As a restaurateur looking to open a Mexican restaurant, creating your menu can feel like a daunting task.
“Where do I even start?”
“What steps do I follow?”
“What classic Mexican dishes should I include?
“What about authentic desserts that will make my restaurant stand out?”
Building your Mexican restaurant menu doesn’t have to feel like a chore if you follow a simple blueprint – four steps that will have your menu more than ready come opening day.
Step 1: Choose who will design your Mexican restaurant menu.
Step 2: Follow the basic principles of good menu design.
Step 3: Become a Mexican food guru by educating yourself on traditional cuisine.
Step 4: Find examples of well-designed menus for inspiration.
PLUS: We’ve thrown in a bonus section that covers menu pricing and helps you tweak your menu for increased profits.
Step 1: Choose Who Will Design Your Mexican Restaurant Menu
To answer this question, let’s explore the pros and cons of recruiting an agency or designer versus doing it yourself with design software.
Agency: The pros and cons
- Agencies offer all the services you require under one roof, handling both design and printing, so you don’t have to deal with a bunch of different contractors.
- They can also work with your branding to make sure designs hit the mark.
- Due to the high overhead expenses, agencies are the most expensive.
If you’re part of a large restaurant chain with a big marketing budget, agencies may be precisely what you need. If this is your first restaurant, going with a designer may be the wiser choice.
Graphic designer: The pros and cons
- Designers work with you to make sure the design aligns with your brand.
- They’ll normally provide both print and digital versions of your menu.
- While good designers require some financial investment, they’re usually more affordable than hiring an agency.
- You don’t have as much control over your designs (compared to using menu design software).
- Every time you want to alter your menu, you have to rehire the designer, which could get expensive.
Tips for hiring a designer
Consider the following three areas when hiring a designer:
- What to look for in a designer
Ensure you recruit someone who isn’t just a brilliant designer but someone who also understands the principles of good menu design and menu psychology (ask to see their portfolio – it should have examples of menus they’ve designed for other clients).
- How to find a designer
There are a few avenues you can explore:
- Chat with your restaurant consultant and ask if they know any good designers in the industry.
- Find restaurant menus you love, contact the owners or marketing departments, and find out who designed them.
- Ask your staff if they have any personal recommendations.
- Use a job posting site.
- Find a designer through a design association:
- How to approach the interview process
Once you have a list of suitable designers, it’s time to interview. For help during the interview process and to ensure you ask all the right questions, check out this guide on “Assembling the Dream Team.”
Menu Design Software
If you’re looking to save costs on a designer but don’t feel comfortable creating a menu from scratch, then menu design software may be the best option for you. You can pick from thousands of predesigned templates before tweaking them to fit your needs. The online editing tools let you customize the templates as little or as much as you want. They make it easy for anyone to create a professional new menu, regardless of your previous design experience.
- The most affordable option.
- You can control the look and feel of your brand.
- No back-and-forth with a graphic designer. You can make updates on your time.
- You don’t need design skills. Everything from the layout, to the graphics, and color scheme is already there for you.
- Some tools, like MustHaveMenus, include marketing and social media templates for restaurants.
- It may be difficult to decide which template is the best option for your restaurant.
- Personalizing the menu template with all your items and descriptions takes time.
Here are the two best menu design software options:
- $12.95 per month
- The largest collection of menu templates on the web
- Intuitive editing software designed for menu creation
- Restaurant-savvy customer service team
- Additional marketing materials like business cards, flyers, and social media posts
- Professional Printing
- $15 per month
- Large collection of menu templates
- No real-time customer service
- No professional printing
Step 2: Principles of a Well-Designed Mexican restaurant Menu
Base the design of your Mexican restaurant menu on the following principles of good menu design.
Choose one of the following four formats:
- A single page menu lets you have fewer dishes that can be updated easily and regularly. These menus are common in fine-dining restaurants.
