A couple of decades ago, canned and frozen versions of Mexican and Mexican-American food were way more prevalent in supermarkets than they are today. Perhaps because New York City now finds itself blessed with a profusion of Mexican restaurants, some of which in all five boroughs remain open, it is unnecessary to eat the prepackaged version of the food at home. Or maybe we have learned to go directly to bodegas, tortillerias, and carnicerias to find a much deeper collection of Mexican groceries, which can be used to prepare fresh versions of the dishes.
Either way, where once there were canned tamales and big goopy trays of frozen enchiladas, supermarkets and health food stores now stock a more austere evocation of the cuisine, with small frozen burritos and DIY taco kits front and center.
Critics Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema recently scoured the shelves and freezer cases of their local supermarkets and 7-Elevens to find what mercantile versions of Mexican food are currently available. Spoiler: Rick Bayless, one of the country’s top chefs, did not fare well, nor did most others. There’s not a whole lot of deliciousness going on here, so if takeout or delivery is still a viable option amid the COVID-19 pandemic, consider patronizing a local Mexican restaurant that’s still open.
Saffron Road enchiladas al chipotle (10 ounces, $5.29): Saffron Road, a subsidiary of the American Halal Company, continues to prove itself as one of the most reliable members of the frozen food category. Their microwavable enchiladas recall reheated versions from a decent restaurant. Salty, stretchy, and vaguely funky Oaxacan cheese fills two floppy corn tortillas, while a dollop of orange salsa coats the slender edible cylinders, imparting them with a a smoky chipotle finish, a punch of heat, and just enough acid. Grade: A — Sutton
Hormel chili with beans (15 ounces, $2.79): Chili con carne was a dish associated with the city of San Antonio until it became an overnight sensation nationwide at the Chicago Columbia Exposition of 1893. Canned chili became popular in the 1930s, which is when Hormel started making its version, eventually adding a variety with beans, and a spicy version, too. This ancient canned product still explodes with flavor, and the chiles remain in the righteous forefront of the mix, which is true of no other product in this article. And cheap, too. Grade: A — Sietsema
The Runner Up
The Bomb burrito (14 ounces, $2.99): Back in my college days, my roommate and I would sometimes treat ourselves to these frighteningly-named burritos from the local gas station; I’d pair the spicy delicacy with a now-defunct energy drink that always left the back of my throat tingly with a chemical burn. Nearly twenty years later, each Bomb will still induce instant regret if fully consumed in a single setting. The cheese filling has the salty tang of good queso. The beans are faintly gritty. The meat is beefy with a medium punch of heat. And the folds of flour tortilla are supportive on the outside yet silky within. I’d absolutely snack on one of these at a highway rest stop if there wasn’t a Taco Bell nearby. Grade: A- — Sutton
The Rest of the Bunch
Goya chicken taquitos (21 ounces, $10.99): This big yellow box filled with 20 chicken taquitos — corn tortillas wrapped around a pureed filling — must be accorded one of the best deals around. Heck, even at a taqueria, you’d expect to pay a dollar apiece for these. They plump up and crisp a bit in their 15 minute passage through a 400 degree oven, but you must cast around for something to dip them in, because they’re a little too plain to be eaten alone. Grade: B+ — Sietsema
Ortega grande taco kit (21.3 ounces, $7.89): The “kit” idea was a marketing stroke of genius, making taco fabrication seem like arts and crafts, but once the box is opened, the only thing that tumbles out are two types of tortillas (eight soft flour, and 12 corn shells), along with three mysterious white envelopes. One’s a flavoring mixture and thickener for the meat, the others contain a ketchup-y salsa. The customer provides the ground beef, grated cheese, tomato, and lettuce. Nevertheless, this product represents fun in a box, and the flour tortillas are especially good. Grade: B — Sietsema
Jose Ole taquitos (20 ounces, $5.29): One would be forgiven for passing by these snacks at a local grocery store, as the logo channels atavistic stereotypes of a Mexican man as an avuncular, mustachioed person in a sombrero and a charro outfit. As for the taquitos, the exterior exudes bright corn flavor while the filling has the texture and flavor of beef paste (the ingredients list “textured vegetable protein” alongside the meat). Grade: B- — Sutton
