Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with delicious Mexican dishes from traditional guacamole to roasted pepper salsa, flap steak and more

These Cinco de Mayo recipes easily can be used to add oomph or texture to other Mexican-inspired dishes such as tamales and enchiladas.
April 15, 2024
A photo of fresh guacamole with chips. Traditional Mexican guacamole is a great recipe to enjoy for a Cinco de Mayo gathering. For your fiesta, enjoy fresh guacamole along with other Cinco de Mayo recipes. Photo: Bill St. John, for UCHealth.
Traditional Mexican guacamole is a great recipe to enjoy for a Cinco de Mayo gathering. For your fiesta, enjoy fresh guacamole along with other Cinco de Mayo recipes. Photo: Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

El Cinco de Mayo” is less a holiday in Mexico than it is here, in the United States. Begun in 1967 by students at California State University as a way of celebrating the “unity, strength and history of Mexico” for Mexican Americans, it commemorates the staving off, in 1862, of French forces against the Mexican Army at the Battle of Puebla (a state in central Mexico).

The Fifth of May is not what often is construed to be “Mexican Independence Day.” That date is September 16th and, like our Fourth of July, marks Mexico’s independence in 1810 from its colonizer, Spain. Cinco de Mayo is largely a North American holiday about a Central American event.

More stories on Tex-Mex- or Mexican-inspired cooking: Cooking with Fresh ChilesFrijoles CharrosTacos El Yaqui at Home, and Colorado versus Texas Chilis

In the 1980s, American wine and beer companies began to market Cinco de Mayo and, as a result, its festivities spread widely throughout our country.

Mexican foods mark the holiday, too, both Stateside and South of the Border. The recipes here cover that territory, in the one aspect of flavorful “salsas” and a pickle that easily can be used to add oomph, texture and fire to other Mexican-inspired dishes such as tamales (a specialty of the state of Puebla), quesadillas, enchiladas and posoles.

A final recipe, that for a marinade for what’s known as “flap” meat (flank steak, for example, or “skirt” beef), flavors meat for the grill and could profitably be sauced, after grilling, with any or all of the other recipes.

Traditional Mexican Guacamole

Attend to the last two syllables of the word “guacamole” to re-discover how, for millennia, the peoples of Mesoamerica ate their mashed avocado fruit. (And, for the most part, do today.) We norteamericanos didn’t get into guacamole until the 1990s and after NAFTA.

The OG guac was not a chunky chop-up of ripe avocado, spiked with pieces of red onion and chile pepper, leaves of cilantro, and some squeezes of lime.

No, it was a “mole”—from the original Aztec, or Nahuatl, language, “ahuacamolli”—“ahuaca,” “avocado,” but emphasis here on the “molli,” or “sauce.” Traditional Mexican guacamole is a smooth mash, not a chopped salad.

Let’s make it that way, to see (and taste) what the ancients had in mind and today’s traditionalists keep alive. Adapted from Chef Roberto Santibáñez of both New York City and Mexico City. Makes about 1 cup.

ingredients for guacamole, a simple cinco de mayo recipe.
Guacamole, at its simplest and most traditional, is but a mix of a few everyday ingredients. Photo: Bill St. John, for UCHealth.


1/4 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped; divided into 2 parts

2 tablespoons white onion, finely minced

1/2 teaspoon fine sea or kosher salt

1 fresh serrano chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced (do not strip away the “veins”)

2 small or 1 large ripe avocado, pitted and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

Tortilla chips, for serving


Use a molcajete or mortar and pestle (see note) and pound 1/2 of the cilantro, all the white onion, salt, and serrano into a paste.

In a bowl, add this flavoring paste, the avocado, lime juice, and the remaining 1/2 of the cilantro and pound or mash to the consistency of thick mush or pulp.

Serve with the chips.

Note: Few non-Mexican cooks own a molcajete or, for that matter, a mortar and pestle. In the first step of the recipe, you may make a paste using a very sturdy zippered plastic bag (or two, one inside the other). Put the cilantro, white onion, salt, and serrano into it, zip it closed, and pound the ingredients with a work mallet or the bottom of a thick-walled ale glass. When finished mashing, snip a corner of the bag(s) and squeeze out the paste into the bowl, proceeding with the recipe.

You also may mime a mortar and pestle (or molcajete, though few other ceramic or glass implements mimic its rough, volcanic stone surface) by using a cocktail muddler in a thick-bottomed ale glass or coffee mug, or the handle of a large wooden spoon or spatula.

