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Food Network

 

FIRST TIME EATING...   MEXICAN FOOD & TEX-MEX

 

THE FOOD VIRGIN'S FIRST TIME

My first time eating "Mexican food" was, like so many other people, at Taco Bell.  Now, I put "Mexican food" in quotes, because Taco Bell really serves its own variety of Tex-Mex, not truly authentic Mexican food that you'd find if you made a run for the border- and actually crossed it.  That said, I've always liked the mix of flavors that Tex-Mex offer-- fresh tomato salsa, creamy guacamole, spicy meats and good, sharp cheeses.

The good news is, these flavors do form the basis of real Mexican food, too.  Sometimes the dishes are simpler tasting than Tex-Mex, other times, you'll find ingredients that are far too classy for the fast food set.  If you're eating Tex-Mex for the first time, be prepared to get a bit messy-- you will eat a lot of the items with your fingers, and they might fall apart or drip sauces if you're not used to assembling tacos or other items well.  I happened to be a teenager on a date for my first time, and I added it to the list of things not to eat on a first date (along with spaghetti, but that's another story).  The good news is, eating authentic Mexican food can involve dishes that will require knives and forks.  These dishes range from simple fare, like baked chicken with rice, to upscale entrées, like chicken in mole sauce or fancy fried fish.  This fancier Mexican cuisine I also discovered on a date- one that led to us being married, so it seems Mexican food can be good date food after all.

 

 

Tell us about your first time eating Mexican 

 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

When you first arrive at a Mexican restaurant, you'll probably find that the decor is a visual fiesta- lots of colorful wall hangings or other decorations like hats, maybe some piñatas hanging from the ceiling, or bright paper banners.  Some restaurants will want to seat you, while in more casual places, you'll seat yourself- you might even order first at a counter, and then sit down.  Don't be alarmed if there is no cutlery on the table yet-- some dishes won't need them.  Instead, a server might bring a basket of corn chips (the best will be freshly cooked and still hot), and some salsa to dip them in.  This dip might be a preserved tomato-based salsa, or it might be made of freshly chopped up ingredients, like tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, which is called 'pico de gallo' .  It might also be green, made from tomatillos (a type of green tomato).  It's very difficult to tell you how spicy the dip might be because it will vary from restaurant to restaurant.  In restaurants that have a salsa bar, they will often have a choice of four or five salsas, and might label which ones are mild and which are super spicy, but if they don't, then take a sampling of a few, and let the bravest among you try them first.

 

WHAT TO ORDER & HOW TO EAT IT

            With Mexican food, you'll each be ordering your own entrees, probably not sharing anything, though some appetizers are good to share.  My favorite is quesadillas- two flat flour tortillas with melted cheese between- a kind of Mexican grilled cheese sandwich of sorts.  Nachos are also popular starters, as are dips, like cheese, guacamole (avacado), or bean dip.  All of these will come with more corn chips.  Beware of eating too many corn chips at this stage, or else you'll feel full by the time your entree comes!

            Choosing a main dish will be a bit more confusing.  After a while, it might seem like all the dishes are just different configurations of the same ingredients.  Corn tortillas, or wheat.  Sometimes crispy hard, sometimes soft.  Shredded chicken or beef, sometimes fish.  Cheese, tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream.  The most well-known dish is tacos, but other choices are also yummy.  Fajitas are similar to tacos, but the ingredients are brought to you with lots of fanfare on a sizzling hot plate, and the tortillas are usually soft wheat.  Both of these dishes are of the 'some assembly required' variety.  What you'll want to do, is take a tortilla in one hand, and then load the fillings into it with your other hand.  Put the meat or beans on the bottom, then gooey things, like guacamole, salsa, or sour cream, then your vegetables, like tomatoes and lettuce.  By having the lettuce on top, you can lay your finger across it while you eat without getting gooey ingredients stuck to your finger.  In the case of soft shells, you'll then want to fold them carefully.  The fold should be similar to how you might swaddle a baby-- first fold one side almost all the way across the other, then fold the bottom few inches up; then fold the third side back across the first, leaving the top open.  This way, stuff will be less likely to ooze out the bottom.  Given that you'll be eating these with your hands, the less oozing, the better.

If this sounds too messy, try an entree where you'll use your knife and fork.  Mexico is home to an amazing selection of fresh ingredients, from fish on the coasts, to chilies and tomatoes, to chocolate.  On most menus, you'll find a baked chicken dish with rice (arroz con pollo).  You'll probably also find enchiladas- beef or chicken wrapped in flour tortillas, then baked with a not-too-spicy sauce, and topped with cheese.   

Often as side dishes, you'll get rice as well as some form of beans.  These might be whole black beans, or 'refried' beans.  The term 'refried' is a bit of a misnomer, as the beans aren't actually fried twice- they're cooked, and then mashed, and then fried just once.  Of course, eat these as you normally would, with a fork.  If these are on the side of something you're eating with your hands, be sure to have an extra napkin to wipe your hands so you don't get your cutlery messy when switching between finger food and fork food.

 

 

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WHAT TO DRINK

            Cue the music and get ready to shout: Tequila!  Tequila is the most famous alcoholic drink in Mexico.  Famous for its shots had around the world, tequila is now not just for Spring Breakers anymore.  There are now high quality tequilas on the market, which will be available in top Mexican restaurants.  Drink your tequila like a tourist, in a tequila shot, or as part of a fancy mixed drink, like a Margarita, or drink higher quality tequila like a local- sipped at room temperature.  Find out more about tequila here.

