The Mexican Meat Market: Your Guide to the Spanish Butcher Shop
Welcome to your full-on vocabulary guide of the Mexican meat market!
Mexico is famous for its colorful, aromatic, picturesque markets. You can find all kinds of food, flowers, and domestic and seasonal products, but the most interesting section has to be the meat stalls.
Read this article to broaden your vocabulary and find out all the kinds of meats, their cuts, sausages and an intriguing thing called menudencias. Plus, you’ll learn how to order meat like a local and discover dishes to make your mouth water.
Let’s do it!
The Mexican Meat Market
First things first: where to go to get meat? In Mexico, you can find cheap butcher stalls or carnicerías inside large popular markets, as well as independent gourmet meat shops with expensive and hard-to-find meat cuts. Reality is, both experiences are worthy. Prices vary according to the state (northern states are cattle rancher states so buying there is cheaper), the city (capitals are more expensive), neighborhoods and kinds of meat and cuts of course.
A Mexican meat market is the section of a market that sells all kinds of meats: poultry, red meat, seafood and more. Normally each stall specializes in only one of them if they are selling fresh products. Carnicerías or butcher shops and pollerías or poulterer’s shops are the main ones. In case of pre-packaged meat, shops can sell more than one kind.
Chicken or pollo is the favorite meat of Mexicans. We consume it twice as much than red meat. Its versatility when cooking doesn’t go unnoticed and habitually, nothing goes to waste. The most common parts of the pollo and the ones you find at any Mexican meat market are:
la pechuga – breast
el muslo – thigh
el ala / las alas – wing / wings
la pierna – leg
Pro-tip: If you want to buy a whole chicken to make caldo de pollo (chicken soup), you can ask the poulterer to:
- cut it into parts
- marinate the wings (in some cases)
- debone the breasts and cut them in half
- remove the pellejo (“skin”)
In large Mexican meat markets, such as Mercado de San Juan in Mexico City, and in small towns, pollerías sell the next chicken parts and organs. These chicken pieces have almost no meat but are considered the most delicious ones and are perfect for making chicken broth. They are called retazos (“remnants”).
La rabadilla – extreme posterior part, better known as the tail
El huacal – the chicken’s back joined to the sternum
El pescuezo – chicken neck.
In some pollerías they sell these already marinated with sauces (normally adobo or Valentina). Fry them and try them! They are considered snacks.
Las patas o bailarinas – paws
These are chicken feet—not to be confused with chicken legs. You can boil them to make chicken soup. They are delicious and are a great source of collagen! Remember to peel them first.
Las menudencias – offals
These include hígado or liver, molleja (“gizzard”), and corazón (“heart”). If you are in need of iron, zinc, Vitamin A and B, folic acid, or magnesium, eating menudencias is the way to go.
Some poulterer’s shops also sell huevos (“eggs”), milanesas (“breaded chicken steaks”), and medallones de pollo (“chicken medallions”).
Beef and pork are the most common red meats in a Mexican meat market. If you are a fan of red meat and have an upcoming trip to Mexico, keep in mind that the farther north you go, the more chances you get to taste exceptional carne asada (“grilled meat”). Norteños (“people from the north”) are experts on this subject.
When they invite you to a carne asada, they don’t mean it as a dish but as a complete event. People gather at a house and bring raw meat to grill and cook while socializing.
Carnicerías may have a small or large variety of products depending on the size of the store. A small shop will sell you the most common cuts, while a bigger one can sell parts you’ve never heard of. Here are some of the more traditional Mexican beef cuts.
1. Pierna – Round
El chamorro (also called el chambarete) – hind shank
This delicious cut is located on the beef legs. It can be boiled with vegetables to get beef broth or cooked with chiles poblanos. In México, cooked or raw marrow is an artisanal, gourmet dish and is cut vertically to make it easy to make tacos and can also be found in broth. Yum!
El cuete – bottom round, gooseneck or eye of round
The cuete is a little hard to eat compared to other cuts… literally. To stew it and make the famous cuete mechado, you make incisions in or mechar the meat and fill those with different vegetables, cold cuts, nuts, and seeds.
La contra-cara – outside round
It’s perfect for making milanesa de res (“breaded beef steak”) or as we call it in Mexico, orejas de elefante (“elephant ears”).
