After living in Mexico, it is hard to find Mexican cuisine in the U.S. that is as authentic and fresh and what we had the good fortune of trying south of the border. From tacos that most closely resemble American Tex-Mex to more indigenous tamales and mole, Mexico’s wide variety of traditional dishes has something to please everyone’s palate.
Should your travels find you in any of the cities mentioned below, I have written some of my own thoughts about the restaurants and food that M. and I personally experienced.
Jump to: Matamoros • Jalisco • Yucatan & Quintana Roo • Mexico City • Oaxaca
Las Parrillitas (corner of Constitución and Alhelíes). This casual, inexpensive, mostly outdoor restaurant offers a la carte tacos, as well as grilled ribs, chicken, and fajita. Guests are greeted by smiling waiters wearing large sombreros, as well as an array of salsas (the green jalapeño was my favorite), freshly chopped onions, cilantro, and limes, served with toasted tortillas. The guacamole is simple and delicious . If you’re sharing (or just really hungry), order the Taco a la Cazuela. For a lighter appetite, the Taco Naco and Taco Super Naco are both excellent choices and can be ordered individually. Quench your thirst with a frozen margarita or a beer served in a frosty mug.
García’s (corner of Álvaro Obregón and Avenida de las Rosas, Colonia Jardín). After you cross the Gateway Bridge into Matamoros, Garcia’s will be a first thing you see. With decor that doesn’t seem to have been updated in the last 40 years, Garcia’s caters to Mexicans and Americans alike, with its traditional Mexican dishes and very American salad bar. On a Friday or Saturday night, you can enjoy live music and try out the dance floor, or buy a table side song performed by a live mariachi band. Prices are reasonable and are listed in US dollars. After you eat, be sure to browse through the huge gift shop, where you can find just about anything from Mexican vanilla to tequila to woven blankets.
La Cama de Frida (Calle 8 and Guerrero). In tribute to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, this cafe doubles as an art gallery and is the first and only of its kind in Matamoros. Spend a cozy evening here with friends over wine and open-faced sandwiches or freshly baked goodies while perusing the art hanging on the walls. Service is friendly and prices are reasonable.
Mi Pueblito (corner of Constitución and Iturbide Colonia Jardín). Owned and operated by the same family that owns Las Parrillitas, Mi Pueblito is an indoor restaurant, great for large groups and dining in cooler temperatures. Guests are served an array of salsas upon sitting down under the restaurant’s thatched roof. If you like soup, give the Caldo Tlalpeño a try, as it is one of the best I had in Mexico. Other great dishes are the Plato Mexicano and the roasted chicken. Prices are a bit higher at Mi Pueblito; expect to pay about $12 to $15 for a main course.
Geko’s Trattoria Italiana (Avenida Pedro Cardenas #3995, Loc.-4, Colonia Infonavit Buena Vista). If you need a break from Mexican food, give Geko’s a try. Owned and operated by an Italian man, Geko’s offers delicious and creative pizzas baked in a wood-fire oven. Prices are comparable to those of gourmet pizzas in the U.S. Service is good, and call-ahead orders are accepted.
Los Camarones al Calle Cuarto y Zaragoza (look for the white booth at the southeast corner of 4th and Zaragoza). Though this outdoor booth/food truck looks like little more than a dive-y pit stop, it is well worth a visit on a weekend afternoon. Owned and operated by a Matamoros native for more than 20 years, this shrimp stand doesn’t have a name, but everyone in town knows what you’re talking about if you ask for los camarones (the shrimp) at Cuarto y Zaragoza. Patrons come here for one thing only: shrimp cocktail. It is fresh and divine, served in a glass size of your choosing with the proprietor’s secret cocktail sauce, onions, cilantro, and lime. Read more about our visit to eat los camarones.
La Tequila (Avenida México #2830, Colonia Terranova). True to its name, this upscale restaurant offers more than 200 kinds of tequila, in addition to dozens of variety of mezcals and wines. I’m not much of a tequila drinker, but the on-the-house shot of tequila sorbet was to die for. We celebrated M.’s birthday here over cream of poblano soup and mole. The food was delicious and the service excellent.
La Fonda de San Miguel (Donato Guerra 25, City Center). Formerly a convent and now a restaurant, La Fonda de San Miguel came highly recommended by my guidebook. In all honesty, I was not terribly impressed by the food, but it is possible that perhaps I went on an off day. Guests dine in the convent’s courtyard, decorated with a huge fountain in the middle and surrounded by plants and artwork. Those alone make dining here worthwhile. The menu offers traditional Mexican dishes, and prices are on the high end. I ordered a shrimp salad, and though it wasn’t the best thing I ate in Guadalajara, I might give the restaurant another try.