             Mexico also has its famous beer, Corona.  For something more exotic, sangria might be on the menu; It's a mix of red wine and fruit juices.  For non-alcoholic drinks, try fresh fruit juice if it's available.

DESSERT & COFFEE

            Mexican food offers fun choices for dessert.  Deep-fried ice cream is a good choice for first-timers, as it blends the hot crust of batter with the sweet, frozen ice cream interior.  Eat it fast before it melts!  Mexico is also where chocolate comes from.  As such, in fancier restaurants, expect a few wonderful chocolate concoctions to be on the dessert menu.  Chocolate cheesecakes, chocolate flan, chocolate sauces... mmm!  You can also find lots of local fruit and honey, so keep your eyes peeled for fresh, exotic fruit tarts, ice cream or sorbet flavors, or sauces.

Mexico is also a big coffee producing country, so you shouldn't go too wrong ordering coffee.  Champurrado, a creamy hot chocolate drink- sometimes with added cinnamon- is also a Mexican treat; you might find it on menus of upscale restaurants.

THE LAST WORD

After the meal, you may well be left on your own to wash your hands- head for the washrooms, as probably a napkin alone won't do the trick.  Meanwhile, you'll find that paying the bill is the same method as in a regular American restaurant.  It will come to the table, and you can settle it there.  In more casual places, it's even possible that you paid for your food up at a counter when your ordered it, in which case, you can just leave when you're done (someone will come around to clear away washable dishes and baskets).

Between the ambiance and the food, eating Mexican is quite a fun experience, easy for first-timers, so long as you don't mind possibly getting a bit messy.  Menu items tend to be fairly standard across most restaurants, so once you know what's what, you should be comfortable enough to walk into any Mexican restaurant in America. .  Wherever you choose to go, hopefully, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did, and your first time eating Mexican food won’t be your last.

 

FAMILY-FRIENDLINESS

            The ambiance in Mexican restaurants is lots of fun for families.  They're typically noisy, lively places, so your kids can probably feel comfortable to be themselves there.  They'll also be able to eat with their fingers, and so will have the added 'play with their food' fun factor. 

Typically, kids can find something on the menu that they'll eat, and there may even be a kids' menu.  Items like plain cheese quesadillas, bean and cheese burritos, chicken tacos, or cheese nachos usually please even the most picky kids.

 

RATINGS

Child-friendly Food (is it easy to find things that American kids will eat): 9/10

Adventure Level (how different is this from American food): 7/10

 

 

Rate Mexican food yourself!

BASIC MEXICAN FOOD TERMS

Nachos (NAH-chos):    Corn chips baked with toppings, such as melted cheese, onion, peppers, tomatoes, and more. 

Guacamole (gwa-ka-MO-lee):  A mild, creamy dip made from avacados.  Dip your corn chips into it, or spread it into your tacos or quesadillas as a condiment.

Tacos (TAH-kos): Typically hard corn tortilla shells, stuffed with spiced beef, chicken or sometimes fish, plus lettuce, tomatoes and grated cheese.  Can also have other toppings, or be made from soft corn or flour wrappings.

Burritos (bur-REE-toes) :  Wheat flour tortilla pockets stuffed with shredded, spiced chicken or beef and a chili sauce.

Chimichanga (chi-mi-CHANG-ga):  A deep-fried burrito.  Eat plain or with its side condiments.

Chorizo (cho-REE-zo): Spicy pork sausage.

Quesadillas (kay-sa-DEE-a): Two flour tortillas with cheese in-between fried in a pan.  Feel free to open each triangle up and put in the items that come on the side- sour cream, guacamole, veggies.

Flautas/Taquitos (flaw-TAHS) (ta-KEE-toes): flour tortilla pockets stuffed with shredded meat and deep-fried.  Taqauitos are smaller than flautas.

Enchiladas (en-chi-LAH-das):  Rolled tortillas stuffed with any number of items, baked with a sauce- usually spicy, as enchilada sauce is made from chilies.

Fajitas (fah-HEE-tas):  Grilled fillings such as chicken or beef, and onions and green peppers, served on a smoking hot stone.  Take a soft flour shell, which will be on the side, and place toppings within, folding on three sides to avoid dripping.

Mole (MO-lay):  A savory sauce made from cocoa powder (yes chocolate).

Tequila (te-KEE-lah):   Popular Mexican alcohol- drink it straight as a shot chased by lime, or mixed in a drink.  Distilled from the agave plant.

Tostadas (to-STA-das):  The real name for tortilla chips, sometimes also referring to a dish similar to an open-faced taco.  If it's big, eat it with a knife and fork; if it's small, pop the whole thing in your mouth.

 

 

Add more Mexican food term items to the list

CRITICAL DO’S AND DEFINITELY DON’TS

Do

  • Wash your hands before and after the meal.
  • Fold your taco or fajita shell well, so that nothing drips out the bottom.
  • Order a starter or two to share- Mexican dips are really delicious!
  • Ask about how spicy each dish is that you'd like to order.  Some will have more chili than others.

Don’t

  • Don't double-dip corn chips-- once you've dipped and taken a bite, don't stick it into anything else.
  • Worry too much about bringing kids.  The environment is usually a good place for kids, and some dishes can be made plainly, to suit even the fussiest eater.
  • Worry if you get some food on your fingers- you can wash up later.
  • Worry about your pronounciation- if you studies Spanish, then great, but if not, then you can just make a best guess.  Mexican places are not stuffy, so won't look down on you if you don't get it exactly right.

   

 

Suggest more DOs and DON'Ts

 

For more information, try:

Chevy's Fresh Mex- Eat where the Food Virgin eats in Orlando, FL. 

Frontera Grill, in Chicago

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