Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Visual Guide To Mexican Food

Chilaquiles.Chicharrón.Chapulines.Cochinita Pibil...What did I know?

When I first came to Mexico years ago, I didn't know Machaca from Menudo and there was no internet to help me research the basics. Not that I cared. I just wasn't that much into food.

But now, as a food photographer based in San Miguel, I've taken so many photos of Mexican food this past year, I could name them all blindfolded on a single bite. 

For all the newbie’s out there who are asking the same questions that I did back then, here is a visual primer of Mexican foods you're soon to enjoy now that you're here.

My advice: try everything. I wish I had sooner. 

And for everyone else who is already in the know, a feast for the eyes to remind you that good eating is just one of the many reasons we came here in the first place.

Buen Apetito!


Mexican meatballs.

First time trying them, I devoured the better part of this bowl at the Mercado San Pedro Cholula in Puebla.

Agua Frescas

A mixture of fruits, cereals, seeds and flowers, they are combined with both water and sugar to make a very refreshing non-alcoholic drink.

You can find these Agua Frescas at almost every market in Mexico including the Tuesday market in SMA.


A traditional masa-based beverage, I enjoyed this cup with a group of friends on a cold Saturday morning at the Organic Market in SMA. 

What a warm up!


In Mexico, Barbacoa is a method of cooking meat, usually slow-cooked over an open fire, sometimes in the ground.

A hot cup of caldo (broth) with a generous helping of lamb Barbacoa is a favorite Tuesday morning breakfast at the Robinson family stand at the Tuesday market in SMA.


Beans are a staple in Mexico with pinto and black beans being the most popular and are frequently made refried. They are often served as a side and in fine dining restaurants as a smear.

Get a bowl from Catedral Restaurante and Bar in Oaxaca.


This delicious stew is traditionally made from pit-roasted goat. It's one of Mexico's secrets to curing a hangover when you consumed way too much tequila the night before.

You'll find this stand on Calzada de la Estacion in SMA where they make theirs today from beef.

Burrito                                                                                        Photo: Chipotle

In Mexico, it's all about rice and beans in a flour tortilla with filling...Chicken, Ground Beef, Chicharrón, Carnitas, Chicken Liver, Arrachera…or whatever you happen to be craving at the time.

Chipotle made these bombs famous back in the states.

Cabrito                                                                                     Photo:El Rey del Cabrito

A regional specialty of Monterrey, Cabrito is roast kid goat. 

It's so delicious that El Rey del Cabrito is the first place I head when I hit town. 

Honestly, I dream about this dish.


This delicious treat is simmered goat's milk that is stirred frequently until it becomes caramelized. 

This heavenly Cajeta was served over pancakes at the Sierra Nevada Hotel in San Miguel.

Carne Asada

Carne Asada means grilled meat. There are many kinds but it’s usually used to describe beef.

In my book, there's only one...Arrachera. It's true I often judge a restaurant by how they cook their Arrachera.

This photo was taken at Casa Valadez in Guanajuato.


King of the street carts in Mexico, Carnitas are made by simmering pork meat in lard until tender. One of my all time favorite meals, it's not the most nutritious dish around but it's certainly one of the best. 

A pile of carnitas from the Bautista Brother’s stand at SMA's Tuesday Market.


Beef that has been salted and dried. Remember, you have to prepare it on a sunny day...which is almost every day in San Miguel.

This photo is from SMA's Tuesday Market.


This is my favorite sandwich from Cemitas Las Poblanitas at Mercado Del Carmen in Puebla.

Overloaded with avocado, pickled jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, and large handfuls of white cheese, it's then drizzled with oil and crowned with a slice of ham.

You’re your biggest challenge? Getting your mouth around one.


Raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with ají or chili peppers. 

This Ceviche of Salmon with Cucumber, Nori, Chinese Pea, Sichimi Togarashi, and Sesame Oil is from La Parada, a great Peruvian restaurant in San Miguel.

Wash it down with their house drink: a Pisco Sour.


Grasshoppers. No, you don't have to be on Fear Factor or traveling with Anthony Zimmern to acquire a taste for them. They're good. Really.

This photo was taken at a Mezcal tasting in SMA.


Corn tortillas are cut in quarters and lightly fried. Choose Red or Green salsa or mole to top it off along with Queso Fresco and Crema. You can also top it with a fried egg.

I liked this one from Moxi at Hotel Matilda because it was still crisp when they served it.

Eat it for breakfast. Chilaquiles is a solid AM cure for a hangover.


Fried pork rinds. Need I say more?

From SMA's Tuesday Market. 