La bola – knuckle
It is just above the chambarete. You can cook it a la mexicana (“Mexican style”) or with tequila. It is used to make milanesa and steaks, but you can order it as ground meat or in chunks.
2. Lomo – Loin
El aguayón – top sirloin butt
This cut is used to make beefsteak and can be grilled or charcoal-broiled. It is the tender part of the beef especially when it is sliced in fine cuts. You can pan-fry it in minutes and goes great with any sauce or caldillo.
El solomillo – full tenderloin
Boneless cut used whole to stuff and slice or stew. It’s located in the lumbar area of the beef. This is one of the most valued cuts since you can cook filet mignon, tournedó, and chateaubriand with it. In Mexico, we use it to make tampiqueña, sábana, and puntas de res. Long cooking is not recommended.
3. Chuletón – Rib
El chuletón sin hueso – rib eye
This is the boneless version of the entrecot and you can find it just behind the chuck. Mexicans’ first choice is to grill it, but you can also bake it.
El chuletón con hueso, rosbif – entrecot
You can seal the piece with salt and pepper to fry it over low heat. People tend to be perfectionists when frying this because it is an expensive cut.
4. Cuarto Corto – Forequarter
This cut is ideal for a quick taco after a pan fry or you can cook them in different sauces. It is located near the brisket area.
El pescuezo – beef neck
If you want a tasty bowl of thick jugo de carne or meat juice (not to be confused with beef broth), this is the cut you want to buy.
La espaldilla – chuck
It is cut in chunks for stewings or can be sold as ground beef meat. It has a high fat content and is located in the front upper part of the leg. It is normally divided into two parts, the soft one is ideal to make beefsteaks and the harder one is cooked in chunks or baked as a whole.
El pecho – brisket
You know this one, it can be prepared in many ways such as smoked over low heat or baked in marinated sauce. Beef broths can also be made with it.
If you wish to make meatballs, burgers or turkey stuffing, the best cuts are aguayón, bola and espaldilla.
5. Falda – Flank
La falda – flank steak
It’s perfect for stews or tacos and as carne deshebrada or shredded meat. Salpicón, a mouthwatering traditional dish in the north, is made with this cut.
Suadero tacos are my personal favorite. This cut is near the beef groin. Its fat content and tenderness have made it a prime choice in Mexico.
La arrachera – outside skirt
This is a soft boneless cut to fry on a pan or grill. It has a lot of fat and if you go to a grilling, it’s the one piece you can’t miss out on. Arrachera in tacos is also famous for being juicier than other cuts and you can’t make fajitas with it as well. This is one of the most requested meat cuts at the Mexican meat market.
6. Costillar – Rib
Las agujas cortas – short plate
This is the lower part of the beef tenderloin. It can be fried, grilled, or charcoal-broiled. It has bone and a lot of fat, so be careful if you are cooking directly over the fire. It is both flammable and delicious.
La costilla corta – short ribs
You can smoke them, fry them in hot or barbeque sauce, or braise them. Mexican people love to grill them with red wine or beer.
Other Beef Parts
These next beef parts are considered delicacies in Mexico and are a must if you want the full foodie experience.
La cabeza de res – beef head
You need some experience to cook it, and dishes vary regionally. Whatever it is you do with it, the truth is the head is the most tasty part of the whole cow.
La cola de res – beef tail
The most famous dish with this piece is beef tail soup. This Mexican delicacy is highly rated.
Los machitos – intestines
Machitos are often confused with beef testicles, but they are intestines. They are highly nutritious, as they have high amounts of protein and iron. These entrails are wrapped in the stomach bag and are later fried with spices.
Las criadillas – testicles
These are beef, veil, mutton, and pork testicles. They are fried and served in tacos.
La lengua – tongue
Tacos de barbacoa de lengua de res (“beef tongue barbeque tacos”) and tortas de lengua are famous in Mexico. You can fry them or them, but you have to do it correctly; otherwise, it will turn to rubber.
El seso – brain
Seso tacos are a people’s favorite. It is delicious and how could it not be? It is almost completely fat. It’s prepared with epazote.
La tripa – tripe
Tripe tacos are exquisite. Just make sure you chop them into little pieces because the texture is not for everyone. Mexicans either love them or hate them.
