In Canada, it was always fun to try and find ‘authentic’ Mexican food. Everyone generally acknowledged that ‘Taco Bell’ just doesn’t cut it when it comes to the true taste of Mexico. ‘Authentic’ choices were few and far between. Let’s be honest: The so-called ‘nacho cheese’ sold in glass jars in Canada is completely misleading as being representative of Mexican food. (Ironically, here in Mexico, grocery stores market processed cheese slices as ‘queso Americano’. I guess they had to blame SOMEBODY for that terrible fake plastic cheese.)
Mexican Dining Choices
So what is the true taste of Mexico? Being a much older culture than Canada, Mexico has developed foods that are very specific to each region. Locals we’ve talked to here always make it clear that the flavour differences (and even ingredients) between northern and southern Mexico are worlds apart. Larger urban centers, like Queretaro, have a tendency to bridge that gap by offering types of food from many of the regions of the country, which for the traveller is a rare opportunity to sample the gastronomic delights of most of the country without leaving the city.
For most people from Canada, one thing comes to mind when they think Mexican: Tacos. While this may sound a tad stereotypical, tortilla factories can be found on almost every street here in Queretaro. These establishments not only produce their own tortillas, but often serve full meals where the corn or flour-based patties figure prominently. Typical fillings for tortillas here include shredded meats (pork, beef and chicken being most popular), pico de gallo, and, of course, hot salsas.
Tortillas are so popular, that if a location has a good taste, it isn’t uncommon to see a queue that stretches out the door during peak times as people wait for a table. A friend recently told me that his family was alarmed when the empty house next to theirs had new owners move in. The new neighbours drove flashy, expensive cars, were well dressed and had a lot of people in and out of the property. Their first thought was that narcos (drug dealers) had moved in next door. Then they learned that the guy owned a chain of very popular taquerias in the city. That explained everything! Tortillas are big business here.
A general rule in Mexico is: Avoid the empty restaurant. The locals figure out pretty quickly if a place has good food, so paying attention to the size of the crowd and doing as they do is good culinary policy. It might also save you from getting sick, especially during the hottest season. If food doesn’t turn over quickly, it is sitting in the heat and breeding bacteria that will wreak havoc on your gut later. A busy eatery is the best way to go, even if it means waiting a while to get a table.
Cosmopolitan Queretaro Dining
Queretaro is quickly becoming a major cosmopolitan center in Mexico, probably second only to Mexico City. As a result, the food has been changing a lot over the past few years, as the demand for different foods increases as people migrate here from other parts of Mexico. Add to this the growing community of foreigners, and vendors in the city offer up whatever is popular.
The city has pretty much every class of restaurant you can imagine. All of the American fast-food chains are here, including McDonalds, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Church’s Chicken, Carl’s Jr., etc. Ironically, these are often the more expensive dining choices in the city, counting on the ‘American appeal’ factor to draw in wealthy Mexicans who think eating there will make them more American. (It probably does too, at least on their waistlines.)
At the other end of the scale are small restaurants called ‘corrida comidas’. This roughly translates as ‘quick food’, as everything is ready to serve, meaning you can be in and out for lunch inside an hour. Most places only start serving the specialized menu at 1 PM, as Mexican lunch time is observed later than in Canada or the US.
These ‘corrida comidas’ are usually little hole-in-the-wall family operated establishments that often have only 10 or 12 tables and feature what would be considered ‘typical’ Mexican home cooking. It is very popular with working people, who can get a full meal for a reasonable price. The meal always features a soup to start (usually a savoury, clear chicken broth with shredded chicken and diced vegetables), either seasoned rice or pasta as a second course, followed by a main course that features a meat of your choice as well as refried beans and salad. Dessert is included, but it is usually something simple like fruit gelatin or sliced strawberries. A pitcher of fruit flavoured water is usually also included in the price. The price ranges anywhere from $45 pesos (about $3.15 CAD at places near the universities catering to students) up to $85 pesos (or $5.95 CAD) in more trendy areas of the city. For the value, a corrida comida can’t be beat!
Queretaro has pretty much any class of restaurant you can hope for. I’ve recently enjoyed a nearby Brazilian restaurant (Ricon do Brasil) that includes unlimited grilled meats and a full salad bar. Other favorites include a pizza place that happens to have great chicken dishes and pasta (never tried their pizza, ironically) and a trendy eatery (Maniatica) that features both traditional Mexican fare as well as more international food, served in a more upscale dining room.
There are specific protocols a visitor should be aware of when dining in Mexico. For example, unless you specifically ask for the bill (“la cuenta, por favor”) you will never get it! Mexicans consider it very rude to present the bill for dinner until you ask for it. Tipping for service is common, but is usually considerably less than in Canada – usually 10% of the bill is appreciated.
One of my favorite things about dining in Mexico is having other diners smile at you and say ‘provecho‘ as they pass your table. This is kind of like saying ‘enjoy your meal’, or ‘bon appetit’ and seems to be a common courtesy. To me, this typifies the Mexican outlook on life.
Mexicans are kind, friendly people. Their casual and relaxed approach to food and dining really comes through. Sitting at a streetside cafe and enjoying something tasty while people-watching is a great pastime in this city, which I am learning to appreciate more each day. As I get more comfortable with the lifestyle and culture of the country, I look forward to exploring many more culinary options in the weeks and months ahead.
Now, after working through this article, why not go to the fridge and get yourself a tasty snack? Provecho!