Il Diavolo (Av. Terranova # 1189). As lovers of pizza, of course we had to try some in Guadalajara. Il Diavolo was a great choice. We sat on the balcony and enjoyed cool breezes with our pizza and wine. The menu includes many other Italian specialties. The service was enthusiastic and friendly, and prices reasonable.
Mercado Libertad (Javier Mina and Calz. Independencia Sur). I highly recommend trying a meal from one of the food stalls at Guadalajara’s central market. Perhaps Guadlajara’s version of fast food, options are plentiful and prepared directly in front of you. If food safety and cleanliness are of concern to you, look around for stalls that have sinks with running water (and staff who use them), and make sure your food is cooked thoroughly. Prices are inexpensive, and the experience of dining next to local market shoppers is about as authentic as you’ll find.
La Isla de los Alacranes (Lake Chapala). Translated as “Scorpion Island”, Isla de los Alacranes is accessible only by boat. The very rustic (no electricity or running water) restaurant stands just beyond the dock and staff members greet visitors as they step off their boats. To be honest, I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, or if it even had one. Guests are offered clean water for hand-washing, and restrooms are available, though not for the faint of heart. If you’re looking for white tablecloths and shiny silverware, this is not the place; however, the food was absolutely delicious. Menu offerings include fresh fish and seafood and vegetables, all cooked to perfection over a fire. Dishes are large and perfect for sharing. After you eat, take a stroll around the island before heading back to Chapala on your boat.
Yucatán and Quintana Roo
El Jardín de los Frailes (Calle 41-A between 48 and 50, Valladolid, Yucatán). Enjoy traditional Yucatecan fare while enjoying the perfectly manicured garden at this classy restaurant in the heart of Valladolid. Guests can dine inside or out. Following flavorful bowls of Aztec soup, I ordered the pumpkin tamale and M. the shredded pork. All three dishes were fabulous and beautifully presented. The service was attentive, and prices reasonable for this upscale restaurant.
Hartwood (Carretera Tulum, Boca Paila, Tulum, jungle side of the road, Quintana Roo). Hartwood came highly recommended to us by the proprietor of our hotel in Tulum. The executive chef and owner is originally from New York and opened this restaurant on the jungle side of Tulum’s main beach road a few years ago. We were advised to arrive promptly at opening time, if not before. We were 15 minutes late and the small outdoor seating area was already full with a line of about 20 people waiting outside. We added our name to the waiting list and had a drink elsewhere in the meantime. Two hours later, we were seated at Hartwood, and though the wait was long, it was completely worth it. M. and I shared the red snapper (caught fresh that morning), a sweet potato, and roasted spinach. All ingredients are local and are cooked over a wood stove, as Hartwood has no electricity. For dessert, we shared the only item on the menu: hominy ice cream. It was divine. This was easily one of the best meals I’ve had in my entire life. Prices are relatively high, but we were celebrating our honeymoon and justified it that way. If you decide to give Hartwood a try, you will be glad you did. Just be sure to arrive early!
Pescaditos (Avenida Yaxchilan 69, downtown Cancún, Quintana Roo). This casual, no-frills restaurant in downtown Cancún is a far cry from the large resorts most often frequented by tourists. A local establishment with inexpensive, delicious food and an a-la-carte menu, Pescaditos was busy when we visited, the outdoor seating area filled mostly with locals. We ordered a variety of individual tacos from the menu and enjoyed every bite.
Sanborns de los Azulejos (Av. Madero, Centro Historico). Anyone who’s been to Mexico knows how ubiquitous Sanborns are throughout the country. Somewhat comparable to the American Denny’s, Sanborns offers standard Mexican fare at low prices and includes a drug store. While such a place may not normally make it to the top of one’s list of must-eat-at restaurants, the Sanborns de los Azulejos is unique because of its location. Housed in the 18th century Casa de los Azulejos, this Sanborns is the flagship store and is adorned on three sides by the blue and white tile native to the state of Puebla. The building is beautiful, and the food is not bad. I ordered the Caldo Tlalpeño and was not disappointed.
Café de Tacuba (Calle Tacuba 28, Centro). Housed in an old convent since 1912, Café de Tacuba is one of Mexico City’s most historic restaurants. It’s a great spot for breakfast, where traditional Mexican dishes are prepared for locals and tourists alike. Enjoy the 18th and 19th century paintings and Mexican-tiled walls as waitresses bustle around the dining room offering patrons the huge selection of freshly baked breads and pastries.
