16 Budget-Friendly Mexican Dishes


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Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in the United States. It's easy to understand why, with its fresh and bold flavors, spectrum of simple to wildly complex preparations, and, not least of all, refreshingly low price point. The cheapest way to enjoy Mexican food, other than being in Mexico, is to cook it at home, which also allows cooks to season and spice to their liking. Shopping at a local Mexican grocery store will yield extra savings.

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Price by the serving: $3

Tacos are the national food of Mexico and universally loved. A real taco is nothing more than a corn tortilla (10 cents) with about two tablespoons of filling made with meat (50 cents) or meat substitute, topped with chopped cilantro and onion (10 cents), and often accompanied by a spoonful of one or more salsas (15 cents). The cost to make a single tortilla is roughly 85 cents, and one serving usually includes three tacos.

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Price by the serving: $2

This delicious baked entree is perfect for parties or casual brunches and dinners. For lighter meals, two pieces is a good portion; dinner for hearty eaters requires three for a serving. To make an enchilada, roll 2 tablespoons of cooked chicken or vegetarian substitute (30 cents) in a corn tortilla (10 cents) and place in a casserole seam side down; smother in salsa (25 cents); top with shredded cheese (25 cents); and bake in a 350 degree oven until hot and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Serve with thinly sliced onions and shredded iceberg lettuce (10 cents).

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Price by the serving: $2

Burritos are super filling and satisfying and an excellent way to use up extra vegetables or meat. Take one flour tortilla (30 cents) and layer in one-quarter cup each of cooked rice and beans (25 cents), shredded lettuce, onion, jalapeño, and tomato (45 cents); add one-quarter cup of sautéed vegetables or cooked meat (50 cents). Serve with salsa, sour cream, and sliced avocado (50 cents).

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Price by the serving: Less than $4

This crunchy cousin of the taco is assembled using a flat, fried corn tortilla. The hard shells are easy to find but cost about twice the price of soft corn tortillas, so skip the expense and get a fresher flavor by frying the tortillas at home. Either way, make a classic tostada by spreading two tablespoons of refried beans (20 cents) on a tostada (10 cents); top with shredded Oaxaca or mozzarella cheese (50 cents), shredded lettuce and sliced avocado (50 cents); finish with a flourish of cilantro, onion, and salsa (50 cents). Figure two tostadas for a serving.

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Price by the serving: $3.50 to $4

This healthy spin on a taco takes everything we love about that basic Mexican food and adds a nutritional boost. For a cheap vegetarian meal, substitute hearty greens, such as kale or spinach ($1.50), for the protein used in a regular taco; the carnivores at the table will appreciate the addition of one-half cup of cooked lean ground meat (75 cents). Start by sautéing mushrooms, bell pepper, and onion ($2.50) and season with plenty of chili powder and optional smoked paprika (10 cents). Serve over crispy romaine hearts (75 cents) and top with once-sliced avocado ($1.50), salsa and sour cream (50 cents), and a handful of store-bought tortilla chips (75 cents).

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Price by the serving: $2

This quintessential Mexican dip is one of the more expensive Mexican preparations thanks to the price of the central ingredient. To keep the cost within budget, use equal proportions of the cheaper (by about half) Dominican avocado and the pricier Hass avocado. For two large servings, mash one ripe Hass avocado ($1.50 or more) and one ripe Dominican avocado (80 cents) with the juice of one lime (50 cents), one chopped jalapeño (20 cents), one-quarter chopped onion (15 cents), one chopped small tomato (40 cents), and a handful of cilantro and plenty of salt (50 cents).

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Price by the serving: $1

This pairing is most likely the first edible that comes to mind when thinking about Mexican food. The combination of light corn chips with piquant and spicy salsa is an irresistibly satisfying appetizer or snack, and very easy to make. Chop five tomatoes, three chilies, two small onions, and one bunch cilantro ($6.50) and combine in a food processor; pulse until mixed but still chunky, and add the juice of two limes ($1). For the chips, try making them at home; you'll never go back to the pricier, less flavorful, store-bought version. Heat about 1 cup of vegetable or canola oil ($1.50) in a pot, cut a package of corn tortillas ($3) into triangles, and fry; drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. (To test if the oil is hot enough, drop in one tortilla piece -- it should bubble gently but not burn.)