La sangre – blood
Yes, when cooked right it is delicious. It is called moronga in Mexico and can be eaten in tacos or as a stew in green tomato sauce. This is one of the products that gets—and deserves—lots of attention at the Mexican meat market.
Fun fact: Did you know beefsteak in Spanish is called bistec? And roast beef translates to rosbif?
El jamón – ham
Delicious when sliced into fine cuts to make tortas or sandwiches.
La pierna – leg
This delicious dish is baked at Christmas time. Along with the ham, and the jamón serrano, it is located near the pig’s tail.
El jamón Serrano – Iberian ham
This cold cut is something you must try. It has high amounts of sodium so it is not healthy to eat a lot or to eat it frequently. But it is served in fine slices on special occasions.
Las chuletas de cerdo – pork chops
Everyone loves to suck on pork chop bones. You can buy them by the piece. They are normally fried with garlic and onions. Another way to fry it is with mole. This is a kid’s favorite.
Las costillas de cerdo – pork ribs
You can buy the whole rack or by piece. When made with verdolagas -a prehispanic superfood- it’s tough to beat. It can also be served with barbeque sauce.
El lomo – loin
A traditional way of baking pork loin is with adobo, with ciruelas pasas or in chile sauce. If you decide to ask the butcher to slice it, go with his opinion. Too thin and they will break, too thick and they will be hard to eat. It is eaten on special occasions and definitely takes practice.
La espaldilla – chuck
One of the softest cuts between ribs and head. It is best to buy in small quantities if you plan on shredding it and serving it as tacos. The best way to stew them is with a prehispanic marinade called axiote, purple onions, chile habanero and orange juice resulting in a dish called cochinita pibil. It is one of the culinary stars of Yucatán cuisine.
El tocino – bacon
You can ask the butcher to give you thick or thin cuts according to your taste. In Mexico we fry them until they are completely crispy with no oil in order to use the fat that melts from it.
El espinazo – spine
Just like beef spine, it can be eaten in soup or served individually. The marrow can be eaten raw or fried in tacos.
La cabeza de lomo – pig head
It is ordered in chunks to be shredded to make carnitas.
Mexican people consider it tasteful to serve charcutería or cold cuts on special occasions and formal social gatherings. Don’t forget to buy them if congratulations are in order!
Other Pork Pieces
Las patas y las manitas – pork feet and hands
This is a Mexican delicacy by excellence. Order in the Mexican meat market more than what you can eat since it has almost no meat. You can buy pieces or kilos and bake them with vinegar or eggs and beans.
La cabeza – head
If you are a carnitas expert, you will want to buy one of these to provide great taste to your stews or tacos.
Los cueritos – pig fat
This is the best. If your carnitas tacos are a bit dry, try to put some cueritos on top, they are juicy and salty and will make your experience complete.
El chicharrón – deep fried pig fat
It tastes as good as it sounds. You can eat it alone, in tacos with meat and vegetables, or with guacamole and pico de gallo. Simply delicious!
Tips for Ordering at the Mexican Meat Market
Here are some tips you will find useful when ordering cuts and preparing Mexican dishes.
- You can ask the butcher to give you carne rebanada, picada, or molida—sliced, chopped, or ground meat.
- Ask the butcher to slice them más grueso (“thicker”) or más delgado (“thinner).
- Get to the carnicería early. They sell out everyday, often before lunchtime (2pm).
- In Mexico, no one knows what a pound is so remember to ask for your products in kilos or pieces. If you are unsure about measurements, just tell the carnicero what you’re cooking.
In the south, people do not pay much attention to how meat is cooked, as long as it tastes good. In the north of Mexico, norteños have three rules for a juicy steak:
- Do not flip the carne continuously because it will lose its juice. Flip it just once.
- Do not stab the meat. Flip it with kitchen clamps.
- Don’t eat the meat right away. Let it settle for 2 minutes so the juices redistribute.
Share Your Experience!
Learning a language is a culturally enriching experience. Experiences like going to the Mexican meat market will lead you to getting to know Mexico and its people better. And by getting closer to this and other Latin American countries, you’ll find Spanish easier and more fun to learn. Markets are full of learning opportunities.
What do you think about Mexican meat markets? Did the stews and tacos make your mouth water? Do you feel ready to try this new vocabulary with your soon-to-be trusted Mexican butcher? Tell us about your experience in a comment!
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