Restaurants and caterers who specialize in this popular cuisine find success with traditional recipes and quality ingredients
By Sara Perez Webber
Whether they’re craving quesadillas, longing for elote or pining for pozole, consumers’ appetite for Mexican cuisine shows no signs of abating.
According to market research firm CivicScience, a third of U.S. adults name Mexican food as their favorite cuisine—and it’s the top choice for those under age 55. Meeting the demand are more than 80,000 Mexican restaurants across the country, which foodservice research firm Datassential says represents nearly 10% of U.S. restaurants.
On ezCater, the online platform for corporate catering, “Mexican food has always been incredibly popular and is one of our top-ordered cuisines,” notes Giliah Librach, director of merchandising operations. In fact, the number of Mexican restaurants joining ezCater jumped 20 percent in 2023.
Mexican cuisine works well for office catering because it can be served in different ways, notes Librach—from buffets and build-your-own stations to individual boxes. Plus, Mexican accommodates dietary preferences well. “It is so customizable, allowing eaters to mix-and-match proteins, vegetables, and sides for things like build-your-own tacos or fajita bars,” she says.
Given the flexibility and popularity of Mexican cuisine—and the growing number of foodservice businesses serving it—how are caterers and restaurants distinguishing their offerings from the competition? To find out, we asked proprietors in three states that boast a high percentage of Mexican restaurants: California, New Mexico and Texas.
That Mexican Guy
Miguel Carrillo owned a meat market before he opened his Los Angeles catering company, That Mexican Guy, 12 years ago. So he saw first-hand how potential competitors ran their businesses—and what could give him an edge.
“Quality is how we stand out,” says Carrillo, who’s originally from Guadalajara. For example, he only uses prime-grade meats and makes everything from scratch—from the salsas and seasonings to the aguas frescas, including the customer-favorite horchata. His team creates an eye-catching traditional look for buffet setups, with acacia wooden bowls and risers, serape table coverings and clay pots sourced from Mexico.
Such attention to detail has helped Carrillo grow the business from one event per month, when he first launched it as a side gig, to 15 per week and fully booked weekends year-round, prompting him to sell the meat market last year. “More party planners are hiring us, where before it was an individual person or company hiring us,” he says. “Party planners are very picky about who they use because they want to stand out to their customers.”
Steak, chicken and pork tacos are the most popular order, with some clients choosing Baja-style shrimp and fish tacos—made with Carrillo’s batter and Baja sauce recipes. In addition to such traditional sides as rice and beans, That Mexican Guy offers spring mix, macaroni and potato salads. Non-meat-eaters appreciate the caterer’s deep-fried potato tacos.
Carrillo also offers higher-end barbecue, with such options as lobster tails and picanha—a Brazilian cut of beef—prepared over an open fire on a Santa Maria grill. And in the coming year, That Mexican Guy will be promoting its breakfast burritos for office catering. “We already have a lot of offices that hire us, but it’s typically for tacos,” says Carrillo. “We want to be able to offer these companies a lot more.”
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A franchise owner of two Garduño’s Mexican restaurant locations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Irmalisa Diaz emphasizes what has made the brand popular since the 1980s—“the same flavor and same recipes.”
Fajitas and combo plates—with options including chiles rellenos, enchiladas and burritos—are among the menu’s most popular entrees, while customers eat up the Los Favoritos appetizer, with shredded beef and chicken taquitos, nachos and carne adovada chimichangas. Some options are traditionally Mexican, such as the charro beans side dish, while others are distinctly New Mexican—like the Hatch green and red chile, which can be ordered “smothered” on top of, well, nearly everything.
And then there are the margaritas, made in front of the customer. Especially in demand are the on-the-rocks house margarita, made with 100% agave tequila; and the coconut margarita, blended smooth and served in a glass rimmed with honey and toasted coconut flakes.
“No one can touch it,” says Diaz.
Many of the recipes go back to Garduño’s’ founding in 1981, although the brand is under different ownership now. Diaz notes that two of the cooks at her location in Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall have been with the brand for nearly a quarter century. “The flavor doesn’t change, the consistency doesn’t change,” she says. “It’s that homemade taste.”
During the recent holiday season, Diaz’s two locations—including one that opened in August at Albuquerque’s Nativo Lodge—did a brisk business in bulk orders, with customers ordering trays of enchiladas and tamales, and gallons of beans and rice. That bodes well for Diaz’s 2024 plans: “We just redid our catering menu. We are going to push for catering.”
Big Madre Tacos y Tortas
With 38 locations opened since 2017, Big Madre Tacos y Tortas has proven to be a very successful concept for the Greater Houston Retailers Cooperative Association (GHRA), an organization of independent convenience store owners in the Greater Houston area.
“Through its own research in 2016, the GHRA recognized the growing popularity of Mexican cuisine within the foodservice industry, identifying it as the fastest-growing segment,” says Doug Boone, director of operations for GHRA Food Services. “In response, GHRA strategically developed the Big Madre Tacos y Tortas foodservice program to provide its members with an authentic Mexican-style food offering, aligning with market trends and consumer preferences.”
Customers appreciate Big Madre’s made-to-order menu, notes Boone, which includes a wide assortment of tacos, burritos, bowls, tortas and quesadillas. Homestyle tortillas are pressed and cooked right in front of guests, who can choose from such protein options as grilled carne guisada, slow-cooked carnitas, and specially marinated chicken and beef fajitas.
“Every recipe—from the marinades to the salsas, beans and rice, and the handmade flour tortillas—was perfected over decades by GHRA’s chef, ‘Captain’ Glenn Cates,” says Boone. “An executive chef with over 50 years of experience, Cates learned from the very best—his madre!”
Since only one in 10 Mexican restaurants is a fast-casual concept, Big Madre has a lot of room for growth, says Boone: “This statistic underscores a unique advantage for Big Madre, positioning the brand to capitalize on and further expand within this specific sector of the market.” After opening 13 convenience store locations in 2023, seven more are in the pipeline, and the brand is expanding to towns beyond southeast Texas.
“As the country continues to grow and diversify, the widespread appeal of Mexican food attracts a broad audience and transcends cultural boundaries,” says Boone. “In the current landscape, where consumers increasingly crave authentic and varied dining experiences, the enduring allure of Mexican cuisine is not only here to stay but poised to intensify in the coming years.”