Header images: Tulum; Tequila; tacos from La Carmelita
Gradually shedding its violent reputation, Tijuana has undergone a huge transformation in recent years and is developing into a foodie destination in its own right. From mouth-watering tuna tostadas at Navio to fresh oysters and cocktails at La Justina, there are heaps of great restaurant dining options and plentiful street-food offerings. Popular food truck collective Telefonica Gastropark is home to first-class choices including La Carmelita and Ta’costeño.
Chile en nogada at La Carmelita, Tijuana
Tijuana trivia: The world-famous Caesar salad was created here at Caesar’s, where legend has it that in 1940 chef Livo Santini whipped up a salad with the only ingredients he could find – among them lettuce, egg and croutons – for a group of pilots. Now visitors can dine at Caesar’s and take part in a grand salad-making performance at the table.
Road trip: If you’ve exhausted all the options in Tijuana, hop across the border to Bracero in San Diego, or take a road trip to Valle de Guadalupe’s Wine Route further south on the Baja California peninsula.
Chef tip: Diego Hernández Baquedano, the chef-restaurateur behind Corazón de Tierra in nearby Valle de Guadalupe, claims Tijuana has the best tacos in Mexico. He recommends the tuna fin taco with blood sausage at La Cahua del Yeyo, or the Tijuana-style seafood creations at Tacos Walter.
One of the northernmost cities in Mexico, it’s no surprise Monterrey is heavily influenced by the USA, with 7-Elevens on practically every corner and other American chains in abundance. But there’s also plenty of superb original Mexican food to be had in this vast city, home to the largest public square in the world: the beautiful Gran Plaza with its views of the surrounding mountains.
Monterrey mountain view at Pangea
Key attractions: Chipinque ecological park has great mountain biking and walking routes with beautiful views and spectacular fauna, while Museo Marco has interesting exhibitions, including a permanent collection featuring paintings by Frida Kahlo and Julio Galán.
What to eat: Guillermo González Beristáin, chef-owner of Pangea in Monterrey, recommends a breakfast of Mexican ‘migas’ with eggs, barbecued beef head and pork skin tacos at Señor Latino. For lunch, try the dried beef ‘meteorite’ starter at Koli or the beef cheek with golden sweetbreads at La Embajada.
Chef tip: Beristáin cites the “spectacular” almond croissants at BreAd bakery, also home to excellent coffee and some of the best freshly baked loaves in the world.
Mexico’s second-largest city by population is fast-becoming a food hub. On every corner you’ll find the signature local tortas ahogadas, hog roast strips in bread with beans and a tomatoey sauce with spices. Also try traditional pozole stew from any fonda – small restaurants or pub-like taverns found throughout Mexico.
Tequila, Jalisco state
Restaurant recommendations: Top picks include Lula Bistro for Irish chef Darren Walsh’s tasting menu in a beautiful domed-roof dining room; La Docena for incredible oysters; Alcalde for chef Francisco Ruano’s celebration of local ingredients; and Hueso (meaning ‘bones’) for excellent margaritas and mussels in a fascinating interior adorned wall-to-wall with animal bones.
Did someone say tequila? Mexico’s most internationally recognised drink was born from the blue agave plant near the city of Tequila, 65km northwest of Guadalajara, in Jalisco state. Whilst in the area, it would be rude not to take a three-day tequila tour to sample the original beverage and learn the history of the drink.
Road trip: Time your visit with a road trip to Guanajuato in the neighbouring state of the same name. It’s worth the three-hour drive to walk around the stunningly colourful, peaceful town.
Chef tip: Francisco Ruano of Alcalde, recommends Tortas de la Bicicleta and Tortas del Profe for the best tortas ahogadas in town.
Perhaps the most colourful city in Mexico, Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-HA-ca) is famous for its colonial buildings and beautiful old town, as well as artisanal produce and markets selling everything from chilli-crusted grasshoppers to spiced hot chocolate. Leave room in your suitcase for chunky tablets of flavoursome Oaxaca chocolate.
Pujol's baby corn with chicatana ants
Edible insects: Oaxaca is home to some of the country’s most nutritious and delicious bugs, including the chinicul or gusano rojo (red worm), honeypot ants and the famous chapulines (grasshoppers). At his restaurant Pujol in Mexico City, chef Enrique Olvera serves chicatana flying ants – only available once or twice a year from the area – in a hollowed-out gourd with baby corn, coffee and costeño chilli mayonnaise. For insects in fine dining form, visit Casa Oaxaca.
Road trip: The coast of Oaxaca state offers some of the finest beaches in Mexico and the drive from the city is spectacular, so head to Puerto Escondido or Mazunte for a relaxing break. Just don’t forget to pack the travel sickness pills for the winding roads.
Chef tip: Daniela Soto-Innes, chef de cuisine at modern Mexican restaurant Cosme in New York, recommends Mi Tierra Linda in Zimatlan, a family restaurant next to the local market, just outside Oaxaca city, where chef Juana Amaya serves a daily-changing menu.
A top choice for Mexicans and overseas travellers shunning the nearby tourist resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Tulum is a super-relaxed beach resort on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan peninsula. While it’s best known for the stunning 13th century Mayan ruins overlooking the sea, it is also home to increasingly good dining options and chic boutique hotels.
Tuna ceviche from Hartwood (image: Gentl & Hyers, from the Hartwood cookbook)
Dining options: Endorsed by none other than Noma’s René Redzepi, Hartwood is the place to visit in this iconic paradise beach resort. Chef Eric Werner serves up vibrantly coloured dishes such as wood-fired roasted grouper collar and tuna ceviche with ruby red tiger’s milk marinade in a thoroughly chilled-out setting. Papaya Playa is another great beachside option.
See the sunrise: For an unforgettable experience, it’s well worth getting up early to watch the sunrise from Playa Pescadores and see the boats getting ready to go to sea.
Chef tip: Eric Werner of Hartwood recommends Taqueria Honorio for suckling pig tacos with creamy horchata. “It’s one of my favourite places in the morning before work.”