Mexican food in America is often synonymous with hard-shell tacos and cheese dip. But beyond the ever-popular Tex-Mex favorites and San Francisco-style burritos—actually a by-product of integrating Mexican culture in the USA—there’s a wildly variable food landscape in Mexico deserving of our attention.
There are seven important regions to know if you’re interested in learning more about Mexican cuisine. Due to geography & terrain as well as the regionally indigenous people & history, food in each area has distinctive characteristics. Variations in a region's staple crops and spices leave clues as to where a dish may have originated. Learning about the food in different regions can help you understand Mexican cuisine—and, perhaps, inspire you to try something new.
(Baja, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas)
A strong ranching tradition means that beef is king in Northern Mexico. Harkening back to those days on the range, grilling is a popular method of cooking. Hearty staples, like refried pinto beans with house-rendered lard and rice seasoned with tomatoes and chiles, are also popular.
The region’s wide variety of cheeses is also a result of the cattle industry. Wheat cultivation influenced the popularity of flour tortillas. In fact, the flour tortilla burrito was invented in Sonora. Northern Mexico also includes the Baja peninsula where fish tacos became legendary.
Dishes from The North
Caesar Salad: In his Tijuana restaurant, Italian-American chef Caesar Cardini, improvised this salad over a Fourth of July weekend. Ours stays true to the original: romaine, garlic croutons and queso cotija with a dressing of eggs, olive oil and worcestershire sauce.
Carne Asada (grilled steak): This marinated skirt steak, cooked over a grill, is served as a plate of the house and as a filling for burritos, tacos and tostada salads.
Fish Tacos: Coastal towns typically boast the freshest fish dishes and Ensenada in the Baja penninsula is where our fish tacos originated. Ours are served on handmade tortillas with mango-jicama salsa.
Flour tortillas: Perfect for rolling up chicken for flautas, for wrapping burritos, and filling with cheese for quesadillas.
Queso fresco: This fresh cheese is akin to feta, crumbly goat cheese, and creamy ricotta. We have local artisans replicate classic queso fresco which is used to garnish many of our menu items.
THE NORTH PACIFIC COAST
(Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima)
The stretch of coast along Mexico's Pacific shoreline supplies much of the country's staple grains, fruits and vegetables in addition to a wide selection of local cheese and chiles. Guadalajara is the region's gastronomic center and in the town of Tonalá, we discovered our recipe for pozole. Because of the coast, seafood dominates this region.
Dishes from North Pacific Coast
Shrimp Cocktail Acapulco-Style: With seafood prevalent along any coast, this region is the birthplace of our shrimp cocktail. Cooked shrimp is chilled in a spicy tomato juice and served with saltine crackers
Chayote squash: Served as a side dish on our shrimp diablos plate, chayote was a staple of the Aztecs.
Tequila: The state of Jalisco is known worldwide for tequila with the liquor produced only in certain areas permitted to use the name. We offer tasting flights by producer and by style so you can compare the nuances of each.
The South Pacific Coast
(Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero)
This area of the south Pacific coast is geographically characterized by mountains and deep valleys. Oaxaca’s cuisine was less affected by Spanish colonialism than other regions of Mexico, but was one of the first to experience the intermingling of food cultures with the Europeans. While the area still relies on the Spanish-introduced chicken and pork, much of the cooking culture maintains strong ties to the culinary traditions of the indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec people.
Oaxaca is widely known for its seven varieties of mole, and for its version of mozzarella, known as queso Oaxaca.. Corn is a staple of the region, and tortillas are eaten with every meal. Black beans and chocolate are also popular, while a variety of seafood is enjoyed on the coast. (do you have any seafood dishes to verify this statement?)
Dishes from the South Pacific Coast
Manchamanteles: Literally “tablecloth stainer,” this mole is fruit-based and served with chicken or pork. Ours contains grilled pineapple, ancho chile, cinnamon, and garlic.
Tamales: Our moist Oaxacan chicken tamales are wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks, which impart a distinctive flavor.
Enfrijoladas: A trip to the Benito Juarez Market in Oaxaca is where you will discover the recipe for these succulent corn tortillas dipped in a simple yet exquisitely seasoned black bean sauce and topped with queso fresco and crema.
Mexican Hot Chocolate: we only use chocolate from Mayordomo, Mexico’s premier chocolate producer for this beverage served at brunch on weekends and holidays.
Mezcal: Mezcal is made from several varieties of the agave plant, though about 90% is made from the Oaxacan Espadin variety. This distilled spirit is made by cooking the piñas—the heart of the plant—in a pit in the ground. This is what gives Mezcal its smoky flavor. The majority of mezcal imported to the USA comes from Oaxaca such as the mezcal served at our bar.
Queso Oaxaca: This stretchy, mild cheese is an adaptation of mozzarella, which was introduced to the area by Spanish invaders. You'll find it in empanadas and chile relleno.
Escabeche: Pickled carrots, califlower, onions and jalapeno chiles which we serve alongside all of our plates as well as empanads.
(Michoacán, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and Queretaro)
Set on a wide plateau bordered by mountains, the Bajío region geographically resembles the plains of central Spain, and in fact, its first colonizers called that area home. The influence of early Spanish invaders is still strong in the area as evidenced by the use of rice, pork, and spices from Europe.
