What is a Menu in Latin America? and Good Food in Mexico
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- In Latin America, the term “menu” does not mean the little booklet that has lists of all the things that are available to consume at a restaurant, but, more accurately, it means a set dish or two that are preprepared for the day. In the USA, we would call this the “specials,” in Latin America, it is called “el Menu.” So if you go into a restaurant and ask for the “menu” you often will not be given a list of available food options, but whatever the special of the day is.
Most often, the menu of a Latin American restaurant will be posted on a chalk or dry erase board clearly near the main door. This menu will often have options for a soup, a salad, and a main dish. Sometimes, there will be two or three choices of soups, salads, and main dishes that you can mix and match to make one complete “menu.” The price for the menu is often also listed below the food options, and is usually one of the strong advertising points — the “menu” of the day dishes are often cheaper than any other meal option in the restaurant, the menu are dishes that are, essentially, on sale.
To get the list of all possible food options in a Spanish speaking country, to get what we in the English speaking world call a menu, the correct word is “la carta.”
I must admit that, in my early days of South America travel when I did not know a naranja from a narwhal (over ten years ago), I received a few surprises when trying to ask for the menu in restaurants. If I was in a place accustom to receiving foreigners then I was often understood and la carta would be brought to me, but, when out of the tourist loop, I would ask for the menu and be lead to the front door of the restaurant to be shown the specials of the day.
What, this is all the food you have?
Sometimes it was, sometimes I was just being shown what I asked for: the menu.
Though, soon enough, a helpful traveling companion introduced me to a new word, “la carta,” and when I used it I found the menu brought out to me.
I write this article now because Mexico is full of great menus. I don’t even look for anything else when going to a restaurant for a sit down meal, as I know that what is on the menu will be the best, most well rounded, meal that I can get for the price in a particular restaurant. So as I walk through the streets of Mexico, I make a note of what is written on all the chalk boards positioned outside of restaurants, and file them away for the next time I go out for a sit down meal. The menu is key when wanting a good, cheap, full meal in Latin America — don’t even bother reading la carta.
Mexican restaurant menus are good
I usually only use restaurants as a way to pick up a quick dose of cheap meat when traveling. I usually prepare my other meals myself, but cooking and preserving meat is usually too much of a hassle to do on the road. So I often only frequent the fast food restaurants looking for nothing more than a hamburger, tacos, or grilled chicken — a full meal is usually unneeded.
Why would I want to pay for a full meal when I only want some chunks of meat?
So I usually ignore the menu options as I travel in Latin America — the price of just about any menu option is going to be more than an item or two of fast food. But in Mexico, my strategy is different, as the menus are too good and well priced to be ignored. I can get a steak with rice, a salad, tortillas, and soup for 40 pesos (a little over 3 USD); for breakfast, I can get eggs with sausage, beans, cheese, tortillas, and coffee for 25 pesos.