I convinced my Mexican mom to try Mexican-inspired Trader Joe's items and rate their authenticity.
She's hard to please, but she admitted she loved three products, particularly the beef birria.
However, she wasn't a fan of the pulled-pork tamales or the black bean-and-cheese taquitos.
Born and raised in Southern California, I was surrounded by my Mexican family and culture growing up, learning so much about my identity through the delicious food I ate, from frijoles puercos and ceviche de camarones to arroz rojo and birria de res.
Especially in California, where Hispanics make up 39.4% of the population, according to 2020 US Census data reported by the Public Policy Institute of California, the strong influence of our Mexican communities is an essential part of the region.
But Mexican food is enjoyed by the masses, and thus, variations of it and Mexican-inspired products pop up everywhere. My mama, who is from Sinaloa, Mexico, shops at her trusted Mexican supermarkets and will make the occasional authentic find in a local grocery store, but she is generally wary of Mexican-style products in the US. She is also very picky when it comes to authentic tamales or salsa.
That said, she hadn't really sampled the Mexican-inspired products Trader Joe's sells, so I was intrigued to hear her opinion. We also asked her parents — my grandparents — for their thoughts.
They are all tough to please, but there were a few standout items that impressed even them. Others, however, won't be on their shopping lists again.
My mama immigrated to the US from Sinaloa, Mexico, as a young adult, and I grew up eating her delicious Mexican cooking, like green chicken enchiladas and pozole.
After my mama immigrated to the US to go to college, she met my dad, and they had me and my sister. She brought her parents, or my abuelos, to live with us and has continued to keep our Mexican roots alive through authentic food.
Mexican cuisine has always been an important part of my life and my identity. On late college nights away from home, I craved my mama's green chicken enchiladas. Any rainy day could be made better with a warm bowl of pozole. And it was never truly a holiday without abuela's famous champurrado.
So it would be incredible if I could find authentic Mexican dishes that remind me of home at local grocery stores like Trader Joe's.
It took some convincing, but my mama agreed to try some of Trader Joe's Mexican products. I wanted to get her take on how authentic they were.
Trader Joe's has Mexican products throughout the store, from its dips and meats to frozen items and jarred sections.
We went through each aisle looking for food labeled "Mexican" but had more luck just looking for traditional Mexican and Mexican-inspired dishes themselves.
There were also items labeled "Mexican" that we deemed not worth trying, like the "Mexicali Salad," as it was not authentic — at least not to my mama's experience, because salads with these ingredients (mixed greens, Asiago cheese, Caesar dressing) are not typical of the cuisine she was raised with.
Instead, we selected a variety of traditional dishes, such as birria and chicken enchiladas, from the frozen section, as well as some Mexican-inspired dishes, like the two burritos we ended up buying from the refrigerated section.
Despite how picky we were about our selections, my mama told me she didn't go in with high expectations, but some products left her pleasantly surprised.
Unfortunately, she told me the pulled-pork tamales were a poor version of the beloved food she enjoys.
Tamales are traditionally filled with types of meat or beans and cheese, then wrapped and cooked in corn husks.
The instructions for these $6.99 tamales from Trader Joe's were to wrap them in a damp paper towel and microwave them for a couple of minutes.
But once we removed the pulled-pork tamales from the corn husks, my mom's nose crinkled. She thought the smell of the pork, which generally reflects the spices added, was not appetizing. And then she tried it.
Her first impression: "It doesn't have any flavor beyond the masa."
Masa, or maize dough, comes from ground nixtamalized corn. It's a frequent ingredient in corn tortillas, tamales, and other Mexican dishes. And masa isn't where you get most of the flavor of the tamale. That comes from the filling.
In this case, there was barely any filling, my mama said — just bits of underseasoned pulled pork in its own juices. In her tamales, my mama told me, she includes vegetables, seasoned meat, and makes her own masa.
Her parents agreed with her review.
"This definitely needs salt, and the meat needs flavor," my abuela told me in Spanish.
My abuelo, a more reserved character, simply shook his head.
The beans in the black bean-and-cheese taquitos "aren't bad," but the dish isn't authentic, according to my mama.
Taquitos, also known as flautas or tacos dorados, are popular rolled-up corn tortillas with fillings such as meat, cheese, beans, or a combination thereof.
The grocery chain says the taquitos, which are frozen and cost $3.99, "are made in Mexico and consist of a rolled corn tortilla which is stuffed with seasoned black beans and cheese."
"The beans aren't bad," my mama said, "but not good enough that I would buy them again. And not authentic, no. And I can't even taste the cheese."
My abuelo didn't like the beans, which spilled out of the crunchy tortilla, but he thought the tortilla itself wasn't half-bad.
My abuela made it through half a taquito before calling it quits.
The seasoning of the organic elote corn chip dippers was strong, but not in a good way, they said.
My mama laughed at the name "elote corn chip dippers." Elote translates to corn, so this $2.69 product is essentially labeled "corn corn chip dippers."
When I asked her if it tasted good or not, she said, "You can definitely taste the street-corn seasoning," which was her polite way of saying "no."
"People confuse Mexican food with Tex-Mex," she said, "And these chips are an example of this."
