When you dine out at an ethnic restaurant, it's nice to feel like you don't stick out like a sore thumb and can order authoritatively off the menu. Here's how you can avoid looking like a gringo the next time you select food at an authentic Mexican restaurant (for example, try these guys out).
Recognize that not all Mexican food is the same.
Mexican food, like that of Italy and France, is varied. The restaurant you're at may have a smattering of foods from around the country, or it may offer only food from one region.
If you're at a place advertising Baja-style cuisine or food from the Bay of Campeche, expect to see lots of seafood, especially fish tacos and shellfish appetizers. You might see more meat dishes from central Mexico.
It's okay to ask the owners about their style of food. Most will be happy to see your interest in regional Mexican cuisine.
Go for more unusual, interesting dishes than the ones everybody knows.
Tacos and tostadas are practically traditional American foods these days. To look like a Mexican food pro, try something a little more adventurous. A whole breaded fish, chicken in mole sauce or menudo are much more authentic.
Know the difference between your meats.
Real Mexican menus are usually a carnivore's delight. Know the difference between these meats you'll typically see on the menu:
- carne asada: spicy marinated steak cut very thin and flame broiled
- machaca: dried, shredded beef or pork, which is rehydrated and often served with eggs for breakfast or brunch
- carnitas: spicy shredded pork, frequently found in tacos
- birriria: goat or beef shredded and slow cooked in broth--can be eaten as soup or put in DIY tacos
If you really need ground beef, ask for hamburguesa, but know this is typically referred to in the kitchen as a "gringo taco.
Expect certain side dishes whether you order them or not.
Most casual Mexican meals are served with sides of refried beans (usually pinto beans), rice, tortillas, and salsa. To look like you're not a neophyte, try corn tortillas instead of the more common flour version. Also, know the difference between different kinds of salsa:
- pico de gallo: fresh chunky salsa, made with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, lime, and cilantro
- salsa para tacos: blended tomato-based salsa that is usually a bit hotter than its US cousin
- salsa ranchera: tomato-based salsa made with roasted ingredients that give it a browner color and smokier flavor
Don't ask for inauthentic food.
Nothing marks a gringo more than asking for "Mexican" food that isn't really Mexican. Never ask for the following items at a real Mexican restaurant:
- crispy or fried tacos
These are more Tex-Mex dishes that are a blend of Mexican and American foods. Fajitas are a quasi-Mexican dish; the preparation is basically the same, but in Mexico it's called arracheras.
Never ask for cheddar cheese on your Mexican food. Mexicans use Monterey Jack (which is actually American in origin but prevalent in many parts of Mexico), panela, manchego (originally from Spain), or Cotija cheeses, among others.
Even margaritas don't have a long history in Mexico and were reputedly created for Americans visiting Tijuana from California. While some Mexicans have taken up the American fad of drinking margaritas, most drink tequila straight or consume beer or wine when drinking alcohol. It might surprise you to learn that Mexico has some world class vineyards!
If you do slip up and hear someone at a Mexican establishment refer to you as "gringo," don't feel bad. While some people think it's a derogatory term, it's simply a Spanish language word for someone from America or someone who isn't Latin American.