chiles en Nogada is considered the official Mexican national dish and in Puebla, every year they do a Chile en Nogada contest to establish who did it better.
Good news for the vegans, they can now try this special food as they have made a vegan version, however, I am afraid it will never taste the same. But considering that the traditional Mexican food is mainly meat-based, it’s definitely a good piece of news for our vegan or vegetarian friends.
Cecina de Yecapixtla
Yecapixtla is a small town in the state of Morelos and Cecina is just a way in which the cow’s meat is prepared in that town. The pieces of the cow that are used are the back and the legs. The meat is cut in stripes and its salted completely to then let it air for around 30 minutes. Then, the meat is hanged in a fresh, closed, and clean space for another 30 minutes. Finally, they are smeared with lard and refrigerated. To actually have it we grill them on the comal (smooth flat griddle) and we garnish it with salsa, avocado, beans and tortillas to make tacos.
Even if this dish comes from Morelos, we find it everywhere in Mexico, and because it goes great in tacos, there is no special time to have it. Local people have Cecina de Yecapixtla for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Las Carnitas de Michoacán
Carnitas means “little meats”. It comes from the whole pig and the way that it is prepared is by frying the pork meat with its own fat (lard) in a copper pan and seasoned with different herbs. The cooking process and the seasoning results in that every part of the pig turns out to have a different texture or flavor.
Literally, the whole pig is cooked and eaten. The “white” meat with no skin nor bone is called “maciza” (sturdy), and, people that are on a diet or that don’t like funky pig parts will have only this type of meat, but, those that love the dish, will always have “carnitas surtidas” (assorted meats) which means they will be having from every part of the pig, like the stomach, or even the penis.
We usually eat this dish on a weekend or on a gathering, with family or friends. It is also a very common breakfast dish for some. We order it in “weight”. Every order goes in increases of half a kilo. With 20 people, you might end up asking for 2 or 3 kilos, depending on how much everyone likes to eat. In the center of the table, you will find, depending on where you are, beans, lots of lemons, salt, pepper, all kinds of salsas, onions, cilantro, and hot tortillas. All of those “garnishes” are what you can choose to put into your taco.
Las carnitas is typical of the center of the country, but, we consider it a Michoacan dish because the most famous places for the carnitas are Santa Clara del Cobre (famous for its copper pans and pots and other crafts) and Quiroga, both in Michoacán.
Enchiladas mineras (miners)
This dish is originally from Guanajuato and the name has to do with mining as the main economic activity of the state.
These enchiladas are made by smearing the tortilla in a “chile guajillo” (red pepper) sauce and frying them lightly. These are usually stuffed with chicken and folded. Once served the dish is topped with cream, cheese, and fried or steamed carrots and potatoes.
It is said that this dish started to be made by the miners’ wives in colonial times. They would serve the enchiladas to the husbands near the mining sites.
In the center of Mexico, there are places that are called “cenadurias” (dinner only places). These types of restaurants serve only antojitos and soups. Las enchiladas mineras are mainly served in these types of places, but, they are also found as part of the street food in Guanajuato and other states around.
This dish has its origins in the town of Cocula in the state of Jalisco. The dish uses strictly the meat of the ram. The meat is “pickled” or seasoned with a mix of spices and chiles, and, the meat will release its own juice, and that mixed with tomatoes will make a broth. This dish in its origins was also cooked underground for 4 hours. La birria is served on a soup bowl and is garnished with onion, cilantro, oregano, chili pepper, and lime.
This dish is one of those late weekend Mexican breakfast foods, and, because of the broth consistency, it is especially considered one of the most popular hangover food by many.
The history of it is pretty interesting. It is said that in the colonial times, when the Spanish started to bring farm animals, the goats’ population was growing exponentially with almost no control. The problem was that the Spanish would give them to the local population with the purpose to get rid of what they considered useless nasty animals. However, they were starting to eat all the grass and local cultivation leaving nothing to the people. That’s why they decided to start eating goats to survive. And that’s how the birria was born.
Asado de Boda (wedding roast)
This is a dish from the Mexican revolution times. It has a thick broth (not as thick as mole) and it is also made with several spices and chocolate. The sweetness of the plate is very minimal. In the state of Zacatecas, the dish is served a lot in celebrations and engagement as an offering from the groom’s family to the bride’s.
The marlin fish is eaten mostly in South Baja California, and, there is no one dish in particular but many ways to prepare it. Marling is so popular in that region because over there fishing has become a very popular sport and therefore the abundance of this kind of fish made it become also part of the gastronomy.
The people there eat it mainly smoked and in tacos with melted cheese, but, they also make “chiles rellenos con marlin” (stuffed chiles), empanadas, in ceviche for tostadas, and more.
