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!