Skip the nachos and margarita mix and plan an authentic Mexican menu with these flavorful, traditional recipes.
When it comes to Cinco de Mayo—a date that commemorates the Mexican Army’s defeat of the French Empire in 1862, but is now more widely recognized in the U.S. as a holiday for getting day drunk on cold cervezas—a typical American party spread is likely to feature platters of nachos and ground beef-filled taco shells.
However, hard-shell tacos, nachos, Velveeta-based dips, and sugary-sweet margaritas are a far cry from authentic Mexican cuisine. For an authentic taste of the land South-of-the-border, you have to dig deeper into Mexican culture for dishes that are emblematic of their history and lifestyle, from Masa creations that date back thousands of years to street food mainstays served to hungry crowds today.
These traditional dishes will give you a taste of the true flavors of Mexico, and are guaranteed to make your Cinco de Mayo festivities more delicious.
This traditional Mexican soup is a celebratory dish served throughout Mexico on occasions like Christmas Eve, birthdays, and Mexican Independence Day. Though this soup has a history that stretches back to the days of the Aztecs, and once played a part in spiritual rituals, today it offers a comforting, homey taste of the country’s most classic flavors.
Get the recipe: Pozole
A classic recipe of the Yucatan Peninsula, this slow-roasted pork dish makes for a prime party-sized meal and a pretty epic taco filling. Marinated in a spicy, citrusy blend and cooked over charcoal, this flavorful dish will give you a far more authentic taste of Mexico than ground beef with taco seasoning. Just don’t forget the warm Fresh Corn Tortillas.
Get the recipe: Cochinita Pibil with Habanero, Orange, and Onion
A craveable dish found on menus across Mexico, Chilaquiles got its name from chīlāquilitl, a word in Nahuatl, a historical Aztec language still spoken by some natives of Central Mexico. This dish is traditionally made triangles of corn tortillas simmered in a bath of red or green sauce and topped with crema, queso, and raw onions.
Get the recipe: Black Bean and Chicken Chilaquiles
Sopes and Huaraches
These classic Mexican street foods are comprised of an exceptionally thick tortilla made of Masa—ground maize, which is used as a base for tortillas and tamales—layered with refried beans, queso, lettuce, salsas, and occasionally meat. The difference between the two dishes comes down to the shape; while Sopes are round, Huaraches are formed into an oblong oval.
A mainstay of Mexican street food, Licuado stands can be found on just about every corner, selling a variety of sweet, cool liquids from large plastic drums. Made with an evaporated milk base and an assortment of fruits, Licuados are the slightly more indulgent sibling of the Agua Fresca, a fruit drink prepared without the milk base. Or, for a familiar taste of Mexico, try Horchata, made from rice and flavored with cinnamon.
This versatile name applies to a number of sauces served in Mexican cuisine. While the variations on mole are vast across the country, some of the most popular kinds include Mole Negro, made with chocolate for a slight sweetness, Mole Rojo, and Mole Poblano. Though mole can be served over a number of meats and dishes, a traditional—and delicious—pairing is with chicken.
Get the recipe: Quick Chicken Mole
This popular street food is a classic of Oaxacan cuisine, reminiscent of a tostada but with a larger, thinner crunchy tortilla base. Typically topped with refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, lettuce, and salsa, a tlayuda is the perfect snack to help soak up a few rounds of Mezcal.
Get the recipe: Mini Veggie Tlayudas
These rolled, fried tacos can be found at stands across Mexico, filled with a variety of meats from chicken to Al Pastor, and topped with salsa and queso fresco.
Get the recipe: Beef Flautas with Buttermilk Avocado Crema
Another excellent taco filling contender, Carne Adovada (a.k.a. Adobada), which translates to marinated meat, is a baked dish typically comprised of cubes of pork marinated in a chili blend and cooked at a low heat over a longer period for maximum flavor and melt-in-your-mouth effect.
Get the recipe: Carne Adovada
Chances are you’ve tried this essential dish, which is consumed in droves at breakfast time from street vendors armed with barrels of the steamed pockets. With a history stretching back as early as 8000 BC, this traditional Masa recipe can be cooked in a corn husk or banana leaf, or even baked in small casseroles.
Get the recipe: Steamed Pork Tamales
Elotes and Esquites
A pillar of Mexican street food, this simple, indulgent dish is made from a grilled whole ear of corn slathered with a chili and lime flavored, mayonnaise-based sauce and sprinkled with queso and cilantro. For those who prefer to eat their corn sans-cob, opt for Esquites, a creamy corn salad of the same ingredients instead.
Get the recipes: Elote-Style Corn with Cotija and Spicy Cilantro Cream and Esquites
A dish originating from the state of Jalisco, this spicy goat stew is typically broken out for special occasions and celebrations, including weddings and Holy Week festivities. Also known for its hangover-curing abilities, this is the perfect dish to have on hand for a particularly boozy holiday like Cinco de Mayo.
Get the recipe: Birria
These torpedo shaped pockets, filled with beans, cheese, chicharron, and other fillings, are typically made with blue corn Masa and served everywhere from Mexican markets to high-end restaurants. With a history that dates back to before the invasion of the Conquistadors, this snack is made to be eaten soon after cooking, as it can get hard and mealy if it lingers too long.
Get the recipe: Toasted Corn Pockets (Tlacoyo)
No Cinco de Mayo celebration would be complete without a sweet treat, like these classic shaved ice cones, which can be topped with a variety of fruity syrups for the perfect respite from the heat.
Get the recipe: Strawberries and Milk Raspado