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What To Order... In A Mexican Restaurant

By Hazel Last edited 142 months ago
What To Order... In A Mexican Restaurant
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So. You’re in a Mexican restaurant. You think you know what you want from the menu – it’s all the same, right? A bit of chilli con carne, some guacamole, maybe a few tortilla chips, a beer with a slice of lime or jug of sangria and that’s that – you’ve had your Mexican for the year, now back to the normal schedule. Chuck in a few fake cacti and some amusing sombreros and the experience is complete until next time.

But there is more to Mexican food and Mexican restaurants than you might think. The original staples of Mexico were corn, beans and tomatoes until the Spanish invasion of the 16th century brought things like beef, wine and rice – and created a cuisine that is often overlooked as stodgy, heavy and relentlessly spicy but is in fact something more intensely flavoured, varyingly textured and hugely diverse in terms of what it has to offer. This is a cuisine that encompasses everything from bright, vibrant vegetables to mouth-searing chillies to chocolate, vanilla and coffee, so there is something for everyone.

So – what to order in a Mexican restaurant? Read on for a little guidance on getting the most out of your meal…

The recurring feature of Mexican food is the tortilla. This corn or wheatflour pancake is the staple in most Mexican dishes and is used soft and doughy to wrap around various fillings, crisped and shaped to act as an edible vessel for various fillings or cut up and crisped to make chips for dipping and covering with various toppings. The following are variations on the tortilla:

Quesadilla - tortilla filled with cheese and other fillings, toasted, not rolled but kept flat

Taco – crispy tortilla, folded and shaped to hold fillings, normally chilli, beans, lettuce and sauce

Burrito - tortilla roll with various fillings

Chimichanga - deep fried burrito

Enchilada - tortilla rolls with various fillings covered in salsa and cheese sauce then baked

Nachos - toasted tortilla chips topped with melted cheese and a variety of toppings

Fajitas – grilled meat for rolling in tortillas, usually cooked with sweet peppers, onions and spices and often served on sizzling plates with a stack of tortillas, salad and sauces for self-assembly at the table

All of the above ways of serving tortillas can be served with vegetarian or non-vegetarian diners in mind – chilli con carne can easily be adjusted to become vegetable chilli, fajitas can be cooked without meat and the use of cheese, beans and vegetables throughout should mean a Mexican night out is okay by everyone.

Other items you will see on a Mexican menu include:

Frijoles - beans

Refried beans – cooked pinto or black-eyed beans that have been mashed and fried

Guacamole – avocado based sauce

Salsa – sauce, usually referring to spicy tomato based sauce

Jalapeno – hot chilli pepper

Chilles rellenos – chilli peppers stuffed with cheese or other filling, dipped in batter and deep-fried

Gazpacho – tomato soup, served cold

Carne – meat (usually beef)

Pollo – chicken

Asada – grilled

Queso - cheese

Ceviche - raw fish or prawns marinated in lime and served with tomato, onion, garlic and chilli

The best drinks to go with your meal (and before and after if you're that way inclined) are:

sangria - red wine served with chopped or sliced fruit, sugar and a little brandy or triple sec

Mexican beers - lighter and more refreshing than usual lager

tequila - a strong, distilled alcoholic drink served with mixers or more famously, in shots with salt and lemon

Mexican food is often substantial food, usually spicy but good for its flexibility: vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike can enjoy it, those with big appetites are well-suited to the combinations and range on offer. Fans of spice and heat would find a lot to like in Mexican food too and the adventurous diner can have a good time hunting for the more unusual stuff found in non-chain restaurants.

The oozing guacamole, sloppy refried beans, dripping salsas and occasional self-assembly necessary to decent Mexican food means meals can get messy so go with folks you don’t mind getting messy with. Parties and group outings based around a hearty Mexican feast work well; intimate dates, a quiet dinner with the in-laws or going for a quick bite to eat work less well.

