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From Cal-Mex burritos to Mexico City-style tacos, Southern California is a top stateside destination for experiencing Mexico's myriad culinary styles.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that the Mexican menu goes far beyond Tex-Mex (or Cal-Mex) favorites like burritos, chimichangas, enchiladas, fajitas, and nachos—many of which were created or popularized stateside. Indeed, Mexico has rich, regional food styles, like the complex mole sauces of Puebla and Oaxaca and the fresh ceviches of Veracruz, as well as the trademark snack of Mexico City: tacos.
In Southern California, tacos are an obsession, with numerous blogs and Web sites dedicated to the quest for the perfect taco. They're everywhere—in ramshackle taco stands, roving taco trucks, and strip-mall taquerias. Whether you're looking for a cheap snack or a lunch on-the-go, SoCal's taco selection can't be beat. But be forewarned: there may not be an English menu. Here we've noted unfamiliar taco terms, along with other potentially new-to-you items from the Mexican menu.
Spanish for "fresh water," agua fresca is a nonalcoholic Mexican drink made from fruit, rice, or seeds that are blended with sugar and water. Fruit flavors like lemon, lime, and watermelon are common. Other varieties include agua de Jamaica, flavored with red hibiscus petals; agua de horchata, a cinnamon-scented rice milk; and agua de tamarindo, a bittersweet variety flavored with tamarind. If you're looking for something with a little more kick, try a Michelada, a beer that has been enhanced with a mixture of lime juice, chili sauce, and other savory ingredients. It's typically served in a salt-rimmed glass with ice.
Decoding the menu
Ceviche —Citrus-marinated seafood appetizer from the Gulf shores of Veracruz. Often eaten with tortilla chips.
Chile relleno —Roasted poblano pepper that is stuffed with ingredients like ground meat or cheese, then dipped in egg batter, fried, and served in tomato sauce.
Clayuda —A Oaxacan dish similar to pizza. Large corn tortillas are baked until hard, then topped with ingredients like refried beans, cheese, and salsa.
Fish taco —A specialty in Southern California, the fish taco is a soft corn tortilla stuffed with grilled or fried white fish (mahimahi or wahoo), pico de gallo, and shredded cabbage.
Gordita —"Little fat one" in Spanish, this dish is like a taco, but the cornmeal shell is thicker, similar to pita bread.
Mole —A complex, sweet sauce with Aztec roots made from more than 20 ingredients, including chiles, cinnamon, cumin, anise, black pepper, sesame seeds, and Mexican chocolate. There are many types of mole using various chiles and ingredient combinations, but the most common is mole poblano from the Puebla region.
Quesadilla —A snack made from a fresh tortilla that is folded over and stuffed with simple fillings like cheese, then toasted on a griddle. Elevated versions of the quesadilla may be stuffed with sautéed flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) or huitlacoche (corn mushrooms).
Salsa —A class of cooked or raw sauces made from chiles, tomatoes, and other ingredients. Popular salsas include pico de gallo, a fresh sauce made from chopped tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, and lime; salsa verde, made with tomatillos instead of tomatoes; and salsa roja, a cooked sauce made with chiles, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and cilantro.
Sopes —A small, fried corn cake topped with ingredients like refried beans, shredded chicken, and salsa.
Taco —In Southern California, as in Mexico, tacos are made from soft, palm-sized corn tortillas folded over and filled with meat, chopped onion, cilantro, and salsa. Common taco fillings include al pastor (spiced pork), barbacoa (braised beef), carnitas (roasted pork), cecina (chile-coated pork), carne asada (roasted, chopped beef), chorizo (spicy sausage), lengua (beef tongue), sesos (cow brain), and tasajo (spiced, grilled beef).
Tamales —Sweet or savory corn cakes that are steamed, and may be filled with cheese, roasted chiles, shredded meat, or other fillings.
Torta —A Mexican sandwich served on a crusty sandwich roll. Fillings include meat, refried beans, and cheese.
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