Why you won't find these 'Mexican' dishes in Mexico

Brad Cohen

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For millions of Americans, Tuesday has become the designated day of the week to eat tacos. Browse the 2.5 million results for #tacotuesday on Instagram and you’ll find everything sushi tacos to taco-stuffed burritos. But nobody takes Taco Tuesday more seriously than Taco John’s, a Wyoming-based chain that owns the trademark for Taco Tuesday in 49 states (New Jersey excluded). The chain has been known to send cease-and-desist letters to anyone casually throwing out the term to promote their business.


If there’s anything more American than getting litigious over dinner, it’s the menu at taco John’s, which everything from burritos to ‘taco quesadillas’ to hard tacos, all of which are more American than apple pie.

The classic taco most of us grew up eating at Taco Bell or on Mexican night in our mother's kitchen – Tuesday or otherwise – features ancho chili- and cumin-spiced ground beef with shredded, neon yellow cheese in a crunchy tortilla shell, none of which are ingredients that really exist in most Mexican cuisine. And the lettuce and tomatoes that top those tacos are a far cry from the onions, cilantro and lime that garnish a typical Mexican street taco, which is served on a soft corn tortillas.

But hard tacos aren’t the only ‘Mexican’ food you won’t actually find in Mexico. Here are five items you’re way more likely to find on menus in America:


Why you won't find these 'Mexican' dishes in MexicoPhoto courtesy of Photo via Getty Images/cobraphoto

You should never judge a book by its cover, but you can usually judge ‘Mexican’ food by the tortilla in which its wrapped. While you can find flour tortillas in a few authentic Mexican dishes in the far north of Mexico (Baja fish tacos, for examples), they’re far more popular in Tex-Mex – an authentic cuisine in its own right, with unique recipes and cooking techniques that date back centuries. And fajitas, traditionally made with skirt steak, are decidedly Texan.

One of Texas’ greatest contributions to Mexican food was first created in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1930s, when ranchers cooked skirt steaks over open flames, but fajitas as we know them – with any number of fillings and condiments served in a flour tortilla – didn’t really start popping up in restaurants until decades later. If you have a hankering for something similar while you’re in Mexico, seek out gringas, meat and cheese tacos served in flour tortillas.


Burritos likely originated in Mexico, but they were popularized in America in the 1930s, beloved by Mexican workers in California for their ease of transportability – a delicious and easy-to-eat lunch. However, the burritos that dominate Mexican menus these days – the gargantuan variety served up at Qdoba and Chipotle, overstuffed with everything from rice and beans to meat, cheese and overpriced guacamole – were invented in San Francisco’s Mission District at El Faro in 1961, hence the name “Mission burritos.” You can find burritos on the streets of Mexico, but they far more closely resemble tacos than they do the brick-sized gut bombs we eat stateside.


Nachos were invented as a desperate everything-left-in-the-fridge creation for a group of hungry diners. The story goes that a group of army wives stopped into a restaurant in Piedras Negras, Mexico, near the base in Fort Duncan, Texas, and despite the kitchen being closed, a maitre-d named Ignacio (Nacho) Anaya threw together the only ingredients he had on hand: some tortillas (which he cut up), cheese and jalapeños. The dish has since grown to include everything from beans to chicken to guacamole, but it started as basic as it gets. Despite their birth in Mexico, you still won’t find nachos on menus throughout most of the country – at least not outside of resorts. What you will find virtually everywhere is chilaquiles, a classic breakfast of freshly fried corn tortilla chips topped with salsa, scrambled eggs and crema.



Nobody really knows the origin of the margarita but it was likely sometime in the 1930s in Texas (or possibly a border town), where the tequila-based drink is still the king of cocktails. The margarita is the most commonly ordered cocktail in America, so you’ll find it in Mexico in establishments catering to sunscreen-lathered vacationers, but another tequila-based cocktail named after a different woman reigns supreme south of the border. Skimp on the lime juice, swap the triple sec for grapefruit juice, and you’ve got yourself a paloma, arguably the most popular cocktail in Mexico (michelada excluded).


Everyone’s favorite Mexican dip does have roots in Mexico, but the version you’ll find at your local Mexican joint likely barely resembles the original. Typically speaking, queso is made with processed “cheese” – namely Velveeta – and was, once again, invented in Texas. For a taste of the original, seek out queso fundido, a spicy dip made with chilies, chorizo and/or roasted chile poblanos in Mexican white cheese, such as Oaxaca or Chihuahua.


Brad Cohen

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