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Taking a food trip in old Mexico

Rich in flavor, Mexican cuisine reflects the colorful culture of its homeland. With its emphasis on corn, fresh vegetables and mix of salsa, cheese and meat, Mexican concoctions such as tacos, burritos and nachos have spread across the globe to become standards on pub menus.

Its unique mixture of flavors and texture is potent to taste buds. For example, a simple beef taco at Cantina Agave consists of a hard crunchy corn shell contrasted with soft fillings of lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese and freshly cooked beef. The diner can add black bean paste, rice and salsa.

Modern home-style Mexican cuisine developed after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire and mixes traditional Mesoamerican cooking with European ingredients.

Staples include the country's native corn that is used to create torta, a flat bread, tacos and other variants that are the basis of a meal. Other native ingredients include chili peppers, tomatoes, squash, avocados, beans and vegetables such as huanzontle. The European contribution to the equation was the introduction of different meats and dairy items, particularly cheese.

The variations within Mexican cuisine are as large as the country. Regional twists reflect the vegetables and meat available.

Northern Mexican cooking is meat heavy while the southeastern Veracruz cuisine prominently features seafood. Central Mexican Oaxaca style is especially flavorful and chocolate is prominently used as an ingredient.

Other distinctive Mexican cuisine styles include Yucatan cooking that is influenced by Mayan food traditions and uses tropical fruit to create distinctive salsas. Chiapas cooking is distinguished by its use of herbs like chipilin and hierba santa and western Mexican cuisine is known for popular pork dishes such as birria, chilayo and menudo.

The country's proximity to America has led to its own fusion known as Tex-Mex. It mixes ingredients not found in Mexico and is known for its large portions. Tex-Mex contributions to the cuisine include fajitas, and chili con carne - and it's the style most commonly found in pubs.

With its growing collection of Mexican restaurants, Shanghai Daily visits four of the city's most popular and samples the different tastes of Mexico.

Cantina Agave

Cuisine: Tex-Mex

Ambience: Located on the corner of Changle and Fumin roads, this popular eatery has a patio that fills up in summer. Inside, the atmosphere is festive, full of friends hanging out and waiting to start their night.

Who to invite: Friends who love meat.

Pros: Portions are large and margaritas come in various flavors.

The lunch special (55 yuan per item) is a good deal. Daily specials are offered.

Cons: Dishes lack the complex flavors of Mexican cooking. It's popular, so it can get cramped.

Recommended: The beef half nachos are gigantic and come with guacamole, sour cream, salsa and a wide variety of toppings.

Don't order: Beef quesadillas were a little bland.

Drinks: Margaritas, cocktails, tequila, beer, and wide variety of soft drinks

Cost: 185 yuan for two with drinks

Address: Rm 01A-2, 1/F, 291 Fumin Rd

Tel: 6170-1310


Cusine: Home-style Mexican cuisine with selections from different regions, particularly Oaxaca (central Mexico) style

Ambience: Tucked away in a peaceful part of west Jing'an District. Stepping in is like walking into a restaurant in Mexico. It's a cozy space heavy in authentic flavor. Latin music plays softly in the background and there's a stage for Latin musicians. The room has a warm classy feeling and the owner Victor is always happy to chat, enhancing the restaurant's intimate feeling. Large tables making it perfect for a laid-back night with friends over food and drinks.

Who to invite: Friends, a date, family, anyone who wants authentic Mexican flavor.

Pros: In addition to the homey, comfortable atmosphere, Victor will take the time to explain dishes and ingredients. The food is authentic and there's a wide selection of salsas. There's a giant cocktail selection, with weekend drinks specials. On weekdays there's a lunch set special with prices 40 percent less expensive than usual.

Cons: It can get crowded, especially at dinner. It serves Tex-Mex, but it's a little bland compared with native Mexican selections.

Recommended: The tostada carnita is a can't-miss appetizer. A fried-hard tortilla shell is filled to the brim with tomatoes, lettuce and beans; it's a crunchy delight. The lamb birya features meat boiled in a soupy broth with four soft tortilla shells to wrap the meat.

Diners add onions, green salsa, and guacamole.

It's a nice introduction to the Acapulco-style cooking. The green salsa is especially good. Their margaritas pack a punch.

Don't order: Burritos (fajita meat) with French fries lacks the punch of other items.

Drinks: Extensive cocktails, margaritas, tequila shots, soft drinks

Cost: 456 yuan for three, including a 200-yuan pitcher of margaritas

Address: 580 Yuyuan Rd

Tel: 6226-3098


Cuisine: Western with Tex-Mex and Mexican specialties

Ambience: It has a nice pub feel and is roomy. However, since it's above and overlooks the dance floor of the popular Zapata's bar, it's hard to escape the feeling that you're eating at a club. The music is a little loud but if you go early enough, it's a pleasant dining environment. Its location on the popular Hengshan strip makes it a great place to start a big night.

Who to invite: Lots of friends for a party.

Pros: Portions are very large and the Tex-Mex selection is especially strong.

Cons: The menu offers other Western staples so the selection of Mexican items isn't particularly large compared with other Mexican restaurants.

Recommended: Chipotle chicken tacos are large and tasty.

Don't order: The Chipotle chicken tosta has the same flavor as the tacos but the bread can be a bit soft, making the tacos a better choice.

Drinks: Sol beer, margaritas, sangria, cocktails, tequila, beer, soft drinks,

Cost: 558 yuan for three, including drinks and tequila shots

Address: 5 Hengshan Rd

Tel: 6433-4104


Cuisine: Mexican

Ambience: One of the few upscale Mexican restaurants in Shanghai, Maya is located on the second floor of the Shanghai Grand Plaza, tucked away in a residential compound on hip Julu Road. Diners walk up a spiral staircase to get to the restaurant which exudes class. Decorated warmly with subtle contemporary touches, Maya is a perfect place to take a date.

Who to invite: A date, business associates, friends.

Pros: The food is authentic and showcases the subtlety in Mexican cuisine. Service is friendly without being annoying. It's no-smoking, although there's a small lounge area where smokers can go for a quick puff. For special events such as Mexican Independence Day, they host a mariachi band.

Cons: The meals are slightly expensive. Portions pack a punch in flavor but are somewhat small. When it's busy, service can be a little slow.

Recommended: The aguacate relleno is a tasty appetizer comprised of half an avocado filled with shrimp, red onion and mango, topped with coriander vinaigrette.

Don't order: If you don't like spicy food, don't order blackened wonton fish tacos, fresh guacamole and Baja slaw.

Drinks: Margaritas, cocktails, sangria, mojitos, tequila, beer, and wide variety of soft drinks.

Cost: 564 yuan for three people with drinks.

Address: 2/F, Shanghai Grand Plaza, 568 Julu Rd

Tel: 6289-6889

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164