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Explanation of Mexican Restaurant Reviews

Regional Mexican Food Styles

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Note: See Rating & Cost Info. for more details about Mexican restaurant rating criteria

Mexican Restaurant Reviews on this web site include the following information:

The Cooking Oil used is mainly a question with New Mexican and El Paso style Mexican food. Traditionally both use lard, but I would say since 1980 many restaurants have switched to vegetable oil (probably because of customer preferences). It is still not uncommon to find restaurants that use vegetable oil in the enchiladas but lard in the refried beans. Such restaurants are identified with "vegetable oil" in the restaurant details. I generally rely on restaurant owners to inform me about which cooking oil is used.

A Chile Index is used for Mexican restaurant reviews on this web site, and indicates the spiciness of the food. For U.S. border style restaurants this refers primarily to the enchiladas, chile relleno, or other foods that tend to be spicy. Much authentic Mexican food is not particularly spicy, so the "chile index" indicates how spicy it will be if you want it to be (such as by ordering one of the particularly spicy sauces that typically go on meat or fish). Like most things on this web site it is for informational purposes, and is subjective. Most restaurants will prepare food that is less spicy than the rating indicates, and the purpose of this scale is to be a guide for "chileheads" like me who generally like the food spicy.

Chile Index

Spiciness of the enchiladas and/or other chile sauce.

Very Hot. Probably too hot, unless you're used to it.
Hot. Hot, as found in the more authentic restaurants in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, and El Paso. (To me, this is just right).
Medium Hot. Has a little bit of a bite.
Medium. A little bit of flavor, but not much spiciness.
Mild. Pretty much like tomato sauce.

Regional Styles of Mexican Food are identified on this web site when possible, and restaurants are generally rated against other restaurants within the same category. I generally can find delicious food within any Mexican food style, if prepared well, and it is not my intent to downgrade U.S. style Mexican food because it is not "real" Mexican or food from northern Mexico because it is not Oaxacan or other types of Mexican food considered "gourmet."

I have identified five types of regional Mexican food in the border states of the U.S., and food from Mexico is identified by the state in which it originates. Generally if a restaurant owner comes from a certain state in Mexico and advertises the food as being "authentic," this is how I will identify the food (although it will then be held to the standard of other food, if any, that I have tried from that state). I have been to northern and central Mexico, and I do have some knowledge of authentic Mexican food (in case I think the claims of the food being authentic are not accurate).

Although subjective, the true test of any Mexican restaurant is the quality of the food. I have found a very few number of Tex-Mex restaurants that were truly good (mostly in San Antonio and Austin), and I do not downgrade a restaurant because it is Tex-Mex or another U.S. style rather than true Mexican. To me, though, the best restaurants in Mexico are far better than most Tex-Mex restaurants, and restaurants are given ratings accordingly.

U. S. Regional Mexican Food Styles

Cal. California Style. There is not a great distinction between California and Arizona style. I describe California style as consisting largely of salads (taco salad, etc.), olives, sour cream, etc. Also "healthy" Mexican food (such as at Baja Fresh). California style has more variety than the other styles, and commonly serves a variety of fish, meats, tacos, etc. Flour tortillas are common.

NM New Mexico Style. Uses New Mexico red or green chiles. The chile has a strong, pure chile taste. Whole pinto beans are often served instead of refried. A dish unique to N.M. is stuffed sopaipillas, or "sopaipillas compuestas" (a large sopaipilla stuffed with different combinations of meat, beans, lettuce & tomato, and chile). N.M. also has a version of posole (hominy) that I have not found other places: served with chile and often times pork. I think a N.M. meal would not be complete without sopaipillas served with honey. Usually this is the dessert (served without sugar or cinammon as is often used in areas outside New Mexico). In Albuquerque it is common to serve sopaipillas with the meal (they are excellent with red chile, and the purpose of sopaipillas with honey is to kill the fire in your mouth from eating the hot chile). I must also mention the mole dishes served in N.M. style food (usually chicken and mole). The best way to describe mole is that it is a kind of chocolate sauce, although this really doesn't do it justice, and trying mole dishes served in different restaurants is almost an exercise in itself, such as trying to compare certain good Thai dishes. Mole is sometimes found in the other regions, particularly Arizona. I have found the best examples of New Mexican food in Española, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, in that order (Santa Fe and to a lesser extent Albuquerque have a lot of "tourist" restaurants that do not typify the NM style very well). The food served in southern New Mexico is almost a distinct style, but I am listing both types as "New Mexico" style as long as it has the distinct NM characteristics. The differences in the styles include the following:

  • Northern NM Style. Northern New Mexico uses blue corn tortillas which are stacked when used in enchiladas because the blue corn is more fragile than yellow corn. Green enchiladas are served with the chile in "chunks," and served stacked, sometimes with an egg on top. Green chile stew is common. Posole is more common in northern NM than in the south. Sopaipillas are served with the meal instead of dessert, although the restaurants that cater to tourists will serve them for dessert. Many communities have localized specialties. Since New Mexican food is really the staple diet in the area, it includes meats, vegetables, and a lot of dishes that the average person would not think of as "Mexican." For the purpose of this list, though, I mainly rate the items one would normally expect to find in Mexican restaurants.
  • Southern NM Style. Probably the biggest difference in the south is a lack of some of the items that are typically served in the north such as blue corn tortillas and posole. The green enchiladas are also quite different at most restaurants, being served with the chile puréed as in El Paso restaurants. Southern NM restaurants generally serve enchiladas rolled unless you request that they be flat. Many people think the chiles rellenos are better in the south-- they are grown around Las Cruces and Hatch, and the best I have encountered are at Chope's in La Mesa (south of Las Cruces). Southern N.M. restaurants tend to serve large "sopaipillas compuestas" stuffed with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and red or green chile, making a good sized meal, while northern restaurants tend to serve the regular sized "stuffed sopaipillas" that are more of a side dish.