Carne a la Tampiqueña
This dish belongs to Tampico, San Luis Potosí and Mexico City. Why? Because it was created more than 80 years ago by a man that was born in San Luis Potosí and moved to Tampico at a very young age to work at restaurants. In Tampico he started his career in the kitchen, before moving to Mexico City where he finally opened his own restaurant. There he used to remain open 24 hours and was serving this dish in honor of La Huasteca, a very beautiful region of the center – northeast part of Mexico.
The dish consists of a long stripe of grilled beef steak served along with green enchiladas, “rajas Verdes” (green pepper and onion served also in chopped stripes), guacamole, and refried beans.
Mexican people eat this at any given time at a Mexican food restaurant or diner. Mostly for lunch or dinner time.
I wanted to leave the last space to the “antojitos”, a word that can be translated into snacks (literally means little cravings), but, they are a full meal for many Mexicans. Los antojitos have a common trait and that is that they are made with carbs, either tortilla or bread.
Some of the names of the antojitos are
- tortas – type of sandwich with bun bread
- cemitas typical sandwich from Puebla
- tamales DF style which are corn “bread” cooked with steam
- tamales from Oaxaca – wrapped in banana tree leaf
- pastes – a type of empanada from Hidalgo
- panuchos and salbutes from Yucatan – fried corn tortilla with meat or egg, beans and more
- pambazos – a “pickled” or “seasoned” bread to make a type of sandwich with meat and potatoes from Veracruz
- sopes – grilled corn tortilla with beans and meat or veggies toppings
- huaraches -bigger than the sopes but same idea)
- chalupas, tlacoyos, memelas, quesadillas, gorditas and so much more.
These antojitos are eaten at any given time during the day. They are very common to be had as part of your holiday, because, there is always a traditional one wherever you go. They are part of the Cenadurias (dinner-only restaurants), of any Mexican restaurant as an appetizer, and, they are also part of the street food.
It is very important to know that there is no doubt that Mexican antojitos are part of the most popular Mexican food and they are also part of the very interesting facts about Mexican culture. The antojitos are of pre-Hispanic heritage mainly because they are made with corn (at least the majority of them).
Traditional Mexican breakfast
We have many different types of popular Mexican breakfast dishes, and many of them are part of the main dishes of the states, but, I will mention 2 that did not appear on the list above.
First we have, Los chilaquiles. Chilaquiles are basically fried crispy corn tortillas cut in triangles, and, they are smeared or soaked in red or green sauce. We can eat them on their own or with protein: beef, egg or chicken. Then, the final touch is to top them off with onion, sour cream, and cheese. Chilaquiles is with no question the Sunday traditional Mexican breakfast dish.
Then, we have the famous Huevos Rancheros (and its many versions from each region). The basics of this breakfast are fried tortillas, fried eggs, refried beans, and red salsa on top.
Lastly, for the purposes of this post, the 3rd place for the most traditional breakfast can be shared between all these: barbacoa, birria, cochinita pibil, and antojitos.
Huevo a la Mexicana
They are a very clear combination of Spanish and pre-hispanic cultures. Huevos a la Mexicana are scrambled with Mexican staple foods: tomato and chili. The eggs are clearly coming from Spain as there were no chickens before the Spanish invasion.
Same as above scrambled eggs but with beans.
Popular street food in Mexico
Street food as a main element of our gastronomy is part of the fun and interesting facts about Mexican culture. And, amongst the most popular Mexican food I will share with you these:
A type of torta or Mexican sandwich from Puebla. Their main characteristics are that within the ingredients they have to be prepared with an aromatic leaf that is called “papalo” and the bread has sesame seeds on it. Besides that, we put a lot of string cheese, not melted, and, any type of protein (usually breaded), avocado, and tomato.
Tacos & Tortas ahogadas
These are from Jalisco. These dishes are similar but the tacos are fried but the bread is not. The protein in them is pork in the form of “carnitas”. They are called “ahogadas” (drowned), because they are literally drowned in a tomato and spices hot broth. This dish is weekend Mexican breakfast and hangover food.
Panuchos & salbutes
Also made of corn and original from the Yucatan peninsula. The corn is turned into a type of tortilla shape but thicker. The panucho is stuffed with beans, the salbute isn’t. Then, the tortilla is topped with egg or turkey meat and with pickled onion, tomato, and a slice of local avocado. These are good for any time of the day. In the Yucatan Peninsula you can find them everywhere.
Tamales de chipilín
The Tamales de chipilin belong to Chiapas. They are super simple. They are eaten at any time of the day. They are basically a “corn bread type” but cooked with steam. Chipilin is an aromatic leaf, and so, the corn dough is mixed with that, and then it is wrapped in the banana tree leaves.
