It’s not easy to narrow down the best Mexican restaurants in America, so lucky are we to be saturated with the cooking of our South-of-the-Border neighbor in all its wonderful regional variety. But as any good mole- or taco-hound knows, some restaurants rise to the head of the pack, from the new-school, innovative cooking headed up by Rick Bayless at his Mexican restaurants in Chicago to the best burritos in San Francisco’sMission District to out-of-the-way joints in the West and Southwest sure to inspire your next road trip to the best Mexican restaurants in L.A., including the killer Oaxacan cooking at Guelaguetza. Below, the best Mexican restaurants in America—ranked.
Best Mexican restaurants in America
This is the stateside debut of Enrique Olvera, the megawatt Mexico City talent behind Pujol, regularly ranked one of the 20 best restaurants. Here you’ll find elegant high-gear small plates—pristine, pricey and market-fresh. Olvera’s single-corn tortillas pop up frequently, from a complimentary starter of crackly blue-corn tortillas with chile-kicked pumpkin-seed butter to dense, crispy tostadas dabbed with bone-marrow salsa and creamy tongues of uni. Don’t miss the face-melting, savory-sweet, Instagrammed-to-death husk meringue ($14), with its fine, ash-dusted hull giving way to a velvety, supercharged corn mousse.
Empellón Cocina, New York City, NY
Some chefs are like gastronomic Margaret Meads, quick studies in replicating the food of cultures far from their own. Alex Stupak, a notorious tinkerer, is much more original. Everything here is designed for sharing, and a table cluttered with his most impressionistic fare feels Mexican only in the most cosmopolitan sense. Miniature roasted carrots, in one boisterous small plate, arrive sprouting from an earthenware bowl that’s been artfully streaked with cool yogurt and sweet-spicy mole. Another beautiful abstraction features black mole splattered like a Rorschach blot around seared calamari curls, an explosion of super-savory elements with fried potato nuggets and drips of chorizo mayo. Plus the bar has one of the most comprehensive selections of mescal in New York.
Cala, San Francisco, CA
Chef Gabriela Cámara, of famed Mexico City restaurant Contramar, brought her brand of refined seafood-focused Mexican to an airy Hayes Valley space in September. Already, Cala is garnering buzz for dishes like the trout tostada with chipotle, avocado and fried leeks (the California counterpoint to Contramar’s beloved tuna tostada); the ling cod salpicon; and a dish of cactus and eggplant cooked inside a corn husk. The salpicon and corn-and-eggplant dish are served with house-made corn tortillas for DIY taco-ing. Cocktails like the Horchata Colada (spiked with rum) and the Martini Oaxaqueño (an unusual concoction containing mescal, citrus and olives) play with Latin American bar staples. There’s brunch on Sundays and, for weekday lunch, Tacos Cala (located in the alley near the restaurant’s back entrance), offers tortillas stuffed with several stewed fillings of the day for takeout or a quick bite.
Guelaguetza, Los Angeles, CA
The guelaguetza is an Oaxacan dance; its use as the name of this restaurant serves as a reminder that the food served here differs from classic Mexican. The speciality is meat (chicken, beef or pork) served with richly fragrant and spicy sauces called moles, which use fresh-ground herbs and chocolate to create a depth of flavor. Try the seafood stew or a tlayuda, a strange pizza-like corn-cake, with a fresh juice.
La Casita Mexicana, Los Angeles, CA
Thanks to chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, South LA neighborhood Bell has become a dining destination. The Jalisco natives opened their upscale La Casita Mexicana in 1999 and have since become TV personalities, famously defeating Bobby Flay in a chile relleno Throwdown. Try the duo’s meat-filled version, chile en nogada—roasted Poblano packed with ground beef, dried fruits, walnuts and candied cactus, topped with pecan cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. It looks like an homage to the Mexican flag. House-made corn tortillas are similarly patriotic with red (guajillo chile), green (cactus paddle) and white (corn), the perfect accompaniment to a plate of Tres Moles that features three types of mole: traditional poblano and two types of pipián, a creamy pumpkin-seed based sauce. Start the meal with chia seed-laced lemonade and end with a stop at the adjacent tiendita to pick up South of the Border pantry items.
Topolobampo, Chicago, IL
Topolobampo (“Topolo” for short) is the most sophisticated and upscale of Rick Bayless’s restaurants, and the one most frequented by President Obama and his family. As with all of Bayless’s restaurants, the products used here are local and seasonal. So whether you’re eating fresh oysters or ceviche or one of the beautiful moles, you know you’re eating the best the season has to offer. An ever-changing menu means it’s hard to predict exactly what will be on offer day to day—but because Bayless is involved, it never really feels like a gamble.
Fonda San Miguel, Austin, TX
In a town of great Mexican brunches, the stuff Mexican brunch dreams are made of is served in this sprawling hacienda-style restaurant in North Loop, which celebrated 40 years in 2015. Those who show up midday on Sundays are treated to a changing weekly spread that would take any mama days to make. The menu mines the cuisines of Oaxaca, Puebla Yucatan and Veracruz, ranging from chicken in mole sauce to fish cooked Veracruz-style, with capers, onions and olive. Dinner in the dining rooms, each brimming with folk art, is worthy of a special occasion, thanks to the elegant surroundings and a selection of winning South of the Border cocktails.
Mary and Tito’s, Albuquerque, NM
Almost everything in New Mexico cooking is blessed by the addition of roasted chilies, and the question is always “red or green?” AtMary and Tito’s, red is usually the answer: the restaurant’s slow-burning chile sauce features on signature dishes like carne adovada (at its best stuffed into a crispy-fried sopapilla), chiles rellenos or enchiladas, and has earned quite the cult following. This humble Near North Valley restaurant celebrated half a century of pleasing chile fiends in 2013, and was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award in 2010.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Melanie Wong
Barrio Cafe, Phoenix, AZ
At this humble little spot in the heart of mural-bedecked Calle 16, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (a four-time James Beard Award nominee) serves Southern Mexican specialties to legions of adoring Phoenicians. The food of states like Oaxaca, Yucatan and Puebla makes a strong showing at Barrio Cafe, in house favorites like Yucatan’s cochinita pibil (marinated in crushed achiote seed and sour orange and cooked in a banana leaf), and chiles en nogada, a colorful dish from Puebla featuring stuffed chilies in a cream sauce.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/keycmndr
Nopalito, San Francisco, CA
An offshoot of the acclaimed NoPa restaurant, Nopalito offers authentic from-scratch Mexican cooking made with local, sustainable and organic ingredients. This is the antithesis of slapped-together street food. Carnitas is slow-cooked and braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon and beer; Mole Coloradito con Pollo is made with toasted chiles, almonds, Ibarra chocolate, dried plums and a huge array of spices. Don’t miss any version of tangy, tender nopales (cactus leaves), frequently on the menu in the form of tamales or in dishes such as Queso Flameado con Chorizo y Nopales (flamed Oaxacan and jack cheese with grilled cactus and chorizo).