How Mexican Food Differs Across the Southwest

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Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in America. From tacos and burritos to nachos and lip-smacking margaritas, Mexican restaurants across the country offer a wide variety of tasty dishes inspired by our southern neighbor. But did you know that much of the Mexican food you find in the U.S. has been Americanized, and some of it isn’t even Mexican at all?

The nachos that we know today have Mexican origins — a hotel manager named Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya is credited with creating the simple snack for some hungry after-hours customers — but the version featuring tortilla chips piled high with toppings and coated in a gooey, orange cheese is strictly an American invention. And the margarita isn’t actually a traditional Mexican cocktail; it was created accidentally by an Irish bartender in Tijuana. In fact, it’s much more common to order a paloma (tequila and grapefruit soda) south of the border than a tangy margarita.

We can all agree that Mexican food is delicious, but whether or not you’re eating authentic Mexican food is up for debate. The style of Mexican fare you’re eating also differs depending on where you live in the country. Here’s how Mexican food varies across different states in the Southwest. Some of these differences might surprise you.

California

Fish and shrimp tacos, Baja California style seafood.
Credit: Robert Briggs/ Shutterstock

As a Mexican border state home to a large Hispanic population, California is a hub for delicious Mexican food. However, although the state’s cuisine has been heavily influenced by its neighbor south of the border, California has also given traditional Mexican cuisine a fresh twist of its own.

Cal-Mex food is on the lighter side compared to Mexican-inspired dishes in other states, which prominently feature heavy sauces and meats, and favors more subtle spiciness. California is the land of avocados, making avocado-based sauces and guacamole a standard part of most Cal-Mex meals.

With a favorable climate and booming agriculture, California grows an abundance of its own organic produce, much of which is incorporated into Cal-Mex cuisine. It’s common for fruits like mangos, papayas, and melons to make surprise appearances and lend a splash of citrus to dishes.

Cal-Mex cuisine also features an ample amount of seafood. With a robust commercial fishing industry, the incorporation of shrimp, mahi-mahi, snapper, and other seafood into Cal-Mex fare isn’t surprising. Baja fish tacos are very popular (usually topped with a creamy avocado sauce) and fish and shrimp make their way into everything from burritos to quesadillas at most restaurants.

Texas

A view of a plate of enchiladas in a restaurant.
Credit: The Image Party/ Shutterstock

Hearty, spicy, and satisfying, Tex-Mex cuisine is sure to fill you up. Tex-ified Mexican food favors red sauces, hearty protein like steak, pork chorizo, and ground beef and tends to be heavy-handed when it comes to spiciness. “Smothered in cheese” also takes on a whole new meaning in the Lone Star State, with dishes topped with quadruple servings of mouth-watering melted cheese.

Texas is responsible for several famous dishes that are typically categorized as Mexican, but are actually American versions of the traditional cuisine. The change in authentic Mexican cuisine began in the mid-19th century during the push for western expansion. With the influx of white settlers, current Texas residents (many of whom were Mexican) started to adapt their cooking to fit the European palate.

Ground beef, black beans, cheddar cheese, and flour tortillas (as opposed to traditional maize-based ones) were introduced — four major ingredients in Tex-Mex food that aren’t typically used across the border. So, what is classified as Tex-Mex food? Nachos with their heaping toppings and melted yellow cheese, chili con carne, and tortilla-and-meat-laden fajitas are purely Texan takes on Mexican food.

New Mexico

Cheese stuffed poblano peppers with tomato rice, beans and a tomato sauce.
Credit: LauriPatterson/ iStock

New Mexican cuisine is not only influenced by Anglo-American culture, but also by the many Indigenous peoples who call the state home. During colonization, Native Americans’ use of squash, corn, beans, and chili peppers merged with the Spaniards’ preference for cheese and beef, and the New Mexican fare we know today was born. A perfect example of the Mexican-Native American collaboration is the side dish calabacitas, a vegetable medley made from zucchini, corn, and peppers, which is also known as succotash.

When it comes to authentic New Mexican food, hatch green chiles are the Land of Enchantment's most ubiquitous ingredient. If there’s a will to use these peppers in a particular dish, there’s a way — eateries in New Mexico serve everything from hatch green chile apple pie to green chile and pepperoni pizza. Green chile-based salsas and sauces lend a spicy-smoky flavor and are used to drench everything from enchiladas to burritos at restaurants.

This trend of serving dishes “wet” makes the meat and tortilla soft and tender, but you’ll definitely want to ask for a side of napkins. Chile rellenos (which literally means “stuffed chile”) originated in the Mexican state of Puebla outside of Mexico City and the dish is commonly served throughout New Mexico.

While the use of green chiles in New Mexico is an authentic Mexican tradition, there are certainly some Americanized renditions as well. The most obvious one is the combination of green chile with a good old-fashioned cheese burger — a practice that’s made New Mexico and its Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail a famous tourist attraction. Green chile aside, New Mexican food revolves around beef and chicken enchiladas, tamales, and carne adovada (spicy marinated pork).

Arizona

Traditional Mexican nopal cactus tacos with cheese on wooden background.
Credit: carlosrojas20/ iStock

The Mexican state of Sonora borders Arizona, and many of the state’s immigrants hail from the region, bringing with them a particular style of cooking that shapes Southwestern Mexican dishes. Sonoran-style food is known for its fresh ingredients and simplicity. You won’t find a lot of fussy extras here — just good quality, hearty food.

In contrast to the rest of Mexico, Sonoran-style Mexican food favors flour tortillas as opposed to corn. Authentic Sonoran tortillas are handmade on a griddle and burned to perfection for a charred flavor. Even if you prefer corn tortillas, you might want to give the flour variety a shot in Arizona.

Due to the plentiful amount of cattle ranches in Arizona, beef is the protein of choice and it’s often flame-grilled over mesquite to give it an intense, earthy flavor. Machaca burro, a burrito stuffed with slow-cooked beef and little else, is a reflection of the state’s meat-heavy diet. Similar to New Mexico, green chiles are used frequently, as is squash, but it’s the prickly pear cactus that sets Arizona apart from the rest.

The thought of eating a prickly cactus, known as nopales, might not sit well at first, but the spines are carefully removed and the pad prepared in such a way that highlights the desert plant’s unique tart flavor and texture. The use of nopales dates back to the ancient Aztec Empire. Prickly pear cactus tacos are a must-try when in Arizona.

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