With its varied terrain and diverse local traditions, it’s not surprising that Mexican food is highly regional. Certain states distinguish themselves for particular dishes and ingredients: the Yucatán peninsula is famous for achiote-seasoned pulled pork, Chihuahua is known for its fine cuts of beef, and Oaxaca is the capital of spicy mole sauces, to name a few regional specialties.
Although it is an important agricultural center, the Bajío region has never distinguished itself as a culinary destination. Nonetheless, there are a few dishes typical to the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro as well as ingredients that are produced locally and consumed more widely here than in other parts of Mexico. Notably, enchiladas mineras is a hearty dish of tortillas rolled around cheese, covered in a mild chile sauce, and then smothered in fried potatoes and carrots. A very similar dish called enchiladas queretanas is served in Querétaro, sans vegetables.
Many restaurants in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Querétaro prepare traditional food from other states, giving the visitor an opportunity to sample some of Mexico’s most iconic dishes. Some of Mexico’s most interesting culinary traditions can be found in the southern states of Veracruz, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Yucatán. If you are interested in trying specialty foods, look out for popular Mexican dishes like cochinita pibil (shredded and seasoned pork from the Yucatán), mole negro (a chocolate-based sauce from Oaxaca), and chiles en nogada (poblano chile peppers stuffed with almonds, raisins, apples, dried fruit, cinnamon, and meat, then bathed in a creamy walnut sauce).
Drinks in Mexico
Delicious and refreshing, aguas frescas or aguas de fruta are a cheap and ubiquitous beverage throughout Mexico. Usually, these drinks are made with fresh fruit, water, and sugar, blended together with ice and then strained. The most popular aguas include tamarind, mango, lime, lemon, fruit, piña colada, jamaica (hibiscus), and horchata (rice water with cinnamon). Fresh juice is sold at informal stands in the morning, as are licuados (shakes made with milk, sugar, and fruit).
Both coffee and chocolate are cultivated in Mexico and widely consumed as hot beverages. A popular option at many casual fondas and restaurants, café de olla is filtered coffee mixed with cinnamon and piloncillo (unrefined sugar). Atole is another popular beverage for the morning or evening, a hot drink made of corn and sweeteners, often served alongside tamales.
Corona is the world’s top-selling beer and one of a ubiquitous roster of national brews. Most Mexican beers are, like Corona, light lagers, though León and Negra Modelo are both amber. Though Mexican beers are often served with a lime in foreign countries, they are rarely so embellished in Mexico. If you like the lime taste, you may want to try a michelada (a beer served in a glass with ice, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and a salt rim) or a cubana (beer, ice, and lime juice with a salt rim).
Mexican beer was formerly dominated by two major conglomerates: Grupo Modelo (makers of Corona, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, León, Pacifico, and Victoria, among others) and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (makers of Sol, Dos Equis, Bohemia, Carta Blanca, Indio, Tecate, and Superior). Smaller breweries have since gained tremendous momentum, however. Today many bars and restaurants carry small-batch beers as part of their bar menu—or exclusively. If you’re a craft-beer aficionado, look for local producers like Dos Aves from San Miguel de Allende, Chela Libre from Celaya, and Cervecería Embajador and Cervecería Gambusino from Guanajuato.
In addition to beer, Mexico is famous for tequila, a distilled liquor made from the sap of the agave cactus. Fine tequila is best sipped slowly sipped from a tall shot glass, rather than downed in a single gulp. In many traditional bars and cantinas, you can order your tequila with sangrita, a popular chaser made of tomato juice and spices.
A cousin to tequila, mezcal is a spirit made from distilling maguey cactus. Unlike tequila, mezcal can be produced in any region and is rapidly gaining popularity throughout Mexico as well as overseas. While mezcal from the state of Oaxaca remains the gold standard, there are several popular mezcal producers in the state of Guanajuato. Mezcal is often sipped, like tequila, accompanied by wedges of orange and salt, though you’ll also find lots of mezcal cocktails on San Miguel de Allende and Guanjuato’s drinks menus, rivaling the still-ubiquitous margarita.
Recently, vineyards in Baja California, Coahuila, and Aguascalientes, among others, have begun to produce nice wines. Liquor stores in Mexico and most restaurants serve Mexican wines.
The most ubiquitous Mexican dessert is the famous flan, a thick egg custard that seems to be offered in every restaurant in the country. Other popular Mexican desserts include pastel de tres leches (three-milk cake) and ate (fruit paste) served with cheese. On the street, you’ll often find ice creams (nieves) for sale in cups or cones. Nieves are made from a cream or water base and often incorporate fresh tropical fruits like mango or coconut. In addition to nieves, paletas (popsicles) made from real fruit, sugar, and milk are sold in small shops or on street corners throughout the country. A popular treat in San Miguel de Allende, churros are deep-fried pastry sticks doused in sugar and cinnamon, which you can buy from street vendors, at markets, or in cafés.
Markets in Mexico
Since the pre-Colombian era, Mexicans have bought the majority of their food in mercados (markets). Throughout Mexico, markets are almost always the best place to buy fresh produce, artfully displayed in arranged stacks and sold at the lowest possible prices. In addition to fruit and vegetable stands, food markets can be a good place to buy inexpensive grains and legumes, like dried beans, rice, hibiscus, lentils, and garbanzos, as well as Mexican cheeses and dairy products. Adventurous eaters may want to try some of the food prepared at a market’s fondas and food stands.
Many visitors believe that bartering for a lower price is customary in Mexican markets; this is not necessarily the case in San Miguel de Allende and the surrounding region. Merchants will often offer a reasonable price for their goods, and it is unnecessary (and sometimes rude) to bargain. This is especially true for foodstuffs that are often very inexpensive to begin with. However, if you buy in bulk, a merchant may offer you a lower rate for the entire lot.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon San Miguel de Allende.