Our Favorite Regional Recipes Inspired by Mexican Cuisine
Do you ever wonder where your Chipotle burrito came from? That guacamole served with freshly-made chips? Mexican food in the United States ranges from Tex-Mex to Americanized version of traditional favorites. Whether you're eating at a fast casual restaurant or food truck, the roots of Mexican food come through across the country.
Finding Auténtico Food From Mexico
I spent part of my childhood in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. One of my favorite memories was going to Mexico to sample the foods of Jaurez and other border cities. From bottles of thick, sweet Coca Cola to markets full of peppers and spicy pork, I loved it all. When we were back in the States, my favorite Texas restaurant was Pancho's. I wasn't old enough to know a taco from an enchilada but I did know what tasted good and how to raise the table flag for fresh, hot tortilla chips and sopapillas.
As I moved across the country, I've experienced a wide range of Mexican-inspired food. It was surprising to me that not all Mexican-inspired dishes are consistent across the United States. My favorite puffy sopapillas? I asked for them in the South and instead was offered flat, fried tortillas with cinnamon sugar on them — not puffy pillows with honey and powdered sugar. Corn or Maize pudding? Easy to find in the Midwest but relegated to a tiny side in southern restaurants.
Mexican-inspired food varies by region with migration and logistics coming into play. In the Northeast and Southeast US, the influences are often more Puerto Rican and Cuban. Mexican food in Florida is heavily influenced by proximity to Cuba while Texas is obviously influenced by Mexican cuisine. Each American region is inspired by Mexican cooking but has also adapted to local ingredients. Masa pudding I loved in the Midwest makes sense because of the ample corn crops.
While you may know Mexican food in your own region, learn more about regional Mexican cuisine across America and find new favorite recipes to inspire your own Mexican meals.
It's almost as much fun to say chimchanga as it is to eat one. There are multiple origin stories of how the Mexican-inspired chimichanga was born in the United States. Most involve a basic burrito getting accidentally (or on purpose) dropped into hot oil. However you fry it, there is a definite connection between the chivichanga of Mexico and the chimchiganga originating in Arizona. The filling in a Mexican chivichanga is a little different: dried meat, dried beef, or marinated meat. An American chimchichanga is typically filled with chicken or ground beef, rice, and cheese but the crispy, fried flour tortilla exterior distinguishes it from a traditional burrito.
Where: Southern California
Growing up in the Midwest, when I ate tacos they were either filled with beef or chicken for the simple reason that we were landlocked. The fish tacos of Southern California and the Bay area feature battered and fried or flaked white fish like tilapia or cod.
Inspired by Baja California fish tacos, toppings for fish tacos in the US are also lighter than a traditional ground beef taco: pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, lemon juice, mayo, spices and chipotle. If you close your eyes, a fish taco can take you straight to the coast!
Where: Bay Area, San Francisco
Some Mexican-inspired regional foods have so thoroughly moved into restaurants across the States that you may no longer recognize them as something new and different. The Mission Burrito, originally hailing from the Bay Area and San Francisco, is simply a larger burrito made with rice, meat, and beans with the tortilla steamed before assembly. Fast casual restaurants like Blue Coast Burrito and Chipotle have embraced the mission of a Mission (or San Francisco) burrito, offering the chance to customize with a variety of ingredients.
Another version of the burrito that found its way onto mainstream menus is the smothered burrito. With Colorado and New Mexico as its origin point, the smothered part of a smothered burrito is a red or green chili sauce but can also be covered in cheese. The "smothering" of foods in a cheese or cheese sauce is a distinctly American format. In Mexico, cheese isn't used as heavily and will tend to be a white cheese like queso anejo, queso blanco, asadero, queso fresco or cotija cheese.
Hatch Marks the Spot for Chile
Where: New Mexico
When I went to Mexico as a child, my father loved tricking my grandmothers into trying hot chile peppers as "okra." Hatch, New Mexico, is the home for the spicy "hatch chile pepper." Peppers grown in the Hatch Valley region of New Mexico get this familiar name and add a familiar spice all their own to Mexican-inspired recipes like chile rellenos.
Where: The Southwest
I have spent a lot of my adult life searching for something like Pancho's puffy sopapillas. The flat tortillas with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar are often called sopapillas on Mexican restaurant menus but they aren't the same. Sopapillas can be savory or sweet and have a long history that stretches from Spain to Mexico to America.
The sopapilla version I'm used to includes savory or sweet options and are found mostly in the Southwest New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas panhandle, and Arkansas. Most of the country serves more familiar sopapillas that are sweet, coated in powdered sugar and served with either chocolate or strawberry syrup.
You likely fajitas from the steaming platters of meat and veggies that restaurant servers deftly transport across Tex-Mex dining rooms. Translating the word fajita adds a great visual to this Mexican-inspired entrée. The word fajita comes from the Spanish word for belt (faja), which describes the belt-like strips of marinated meat. Served with tortillas and a variety of toppings, fajitas came from Mexico into Texas and then spread throughout the country.
I grew up mostly in the Midwest where dropping seasoned taco meat, cheese, and toppings into an opened bag of Fritos corn chips is a must at state fairs and corn mazes. As with many food icons, the origin (and name) of this concoction is under debate. I knew it as a "walking taco" in the Midwest but it is served at fast casual and fast food restaurants most often as a branded Frito Pie.
In some form, it originated in Mexico but became a cultural sensation with the introduction of Fritos corn chips as early as the late-1940s.
From corn tortillas to corn tamales, corn is the humble ingredient that plays a large role in Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisine. The use of corn tracks all the way back to the Aztecs. Today's use of corn or elote is often tied to Mexican street foods, often translated in the U.S. into appetizers or side dishes.
Growing up in the Midwest, the ample corn crop was transformed into tamales, corn tortillas, masa (corn) Mexican-inspired pudding, and "street" corn. Most Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants have corn options, and there is just something special about having fresh corn turned into a Mexican-inspired dish.
Arroz Con Pollo
Where: The East Coast
Arroz Con Pollo is simply fluffy rice and chicken. A staple in many Spanish speaking countries, arroz con pollo has Moorish roots but is also a feature in Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Columbian recipes. While a chicken couldn't fly from Cuba to Florida, this hearty entrée with spices has flown into American culture and Latin-inspired menus.
Another ancient ingredient that dates back to the Aztecs, avocados made their way to the U.S. through Mexico. Today, the virtues of avocados are widely known, and guacamole has few peers in the dip category. A must on game days, the essential recipe for guacamole hasn't changed much since those ancient Aztec days: mashed avocado, lime juice, salt, cilantro, onions, and chili.