From tiny holes-in-the-wall to mom-and-pop joints to upscale tortilla temples, great Mexican joints take many shapes and sizes -- but no matter where you go, you'll find the same warm, inviting... tortillas. And smiles too, though that's less important.
So, to pay homage to those Mexican restaurants out there that are doing it right (outside of killer nachos and burritos), we compiled this handy list of the 21 best in the country. There are no tacos-only places here -- just spots where you can kick back, relax, enjoy a good margarita or three, and have some of the best damn Mexican food of your life. Read on, amigo:
What you're getting: Pescado Veracruzana
This seaside, Mexican village-inspired grill not only has a killer view of the San Francisco Bay, but it’s also making full use of the bounty of the surrounding sea in its authentic dishes, like one of the best whole fishes (Pescado Veracruzana) you can find North of the Border. You can watch the ferries come into Tiburon’s harbor out on their extensive patio space, and steer their signature sizzling fajitas to your own personal harbor (your mouth) along with any one (or more) drinks from their extensive margarita list.
What you're getting: Lengua tacos
About three years ago, a food truck named Pinche Tacos would always attract eye-popping lines whenever they'd park around Denver. Luckily for Denver (and humanity), they changed the name, opened two brick-and-mortar locations over the course of a few years, and added an arsenal of small-batch tequilas with which to pair their already legendary tacos (and tostadas and appetizers). And, oh, the tacos. A mouth-watering sweet-and-sour pork belly "agridulce." A triple-cooked crispy lengua along with avocado, tomatillo salsa, and guajillo honey mayo. A shrimp & scallop joint with avocado crema and lime. The restaurant claims they're all "pinche good," and they ain't lying.
New York, NY
What you're getting: Melted tetilla cheese with lobster
The folks behind Empellón already distinguished themselves in the NYC Mexican scene with their exemplary taqueria, but when they opened their second location, Empellón Cocina, in the East Village, they took their game to a whole other level. The classy, white brick interior provides a potent backdrop to their colorful array of small plates (think Manila clams with chorizo rojo and toasted vermicelli noodles), tacos, and a serious selection of salsas and moles, like their much-lauded pistachio guac. Head Chef Alex Stupak, formerly of Wylie Dufresne’s molecular gastronomy powerhouse WD~50, obviously knows what he’s doing.
What you're getting: Any three items off the tasting menu
If you try and make a list of the best Mexican restaurants in America and don’t include Rick Bayless’s modern Mexican kitchen Topolobampo, you’re closing your eyes to what is one of the most innovative restaurants in America, period -- Bayless has spent extensive amounts of time all across Mexico, finding new inspirations for truly loco dishes that are grouped on his menu back home in categories like “Vibrant,” “Complex,” and “Ancient.” The dishes -- other than those select adjectives, duh -- defy categorization, and can be paired with any of the same drinks (read: awesome margaritas) that're available at their neighboring restaurant, Frontera.
Santa Barbara, CA
What you're getting: Tacos de adobado, a horchata
A Santa Barbara institution for many years, La Super-Rica is well-known for being one of the haunts of culinary legend Julia Child -- in fact, she publicized the fact that it was her favorite Mexican restaurant. Her influence can still be felt there today, both in the quality of the food (an enormous menu of tacos, tamales, and refreshing Mexican drinks like horchata) and in the sheer length of the line that can often stretch to 30 minutes or more to get in the door. Once you finally cross the threshold, there isn’t much room to sit, but that won’t stop you from enjoying the gorgeous, simplistic authenticity of their tacos de adobado. It sure didn’t stop Julia.
What you're getting: El Charro Carne Seca
No other Mexican restaurant can boast as much historical excellence as El Charro Cafe, which was opened back in 1922 and is the oldest one in continuous operation by the same family -- and they also invented the effin' chimichanga. They're known for their carne seca (dried beef), which is literally dried in a cage on top of the restaurant, but you can’t go wrong with any of their enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas, all of which are made with the same aplomb that defined them over 90 years ago. The service here is impeccable, too -- obviously, there are more than a few reasons why they’ve been in business for so long.
What you're getting: Cochinta Pibil
Offering a casually upscale take on the Central Mexican cuisine is one of the OGs of Portland’s Division Street restaurant boom, which has transformed the quiet hood into one of the country’s premiere dining oases. With a sprawling patio and an impressively curated tequila selection, the place’s casual, open-kitchen vibe belies some seriously authentic, lovingly prepared food. The cochinta pibil’s pork is like meaty butter, while the asada eschews the typical gristle for high-end farm-direct meat, and the barbacoa gets spiced up with lamb and banana leaf. It's Mexican comfort food taken to the next level, making it a Rose City essential.
