There were at least 38,000 Mexican restaurants around the United States in 2011. Mexican cuisine, or what passes for it, is the most popular ethnic food in the country. It has been reported that about 42% of ethnic food sold in the country is Mexican. Because it has proliferated so well throughout the nation that a lot of what we think of as "Mexican" is really more of watered down version. There are sure-fire signs that you are not eating authentic Mexican dishes. Here are some things to look out for:
The restaurant serves fajitas. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a nice fajita from time to time but these are not one of the authentic Mexican dishes found in Mexico. No one eats them in Mexico at all. In fact, they were developed in the United States in the 1960s. The name itself is said to come from the Spanish word for "skirt steak" but even that is wrong. The Spanish word for the kind of streak most often used in fajitas is arrachera. These may be tasty but they are not Mexican.
The Mexican restaurant serves strawberry margaritas. If you are looking for authentic margaritas, you will not get a fishbowl-sized drink with salt on the rim, nor will you get the plethora of flavors you see in American Mexican restaurants. The Mexican drink is made from lime juice, tequila, served on the rocks with some sweetener if you really want it. If you like the American version, that is ok, just know it is not Mexican.
Authentic Mexican restaurants do not have cantinas. Now, people drink a lot when they go to authentic Mexican eateries but only American versions of these places have a cantina sign above the bar. In Mexico, a cantina is not a bar. It is a social club for men. Drinks and snacks are served in Mexican cantinas but they are not connected to restaurants. Moreover, men in Mexico go to these establishments to meet up with friends and play dominoes or cards. If you walk into a cantina and no one is playing those games, you are in a north of the border bar, not a Mexican cantina.
If everything is covered in cheese, it is not one of the authentic Mexican dishes. This is not to say that no cheese is used in Mexican foods. When it is used in authentic Mexican dishes, it is used differently. It is not a topping. Moreover, enchiladas swimming in cheese, shredded cheese on tacos, and cheese covering any other dishes is not proof that you are in an Americanized Mexican restaurant. If you love food dripping with cheese, there is nothing inherently wrong with that, just know your meal is not really Mexican.
Are the waiters wearing costumes? Welcome to an American Tex Mex eatery. When your waiter arrives at your table wearing a black outfit with silver items up and down the sleeves and back, you are not dining at an authentic Mexican place. A lot of Americanized Mexican eateries think they have a more authentic look and feel when they force everyone to dress up this way. Now, people in a Mariachi band may dress up but that is part of their performance, not part of serving food.
Look at your tortillas. Authentic Mexican dishes have corn tortillas. If the tortilla is flour, you are not having something that is authentic. They were developed in the United States.
Tex-Mex cuisine was developed in the 1940s along the Texas-Mexican border. It is is a great example of the melding of the two cultures. This culinary fusion is not a bad thing. Because of this combination, Mexican foods and condiments have penetrated the American food market. In 2010, salsa surpassed ketchup and mayonnaise as the most popular condiment around the country. People now buy more tortillas than hot dog buns.
Traditional or authentic Mexican dishes are a lot more healthy than their American counterparts. By focusing on healthy fruits such as avocados for guacamole, good vegetables for other dishes, people who adhere to an authentic Mexican diet, are healthier. Authentic Mexican food is not deep fried and covered in cheese.