Make a run for the border

If you take a look at most of the Philippines expat sites, one thing that tends to stand out is that in discussions related to food, one common topic is bemoaning the lack of decent Mexican food in the Philippines.

I mean, it’s counter-intuitive, right? Adobo, the national iconic dish, was originally created as a way to preserve meat on the galleons coming to and from Mexico… It’s sorta Mexican then, right? (Actually, there is a Mexican version of Adobo that uses chiles instead of soy sauce). They make empanadas in Mexico, too (The Filipino empanadas tend to be more similar to the kind found in Chile or Peru). Chocolate: Mexico. Even menudo. You can even see the similarities between baked goods here and in Mexico (Where bread tends to be on the sweet side, also).

Tacos in the Philippines
Tacos in the Philippines

However, there just isn’t much in the way of Mexican food here, certainly not the Tex-Mex or LA street tacos with which most Americans are familiar and crave. It just doesn’t seem to match very well with local tastes. I believe that much of it has to do with the spices and seasonings, since many are simply not native here or are not part of the Filipino diet. Cumin, for instance, is very common in Mexico… In fact, indispensible to Mexican cuisine. Most Filipinos seem to dislike the taste. Additionally, cilantro, or fresh coriander… Many Filipinos do not like it. As to chiles, some regions in the Philippines are known for spicy food (Like the notorious Bicol Express in the Bicol region), yet a visit to most carinderias will see little more chile than a bottle of Tabasco or a few chiles in soy sauce as a dip (or used with grilled meat). Certainly nothing near the amount of chile commonly used in neighboring Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia.

However, in the time I have lived here, I have noticed that recently, many more Mexican ingredients are becoming available in supermarkets here. I tend to believe that more and more Filipinos are becoming used to different types of food as they become exposed to different cuisines, for three reasons:

1. As the numbers of OFWs increases, more people become accustomed to different foods while living abroad. When they return, they bring these tastes back with them, sharing them with their families.

2. A look at the number of cooking shows on cable is mind-blowing. Asian Food Channel, Lifestyle, TLC: All have steady doses of cooking shows, many featuring Filipino chefs who are modernizing Filipino food by bringing in external influences. Filipino food is a meshing of cultures, anyway. That change continues. Additionally, there are shows on TV showing many types of cuisine that is totally foreign here, like Scandinavian.

3. The Internet and access to the Net continues to grow… Enough said. If it is cooked, it is on the Net, somewhere.

Contrasting to when I first moved here, my mother would always put a few bottles of Cholula hot sauce and other imported goodies in the balikbayan boxes she sent. As the demand for imported goods continues to grow, the local supermarkets carry goods to satisfy that demand.

Can it be expensive? You bet. However, most ingredients are HERE, if you look hard enough.


On a recent supermarket trip, Shopwise had the following:

  1. Colby cheddar cheese (The little red cylinders from Texas)
  2. Ranch Style beans (also from Texas)
  3. Cholula hot sauce.
  4. Old El Paso, Ortega, and LaVictoria products (Limited selection, but enough)
  5. Fresh or frozen flour tortillas
  6. Frozen or boxed corn tortillas
  7. Four brands of refried beans (La Victoria, Ortega, Old ElPaso, and a local brand)
  8. Tostitos Restaurant Style tortilla chips (I have a weakness for the lime / chile, but I love the plain)
  9. and… most amazing of all… A small selection of Herdez canned goods (All made in Mexico)

With this list above, you can easily find staples:

  1. Corn meal and lard for masa (Making tortillas… Terra Cotta or cast iron skillet cooks them well)
  2. Dried pinto beans
  3. Cumin, chile powder (Though not the good stuff from New Mexico), cilantro are all here.
  4. Sour cream in the Philippines tends to be watery, much like the “crema” found in Mexico, but it will do.
  5. Kesong Puti (Native Filipino cheese) is a good substitute for Mexican cotija cheese if you squeeze it dry)

So, the point is that with an Internet recipe, and a little searching, you can easily satisfy the craving by making it yourself. Is it cheap? No, not really. Is it an “exact” match? Again, some substitutions need to be made. However, most Mexican food isn’t really hard to make. A bag of Tostitos can easily get you a plate of decent nachos or a quick tortilla soup. A pack of corn tortillas (or home made) yields some decent tacos or taquitos.

However, on the restaurant scene, not all hope is lost. Within 5 km of my house, two new Mexican restaurants have opened in the last six months. Are they authentic? Not really… Modified to local tastes. However, they aren’t “bad” per se… Just different.

Worst comes to worst, there are around four Taco Bells in Metro Manila… Even these have slightly different menus, but they are pretty much the same on the basic taco, burrito, nachos front that you would find in the US (Though they may need to hunt for the hotter sauces if that is what you like… I find Taco Bell here a little blander than in the US).

Post Author: JohnM (207 Posts)

John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.

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  1. John Leick says

    It is determined that I will not move there next year without getting my Mexican and Italian food on a regular basis. I can cook both styles fairly well. Had a feeling the ingredients are available there; thanks for the confirmation!