- A two-panel, single-fold menu is the standard restaurant format, giving you space for a wide variety of dishes. Because it covers two pages, this menu gives you more wiggle room to experiment with the arrangement of items to increase profits.
- A three panel, two-fold menu is also suitable for more dishes. Pubs and family restaurants often use this format.
- A multiple panel booklet allows for serious amount of diverse dishes. Again, suitable for family restaurants and pubs.
As you make your decision, keep the following in mind:
- Ensure the menu fits the style and tone of your restaurant, as well as your target market.
- Decide how frequently you’ll revise your menu.
Whether you plan to have a large or small menu, consider starting the design process with only a select number of dishes. You can always make changes or expand your menu after you start serving customers and get their feedback.
If you do end up with a large menu, consider producing different menus based on category. For example, it’s common for restaurants to have a separate wine list, dessert menu, etc. The beauty of this approach is that it helps customers navigate the menus and simplifies the ordering process.
Number of menu items
Menu engineers recommend including only seven dishes per food category (e.g. seven desserts, seven mains, etc.). This recommendation is based on the paradox of choice – too much choice is overwhelming and makes it harder to choose.
Because diners want to enjoy their meal, they’ll invariably select a “go-to” dish to prevent a scenario where they choose something they don’t like. The downside here is that the “safer,” go-to dishes are often not the most profitable ones, which means you’re missing out on an opportunity to increase revenue.
There are a few different ways you can organize your menu layout, including:
- Order: Present your menu according to the typical dining experience: starter, mains, and then desserts.
- Sub-category: Besides the main categories like starters and mains, include sub-headings like salad, soups, or even pizza.
- Columns and rows: Columns help you group items by category, and rows separate these items.
- Prime real-estate: The eye naturally gravitates toward certain areas of the menu: dead center then top right, followed by top left. Include your most profitable dishes in this area known as the Golden Triangle.
How you name and describe dishes should correspond with your brand. For instance, if you’re a fine dining restaurant, you may choose more formal and detailed descriptions compared to a casual establishment.
Naming your Mexican dishes
Here are six ways you can name your dishes, with typical Mexican food examples:
- Core ingredient: beef, goat, pork ribs, amberjack, chicken, tuna
- Appeal to the senses: spicy, fresh, tender, tropical, green, salivate
- Place: Mexican, Michoacán, Yucatán food, Oaxacan cuisine
- Nostalgia: classic, traditional, authentic, indigenous, street cuisine, homemade
- Cooking method: grilled, fried, shredded, steamed, boiling, simmering
- Combination: authentic Michoacán, traditional Mexican desserts, traditional Mexican cuisine
For further menu ideas see Step 4, where we explore Mexican food in detail.
Describing your dishes
Here are five tips:
- Keep descriptions concise.
- Always list the core ingredient.
- Mention a few other key ingredients – remember to be specific (habanero peppers vs. just peppers).
- Detail the cooking method (slow-roasted pork vs. just pork).
- Create alluring menu descriptions that fit your restaurant concept.
Whether you decide to include photos or not is a personal choice and will depend, once again, on your concept. For instance, if you’re a fine dining Mexican restaurant, you’ll likely decide to exclude photos as diners might associate them with a “cheap” restaurant.
But, if you do opt for including images on your menus, here are some pointers:
- Use a skilled food photographer to create appetizing photos.
- Limit the number of photos to one per page to maximize profits.
- Carefully place the photos to enhance rather than overwhelm the dining experience.
The proper use of color on a menu can reinforce your brand, restaurant concept, and impact what diners buy. But what colors should you choose?
According to color theory, certain colors trigger associations in our minds. Grey, brown, and black are known to decrease the appetite of diners, while yellow and red do the opposite (our brains associate them with “safe” foods).
Other ways to use color
You can also use color to separate different menu categories and draw diners to specific high-margin dishes. Yellow, for example, is known to entice and attract attention.
