September 15 signals the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, which recognizes Americans from Spanish-speaking and Latin American nations who have made invaluable contributions to U.S. society and culture. And what better way to celebrate than by digging into one of their greatest gifts of all—Latin American cuisine?
Hispanic food continues to influence and inspire the country’s diverse culinary landscape. However, while Mexican cuisine certainly dominates the restaurant world, there’s far more to the genre (and even Mexican food itself) than just burritos and margaritas. From arepas to pupusas to ropa vieja, these 10 iconic Hispanic dishes are worth celebrating all year long.
Over time, mole has taken on a transcendent role in Mexican cuisine. The rich, complex sauce, which is made from a variety of ingredients including chiles, herbs and spices, tomatoes, dried fruits, and thickeners, has become one of those iconic dishes that prove whether or not a Mexican chef has chops—which is ironic, considering the fact that its endless flavor combinations and iterations means no two are exactly alike. The mole served at Pujol, Enrique Olvera’s flagship restaurant in Mexico City, has, like the chef himself, become legendary. You’ll find some semblance of that same genius at his NYC outpost, Cosme, in dishes like blowfish with yellow mole and duck enmoladas with red mole and creme fraiche.
No Peruvian restaurant menu is truly complete without lomo saltado—a stir-fry of sliced beef, onions, tomatoes, and french fries that’s typically served over rice. Tanta, a Peruvian restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood currently run by Lima-born executive chef Gastón Acurio, is a fabulous place to taste this comfort-food dish in a high-end way. Whatever you do, be sure to leave room for their alfajores, a type of Argentinian sandwich cookie with dulce de leche filling.
Sure, you can find your typical bakery items like croissants and raisin bread at Zaguán, but this Dallas café’s claim to fame is of the savory kind. Arepas, popular across South America but particularly in Colombia and Venezuela, are a type of flat, hollowed-out corn cake that’s been grilled or griddled and stuffed with things like cheese, meat, vegetables, or a combination of the three. Zaguán lets you choose as many ingredients as you’d like to fill yours, ranging from egg and prosciutto to guacamole, shredded beef, and even sweet plantains. Cachapas—Venezuela’s sweet version of arepas that act more like pancakes—are another shop speciality made from corn and typically folded over fillings like cream cheese or mozzarella.
Corn on the cob is now an American summer staple, but elote—cooked sweet corn—is enjoyed south of the border year-round. Famously sold by street vendors across Mexico, this on-the-go snack is typically served on a stick or directly on the cob and slathered with a spicy blend of crema, mayonnaise, chili powder, and grated cheese. The deconstructed version served at Vecina, in Phoenix—a 2020 James Beard Award nominee for Best New Restaurant—is an absolute must-try. Their elevated take on the street snack is roasted over mesquite wood in an Aztec Grill, slathered in house-made chorizo butter, sprinkled with a heady mix of toasted chiles and cotija, and served alongside a citrusy crema made with lime, garlic, and cilantro. Is your mouth watering yet?
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As far as Salvadoran cuisine is concerned, it doesn’t get more traditional than the pupusa—a handmade corn tortilla that’s been officially named the country’s national dish. Similar to an arepa, a pupusa acts as a vessel for enjoying a mix of ingredients like chopped meat, cheese, and beans. Outside of El Salvador itself, one of the best versions you’ll enjoy in the states is served at El Tamarindo in Washington, D.C. For more than three decades, this Mexican-Salvadoran family-owned restaurant has been griddling pupusas (and a host of other Salvadoran snacks like sweet plantains and tamales) from a menu that hasn’t changed much since the 80s. There are nine pupusa flavor combinations on the menu including traditional pork and cheese as well as the more vegetarian-friendly pinto bean.
It’s no secret who runs the show at Hugo’s. Behind one of Houston’s most celebrated restaurants is James Beard Award-winning Mexican chef Hugo Ortega, whose regional, ingredient-forward dishes continue to earn the restaurant a spot on “best of” lists across the city. The time to go is during Sunday brunch, when the all-you-can-eat menu is put on full display. Everything is delicious, but don’t miss out on their lechón (roasted suckling pig). The traditionally Mexican dish, which is also popular in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, is served here with habanero salsa and tortillas. Pair it with some of Hugo’s lamb barbacoa and one of their agave-forward margaritas.
California may have the smallest shared border of the four U.S. states that touch Mexico, but that hasn’t stopped the state from perfecting one of Mexico’s all-time greatest gifts to mankind: the humble taco. It’s almost impossible to encounter a bad taco in San Diego—no surprise there, given the city sits a measly 20 miles from Tijuana—but the best are rumored to be found at Las Cuatro Milpas, in Barrio Logan. The line to get in snakes around the block on any given day, but it’s one worth waiting in for the opportunity to sink your teeth into their made-to-order fried tacos, which they’ve been serving over the same counter since 1933. The wait is often just as long at San Francisco’s La Taqueria, but your patience is rewarded with mind-blowingly authentic tacos as well as their famous Mission-style burritos, which come without rice. The local secret is to order yours “Dorado style”—and trust us, you’ll want to.
It’s a meeting of the minds at Café la Trova, a gorgeous new bar and lounge in Miami’s Little Havana featuring drinks from Cuban nightlife impresario Julio Cabrera and shareable plates from James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein and former La Floridita (yes, that La Floridita) chef Raulito Salgado. We’re talking classic, 50s-inspired Cuban cocktails like daiquiris and presidentes alongside flavor-packed plates like arroz con pollo (Cuba’s take on paella is made with chicken) and skirt steak ropa vieja, the nation’s national dish consisting of shredded braised beef with vegetables, black beans, and rice.
Ever heard of Afro-Mexican cuisine? No? Maria Elena Lorenzo is hoping to change that with the debut of her first restaurant, in Bell Gardens, Los Angeles. The former cart vendor and food truck operator, who is originally from Guerrero, Mexico, has teamed up with her daughter to bring the flavors of her underrepresented Afro-Mexican heritage to the City of Angels. The menu spotlights a handful of family recipes—the best of which is their tamales, an ancient dish that dates as far back as Mesoamerica where masa is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf (which is meant to be discarded before eating). At Tamales Elena y Antojitos, you can try both versions as well as various types of pozoles, traditional thick soups made with hominy.
True food lovers will agree: No matter how out of hand the main courses get, there’s always room for dessert. “Pan dulce” is the blanket term for Hispanic sweet pastries, many of which were influenced by French cuisine. Examples of pan dulce run the gamut from conchas (soft, round pieces of dough that look like seashells—hence the term “conches”) to orejas (cinnamon puff pastries). La Panadería, a stylish bakery with three locations in San Antonio, is a picturesque spot to indulge your sweet tooth. Items to try include their signature tequila almond croissant and the croncha, the bakery’s own invention that’s essentially a combination between a concha and a croissant.