Best Mexican Restaurants in the U.S.
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.
Tortilleria Nixtamal, Queens, NY
In a city obsessed with its often-validated Mexican food insecurities, there are bright spots. Downtown Bakery, Mesa Coyoacan, and even taco truck El Idolo serve as ample ammunition against the battle cries of natives of California and Texas. But Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens makes the city’s best case. Partner Fernando Ruiz’s restaurant sources produce from Mexico, doesn’t overcomplicate toppings beyond cilantro and onions, serves homemade salsas, and makes its own tortillas from nixtamal (dried corn soaked in lime solution then ground) on machinery hecho en Mexico.
La Taqueria, San Francisco
“The best tacos and burritos in the whole world,” declares the neon sign outside the white Mission-style arches. Bold words? As the expression goes, It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true. La Taqueria has won more than its fair share of converts with its chorizo, lengua, and carnitas tacos as well as rice-free burritos. Come to the Mission District on an empty stomach, and after eating here, you can size up the competition at El Farolito and Taqueria Los Coyotes, popular for its micheladas.
Guelaguetza, Los Angeles
With the 1994 opening of Guelaguetza, the Lopez family introduced Los Angeles to authentic Oaxacan cuisine. Now the number of local Oaxacan restaurants trails only that of Mexico City and Oaxaca, at least according to respected critic Jonathan Gold—and much of that can be attributed to the success of this Koreatown spot. Named for the summertime festival celebrating Mexico’s southwestern region, Guelaguetza is a year-round destination for its tamales, memelas, unstuffed enchiladas, and of course, exquisite moles.
Oyamel, Washington, D.C.
Spanish chef José Andrés is renowned for his dedication to learning other cultures’ cuisines. As he noted earlier in 2013: “It was the galleon ships of Spain’s King Philip II that connected these two worlds hundreds of years ago. Those Spanish ships allowed for an exchange of foods, dishes, stories, and traditions.” He spent time in Mexico before opening Oyamel in 2004. Meals start as they should—with complimentary salsa and chips, made fresh and fried daily. Continue with antojitos (“the little dishes from the streets”), papas al mole, and tacos with handmade tortillas, especially chapulines, the Oaxacan specialty of sautéed grasshoppers.
Las Cuatro Milpas, San Diego
San Diegans know that southern California can claim some of America’s best Mexican food, and Las Cuatro Milpas is a great place to experience it for yourself. Yes, there’s a line. Yes, there’s cafeteria-style service. So what? It’s reasonably priced, the tamales are legendary, and the tortillas fresh. They’re fried and rolled today as the staff here has always done—before it was cool.
Barrio Café, Phoenix
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza pours more than 250 of Mexico’s top-shelf tequilas, but she certainly doesn’t need them to convince customers to frequent her three colorful dining rooms. From queso fundido to pozole verde, shrimp quesadillas to slow-roasted Mayan-style achiote-spiced cochinita pibil tortas, Barrio Café offers authentic Mexican food that has enthralled Arizonans since 2002.
Hugo’s opened in 2002 in a restored Latin-inspired building designed by Joseph Finger (also responsible for the Art Deco–style City Hall) and launched into a diverse regional approach to Mexican food. Chef Hugo Ortega, a finalist for the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, cooks food that’s elegant, inventive, and inspiring. Order the much-heralded lamb barbacoa braised in garlic and chiles then slow-roasted in agave, and, for the name alone, the manchamanteles, described on the menu as the “tablecloth stainer,” a sweet mole stewed pork and chicken dish.
Nuestra Cocina, Portland, OR
Husband-and-wife chefs Benjamin Gonzales and Shannon Dooley-Gonzales have collaborated on a restaurant with peasant-style Mexican cooking in a less-expected corner of the U.S., Southeast Portland. Flavors span the cuisine of Zacatecas in north-central Mexico to those of Vera Cruz on the eastern coast and Tampico to the north. Signature dishes include the tamarind-marinated grilled Mexican prawns, tacos de puerco, sopes de chorizo, cochinita pibil, and puntitas de res en chile chipotle, sautéed beef tips with chipotle, chayote squash, and refried beans.