  2. AmericanLola says

    Heh! Now you’ve hit me where it hurts…Mexican food! Yes, California girl that I am, I miss Mexican food most of all! And there are no Herdez or Rosarita products here where I live. Yet. (Hope that springs eternal!) I have brought chipotle chilies with me and dozens of corn tortillas, worth every ounce of baggage weight! The locally produced corn tortillas in the freezer case… are salted. And taste like the boxes containing the hard fried version on the shelf above the freezer… but I’ve bought them anyway to support the concept! I’ve made my own, from field corn… not that great either. Taco Bell? Pollo Loco? All in Manila… So, enjoy!

  3. Miss August says

    My husband and I love Mexican food! They don’t grow pinto beans in the Philippines? I always thought they did. As far as corn and flour tortillas, they are very easy to make. Homemade flour tortillas are the best! Just spread a little butter, sprinkle some shredded cheese, and broil ’till it’s melted. It’s a nice little snack, or even lunch with a bowl of pinto beans! :-)

    • John Miele says

      Miss August: They may grow them here, but the ones I’ve seen are all US imports. Rebecca was unfamiliar with them until she met me, so they may only be grown in certain regions. You are right: tortillas are easy to make… just take a little time.

  4. Lenny says

    John, I will look and look hard for Herdez I have not seen it here as of yet.. Corn tortillas are very hard to find ( good ones) Maybe might try and make some. But my daughter sent me some excellent corns from the USA and had a feist with them Carnitas and all…What a difference a good corn can do here…

  5. says

    To get firmer sour cream, just stick it in a coffee filter held up in a sieve or funnel in the fridge.. you can do that with yoghurt as well! The whey should drip off.

    • Scott Fortune says

      Stacey, was just going to say the same thing, but with a cheese cloth. Your way is cheaper, especially if you don’t already have cheese cloth. Heck, you might not even be able to find it there. :)

  6. says

    Nice article John and it sits well with the previous article about how important food is to tourism. We have found the ‘restaurant scene’ here in Bohol has improved greatly over the last two years and there is now even a restaurant review web site that has some good reviews (Eating Out Bohol). Mexican isn’t huge in Australia and frankly what we have tried there was fairly woeful. We hope to travel to the states next year so we can get close to some authentic mexican. Regarding produce and herbs. We have found most things but would LOVE to get our hands on fresh coriander!



  7. sugar says

    Hi John – I like tacos..there’s resto near where I live called Mexican Express but they have first one in Maginhawa St. UP Village, try theirs if your out on a food trip or something. But of course you can always make your own, with the ingredients you mentioned.

  8. Bobby Harmon says

    If you can find a Mooon Cafe I think you will enjoy. They are a franchise around the Country. Great Baby Back Ribs and the usual assortment of decent Mexican related dishes. Very reasonable.

    • says

      I’m still apprehensive about returning to Mooon’s, only because my first visit there I had fish tacos and nachos. I figured, “How hard is it to make a fish taco when you’re on an island?” Well.. turns out it was a tiny piece of deep fried fish lost in a large corn tortilla, I had to fold it twice to make a mini-burrito out of it. Nachos?.. not even close. However I am willing to give them one more chance and try out the Chimichanga there. A deep fried burrito.. what could go wrong? But I didn’t expect ‘good’ Mexican food when I moved here. Fantastic pancit, lumpia and skewers though!!

      Mind you I was raised in a Hispanic home by a fantastic cook in Southern California with many trips to Los Angeles and Mexico for good Mexican food so.. I’m kinda demanding when it comes to ‘authentic’. And Taco Bell?.. my family would disown me if I were caught there.. ha! :)

  9. Gary Suzuki says

    Mexican food trivia:

    1) Flour tortillas are widely available in the northern part of Mexico but not so much in the southern part of Mexico. (I “lived” 6 months out of the year in Guadalajara, Mexico. Not too many flour tortillas there.)

    2) The hard shell taco was invented by Taco Bell. They aren’t Mexican.

  10. Mark G. says

    Last trip over I brought some beautiful chorizo, shredded queso and large tortillas from San Antonio. I made a breakfast of scrambled egg, cheese and chorizo burritos for the entire family. I put my wife to work folding the burritos while I cooked the ingredients. We ended up with a couple dozen by the time we finished. The kids liked them more than the adults I think but everyone seemed to enjoy them overall. I have yet to find any very satisfactory ingredients in the province, lol.

  11. AKLAN HEAT says

    Hello John,

    Where I live and if I found myself craving for some good Mexican burrito, I would go to this family-owned small Mexican restaurant/bakeshop and would order my favorite burrito, a lengua burrito or beef’s tongue burrito. The burrito comes of course, with their version of hot sauce which I like, just enough of heat. The other Mexican dish I like is the Mexican menudo, a soup dish made of beef stomach or tripe, this one red-soup dish (cilantro and all), I like to order at another one particular Mexican restaurant which I think served the best version everywhere because they would put plenty of beef tripes into the whole bowl and just enough hominy in there, and this of course, comes with a choice of corn tortilla or flour tortilla, which I usually settle on both, half and half. Thank you! :-)

    • says

      Due to business commitments, John did not have the time to continue writing. It is possible, if John has time, that he may write an occasional article on the site, he is welcome to do so any time he wishes.

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