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Jun 29, 2007 11:35 AM

please, a definition of "authentic mexican"

A colleague and I are having a discussion of what would define authentic mexican, and was interested in getting everyones take on this.

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    1. re: azhotdish

      I guess my question was a little different/specific. Most of what I am reading is very vague.

    2. This is a good question but I don't know that you'll be able to find a specific answer. Just like we have regional foods and flavors so does Mexico. Sonoran Mexican food tastes different than other regions I've visited throughout Mexico. I can say for certain this one thing - Taco Bell is NOT authentic Mexican! ;)

      I can't wait to see how everyone else weighs in on this one...

      31 Replies
      1. re: scorpioscuba

        And yet I know many, many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who love love love to eat at Taco Bell! So...maybe it is "authentic" enough!

        1. re: tokyorosa

          True, there are many there but that may be just because it's vaguely familiar, not necessarily authentic. It's not easy - that same argument is thrown around my family when we want to eat ethnic in the US, you say "oh, I see a lot of Chinese in that Chinese restaurant - it must be good/authentic." Well, it may be but those people may also have no taste or have any care about authentic. A hoard of people from the theme area/region of the restaurant rarely indicates its quality.

          For me, what any authentic cusine boils down to, though, is the use of
          a) seasonally fresh and local ingredients available to people in that area
          b) typical techniques and preparation styles
          c) common flavor profiles.
          I think the key is, like Grey says below, that there are many regions in Mexico. I think you could more easily define what is Authentic Sonoran food, or what is authentic Oaxacan - kind of like you could authentic Northwest or Southern cuisine here.

          1. re: pgerding

            Good points, pgerding. And there's no surprise that Tex-Mex and Southwest have such similarities to types of regional Mexican; until 1848, New Mexico and most of Arizona and Colorado were part of Mexico. (ABZconcierge; if you had been born in your present domicile, Copper Square, 160 years ago, you would be a Mexican citizen, albeit an old one.)
            One item that ISN'T authentic Mexican is burritos. If you find one in Mexico, it is an effort to make an American feel at home.

            1. re: Veggo

              Not necessarily true.... burritos are eaten commonly in Northern Mexico... often known as burritAs or mulitas... they are different however... in a similar way as fried tacos are different in Mex vs Tex Mex cuisine. Mexican Burritos tend to NOT have rice, sour cream, cheese or guacamole. Not that they NEVER have those things... just never in conjunction.

              One of my favorite burritas.... was typically Friday night fare among teens & young adults in Aguascalientes. Imagine a footlong + mamoth stuffed with thin steak that is sauteed with onions, jalapenos & asadero cheese.... and is meant to be split by 4 or so people. Yes, it was very similar to a spicy philly cheesteak made with good cheese.

              I will expand more on my take of authentic Mexican tomorrow.

          2. re: tokyorosa

            tokyorosa, really, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans eat at Taco Bell? Do they see TB as "their" McDonalds? What do they say about the food? Very interesting!

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              Oh, my gosh! That made me laugh! "'Our' McDonald's." I'm using that the next time I have a chance, Sam! My brothers will think it's hilarious.

              My Mexican grandma, may she rest in peace, was a sucker for a canned tamale. And she made the best tamales on the planet. I wouldn't stand before her and say, "But gramma, those're not *authentic*!" (She'd've given a dismissive wave to the whole idea of "authentic," as she was an inventive, "authentic" Mexican cook all her life and made do with what she had, whether it was greens she picked from beside the irrigation ditch near her house or a block of cheese from the government.) As for the argument that you must use--what?--proper technique and fresh ingredients and whatnot, I say, "Ppppthbbbbbth." As far as I'm concerned, if I toss Velveta on Wonder bread, it's "authentic" Mexican cooking because it's an authentic Mexican cooking it.

              And seriously, the attempt to define authenticity in Mexicans/Mexican cooking is only so much "other-izing" of Mexicans and Mexican culture. This is not, I mean, a discussion among Mexicans, but among a group of (mostly) non-Mexicans, so...who is deciding what "authentic" Mexican is? Apparently not Mexicans themselves.

