Advice for a Mexican food newbie

Believe it or not, the new guy I’m dating (who I really LIKE like, and who I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t really eat Chinese food) was driving on the way TO the Chinese restaurant to meet the friends. We passed this Mexican restaurant in town, and he said, “That place is really good, have you ever eaten there?” And of course, NO, I haven’t; so HE WANTS TO GO THERE NEXT.

Now I have to confess that I don’t know anything about Mexican food except Taco Bell. sigh

My dad had never had Mexican food until maybe three years ago. He’s almost 80. Recently, my mom called me at work and said “We’re at San Jose…” and I cut her off and said “Dad gets the Burritos Deluxe.” That was all she needed. :slight_smile:

Chicken Fajitas. It’s sort of a Mexican version of Mu Shu Chicken. :slight_smile:

Sauteed chicken, onions, an bell peppers that you wrap in your own tortillas. Add guac and/or salsa. Usually served w/ rice and beans (everything is), and you can put a little of those in, too.

Can’t go wrong with Chicken Fajitas.

I’m not sure who made the joke that Mexican food is just the same five ingredients arranged in different ways, but it’s pretty true.

You’re familiar with the basic idea of tacos and burritos from Taco Bell, so I’ll give you the intermediate-level course.

Enchiladas – soft corn tortillas (not the crunchy ones that tacos are in) with various fillings, cooked in a (usually) red sauce. If it’s any other kind of sauce, the menu will mention it–the main alternative you’ll usually see is a green sauce, made from tomatillos, which is a bit more tangy.

Tamales – soft cornmeal, kinda like polenta, with a meat filling, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. I didn’t have one of these until I was about 28, and damn, was I missing out. You don’t eat the corn husk, just open it and eat the innards.

Chimichanga – Same as a burrito, only dropped in the deep fryer. Terribly fattening, but pretty damned delicious.

Tostadas – flat tortilla with various toppings. Similar to the Mexican pizza from Taco Bell, but with more stuff on it.

Flautas/Taquitos – Deep fried corn tortilla rolled into a small tube, filled with beef or chicken.

Carnitas – Pork, slow-cooked in spices and its own fat, so it’s an odd combination of slow-cooked and deep-fried. More yummy than I’m making it sound.

Mole – Spice blend made of ground chiles and cocoa powder. Pronounced like saying the word mole and then the letter A. Mole-A.

Quesadilla – Flour tortilla, folded in half and filled with cheese, meat, and possibly onions and green peppers, then grilled until the cheese melts and cut into triangles.

Chorizo – Very greasy, lightly spicy pork sausage with a reddish hue. Delicious with eggs (huevos con chorizo).

Most Mexican places will have combination platters that give you one of several things on this list. You may want to try one of those. Quesadillas are good for newbies, as are enchiladas or chimichangas.

Within the realm of things that people “Mexican” there are really three categories

  1. Tex-Mex
    1a LA style

  2. Mexican Mexican

  3. Pan-Latino

  4. Tex-Mex - a lot of familiar items are really Tex-Mex, like crispy corn tortillas, fajitas and chimichangas. They are very influenced by Mexican cooking, but were actually invented in Texas. Other than a being made of a higher quality range of meats and cheeses, most items are familiar from Taco Bell. May sell margaritas. :slight_smile:
    1a. California or LA Style – usually burrito joints where they make these MEGA GIGANTIC burritos. I don’t think the LA style is distinct enough to have its own menu, other than the crazy huge burritos. I’m open to correction there.

  5. Mexican-Mexican – Some menu items which have the same name as Taco Bell items, but are made slightly differently: the tacos are small corn tortillas, with meats and some onion and limes on the side (you squeeze the limes over the meat – no cheese or beans or lettuce). Tortas are whatever you would put in a burrito, in sandwich form. Some unique Mexican items like mole and types of chicken cooked in sauce. May sell “Jarritos” line of Mexican sodas in unusual flavors (I like apple and tamarind) or “horchata” - a beverage made from ground almonds, milk (sometimes) and sugar. They offer very spicy sauces on the side but most dishes are not inherently spicy.

  6. Pan-Latino - serves foods from several different latino countries, often including Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Columbia, Argentina,… depends on your local latino population. Usually comfort food like empanadas (er… hot pockets), stewed meats and roast chicken, that aren’t spicy. May sell “Inca Cola” or “Columbiana” bubblegum-like flavored soda or “Coco Rico” coconut soda.

I don’t know what type this restaurant is; it’s a small town but we have a large Hispanic immigrant population that, I am told, came here because of the opportunities for work - it’s a significant agricultural area (NJ is the Garden State, after all). There are quite a few Mexican and Puerto Rican restaurants.

Is Mexican food very spicy?
Are there certain words I should look out for, or maybe particular sauces that = “burn the mouth out of your head”?

