I thought I knew a lot about Mexican food before I moved here, but I’m still encountering new dishes and flavors all the time. I love it.
The food and culinary culture of Mexico is killer. We all know this by now.
Cozumel enjoys that culture in a big way, in part because so many people have come and settled from various corners of Mexico.
Alongside the foods and traditions of the indigenous Mayan people who still inhabit Cozumel and the greater Yucatan peninsula, various regional cuisines can also be found on the island, making it such a great vacation destination for food lovers, foodies, and anyone who likes to eat their way through a trip.
All that said, you might not experience all the variety on offer if you stick too close to your hotel dining room, or never venture out and walk around downtown San Miguel.
But if you do explore some of our favorite things to do in downtown, you can also expect to find an abundance of unique and delicious cuisine.
Make it a point to try some of the more traditional Mexican foods in Cozumel that you might not be familiar with, yet. (they’re all delicious!)
Seriously, Go Beyond the Nachos
To get a more authentic experience, move beyond the tex-mex nachos and refried beans. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)
Take one of Cozumel’s best cooking classes or food tours.
But don’t stop there! Take it a step further and create your own check list of some delicious authentic Mexican foods on this list to try while you’re visiting the country, and then go walk around and explore.
Authentic (ish…), for sure. But it will also be a more fun experience.
Mole – Maybe Mexico’s Finest Culinary Creation
Mole is a uniquely popular dish in Mexico, is a culinary staple in Mexico, and likely dates back to pre-Hispanic times.
The most common style of mole sauce is a distinctive color – deep reddish brown – and is thick and dark in appearance, like a chocolate sauce. Which makes sense, as a main ingredient in dark mole sauce is chocolate. (for more on that, read this post about chocolate traditions (and tours) in Cozumel and the Mayan region of Mexico).
Mole is complex and delicious and it’s used as a base for soups and stews and as a condiment for rice, chicken, and other Mexican cooking.
There are varieties of mole sauce, including a green mole sauce, for example.
If you’re looking for a hint of authenticity on your (foodie) trip to Cozumel, consider dining at a Mexican restaurant in San Miguel that specializes in mole dishes.
Great places to try traditional mole in Cozumel:
El Moro – A Cozumel classic restaurant. Trust me, go for the chicken mole enchiladas.
El Cielito – this cute place right downtown has a mole sampler appetizer, so you can try and compare a few varieties.
Tacos Al Pastor
If you read our post about the best local Mexican tacos, you’ll know that tacos al pastor are a favorite of Mexicans and visitors to Cozumel alike.
Tacos pastor is a spicy and flavorful dish consisting of marinated pork seasoned with a blend of chiles and spices, and roasted on a vertical spit.
When the meat is ready, the portions of taco meat are carved away, falling on to homemade corn tortillas – kind of like middle-eastern gyros.
Then the tacos pastor are finished by sprinkling them with fresh diced pineapple, minced onion and fresh cilantro, and drizzles of fresh squeezed lime juice and hot sauce.
Check out this post on Cozumel’s best tacos for where to find some favorites (though you really can find good ones all over the island).
Cozumel is Ceviche Central!
Ceviche is a cold salad made from diced raw fish and seafood that has been marinated in citrus juice and other spices such as onions and peppers. It’s usually served on the half shell in restaurants or markets in the coastal regions of Latin America.
Today ceviche has become popular worldwide and is prepared in many ways by chefs around the world.
In Cozumel, ceviche can be found everywhere (including on some dive boats!), and is definitely a local favorite. Often featuring snapper, octopus, and lionfish, eating ceviche is a family affair in many Mexican households.
It’s also a light refreshing meal on so many of our hot, sunny days – win win.
So if you’d like to experience the ceviche that Cozumel is famous for, order it at any one of several casual restaurants, and you’re bound to be satisfied.
Great spots to try some fresh ceviche in Cozumel:
San Carlos Pescaderia is a hometown favorite for seafood, located on Av. 50 between Calles 3 and Salas, and open most days from 8am to 5pm.