              I'm so sending this question in to "Ask A Mexican"! ("Dear Mexican: What is authentic Mexican cooking?")

              1. re: tokyorosa

                *laugh* I love it! That's exactly why I prefer the word "traditional" to "authentic".

                1. re: tokyorosa

                  tokyorosa, no me de cuenta que Ud es Mexicana (pensaba que sea Japonesa), pero todavia me gustaria saber...

                  What do Mexican-American and Mexican say and think of TB food?

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    Hmmm...Sorry, Sam, but I'm not really sure I have any authority to act as spokesperson for La Raza. But for myself, I used to enjoy tossing back a Taco Bell Taco Supreme or two--until I found that Taco Cabana had a killer margarita machine that dispensed the most amazingly addictive and lethal margaritas (think llquored-up Slushy). After that, well, it was Cabana all the way!

                    But what I really want to know is: What do white people think of McDonald's? Is it "authentic" white food?

                    1. re: tokyorosa

                      Not being a white person, I have no authority to say either. There is one McDonalds here in Cali, a city of 1.5 million people. I've never met anyone that has eaten at one. Now and then there have been some "Mexican" and "Chinese" restaurants that are as authentic as my kosher preparations.

                      That margarita must be from the same type of machine that Tony Bourdain encountered in one of the Mexican border cities. He left mumbling to himself, also with "authenticity" problems.

                      1. re: tokyorosa


                        Whether I qualify as white depends on your point of view. Many in America still consider Jews from eastern Europe to be "passing". But being third generation, and having grown up in suburbia probably makes me as American as anyone.

                        That being said, I found the McDonald's in Austria to be passing. The beer and wiener schnitzel were a nice complement to die Big Mac.

                    2. re: tokyorosa

                      'Otherizing' is right. I see the discussions of 'authenticity' as one that deprives that cuisine of change, innovation, and movement. In effect, it's a way to assure that 'true' Mexican (Chinese, Thai, Indian, etc.) cuisine and people remain officially in the past. It's a romantic discourse that develops from the self-loathing of the no longer authentic modern enlightened culture (do modernized nothing we have is truly authentic any more) and the yearning for a time untouched by the original encounter (a culinary 'imperial nostalgia' if you will-- all apologies to Renato Rosaldo).

                      And for no good reason at all, I will state that I loathe the use of 'authenticity' as an evaluative criterion for selecting restaurants. Deliciousness reigns supreme as my deciding factor. It's not that discussing the cuisine or the innovations is out of bounds, but it is a tedious and inefficient means to decide upon what one wants.

                      1. re: Lizard

                        Lizard, I'm not bothered by discussions about "authentic" nor do I think such concerns impede culinary change. You're right about "deliciousness". BOTH variables can be applied as in tr's tale above:

                        tokyorosa: "But, Gramma, is this authentic?"
                        Abuela: "Hell no, but its really delicious!"

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          See, I don't think my grandmother would care about what is "authentic" Mexican food. I certainly don't. I also don't step into another culture and start talking about what is "authentic." (Not that you're doing thatt, Sam, but that does seem to be the direction of this thread.) I mean, seriously, I don't spend my time in Asia judging whether or not this pho is more "authentic" than that pho--or if this ramen is more "authentic" than that ramen. I figure if it's there and I'm eating it, it's "authentic" enough.

                          Additionally, I am bothered by discussions about authenticity that make objects of the people and culture being discussed. White folk have a very romantic view of many, many cultures and cultural practices, cooking included, and so "authentic" ends up being a host of whites' romantic idea(l)s about what they think Mexican cooking "should" be--based on, what? Certainly not an intimate view of the culture in most cases.

                          I would suggest that, if one is not Mexican, that one's opinions about what is "authentic" Mexican food are patronizing at best and racist at worst. Certainly one can say "I like this" or "I don't like that," but "This is not 'authentic'" is only so much colonization at work..

                          1. re: tokyorosa

                            I guess when we are talking about whites, we mean the general american wonder-bread eating public? (as opposed to using it to mean 'whites' in the rest of the world, im pretty sure the french are just fine with thier chow for example)

                            ---annnyway, america is a nation of immigrants. There are VERY few foods that we can talk about as being 'american' as opposed to 'americanized.' I guess what im trying to say is that American food is BUILT on romanticized versions of other cultures and the 'old country'. (what those foods are is another thread!)

