10 Things You Have to Eat (and Drink) in Mexico City
Mind-blowing flavors. Cool people. Foodie heaven.
Mexico City is a brilliant choice for foodies anxious to experience the high to low, homegrown to flown-in dining options in this deliciously diverse city. From street food eaten standing up, to a remarkable 11-course meal with a dessert that rivaled a Vegas production prepared by the talented French chef Sylvain Desbois at the St. Regis, I felt pretty certain during a recent trip to Mexico City that I only scratched the surface of this cosmopolitan city’s incredible cuisine.
In 2010 UNESCO named traditional Mexican cuisine an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And the city’s residents, chefs and servers are rightfully proud of their cuisine and anxious to share the breadth and depth with visitors. Food in Mexico City is farm-to-table inventive, defined by fresh flavors and unexpected combinations (crickets and tacos! Who knew?). Mole comes in every imaginable flavor and there is always a shot glass of the exceedingly diverse flavors of mezcal close by to wash it all down. The hippest Brooklyn watering hole has nothing on the complex cocktails and ambient pre-Hispanic cool at Xaman run by French owners Romain Morice and Anthony Zamora (more on this in a later story) where I got to unleash my inner bartender and create some of their signature cocktails.
Mexico also has a vibrant craft beer scene. I sampled a small selection from the more than 17 Mexican-made beers on offer at the swanky St. Regis. In Mexico City you’ll find interesting fusions of traditional cuisine and new techniques, from foams to craft cocktails and the same kind of sophisticated food that trend-scouting urbanites hunt for in New York, Paris or Rome.
Some of my favorite tastes:
I am embarrassed to say before I visited Mexico City, I didn’t really “get” mezcal. I had experienced a few mezcal cocktails at hipster boites in Atlanta, but tasting this indigenous, artisanal liquor in its country of origin was a revelation. Mexico City residents drink mezcal straight, the better to appreciate the various gradations of smoky and sweet, smooth and punchy in this liquor distilled from the agave plant. While the better-know Mexican liquor, tequila, is by law only distilled from the blue agave, mezcal can be sourced from the more than 30+ varieties of agaves so the flavor varies wildly. Slowly sipping and savoring mezcal is more like wine tasting than the quickly downed tequila shot. Almost every restaurant has some favorite selections on hand (there are over 9,000 mezcal producers in the country), but one of my favorites was Papadiablo sampled at the brand-new and very hip café, Amaya, created by renowned Mexico City chef Jair Téllez who, along with his lovely, very pregnant wife (fun fact: they met on Tinder!) was the consummate host. Also, mezcal is known as “god’s elixir,” so you can’t really go wrong with an endorsement like that.
2: Turkey torta at Tortas Tortas
The incredible turkey tortas at the street food stand Tortas Tortas (54 Dolores Street in the downtown historic center) operated by Luis “Luigi” Buenrostro come accessorized with avocado and homemade chipotle salsa and like all great street food, demand to be eaten standing, right then and there, salsa dripping down your arm, as soon as they’re dished up. But just in case, there are plastic benches to perch on if you want to savor this local delicacy with a modicum of dignity.
3: Carrot salsa at Fonda Mayora
The hopping Fonda Mayora bistro in the hipster-thick Condesa neighborhood is the perfect Saturday afternoon stop for people- and dog-watching (and a little sidewalk shopping too, since a parade of vendors offer up everything from tunics to rugs to local honey while you eat). Mexico City residents traditionally eat out en famille on Saturdays and you get a real taste for the character of the city and its people at this exceptional restaurant. Food is inventive and satisfying, like high-concept comfort food. Chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo, an architect turned "cook" in his words, is a charmer, and all his food, from the tableside guacamole to a hot pink, deeply refreshing drink of hibiscus, chia and cinnamon is exceptional. But I was crazy for his fresh, spicy salsa made from shredded carrots, chipotle pepper, onion, garlic and tomato; a nice punch of flavor when so many waiters offer tourists the sweetly reassuring news that food is “not too spicy.” If, like me, you prefer when restaurants bring the spice, then you will love this unpretentious, forward-thinking restaurant.
Check out their fun Instagram feed.
4: Avocado pizza at the St. Regis, Mexico City
Note: I’m not going to get into my 11-course haute cusine marathon Krug dinner at the St. Regis quite yet. I will have more to come on my Mexico City trip. So for now, I will highlight some of the more accessible food pleasures at this high-end resort-in-the-city.
It sounds so simple: an avocado pizza with thin slices of Mexico’s favorite fruit layered like rose petals, cooked on a thin pizza crust and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of serrano chili and a mist of lime. But this speciality of the Mexico City St. Regis celebrates the sublimity of fresh, native ingredients prepared without too much fancy intervention. Chef de Cuisine at J&G Grill Mexico City Olivier Deboise Mendez walked me through making the pizza, including a nifty hack to remove the avocado pit with a quick stab of a very sharp knife (apparently everyone knows this trick but me).
This is just the kind of fancy hotel snack and international comfort food you want as you sip a ginger margarita (or one of the hotel’s endless Mexican craft beers, if that’s more your speed) and watch the world go by. The grill describes itself as “contemporary American with local influence” and that’s a pretty nifty way of encapsulating the mix of the familiar with a touch of the exotic that exhausted international travelers sometimes yearn for after a long day of adventure and street food.
5: Escamoles para taquear at Los Danzantes
Mexicans celebrate the other protein. No, not chicken: bugs. They are for sale at local markets, and pop up in a variety of dishes, as an add-in to guacamole, a taco filling, a coffee-like puree sprinkled on dishes. If you need a bit more psychological distance when eating bugs, and the idea of a crispy grasshopper peeking out of your taco gives you the willies, then you might want to try the giant ant eggs on the menu at the convivial, buzzing Coyoacan neighborhood restaurant Los Danzantes. This spot stocks an incredible array of mezcals (many of them sourced from their own distillery) to sample but be sure and ask for the buttery, crunchy, corn-like ant eggs (genus Liometopum), each about the size of a ball bearing and harvested from the root of the agave. This insect caviar, considered a delicacy by the Aztecs, epitomizes the unique foodways of the country, both ancient but also well-suited to the needs of a changing planet embracing new forms of protein.
6: Mushrooms at Amaya
Chef Jair Téllez is as much an undeniable fan of the pig as any of the Southern-born chefs I love in Atlanta, so expect pig’s ears and other swine delicacies to show up on the menu. But he also has a particular way with seemingly simple ingredients, giving a rustic, pared-back preparation that allows their true flavor and beauty to shine through. Such is the case with a gorgeous bowl of mushrooms Téllez served up at a preview of his newest restaurant. The dish's earthy flavors were the perfect complement to the bracing mezcal Téllez brought out to accompany.
7: Churros dipped in chocolate at El Moro
Mexico City’s answer to Krispy Kreme, the old school coffee shop El Moro features adorable waitresses in peacock-blue uniforms and crisp white aprons and an old world space whose chilly tile floors and low lights offer a respite from the sun and crowds beyond. It is the perfect way to start your day anytime, but seems like it would be required supping after a night of mezcal-abuse, with its perfect blend of caffeine, grease and sugar. Order the churros, and any of the varities of dipping chocolate—Mexicano, Espanol, Francés—from sugary to more subdued and start dunking. Absolute perfection.
8: Mole at Pujol
It doesn’t get edgier, more experimental but also more rooted in local food culture than it does at Pujol, celebrity chef Enrique Olvera’s gorgeous, romantic hot spot, named to San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. Service is exceptional, the staff unobtrusive but incredibly knowledgeable and the dark, velvet-encased atmosphere undeniably sexy. A rotating cast of beautiful couples commanded intimate tables hugging the wall, adding to the seductive atmosphere. Olvera’s food is absurdly clever but the flavors are never upstaged by fussy presentation. A medley of street foods starts the meal, including baby corn on skewers served from a hollowed out gourd so diners could gather around the dish like a warming campfire. A dusting of powdered chicatana (flying) ant, coffee and costeno chile mayonnaise transported street food to the realm of haute cuisine.
But one of the singular Pujol experiences is a hyper-conceptual pre-dessert offering of two moles, a “baby” mole nuevo and a “mother” mole madre arranged like an enticing bull’s eye on the plate, with the dark brown mother encasing the nutty brown baby within. The particular madre mole we were eating was a 990-day old classic, and had a nutty, dense depth of flavor utterly different from its babe. Not too sweet, it was the perfect punctuation to the restaurant’s signature, singular six-course feast.
9: Blue corn tlacoyos
Street vendors in Mexico City and some restaurants also feature this gorgeous, flavorful spin on the traditional tortilla, but in this case made from ground blue corn. Seek them out whenever and wherever you can. You won’t be sorry. Part of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic food traditions, the diamond-shaped blue corn tlacoyo is cooked on a small metal griddle with a shelf inside for the hot coals and often holds a mash of fava beans and cactus salad and cheese. But it is that magical taste and color of the blue corn that transports this dish to another place entirely. Look for the lovely women, Rocio and Yvonne, hunched over their cook stove and handing over these tlacoyos at a street stand near Calle Lopez, to experience some of the most memorable tlacoyos in the city.
10: Rajas con crema at Roldan 37
After touring the chaotic, must-see Merced Market, a food hall and grocery shopping destination in one, where glistening fruta cristalizada, endless varieties of mole and a food stall crowned with some pseudo golden arches offers tacos topped with a heaping helping of French fries, you’ll want to come down from that melee with a relaxing cocktail and snack from the atmospheric Restaurante Roldan 37. Pictures of Jesus and the last supper set a tranquil tone. The second floor with lovely small balconies and floor to ceiling windows flung open to catch the breeze is an otherworldly experience, a moment to savor the food but also the uniquely lost-in-time atmosphere that often rubs up against big-city amenities in this wonderfully contradictory city. I was especially taken by the rajas con crema, featuring chunky strips of poblano pepper with rich cream, cheese and onion. There is a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant located inside a grocery store in my Atlanta neighborhood that makes its own rajas con crema and it felt oddly like going home, experiencing this familiar dish abroad.
I stopped for a moment to watch one of the many street vendors along Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma prepare this transportable snack served out of a cup: layering roasted corn, mayonnaise, cheese, hot pepper and lime and all over again to the top. “You have to try it,” advised the twentysomething standing next to me waiting on two portions, one for himself and one for his girlfriend who hadn’t yet experienced the esquites in her neck of Mexico. I promised him I would, but was too full from a leisurely lunch of the requisite endless courses, dessert and free-flowing mezcal. I never found another chance to try esquites during my trip, but his enthusiastic, eyes-rolling-back-in-his-head endorsement made me anxious to return to Mexico City very soon. Esquites, I'm coming for you.