The United States is littered from sea to shining sea with places that
pass themselves off as Mexican food. Most of the people who work there
have probably never been to Mexico or eaten real Mexican food as it's
served in Mexico. That's not to say that eating occasionally at the El
Toritos of the world is a bad thing, but it's best to go in knowing what
to expect. So how do you tell if you're at a real Mexican place or an
They don't exist in Mexico. Not only do they not exist in Mexico, they didn't exist in the United States until the 1960s. The story about fajitas being named for the cut of meat (skirt steak) used in their creation would go over better if the Mexican Spanish name for the cut (one of the few cuts that is common between Mexican and American beef production) weren't arrachera. Arracheritas, anyone?
2. Fishbowls on sticks
The second you see a giant fishbowl-sized, stemmed bowl with lurid red, so-called “strawberry” slush slopping against a rim of salt, you know you're in for “combinación número nueve”. The margarita, as we've discussed elsewhere, is a truly Mexican drink–when it's tequila and lime and maybe a splash of sweetener on the rocks. When it's blended with fruit and served in a vessel the size of a niño's head, you are way, way north of the border.
People in real Mexican restaurants drink as much as people in fake Mexican restaurants, maybe even more. They just don't have cutesy labels saying “cantina” above the entrance to the bar. A cantina is a specific thing in Mexico, a men's social club where you drink and have snacks. Cantinas are standalone in Mexico. Rule of thumb: if nobody is playing cards or dominoes, you're not in a real cantina and you're probably in a cactus-motif bar at a norteamericano Mexican restaurant.
Beans with cheese on top? Enchiladas peeking out from a blanket of yellow goop? Shredded jack on tacos? You're in a den of gabachos for sure. That's not to say that Mexicans don't eat cheese; they do, just not melted all over everything. Real Mexican restaurants use cheese as an ingredient, not a topping. The only things covered with melted cheese you're likely to see in a real Mexican place are alambres or clayudas.
5. Waiters in costume
Your waiter shows up in a black suit with rows of silver pegs up the side, a short, heavily-trimmed vest, a giant, wide-brimmed sombrero and cowboy boots? If he isn't carrying an instrument, you're in the Hell of a Mexican-American restaurant that is trying too hard. The costume in question is called a traje de charro and is the traditional wear of a particular set of Mexican horsemen with a storied history. Mariachis and other musicians wear charro costumes for performance, but the chance of a man in full charro getup serving you beans and rice at a real Mexican place is nil.