Mexican food in Mexico: surprisingly different

Before sampling Mexican food on a recent trip to Mazatlan, Mexico, we shared some of the misconceptions commonly held by others who have not been there. Don’t drink the water. Mexican food is not healthy. All Mexican food is spicy and all about tacos, burritos and enchiladas. What we found blew away pretty much all of that.

Mazatlan sits on the west coast of Mexico and boasts an abundance of seafood. Running the largest fleet of shrimp boats in the world, shrimp is on nearly every menu, prepared a number of ways. We ranked local eatery Al Agua as tops for shrimp and especially for it’s Coconut Shrimp. There’s really something to be said for sitting at the shoreside restaurant and watching as shrimpers off the coast catch what you are about to eat. It does not get any fresher than that.

Shrimp is a big export here too but not the only game in town. Marlin, Grouper, Octopus and clams are also used extensively on restaurant menus and “fresh” is what its all about. Combined with locally-sourced ingredients, we quickly forgot the “Mexican food is not healthy” misnomer and focused on unique combinations of vegetables, rice, beans and spices.

“The staples of Mexican cuisine do include corn and beans – which are full of fiber – but also vitamin-rich peppers, tomatoes and fruit” says Chef David Suarez, busting myths about Mexico for CNN. “Authentic Mexican food incorporates seasonal produce, fresh cheeses, seafood, herbs and meats, as well as complex carbohydrates.”Locally grown herbs and spices like chiles, cilantro, epazote, cinnamon, and cocoa are expertly used and for those who like it hot, this is the place to get it. Still, fire-hot spicy is not the standard but is available and offered as a preparation option in the kitchen (“make it hot for me”) or through a variety of sauces and additions tableside (“let me make it hot”). Chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño chilli, is also common in Mexican cuisine as are garlic and onions but not to overpower the fresh seafood star of the show.


“People tend to think of Mexican food as just tacos, burritos and enchiladas – lots of cheddar cheese, sour cream and jalapeños” Chef Julieta Ballesteros told CNN. “Although some of these dishes do exist in traditional cuisine, that’s definitely not all there is.”

In fact, we had a hard time finding the cheesy, gooey and fat-filled entrees commonly tagged as “Mexican food” in the U.S. They were most commonly found on a children’s menu, blowing away the notion that frozen taquitos, canned refried beans, Taco Bell, Doritos and other processed foods are authentic in any way. Initially, that was kind of disappointing and it took a while to get the hang of associating “healthy” and “Mexican”.

But thinking differently about food in Mexico was typical of other misconceptions that failed to pass the reality test. We also never found anyone even remotely resembling a drug lord or the Frito Bandito. A visit to the all-but-abandoned Port of Mazatlan revealed a safe and desirable place to park a cruise ship.

Even the whole “don’t drink the water” thing that dogged Mexico for decades has been rendered a non-issue. Every Mazatlan restaurant we tried served bottled water and purified ice as standard fare. Not once did we see glasses served with iced tap water as we might commonly see in the U.S.

We did, however, see a whole lot of tequila “influence” in Mexico. And by “influence” I mean they hung shot glasses around our necks and started pouring shots as we got off the plane, much like a flower lei is given to those visiting Hawaii.

For those who associate Mexico with tequila, you will not be disappointed. There are some tequila-infused sauces and menu items but we got the impression that those were silly things designed mainly for tourists.

Mazatlan Mexico’s food is bold, fresh, safe and interesting not to mention tasty, especially alongside a frosty Pacifico beer and a shot or six of a locally distilled tequila.

Photos: Chris Owen