What’s on the menu today? For lunch: Romaine salad with vegan cilantro-lime dressing, diced mango and toasted pumpkin seeds. For dinner: perfectly grilled wild-caught mahi, seasoned with oregano, lime and sea salt.
You can tell by the ingredients, these are delicious and healthy Mexican food options. But what may surprise you is that they’re just a fraction of what you can expect from Mexican cuisine.
Authentic Mexican Food
You’ve probably sat down at a Mexican restaurant in the U.S., munched on chips and salsa and then ordered an over-stuffed burrito with beans and rice on the side. The truth is, many of the dishes you see on the menu are far from what the entire culture has to offer. Authentic Mexican food varies significantly from region to region. Let’s take a closer look.
If you’ve visited California, you’ve probably had Cal-Mex cuisine. Food in Baja California isn’t far off, which is why you’ll get fresh fish tacos, grilled lobster and other delicious seafood dishes. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California, Baja is inherently a seafood mecca. It’s also where Caesar salad and margaritas were born.
The western Mexico state takes credit for much of the country’s most acclaimed traditions, including mariachi and tequila. Sitting on the coastline, Jalisco is a rich source of seafood. But it also stretches well into the mountains, where stewed goat and pacholas (meat patties) are commonplace.
Making up about of Mexico’s total acreage, Norteño cuisine is widely diverse. However, this area is best known for its carne asada and other meat dishes. You can also order a burrito, here, and not be laughed out the restaurant.
(Of course, you can always avoid the side eye by making this paleo burrito at home.)
They don’t call Oaxaca “Land of the Seven Moles” for nothing. This culinary epicenter offers more mole variations than you’d know what to do with. Oaxaca is also on the map for its oversized empanadas and tamales.
The state of Puebla is nestled between very different geographical landscapes, which lend an eclectic taste to the Poblano plate. Here, you’ll find meat wrapped in fragrant leaves and roasted with tomatoes, pumpkin seeds sprinkled over everything, chalupas stuffed with cheese and the famous mole poblano.
With over 400 miles of shoreline, Veracruz is famous for its seafood dishes. Perhaps, the most popular is pescado a la veracruzana, a seafood plate with tomatoes, capers and olives. Veracruz cuisine is heavily influenced by African and Caribbean flavors. It’s also been flagged as the birthplace of vanilla.
Throughout Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, you’ll notice African, Caribbean and Middle Eastern influences, as well as a few defining factors. Expect to taste citrus, habaneros, red onions, allspice and achiote (orange-red seeds that give dishes a yellow hue and mild pepperiness).
5 Tips to Order Healthy Mexican Food
If you notice, regional Mexican cuisine is largely based on the type of food available in those areas. You get the best seafood in Baja, because it’s sandwiched between two bodies of water. And that’s precisely why authentic Mexican food is a healthy option. So when you’re eating out, look for fresh, local ingredients, first and foremost. Then, follow these five tips when ordering, and you’ll have no problems enjoying healthy, paleo-friendly Mexican food anywhere you go.
- Read the Menu Carefully. It always helps to take a peek at the menu in advance to save time and confusion. From home, you can research ingredients and have a better idea of exactly what’s on the plate.
- Skip the Chips. When that complementary bowl of salsa hits the table, ask your server for a side of raw veggies. You may not get a full platter of crudité, but they’ll likely have precut celery, bell peppers, jicama and radish on hand. Any crunchy vegetable will do in lieu of fried tortilla chips.
- Stay Full on Fat. To make your appetizer go further, ask for paleo-approved guacamole with your salsa. The healthy fats from avocado will keep you feeling full long after the meal is over. Plus, it’s easier to dip raw veggies into guacamole than salsa.
- Look for Protein and Vegetables. Pick out entrees that feature lean proteins, like chicken and fish, as well as a variety of vegetables. The dish might make grilled veggies the star of the show, or maybe they’re offered as a side salad. Either way is fine, as long as you’re getting a full serving or two in one meal.
- Finish With Fruit. Not only are papaya and pineapple a naturally sweet option for dessert, but both aid in digestion. They provide the digestive enzymes papain and bromelain, respectively, to ensure your body breaks down and absorbs all the healthy nutrients you just consumed.
Healthy Mexican Dishes
If you still find yourself struggling to select healthy Mexican food, stick with one of these reliable options. These dishes are all commonly found on Mexican menus and do a great job of filling you up with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
- Chicken fajitas are a great go-to, especially if you hold the rice and beans. Ask for extra salsa, instead.
- Gazpacho is a chilled tomato-based soup that comes with a spicy kick. It’s a great starter for your meal if veggies and dip aren’t your thing. You can also make this at home with a simple gazpacho recipe.
- Ceviche is a signature Mexican dish that’s made by marinating fresh fish in citrus juice (usually lime). It’s pure seafood with a sprinkle of herbs, making it a perfectly light lunch on a hot summer day.
Explore the range of Mexican restaurants in your neck of the woods, and then gradually broaden your scope. You may even find a variety of regional Mexican cuisine near you that specializes in Yucatan-style cooking or poblano mole. And if not, you can always book a trip to Mexico and experience authentic Mexican food firsthand. With these tips and tricks in mind, you’ll be an expert in spotting healthy Mexican food no matter where your culinary adventures take you!