Basic Mexican food is not spicy except to the most sensitive of tastebuds. However, there are two things to look for that can be spicy:

Salsa - many places have a mild and a hot salsa. Mild is usually big chunks of tomato with a few other herbs and spices. Hot salsa is closer to a thin, tomato based sauce. This does not apply to restaurants that make their own salsa as the salsa could look like either. They should still offer you a choice of hot or mild.

Peppers - poblano, jalapeno, serrano, and habanero are among the most common peppers listed in Mexican restaurants with poblano being fairly mild to habanero being blistering hot (may cause actual blisters to sensitive types). Here’s a website that lists several common peppers including their Scoville Heat units.

If the dish does not mention any peppers, it is safe to assume the only heat is from cumin (a necessity for Mexican cooking) or chili powder. I don’t know your tolerance level for spiciness, but unless you’re extremely sensitive you should be able to handle most items on the menu.

Anything with the word “Diablo” in it is probably on the spicier side.

When your boyfriend takes you to the Mexican restaurant, explain that you’re not too familiar with Mexican food and you don’t generally like spicy foods. Your boyfriend and the waiter should be able to steer you to something you would tolerate. And, ultimately, if you turn out not to like it, so what? You’re not expected to like everything.

I split this off from this thread.

You might get a little container or dollop of sour cream. Sour cream can take the edge off if something’s too hot and adds a nice taste of it’s own.

If you’re really looking to avoid heat, I’d agree with John Mace, fajitas are the way to go, and skip the salsa (it should come in a little bowl, so you can just avoid it). Try a little of the guacamole if you want, sometimes it’s got peppers in it and sometimes not. Around here, you also get sour cream with fajitas, I don’t know about NJ.

Enchilada fillings are made with chile sauce and then the enchiladas are smothered in more of it. Tacos are probably safe, except that the meat may have been marinated in chile - if the menu has descriptions of the food, it’ll say if it was. Carne adovada is pork marinated in red chile.

Left something off my list. If you see something mention chipotles or chipotle sauce, stay away from it. A chipotle pepper is a smoked jalapeno, and will likely be too spicy for you.

Most Mexican restaurants I’ve been to have a bunch of combo dinners where you can get 3-4 different things on one plate. They’re great for sampling if you’re not sure what to get. You can get a Taco, Enchilada, and a burrito, or 3 burritos with different meats, things like that. Usually you get beef, chicken, beans, or chorizo as fillings. Chorizo (Mexican sausage) is usually at least moderately spicy, so you might not want to go with that.

Most places I’ve been to, only a smallish portion of the menu was spicy dishes. Just talk to the server and you should easily be able to stay on the mild side and get some good food.

Mexican horchata is generally based on rice, sometimes with almonds, sometimes not. If you go further south, you can find it made with other grains or seeds instead of rice.

I’m a recent convert to Mexican food, also not a fan of spicy. I’ve found a number of dishes at our favorite local place that are quite good, and the menu descriptions were very helpful.

Quesadillas are tasty and not hot. Arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) as also good and not hot. Two other favorites of mine are Pollo Fiesta, which is chicken, spinach, and mushrooms in a cheese sauce served over rice. There’s also a shrimp, zucchini, and rice dish that is killer good.

I’m kicking myself that I waited so long to try this food. I assumed everything was loaded with peppers and chili powder, and boy was I wrong! And I’ve even gotten brave enough to at least taste some spicier dishes. Still not a fan, but no longer afraid to at least try a bite.

Do you like cilantro?

If you’ve never had it before, I would suggest you don’t order a dish with it (sometimes you have to ask your server if it’s in your order because it’s not always listed on the menu) but instead ask if you could sample someone else’s cilantro-containing dish. (Or often the communal salsa will have it in it, and you can try it that way.)

Cilantro either tastes really good or terrible, depending on your taste buds’ ability to register a particular chemical in the herb.

I’ll add something to the end of this…

…but make your dating guy order it. Chipotle has a lot of flavor, and food newbies may interpret “flavor” as “spice” as “hot”. Which is fine - but it’s a good place to start trying things. Chipotle is a smoky, peppery flavor - not necessarily “spicy”. It’s delicious. But for you - one bite may be all you need to know that it’s not for you.

I’ll also vote for the fajitas. And if you can find what what kind of mexican food this place has, we can really narrow this down for you.

I second or third the suggestion of quesadillas for a newbie. They may be listed on the appetizer menu instead of the main part of the menu, but you can order one as your entree.

A quesadilla will always involve a tortilla and cheese, but a variety of additional fillings are possible depending on the restaurant. A more basic place will probably give you a choice of chicken/pork/maybe beef, while other restaurants may have a lot of different quesadillas available with various beans, veggies, and meats. These should all be described on the menu so you’ll know what you’re getting. Quesadillas often come with salsa, sour cream, and maybe guacamole on the side. They would not normally come with anything spicy cooked into them.