“Salsa Santa,” upper left, and Sweet and Sour Roasted Pepper Salsa, both great Cinco de Mayo recipes.
“Salsa Santa,” upper left, and Sweet and Sour Roasted Pepper Salsa each have one purpose in life: to add flavor and savor to other foods such as grilled flank steak or tamales. Photo: Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

Sweet and Sour Roasted Pepper Salsa

Adapted from garlicandzest.com. Makes 4 cups.


2 cups charred, roasted hot or medium-hot green chiles (such as Hatch or Mirasol, Mosco, or Pueblo), stemmed, veined and seeded, with 1/2 cup held back 1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large yellow or white onion, peeled and chopped

5 cloves garlic, peeled and slivered or minced

1 cup cilantro, leaves and tender stems only, chopped

Zest and juice of 1 large or 2 medium limes, flesh discarded

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup honey

1 teaspoon salt


Over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven and toss in the onions, cooking them and stirring a bit until they become translucent, anywhere from 6-8 minutes. Don’t brown or caramelize them. Add the garlic and cook some more, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 90 seconds. Don’t brown the garlic.

Cool off the pan a little and transfer the contents to a food processor. Add 1 and 1/2 cups of the chiles and short pulse everything 8-10 times. Add the remaining ingredients (still holding back the 1/2 cup of reserved chiles) and purée until smooth enough to your liking.

Chop up the 1/2 cup chiles and fold them into the purée. Store in refrigerator in closed container for up to 1 week. (It’s best to assemble the salsa at least a day ahead of service for the flavors to blend and mature.)

Salsa Santa

So-named because, as adapted, it pairs the Christmas colors red and green, is named after its adaptor (“Saint John”) and is a “sacred or holy sauce” because all food eaten in communion with the like-minded is holy, period. Makes 1-2 cups.


6 large green chiles (such as Anaheim or Hatch)

6 jalapeño chiles

6 red chiles (such as Fresno)

1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crushed

1 tablespoon olive oil


In turn, roast, sweat, peel and seed all the chiles. Chop into fine dice and mix with the salt, garlic and oregano. Drizzle with the oil. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week and serve as topping or salsa. (It’s best to assemble the salsa at least a day ahead of service for the flavors to blend and mature.)

Escabeche (Pickled Chiles and Carrots)

The pickled chiles and carrots that make up this escabeche can add buckets of flavor and texture to other Cinco de Mayo foods such as enchiladas or tamales.
The pickled chiles and carrots that make up this escabeche can add buckets of flavor and texture to other Cinco de Mayo foods such as enchiladas or tamales. Photo: Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

The Spanish word “escabeche” comes from “escabechado” which means “pickled,” “preserved” or “potted,” and designates marinated and flavored foods that have been briefly cooked and are, unlike other quick pickles, no longer wholly raw. Makes just under 1 quart; easily halved or multiplied.


1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup water

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt

1/2 teaspoon Mexican (not Mediterranean) dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 small or medium bay leaf

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3/4 cup shallots, peeled and sliced thinly

3 medium jalapeños, sliced into 1/8-inch thick rings (seeds OK)

1 small serrano pepper, sliced into 1/8-inch thick rings (seeds OK)

3 small to medium carrots, peeled, sliced into 1/8-inch thick rings


In a pot, combine all the ingredients except the peppers and carrots and bring the mixture to a boil.

Lower the heat and add the peppers and carrots and stir, simmering, until the peppers turn from bright green to a duller, “army” green, about 10 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to a large quart-sized, heatproof glass or ceramic jar. Pour enough of the liquid into the jar to cover the solids, keeping back the strongly flavored garlic cloves and bay leaf, if desired. Cover, cool down, then refrigerate. Keeps, refrigerated, for at least 2 months.

Flap Beef Marinade

Do not soak the meat in the marinade for more than 3 hours because the acidity of the citrus juices will eat away at the meat proteins and turn them mushy rather than merely tender. Makes enough for 1 piece of beef.


3/4-1 pound skirt, flank or flap beef steak

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons any red adobo or spice or steak rub (see note)

Juice of 1 orange

Juice of 1 lime

2 cloves garlic, minced or thinly sliced


Make a marinade of the olive oil, the rub, citrus juices and garlic, and marinate the meat for 1-3 hours. On an outdoor grill, with wood coals (preferred) or other high heat, or inside on a very hot cast-iron skillet or grill pan, grill the meat for 3-4 minutes on each side, letting it rest for 5 minutes before cutting it against the grain into thin “fingers” and then into 1/2-inch cubed pieces for taco filling.

Note: Make your own simple rub by blending together 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon hot or sweet paprika, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper and 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.