El Coctelito is a large, fun, semi-open air restaurant right along the water on Melgar Avenue, just north of the museum, and south of the airport road. They have great drinks, a huge menu, games on the TVs (when relevant) and great ceviches.
Tamales are a popular and traditional Mexican food made from corn mash (think soft polenta) wrapped around flavorful fillings and steamed or boiled until they’re tender and moist.
Tamales vary in style throughout the different regions of Mexico. I don’t know enough (yet) to tell them all apart, but I do know enough to say they’re all really tasty.
Tamales are also sold in warmer climates like southern Mexico as pre-cooked steamed tamales that are still wrapped in corn husks. Most tamales are either filled with meat or cheese, along with the steamed masa/corn mash – again, it’s kind of like soft polenta.
Looking for some tamales on your Cozumel dive trip?
My insider scoop on where to get some good handmade tamales is from a street cart, near the Domino’s Pizza on Avenue 30. But only in the morning. Until they sell out.
If that’s a little toooo insider…you can more easily try some of of the food stalls toward the rear of el Mercado Municipal during the day where lots of great home cooks have them on the menu.
Pozole is a traditional soupy stew with hominy, pork (or sometimes chicken) and other ingredients that varies by region in Mexico. Hominy is a large white corn that has been dried and soaked prior to cooking.
The soup is topped with cilantro and chopped onions.
Traditionally pozole is made with pork loin or shoulder and slowly simmered for eight to 12 hours, but it is perfectly tasty if cooked a tad more quickly, too.
Where to find Pozole in Cozumel:
Los Tacotales (formerly Los Otates) has always been well known for its pozole (and it’s the first place I had it and fell in love with it). Try them on Ave. 15 between calles 3 and Salas.
GastroPark 140 – this might be the better bet as this new little gastro park has several cool stands creating a whole variety of local foods (tacos, burgers, salads, sweet treats, drinks, etc.), so there’s something for everyone.
And so fun!
Get adventurous and go find it on Ave. 15 between Calles 1 and Calle Adolfo Rosado Salas.
Chile Relleno (Stuffed Peppers)
In Mexico the chiles represent many of the essential tastes and flavors of Mexican cuisine and are the base of many dishes throughout the country — whether they’re roasted, grilled or boiled to purees, sauces or stews.
In the case of chiles relleno, poblano chiles are stuffed with cheese and rice, and sometimes ground pork or beef filling and then roasted or grilled. The chiles are stuffed with the stuffing and then topped with red or green chile sauce.
Chiles Rellenos can be spicy, but are often quite mild – until you add the hot sauce of your choice, on top!
One of the top spots on Cozumel for chiles rellenos:
Try the awesome La Toñita cafe on Call A.R. Salas between Aves. 10 and 15.
Chiles en Nogada is a Mexico Must!
Chiles en Nogada is a special Mexican dish made annually at the time of Independence Day, or September 16.
Celebrating the red, white, and green colors of the modern Mexican flag, Chiles en Nogada is sort of a variation on more typical chiles relleno.
The most noteworthy thing about chiles en nogada is the creamy white sauce (made from walnuts) that drapes over the top of the dish. The sauce is then topped with a sprikling of pomogranate seeds, giving it a very festive red-white-and-green look. Viva Mexico!
Where to try chiles en nogada in Cozumel:
You can always find chiles en nogada on the menu at El Cielito (see mole, above), but most places that make it, only make it around September 16th, so keep your eyes open.
A great bet would be some of the more homey and traditional restaurants in town, like Colores y Sabores (home to my favorite fish taco), El Moro, La Choza, and the popular Rockin Java cafe right near Mega.
Coming from New York, I was able to get great burritos any time, and they were a common staple for young people on a budget or families who needed a quick hearty meal from the local taqueria.
Oddly, it took me a while to find my go-to burrito spots here in Cozumel. But I did find them…
Burritos are stuffed with rice or beans and often topped with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Most burritos in Cozumel are made with grilled beef or chicken, but some use pork and often shrimp.