Chiles en Nogada                                                              

This traditional, Mexican dish represents the colors of the Mexican flag – green (polio chili pepper), white (the walnut sauce) and red (pomegranate seeds).

Comidistas are waiting to devour it whenever it's in season.

 Chili Peppers

Would there be Mexican food without chilies? They are used in nearly everything you make in Mexico.

Chilies de Arbol, Jalapeño, Cascabels, Habanero, Poblano, Pasilla, Guajillo, Ancho, and Serrano just to name a few…there are so many varieties grown in Mexico you'll lose count.

These chilies were photographed at the Ignacio Ramirez Market in San Miguel.


Made from fatty pork, the meat is ground and different seasonings are added. Green chorizo is native to Toluca.

This delicious slab of grilled chorizo was photographed at Casa Valadez in Guanajuato. Breakfast at the Sierra Nevada Hotel in SMA.


Every kid, or adult for that matter, loves the taste of this fried-dough pastry that is dipped into either hot chocolate or Cafe con Leche after it's pulled out of the fryer and covered in sugar.

I dunk mine at San Augustín Chocolates and Churros in SMA.

Cochinita Pibil

Cochinita Pibil involves slow-roasting a whole suckling pig that is marinated and buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom to roast.

This one was shredded and served as a taco at Luna, a great rooftop bar at the Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel.

Cóctel de Camarón

A shrimp cocktail consisting of shelled, cooked shrimp in a spicy cocktail sauce that is served up in a glass.

Here is one in preparation at Tuesday Market in SMA or you can grab one in town at a little dive called Camaronicto where the centerpiece is a mug of beer.


A popular street food in Mexico, this Corn on the cob is served with condiments such as chili powder, cheese, lime juice, and mayonnaise. Cut the kernels off the cob, put it in a bowl and you have esquites.

This ear came from the Elote stand on Insurgentes in SMA.


For breakfast or dessert, empanadas can be filled with anything from pumpkin to meat to fruit. They are sweet or savory and delicious.

This empanada is from Panadería San Sebastián in SMA.


With each restaurant in town having their own special version of enchiladas, this corn tortilla dish is rolled around a filling and covered with chili sauce. 

This one was prepared with a green chili sauce at El Tucan in SMA.


Enfrijoladas is a corn tortilla that is covered with Black Bean Sauce and then smothered with cheese.

I devoured these at the Tlacolula Market outside of Oaxaca.

Fish Tacos

Fish + Tortilla = Fish Taco. Simple. 

Lightly battered and deep-fried, it's served in a corn tortilla, often with shredded cabbage, a thin smear of sour-cream, a bit of salsa, and a squeeze of lime.

This plate was photographed at the 1826 Restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel in SMA.


Flan is the classic, Mexican dessert and is a custard with a layer of soft caramel on top. It should not have the consistency of a cheesecake but a jello-type jiggle.

Try this flan at Victoria Restaurant in SMA.


A taquito or rolled taco, this one is filled with chicken and fried then topped with an array of fresh vegetables and ranchero cheese. 

This is my favorite dish at El Tucan in SMA.


A Gordita is a small cake made with masa harina and stuffed with cheese or meat.

Hot off the grill at Gorditas Tradicionales Colon (Ceci's) at the Tuesday market in SMA, you can stuff them with any one or more of the 14 fillings they have on the menu.

Grilled Whole Fish (Pescado a la parrilla)

Fresh fish over a wood fire is celebratory and no better way than to stuff it with citrus and herbs and cook it. This one was ready to throw on the grill in my backyard.

Once it's cooked, I place it on a rack upright and let everyone pick it off the bone. It's party food and quite a conversation piece. Serve it with a variety of sweet and spicy sauces.


This signature street food sandwich is made of pork skin, fresh avocado, and a super-spicy pico de gallo that is added to a special sauce made with chiles de arbol.

Yes, I did say pork skins. It’s the most unhealthy sandwich on the planet but it’s so good.

A delicious view was caught inside the Hidalgo Market in Guanajuato.


A basic dish made with avocados, this dip has become part of American cuisine as well, illustrated from this photo at Mercadito in Chicago.

It's made by mashing ripe avocados and sea salt in a molcajete. You then add tomatoes, garlic, onion, lemon or lime juice, chili, and other seasonings.

This photograph captured the dish having just been made at a Petit Four cooking class in Paco Cardenas's outdoor kitchen in SMA.

Helados (...and Other Icy Treats)

The wide-range of frozen treats and flavors in Mexico is amazing. From a simple Paleta de Leche to frozen ice and gelato, I love them all.

This was a treat to cleanse the pallet- a refreshing ice- at a dinner at Casa De Cocinas in SMA, made by Chef Michael Coon.