                            Since these romantic ideals are really what american food is all about, its no wonder that we are a nation obsessed with authenticity when it comes to food. I mean, we are for the most part building off of other cultures and thier foods---we aren't cooking with a great depth of knowledge past down from countless generations--heck, most of us can't even trace our family past ellis island. I know I can't. I have no knowlege of my eastern european, swedish, anglican and german anscestors (really, pick a country). I don't have any recipes from them--just a notion of 'jewish' food. So the appeal of other cultures that have that kind of rich history, and food history, is huge. It represents something that many americans cannot cannot really attain --' authenticity.'

                            That said, is the notion rediculous? yeah, probably, and im sure its something that people many other nationalities aren't nearly as interested in.

                            1. re: tokyorosa

                              Tokyorosa, as you can see from my post above, I agree. I am actually now thinking about an overall colonial discourse at work on Chowhound where culinary explorers fight over who has found the original, authentic (i.e. untouched) restaurant in which they can plant their flag of discovery.

                              This concept of discovery depends on a notion of 'authentic' that keeps the culture separate-- and more importantly, without the innovation, prevents the culture in discussion from having discovered the 'chowhound us'. 'Authentic' means they are carefully preserved behind glass like a museum exhibit.

                              I am aware this is a rather sinister reading of chowhound, but whenever I see the obsession with authenticity come up, this is what I think. Particularly when the subject is 'ethnic' food, a concept that comes with borders in place. There is a fantasy of this other, separate culture that must remain separate and must live in an unchanging time ('allochronic' tends to be favoured among the anthropologists).

                              Now, this is entirely different, say, than what Sam does when he talks about foodways and practices he has encountered. Talking about social life and social practices of food in addition to their deliciousness is one thing-- but the treatment of certain finds as valuable for being 'authentic' (i.e. untouched by the world around them, a fantasy concept at best') leaves a sour taste.

                              And for other languages: tradition is good, particularly if one keeps in mind that tradition is invented and malleable.

                              As for isolating this obsession in the US, hardly. Europeans are preoccupied with identity and culture too, but in a different way.

                              1. re: Lizard

                                I'm replying to myself because I realise this is kind of inflammatory and I didn't mean it that way. I think I'm more trying to figure out why the quest for authenticity bugs me so much.

                                1. re: Lizard

                                  I think 'discussions' on authenticy are annoying if someone trumps deliciousness ... they don't care if it is tasty if it is not authentic.

                                  It is annoying when people whine about it ... not a Mexican example but say reegionalism as in ... there's no real pizza, deli, Cuban food in SF.

                                  In that later example, people miss the deliciousness they have had in the past and each promise of 'authentic food' is met by disappointment and the wail of 'not authentic' which is annoying to many people who don't know the food.

                                  As to limiting innovation, I don't think the authenticy seekers care if the authentic version is available at least one place. For a long time, New England seafood, my love, wasn't available in SF.

                                  A few places branched into Californiazed lobster rolls on 'artisan' rolls (spit) and don't get me started on the $16 clam chowder served with clams in shell ... no kidding, you had to pick the clam shells out of the 'chowder' which had one teeny cube of potato.

                                  But a real clam shack opened. I can buy a real lobster roll on real top-loading buns. The tartar sauce for the fried clams doesn't have things like Meyer lemon juice or rosemary mixed in. I am content and as long as I have access to the the real deal I am happy as a fried clam. If other places innovate ... cool ... I'll happily welcome that. No more passioned discussions about authenticy on this front from me. If you like your lobster roll mixed with creme fraiche on a rosemary baguette ... cool .. .I have access to the version that makes me happy.

                                  However, there was so much delicious food that I ate in Mexico that isn't available in SF. I'll continue to bemoan the lack of 'authenticy'.

                              2. re: tokyorosa

                                Generally when the subject of "authentic" comes up in conversations here it's to challenge an opinion of whether X is really something you might find in Mexico vs. something that's just "Mexican-inspired" (e.g. Chipotle).