The Shed, Santa Fe, NM
This lunch institution east of Santa Fe’s plaza has been drawing people into a rambling adobe hacienda since 1953. Is it the red chile cheese enchiladas? The green chile stew with potatoes and pork? The pozole? The lunch-offered charbroiled Shedburger? We vote for all of the above. Dishes benefit from chiles grown on farms in Hatch, NM, and processed daily in the Shed’s own mill. All traditional entrées come with blue corn tortillas, and the cold raspberry soup makes a delightful palate cleanser.
In the land where Tex-Mex is king, Javier’s in Highland Park serves Dallas Mexican, focusing its upscale take on Mexico City fare. There’s mounted game on the walls, lest you forget that you are still in Texas. Javier’s is not necessarily a critic’s darling, yet it’s the go-to choice for locals when they’re tired of the flashy scene at nearby Mi Cocina—and one that’s outlasted many other Mexican upstarts since it opened more than 30 years ago.
Empellón Cocina, New York City
Chef Alex Stupak (formerly of WD-50 and Alinea) has brought more national buzz to New York for Mexican cuisine than anyone else in the past few years. There are now two locations of Empellón, which means “push,” and does indeed push the limits of what’s Mexican. There are seven types of salsa; guacamole is accented by guanciale, sea urchin, and pistachio; and the tacos include fillings like sweetbreads, short rib pastrami, and red snapper sashimi. It all comes together in a menu approach that if not necessarily always successful is fun and avant-garde.
Mezcaleria Oaxaca, Seattle
The Dominguez family runs two of Seattle’s best Mexican restaurants, La Carta de Oaxaca and Mezcaleria Oaxaca. At the latter, try the tortilla chips, which are fried to order and served with guacamole or refried pinto beans, banana-leaf-wrapped chicken, or pork tamales. But matriarch and head chef Gloria Perez has become most famous for her barbacoa de cabrito, chile-marinated and slow-roasted goat served with beans and corn masa.
Television celebrity chefs and quality Mexican food aren’t necessarily a match made en el cielo, but in the case of Food Network’s Chicago-born Ecuadorian Iron Chef Jose Garces’ Distrito, the connection pays off. The somewhat gaudy, pink, loud, huge restaurant is dedicated to the cuisine of Mexico City and serves nachos, ceviches, huaraches, tamales, enchiladas, and moles that Philadelphians recognize as not necessarily authentic, but some of the most satisfying versions on the East Coast regardless.
El Rey Del Taco, Atlanta
Great Mexican food often comes down to the quality of ingredients, namely, handmade tortillas. That’s a selling point of El Rey Del Taco on the Buford Highway, site of many of America’s most underrated culinary gems. Prepare to load up on (what else?) tacos, most notably the beef cheeks (cabeza) and goat (chivo), washed down by a cool glass of horchata.
Babita Mexicuisine, Los Angeles
Chef-owner Roberto Berrelleza serves Nouvelle Mexican cuisine behind a nondescript San Gabriel façade—and the crowded dining room confirms that you shouldn’t judge a restaurant by its menu cover. Berrelleza, who is from the northern Mexican state Sinaloa and who spent a significant amount of his restaurant experience in the front of house before going out on his own, applies a personal touch to his cochinita pibil, filet habanero-glazed camarones “topolobampo,” and chiles en nogada. His autumn-only chile relleno served with dried fruit and pecans is one of the finest renditions stateside.
Fonda San Miguel, Austin, TX
Even though Austin has a serious food reputation, its residents can’t count that many Mexican joints that stand up as the best in the state, or the country. Fonda San Miguel, while now a bit kitschy (having been founded in 1975), does fit the bill, and it anchors the city as its premier Mexican restaurant institution. Opt for the mole poblano or cochinita pibil, and remember, there’s no charge for handmade corn and flour tortillas with entrées. Bring your friends—tables seat up to 20.