Do you think it gets any better than this?... homemade vanilla ice cream in my own kitchen. I love it plain or smothered with fresh fruit such as Chihuahua peaches or seasonal berries.


A huarache is an oblong, masa base that is topped with salsa, potatoes, onions, and meat such as ground beef or tongue, and then crowned with a pile of Ranchero cheese. They are similar to sopes but their shape is like the Mexican sandals of the same name. 

Huaraches are a popular breakfast item and this stand at the San Juan de Dios market in SMA is always packed.


There are two styles of Mexican eggs that I love: Rancheros and Divorciados.

Rancheros consists of fried eggs on corn tortillas topped with a flavorful and slightly fiery red-chili sauce. 

Divorciados features two fried eggs separated by Chilaquiles or refried beans. One egg is covered with red salsa and the other with green, giving them both well-defined and parallel flavors.

The Divorciados were photographed at Posada de las Minas in Pozos and the Rancheros is the impressive signature dish at Lavanda Restaurant in SMA.


I love the fact that everything in Mexico is fresh squeezed. Not so in the states where you spend big bucks just for a glass of fresh squeezed OJ. Why is that?

You can get a glass of fresh squeezed juice anywhere in SMA but I like mine with a big, friendly smile from Ramundo every morning just around the corner from Insurgentes on Quebrada.


Machaca is the Mexican equivalent of beef jerky. It is beef that has been marinated, cooked, shredded and dried. It's often used in scrambled eggs.

This Machaca was served up at Restaurante Del Jardin in SMA. There was so much Machaca you can hardly see the eggs.

Margarita See Tequila


Memelas, little pizzas, is the Oaxacan name for the nearly identical sopes and huaraches that are served in other parts of Mexico and are simply made with different toppings such as shredded cabbage, black beans, mole negro and steak.

These were hot off the comal at La Casa de La Abuela in Oaxaca.


Menudo is the Sunday cure for the tequila that got you on Saturday night. People swear by it.

This traditional, Mexican soup is made with tripe in a rich broth with a red chili pepper sauce.

Get in the soup line every Sunday at Doña Bola in San Miguel. 

Mexican Beer

Two large conglomerates control the beer market in Mexico the world for that matter. They produce some of the best brands in the world including the widely popular Corona, Carta Blanca, Bohemia, Dos Equis, Modelo Especial, Negra Modelo, Sol, Tecate, Victoria, and Pacificio. Everyone has their favorite and I'll admit that I've become a bit of a beer drinker myself since returning to Mexico.

Microbrews are coming on slowly in Mexico- although you would have never known it in Mexico City last week at Cerveza Mexico 2014- compared to countries such as the U.S., Canada and Europe but you can enjoy well-established brands such as Cervecería Minerva from Guadalajara, Insurgentes, Agua Mala, Baja Brewing Company and even SMA’s local favorite, Dos Aves.

Photos from Cerveza Mexico 2014 in Mexico City last week, deep sea fishing off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, in my mexican refrigerator and The Beer Company SMA.

Mexican Cheese/Queso  

Two of my favorite cheeses in Mexico are Queso Oaxaca and Ranchero or Queso Fresco.

Queso Oaxaca, a white, semi-hard cheese that is much like unaged Monterey Jack, but with a string cheese texture that involves stretching the cheese into long ribbons and rolling it up into a ball.

Ranchero Cheese or Queso Fresco is usually made from raw cows milk or a combination of both cow and goat milk and has a very salty and somewhat sour aftertaste.

The Oaxaca cheese lady is wildly popular at the Tuesday Market in SMA

Here you see Ranchero cheese topping a plate of Flautas at El Tucan in San Miguel. 

Mexican Chocolate (Spelled the same in Spanish and English)

Mexican chocolate is rather granular in texture and prepared with an assortment of spices and additives such as nutmeg, nuts and chilies to produce very distinctive flavors. It's typically used to make Hot Chocolate, moles and different desserts.

Photos from our Mole lesson in SMA.

Mexican Coffee/Café

Most of the coffee in Mexico is grown by small farmers in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca and is dark and rich in both taste and aroma.

I use to drink Cafe Con Leche but the color of my coffee has gotten a lot darker since coming to Mexico because the beans speak for themselves.

This cup comes from Café Buenos Dias in SMA.

Mexican Wedding Cakes/Polvorones

Mexican Wedding Cakes, as they are called in the states, are Polvorones here. 
Like magic, they break up and disappear the minute they hit your mouth. 

One of Mexico’s most popular cookies, they are sold in almost every Panaderí­a in Mexico.

I bake mine and can barely get them out of the oven without devouring them.


