Grasshopper sauce or cactus snow, anyone? Joanna Savill says hola to Mexico City’s fancy new food with old Latino soul.
Chilangos sure love their “vitamin T”. The former is the nickname of Mexico City’s residents. And the latter? It stands for tacos, tortillas, tortas and tamales: the fried, toasted, grilled, steamed and stuffed snacks you’ll find smoking and sizzling at every intersection, covered market and public park across the Mexican capital.
Such is Mexican street food. Consumed by everyone from neatly attired schoolkids to corporates in sharp suits, a kerbside meal quickly dispels the sour-cream and corn-chip clichés of globalised Tex-Mex.
So, too, does a food shopping trip. Markets such as the age-old Mercado de San Juan in the city centre offer full immersion in the flavour-forward fundamentals of Mexican cooking, from silky cactus and sharp white cheeses to smoke-flavoured chillies, bitter mole pastes and multicoloured corn. Oh, and toasted insects. (It’s all about the crunch.)
But these definably local tastes, textures and traditions are no longer confined to the quick and the casual. Fiercely proud of their home ingredients and traditions, Mexico’s star chefs are evolving them into fabulous modern dishes for the city’s smartest dining rooms. They’re delicious, inventive, contemporary and distinctly Mexican. And full of vitamin T.
So here are the best restaurants to really experience Mexican food.
“What inspires me is the food and flavours I grew up with,” says chef Jorge Vallejo, the shining light of new-wave Mexican fine dining. “In the past we didn’t really know
how to communicate what Mexican cuisine is. Now we are really proud of what we eat and the cuisine is going through a great moment.” With his wife, Alejandra, Vallejo runs a pretty, green-themed restaurant in the upscale residential neighbourhood of Polanco. His largely plant-based cooking is fresh and verdant, reminiscent of the milpa (traditional farming system) that is at the heart of Mexican cooking sensibilities. Quintonil has a rooftop garden but Vallejo also sources ingredients from across Mexico. Dishes such as a herb salad with tangy white cheese, a sublime smoked-crab tostada with lime and radish, and squash blossom and seaweed soup confirm this is Mex – just not as you knew it.
￼Newton 55, Polanco
You come here for the guacamole. Pounded and mixed table-side in a giant mortar and pestle, this is real-deal guac: diced tomato, chilli, salt, onion, coriander and, lastly, the creamy green flesh of avocados, folded through. No lemon, no lime. A revelation, really. Otherwise, Nicos is something of a flagship for reliable family fare with a Slow Food sensibility, great mescal and a mostly Mexican wine list. The restaurant also has an organic fine-foods store, La Nicolasa Condesa (Chilpancingo 5). Pop in there for the best kind of edible souvenirs, including chocolate, jams, local oils, agave sugars and fresh fruit and veg. (Just don’t get on the plane home with the fresh produce.)
Cuitláhuac 3102, Clavería
SEE ALSO: 11 Things You Must Do in Mexico City
The Roma district is full of beautifully restored, once-crumbling colonial houses like Rosetta, which has an open courtyard and almost Provençal shabby-chic furnishings, frescoed walls and chef/owner Elena Reygadas’s gently Mexicanised Italian cooking. “I like Italian for its artisanal aspect and finding splendour in simplicity,” she says. Reygadas, who trained with London star Giorgio Locatelli, is very much a part of what she describes as “a very interesting generation of cooks who share values around things like caring for the environment and the use of local products”. It’s here I have my cocopaches initiation – a starter of nasturtium flowers and fried kale topped with large crunchy beetles (a bit like bacon). Less challenging is a soupy celeriac risotto with seafood, and pork loin with a “white mole” of almonds, pine nuts, white chocolate and habanero. For excellent pastries, bread and cookies, there’s also Panadería Rosetta (around the corner) and Reygadas’s lively and delicious Lardo for pizza, pasta and antipasti.
Colima 166, Roma Norte
Breakfast is big in Mexico. Popular meals include chilaquiles – toasted tortilla crisps baked with salsa – and huevos rancheros (baked eggs with tomato). For brekkies served in bowls with beans and tortillas on the side, join the bright young things in activewear queuing at this bouncy café with a long communal table. Start with eggs and chorizo or eggs with escamoles – soft, white, buttery puffs that are actually ant larvae but taste like… soft, white, buttery puffs. Chef Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia also runs the ultra-casual Máximo Bistrot Local or, for another great breakfast – with tortillas steaming on a griddle and fresh aguas (juices) – try Guzina Oaxaca in Polanco.
Zacatecas 173, Roma Norte
Featuring a jaunty blue-and-white nautical theme, this is the place to see and be seen in Mexico City, especially after 2pm when everyone limos in for lunch. Practically every type of fish and crustacean features on the long, somewhat bewildering, menu but a plate of crisp, tuna-topped tostadas and a michelada (beer-based bloody Mary) will make you feel like a VIP from DF. (Distrito Federal, or Federal District, is another name for Mexico City.) Sister restaurant MeroToro has more of a surf ’n’ turf theme but with the same delightful owner and chef, Gabriela Camára (who has opened a restaurant in San Francisco, too). Note: Mexico has excellent seafood, mostly from the Baja California region – also home to many fine vineyards.
Durango 200, Roma Norte
It’s a little fancy-touristy but this attractive courtyard restaurant in downtown Mexico City presents the classics using boldly coloured ceramics. Notable here are squash blossom and tortilla soups and, in season, chile en nogada – a giant green chilli stuffed with a sweetish mix of corn meal, dried fruit and nuts, topped with a fresh walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. Take note of the mescal trolley – mescal is the hip choice of beverage (surpassing tequila), along with craft beers and curious fermented brews such as pulque. And no, you don’t down mescal in a single shot – lick, sip, suck style – but savour it slowly to appreciate its complexity.
Isabel la Católica 30, Centro Histórico
￼In this black-walled, semi-formal space where the lights are down and the music level is up, a magical tasting menu from chef Enrique Olvera (the pioneer of new-style Mexican cuisine) delves deep into home flavours. From the first tiny botanas (snacks), street eats get a makeover – in a corn-meal doughnut called a bocol, topped with pico de gallo (tomato and red-onion salsa) and filled with fresh white cheese; or an infladita, a puffy tortilla stuffed with a poached egg and served with beans and a tomato and chapulín (grasshopper) sauce. “It’s as simple as being ourselves and understanding that what Mexicans eat on a daily basis can be tremendously sophisticated and even sublime,” explains Olvera. Everything is a surprise, right through to the famous “two moles” – twin puddles of ground spices, nuts, fruit, herbs and chillies blitzed and mixed into bitter-rich sauces. Swipe them up with a soft, fresh tortilla. And the teeny tacos (slow-cooked pig or lamb, for example) could be the best of your life. ￼
Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco
SEE ALSO: 10 Insider Spots to Visit in Mexico City