Destination: Mexico City
Both worlds away and an easy weekend jaunt, Mexico City is a fascinating culinary and cultural capital.
Mexico’s rich natural resources and collision of indigenous tradition with cosmopolitan influences makes for a dazzling culinary amalgam where a street-side squash-blossom quesadilla has all the sophistication of the latest molecular gastronomy hotspot. More unexpectedly, for all the chaos and density, its wide boulevards, leisurely cafes and many tranquil parks lend this hospitable metropolis a Parisian air. With a lower crime rate than many U.S. cities, it is a cultural and culinary destination not to be missed.
Depending on who you ask, Hotel Brick (Orizaba 95, Col. Roma Norte) is either restoring the artistic, bohemian Roma neighborhood to its historic splendor or evidence of its unbridled gentrification, but either way this boutique hotel in a 1920s Beaux Arts mansion is an elegant base from which to discover the city’s charms. Alternately, Casa Cranfill (Puebla 303, Col. Roma) is another historic Roma home converted to short-term apartment rentals, including a luxurious two-bedroom with a formal dining room, and a 1960s loft-style addition from the studio of famed architect Luis Barragan.
André Breton called Mexico “the most Surrealist country on earth” and nowhere does this resonate as strongly as at Mercado Sonora (Av. Fray Servando Teresa de Mier [at Circunvalación], Col. Merced Balbuena), also known as the “witches’ market.” You might still see a woman covertly selling a caged owl next to a healer rubbing raw egg on a businessman’s chest as part of a “cleansing.” If museums are more your speed, head to the Museo Dolores Olmedo (Av. México 5843, Col. La Noria). This self-made businesswoman and great patron of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera left her collection to the Mexican public in 1994, along with her stunning 17th-century hacienda, still populated by peacocks and the hairless Xoloitzcuintle dogs she adored.
This is a city of distinctive colonias (neighborhoods) that reward exploration, and anyone interested in traditional Mexican cusine will find epicurean heaven in northerly Azcapotzalco at Restaurante Nicos (Cuitláhuac 3102, Col. Clavería), a modest family-run restaurant from 1957. Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo is a tireless promoter of Mexican wines and artisanal products. The menu features inspired versions of historic dishes and family recipes—tostadas of chintextle (a paste of smoked Oaxacan chiles and dried shrimp), fried shallots and pansies; octopus stewed in its ink with pecans, almonds and pinenuts—without a hint of pretension. Theirs may be the only all-Mexican wine list in the city, and in a country where even locals are skeptical of Mexican wines, Lugo’s efforts are heroic. Fun fact: Corkage fees are 10 pesos (under $1) for Mexican wine, 150 pesos for everything else.
Mexicans’ main meal is between 2–5 pm, and there’s no more enchanting place to while away a sunny afternoon than Casa Bell (Praga 14, Col. Juárez). Outdoor seating in a gorgeous courtyard ringed by caged exotic birds is the perfect backdrop for Pacific oysters and giant prawns, smoked marlin tostadas and scrumptious minced duck tacos.
Among the many fine-dining options in the posh Polanco neighborhood, the innovative, Jaso (Newton 88, Col. Polanco; jaso.com.mx) is your best bet. Chef/owners Sonia Arias and Jared Reardon marry regional ingredients with French technique in dishes like Ensenada lobster slow-poached with Mexican vanilla and curry over cauliflower purée and market vegetables. Spectacular desserts feature lush ice creams (flavors include canela, or Mexican cinnamon, and guanabana, a tropical fruit known as soursop) made with local milk pasteurized in-house. The cozy wine cellar can host private dinners of up to six people.
Senses (Campos Eliseos 189, Col. Polanco) is a sleek deli and gourmet shop, an idyllic retreat for a coffee, snack, or to buy a jar of hibiscus mole for the hotel fridge. The wine selection, carefully curated by sommelier Pedro Poncelis, is small but runs circles around most wine shops in the city; Sauternes and Amarone suit the famous Mexican sweet tooth, and you can drink that 2001 Chateau Montelena Cab at your table for no extra cost.
El Encrucijada (“The Crossroads”) (Atlixco 168, Col. Condesa ) is a tiny, offbeat wine bar in chic Condesa neighborhood with a well-priced list that ranges from a $15 Cavicchioli Lambrusco to a Vega Sicilia 1996 Unico for $650, and surprising choices from Israel, Hungary and Lebanon as well as Mexico. Watch the parade of hipsters from a sidewalk table with a bottle from the lesser-known wine-producing states of Querétaro, Aguascalientes or Zacatecas.
The recent groundswell of interest in mezcal has not only inspired countless bars serving Tequila’s smoky cousin in its many forms, but also a rediscovery of the country’s rarer tipples. The clandestine El Bósforo (Luis Moya 31, Col. Centro) highlights an array of artisanal mezcals, regional agave distillates like a triple-distilled 99-proof Sotol from Durango, hard cider from the apple-growing mountain village of Zacatlán and the ancient fermented beverage made from agave sap called pulque. Bar snacks similarly tend toward the pre-Hispanic—cricket quesadillas, waterbug-egg (think caviar) fritters—try them if you dare.
Downtown diner Coox Hanal (Isabel La Católica 83, 3rd fl., Col. Centro) offers exquisite fare from the relatively isolated Yucatán Peninsula, a blend of ancient Mayan tradition with Caribbean, European and Middle-Eastern influences. Papadzules (egg-filled tortillas in pumpkin-seed sauce), pan de cazón (layered shark casserole) and relleno negro (meatballs in a black sauce of burnt chilis) are eye-openers for anyone weaned on burritos and enchiladas.
If you love Argentine food and wine but hate the long flight, Mexico City is full of authentic steakhouses and Rincón Argentino (Masarik 177, Col. Polanco rinconargentino.com.mx) may be the best. Eight beef cuts, including flap steak and butterflied rib-eye, are available on the tabletop grill, accompanied by a massive selection of hard-to-find Malbec, Torrontes and Bonarda.
As evidenced by the midday mobs at the outdoor stand, the huge carnitas tacos at Los Panchos (Tolstoi 9, Col. Anzures) are thought by many to be the city’s best (order the surtida, made from assorted pork cuts, rather than the leaner maciza). A range of Mexican classics is available on the indoor dining menu.
For a Q&A with Chef Lugo, of Restaurante Nicos, click here.