                                All cities have Chili's. Few cities outside the SW have something like the San Angel Inn.

                                When I discuss "authenticity" here its not "so much colonization" as much as it is to convey the concept of, "opening up one's mind as to what Mexican food is". I know I'm not suggesting bashing corn with stones.

                                That is, if someone can't make it down to Oaxaca or Jalisco, why not at least try Forest Cafe or Maya or Topolobompo instead of Chipotle or the usual combo plate place when travelling. We're still dealing with a whole lot of folks who honestly believe ALL Mexican food comes wrapped in a tortilla and smothered in cheese - even many here on CH.

                                For the record, when I lived in the DF in 93-94, there were three Taco Bells on Insurgentes alone. Our staff thought TB was crap. But they ate Domino's take out for lunch 2x weekly (and always the dreaded ham/pineapple). I wish they had taken an interest in "traditional pizza".

                          2. re: tokyorosa

                            Well stated. Growing up in the shadow of New Orleans, I cringe, when someone states that a take on "Gumbo," is not authentic. Over my life, I've had hundreds of bowls, of "authentic" gumbo, created by Louisiana cooks and chefs. I've had a fine, light broth with a scoop of rice, a few shrimp and a garnish of chives - this from a chef from Layfayette, in the heart of Cajun Country. On the other end of the spectrum, I've had gumbo so thick and black, that one had to eat it with a fork - and almost everything in between. My wife, who is a great NO-influencend cook, does several and they range from thinnish red to almost black, and thick. Nearly all have been good to great. Hey, what's an "authentic" gumbo? It's all about good.

                            One of the best pizzas, that I have had, was decried by a Chicago native, as not being "authentic." But, it was great. It should be about the food, not some gastro-anthropologic idea of what it should be!

                            Thanks for sharing your take,

                        2. re: tokyorosa

                          We love to eat Taco Bell because it is so American. =)

                          I remember going to the States to visit the family and always saying I wanted Taco Bell. It wasn't until much later in my life that I came to realize that people thought that was Mexican... we just thought it was really yummy American food!

                        3. re: scorpioscuba

                          Right. You almost have to be vague in definition.

                          "Authentic Mexican" isn't just a single moniker. Each and every distinct region of the country (much like other large countries like the United States or China, among many others) boasts their own varied interpretations of a native cuisine. That's your overall answer.

                          To get more specific you'd simply have to begin exploring those regions individually, and see what each of them traditionally offer in terms ingredients, spicing, textures, etc.

                          1. re: scorpioscuba

                            I agree completely. It's like trying to define "Southern Food." It all depends on to where, in the South, one is referring. New Orleans, often thought of as a paradigm of "Southern Food," is about as different, as can be from food just up the River, in Memphis, or Atlanta, or nearly any place in Alabama, or Mississippi. Having lived much of my life within the confines of The South, it was decades, before I first experienced "Low Country Cooking," near Charleston, SC - totally different, than almost anything I had ever had.

                            Same for Mexico - it depends on where one is referring. Just along the border, the food changes dramatically from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of California - different ingredients, bases/sauces and different garnishes and cheeses. Just think, almost every "State" in Mexico has its own take on mole.


                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              Yes, I agree with Bill Hunt. It is the one thing that I can't understand about Phoenix and the Valley. Lots of "mexican" restaurants... but none that have the mexican food that I am accustom to, which is probably more Baja, since I am originally from Los Angeles, CA. The Sonoran mexican food to me is a 'yawn'. It seems bland and uncreative.
                              If anyone knows of a good/great mexican food joint that serves "Baja" style in East Phoenix/Valley, please let us Californians know.

                              1. re: doubleddae

                                Never having spent much time in CA, I cannot recommend one - a few fish tacos in SD doesn't count, in my book.

                                I've had the same problem with NM Indio-Mexican/SW (Richardson's does about the best) and real Tex-Mex (what I grew up on). About the closest that I have found along those lines has been El Conquistador, which is Jalisco-oriented.

                                For my tastes, the heaviness of the Tex-Mex is what I crave. Just the opposite of the Baja-taste. I guess that I need to do a road-trip to Nuevo Larado to fill up!