Where to use color
Use color for:
- Category titles
- Call-out boxes
- Special dishes
- Play with different shades of a only few key colors to avoid your menu looking chaotic with too many different colors.
- Avoid high-contrast and saturated colors.
Here are tips for choosing font types and size, and how to use them throughout your menu:
- Use a font that’s easy to read on both online and print menus. For instance, Serif fonts are perfect for print menus, while Sans Serif are best for digital.
- Match your font to your brand and restaurant concept. For example, formal, fine-dining restaurants should use more formal fonts.
- Use a maximum of three fonts for a consistent, professional look and feel.
- Be consistent throughout your menu: this applies to the type as well as the size of the font.
- Choose a font size of at least 20 to 30 points, so everyone can read your menu.
- Use italics and bold to call-out specific items on your menu (e.g. specialty dishes).
- Make sure you have a clean, straightforward background so diners can read your menu easily.
- There should be a good contrast between text and background (e.g. black text works perfectly on a white background).
- Don’t overcrowd your menu with too much text – negative space is your best friend because it gives your customers room to process information as they look through the menu.
The ninety-nine cents theory says that if you price menu items at $X.99, customers will associate the price with the lower dollar amount. That’s likely the reason many restaurant owners choose this method of listing prices.
Besides following the ninety-nine cents theory, there are a few other ways you can price your menu to give it a cleaner look, such as:
Get more strategies for pricing your Mexican restaurant menu.
Calorie labeling laws
While not a principle of good menu design, it’s vital that you include calorie counts on your menu if the law requires you to do so. Recently, new calorie labeling laws were introduced in parts of Canada and the US.
These laws say you’re required to include calorie information on your menu if you own or are part of a restaurant chain that has more than 20 restaurants. This doesn’t currently apply to first-time restaurant owners, but it’s good to stay on top the issue in your area, in case the rules change.
Step 3: Become a Guru of Mexican Cuisine
Although Mexican food is famous for being spicy, many dishes have more subtle flavors – a testament to the diversity of Mexican cuisine.
Some dishes you’d expect on any Mexican restaurant menu include:
- fish tacos, chicken, and pork tacos
- chicken tostadas
- cheese quesadillas
- chicken enchiladas
- salsa and chips
But these are only a place to start, since the cuisine and type of dishes differ vastly depending on the area you’re focused on. To go a little deeper, let’s explore seven regions and the type of traditional Mexican cuisine you’d expect to find.
1. The North
The North is a vast area that includes Baja, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. Ranch culture has a strong influence on the type of cuisine, making grilled beef a local favorite.
The area also has the broadest variety of cheeses in Mexico. These include asadero (smoked cheese), queso fresco (fresh cheese), and requesón (comparable to ricotta).
Three of the most popular dishes in the region are machaca (dried meat, usually spiced beef or pork), arrachera (tenderized skirt steak), and cabrito (baby goat).
2. The North Pacific Coast
Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima comprise the North Pacific Coast. You can expect a broad variety of seafood, such as marlin, sailfish, swordfish, snapper, tuna, and even shrimp. Here are three traditional Mexican dishes from this area:
- Chilorio: slow-simmered pork fried in chili sauce
- Birria: famous in Guadalajara, a spicy stew typically made from beef, pork, or mutton
- Pozole: traditional Mexican stew or soup
3. The Bajio
Here you’ll find Michoacán, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Queretaro. Rice, spices, and pork all feature prominently here, with one of the most popular dishes being morisqueta – a sausage and rice dish. Another notable dish is carnitas (deep-fried pork).
The area is also known for its traditional Mexican dessertssuch as cajeta (goat’s milk caramel), arroz con leche (rice pudding), and chongos (a dessert made from curdled milk).
4. The South Pacific Coast
Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas make up this region. Oaxaca features staple foods such as chicken, pork, and Oaxaca cheese (adapted from mozzarella).
