While many Americans look forward to Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to enjoy a cold margarita and tacos, the holiday actually commemorates a great victory in the country's history. And, like any great celebration of a significant day, food typically plays a significant role in the traditions. So yes, there will still be tacos!
So what is Cinco de Mayo all about? Many Americans often mistake the date for Mexico's Independence Day, which is Sept. 16. But Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico's underdog victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The triumph inspired the Mexican people and, six years later, the French were finally driven out of Mexico for good. Today, the holiday, which gained popularity among Mexican Americans and people of other cultures during the Civil Rights Movement, more broadly celebrates Mexican culture as a whole.
Cinco de Mayo directly translates to the "fifth of May” in Spanish, which falls on a Friday in 2023. The vibrant cultural celebration is celebrated in the U.S. — and to a lesser extent in Mexico — by Mexican Americans with festive dress, parades and, of course, food! Typical spreads for the holiday include tacos, guacamole and tequila- and mezcal-based Cinco de Mayo drinks.
For everyone wanting to pay homage to the rich culture of Mexico with fun and food, we're cooking up some mouthwatering recipes from Mexican and Mexican American chefs — including, of course, cold margs and tacos. From gorgeous pitaya margaritas to fresh and unique starters like Pati Jinich’s sweet yet spicy watermelon and tomatillo salad to regional specialties like tamales oaxaqueños, these Cinco de Mayo recipes, this year’s feast will be unforgettable.
If you're not familiar with dragon fruit (also called pitaya), definitely give it a try in this cocktail. It has a flavor that's reminiscent of kiwi, but what's truly remarkable about it is its brilliant color. And to take this margarita to the next level, you can rim the glass with salt mixed with crushed dried rose petals.
Let this coconut-lime margarita transport you to the beach: You can taste the salty sea breeze in the rim and munch on toasted sweetened coconut with a sprinkle of lime zest as you sip along a creamy and luscious margarita.
Mexican appetizers and sides
Once you try making tortilla chips from scratch, it'll be hard to go back to the store-bought version. Often eaten freh out of the oven and still slightly warm, homemade chips give you the opportunity to play with spices, seasonings and flavor. These get a chipotle-chile dusting and squeeze of lime and include a recipe for stellar guacamole.
To chef Gabriel Kolofon, his guacamole is more than just a dip — it symbolizes his heritage:
"Once the avocado base of the guacamole is complete, I finish the dish by topping it with fresh cilantro, shredded cotija cheese and homemade pico de gallo to represent the green, white and red colors of the Mexican flag," he says. "The colors presented in the Mexican flag have great meaning. The green color signifies hope and prosperity, the white represents peace and the red symbolizes the blood of Mexican heroes."
This salad hits all the taste buds! It's sweet from the watermelon, salty from the cheese, spicy from the chile, tart from the lime and tomatillos and refreshing from the mint. It's an absolute must-try.
Even guac purists will fall in love with this sweet and spicy variation. The mango is bright, citrusy and fresh — the perfect foil for creamy, rich avocado. Then, when the chile heat kicks in, the flavor fiesta starts. We promise — you'll want heaping mounds on every chip.
Transform traditional guacamole into dessert with a swirl of passion fruit, fresh mint, sweet coconut and, of course, avocado, blended together with crunchy, refreshing jicama and topped with pomegranate seeds.
This salsa is like a classic salsa verde but with the surprise addition of sweet-tart Granny Smith apples. It has an applesauce-like consistency, which is ideal for entertaining because it can sit out for a while without separating. We like to serve it with tortilla chips, on all types of tacos and over enchiladas.
"Back in my country, Mexican rice is the kind of recipe that you can call comfort food," says Alfredo Oropeza. "This is what I want to cook and eat whenever I'm feeling homesick. As a kid, I used to avoid eating the peas in this dish, but now I love them."
Pozole, one of Mexico's most iconic dishes, was first prepared by the Aztecs hundreds of years ago. The word "pozole" has Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) origins and means "foam" (pozolli in Nahuatl). It is thought to be a description of the appearance of the cooked hominy which, when properly prepared, puffs up and opens like a flower.
If there is one dish associated with Mexico City, it would be tacos al pastor. These are to Mexico what cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia and poutine is to Montreal. It's arguably the only authentic Mexico City street food.
Birria tacos have exploded in popularity over the last couple of years, and there's a reason why: It takes a lot of elbow grease. Meat is slow-cooked to tenderness in a chile-based stew, and served up in tacos with the consommé, or broth, on the side for dipping. Every region of Mexico and every family has their own version of birria. This recipe, from sisters Stephanie and Cloud Ramos, includes a family secret that makes it irresistible.
Beer-battered fish tacos get a major flavor upgrade with a homemade creamy slaw and a chipotle, peanut and sesame seed salsa.
The secret to the smokiest, most flavorful guacamole to top these tacos with, according to chef Juan Pablo Loza, is to char your chiles on the grill first.
