Many of us are pretty familiar with Taco Bell offerings. All I have ever had is in the way of Mexican(ish) food is Taco Bell and Tex-Mex sit down restaurant food, which seems to be better quality but is really not wildly different.
Hopefully someone who has lived in Mexico will answer you. I only know from what is served at Mexican restaurants in Chicago. The main difference is - no hard shell tacos. That appears to be a US invention. Tacos are served on soft tortillas. There is a wide variety of meats available. The Mexican fast food place on our block (which caters mainly to a Hispanic clientele) serves not just ground beef and shredded beef, chicken and pork but beef brains, beef tongue and beef cheek (yum!). Taco Bell doesn’t have any equivalent of the crusty bread sandwiches or huge bowls of soups served in most of the places I’ve been to.
Taco Bell is to real Mexican food what McDonalds is to a big, juicy hamburger made on the grill in your back yard.
Mexican food is incredibly diverse. You can get burritos, but they aren’t much like Taco Hell’s. It’s a speciality of Northern Mexico, so the taco will be flour and the filling will som meat (no lettuce, guacamole, sour cream etc. If you’re poor and live in central Mexico, Menudo would be an everyday food. If you live on the coast, you might chow down on some ceviche. Down south, they are particularly partial to pozole.
Like I said, it’s a vague descriptor like sandwich is in English. “Sandwich” just means something between two pieces of bread, “taco” just means something wrapped in a tortilla. And just as we have ham sandwiches and roast beef sandwiches, they have tacos al pastor, tacos de pescado, etc.
Real Mexican food has a lot of pork, pork, PORK! It is generally easier to raise pigs than to raise cattle, and the “authentic” food of any given ethnicity is typically going to be the working-class, common people’s food. It’s relatively easy for a family to keep a few pigs around because they’re not very discriminating when it comes to their feed. (Goats, for the same reason.) The same can’t be said of cattle. America, Argentina, and Brazil are really the only North American countries with a lot of beef in their diets, because the geography makes it easy to raise cattle. Out of all the European countries, I think the one that eats the most beef is probably Hungary, likewise because they have a lot of plains to raise cattle on.
Americans are used to beef being in everything. But in most other countries, pork and lamb are more common.
Speaking of fillings, I used to like to go to Tito’s Tacos in Culver City. Their menu was very limited, unlike the former Lucy’s next door where you could get lenguas and brains and pretty much anything else. Tito’s has tacos, burritos (‘little donkeys’?), tostadas, chili, beans, and rice.
Anyway, if you ordered chili you got a cup of beef chunks in a red sauce. That’s it; meat and sauce. If you ordered a beef burrito you got the same stuff wrapped in a large flour tortilla.
Their tacos are not soft. But neither are they those pre-made ‘shells’ that Taco Bell uses. As in most Mexican restaurants I’ve been to, the meat is put into a soft corn tortilla and then the tortilla is fried in oil. So the edges are crispy and the middle is soft (and greasy). Strangely, Jack-In-The-Box tacos seem more authentic than Taco Bell’s – at least in that respect. (JITB tacos are crap. But there are times when you just have to have a couple.)
I haven’t been to Mexico since I was a kid, so I only know from California Mexican food. But there are a lot of Mexicans in SoCal, and a lot of restaurants. Most of them offer rice and refried beans as side-dishes. Many offer a choice of different kinds of bean preparations. They all offer the basic taco/burrito/enchilada/etc. fare. Others offer steak, lobster, grilled fish, and other dishes that are not considered ‘Mexican food’ except for the beans and rice. Some of the menus say ‘For Gringos’ or something like that; but I’ve been told by Mexicans and people who go there that indeed, Mexicans do eat steaks and lobsters and such. ISTM that what we Americans think of as ‘Mexican food’ is pretty much just ‘everyday food’ like we would eat burgers and fries, meat loaf and mac’n’cheese or mashed potatoes, or the like. Cheap and easy. But there’s much more variety than (I’ll wager) most Americans think of.
Wow. I’ve been lollygagging, getting coffee, doing other things, and taking my time posting. Didn’t realise I took THAT long! Anyway, what Argent Towers said:
Mexico has numerous culinary regions. Mexicans came to different regions of the USA (sometimes before those regions were the USA) & started cooking. And cooks in every region are glad to steal good ideas from other cooks. Thus, “fusion” cuisine.
Here in Houston, we’re lucky. We’ve got upscale Mexican, Mexican-style seafood places (sometimes run by Chinese), all kinds of Tex-Mex & humble joints serving dishes to recent immigrants. I don’t eat at Taco Bell because I don’t care for the food–not because it isn’t “authentic.”