Pick and choose your restaurant carefully – too many terracotta pots and sombreros and any hint of a fake cactus is usually a sign of a chain restaurant for tour buses and stag nights. Better bets would be: the La Perla restaurants in Covent Garden and Fulham, Santa Fe on Upper Street in north London (recommended for its vast range of tequila and excellent cocktails, Casa Tequila in the south east and many more dotted around town. Happy hunting and buen provecho!

Last Updated 23 August 2005

Kief

As a USian living in London for some 7 years, real Mexican food (you know, like you can only find in the US) is one thing I really miss. In this country "Mexican food" seems to mean tequila. Hell, living here actually makes me yearn for Taco Bell. (And that's a Bad Thing. A Very Bad Thing).

The few Mexican places in London with decent food are high priced, which goes against the whole point of Mexican restaurants. The US and UK seem to swap the roles of Indian and Mexican cuisine - in the US, Mexican restaurants are a cheap staple for eating out, and Indian restaurants are rare and upscale. The UK is the opposite.

Hazel

Fascinating - the idea of Indian restaurants being rare! On the main street near home, there are four in a row leading up to the tube station, five including the takeaway place...It's a great cuisine, I like the idea it's a big deal night out for folks in the States.

London does need better quality Mexican food and better priced too: for what we pay here, I would like to see more adventurous use of ingredients like chocolate, vanilla and coffee, and less indifference towards the staples - there's a certain carelessness about the Mexican cooking over here that really lets it down, and affects peoples' attitude towards the stuff.

Taco Bell? Don't wish for it too hard - do you want to bring on a Starbucks-style rash on the already pock-marked face of gastronomic London????

Damon Allen Davison

This is a really great article. It made my stomach rumble just reading it. I'm dying to try out some of your restaurant recommendations! I've been to the La Perla (Café Pacifico) at Covent Garden and thought it was fairly good Tex-Mex food. I'm from Los Angeles, so... ;)

There is some transatlantic dispute as to how chili is spelt. The one thing that we supposedly agree on is that chili con carne is spelled with one L. Chiles rellenos ('filled chiles/chillis') follows a similar rule because double-L makes a different sound in Spanish. Jalapeño is written with a tilde over the N and is pronounced something like /har-lar-PEH-nyoh/ (I often hear it pronounced differently in the UK).

"Refried" beans can be made with pretty much any soft-skinned bean, but are usually made with pintos. "Southwestern" cuisine often uses black beans. I've never had fried beans made with black-eyed beans (or peas, in the US) since their flavour is so distinctive!

Carne does seem to refer as often as not to beef in the Tex-Mex cuisine that is known as Mexican in the UK and in most of the US. That's probably an American influence. In Mexico, carne traditionally refers to pork.

Like you, I'd also like to see some more real Mexican cuisine from regions other than the North, for example the really delicious food you get in Puebla and Oaxaca. *sigh* Someday!

Alex Veness

Damon Davison is bang on the money about the general ignorance of Londoners regarding truly Mexican food. For the afficionado who's happy to cook at home, I thoroughly recommend a Mexican shop called El Azteca in Elephant and Castle for supplies. This shop is run by a friendly Mexican family. They even have corn tortillas by the kilo (if you can't be bothered to make them yourself), just like in Mexico, although at a price that would make a Mexican faint, as tortillas are government subsidised in Mexico to about 15p a kilo.

El Azteca will also cater parties. As a guide to their quality, I should add that they are contracted to cater the Independence Day celebration every September at the Mexican Embassy in London.

This shop has been a life-saver to me, as I once lived in Mexico City and I miss the food almost as much as a Mexican abroad would. In fact, it was a Mexican friend who told me about El Azteca.

Now we need a campaign to improve the quality of limes in British shops and markets. Good limes are essential to preparing Mexican food, and there is no substitute for a sweet and juicy Mexican lime! I know we could have good limes here, as I bought some great Mexican ones at a market in Munich last month. Bah!