It’s time for Cinco de Mayo, the celebration of Mexico’s win over the French army at the Battle of Puebla — and the perfect excuse to load up on nachos and margaritas, right? Well, sure. But considering that Mexican cuisine is as diverse and complex as its people (not to mention a designated UNESCO cultural treasure) it’s worth exploring some authentic eats for your menu.
We sat down with chef Katsuji Tanabe, who competed on Top ChefMexico and Top Chef season 12 in Boston, to get the scoop on some must-try dishes for Cinco de Mayo.
Top Chef alum, Katsuji Tanabe, in front of his restaurant Mexikosher in New York (Photo courtesy of Katsuji Tanabe)
“Mexican food has so many different influences from European to Mayan," Tanabe says, "that what is considered authentic is actually a blend of many different cultures."
Raised in Mexico to a Japanese father and a Mexican mother, Tanabe is perhaps the perfect example of this. In fact, at his restaurants (Mexikosher in New York, Barrio in Chicago, and the Nixon Chops & Whiskey in Whittier, California), Tanabe’s specialty is creating modern dishes that explore his own cultural backgrounds.
“I want people to know that Mexican cuisine is on par with French, Italian, and other cuisines people think of when they think of fine dining.”
---- Katsuji Tanabe
Indeed, many of the authentic dishes below reflect this mix of cultures and are a great example of what makes Mexican cuisine so rich.
Feeling like fajitas? Try carnitas instead:
Can you hear the sizzle? Created in Texas, fajitas (meaning “little strips” in Spanish) first appeared back to the 1930s. If you’re looking for a different kind of sizzle, give versatile and oh-so-delicious carnitas a try.
Similar to pulled pork, carnitas are made from pork shoulder that has been left to simmer for hours, pulled apart, and roasted to the perfect mouthwatering shade of golden brown.
The meat is well seasoned with herbs that include cinnamon, garlic cloves, and bay leaves, which create the signature taste (and incredible smell…mmmm).
At Mexikosher, the first kosher Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles (which recently moved to NYC’s Upper West Side), carnitas are made from a mix of beef and duck rather than the usual pork. The blend of succulent meat comes with a variety of optional toppings like fresh pico de gallo and cilantro. It's a must-try!
Craving nachos? Try tostadas instead:
This popular snack was actually created accidentally during World War ll when a group of women in Texas wandered across the border to Victory Club, a popular restaurant at the time in Mexico.
The maître d’, Ignacio Ayala, welcomed them in despite the restaurant being closed. With no chef in the kitchen, Ayala did his best to improvise what he thought Americans would like. The result? fried tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapeño peppers. Voila, nachos!
If crunchy tortillas are your thing, then you need to try tostadas. These fried corn tortillas are layered with a variety of ingredients, including a generous slathering of refried beans, cheese, salsa, and a protein of your choice.
Los Comales offers a range of topping options at their Chicago and Wisconsin locations, from the more daring beef tongue to the vegetarian-friendly avocado.
Love burritos? Try enchiladas suizas:
The burrito has carved out a very special place in our hearts. Yet the burrito we know and love — commonly known as the Mission-style burrito — actually originated in San Francisco’s Mission district in the 1960s.
While we’ll always love burritos, try a dish like enchiladas suizas. Born in Mexico City and a favorite of Tanabe’s, fillings are wrapped in warm tortillas that are typically bathed in delicious tomatillo cream sauce and covered in cheese.
Fun fact: suizas translates to "Swiss" in Spanish, referencing the cheese used in this dish. Turn your enchilada dreams into a reality at La Cocina Oaxaqueña in Seattle.
Like the crunch of hard-shell tacos? Try tlayudas:
Tacos are arguably one of the most beloved and re-created dishes around the world. Their American cousin, the hard-shell taco, was made popular in the 60s by Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell, and we haven’t looked back since.
Switch things up with a tlayuda — also known as what would happen if a pizza and a taco had a baby. Created in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, tlayudas are about the same size as a pizza but instead are covered with refried beans, queso fresco, cabbage, salsa and juicy pieces of meat. With a crispy base, tlayudas are as fun to share as they are to eat.
Thirsty? Sip on horchata (virgin or spiked):
All those dishes can really work up a thirst, and thankfully there are a variety of craveable drink options. Of course, it wouldn’t be Cinco de Mayo without margaritas, as the drink is synonymous with the holiday and vacation. But if you’re looking for your next summer drink, then you must try horchata (pronounced or-cha-ta, the h is silent).
Horchata, and its various iterations throughout Latin America, is a chilled rice drink made with cinnamon and vanilla. Its milky sweet flavor has made it a staple of the Latin diet and a must-have during the summer months. Traditionally, it contains no dairy (for those who are vegan or lactose-intolerant) and no alcohol for the little ones.
For the grown-ups, horchata is the perfect drink to spike with a little tequila or rum. Coat the rim of your glass with cinnamon or sugar, add the liquor of your choice, and garnish with a bit of nutmeg to taste.