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Price by the serving: Less than $3.50

This Mexican sandwich will change the way you think about the ubiquitous lunchtime standby. Start by layering mayonnaise (15 cents), avocado (75 cents), jalapeños or chipotles (20 cents), lettuce (10 cents), and Oaxaca or mozzarella cheese (50 cents) on a roll (50 cents). Enjoy as is or heated up in the oven for a toasty crunch. Add some variety with a spot of cooked chicken, leftover steak, sautéed mushrooms, or any preferred filling ($1).

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Price by the serving: Less than $3

Simple and quick, this Mexican grilled cheese can be made with flour or corn tortillas, although corn is the more authentic version. Heat a pan over medium heat, add one corn tortilla (10 cents) and layer with shredded cheese (50 cents) and chopped jalapeños (20 cents); top with a second tortilla (10 cents) and cover the pan until the cheese melts. Serve with salsa and sliced avocado (50 cents). The corn tortillas make a smaller quesadilla, so figure two for each serving.

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Price by the serving: $1.50 to $2

Turn old tortillas into an appetizing, filling, and inexpensive meal. For four to six diners you'll need 10 tortillas ($1), a jar of salsa ($2), half a bag of frozen vegetables ($1), a can of refried beans ($1.50), a few jalapeños or chipotles ($1), and one-half cup of shredded cheese ($1). Add one-quarter cup of salsa to the bottom of a casserole dish and cover with a layer each of tortillas, beans, vegetables, and chilies; then repeat, starting with the salsa; cover the last layer with any remaining tortillas and the shredded cheese and bake in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes.

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Price by the serving: $1

Tamales are easy and inexpensive to make, but also time-consuming. Traditional party fare, they're typically prepared in large batches. To make enough for 12 people you'll need dried masa corn ($1), corn husks ($4), vegetables ($4), oil/fat (40 cents), broth (75 cents), fresh cilantro ($1), and enough dried thyme and oregano to lightly sprinkle in. (Some Mexican grandmothers use vegetable shortening rather than pork lard for a more tender texture, which turns this hearty dish into a vegetarian and vegan delight.) Mix the masa corn flour with the fat and broth until smooth; soak the corn husks until pliable and then spread 2 tablespoons of masa on each, layering in 1 tablespoon of filling; then roll like a burrito and steam for 1 to 1.5 hours.

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Price by the serving: $2

Another party favorite, especially around Cinco de Mayo, this dish is delicious and cheap. To make six servings, layer a large casserole dish with two cans of refried beans ($3), one sautéed bell pepper and one onion sprinkled with salt and pepper ($2), 1.5 cups of salsa ($1), and 1 cup of shredded cheese ($1.25); bake in a hot oven until hot and bubbly; remove from the oven and top with shredded cheese; garnish with sour cream and sliced avocado ($2). Serve with tortilla chips ($3).

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Price by the serving: $3.50

Traditional chiles rellenos are battered and fried, but this version is baked, which saves time, money, and calories. Start by blanching a poblano pepper ($2) in boiling water and then shocking it in an ice bath (or run under cold water) to stop the cooking; cut open the pepper carefully and remove the seeds and veins; stuff with shredded cheese ($1); and bake in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes. Serve with salsa and rice (50 cents).

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Price by the serving: $1.50

This is a tasty and light salad that's packed full of protein and fresh vegetables. To make four servings you need a can of black beans ($1.25), half a bag of frozen corn kernels ($1), half a red onion (35 cents), one bunch scallions ($1), one bunch cilantro ($1), one jalapeño (20 cents), a lime (50 cents), 1 tablespoon of oil and a dash of salt and pepper (25 cents). Sauté the corn kernels and chopped jalapeno and season to taste; rinse the black beans and combine with the corn mixture, chopped red onion, chopped scallions, and chopped cilantro. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lime.

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Price by the serving: $3

A delicious south-of-the-border take on an American favorite starts by toasting two large flour tortillas (60 cents) in a pan until they start to crisp; over low heat, layer the first tortilla with one-half cup of refried beans (75 cents), and 2 tablespoons salsa (25 cents) and one sliced jalapeño (20 cents); cover with the second tortilla and layer on more salsa (25 cents) and one-quarter cup shredded cheese (75 cents); cover and let cook until cheese is melted.

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Price by the serving: $2.50

Crunchy, cheesy, spicy -- nachos have a way of disappearing quickly from any table. The key is to layer the toppings on the chips carefully and evenly so that every bite is full of flavor. To assemble, lay out store-bought tortilla chips ($1.50) and top with 1 cup home-cooked black beans (45 cents), chopped tomato and onion ($1), and a generous handful of grated cheese ($1); place in a hot oven until hot and bubbly. Serve with sour cream and salsa ($1).

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