San Francisco, CA
What you're getting: The pozole rojo, and the birria de res
The story is a bit of a legend at this point. Popular North of Panhandle upscale restaurant Nopa opened in 2006, and the owners were so impressed with the staff meals two of its Mexican cooks would prepare that they wanted to open a restaurant completely dedicated to that style of cooking. And so, since 2009, Nopalito (which now has a second location in the Inner Sunset) has offered up just that, showcasing hella popular delicious eats like birria de res (beef stewed in ancho chile, roasted tomatoes, sesame seeds, spices, and all sorts of other delicious stuff) and a pozole rojo, which will make you weep with the joyous taste of tender pork shoulder. Prepare to wait (pro tip: call ahead to get on the waiting list), and then prepare to be so, so, so damn happy.
What you're getting: Carne asada
A couple of years ago, Meso Maya took over the century-old building that was once Dallas's first outdoor dining patio. Today, chef Nico Sanchez's Central Mexican menu runs the gamut from wood-grilled carne asada and elotes to budin Azteca, which is a sort of steak-stuffed, mole-laden Mexican lasagna. Their tequila selection is best counted by the dozen, and there's plenty of tequila-drenched food offerings as well. Added bonus! A walk-up window out back serves nothing but tacos.
What you're getting: Cochinita pibil
This local artist graffiti mural-bedecked Mexican cafe in Phoenix was founded by four-time James Beard Award nominee Silvana Salcido Esparza, and she runs it with a finesse and expertise rarely seen in the culinary world. The relatively badass aesthetic of the place (mostly generated by its chef) belies a menu of carefully crafted comfort foods, chief among them their cochinita pibil: 12-hour slow-roasted pork marinated in achiote and sour orange, and topped with pickled red onion and Yucatan-style pico de gallo. Oh, and their guacamole has also won awards.
San Francisco, CA
What you're getting: The "Tinga" Tostadas and a Hamaicon
After opening restaurants in Guadalajara, chef Jorge Martinez and his wife Lorena came to the Mission District, opened Loló, became a success, and expanded into a bigger, brighter space this past year. What makes Martinez’s food great is that he’s not afraid to mess with classics (after all, his claim is that they’re cooking up Jaliscan-Californian cuisine), but only because he and his staff are so damn talented they can pull it off. When you go, be sure and get the chicken confit “tinga” tostadas, the handmade quesadillas with melty Oaxaca cheese, and the ALa Diabla shrimp. And then maybe head to David Gallardo and Leon Vasquez’s extremely impressive mezcal-heavy agave bar for a cocktail (we’re partial to the Hamaicon), or six.
What you're ordering: Elote (Mexican street corn)
Austin's full of amazingly cheesy Tex-Mex joints (in a good way!), but La Condesa isn't one of them. Located downtown on the recently christened Willie Nelson Blvd, La Condesa is named after a hip Mexico City neighborhood and dishes out forward-thinking takes on traditional interior Mexican flavors. Smaller plates like Mexican street corn and yellowfin tostadas make it one of the best happy hour deals in town, you can taste every minute that goes into the three-day mole sauce, and the cocktail program goes far beyond basic margs with their signature El Cubico: a smoky tobacco-infused reposado concoction rimmed with volcanic saffron-infused salt.
Palm Springs, CA
What you're getting: Sweet corn tamales, shredded chicken quesadilla
If you ever wanted to eat delicious Mexican food in a drug kingpin's Jalisco mansion without having to 1) go to Jalisco, or 2) know a drug kingpin, head to Palm Springs' Las Casuelas Terraza. This place is a sprawling, zillion-person-seating compound that doesn't just have a great patio, but rather DOZENS of great patios. Their margaritas are some of the biggest and strongest in the desert and have been for nearly 70 years -- Las Casuelas opened in the '50s and was THE FIRST MEXICAN RESTAURANT IN THE DESERT. The "What you're getting" part of this entry is kind of silly considering there isn't anything you shouldn't be -- they use family recipes brought from Mazatlan, and -- for 15 years now -- have been hand-making batches of incredible sweet corn tamales every day. That's a lot of damn tamales.
