Something called Mexican Food is quite popular in many parts of the western world. More often than not, it is a derivation of a style normally called Tex-Mex. In this article, we will try and prepare you for the types of Mexican Food found in this area of Mexico. We'll dispel some myths and probably change your idea about what real Mexican food is.
Lets get this one out of the way first. The Castillian definition of the word taco includes many meanings, among them wedge, plug, cue and ramrod. No doubt the conquistadors and colonists of New Spain lent this name to the generic food style eaten by the indigenous people of Mexico. The taco most Westerns are used to, that hard U-shaped shell filled with seasoned ground beef, lettuce, yellow cheese, and sour cream, is NOT Mexican and you will not find that here, unless you find a restaurant serving American food. This type of taco is Tex-Mex style. The taco you will be served here is a corn tortilla (they are soft by definition) with some beef, pork, chicken or seafood as filling. You simply give it a slight roll between thumb and index finger and fire it into the mouth.
As you might imagine there are plenty of combinations, so try different ones. At places serving carnitas, you can find tacos of eyes, cheeks, udders and other parts that you may have never considered eating before. Close your eyes, if you must, and go for it. If you wimp out, just ask for macisa, which is pure pork loin. A popular taco style is the al pastor, which you will see throughout Playa del Carmen and on the photo above. You'll recognize it by the meat on a vertical rotisserie outside the restaurant. The meat is pork, seasoned with the typical Yucatecan spice achiote, then carved into a tortilla. Onion and fresh cilantro go on top and then the final touch - a piece of pineapple is flipped on to make it complete. Splash some red salsa on it, and you'll forget about your crack addiction.
In Spain it's an omelet. In Mexico the tortilla is a ball of corn dough, or masa, flattened into a thin disc about the size of a CD. Traditionally they are made of maiz, or corn. The tortilla is a staple in the Mexican diet and you will see people carrying out big piles wrapped in brown paper from the many little tortilla shops in Playa del Carmen. Even the supermarkets make fresh tortillas all day. It's so much a staple that the price is controlled by the government at around 5 pesos per kilo! Flour tortillas, tortillas de harina, originate from the north of Mexico and are less common here, but still widely available. The finer taquerias serve fresh tortillas, made on the spot. They are certainly superior to the re-heated store-bought variety. A tortilla is what you use to make a taco.
The word nacho is the nickname of the Spanish name Ignacio. Nachos, an American dish, are not common in Mexico. Gooey orange cheese toppings are not a part of traditional Mexican cuisine. It is normally imported from the States! So the round nacho isn't Mexican, but there's another kind of corn chip that is very common here - totopos. These chips are made by frying triangles of dried tortillas and many restaurants serve them as little treat as you wait for your food. They are also served with seafood cocktails and ceviches and soups along with a spicy salsa. The thick dipping style sauce condiment so popular in Europe and the States is not typically found in Mexico. If anything put some salt, lime and salsa mexicana on your totopo.
Now that we have talked about what isn't Mexican food, it's time to introduce you to the real stuff.
Most Mexicans eat a large lunch at about 2pm. This is called Comida Corrida ('fast' food is a common translation, but it doesn't do this great tradition justice, and is probably not the correct etymology, as 'full run' of a meal is closer) and is served at little non-fancy restaurants off 5th Avenue. It's usually very good value for money; for 30-40 pesos you'll get soup, a plate of food with rice and beans, tortillas and all the fruit water you can drink. For the main dish there's usually a small menu of standard dishes to choose from, such as chicken with some sauce, beef tips in tomato and onion, puntas a la mexicana, or meatballs in a chipotle sauce (dried and smoked jalapeņo chiles). This is all good wholesome Mexican food, and can be highly recommended. An excellent place in Playa del Carmen for a comida corrida is La Casa de Piedra on Avenida 35 and Calle 32, but there are plenty of other good comida corrida places in town. Some taquerias are open in the day, but traditionally that's more of a nighttime thing.
Antojitos (literally, little cravings or whims) are the true Mexican Fast Food. Available from street booths and carts, by wandering vendors, and restaurants, these little gems are never far away. Authentic antojitos can be so tasty it makes us wonder why anyone bothered to formulate the fake tacos and burritos that most tourists recognize from home. A great place to eat antojitos is at a taqueria, where there is usually a good variety of different dishes. Antojitos are fun to eat; not only are they tasty, you can also order them one at a time and find your favorite.
Many antojitos are based on the CD-sized corn tortilla, but differ slightly in execution. We have tostadas, sopes, salbutes, papadzules and panuchos. One is hard fried, one is stuffed with beans. One comes with lettuce, another with grated cheese. They are all good! Shredded chicken or pork is a usual topping. Just throw a little hot salsa on it and try them all. The taco is also a friend of these guys, but you can make the taco yourself. For example, get a plate of alambre (meat with melted cheese) or grilled pork chops and put it in the tortilla together with some salsa, onion and fresh cilantro - there's your taco!
In the taqueria you can also get more full sized dishes. The ubiquitous quesadilla is a must if you never tried it before. The juicy gringa is a couple of flour tortillas with the al pastor meat in between. And yes, gringa means a woman from The United States. Flautas, Spanish for flute, is a real favorite made of corn tortillas filled with chicken or meat, rolled up to a tube and fried hard. It's usually served with shredded lettuce and some cream on top. If you're into weird meats, do try the tasty longaniza de Valladolid, a somewhat different sausage than you might be accustomed to.
This wouldn't be a very good article if we didn't talk some about all the stuff on the side. Mexican food is rarely eaten the way it's served. Most people put extra salsa, lime or other taste enhancing condiments on their taco. A typical table at a taqueria is equipped with a number of little bowls containing: chopped onion, fresh cilantro (coriander), lime, salsa mexicana (chopped fresh tomatoes, onion and cilantro mixed with chile habanero), a red chile salsa (usually made of chile de arbol) and a not so hot green salsa (made of green tomatillos). You can always ask for extra chopped habanero, which is usually mixed with lime juice. Other side dishes include charred cebollitas (spring onions), on which you pour salsa ingles (Worcestershire sauce) and lime juice. And of course guacamole, mashed avocados mixed with lime juice and some salt (and sometimes cilantro, tomatoes and a little onion plus chile).
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