Every few weeks I get the craving for a gigantic burrito filled with meat, cheese, tomatoes, guacamole, lettuce, beans, corn and salsa. You guessed it — I'm describing my Chipotle order. But sometimes, I find myself tired of my usual burrito bowl or quesadilla, and can't help but wonder what exciting dishes an actual Mexican restaurant would have to offer.
To prepare you for my next visit, I spoke with chefs from Mexican restaurants across the country about the history of the cuisine — and more importantly what beginners should order, aside from chips and guac.
Chef Fernando Romero, owner and chef of Corazon Modern Kitchen in Brea, Calif., says to make the most out of a visit to a Mexican restaurant you need to go in with an open mind ... and palate.
Mexican restaurant menus 101
Romero says, when ordering food at a Mexican restaurant, it's good to ask questions if you're unsure about ingredients or their flavors. "Our flavors are complex and the seasonings and chiles used may intimidate someone into not trying a dish," he tells Yahoo Life. "Our chefs have the best intentions for you to enjoy the culture and region of cuisine we offer. Ask us questions: Where do you find your ingredients? What inspires your menu?
For appetizers, referred to as aperitivos, you'll typically find dishes like quesadillas (tortillas stuffed with cheese), queso fundido (hot melted cheese dip with spicy chorizo), bean dip (beans, salsa, cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, chili powder and cumin) and nachos (crispy tortillas, queso, black beans, shredded cheese, tomato salsa, sour cream, guacamole and your choice of chicken or beef.)
You can also choose from a variety of soups (sopa) and salads (ensalada) to get your meal started. There's sopa azteca (seasoned tomato-chile broth ladled hot over crispy tortilla strips with cheese, guacamole and sour cream) and ensalada tacos (lettuce, cheese, beans, onions and avocado in a taco bowl.)
For the main course you'll find different categories like burritos, bowls, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, mariscos (seafood), and grande platos (large plates). Burritos are arguably the most popular Mexican dish among the masses, and consist of a tortilla shell stuffed with meats, cheeses and vegetables. The same applies for bowls (typically burrito fillings, without the shell.)
Fajitas are made with grilled meat and sautéed peppers and onions. They're usually served with flour or corn tortillas on the side. Enchiladas are corn tortillas rolled around fillings like meats, cheese, beans, potatoes and vegetables. They're usually topped off with a specialty sauce for added spice.
The large plates at a Mexican restaurant typically consist of a meat or a fish with a side of rice, beans and guacamole. Popular types of meat in Mexican cuisine include pollo (chicken) and bistec (steak). As for mariscos (seafood), those typically found on a menu include camarones (shrimp) and ceviche (marinated raw fish.)
Last but not least is dessert. At a Mexican restaurant, you'll find a variety of desserts including arroz con leche (rice pudding), flan (custard-like dessert with caramel sauce), pastel de elote (sweet corn cake) and gianduja (a hazelnut sponge cake with chocolate and salted caramel ice cream.)
Consider spice when ordering
While looking at the menu, you'll want to take spice into consideration, especially if you haven't experimented with other cuisines. Many Mexican dishes are spicy because they include ingredients like cumin, cayenne, black pepper and chile pepper. If you're not a fan of spicy food, Gerardo Alcaraz, partner and executive chef at Aldama in Brooklyn, N.Y., says not to worry because there are several options on the menu that either aren't spicy or can be made with modifications.
The history of Mexican cuisine
Curious to learn about the origins of Mexican cuisine? Here's what you need to know about the cuisine that Joel Roland, the restauranteur behind of Yellow Rosa in Dallas, Tex., describes as "vibrant, diverse and intense."
Roland says modern Mexican cooking is considered by culinary historians to be a fusion of three cuisines — Indigenous, Spanish and French. Mexican cuisine was influenced most by Spanish food, as the Spanish brought new livestock with them to Mexico — including sheep, pigs and cows — along with dairy products, garlic, herbs, wheat and spices that can still be found in Mexican food today.
"Most recipes include some type of rice and additional spices as a clear respect to the influence of Europe," he adds. "Since colonization, many cuisines have influenced Mexican food, including French."
Since Mexicans didn't have access to stovetops early on, they used cast iron skillets to create many dishes — the same methods still apply today at restaurants around the world.
5 best items to order as a beginner
Still not sure what to order? Roland recommends going with the following items, that should be found on any menu, for the best first time-experience.
Fideo seco: Start your meal with an appetizer like this one which consists of dry noodles with chipotle sauce and sour cream. Roland says it's ideal for those who like pasta and a bit of spice.
Guacamole with chapulines: For adventurous eaters, Roland suggests trying guacamole mixed with dried insects like grasshoppers, scorpions and ants.
Enchiladas: Enchiladas typically include marinated meat, and can be ordered with many different sauces and fillings. Roland recommends this dish for those with basic taste buds since there are a plethora of combinations to choose from.
Aguachile: A straightforward meal, slightly similar to ceviche, that hails from the Sinaloa region of Mexico, Roland, says the ingredients that give the dish its name include fresh raw shrimp, cucumber, red onion, lime juice and chile water.
Arroz con leche: This is a tasty dessert with a rich history that dates back to the time when Spain was influenced by the Moors. Roland says that these days arroz con leche typically consists of cooked rice, milk, sugar, cinnamon sticks and either lemon or orange peel.
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