The menu at D.C.’s Oyamel has several pages devoted to drinks, but not a single frozen margarita. Instead, diners can expect limited-edition mezcal, as well as fries in mole sauce and tacos with chapulines (sautéed grasshoppers).
Chef José Andrés’s consistently packed restaurant is proof that our appreciation of the varied regional cuisines of Mexico has come a long way. Such Oaxaca-inspired dishes, once hard to find in the U.S., are increasingly considered mainstream. And while authenticity is prized, some of the country’s most highly regarded chefs have also turned their attention and creativity to Mexican, which has become somewhat of a cuisine célèbre.
Oklahoma-born chef Rick Bayless was an early champion, and his high-end Mexican restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago serves cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted dish typical of the Yucatán Peninsula. In New York, other high-profile chefs like Alex Stupak of Empellón Cocina and April Bloomfield of Salvation Taco are generating buzz for pushing the cuisine’s limits (case in point: guacamole with guanciale, sea urchin, and pistachio).
Still, when it comes to quality Mexican food in the U.S., two forces dominate: California with its fish tacos, super-fresh ingredients, and Mission burritos; and Texas, which spawned Tex-Mex and a more recent crop of more traditional restaurants devoted to, say, Mexico City or Veracruz. Chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s in Houston has been nominated for a 2013 James Beard Award for creations like his lamb barbacoa braised in garlic and chiles then slow-roasted in agave.
At least as coveted as a table at Hugo’s is a tamale from Las Cuatro Milpas, known for long lines in San Diego, or a taco and cool glass of horchata from El Rey Del Taco along Atlanta’s Buford Highway. These favorite Mexican places share a commitment to quality ingredients, tortillas and salsas that are house made, and the right ratio of chiles and complex seasonings—often resulting in a fiery kick.
Check out our picks, and share your go-to Mexican restaurant in the comments below.