Will get you in trouble...just ask anyone who has innocently spent an evening sampling it.

While Tequila is made from blue agave and ONLY blue agave, Mezcal is made from several different agave cacti. 42 species to be exact.

Mezcal, the oldest distilled spirit in North America, is produced in 8 regions in Mexico, Oaxaca being one of them and the center where many of the great Mezcals are made.

These photos are from La Mezcaleria in SMA,La Azotea in SMA, and AzulCONDESA in Mexico City.


A cerveza mixed with tomato juice, freshly squeezed lime juice and hot sauce. Some people believe Michelada's are a good remedy for for a hangover. 

Variations include a Clamato made with clam juice; a Chelada made with lime and sea salt; and a Cubana containing Worcestershire, hot sauce, chile, and salt.

In some regions of Mexico, a Chelada is a Michelada, and vice versa.

This one's from The Restaurant in San Miguel.


Mixiotes, a specialty dish from Hidalgo, is a traditional pit-barbecued meat dish made of lamb that is cut with the bone and seasoned with pasilla and guajillo, cumin, thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, cloves and garlic. It is then wrapped in small bundles and cooked in the ground all night. The result? One of my favorite dishes in Mexico.

Nothing is better than the bowl at El Pato in San Miguel.


Who doesn't love a rich mole sauce made from scratch? It's the cornerstone that defines Mexican cuisine.

Does it really need 30 ingredients? Beautifully complex with notes of smoke and undertones of chiles, the depth of flavor in a mole has such an authenticity that even I am amazed at how few ingredients can go into a mole and still deliver that wonderful, rich taste. 

This was my own mole, photographed at Lesson 1 of 3 in San Miguel and at Biznaga
Restaurant in Oaxaca.

You don't need a holiday as an excuse to prepare it.


The flat leaves of a cactus, they are stripped of its spikes and are best cooked on the grill.

This pail was being prepared at San Juan de Dios Market in San Miguel.

Pico de Gallo

Pico de Gallo or salsa fresca is made from chopped tomato, onion, chilies, coriander leaves, salt and key lime juice. It's used for tacos and grilled meats and is a basic for Mexican food in the states as well.

This healthy bowl was at Saturday Organic Market in SMA.

 Pollo Asado

Pollo Asado is simply grilled chicken and is cooked at roadside stands and in markets all over Mexico.

This one was an afternoon temptation at the Talacoula Market outside Oaxaca.


Nothing like a bowl of freshly made Pozole with a hot stack of tortillas when you're starting your day.

Pozole is a soup made with hominy. It's usually made with pork or chicken, heavily garnished and is served at Mexican tables and in restaurants worldwide. 

These delicious bowl of both red and green Pozole were photographed at La Pozoleria in San Miguel.


Pulque is a milky, alcoholic beverage made of fermented agave nectar. At one time in Mexican history it was considered sacred to drink it.

This pulque was my introduction to the Ocotlan Market outside of Oaxaca where vendors told me it is best to drink it before breakfast. Of course, I had to agree.


A flour tortilla - you can use corn too- filled with cheese and other ingredients such as mushrooms.

This Quesadilla is shown on an appetizer platter at Hecho en Mexico in San Miguel.

Queso Fundido

Queso Fundido is melted cheese that is served bubbling hot and is spooned out on warm, flour tortillas and topped with salsa verde. It's sometimes laced with spicy chorizo. Don't forget your salt shaker.

It's the first thing I ate in Mexico at a restaurant near the University of Guadalajara and I've been addicted to them ever since.

This Queso Fundido is from the kitchen at La Posadita in SMA.

Red Rice 

Mexican rice is known as "Arroz Rojo" or red rice. It's frequently served as a side with mole or a plate of Carne Asada.

Dig in to this tasty pan from the Tuesday Market in SMA.

Red Snapper Veracruz Style                                 

This is one of my favorite dishes to prepare when I'm anywhere in the neighborhood of good snapper. 

The sauce beautifully marries olives, jalapeños, and capers.

Beyond delicious.


Salsa = Sauce

Roja, Verde, Pico de Gallo...salsas are the most common condiment for most Mexican food. You can walk into almost any restaurant and there are bowls of salsas on the table. In fact, many restaurants are defined by their Salsa. 

Salsas were originally made with a Molcajete, like this one made in Paco Cardenas's cooking class in SMA.

My new, favorite dish for Brunch: Sopas with Chorizo, Black Beans, Ranchero Cheese and a Poached Egg. The base is made from a circle of fried masa with pinched sides. 

This one was my Sunday brunch at The Restaurant located in San Miguel.

Squash Blossoms

Edible flowers from zucchini plants. 