What you're getting: Red chile ribs
Located on 12 scenic acres in Albuquerque and featuring a whopping five patios and 140+ tequilas, El Pinto is a super-sized Mexican restaurant. And as if that wasn't enough, they've also got an adjoining salsa factory that whips up 24,000 jars per day, including the one you ordered for your tortilla chips. Decked out in colorful kitsch, and set in a beautiful valley away from the city proper, El Pinto is the perfect place to kick back, relax, eat some chile-rubbed ribs, and let the margaritas flow.
What you're getting: Any one of their guacamoles
Stephen Starr is no stranger to the restaurant business, having opened several in Philadelphia and beyond. But perhaps his strangest, funkiest, and most intriguing restaurant is Philly's El Vez -- a large, vibrant space filled with photo booths, velour, and some of the best damn Mexican you can find Stateside. They have an almost dauntingly exhaustive guacamole menu and several innovative margaritas, like the Pineapple Canela with Sauza Blue and pineapple puree.
What you're getting: The Frijoladas Oaxaquenas and the Campechanos tacos
With all due respect to Ole and Casa Romero, El Centro (the original one in the South End, please) is far and away the best Mexican food in Boston, a city that has always struggled to find its South of the Border footing. Highlights from Sonoran native chef/owner Allan Rodriguez’s menu include a classic charcoal grilled “Sonora style” Arrachera A La Tampiquena steak (best served with the green sauce), and the Campechanos tacos, which combine carne asada and al pastor. Combine either of those with the Frijoladas Oaxaquenas to start (essentially tortillas filled with cheese, covered in black-bean sauce, salsa, and guac), and you’ll leave happy, if you can get out of your chair.
What you're getting: Pescado Zarandeado
This absolutely unassuming room-with-a-patio in a part of LA that rappers once described as "up to no good" may be the last place you'd expect to find some of the region's best Mexican food, but that's exactly what you're going to get here -- so long as you're not expecting "Mexican" food like burritos or nachos. Instead, the chef travels regularly South of the Border and brings back ultra-fresh seafood for super-legit ceviches, smoked marlin tacos, and a whole-cooked snook served alongside stewed onions and tortillas that's one of Los Angeles's best dishes of any kind.
Santa Fe, NM
What you're getting: Blue corn enchiladas
Since it was opened by Maria and Gilbert Lopez in 1952, Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen of Santa Fe has been dishing out spicy, homestyle Mexican cooking to the masses in the form of incredible posole (transcendent chile broth with pork and hominy), enchiladas, and honey-dripped sopapillas for dessert. But they’re also extremely enthusiastic about their margarita program, and with good reason -- they’ve got a menu of over 100 of them, perfect for either a hot New Mexico day or a cool New Mexico night… or anything in-between. Hell, you’ve got 24 hours to fill.
Solana Beach, CA
What you're getting: Turkey tacos
Tony's Jacal has been a family-owned local favorite since 1946, when it first started shelling (!!) out tacos, mole, and chile verde. The restaurant has expanded since then, but the menu still operates under the same standard of excellence it did way back when. Oh, and that menu? It's a multi-page affair, featuring pretty much every authentic dish under the sun. If you've still got room after your tequila... and nachos... and pork, try the flan.
San Antonio, TX
What you're getting: Fish tacos
Restaurateur Lisa Wong's culinary experience began at the tender age of 18, when she opened her first restaurant. Since then, she's gone on to open a few more, though the crown jewel of her collection is Rosario's, which has been voted the best restaurant in San Antonio in a variety of categories, including best Mexican restaurant. Wong has honed her craft to churn out consistently high-quality authentic Latin dishes, and at Rosario's, the fish is the move -- try it in their tacos or ceviche. Can't go wrong with shrimp nachos, either.
What you're getting: Chile en nogada
This East Williamsburg gem grew out of chef Ivan Garcia’s fond remembrance of his neighborhood in Mexico City, and it shows in their homestyle cooking -- the menu is equal parts Mexican street food and recipes Ivan has adapted from his Grandmother’s immeasurable culinary knowledge. Their elote (grilled corn with cheese and spices) and guacamole are top-notch, but the real specialty is their chiles en nogada: a poblano pepper stuffed with pork, chicken, pears, peaches, apples, and almonds, all of which is covered in a walnut sauce. And don’t skip the brunch, dummy!
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Adam Lapetina is a food/drink staff writer at Thrillist, and did a lot of Mexican food research for this article. By which he means eating elotes. And also actual research. Read his musings on Twitter at @adamlapetina.