Tex-Mex cuisine, according to Taste of Home, is "America's oldest regional cuisine," which blends Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. Some of its creations, like hardshell tacos, nachos, and street-corn-inspired chips like these, are made for the "American customer," my mama said.
She didn't have high hopes for the pollo asado burrito, and her instincts were right.
This burrito, which costs $4.49, contains chicken, black beans, corn chili salsa, cheese, and rice, according to its packaging.
The way burritos are typically made in the US is a Tex-Mex invention, but my mom enjoys them on occasion and finds they can include authentic Mexican fillings, so she gave this one a try.
Unlike the pulled-pork tamales, the chicken in this burrito had some seasoning, she said. But she thought the chicken filling was sparse, with the black beans hijacking most of the flavor.
"You can taste the ingredients, but they're not good together," she added.
My abuelo agreed.
"This combination of fillings is a bit strange," he said. "This mixture, it doesn't go well together."
The chicken enchiladas needed more sauce, in her opinion.
"First impressions? For me, it needs more salsa — it's dry," my mama said.
The frozen four-piece enchilada dish costs $7.99. It includes a "mildly spicy green sauce," according to the packaging.
"There's barely any sauce, how can it be spicy? If I have to describe the little sauce it has, it would be that it's mild, very mild," my mama said.
My abuela's review was slightly more favorable.
"You can taste the chicken, and it's not bad, it just needs more flavor," she said.
My abuelo said he would eat it again as a taco, but that it isn't authentically an enchilada, which is enveloped in chili sauce, topped with cheese, and oven-baked.
My mama was pleasantly surprised by the fillings in the carnitas with salsa verde burrito.
Before even taking a bite, my mama said she could tell this $4.49 burrito would have flavor from the smell of salsa and cilantro.
"Unlike the tamales, you can see the meat filling in here," she said.
Immediately, the taste of the carnitas was more pronounced, and the salsa verde enhanced the meat.
Salsa verde is made of tomatillos, jalapeño, onion, lime, and cilantro. It is generally a little spicy when it is to my mom's liking — this one was not spicy, but she said it was better than she expected.
This chunky spicy guacamole auténtico didn't have any kick to it, but my mama admitted it was almost as good as her fresh guacamole.
Guacamole is a popular Mexican dip that will likely include avocados, tomatoes, cilantro, onion, jalapeño peppers, lime juice, and salt. You'll see it served alongside chips and salsa, in tacos, and it's always at family fiestas. And for $3.49, this Trader Joe's iteration is delicious.
"The guacamole doesn't taste as fresh as the one I would make, but it does taste good," my mama said.
My abuelo simply nodded and reached for another spoonful.
My mama agreed with Trader Joe's and found the salsa was, indeed, "auténtica."
"I've always liked the look of that salsa," my mama said.
Mexican dishes tend to be pretty simple. So the simplicity of this salsa may be its greatest superpower.
Trader Joe's describes this $2.29 jar of "tomato puree, yellow chili peppers, salt, vinegar, dried onion, and garlic powder" as an "impeccably textured Salsa with plenty of savory spices and tempered heat — a Salsa that pays homage to its culinary tradition…"
We paired it with the organic elote corn chip dippers, and the salsa packed a big flavor.
But her favorite product — one she insists she'll buy again — was the beef birria.
This Mexican stew originally hails from Jalisco, which is south of where my mom grew up, and something that both generations — my abuela and my mama — still incorporate into our cuisine.
Birria is slow-cooked in a red-chile broth known as consomé until the beef is tender and juicy. It is often topped with onions, cilantro, and squeezes of lime and served with corn tortillas.
Trader Joe's version costs $7.99. The instructions said to thaw and reheat the product on the stove top for the best results.
"[The beef birria] actually has good flavor. And the meat is soft. This is actually better than the salsa! It appears authentic. The soup is very good," my mama said.
This is one of my mama's favorite dishes to eat, and with one of her homemade tortillas, "it would be even better, mmm," she said.
My mama enjoys making three traditional dishes that she tested — the birria, taquitos, and enchiladas — and she was happy to see there were flashes of authenticity in the Trader Joe's products.
These three items on the taste-test agenda were traditional dishes my mom enjoys making: birria, taquitos, and enchiladas.
Ultimately, my mama thought Trader Joe's enchiladas were disappointing, and the taquitos ranked nearly as low as the tamales on her list, but the birria, one of her favorite Mexican dishes, was a hit.
"I did not have high expectations for the tamales because they are not easy to make, but I was happy to see there are authentic products like the birria that are available to other people that truly reflect our food," she said.
In terms of the variety of Mexican food on offer at Trader Joe's, my mama gave the store a modest five out of 10. But she admitted it did sell some products she'd happily eat again.
There are many things that Insider reporters like Ni'Kesia Pannell have highlighted that Americans get wrong about Mexican food.
And, according to my mama, Trader Joe's falls a little short, too. But why, specifically, doesn't Trader Joe's get a higher rating, in her opinion?
"Because it doesn't have a lot that is authentic, instead a lot that is similar," my mama said. "Most of this food, it is made for the American customer versus the Mexican. So, if I want to have the flavor of Mexico, I can go to Trader Joe's for a couple of products. But I wouldn't recommend someone go to Trader Joe's if they wanted authentic tamales. Absolutely not. Birria? Maybe."
Trader Joe's did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
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