El Moro (Lazaro Cardenas 42, Centro). If you like churros or hot chocolate (or better yet, the combination of the two), El Moro is the place for you. Open 24 hours a day, this churrería was packed even when we visited at 11:00 pm. Since 1935, El Moro has been satisfying its patrons’ cravings for sugar with freshly fried churros rolled in cinnamon and sugar, and a variety of hot chocolates (Mexican, French, Spanish, and Swiss). My recommendation: Dip the churros in the hot chocolate. Prices are low. Be patient with the service, as the place is likely to be very crowded when you visit.
Café La Habana (Morelos 62, Cuauhtémoc, Juárez). This very large coffeehouse is one of Mexico City’s longest-standing and well worth a stop, more for the atmosphere than anything else. Patrons can sit at one of the many tables inside, or at one of the smaller ones outside on the building’s periphery. Service is casual, attentive, and friendly. I am not a coffee drinker myself, but the cortadito is reportedly very good. Beyond coffee, the menu includes basics such as sandwiches, French fries, and Mexican staples like huevos rancheros. Beer is also available. Ironically, Café La Habana does not serve Cuban food. If you do make a stop here, take some time to look at the photos and news articles hanging on the walls. According to legend, it was here that Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra met and planned the Cuban Revolution.
El Morral (Allende 2, Coyoacán). This large, family-friendly restaurant in the heart of historic Coyoacán is just blocks from La Casa Azul, home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Mariachi bands will entertain you as you enjoy traditional Mexican cuisine. Offerings include the famous Pueblan dish, chiles en nogada, as well as melt-in-your-mouth sweet corn tamales. The service is friendly and attentive, and prices are reasonable.
San Angel Inn (Diego Rivera #50 and Altavista, San Angel). This upscale restaurant just up the road from Diego Rivera’s used to be a monastery. Visitors can enjoy international cuisine in one of the restaurant’s dining rooms or outside in the breathtaking courtyard, surrounded by gorgeous flowers and lush greenery. We went to San Angel Inn for drinks, of which there are many to choose, from beer and wine to fancy cocktails. You may want to dress on the nicer side, as this place tends to attract Mexico City’s elite. Patrons can expect high prices and impeccable service.
Los Danzantes (Calle Macedonio Alcala No. 403-4). Considered one of Oaxaca’s most elegant restaurants, Los Danzantes is conveniently located on pedestrian promenade, near the U.S. Consular Agency. A short walk past the restaurant’s main doors takes guests into a beautiful, covered outdoor patio with dim lighting, a stone pond, and a bar. The ambience is cozy and romantic, the service attentive, and the food delicious, unique, and reasonably priced. For an appetizer, try the chilorio de cerdo (shredded pork).
La Casa de la Abuela (Hidalgo 616). Perched on the northeast corner of the zócalo, La Casa de laAbuela serves traditional Oaxaca cuisine. And of course, that means mole. If you’ve never had this uniquely Mexican sauce, made with dozens of spices and often with chocolate, this is your chance to try it. At La Casa de la Abuela, you can order a sample of different moles in one dish. Try to get a table on the periphery of the restaurant, overlooking the foot traffic and cathedral below.
La Olla (Reforma 402). You might miss this this cozy little restaurant if you are walking a little too quickly. We stopped here for lunch just before leaving Oaxaca, and were impressed with La Olla’s charming dining room and friendly service. Specializing in local and organic ingredients, La Olla’s menu includes everything from light soups and salads to tortas and four-course entrees. Prices are favorable, especially for the four-course lunch menu del día, which changes daily and runs about $10 USD, including a beverage. I had the tortilla soup during our visit, and it was excellent.
Tlacolula Tianguis (Tlacolula, Sundays only). If you venture outside of Oaxaca City for shopping, the open-air market, or tinguis, in Tlacolula is a must-see. Located about 20 miles southeast of Oaxaca, Tlacolula is accessible by car, bus, or one of the many cooperatives. As you shop, and depending on your level of intrigue and tolerance for street food, opportunities to sample Oaxacan foods such as empanadas, chapulines (grilled grasshoppers), and mole abound. Visit one of the carnicerias (meat markets) and enjoy a freshly prepared stew, or select from the fresh meats and vegetables available at the many booths and grill them yourself at one of the communal grills as women walk up and down the aisles selling fresh tortillas.
A word about mezcal: Made from the maguey plant, mezcal is native to Oaxaca. It is similar to tequila, but often has a smokier, more roasted flavor. While in Oaxaca, you will find that there is no shortage of opportunities to sample mezcal, which comes in thousands of varieties. If you plan to bring some home to the U.S., be sure to follow the customs requirements.