Earlier this year, I spent four months traveling around Mexico. It was every bit as fantastic as it sounds, but one of the best parts was how much I learned about Mexican food. Not only did I eat my way through Mexico’s bangin’ regional cuisines—Yucatan and Oaxacan, plus the incredible pan-regional smorgasburg that is Mexico City—but I tried quite a few dishes I never knew existed. Now, they rank among my favorites. Maybe they’ll become yours, too.
1. Chicharron prensado (pictured above)
I clearly remember the first time I bit into the fatty, porky deliciousness that is chicharron prensado—crunchy pork skin that’s been “pressed” in a cloth to squeeze out the juices. It was at a gorditas stand near the entrance to the excellent Tlacolula Sunday market, outside of Oaxaca City (a must when you’re in that town). The fatty, flavorful mass of pork tasted to me like Chinese char siu, but maybe that’s only because I’d been deprived of Asian food for months. After that, I ordered chicharron prensado where I could find it, which was pretty much everywhere.
Turns out there’s more to Mexican sandwiches than just tortas. Meet the pambazo, whose soft bread roll has been soaked in red guajillo pepper salsa until it gets completely soggy, and then griddled into warm crispness on both sides. It’s typically stuffed with sauteed chorizo and potatoes and garnished with shredded lettuce, salsa, crumbled fresh cheese, and cream. This beast will fill you up for quite a few hours, but it’s worth it. You can find pambazos at street stands all over Mexico City and elsewhere—just look for sandwiches on red-tinted bread.
When someone described a costra to me, I kept exclaiming, “So it’s like a taco, but the ‘tortilla’ is made of cheese?!” Turns out that’s a pretty accurate description for what must be one of the most genius inventions in recent food history. Like many of the world’s best eats, costras were first served to the late-night crowd, outside of a nightclub in Mexico City. The word means “scab” in Spanish, which sounds gross, but is completely logical when you see these puppies being made: The cook takes shredded white mozzarella-like cheese and spreads it in a mound on the griddle until it melts into a sort of a cheese pancake. Then the hot cheese shell is browned a bit, scraped off in one piece, and wrapped around whatever fillings you’ve asked for. It’s awesome. Everyone is obsessed with the original Mexico City Costras stand, aptly called Las Costras, but you can also find good ones at the various (more convenient) outposts of El Farolito.
Okay, this isn’t a food—it’s a drink, and a damn fine one that’s actually sort of healthy. The beverage is made with water and pineapple rind, plus piloncillo, a flavorful unrefined sugar. Tepache gets fermented for several days, so there’s a bit of debate about whether it has any booze content, but the basic answer is that if it does it’s miniscule. It tastes a bit like kombucha, which is also fermented: sweet, sour, and deeply earthy, and super refreshing on a hot day. You can find it at street stands around Mexico and sometimes at taquerias, where the tepache helps cut through the grease of fatty fillings like steamed tripe.
5. Tikin xic
Mexico’s Yucatan cuisine has given many beautiful foods to the world, including their version of barbecued pork, cochinita pibil. A bit less common but no less delicious is tikin xic (pronounced “teekeen chic”), a preparation usually applied to seafood that goes back to the region’s native Maya people. Tikin xic’s key ingredient is the achiote seed, aka annatto, which gives it a bright red color; the other ingredients usually include garlic, chilies, citrus juice and spices like cumin and cloves. Fish or seafood is rubbed with this delicious paste and then traditionally steamed in banana leaves, a preparation similar to en papillote. If you go to Tulum, hit up El Camello Jr. and order yourself some fish tikin xic. You’ll receive a packet of steamed tender fish stained red and tasting subtly sour and complexly spiced. You will thank me.
6. Chicharron preparado
This delightfully lowbrow snack is not to be confused with chicharron prensado. Actually, the two have little in common aside from the fried pork skin factor. It resembles a pizza, with a deep-fried rectangle of chicharron as the base. The fatty cracker is piled with cabbage, tomato, avocado, lots of cream, hot sauce, and, very important, gelatinous strips of pickled pork rind (it’s good, trust me). Once you get it, you have to figure out how to eat this unwieldy giant nacho without silverware, because this is not knife and fork food. It’s not the most common dish, but if you sniff around street stalls and snack bars you may run across it. It’s often served alongside even zanier inventions like the Doriloco.
7. Oaxacan garnacha
“Garnacha” can refer to several different things in Mexico, including the general family of griddled corn-based snacks such as sopes. But in Oaxaca, it means one thing: a small lard-fried disk of masa topped with stewed shredded meat, fresh cheese, salsa, and a vinegary cabbage slaw known as repollo. The dish originates in an area called the Isthmus, where, judging by the killer grub at La Teca and Zandunga in Oaxaca City (which both specialize in Istmeño cooking), a lot of the good grub comes from. La Teca is especially unforgettable. Do yourself a favor and head there when you’re in Oaxaca.
8. Green chorizo
I’ve only seen green chorizo at one place and that was at the well-loved Ricos Tacos Toluca (87 Lopez, corner of Puente Peredo) in downtown Mexico City, which serves several different sausages from Toluca, a town near the capital that’s known for its tubesteaks. The green sausage gets its color from a secret recipe that reportedly includes parsley, cilantro, and green-colored chilies (serranos and Poblanos), along with almonds and some other mysterious things. Order it in a taco, then top with the restaurant’s complimentary guac and French fries. Be sure to Instagram the finished product, because people will freak out.
9. Tacos Árabes
If the trompo (vertical rotisserie) used to roast al pastor-style pork looks like shawarma, you’re not imagining things. During the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a significant influx of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, and they brought some of their food traditions. Naturally these foods got Mexican-ified. Now, you see al pastor everywhere, usually served in regular corn tortilla tacos.
However, there’s a less common version known as a taco Árabe that’s made with a round piece of wheat flatbread instead. It’s a great way to mix things up if you’ve, say, been traveling through the country for four months. Or if you just want to try something tasty. Puebla is apparently ground zero for these things—I hear they’re everywhere in that town. In Mexico City you can give them a munch at Taqueria El Greco (54 Ave. Michoacán).
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