Oaxacan cuisine is renowned for its many types of mole, a traditional Mexican sauce used in cooking – all with distinctive colors. These include amarillo (yellow), rojo (red), and verde (green). Chili peppers, herbs, and chocolate are also common ingredients in the area.
The Chiapas area, however, often use fresh chili as a condiment. With corn being the staple in the area, tortillas are frequently used to create empanadas (baked or fried pastry) and tamales (corn dough and chicken, beef, pork, or vegetable filling).
5. The South
The South consists of Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. Yucatan food is very different from other Mexican cuisines thanks to influences from Cuba, Europe, Asia, and Middle Eastern cultures. Distinctive ingredients and spices include recado (seasoning paste), which is used on many chicken and pork dishes, and commonly served as a condiment.
Cochinita pibil is one of the most popular dishes in the area. This pit-roasted pork dish is marinated and wrapped in banana leaves, and once cooked, served with tortillas or tacos.
6. The Gulf
Tabasco and Veracruz call this region home. Corn, vanilla, herbs, peanuts parsley, thyme, bay laurel, tropical fruits, papaya, and mamey are some of the common ingredients used in cooking in this area. Two traditional Mexican dishes are:
- Huachinango a la Veracruzana: whole red snapper, marinated in lime juice, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and garlic, then baked in a sauce of garlic, tomato, jalapenos, olives, and herbs
- Pollo encacahuatado: Chicken in tomato, peanut sauce
7. Central Mexico
Puebla, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, and Mexico City form this final region. Both street food and haute cuisine take center stage, with many of the dishes in the area coming from other regions. These include:
- Different types of tacos, such as fish and chicken
- Carnitas from the Bajio region
- Cabritos from North Mexico
You can even find dishes with insects!
Step 4: Find Well-Designed Mexican Restaurant Menus
We’ve got examples below that will help spark ideas for your own Mexican restaurant menu.
Note: Not all of them are Mexican concepts, since all menus – regardless of the type of cuisine they showcase – can provide inspiration.
1. Avila’s Mexican Food – El Paso, Texas
The menu uses a simple black typeface on a white background and plenty of negative space for easy reading.
2. Arthurs Nosh Bar – Montreal, Canada
Again, this menu screams simplicity and fits nicely on one page – which helps save on printing costs.
3. El Vez and Burrito Bar – New York City, New York
El Vez Burrito decided to take a different approach with a menu that is fun – just like the classic burrito.
4. Zapiain – Astigarraga, Spain
Zapiain’s focus is wine so they can get away with a concise, yet elegant menu. Also, the use of a novel design – a menu etched in wood – contributes to a unique dining experience.
5. Mezcalero – Washington DC
Mezcalero may have a large menu, but the categories are distinct and the online menu easy to read thanks to the perfect font choice.
6. Hula de Hawaii – Monterrey, Mexico
If a place inspires your menu, then why not showcase that? This is precisely what Hula de Hawaii did with their Hawaiian-inspired menu.
7. La Banane – Toronto, Canada
This is the simplest of all the designs so far, but it’s classy and it works: one page, limited choices, easy to read, and clear categories.
8. Broken Spanish – Los Angeles, California
Broken Spanish uses their font consistently throughout, and one quality photo per page is a smart addition that stimulates appetites and boosts sales.
9. La Cubana – Toronto, Canada
Here you have a well laid out menu that stirs the appetite with the use of red. It also keeps menu items to a minimum, helping diners easily choose their dishes.
10. Clérigo Tapas Bar – Porto, Portugal
Finally, here you have the Clérigos Tapas Bar using the Golden triangle to perfection.
If you’re looking for some more menu design inspiration, read 51 Examples of Restaurant Menu Design Done Right.
You now know how to design your Mexican restaurant menu without any hassles. You:
- Understand the different options when deciding who will create your menu.
- Know the critical elements that make up a well-designed menu.
- Can identify different types of Mexican dishes from various regions.
- Have great examples of well-designed menus to use as inspiration.
What’s left? Start creating!