                                1. re: doubleddae

                                  I was just thinking of starting a thread about that. I learned to love "authentic" Mexican food growing up on the west coast. When I moved to the Phoenix area I thought I'd find all these great Mexican restaurants, but it turned out I just don't care for the Sonoran food as much. The beans are to smooth, the wet burritos are too greasy, the sauce has a weird bland tomato flavor (most of the time)...

                                  It must be a matter of preference though. But this hound prefers what he got at the first random taco shack he found by the Santa Cruz beach last week over anything he can come up with in the valley.

                                  And I'll say the closest I've found to that style is Los Favoritos. At least the sauce is starting to remind me of that red pepper flavor you get in LA. But it's not the highest quality.

                                  1. re: doubleddae

                                    I wonder if this wasn't the question that the OP was trying to get answered in the first place. If the OP really is a concierge, I suspect that his question may have had a rather more practical and mundane meaning. In other words, someone from Boston, Duluth, or Seattle who is visiting Phoenix may well ask a concierge for advice on "authentic Mexican" places. After being directed to a general discussion of what is Mexican food, the OP posted, "I guess my question was a little different/specific. Most of what I am reading is very vague."

                                    Unfortunately, this thread, which perhaps should be on the SW board, is here in General topics, so the conversation has turned into another pointless authentic/traditional/delicious philosophical debate and discussion.

                                    In my original reply (lower down the thread, I believe), tried to provide some practical and specific suggestions to distinguish between Mexican restaurants in the context of Arizona, but I suspect the OP might like more specific comments and recommendation more appropriate to what would be viewed as 'authentic Mexican' in the context of Phoenix.


                                2. re: scorpioscuba

                                  Agreed. Taco Bell is NOT authentic Mexican! Taco Bell is not even authentic Tex-Mex. Taco Bell is a fast food based on Tex-Mex and not Mexican cuisine. However, the original “Bell Burger” (Taco meat, cheese, tomato in a burger bun) should be considered good whether or not it is looked upon as authentic Mexican or Tex-Mex . Also, when the suits at Taco Bell pulled the Bell Burger from the menu that was the day they began thinking with their heads inside the bun.

                                  Taco Bell defination

                                  1. re: JeetJet

                                    How can it be based on Tex-Mex when the originals (including Taco Tia) were in California? Shouldn't it be Cal-Mex?


                                    1. re: paulj

                                      Wow, I recall Taco Tia. There was also Pup’n Taco, and Taco Lita. In answer to your question I guess Tex-Mex fast food can originate in Cal just the same as anyplace else. But since these other fast food places were around at the same time that does not preclude them from also being inspired by the Tex-Mex tradition. In fact, since Taco Bell is a mainly a fast food more than a Tex-Mex food it makes even more sense that it began in Southern California. Still, however, the idea of ground beef with a mex flavoring (especially in a burger bun) is closer to Tex-Mex IMO than anything in Cal that came before. This is making me hungry for a Bell Burger and there is a Taco Bell near my home that still sells them.

                                      1. re: JeetJet

                                        One of those sites claimed that Bell's original taco filling was derived from his chili dog recipe. It also claimed an early innovation had to do with the premade, easily filled shells.

                                        I wonder if this means that the crisp U shapped shells were a Bell invention. They certainly seem to be more American than Mexican. But I don't know if others were serving anything similar before.

                                        I do though regard a flat crisp tortilla as authentic, such as Los Pericos brand of Tostadas.


                                3. Well, I don't have the definitive answer on what defines AUTHENTIC Mexican, however if ORANGE cheese is involved it's NOT authentic!

                                  1. I think regionality, as in all other countries and cuisines, is a factor when you are responding to the question, "What is authentic Mexican?"

                                    There is no answer.

                                    But the opposite, "What is NOT authentic?" might be easier to answer, if regionality is the context, as in,
                                    -no yellow cheese
                                    -no saucy carnitas
                                    -no pinto beans
                                    -no flour tortillas.

                                    At the end of the day, however, who can be the judge of authenticity?

