Tacos, burritos and quesadillas are dishes near and dear to most of our hearts, or at least familiar to our eyes and ears. Americans love Mexican food so much, it’s our second-most preferred “ethnic” cuisine after Chinese, according to the food research firm Technomic. But don’t limit yourself to the familiar—there are so many other delicacies on the average Mexican restaurant menu to try out. To help you better navigate your next Mexican food feast, here’s a breakdown of some of the most ubiquitous specialties you should definitely order.
Chilaquiles is the modern name for this traditional Mexican dish that dates all the way back to the time of the Aztecs and is hailed as a tried-and-true hangover cure. Basically it’s tortilla chips doused in red or green salsa or mole, but there are a few regional variations. For Guadalajaran chilaquiles, the fried tortillas are simmered in the salsa until they have a soft, polenta-like consistency; in Mexico City, you’re more likely to get the tortillas still crispy as the sauce is added right before serving while Sinaloa-style chilaquiles are topped with a creamy white sauce. Sometimes proteins are thrown into the simplistic recipe like shredded chicken or scrambled eggs to make it a bit heartier.
Another dish that’s been traced back to the Aztecs, pozole translates to “hominy”—alkalined and dried maize kernels—which is also the primary component in this substantial stew. It’s often served on New Year’s Eve but can be enjoyed any time of the year. The eponymous ingredient is joined by pork or sometimes chicken in the pot and when it’s time to serve comes accompanied by a plethora of garnishes that can include diced onion, sliced radish, shredded cabbage or lettuce, lime wedges, sliced avocado and more.
Sopes can look a lot like a tostada (more on that later), but the telltale sign you’re about to enjoy a sope is the round tortilla base is thicker with turned-up edges formed by hand while the corn is still pliable. Then all of the usual suspects are placed into this little tortilla: meat, cheese, maybe some pickled vegetables, shredded lettuce, avocado or guacamole, radish slices and pico de gallo.
Another specialty from ancient times, both the Aztecs and pre-Columbian Mayans served tamales during rituals and feasts. Today, they’re a popular snack among field workers because of their ingenious anatomy. The modern recipe calls for a working a combination of maize and lard (or maybe vegetable shortening) into a thick dough that’s then wrapped and baked in a corn husk which serves as a plate for the fillings after cooking. Sometimes other fillings are added like cheese, meat or chiles.
Taquito literally means “little taco” but wait, it gets even better. Also known as flautas (“flutes”), they’re made by rolling tortillas around meat or cheese and deep or pan frying them crispy. They’re especially delicious with a little guacamole or crema.
Tostada translates to “toast” which perfectly describes the nexus of this appetizer. It’s a fried or toasted tortilla with a few (or all) of the usual suspects—guacamole or avocado, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, crema and stewed meat or perhaps even a little ceviche—piled on top (some like to think of it as OG avocado toast). Tostadas are often confused for sopas by Mexican food neophytes as they’re round and topped with similar ingredients, but the crispy tortilla base with flat edges is what sets tostadas apart.