"This recipe reminds me of my hometown of Tijuana," said chef Marcela Valladolid about these flanken-cut beef tacos topped with mint and salsa verde. "I grew up eating this dish; it is one of my favorites. It is a great weekday meal for the family."
The Ramos sisters pack all the flavor into the marinade for these hearty tacos. It's simple enough to enjoy any night of the week but will always leave you satisfied, like you've been treated to a feast.
"I love this recipe because it takes me back to the seaside city of Ensenada, where the fish taco was born," says Valladolid.
"I grew up eating (these tacos) in iconic Tijuana restaurant Los Arcos while growing up in Mexico," says Valladolid. "It's an incredibly simple dish that captures the wonderful flavors of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico, a state that is famous for its creative shrimp preparations."
Pati Jinich cooks boneless pork ribs with pomegranate juice and wine until the meat is super-tender, then shreds the meat and serves it in tacos with guacamole amped up with pomegranate seeds and queso fresco.
These are the fanciest tacos you will ever lay your eyes on. Serve them with the three different fillings to showcase a variety of vegetables that are distinct yet work so well together. You'll get an array of flavors: spicy, smoky, vinegary, sweet, savory and fresh!
This taco recipe is packed with Mexican flavors and takes just 15 minutes to make.
"I'm in New Orleans, so we like to find any way possible to use the beautiful Gulf shrimp. This dish takes a staple New Orleans ingredient but adds the flavors of my Mexican culture," says Chef Aarón Sánchez.
If you haven't tried carne asada inside a quesadilla, get ready for a life-changing experience. Quesadillas are always served at parrilladas norteñas and at taquerias that serve carne asada. In this recipe, you and your guests have the option of making tacos with the carne asada or stuffing the meat inside a toasted quesadilla with all of that melted cheese goodness.
"Tio Antonio, my older brother and Tia Lisa are always ready to lend a hand in the kitchen. Tia Lisa comes from an Italian family and always adds in Italian cheeses, such as Parmesan and mozzarella, to her flautas," says Marcela Valladolid.
This torta, which comes from Guadalajara, is filled with slow-braised pork carnitas that fall apart and melt into the torta and sit atop of a thin layer of refried beans. Two salsas, one tomato-based and the other made from spicy chile de árbol, allows you to control the level of heat in each torta.
Using this recipe as your guide, you can choose your own tamal adventure. Make sure to invite friends and family to help you cook and eat them. Turn it into a tamalada (tamal party) — spread the masa and spread the love!
"I love this recipe because it reminds me of my grandmother," says Alfredo Oropeza. "She used to cook me a tampiqueña with her unique Mexican red rice (arroz rojo) or tomato pasta (fideo seco) when I was a little kid. Now that I recently moved to Miami, I cook this same dish for my two sons, and they absolutely love it!"
These Mexican sandwiches or tortas (called Chapata de Verduras al Cilantro con Queso Fresco) are easy to make and great for a Cinco de Mayo gathering or any get together. As a plus, they can be made ahead of time.
When you want an all-in-one-pot dish, this stew with hearty potatoes and steak has a depth of flavor that develops with guajillo chiles, husked tomatillos and garlic cloves.
Sopa seca translates to "dry soup" in English, but it's not exactly a soup — it's more like a moist pasta casserole that's traditionally made with thin noodles, rice or even thin tortilla strips — and it's one of the most iconic dishes in Mexico.
It’s uncommon to see most types of seafood served with mole, according to chef Aarón Sánchez, but this dish will change your mind. The real beauty here is that salmon, with its richness and higher fat content, stands up well to this strong, flavorful sauce.
These tinga-style tostadas are topped with shredded chicken but feel free to substitute pork, beef or any other ingredient you prefer. Save extra time by using store-bought rotisserie chicken.
These colorful rolls (called Rollos de Camarones al Ajillo, Mango y Aguacate) are a delicious, casual and festive party food for any entertaining occasion.
Lightly frying cooked penne in oil creates a slightly crispy texture that keeps the pasta from becoming mushy in this Mexican-inspired chicken casserole that's made with smoky chipotle sauce and lots of melted cheese.
Soft, tender and delicate, this upside down cake with a tropical spin is perfect with a nice cup of tea or a cappuccino after a delicious meal (or anytime of day, really).
Elevate plain chocolate brownies with a hint of hot, smoky chipotle powder and dash of cinnamon. It's like Mexican hot chocolate you can slice through with a fork.
Conclude your celebration with this incredible cheesecake that perfectly balances sweet, slightly savory and creamy in every bite. Topped with pumpkin-brown sugar brittle, it's the sweetest way to salute the Mexican holiday.
"Growing up in small town in Mexico, it was a special occasion for my mom and her siblings to enjoy these cookies," says Natalie Vazquez. "My grandmother and great-grandmother used the only ingredients they had available, making this recipe easy and accessible for anyone to make. Though simple, they remind my mom of her upbringing and spending time with family."