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?Mexican food in America is extremely popular. But it doesn’t always get prepared the way it was originally intended. Americans like to adapt ethnic cuisine (and Mexican fare is no exception) in an effort to “dumb it down,” or make it more recognizable to the American palate. Subsets (or genres, if you will) of this popular cuisine get called Tex-Mex and Cali-Mex, meaning the influences of those American regions get interjected into the cuisine–sometimes with terrible results. Mexico, like the U.S., is a big country with lots of regional cooking. So, the fare served on the Yucatan peninsula is vastly different from the food of Michoacan, just like the food served in Seattle varies greatly from the cuisine of New Orleans. Here are a few things you should know about authentic Mexican food.

1) Muy Authentico

Like most Latin cuisines, true Mexican fare is a testament to simplicity. The best Mexican cuisine is ingredient-driven stuff that doesn’t require a busy flavor profile–freshly made salsas, uncomplicated grilled meats, and tasty, yet nuanced, sauces are what this cuisine is all about. Americans tend to muddle up Mexican fare with too much sauce and congested plates that are smothered with goopy orange cheese.

2) Use the Cheese Sparingly, Please

As I mentioned above, authentic Mexican fare doesn’t come with melted cheese all over the plates. That’s an American conception. Actually, cheese is used as an accent and not as a major component. And orange-hued cheddar cheese is very rarely used in true Mexican cuisine. Instead, Mexicans prefer white cheeses such as cotija, queso fresco, and queso Oaxaca. There are few things better than carne asada tacos (on corn tortillas) with a light sprinkle of crumbly white cheese, and, of course, a little squirt from a lime wedge. Good clean flavors get lost when there is waxy orange cheese melted over everything–all you taste is the cheese.

3) Cool It With the Sauce, Man

Cali-Mex and Tex-Mex cuisines are notorious for plates that get over-sauced with spicy red enchilada sauce. Like cheese, tomato/pepper sauces are used sparingly in Mexico. We’ve all experienced plates (at American-style Mexican places) that have a lake of red sauce around enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and tamales, which essentially makes everything soggy. I like to taste my chiles rellenos, but when they are literally floating in red sauce, these delicious stuffed peppers kind of get lost in translation.

4) What the Hell is a Taco Salad?

My Mexican friends get a kick out of the American concept of taco salads. (Insert chuckles here.) Not to say that a taco salad can’t be tasty, but this northern creation is hardly common in Mexico. Many times, menus will call this Americanized dish an “ensalada el Norteno,” giving credence to the fact that it is indeed a salad with a strong gringo influence. Mexicans prefer tostadas if they so desire a salad, which is basically the same thing without all the sour cream and shredded orange cheese. But you won’t find too many Mexicans ordering an ensalada el Norteno–that’s usually relegated to American administrative assistants (secretaries, if you will) at lunchtime. So, don’t expect to find taco salads on the menu at a “real” Mexican restaurant.

5) Is That Ground Beef in My Taco?

It’s true. Mexicans love beef. Yet ground beef is rarely used in Mexico, especially in tacos–they prefer shredded and grilled beef, usually a flank or skirt steak. Ground beef tacos are truly a Tex-Mex thang. Our neighbors to the South prefer carne asada and barbacoa. Carne asada has become ubiquitous in the U.S. in recent years. This marinated and grilled steak is probably the most common taco filling, which hails from northern Mexico. Barbacoa, in its truest form, is beef that gets wrapped in a banana leaf and slowly smoked over a coal-lined pit barbecue. (This preparation is common in the Mexican state of Hidalgo.) Of course, Americans like to take liberties with these terms on menus, so that’s not necessarily how it’s prepared in the U.S.

6) Are Fish Tacos Truly Mexican?

Americans, especially ones living in the southwestern U.S., love fish tacos. But there are a lot of misconceptions about the origins of this popular dish. It’s widely believed that fish tacos were invented in the Baja region (Ensenada, in particular) of Mexico. And, it’s true that this western coastal area, on the Pacific Ocean, is known for its battered and fried fish, plopped on warm corn tortillas. Yet asking for fish tacos on the eastern seaboard of Mexico might yield some strange looks. Not to say that fish isn’t served with tortillas in places like Vera Cruz, but pescado (usually snapper or dorado) generally gets sautéed or grilled, and served with a peppery tomato sauce next to corn tortillas–versus already built into tacos, like on the West Coast.

7) That’s One Big Burrito!

Americans love big food, especially burritos, which tend to have everything in them but the kitchen sink. American-influenced burritos, also known as mission-style burritos (named after the Mission district in San Francisco), are notorious for having many ingredients, like beans, rice, meat, sauce, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. This is not at all how Mexicans eat their burritos; they opt for smaller versions with sparse amounts of meat, beans, and sauce. Smothered burritos (the kind that you can’t pick up and eat) are truly a Tex-Mex invention.

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