Carlitos Burritos | Photo by Krystal Ramirez

The Native’s Go-to for Mexican Food in Las Vegas

As with pizza, discussing Mexican food is a minefield of fact and opinion, with arguments ranging from the friendly to the friendship-ending and peppered with deep-seated “authenticity” snobbery from both the cheap-eats and high-end angles. Having dined at some of the top restaurants in Mexico City, as well as scarfed at some of the city’s street carts, I can attest that the arguments run deep even there, so we aren’t about to solve them here.

I was raised on home-cooked, chile-centric New Mexican food (a cuisine that blends Mexican, Native American and Spanish influences), so one might expect my family to be the kind of snobs who wouldn’t even venture into a Mexican restaurant. Grandma was like that, but Dad was more lenient, and back in the day, we’d frequent classic Vegas joints like Chapala’s, Viva Zapata’s and El Cholo Cafe.

Las Vegas has since grown considerably, and so have our Mexican food options, particularly in the area of taco shops and stands—a formidable list I’m not even going to touch. And rather than naming the “best” Mexican restaurant in town (let’s leave that to one ballot-stuffed poll or another), I’ll merely share with you where I enjoy eating, with one piece of direct advice: Avoid the combination plates and you’ll have a better culinary experience wherever you end up.

I like Casa Don Juan and Doña Maria Tamales for their Downtown proximity. Don Juan makes an excellent Caldo de Camaron, while Doña Maria’s adds a special fish-based menu during Lent that requires no religious affiliation to enjoy. Are you outside of Downtown and gathering a lot of people? Our big-party go-to is the Henderson location of Lindo Michoacán. They handle big tables well, and their Chile Colorado is tops.

As someone who frequented Javier’s when it was a Laguna Beach hole-in-the-wall, I find the pricing at their Aria outpost off-putting, but it’s still my choice for full-service Mexican in the tourist corridor. What about when I crave New Mexican food and we don’t want to cook? Carlito’s Burritos is the only game in town. Others have come and gone (RIP, Chile Addiction), but Carlito’s has grown its space and its menu. The Stuffed Sopapilla takes me back to Grandma’s kitchen, while the Chile Relleno Burrito is something I thought I had invented.

My most consistent go-to (since, ugh, the 1990s) has been Viva Mercado’s. I first visited when I was a vegetarian and Bobby Mercado’s joint boasted an extensive veggie specialties menu. That menu has since shrunk (and I’m no longer in the tofu-favoring fold), but the fire-hot, meatless Peasant Tacos still hold a special place in my heart. What about you?

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