Mexico Vacation Spots with the Best Regional Cuisine

Mexico Vacation Spots with the Best Regional Cuisine

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What are the best Mexico vacation spots for foodies? Where can you find the most interesting regional cuisine in this large country with such diverse geography and growing conditions? After traveling around the country since our founding 15 years ago, we’ve got some strong opinions on this subject.

In 2013 Mexican cuisine was named World Heritage by UNESCO and the world stood up and took notice. But those of us that live and travel in Mexico have known for decades that the food was incomparable to other places in its freshness, variety, and creativity. Plus, Mexico’s high level of quality tourism infrastructure makes getting to these places (and eating at them) relatively easy. You will have to wander off the resort grounds for a taste of most of the delicacies below, but we promise it will be worth the effort.

Oaxaca Cuisine

The mothership of regional cuisine in Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is the land of seven moles, pan de yema and Oaxacan chocolate, a giant treasure trove of regional delights. The state’s geography has created a wide variety of micro-climates where specialty products are grown and its 16 recognized indigenous communities have had a distinctive mark on the region’s cuisine. While the state is famous for its seven types of mole (a sauce used for stew-like dishes made from a combination of seeds, chiles, and nuts), there are lots of dishes particular to the area that you should try if you visit.

Oaxaca cuisine

Some of the best Oaxacan dishes are tlayudas — large, crunchy tortillas with refried beans and a wide variety of toppings, tamales – corn dough that usually includes some kind of filling and in Oaxaca generally wrapped in banana leaves,

Chocolate, mezcal, an ancient drink made with cacao and corn called tejate, and so much more. Each part of Oaxaca state has its own specialties as well like the stone soup of San Felipe Usila.

Oaxaca cooking class

They take their food very seriously in Oaxaca and if you’re in the city, visit the street stalls and the main market to get a taste of the real deal. Then check out a cooking class if you want to learn how to shop for ingredients and put them together like the best chefs do.

Cuisine From Puebla

Puebla’s capital city of the same name, with its dozens of colonial-era convents, was one of the bastions of cuisine in the New World – most famously mole poblano, a rich dark sweet mole usually served with turkey, and chile en nogada, considered Mexico’s national dish. (It has the colors of the Mexican flag, thanks to pomegranate seeds.) No less impressive is the sheer quantity of regional candies that came out of those convents – sweet potato candies, alfajores, almond paste sweets and so many more.

cemita sandwich from Puebla

The European influence also birthed a strong culture of baking in Puebla and you will find some of the best bread in the country there – especially in their signature sandwich the cemita. This state’s deep indigenous roots have shaped its cuisine profoundly, with northern communities eating dozens of varieties of wild greens often in soups, fried patties or as a meat substitute.

Another signature dish originating from Puebla is the chalupa, though you’ll find this boat-shaped fried corn flour item with toppings in some neighboring states as well.

mole from Puebla

Mole Poblano from Puebla City, Mexico

In the arid southern part of the state, called La Mixteca, there are a wealth of insects – larva, crickets, and worms – that have historically been an integral part of these communities’ cuisine. Another little delight worth mentioning are the taco arabes (Arab tacos) that can be found in the capital, a vestige of the large Lebanese population that arrived in Mexico from the end of the 18th to mid-19th century.

Mexico foodie tours that are focused on cuisine often use Oaxaca and Mexico City as bookends and spend some time in Puebla in between. If you’re traveling independently, it’s worth spending more than a night or two here to eat your way around the city. See our reviews of the best Puebla luxury hotels to choose from.

Unique Tastes in Yucatan State

The Yucatan Peninsula, especially the state of the same name, has many unique taste sensations that are different from the rest of Mexico. While cuisine from Oaxaca and Puebla mainly uses the traditional indigenous Mexican staples in different ways (including crickets), residents of the Yucatan eat a lot of dishes that don’t have roots anywhere else.

Best Mexico vacation spots for food: Yucatan state

The most famous example is cochinita pibil, the tangy red pork dish that’s traditionally made by slow-cooking the pork underground in a pit after marinading it with sour orange, achiote seeds, different peppers, and spices, including chilies and garlic. It is served with pickled red onions.

You also find more turkey on the menu here than in any other state, including two of the most frequent street stall items: salbutes and panuchos. If you like a good stew, try relleno negro, one that features turkey and a black salsa made from trees chilies that features in many Yucatan dishes.

Sopa de lima is the traditional clear lime soup with turkey or chicken and is delicious. Papadzules might just be the oldest items on a Yucatecan food menu, dating back to Mayan times. They’re chopped hard-boiled eggs wrapped in tortillas topped with a green sauce made from pumpkin seeds.

The Yucatan region also has its own style of sausages, originally from Valladolid. This is the best place to find dishes jazzed up with habanero peppers, and to find desserts that feature some of the local honey. If it has “melipona” honey in the name, know that you’re trying something rare and expensive: a hive of these stingless bees only produces about a kilo of honey per year.

Since Yucatan state is next to Quintana Roo, also on the Yucatan Peninsula, the most popular Mexico vacation spots of Cancun and the Riviera Maya also sometimes feature Yucatecan food at some hotels and restaurants in the tourist zone. Book the special Laa’ Kech dinner at Live Aqua Cancun, for example, to taste the real deal and learn the history of the region’s cuisine.

Baja California Food and Wine

With its long coastline and Mediterranean climate, you can imagine that Baja residents catch and eat A LOT of seafood. Much of the country’s production of oysters is from this state, and you will find clams, mussels, tuna, abalone (although less now that it is currently overfished), crab, snails, octopus, calamari, stingray, and more. Lobster is particularly important to northern Baja cuisine and is specially prepared in the town of Puerto Nuevo just south of Tijuana.