Son. Sonora or Arizona Style. Found primarily in Arizona. Less spicy than N.M. style. Uses flour tortillas. Has red and green chile, but is not as strong as in New Mexico. Uses less cheese than the other styles. Carne seca is one of the distinctive dishes.

Tex. Tex-Mex Style. Typical dish is beef or cheese enchilada topped by chile con carne (a brown sauce with ground beef). The chile con carne or other enchilada sauce is usually brown and uses comino (cumin) instead of red or green chile as in the N.M. food. Served with refried beans and fried rice (cooked with tomatoes and spices such as garlic). I will have to make an editorial comment and say that generally Tex-Mex food is all the same, and there is nothing about it that I like as well as the other styles except one thing-- it has the best chile con queso (a cheese sauce with chile in it). Sometimes restaurants serve cheese tacos, which is really nothing more than chile con queso poured on a tortilla. My rating for Tex-Mex restaurants is generally based on their freshness and the quality of the cheese, particularly the chile con queso. Around Austin and San Antonio there are a few exceptional Tex-Mex restaurants that stand well above the mediocrity typically associated with Tex-Mex food (at least in my mind). In my experience the really good Tex-Mex food has enchiladas that derive their flavor primarily from the cheese rather than the chile con carne sauce on top, tacos that are very greasy that may even be to the point of producing a pool of liquid on the plate as you pick it up (either ground beef or chicken enchiladas), and tamales that rival the ones in New Mexico. San Antonio also has its own style of enchiladas, with the tortilla soaked in a sauce that turns it red.

  • EP. El Paso Style. El Paso has developed a unique style of food that has more in common with New Mexico style than Tex-Mex, primarily the use of red and green chile on enchiladas. What it shares with Tex-Mex is the use of refried beans rather than whole pinto beans, similar styles of rice, and chiles rellenos with a sauce on top. El Paso restaurants, however, generally do not serve taco salad or complimentary chile con queso as an appetizer as is popular in east Texas and Oklahoma. In fact, the chile con queso in El Paso (and New Mexico) is of a totally different character, being loaded with strips of green chile and using a very thick cheese-- the queso is usually considered an entrée and many times is served on a combination plate as one of the items. When I first started eating food in El Paso there was a generous use of lard for the cooking oil, but I think most restaurants have now turned to vegetable oil. I have also seen an increase in the variety of food being served in recent years as immigrants from all parts of Mexico find more of an audience for different dishes from the interior that do not fit the traditional "El Paso style." I don't know why, but I have never seen any mole in the area other than brown. A real El Paso style lunch would be a "comida corrida" where the proprietor picks one or two entrées that you can order that will come with caldo (beef soup), a salad (usually with no dressing), rice and beans, and dessert if the restaurant is really generous (which does not happen very often). There are also fish and seafood specials on Fridays during Lent (comida de Cuaresma) that should not be missed if you are in the area at the right time.

Mexican Regional Food Styles

Chih. Chihuahua Style. I think certain restaurants deserve their own category since they typify the food that is found across the border in Ciudad Juárez and the rest of Chihuahua State in Mexico. The food in Juárez is slightly different than the food in El Paso, and I think it can be described best as "home made" food, or even "street food," rather than "restaurant" food. "Juárez style" also describes restaurants that serve only one type of food (such as tacos, flautas, etc.) or a limited selection of foods, unless these foods come specifically from another state in Mexico besides Chihuahua. The comida corrida is a Juárez institution, and one of the distinguishing features of this type of restaurant. Another feature is the use of thicker sauce in the enchiladas, almost as if flour is added. Chihuahua food tends to use white cheese, being home to a large Mennonite colony which produces much of the cheese used in the state. Chiles rellenos always have a sauce on top and the relleno itself tends to be very greasy. Seafood is popular but, being in the desert, the freshest fish is usually not available-- instead people usually like to eat shrimp. Chihuahua steaks and meat dishes such as milanesa used to be very good but with the greater presence of American-style ranches and feed lot operations, in my opinion the quality has gone downhill.

Other States State Name or Abbreviation Listed. If the restaurant owner is from a certain state in Mexico and/or serves food specifically from that state, the state will be listed. In Mexico, like the United States, there has been much migration from one state to another, and different food styles have come with it. In my opinion cities such as Mexico City do not have their own food style as much as they are the recipient of food styles from the surrounding states.

Gen. General Style. Food styles that I cannot identify, but most probably come from the Mexican interior. May use red chile instead of the brown found in Tex-Mex. Usually serves tacos and enchiladas, because this is what is expected from American customers, although this is not the primary diet found in Mexico. For the purpose of this survey "general style" is simply food that does not have the pronounced regional characteristics of the the border styles (Cal., Ariz, N.M., Texas).

ENCHILADAS : New Mexican, El Paso, and Mexican style red enchiladas