If you’re preparing for a trip to Mexico and are ready to enjoy some of the Mexican foods you’ve grown accustomed to in the United States, you might be in for a surprise when you find many of them missing from restaurant menus. A number of popular items in the United States are more Tex-Mex creations versus the traditional Mexican cuisine you’ll easily find in Mexico. Here’s what you WON’T find in Mexico.
Hard Shell Tacos
The invention of the hard-shell taco as we know it today is American in nature and bears little resemblance to the traditional fried tacos you will find in some parts of Mexico. In general, Mexicans eat soft tacos, not the hard-shell variety you find at Taco Bell or the Old El Paso section at the grocery store. Instead, you’ll find beautifully handmade corn tortillas filled with fresh seafood or meat and some sort of seasoning or sauce. You’ll have cilantro and onions, and a variety of freshly made hot sauces and pico de gallo. Some places include a cheese option, but don’t look for shredded cheddar.
Traditional Mexican cheeses are white, while shredded cheddar is found in Mexican-American cuisine.
The best tacos aren’t expensive or necessarily beautifully plated either. They are messy, delicious, and simple. Good tacos come from the markets, street vendors, or noted taquerias throughout Mexico who serve up these traditional eats for only a few pesos each. You’ll find people eating tacos round the clock, with some spots only opening for breakfast, while others cater to the late-night post-clubbing crowd.
Along those same lines, the taco salad is another American creation. It’s said to be Tex-Mex, initially created by Elmer Doolin, the founder of Fritos. He made his own version using ground beef, beans, sour cream, and cheese, all served in a bowl made of Fritos. It took off and the size continued to grow, eventually becoming the giant taco salad bowl that’s popular today.
Burritos and Chimichangas
Don’t bother looking long and hard for giant burritos filled with tons of ingredients, slathered in red sauce and melted cheddar cheese. That’s another American creation. The origin of the burrito, which literally translates to “little donkey," is somewhat unclear, but there is evidence it may have originated in the northern part of Mexico. However, it’s definitely a dish that the US has made its own, especially California. California has a long history with the burrito, including its own definitive styles depending where you are in the state.
The origin of its name is also unclear, with some people speculating that the burrito gets its name from the rolled packs donkeys carry on their sides. You may find burritos in northern parts of Mexico and a few other spots in the country, but they aren’t likely to resemble the US versions with rice and beans, meat, vegetables, etc. And, those who like a deep-fried burrito, or chimichanga, will be disappointed to learn that it’s also a Tex-Mex creation and not traditional Mexican cuisine.
Another popular Tex-Mex item is fajitas, which have even gone through their own evolution. The original fajitas were made with grilled skirt steak, but today the term has become a catch-all for anything grilled and served in a flour tortilla. It’s not uncommon to see shrimp, chicken, and vegetable only, but to be true, traditional fajitas, the dish should be made with skirt steak. In Mexico, the alternative is arracheras, which you’ll find served in a variety of restaurants.
Legend has it that nachos weren't developed in Mexico, but along the border by a maître d’ who created the first batch for a group of hungry US military wives who arrived at the restaurant after it was closed. He called it Nacho’s special after his own nickname, Nacho. The name stuck and the popularity of his creation only grew as Americans fell in love with nachos. What started as a simple snack of fried corn tortillas with melted cheese and jalapenos is now found in menus around the world with a variety of toppings, and has even been reimagined in sweet dessert variations.
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