Ricky’s Tacos, Los Angeles
More of a street-food vendor than restaurateur, Ricky Piña serves habit-forming Mexican food, no matter where he is—a fact proven recently when he had to stop operating in the Silver Lake parking lot he’d occupied for years. He has since popped up in Chinatown, with no bells or whistles, just fried-to-order pieces of golden-fried shrimp, fish, and (occasionally) lobster. These pieces are so big that he layers them on overlapping flour tortillas with shredded cabbage, crema, and pico de gallo. You can bet that wherever he sets up next will draw taco enthusiasts from around L.A. and across the country.
Since hosting his 26-part PBS series Cooking Mexican in the late ’70s, Oklahoma-born chef Rick Bayless has been a champion of Mexican cuisine in America. He has even won the approval of the Mexican government—in 2012, he was named to the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest distinction awarded to foreigners. Topolo (which shares Frontera’s front door and bar) is his most high-end Mexican offering. Expect painstakingly prepared dishes, such as wood-roasted 28-day-aged prime rib-eye carne asada en mole negro and the overnight slow-roasted cochinita pibil.
La Super Rica Taqueria, Santa Barbara, CA
It’s not much to look at—just a small, one-story white shack with turquoise trim, on a corner with palm tree fronds setting the scene behind it—but this place has the kind of reputation that draws a crowd. The late culinary star Julia Child, who divided her time between Cambridge, MA, and Santa Barbara, mentioned La Super Rica Taqueria on Good Morning America as her favorite taqueria. Some standouts: the Frijol Super-Rica (a bowl of pintos with chiles, bacon, and chorizo); Super-Rica Especial (pork with pasilla chiles); and the tacos de adobado.
Pinche Taqueria, Denver
This Denver taco spot’s name isn’t fit for translation—just think of what you say when you’re moved to be either exceptionally mad or really happy, and you’ll get the idea. You’re likely to be the latter when you visit chef Kevin Morrison’s taqueria. Originally a taco truck, it puts a modern twist on comida de la calle (Mexican street food), along with small-batch tequilas. You’ll want to start with an order of queso fundido con chorizo and homemade chips, but from there it gets more difficult to choose. Carnitas? Pollo a la crema? Asada, lengua, or rajas con crema y maiz? There are also chipotle-and-beer-battered fish tacos and citrus grilled shrimp.
Nido, Oakland, CA
Husband-and-wife team Silvia and Cory McCollow started out by delivering home-cooked meals to publicize their endeavor to go brick-and-mortar, and raised more than $17,000 on Kickstarter to help launch this farm-to-table Mexican restaurant. At Nido, many of the seasonal large and small plates are based on Silvia’s family recipes. Influences span Mexico’s central and Pacific coast, and everything is made in-house daily. At lunchtime, try the cemita, a sandwich typical of Mexico’s Puebla state, pulled chicken and Oaxacan red mole with avocado on a sesame seed roll. Dinner brings dishes like pollo sobado (roasted chipotle-rubbed chicken with sweet potato, cilantro oil, and cinnamon glaze), and chuleta de puerco, a grilled pork chop with spring onion and almond mole.
Talavera, Coral Gables, FL
Chef Oscar del Rivero oversees one of Florida’s best Mexican restaurants, with a menu inspired by seasonal ingredients and the chef’s personal travels to Mexico. Beyond standouts on the everyday menu like queso frito, puntas chipotle, pambazo sliders, there’s a huarache grill prepared a la talla (with mild guajillo chile rub), a different pozole every Thursday, and a “traditional” Caesar salad said to follow the original recipe from Tijuana.
La Casita Mexicana, Los Angeles
Chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu already had the distinction of running one of Los Angeles’s most essential Mexican restaurants before they moved into a neighboring space that allowed them to considerably expand beyond the moles, chilaquiles, enmoladas, and chiles en nogada that made them so popular. The expanded menu and wine list includes bone marrow in adobo, blackberry mole, and an exploration of Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe.