Cozumel’s top burrito spots:
You can find burritos on a lot of Cozumel menus, but some local favorites inclue Burrito Gordito one block away from the zocalo (central plaza), and my new fave Los Arcos taqueria on Av. 30 around 7th street – good, fast, cheap, and terrific burritos.
I also really like Krazy King Burritos, and mostly because they have a veggie option! 2 locations.
Esquites is a well-known street snack food made from fresh corn, and covered with cheese, lime juice, and white sauce or mayonnaise.
Esquites is a traditional Mexican street food, sometimes called elote en vaso which means corn served in a dish. It is made from cooked and grilled sweet corn that is cut off the cob, then mixed with a variety of toppings such as mayonnaise, chili powder, lime juice, and Cotija cheese.
Esquites is a great way to enjoy the sweetness of corn and the savory flavor of the toppings. It’s a traditional Mexican dish that is not what I’d call ubiquitous in Cozumel, but you can find it at street stands in Benito Juarez Park (or the zócalo – main central town square).
Churros are a classic Mexican pastry made with dough deep-fried in oil and then topped with sugar. They’re usually offered in chocolate or cinnamon sugar flavors.
Wonderful with a good cup of Mexican coffee (see HERE for a roundup of excellent coffee shops around town).
Churros are popular with tourists and locals alike, and often sold by street vendors or at bakeries.
For a full run-down on Cozumel’s best churros and where to snag them, read this Churros post next.
A Note on Yucatecan Cuisine in Cozumel
Cozumel is located in the Yucatan Peninsula, which is lauded for its own unique culinary traditions. Kind of a sub-set of Mexican nation favorites.
Some of the best known Mayan and Yucatecan foods are available in Cozumel, if you know where too look.
Cochinita Pibil is six thousand years in the making! It’s an amazing pork dish that originated in the Yucatán peninsula region, where Mayans used to (and still do…) cook meat wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an underground fire pit until the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender.
The finished dish is traditionally served with tortillas to make your own tacos, or with totopos – fresh, homemade tortilla chips.
Cochinita Pibil in Cozumel is often served on a sandwich roll, making it a ‘torta.’
It is also known as a tradition to eat each Sunday, so keep your eyes open for long lines at various tacquerias – some are known for their excellent cochinita skills.
Find out where our picks for cochinita are in this post about Sundays in Cozumel; or try our fan favorite line up of the best local tacos in Cozumel, here.
Sikil Pak is a Traditional Mayan Spread
Sikil Pak is a traditional Mayan spread used primarily with fresh tortillas.
The spread is made up of toasted pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, plus roasted tomatoes, chiles, and tomatillos. It is cooked in oil with garlic, onions and oregano. The pumpkin seeds are ground to a fine powder and then mixed with the other ingredients.
Sikil Pak is a thick spreadable dip, kind of reminicent of a grainier hummus, and is often served warm and is eaten with chips or fresh tortillas.
You’ll sometimes be served sikil pak (unannounced) with bread to start your meal, like at the beautiful rooftop restaurant Sereno along the water to the south of Centro, and at the excellent K’ooben Laab italian bistro on Ave. 30.
Sample All the Delicious Traditional Mexican Cuisine in Cozumel
Traditional Mexican cuisine is flavorful and delicious, from amazing rice and bean dishes and steamy hot chocolate to perky salsas and fresh tortillas, and from savory slow-cooked meat stews to roasted chilies and sugary churros.
You can find a variety of authentic Mexican foods in restaurants throughout Cozumel and an especially great variety in the heart of the island, downtown San Miguel.
Visit local taco shops, cafes, bakeries, and street vendors in San Miguel’s historic center, and enjoy a long string of great beachfront dining restaurants all along the coast of Cozumel.
If you really like being immersed in the local food culture, be sure to order your meal ‘con todo‘ (meaning “with everything”) to get the full experience.
Where to find great local tacos HERE.
Awesome coffee shops are all over town HERE.
Vegan and Vegetarian options are growing HERE.
Sometimes you need a change of pace and a good ol’ pizza pie HERE.