                                    My sister received grant money to do a project with the "tortilleras" of Coapan, women who sell hand-made tortillas. The interviews and photo-documentaries slowly revealed some of the changes that have occurred just in the past 10 years (bags, plastic, metal stands, mixture, buses) that made some people say the work they did was not authentic. But ask them anytime, and they think it is damn authentic: they still get up at 5 to grind the corn, then still have to mix everything by hand, they still have to pack 100 pounds of tortillas and carry them around from house to house. So authenticity is, in fact, one of those things outsiders try to cling to. All cultures and cuisines are in constant movement and change.

                                    We also have to consider the private/public divide. You can go to as many homes as you like and you'll find different recipes and methods, sometimes completely different foods from what you find in the restaurant. Is it not authentic? I think it is.

                                    At the end of the day, food that tastes great is great regardless of its authenticity, and whoever claims to be an authenticity guru/police is a joke. Wouldn't that title be allowed to Mexicans? And wouldn't they also be mistaken when they spoke about other regions they didn't know?

                                    So, don't worry about authentic. Particularly if you are not in the country of origin or in a part of that country exclusive for tourists.

                                    P.S. Californian Mexican is perhaps the least authentic Mexican I've had in the States.

                                    Wandering, I am

                                    1. The entire concept of authenticity can lead to (and has led to at Chowhound on many occasions) long and argumentative discussions. As tokyorosa points out, authentic Mexican food could be anything cooked by an authentic Mexican. Nonetheless, down here on the border in Yuma, a useful definition for an “authentic” restaurant would be one run by or catering to newer, more recently immigrated individuals. In other words, Mexican food like what one finds in Mexican restaurants on the other side of the border. These "authentic" places tend to have certain specific differences from the old line/old school places that have operated here for more than 50 years (which may themselves present an authentic cuisine reflective of the cooking of Mexican-American families in Yuma in the 1940s and 50s) and the restaurants mostly focused on attracting non-Mexican clientele.

                                      By this definition, I would expect an “authentic” restaurant would feature more corn tortillas than flour. Tacos would generally be rolled or soft, not hard/folded. For the most part, I would expect tacos to have cabbage, not lettuce, on them and not to have cheese. When cheese does show up, on frijoles for example, it often would be white, not yellow. Similarly, pork should be more common than in old school or gringo places, with meat choices like al pastor and carnitas. No dishes should be made with ground beef except albondigas.

                                      I would also expect greater use of green chilies, tomatillos, nopales, and other vegetables. There should also be agua frescas to drink - things like jamaica, horchata, tamarindo, or other fruit-based beverages. I would expect an “authentic” restaurant to offer more caldos, like menudo, caldo de res, or siete mares, and fewer combination plates. Items like pescado entero, birria, or lengua should be on the menu. The salsa and other dishes might be more spicy hot than at old school or gringo restaurants.

                                      I realize that these are broad generalizations, and I am also not sure that all these specific things would apply in restaurants outside of the Yuma area. However, I have tried to indicate what “authentic” Mexican means to me, if “authentic” has any meaning at all.


                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Ed Dibble

                                        Some years ago we traveled across New Mexico. We ate at a number of New Mexico style places, such as M&J(?) Sanitary Tortilla Factory. But in Santa Fe we ate (twice) at Old Mexico Grill (no longer in business). This was a nice sit down place (i.e. not a taqueria), with a Mexican as opposed to New Mexican menu. I don't recall most of the menu, but this was the first place I had 'rajas' - creamed poblano pepper strips in cream, served, if I recall correctly, over chicken.

                                        Even earlier we spent a month with a family just south of the border, and then traveled south as far as DF. Up north we had corn tortillas at the noon meal, which was often a simple chicken soup and noodles. Pinto beans were eaten whole, at the end of the meal. Homemade flour tortillas were common at the evening meal. Sundays our host bought barbacoa for breakfast. Further south, the flour tortillas disappeared, and black beans were more common than pinto. Traveling on a budget we had 'comida corida' (multicourse businessman's lunch) at noon, and bought supper and breakfast items at the panaderia (bakery). I don't recall having a 'taco' (hard or soft) once during the trip.