Sanchez Taqueria, Tigard, OR
Portland doesn’t suffer for Mexican food that’s celebrated. Nuestra Cocina, Autentica, and ¿Por Que No?, among others provide proof of that. But for that real taqueria touch, you’ll want to get out of the city, head out on 99W, and stop in at Sanchez Taqueria, a roadside institution since 1999 that declares: “We’re not fancy, we’re delicious!” The house specialty chavindecas—a hard-to-find regional dish from small towns near Mexico City (fresh corn tortillas layered with beans, meat, crema, cabbage, onion, cilantro, avocado, and Cotija)—is enough to inspire a trip to Mexico to search for the next undiscovered thing.
Maxwell Street Market, Chicago
Every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., an otherwise industrial-looking stretch of Desplaines between Roosevelt and Polk streets in the South Loop transforms into one of America’s required destinations for anyone serious about Mexican food. Tarp-covered, plastic-wrapped, makeshift stands draw lines for hours as the cooks stationed behind hot grills press homemade tortillas and dish out all the classics from carne asada, al pastor, and barbacoa to zucchini squash blossoms and huitlacoche. Taqueria la Flor de Mexico, Rubi’s, Manolo's, and Tacos D.F…. there are great spots here, but we’re partial to La Paz. The quesadillas get covered with the meat of your choice, with tons of onions and cilantro, and the super-hot salsa verde leaves you with a wonderfully spicy mess best paired with a medio litro of Mexican Coke.
El Modelo, Albuquerque
Back in 1929, Carmen Garcia began using one of the three rooms of her house as a tortilla factory; she would wake up and make them herself starting at 2 a.m. so that she could sell them for breakfast. She added tamales, then expanded the business with her son in 1945, helping to turn it into the institution it is today. Now owned by Virginia Chittim, El Modelo still makes rave-worthy tortillas and tamales, along with enchiladas, burritos, tostadas, and sopapillas—many of these featuring New Mexico's signature red and green chiles.
El Sarape, Boston
While Boston isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of great Mexican food, El Sarape has been serving from-scratch sauces in its cozy environs since it opened in Braintree in 1988. Highlights include carnitas, grilled pork tenderloin, enchiladas verdes, and the guisado con chile ancho specialty—your choice of chicken or beef with potatoes and onions under a smoky red chile sauce with rice and refried beans, and the chiles rellenos.
Las Teresitas, Minneapolis
Having built and sold four successful locations of his first Mexican foray in Minneapolis, Taco Morelos, Gaspar Perez has retaken the title of the area’s best Mexican with Las Teresitas. In a strip mall in a residential part of South Minneapolis on 34th Avenue, just north of Highway 62, Perez’s Las Teresitas is named for his two Teresas (his mother and daughter) and delivers fantastic Mexican food at prices that seem too good to be true. They’re not. The burritos are huge, the Enchiladas Teresas with green salsa, ranchera, or Mexican mole, win raves, and the nine salsas are the stuff of local legend.
Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery, San Antonio, TX
The neon motto of this San Antonio institution (founded 1941) is We never close. As you wait in the inevitably long line, strolling musicians, famous murals, and Christmas lights set an ever-cheery ambience. The admittedly Tex-Mex-focused menu includes mariscos, combo platters (served with rice and beans, none more than $8.25), and Enchiladas Mui Mexicanas. Mi Tierra delivers a generous, standard-setting experience—and if you’re craving classic deep-fried ice cream, you’ve come to the right place.
Bonito Michoacan, Las Vegas
It may not have the flash of Agave with its pink neon and dramatic décor, or the glitz of Diego Mexican Cuisine in the MGM Grand. But Bonito Michoacan is one of America’s great neighborhood Mexican restaurants for a reason: fresh ingredients, excellent execution, tableside guacamole, and hand-pressed, homemade tortillas. All the basics are covered.