Mexican food is served at nearly 40,000 American restaurants, and its popularity seems to know no bounds. However, the term "Mexican food" is actually an umbrella over several less-broad categories of cuisine; often times, when you enter a Mexican food restaurant, you can't be sure what you will get until you see the menu. To better help understand your options (at, say, a Mexican restaurant near Tucson Arizona), below is more information on two of the more popular subtypes of Mexican food and the specific foods that are distinctive of both:
The term "Authentic Mexican" is applied to that cuisine style which is most similar to the foods eaten by residents of Mexico. While even Authentic Mexican food is not unchanging and is always evolving, it is safe to say that Authentic Mexican food remains truest to the heart of the broader cuisine type.
There are a few food items that define Authentic Mexican food:
Corn (Maiz) - literally a Mexican original, corn, or maiz as it is known in Spanish, was first domesticated in Mexico by native peoples. Corn is a staple of Authentic Mexican food and is used in many recipes, including standalone items such as tortillas and those where it is blended into other foods.
Chile peppers - another necessary food in Mexican cuisine, the chile pepper is a descriptor for several species: jalapeno, serrano, poblano and habanero are a few of the more common kinds found. Chile peppers are foundational to Authentic Mexican cuisine, as numerous types of sauces are derived from them and define the flavor of dishes.
Beans - pinto beans, specifically, are widespread in the Authentic Mexican food subtype. These beans are native to Mexico and are the most popular bean type in North America. Pintos can be served whole or mashed, depending on the recipe.
Many Americans are more familiar with Tex-Mex cuisine than Authentic Mexican food. Tex-Mex food is a hybridized version of Authentic Mexican food combined with several strong European and American influences. Tex-Mex cuisine is usually more diverse in its flavors and draws from a number of ingredients. However, there are a few key food ingredients that define Tex-Mex:
Beef - Rarely found in Authentic Mexican cuisine, beef became the most common meat ingredient in Tex-Mex due to the influence of cattle ranchers north of the border. Tex-Mex cuisine makes widespread use of ground beef, in particular, but also has incorporated other cuts in Tex-Mex dishes such as fajitas.
Cheese - As might be expected since beef is not a common ingredient in Authentic Mexican food, the same is true for this dairy product. In Tex-Mex, the use of cheese is abundant, with cheddar being the most common kind found in dishes. Cheeses are served melted and shredded in Tex-Mex.
Wheat flour - Flour tortillas are used for enchiladas and a variety of other Tex-Mex dishes, even those similar to Authentic Mexican dishes that use corn tortillas instead.