What Makes a Mexican Restaurant “Good”?

A visitor buys Mexican pork tacos in 2013 in Berlin.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Answer by Colin Jensen, COO, MBA:

Mexico is vast, so the cuisine varies just as widely. More than 90 percent of the “we don’t have good Mexican food here” comments I’ve ever heard come from people who are used to eating the food from right below California and end up at a restaurant run by a guy who’s from right below Texas. It’s like hearing San Franciscans say, “There’s no good Chinese food in New York,” when they really mean New York Chinese people are more likely to be from mainland versus Hong Kong, or Chicagoans saying, “There’s no good pizza in Los Angeles.” No, they’re just different styles, and all just as “authentic.”

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “authentic” is “good”—again, talk to any friend who’s been to China expecting a magical version of the Chinese food he or she gets in San Francisco  then realizes the billion-person continent doesn’t have a single taste he or she recognizes. Ditto with Mexican: You may dig a good burrito, but that doesn’t mean you’re more lower class than someone who puts mole on his Wheaties. (And it sure doesn’t mean “they don’t have burritos in Mexico.”)

Ask your waiter where the cuisine, chef, or owners are from. If she doesn’t know, that’s a sign. If she has an answer, you’ll have a lens through which to interpret the food. I’d say you can’t in any way review a Mexican restaurant without knowing whether you’re eating Guanajuatan or Zacatecan food, which are bordering states but night-and-day different in terms of cuisine.

Notice in this map how much where you’re from affects your definition of Mexican food—including all the universals like tacos, tostadas, or guacamole hail from the Central Plains area (including some of the urban areas where the population can greater afford to migrate to the U.S. and open “authentic” restaurants.)

Three quick rules of thumb:

  1. In the west you’ll be eating shredded cheese; in the east you’ll be eating queso oaxaca, which to you will look like squeeze cheese or melted velveeta. (Oaxaca is pronounced wa-HAKA, almost like the Maori dance, and as you’ll notice Oaxaca is a state in the easternmost third of the country.)
  2. In the west the refried beans will be chunky; in the east they’ll be pureed. 
  3. In the west the rolled-up round thing is called a burrito; in much of the east it’s called a quesadilla.  

Each of those variables end up as springboards for bad reviews on Yelp, but in real life they’re just different cuisines. Pureed beans and moist cheese means Taco Bell to a Californian. So look at the map and realize that if you’re from San Francisco, probably all your “good” or “normal” restaurants are owned by people from Baja and Sonora, and all your “authentic” restaurants are owned by people from Jalisco or Michoacan. If you’re from East Texas, good-for-locals is Zacatecas, good-for-guests is Guanajuato, and half your Mexican friends will only eat at the chains because that’s how their mothers cooked.

How can I tell if I’m at a good Mexican restaurant? originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: