Many cities around the world have a distinctive and singular reputation. In LA just about everything’s related to entertainment. In Washington DC, it’s all about politics. Seattle’s the place for coffee. Nashville is the home of music, while Mexico City is famous for (my favorite of all pastimes) – eating. But food in Mexico is not the same as Mexican food. So, if you’re expecting to read all about the capital of Tex Mex cuisine: the nirvana of nachos, the bliss of burritos, the felicity of fajitas, the ecstasy of enchiladas, stop reading right now!
Mexico City, the surprisingly sophisticated and largest metropolis in North America (affectionately abbreviated as CDMX – Ciudad de Mexico) buzzes with unique and interesting tastes that reach back through a history of Mayan, Aztec and European influences to deliver some of the most extraordinary and astonishing food in the world. To make it simple, I have broken down my preferences into two categories: Street food and Table food.
Unlike the food truck epidemic ravaging the US, it’s quite common to see rural families who commute 6+ hours a day just to cook their centuries-old specialties over griddles on the sidewalks of CDMX’s historic center, while cars, trucks, motorbikes and organ grinders vroom, rattle, honk and hiss by. Pedestrians can grab a bite on the go, eat standing up, or use an upturned bucket as a make-shift seat under the shade of a piece of tarp with a bag of napkins suspended from hooks above. While the immediate environment for our Tengo Hambre street food tour might not have been the most conducive to savoring, appreciating and relishing, the food itself was utterly sensational. In fact, I’d like to dispense with all the adjectives right now and declare that everything served on the streets of CDMX was equal parts delectable, yummy, mouthwatering, sublime, scrumptious and delicious.
We learned early on that Tamales are only requested and eaten during the daytime. Just like Weißwurst in Germany or Cappuccino in Italy, it’s considered a faux pas to order a tamale after midday. In addition, Quesadillas in CDMX aren’t necessarily made with cheese, but they are all oval shaped to differentiate them from their (rounder) taco cousins.
We tried Squash blossom, Huitlacoche Mushroom with epazote leaf (which gives it an umami boost), Chipotle short rib, and finally Trumpet mushroom quesadillas. Then came a deep-fried Jalapeño pepper stuffed with cheese and smothered with a lime juice marinated onion and habanero relish.
As we continued to walk past the music instrument quarter, the textiles quarter and then right into the heart of the plumbing quarter, we were suddenly surrounded by the best toilets and tacos the city has to offer. El Hequito is a tiny street food chain that has only one item on the menu – Tacos al Pastor. The youngest in the taco family only made their debut in the 1940’s as a reaction to the influx of Lebanese immigrants, as never before would a Mexican dream of carving meat from a shwarma tower. Unlike Al Pastor in other cities, here the pineapple is substituted for sweet onions which catch the drippings from the layers and layers of marinated meat revolving above them.
There are an astounding 800 markets in Mexico City, with 300 of them indoors. Not only does each neighborhood have its own mercado, but some of them cater to specific types of shoppers. The Mercado San Juan is a favorite of chefs and foodies. Here you can find out-of-season ingredients that are imported from all parts of the world to go along with Mexican fruits like Chinco sapote which tastes a bit like a stewed pear, or the Mamey which is a cross between a sweet potato and a papaya, or the Cherimoya or Jack fruit which tastes like an overripe and ultra-sweet papaya. Insects are still a big deal in Mexican cuisine. It’s not uncommon to chew on or cook with worms, ants, scorpions or larvae. Prior to the introduction of livestock, bugs were the only source of protein available to inland Mexicans. At the mercado, we tried Crickets 3-ways (garlic, chili and plain), all equally crunchy and salty as a fistful of popcorn. Ants like Chicatanas however, (much nuttier than crickets) are very rare, as they are only harvested on a single night after the first rain of the season and are therefore eaten with a dose of appropriate solemn appreciation.
We couldn’t help noticing coils of bright green sausages dangling above several of the butcher stands. These Green chorizo are made with pork, almonds, cilantro, raisins, peanuts and salsa verde and are cooked out of the casing for a highly popular taco, but none more so than the 100+ line outside Los Cocuyos, who serve Masisa (head meat) or Brisket chorizo tacos all day and all night long.
The last and most filling taco we tasted was called a Tlacoyo. These are grayish oval discs that get a helping of refried beans inserted inside the blue-corn masa which has been nixtamalized (corn detox) before being grilled and topped with meat, salsa and cheese.
And by way of dessert, nothing disappears faster than a bucket of fresh sugar and cinnamon infested mini Churros from Churrería El Moro.
It’s rather curious that many of the highly desirable restaurants in CDMX are open for breakfast and lunch, but not dinner. Some we asked said that dinner is a less important meal for locals, while others were more inclined to get home to be with their families. As a result CDMX is littered with prolific breakfast options not offered in most other cities. One baked goods standout is Panadería Rosetta.
This staple in the Roma neighborhood churns out all manner of breads, sandwiches and eggs, but the “I’ll have what she’s having” order is for the delectable Guava pastry (a round croissant with a central well of guava preserve and a dollop of cream cheese wedged into the base) or the vanilla/chocolate Concha (a very soft and fluffy brioche with a sugary crust). Just the way to start the day.
Every foodie you speak to will have at least 10 go-to favorites for meals in CDMX. I’ll do my best to narrow it down.
Contramar is definitely one of my top 2 – not just because Gabriela Cámara’s athletic waitstaff can turn a table in under 20 seconds or that they literally bolt past you at a sprint for the entire service, but for their Tuna tostadas (who no doubt have their own Facebook account by now) with an amazingly tart aioli, crispy fried onions and avocado, and their signature schizophrenic but sumptuous Grilled red snapper filet which sports a green parsley/garlic salsa on the left side and a red-orange chili on the right, encapsulating the Mexican flag on a plate. Make sure to leave room for their ridiculously hedonistic glazed Fig (cheesecake) tart and a glass of Carajillo – which is the cold Mexican version of a hot Irish coffee.
On a shady corner in Roma Norte, a converted house delivers one mega hit after the other at Bistro Máximo. Three of the French-leaning standouts in chef Eduardo Garcia’s tasting menu that I almost flipped over was a strip of Dominico banana topped with caviar and crème fraiche with a few dots of maple syrup for some unexpected sweetness, a formidable Tuna sashimi with shaved white truffles and a scrumptious Sweet potato-stuffed ravioli.
A few blocks away, chef Rodney Cusic serves up a truly inspired local ingredients using international techniques at Meroma. We tried the Roasted carrot salad with grilled cucumbers, wheat berries and an absolutely sublime oregano sesame dressing, rivaled only by the chile manzano dressing that supported a delightful Scallop tiradito with melon, wheat crisps and peppermint oil. Equally spectacular was the roasted lamb with an amazing green fennel sauce and cardamom pesto and the crispy Catch of the day, braised with roasted peppers, grilled cabbage, basil, pine nuts for layer upon flavored layer. I also had to try the surprisingly rich Condensed goat milk tart with whipped cream and chamomile.
And topping my list, chef husband and wife team Saqib and Norma’s fusion bistro Masala y Maiz is an absolute culinary utopia of bold flavors and accents from Mexico, India and East Africa. The menu is riddled with political commentaries and a mixture of family favorite dishes that push the boundaries of geography, stereotype and expectation.
According to one of the sous chefs, the Samosas de Temporada sit on a heavenly sauce “made from poppy seeds, curry spices, carrots and God knows what else”.
The sensational Camarones de Pa’ Pelar are first marinated and then cooked in the Grandma’s special chili and herb mixture – the contents of which were forbidden to reveal. The fried chicken Pollo Frito is marinated in yoghurt overnight and then coated in chickpea flour before being fried in coconut oil and dressed with a herb chutney and a jam of sweet and sour macha chilies. Chef Saqib also promotes a wide variety of “natural” wines that all hail from his personal friends’ vineyards in France, Italy and California.
Widening the field a bit, I would definitely include Yakumanka for their sensational ceviche, Noso for a litany of Basque specialties such as a Vichyssoise served over thick dollop of leek paste and their liquid nitrogen ice-cream, Panadería Ideal for the sheer overwhelming volume of their fresh cake, cookie and pastry selection convenientely located at eye and finger level, and if you happen to snag a reservation for the oh-so-trendily unavailable Pujol or Quintonil, be sure to give them my regards!