One major point that hasn’t been mentioned is that in Mexican cuisine, tortillas are served at the table like bread is at American tables. Homemade tortillas are soft and thicker than the prepackaged soft corn tortillas you get. They’re somewhat reminicent of a small, dense crepe and served warm.
Mexico itself has a myriad of cuisines. I couldn’t even begin to do it justice in a couple of paragraphs here. You have the famous seven moles of Oaxaca (stews of various complexity made with ingredients as diverse as pumpkin seeds, raisins, and sometimes chocolate); the Yucatan is known for its use of achiote, sour/Seville oranges, and habanero (most famously in a dish called cochinita pibil); Jalisco features birria (goat stew) and tortas ahogadas (Mexican sandwiches “drowned” in a spice tomato-based sauce); in central Mexico, you’ll find lots of pozole (hominy stew) and menudo (tripe stew). And, of course, the coasts will feature many seafood dishes, from the battered-and-fried fish tacos of the Baja, to tortillas layered with shark (pan de cazon) of the Yucatan, to the ubiquitous ceviche. Oh, and let’s not forget tamales. Corn-wrapped or banana-leaf-wrapped (depending on the region), these can come in both savory (like pork and red sauce) and sweet (raisins and pineapples, for example) variations. When made from fresh masa, these are divine.
It’s hard to make accurate generalizations, but I would say the three most commonly used spices in Mexican cuisine are cumin, Mexican oregano (not Mediterranean oregano-it’s a different flavor), and true cinnamon (not cassia, which is usually what cinnamon in America is). Roasting peppers, whether fresh or dry, is a technique that is central to most recipes and one that many American cooks forget/skip/don’t know about.
I don’t really know a lot about the diverse cuisine of Mexico. But here in Topeka there’s a good sized Hispanic community, many of them descendants of folks who came north to work at the Santa Fe railyards.
Each summer there’s a fiesta to support the school that’s part of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. Lot’s of homestyle food is served. My observations are that tamales are wrapped in corn shucks, not paper. The beef or pork is shredded, not ground. The ground beef in tacos, burritos, enchiladas and so on has bits of potato and peas mixed in it. And as another poster upthread said, tacos are not (necessarily) hard shelled. Salsas are not all that hot. Chocolate often has cinnamon mixed in, a combo that surprises some folks but is good for a change. The “best” burritos have pork, not beef. And chicken comes with the flesh chopped up, not in big KFC style pieces.
I don’t know what region of Mexico the original immigrants came from, but I’d guess that what I saw above(not much) is regional cooking, or adapted to local cuisines. All I know is that home Mexican cooking in this town
Another intersesting thing is agua fresca, which they often just call agua, which makes things very confusing for those who learned Spanish from Sesame Street. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agua_fresca
I actually felt this was somewhat perplexing. Like, we got tortillas at a nice restaurant in Mexico City, but the dishes we ordered didn’t particularly go with them. I think we ate one, and the rest went back to the kitchen, which seemed like a waste.
It’s kind of unfair to compare Taco Bell to the heights of Mexican cuisine. I tried to find an equivalent menu of a restaurant in Mexico that would be an equivalent – cheap food, quick service, paper napkins, that kind of thing. I failed at that Google mission, but this is the menu of a restaurant that I’ve been to in New Jersey, one that caters to the tastes of the local Mexican and Central American working people (and is beyond great, or was when I was there last).
The middle of menu is kind of where it is competing with Taco Bell, on menu items and price. But check out the different kinds of tacos and all the stuff that Taco Bell won’t do: shrimp, chorizo (spicy sausage), goat, pork. Notice all the different sauces. Taco Bell, now that I think of it, is oddly sauceless for Mexican food. Usually there’s a variety of salsas on the table at a Mexican restaurant, not just wan Tabasco in little packets.
Come to think of it, TB also goes pretty light on the rice and beans, too, don’t they? Most people probably go in and out without consuming any rice and beans at all.
Mexican cheese is not much like cheese in the U.S. I don;t know how to explain it but Taco Bell is clearly made from American-type cheeses.
Damn, I want to eat at that place in Jersey right now!
Out here we have a bizarre psudo-chain of fast-food Mexican restaurants. They are all more-or-less identical, but they all have different prefixes for their names. Off the top of my head I can think of:
They are also quite good, for basic Mexican fast food (much, much better than that Taco Bell swill).