The blossoms are often served fried – a dish I never turn down. 

Expert home-cook, Melissa Barnett uses Masa Harina and lets them dry before frying.

These were photographed at the Tuesday Market in SMA.


Ask anyone what Mexican food is and they will tell you a taco. No utensils needed here because it's eaten with your hands. 

It's simply a tortilla that is folded around a filling. It's the most popular item on the menu and often served from the street.

My Mexico fix in Chicago? Maxwell Street Market, where at Rubi's on Sunday morning you could close your eyes, smell the aromas and swear you were back in Mexico they were that authentic.

La Azotea's ever-so-famous Jicama Tacos in SMA; 
Casa de Cocinas delicious Tacos al Pastor in San Miguel; 
A plate of Arrachera tacos from MuRo in SMA; 
Tacos from the Tuesday Market in San Miguel;
Tacos from Burritacos in San Miguel


A tamale is made of masa and steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper and filled with meats, chilies, cheeses, fruits or vegetables. 

In Michoacán, called a Corunda, they are wrapped in a long green corn leaf and then folded to make a triangular shape. 

This tamale is from La Bonita in SMA where there are 27 types of tamales on the menu.


A beverage made with maize flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey pits and flor or rosita de cacao. Grind it and mix with water. When it is ready, the cocoa rises to the top to form a foam.

It's served cold in tiny ceramic pots in just about every market in Oaxaca.

Lot's of things on this list to cure a hangover and this is another one caught on digital at the Tlacolula Market outside Oaxaca.


A distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, tequila is the national drink of Mexico. 

It's used to make a Margarita, the most popular mixed drink in the US.

This tequila Queen changed up her basic formula for Margaritas this past year by adding an ounce of Liqueur.

Formula: The base is tequila and lime juice with two modifiers: Cointreau and simple syrup.

The ratio 2:2:1:1 or 2 parts tequila, 2 parts lime juice, 1 part Cointreau, and 1 part simple syrup.

The Tequila: Use only 100% agave tequila. Although most people swear by Blanco, a Reposado will also bring out the roasted agave flavors. 

The bar at Hotel Sautto uses some of the least expensive (87 pesos a bottle) and oldest (1879) made tequila in Mexico: Orendain Tequila Blanco. They are classic.

Lime juice: Fresh-squeezed only. In Mexico I use the small, Mexican limes that come off the trees in my back yard. They are much sweeter and less acidic. 2 ounces = 6 limes.

Liqueur: I have yet to taste a Margarita made with Grand Marnier that I love and only use Cointreau or the Mexican version Controy. Why Cointreau? It is not very sweet and has an intense bitter orange flavor.

Simple Syrup: In Mexico, I buy Madrilena Jarabe Natural. In the states I make it from scratch.

2 parts sugar
1 part water

Bring the water to a boil. Dissolve the sugar into the boiling water, stirring constantly.
Once the sugar is dissolved completely, remove the pan from the heat. Do not boil for too long or the syrup will be too thick. Allow to cool completely and thicken. Bottle. To prolong the shelf life add a little vodka.

Another drink that's widely popular in Mexico: The Paloma. I've been told that Mexicans drink these instead of Margaritas.


Mexico's version of the sandwich. 

This Americanized version was a BLT made on a roll baked by MiVida and prepared at El Tucan. It totally satisfied my summer craving for a great BLT. 


The mainstay of the Mexican diet, there is nothing better than a corn tortilla hot off the comal. Just watch the women in the markets pull them off with their hands. Have you tried it? Ouch!

Making them from scratch? This batch was at Petit Four’s cooking class in SMA.

We find beautiful, homemade tortillas in every market in Mexico, including this basket of Rosa colored ones made by Vanessa in the San Juan de Dios market in San Miguel and a tortilla stand outside the Ignacio Ramirez Market in San Miguel.

Tortilla Soup/Sopa Azteca

There is a difference between these two but they are very similar.

To achieve that simmered-for-hours flavor, a dried chili pepper can be placed in the oven to release the oils before adding it to the soup. 

Everything but the kitchen sink can be used to vary your textures in the tomato-based broth.

This one was made at MuRo in San Miguel.


A tortilla that is deep fried flat and topped with a variety of ingredients.

This one was prepared by Alex at El Tucan in San Miguel.

Valle de Guadalupe Wines

It's Mexican wine country, with new tasting rooms and fine dining restaurants springing up throughout the Valley in Baja. 

My excuse for drinking them? It's on my list to go to the wine harvest in 2015 so I feel I have to try them all before the trip.

Call it "the other Mexico", you'll go back in time because Valle de Guadalupe is what Sonoma and Napa Valleys were like 50 years ago.