Photo by Chris Casella

El Trato Real

have a friend who’s always telling me I’m too picky about restaurants. Well… I am. Especially when it comes to “authentic” Mexican restaurants.

Look, people in Columbus love their Mexican food, but I am here to break the news that while tasty, most of what you’re chowing down on is actually Tex-Mex. Half of these joints are as close to the real thing as you and I are to Tijuana.

Here’s the deal: in Mexico, not everything comes with cream, and no one puts cheese on their tacos—especially yellow cheese—because that would be called a “quesadilla con carne.” Queso dip, chimichangas, and hard-shell tacos, although delicious, are not Mexican food. Columbus, you’re the 15th-largest city in the U.S. Your chefs are recognized around the world! Why just last year, Fortune named you as one of five “secret foodie cities,” and you’re telling me that you still can’t separate the Mex from the Tex?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s no room for Tex-Mex food in our city—all I’m saying is that we are a savvy enough foodie culture to know the difference. I occasionally enjoy giant burritos and ground beef tacos on wheat flour tortillas. And I think that Tex-Mex restaurants deserve your patronage as much as any other joint. But it’s time they call the cuisine what it is and get their own restaurant category, so they can leave the authentic Mexican food to those who do it justice.

Plus, there’s so much more to Mexican cuisine than heartburn. There are dishes that date back to the pre-Hispanic Aztec days. From seafood and fresh salads to desserts that don’t involve frying. They rarely offer agua fresca at Tex-Mex restaurants, yet it’s a staple on Mexican tables. So many regional dishes of savory, sweet, and spicy, a depth of flavor that you deserve to taste!

Well, fret no more, because I’ve compiled a list of five authentic Mexican options this far north of the border. I feel it’s my duty to share this list with you since I’m… (ahem)… a real Mexican.

Yes, the jig is up! I love tacos and anything to do with Frida Kahlo. I sip tequila and dance every song like it’s a cumbia. Read on with great anticipation, and preferably on an empty stomach…

Bakersfield  |  733 N High St.

I know what you’re thinking: too much whiskey on the menu to be authentic. Well the chefs here surprised me too! Any Mexican restaurant that stocks the kitchen with queso fresco, huitlacoche, and achiote is a real Mexican restaurant in my book. They make tortillas from scratch, and the menu encompasses more than just tacos. Try one of their delicious salads, too.

El Camino Inn  |  238 S Fourth St.

I can’t rave enough about the tortas—order the one with chorizo—and the gorditas are to die for. Stuffed with beans, queso fresco, lettuce, salsa, and the protein of your choice. The bartenders are super friendly, and they never roll their eyes at me when I ask for Grand Marnier in my margarita instead of triple sec.

Los Guachos  |  5221 Godown Rd.

Hard to pronounce, but the best tacos al pastor in town! And it doesn’t get more authentic than this. In fact, I suspect that my brother, who lives in D.C., only comes to visit so he can get some tacos al pastor. And not to brag, but he’s known in some circles as a taco connoisseur. Try the Jamaica agua fresca, my personal favorite. When I took my friend Katie out for dinner at a famous taco joint in Mexico last summer, she actually said, “I think I like the tacos al pastor at Los Guachos better.”

La Plaza Tapatia  |  Westland Mall

If you’ve been out to the casino on the West Side and didn’t eat here, you missed one of the best features of the area—the casino’s next-door neighbor, Plaza Tapatia. On the weekends, there’s a buffet so you can sample a variety of authentic dishes. If you want more specific instructions, order the Molcajete, which comes with steak, shrimp, and some other delicious grilled foods—including cactus. If you’ve never had cactus, this is your chance! If you’re thirsty, order a Michelada or Cielo Rojo or Gringa… no, don’t get any ideas, it’s a beer drink that will cure your hangover faster than a Bloody Mary. And make sure you stroll down the aisles of the grocery store next door so you can buy the ingredients to make authentic Mexican food at home.

Taco Nazo  |  2200 E Dublin-Granville Rd.

The best part of what owner and head chef Quicho offers here is that it all comes with a generous side of good, fast, and friendly. My preferred dish is the Quicho Special quesadilla. You don’t need to worry about specifics—just trust me. Tell them Maribel sent you if they seem confused by your order. Or you can order it this way: Mi amiga Maribel me dijo que ordenara la quesadilla “Quicho Special” que lleva al pastor y piña asada. And don’t forget “gracias”—Mexican people are terribly polite. Drizzle some of Quicho’s homemade salsa on it and you’re in heaven!