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6 Mexican Restaurant Menu Red Flags That Should Raise Alarm Bells

If the menu is lacking these things, it's best to look somewhere else.
FACT CHECKED BY Meaghan Cameron

Think you know Mexican food? It's not all hard shells and queso dip—which are more modern dishes found mostly in the U.S. Mexico is a vast beautiful country and has seven regions with different styles of food. You'll find hearty, beef-forward dishes in the Norteño style and the Pacific Coast-influenced Oaxacan style, and many other flavorful styles when sampling the cuisine. But these nuances aren't always apparent from a restaurant's name or menu. That being said, there are some commonalities on the menu of a good Mexican restaurant and red flags that should steer you to another one.

When looking for a great night out with any style of Mexican cuisine, there are a few things chefs look for in a great Mexican restaurant. Here are their tips for finding the best Mexican restaurant in your area from a few quick key things that are—or are not—on the menu.

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They don't make fresh guacamole

guacamole with mortar and pestle

"Fresh ingredients are key for a good Mexican restaurant," says Chef Jason Santos, of Citrus & Salt, and Bar Rescue. While all the dishes on the menu should be fresh, one to look for specifically is the guac, says Santos.  

"You can tell if the restaurant is good by the quality and freshness of their guacamole," Santos told us. "If it is vibrant green and doesn't have too many extra ingredients so that the flavors stand out on their own, that is always a good sign."

Amy Smith, sous chef and blogger at FoodLve, agrees, saying, "authentic Mexican restaurants will make the guacamole fresh for every patron. When ordering ask your waiter if the guacamole is freshly made, if not then it's a red flag." 

The dishes are pre-cooked

pre-cooked mexican dish

Santos emphasizes the importance of freshness again, saying, "If you can tell that the food is pre-cooked, like refried beans and rice that looks like it has been sitting there, or brown guacamole or packaged guacamole, then you know it is not a great Mexican restaurant."

The restaurant is brand new

new mexican restaurant

Chef Carlos Anthony of Herb & Wood says that restaurants that have been open for years are always a good bet for a good meal, especially if they're family-owned. 

"Great Mexican restaurants have longevity and have been in the family for generations, so the best way to find them is through word of mouth or simply, look for the crowds," Anthony explained.

Kam Talebi, chef at The Butcher's Tale, agrees, saying, "Chefs and bartenders and restaurant owners like going to little Mexican bodegas for amazing, authentic Mexican food. If you have a Mexican grocery in town that sells tacos in the back, chances are, it's going to be amazing."

Good salsa is a good sign


When you sit down, many Mexican restaurants will bring salsa and chips for the table. If the salsa isn't fresh, you may want to pay for your drinks and head to another restaurant, our chefs said.

"Good salsa is an indicator that everything is made fresh and made from scratch," said Anthony.

Talebi also looks to the salsa for cues, saying, "You can tell immediately by trying the salsa. The salsa is everything. It's the barometer of the restaurant. If the salsa is bland or doesn't quite have enough salt, it's not the right spot."

No corn tortillas on the menu

corn tortilla tacos

Corn is a staple ingredient in many styles of Mexican cuisine, and has been for hundreds of years. If a restaurant only offers flour tortillas, it may be a sign that the food isn't the best. 

"If you go to a Mexican restaurant that doesn't have corn tortillas and serves their margarita out of a soda gun, it's likely that the food won't be good," says Anthony.

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They don't serve these two items

Mexican street corn elote

Smith says these two staples not being on the menu are a huge red flag, telling us, "Corn is a huge staple in Mexican culture. No corn on the menu is a big red flag. Like corn, cilantro is another popular staple. Almost every dish should have cilantro."

Tanya Edwards
Tanya Edwards is a seasoned food and health journalist, who has held roles at Yahoo Health as Managing Editor and at Food Network as Programming Director. Read more about Tanya
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