Michoacán cuisine is similarly influenced, but also draws from a strong indigenous Purepecha cultural tradition. Lakes and rivers are abundant in the region and contribute fish to the local cuisine. (which fish dishes?)
Guadalajara is a gastronomic center of this region, thanks to its strong agricultural and cattle-raising industries. Meanwhile, the coastal areas focus on seafood, often cooked with European spices combined with chiles. (which seafood dish do you serve to support this?)
Dishes from The Bajio
Empanadas: Introduced by Spanish invaders, the name comes from the Spanish verb, empanar, which means to wrap or coat in bread. Our empanadas are crispy corn turnovers filled with poblano chiles and Oaxacan cheese.
Carnitas: This deep-fried pork dish is popular throughout Mexico, though it’s thought to have originated in Michoacán.
Enchiladas de la Plaza: These spicy vegetable enchiladas are essential street food served from carts on the Plaza in Morelia—the capital of Michoacán.
Chile Relleno: Originated in Puebla, chile relleno is a large poblano pepper stuffed with queso Oaxaca, then battered and fried.
Pozole: This hominy stew is served two ways at Picante: one is Pozole Rojo, using pork,and chiles and spices; the other is Sopa Verde using tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, sorrel and serrano chiles.
Cotija: Named after the city of Cotija in Michoacán, this is a salty, crumbly cow’s milk cheese similar to Greek feta.
(Campeche, Yucatan & Quintana Roo)
The Yucatán Peninsula separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, and its geographical location has greatly influenced its cuisine. Yucatán food is different from that of much of Mexico thanks to a strong Mayan culinary tradition, as well as Caribbean, French, and Middle Eastern influences.
The spice achiote is a signature seasoning in the region, giving foods a distinctive reddish color. Habañeros are used as a condiment in many dishes, and tropical fruits like tamarind, plums, mamey, avocados, and bitter oranges are common. In coastal areas, seafood dishes are popular, such as raw conch marinated in lime juice, as well as local fish like Mero and esmedregal. (these are interesting dishes, do you have anything like them?)
Dishes from The South
Conchinita pibil: This pork dish hails from the Mayans. Conchinita means baby pig and pibil means buried in Mayan, and the classic version involves roasting a whole suckling pig in a fiery pit. We use pork loin that’s been marinated in sour orange and achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and slowly roasted until tender.
Pescado en Macum: Salmon rubbed with achiote layered with tomato, onion & chile dulce, cooked in a banana leaf is a must-eat when traveling in the Yucatan. Ours is served with morisqueta rice and plaintain "tostones."
Chiltomate: This habanero and tomato salsa is ubiquitous in Yucatán cuisine and you'll find red squeeze bottles in the salsa cases for your enjoyment.
Recado rojo: A paste we rub onto our chicken before grilling.
(Tabasco & Veracruz)
Indigenous, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean influences dominate the area of Veracruz, on Mexico’s gulf coast. The European invaders introduced spices like parsley, thyme, bay leaf, cilantro, and marjoram to the area, along with rice, citrus fruit, and pineapple. Olives, olive oil, and capers are also popular ingredients that were introduced by settlers from the Spanish Mediterranean. Due to its proximity to the coast, seafood is prominent in the local food.
Dishes from The Gulf
Ceviche Gulf-Style: Rock cod cooked in lime juice, mixed with a sweet & spicy red sauce offers a flavor profile typical of this area.
Sopa de Mariscos: A generous bowl of the freshest spicy seafood soup—rockfish, shrimp, mussels and clams swim in a fish broth infused with saffron, chiles and tomatoes.
Pescado Veracruzana: This is the most famous dish from Veracruz. It is prepared by baking a whole fish covered in a European-influenced tomato sauce that is seasoned with olives, garlic, capers, and spices.
( Puebla, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo and Distrito Federal Mexico City)
Mexico City is an urban hub and center for migration whose cuisine is influenced by regions across the country, as well as many foreign countries. Street foods like tacos and tortas are very popular here, as are specialties from around Mexico.
Puebla is located between Mexico City and Veracruz. Its cuisine is diverse, with a variety of indigenous and Spanish-influenced ingredients comprising its most famous dishes, tortas and mole poblano.
Dishes from Central Mexico
Tostadas de Tinga: A more classic presentation of a tostada, these hand-sized corn tortilla crisps are loaded with chicken in a smokey tomato sauce, shredded lettuce, crema & queso fresco.
Mexico City Style Torta: The street food classic, Mexico City style, has a thick slice of queso fresco with tomato, avocado, jalapenos and lettuce.
Chicken Torta: Served on a bread roll, these sandwiches are filled with thinly-pounded, fried chicken breast, smashed beans, tomato, avocado, jalapenos and lettuce.
Carnitas Torta: Slow-cooked pork layered with lettuce, tomato, smashed beans, avocado & jalapeños make this sandwich popular.
Carne Asada Torta: Grilled steak, lettuce, tomato, smashed beans, avocado & jalapeños make a hearty lunch.
Chorizo y papas: Chorizo’s home town is Toluca, just northwest of Mexico City. Picante serves this as a plate of the house; as a filling for burritos, tacos, tostada salad; mixed with scrambled eggs for breakfast (served on weekends and holidays.)
Enchiladas Mole: Known as the national dish of Mexico, mole poblano is perhaps the most well-known type of mole. There are about 20 different ingredients used to make mole poblano, including mulatto peppers and chocolate. We pour it over chicken-filled enchiladas.