Evol cilantro lime chicken burrito (6 ounces, $4.99): This compact and somewhat gummy dough cylinder shows the limitations of the frozen burrito genre. The filling is mainly minced poultry with lime and chile highlights, and stray black beans here and there. It is edible, and even slightly tasty, but I don’t think I could eat two, even to make up the calorie count of a single meal. At least Oprah is fond of them. Grade: C+ — Sietsema
Amy’s cheese enchilada (9 ounces, $7.99): This rolled tortilla comes stuffed with cheese and accompanied by yellow kernel corn and black beans, two ingredients that the Amy’s factory seems to stockpile in profusion, if this and the other Mexican products of the vegetarian health food giant are to be believed. Nevertheless, the enchilada itself is edible enough, wallowing in its bland brown gravy, to merit the slightly better-than-average grade conferred. At a mere 360 calories, this meal is diet food. Grade: C+ — Sietsema
Frontera’s chicken chorizo taco bowl (11 ounces, $5.39): I can think of one, maybe two occasions when a frozen dish by a well-regarded restaurant made me want to actually visit the restaurant. Rick Bayless, who runs the acclaimed Frontera Grill in Chicago, somehow sells a taco bowl that would barely pass muster on a domestic economy flight. The chicken, to be fair, has decent poultry flavor. There’s a nice spice on the chorizo. The whole dish gives off a layered, warming heat. But the salsa seems to be modeled after supermarket barbecue sauce. The potatoes are weirdly al dente. And the onions and peppers add a bland, watery crunch. This is a mediocre leftover bowl. Grade: C+ — Sutton
7 Select chimichanga (6 ounces, $1.99): A traditional chimichanga is a deep-fried burrito. The 7-Eleven chimichanga is what would happen if someone deep fried a burrito and then submerged it in water. You can taste that nutty fry flavor in the tortilla, but the texture is soggy. It begs the question: If the directions only include heating via microwave, why not include a Hot Pocket-esque crisper sleeve? The good news, however, is that texture is the only thing horribly wrong with this otherwise tasty snack; the interior is packed with spicy tomato-chicken stew, in the vague style of a tinga. Grade: C — Sutton
Healthy Choice Simply Steamers beef and red chili sauce (9 ounces, $7.49): This unusual package represents an innovation in frozen food, consisting of a plastic steamer inside a plastic bowl with gravy at the bottom, which can only be reheated by microwave. Once steamed, the beef, rice, and vegetables are dumped into the gravy. No identification of this over-rice meal as Mexican, but a prominent ingredient is guajillo chiles. If you have a microwave, this in kinda fun, and the flavor isn’t bad. Grade: B — Sietsema
Amy’s burrito especial (6 ounces, $4.39): Amy’s products tend to be small, and this slender five inch burrito is no exception. The filling is mainly black beans and rice; though jack and cheddar cheeses are advertised on the plastic wrapper, they are rendered nearly invisible once the thing is heated in the oven for the required hour and cracked open for a look inside. The lack of flavor verges on the appalling, though organic green chiles appear far down the list of ingredients. Grade: D — Sietsema
Campbell’s chili con carne (15.25 ounces, $3.79): You know how Champagne isn’t Champagne unless it comes from the namesake region of France, and is made with a particular blend of grapes? There should be a similar rule for chili con carne, because using that term bestows this Campbell’s slop with a dignity it doesn’t deserve. The red broth channels the flavor of watered-down tomato soup and boasts the sludgy mouthfeel of pancake batter. The beans are fine. And the beef, if you can find it, sometimes sports the oddly springy texture of a hot dog. Grade: D — Sutton
Alpha Tamale’s beefy roja (5 ounces, $3.99): There’s a lot to unpack in the punny name of Alpha Foods alone, which feels like it was invented by a finance bro who decided to save the world by selling tamales stuffed with plant-based meat. The diverse cuisines of Mexico have no shortage of tasty vegetarian fare, which is why it’s so disappointing to sample this manufactured tragedy. The tamale is made of forgettably bland and vaguely sweet masa, while the fake beef tastes like over-smoked seitan. Grade: D — Sutton