The indigenous population in this state is small and highly isolated, and therefore not a strong influence on the cuisine. However, in Mexicali the Chinese community has made Chinese food as common as Mexican cuisine and Tijuana was the birthplace of the Caesar salad.

fish tacos in Baja, one of the top Mexico vacation spots for food

If you travel to Baja expect delicious fish tacos or a raw oyster for breakfast and some of the country’s very best wine, produced in their own Valley of Guadalupe.

Mexico City Cuisine

The great melting pot, Mexico City is home to all kinds of regional cuisines in the same place, made at the hands of the city’s thousands of national immigrants that have been flooding into the city since the 1940s and continue to do so today. And Mexican nationals are not the only people drawn to the megapolis. An influx of tourists, business people, and ex-pats from around the world has made the city’s cuisine the most international in the entire country.

The capital is the incubator for much of the country’s haute cuisine (although cities like Ensenada, Guadalajara, and Monterrey are all starting to catch up) and Mexico’s most famous chefs ply their trade to residents, hoping for approval and fame. Fusion food, like Elena Reygadas Italian-Mexican recipes or Maiz and Masala’s Mexican-Indian dishes are currently all the rage in the city – taking homegrown ingredients and giving them a twist in recipes from halfway across the world.

Mexico's tacos al pastor

On the streets you will find a plethora of blue corn dough patted for tortillas, tlacoyos, and quesadillas, the majority of coming from nearby Estado de Mexico. Also unmissable are tacos al pastor, a Mexico City creation, as well as the chilaquiles breakfast sandwich, wildly decorated micheladas (beer with mixers), and pit-roasted barbacoa on the weekends (although most of this is brought in from Hidalgo where the barbacoa is famous).

Koreans, Chinese, Colombians, Venezuelans, and Argentinians have all made their mark on Mexico City cuisine, but you will find that everything made here has a distinctive little touch that makes it chilango.

Monterrey Mexico Food

Although Monterrey doesn’t make any list of top Mexico vacation spots, it does receive plenty of foreign business travelers thanks to its extensive manufacturing base and its technical university. The land of barbecue and beer, many of the dishes from Monterrey are made with beef, goat, or milk, as cattle ranching has had a much longer history in this part of northern Mexico than agriculture. The region is known far and wide for some of the country’s best beef and has been influenced by the nomadic tribes that once roamed this very arid land and would dry meat in the sun for preservation. One of the region’s most famous preparations in machaca, a dried and almost powdered meat mixed with eggs or vegetables.

The Spanish Jewish community also has had a long-standing impact on the food here, especially dishes containing goat like cabrito, a weekend favorite for Regios (Monterrey natives). Some historians also believe it was the Jewish community here that birthed the ubiquitous flour tortilla and others say it was the ease of growing wheat in the border regions. Whoever is right, flour tortillas are found at every meal, often along with different variations of beans and local beer – Monterrey has been one of the main centers of beer production (once solely industrial but now branching out into Mexican craft beer) since Cervecería El León and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc began their operations here at the end of the 1800s.

The Cuisine of Chiapas

Chiapas is the country’s number one producer of cacao and coffee, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can get a good cup of coffee here, as much is exported to the U.S. and Europe. However, there are several projects trying to change that and it’s worth it to do a little research and find a place where you can try good Chiapaneco coffee for yourself. (That’s easiest in the tourist center of San Cristobal de las Casas.)

Chiapas foodie stop in Mexico

The state is still home to dozens of indigenous communities, some of the country’s largest in number, whose diet is focused on corn but includes beans, chiles, squash, potatoes, mushrooms, Mexican pepperleaf, and cilantro.

Hundreds of tamal variations are also a staple for local communities, stuffed with everything from iguana to coconut. People tend to forget that Chiapas has a long coastline which means a good selection of seafood on the menu in the coastal regions of the state. Sea turtle and turtle eggs were once a delicacy here, but have disappeared from kitchens as communities try to protect these wild creatures from going extinct. While most dishes are made with common proteins like pork or chicken, it behooves you to try a few made with wilder species – squirrel, armadillo, or iguana – to get a sense of Chiapas’ pre-Hipanic roots (before the Spanish there were no grazing animals in Mexico). Definitely try queso de bola Ocosingo cheese if you can and some of the many regional drinks made with cacao.

Veracruz Cuisine

Veracruz, as the main port of the colonial period, is not only a mix of Spanish and indigenous cultures, but also that of Africans brought by Spanish to work in the sugarcane fields and coffee plantations. A land of abundance, Veracruzanos eat a lot of tropical fruits, edible wild plants, and seafood – so much seafood! – what with their extensive coastline that covers most of the Gulf of Mexico. Arroz a la tumbada is a seafood rice dish special to the southern coast, carne de chango – pork smoked with guava leaves – can be found on the lake shores of Catemaco and everywhere the firewater torito liquor, thankfully mellowed out by peanut or coconut cream.

shrimp from the Gulf coast of Mexico

Common local ingredients like yucca and plantain are less common in Mexico’s northern regions and you will find that even the simplest of dishes, like quesadillas, taste different in Veracruz. This is another state with an outsized production of coffee that is generally exported to the outside world, but small towns like Coatepec are trying to reintroduce the tradition of good, high-quality coffee into people’s everyday lives.

Naturally, these aren’t the only Mexico vacation spots with memorable food. You’ll find great seafood along the coasts, especially if you get away from the sunburned tourists and find places where the locals eat. Many of the best Mexican luxury resorts have realized that well-traveled visitors want to taste what’s real instead of what’s watered-down, so they’re turning to chefs and restaurants with more of a sense of place. Buen provecho!

All photos in this article on the best Mexico vacation spots for regional cuisine © Timothy Scott and Lydia Carey. All rights reserved.