Corundas y uchepos
These street food Mexican delicacies are from Michoacán. They are the tamal version of that region. Uchepos are made with tender corn and they can be sweet or savory. Nothing goes in the dough. They can be eaten as desserts too because they can be cooked with raw sugar and milk. People top them with some condensed milk for more sweetness. Then, Corundas are cooked with cotija cheese (local cheese of Michoacán), and they can use chicken broth. Vegetables like carrot or chard can be mixed in the dough as well as beans. Corundas are only savory and they are topped with a green sauce, more of the local cheese, and sour cream. The green sauce is spicy hot.
Tortas de tamal
This street food belongs to Mexico City, so, the tamales that we are talking about are the DF (Distrito Federal) style tamales. This torta is locally known as “Guajolota” (female turkey). It basically consists of putting a whole tamal (of any flavor or stuffing) inside a “bolillo” or “telera” (Mexican bread) and, hot sauce.
Popular Mexican Soups
Soups are a very big part of the most popular Mexican food, and, mostly they are part of 3 main moments of a Mexican’s day: during the weekday lunch hour, for a cold day or an upset stomach, and, to cure a hangover. Here are some of them:
Sopa de lima
This one belongs to the Yucatan Peninsula. This is basically a chicken broth that is cooked with what we call “Lima”. It is citric that is not grapefruit or orange or lime or lemon. Besides the chicken and the lime, it includes bell pepper, oregano, cilantro, and fried tortilla strips.
This soup is original from Patzcuaro, Michoacan. The ingredients of the soup are beans, tomatoes, garlic, onion, salt, chicken broth, pasilla chili pepper, cheese, cream, tortillas, and epazote (aromatic leaf). The broth is a blend of it all and in the end, when served, it is decorated with fried or baked tortilla strips and cream.
This is another version of the chicken soup. It is said that it has its origins in Tlalpan, the State of Mexico. The main difference between this soup and a normal chicken soup is that this one is served with chipotle pepper, avocado chunks, and cheese.
This soup comes from Tlaxcala, a very small state near Mexico City. This soup is also called tortilla soup. The ingredients are fried tortilla strips or triangle chips cooked in a tomato broth, then, besides the seasoning, we add avocado chunks, shredded chicken, pork skin, cheese, and cream. It is delicious.
Mole de Olla
This dish belongs to the center of Mexico and it is said to have its origins during the Spanish conquest times. This soup is made with beef and with a lot of vegetables: squash, carrot, chayote, green beans and corn. It is called Mole because of all the spices the broth is seasoned with.
Traditional Mexican Desserts
It is important to be aware of the fact that Mexican desserts or sweets as we know them today, date back only to colonial times. And why is that? Because of the sugar. Many of our sweets and desserts use raw sugar and milk, elements that we didn’t have before the Spanish introduced them. The only sweeteners in pre-Hispanic times were the agaves, the bees, the ants, and the corn.
Arroz con leche (rice puding)
This dessert is now very Mexican, but, its origins are from Spain. This dessert is often home-made by the grandmothers when they visit, or, it is the 3rd course of a “comida corrida” (3 course meal at lunch time)
The marquesitas are originally from the Yucatan peninsula. These delicious desserts are long fried hollow rolls of the dough that is used to make ice cream cones. In its origins, it was stuffed only with Holland cheese, but today we have them with Nutella, peanut butter, and jams.
The Buñuelos are crispy fried wheat sweet tostadas. Once they come out from the oil or the lard, they are covered with raw powder sugar, or honey. This version is the one from the center of Mexico. There are other versions in the Yucatan peninsula too.
I believe there is no need for a description here, but, the one very important fact is that it is thanks to Mexico and our cacao that the combination “Churros con chocolate” exists.
Calabaza en dulce (squash in raw sugar)
This is one of the most popular Mexican desserts and, I am going to dare say that it possibly belongs to prehispanic times. Why? Squash is part of our staple food. Sweet Squash is part of the Day of the dead tradition and other religious celebrations, and, there is a great possibility that the kinds of honey mentioned before could have been used back then instead of the raw sugar that is used today.
This is the end of my list of the most popular Mexican dishes but I am sure you have guessed already that the Mexican dishes are not limited to this post. We have so many plates that we can fill an encyclopedia. However, the intention of this post was to give you a taste of our cuisine. Please make sure you try some of our flavors and share what you think in the comments below. 🙂
About the Author
Bianca is a woman, Mexican, a traveler, an ally, a dreamer, a creative, 100% human and so much more. Bianca has +20 years of experience in personal travel throughout 3 continents, and many countries, cities, towns, and communities. She also comes with +20 years of experience with customer service in the hospitality and tourism industries. A passionate advocate of her country (despite it all), an amateur writer & blogger, art lover, certified yoga teacher, entrepreneur, neophyte researcher, philosophy fan, and knowledge obsessed, she has one dream and mission in life:
“To achieve, through her venture, for travel to be considered and used as a tool for a better education and human development in Mexico”
And, even if in baby steps, she is making the dream, come true through her brand: Mexico4Real Journeys.