When Pairing Mexican Food With Drinks, It's All About Balance

While Mexican cooking tastes amazing on its own, finding the right drink selection can take the cuisine to a whole new level. The best flavor combinations work in conjunction, as opposed to competing with one another on the palate. In this case, you want to choose alcoholic beverages that strike the right balance when paired with the earthy, spicy flavors that Mexican food is known for.

Whether you're entertaining friends and loved ones at a dinner party or enjoying a meal at your favorite Mexican restaurant, choosing complementary drinks is an essential aspect of a fulfilling culinary experience. And with so many distinct beverages available, making the right selection can be a little daunting. That's why Daily Meal turned to chef Roberto Santibañez, who offers a tasty selection of contemporary Mexican fare at his NYC dining establishment Fonda. Chef Santibañez is also the celebrated author behind "Truly Mexican: Essential Recipes and Techniques for Authentic Mexican Cooking," a cookbook that celebrates the cuisine near and dear to Santibañez's heart. Here's what the chef recommends when it comes to drink selections.

Iconic liquors steeped in rich history

Chef Roberto Santibañez's first recommendation is a classic selection. According to him, "You can never go wrong with cocktails made with tequila or mezcal. They complement all Mexican cuisine." Mezcal is a distilled beverage made with a variety of agave plants. Conversely, tequila is a type of mezcal derived exclusively from blue agave plants.

When it comes to tequila-based cocktails, margaritas are a go-to selection. Other ingredients in the drink include lime, agave syrup, orange liqueur, plus a kosher salt rim and lime garnish. The recipe's refreshing flavor serves as a nice counterpoint to deeply flavorful Mexican dishes like birria and mole enchiladas. Hailing from the western state of Jalisco, cantaritos are another great option when pairing cocktails with Mexican fare. In addition to reposado tequila (meaning tequila that's aged in barrels for a period of two months to one year), cantaritos also feature lime, orange, and grapefruit juices, as well as grapefruit soda. For garnishes, the rim of the clay jug the drink is traditionally served in is lined with chili-lime Tajín seasoning and finished with a lime wedge.

For the best of both worlds and a modern approach, try the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. This potent cocktail features both mezcal and reposado tequila, as well as agave syrup and Angostura bitters, which feature notes of clove, cinnamon, and black pepper.

Cocktails are fun, but what if you prefer wine? Chef Santibañez also has recommendations in store.

Wine pairings are all about spice levels

Chef Roberto Santibañez doesn't subscribe to the theory that certain wines pair best with either meats or vegetables. Instead, he asserts that heat level is a far more critical factor to consider, stating, "I believe that different drinks complement different cuisines depending on their level of spiciness." In this case, the chef encourages diners to order a wine with sweet notes and an airy or smooth mouthfeel when enjoying an intensely spicy meal. "If the dish includes a spicy sauce, you'll want a beverage to balance it off, so a lighter and sweeter wine like pinot noir works well," he says.

Texture is another important consideration when choosing wine, according to the chef, who notes that "sauvignon blanc is more suited to a creamier, savory food like velvety black beans." A white wine, the flavor of sauvignon blanc is described as fruit-forward, with grassy, herby underpinnings. And because it's on the dry side, it won't detract from rich textures like a wine with a thicker mouthfeel might. At Fonda, Santibañez serves several of them, including from Monte Xanic, a winery in Mexico's Guadalupe Valley.