A New Taste of Mexico

© Mauricio Zubirats

Mix one part NAFTA-fueled economy with a generous helping of young talent—the result: culinary boom! Francisco Goldman explores Mexico City's sizzling restaurant scene.

My country house, the place where I go whenever I need to get away from the hectic pace of New York City, is, ironically enough, an apartment in Mexico City—one of the most populous and, by reputation at least, most polluted cities on earth. I've kept a second home there since 1995, in a neighborhood of treelined Parisian-style boulevards, lush parks, and well-kept residences called La Condesa. The area is full of boutiques, sidewalk cafés, at least two good bookstores, a few old-fashioned cantinas, and, nowadays, a startling and ever-expanding number of new restaurants and nightspots.

When I first arrived, La Condesa was little known, still quiet at night, and overwhelmingly residential. Back in the 1930s and '40s it had received a large influx of Jewish immigrants and refugees from Europe; in subsequent decades, having prospered in various businesses, these new arrivals moved out, bound for more upscale and suburban areas. But—just as happened in New York's East Village—the children and grandchildren of the immigrants began moving back to the old neighborhood, taking advantage of inexpensive rents and pursuing careers as artists and musicians. Nine years after I moved in, La Condesa is one of the trendiest places on the planet, home to a white-hot scene for the visual arts, design, and pop music, as well as to Mexico's blossoming film industry. Dozens of tapas bars and restaurants have sprung up in the interim and on weekday and weekend nights alike, they are jam-packed with a young and sophisticated international clientele.

It is possible to live in La Condesa without ever feeling a need to leave, but until quite recently the neighborhood had a serious flaw: The food in those trendy, crowded places really wasn't anything special—people came for the scene, not the menus. (Even now, only a handful of La Condesa's restaurants, some among the most recently established, are the exception.) It was a terrible neighborhood if you wanted to dine in relaxed intimacy, and especially disappointing if you hoped to sample Mexico City's truly excellent and diverse cuisine.

That meant going to another neighborhood, which in this town, especially by day, can be as stressful as traveling to another country. The city is composed of a vast mosaic of neighborhoods of such distinct character that they seem almost like small cities, or even separate republics. In layout, the Distrito Federal or "el D.F." (as Mexicans call Mexico City) is a bit like Los Angeles: a sprawling megalopolis set against an often smog-obscured backdrop of spectacular mountains, crisscrossed by traffic-choked avenues and expressways. As a general rule, during the daytime it is a better choice to eat in whatever neighborhood you happen to find yourself than to venture into the D.F.'s perpetually clogged streets. But a journey by taxi that might by day require a nerve-jangling hour can often be accomplished in 15 minutes by night and feel like a magic-carpet ride.

Coyoacán, San Angel, Copilco, Ciudad Universitaria, Santa Fe, La Zona Rosa, El Centro, Polanco (the list goes on and on)—these are the "independent republics" of the Federal District. Each has its own feel and, like La Condesa, each seems to be in the middle of a NAFTA-fueled boom. "As Mexico City gets more cosmopolitan each year, so does its restaurant scene," says David Lida, a writer and editor at D.F. Magazine. "We've had openings of Napa Valley-style haute Italians, fusion-Asians, various Catalan spots that offer innovative Spanish menus, and even a sushi bar where dishes appear on a conveyor belt." Throw these new contenders into the existing mix of traditional Mexican and seafood restaurants and you have one of the most interesting culinary scenes in the world.

Mexico City's Beverly Hills

Situated near Chapultepec Park (like New York's Central Park, only much vaster), the neighborhood of Polanco is the spiritual opposite of La Condesa. Perhaps "spiritual" is too substantial a word; "stylistic" is really more apt. While La Condesa is all about on-the-verge art, music, and moviemaking, Polanco is more polished—like the Upper East Side or Rodeo Drive. All the major European designer boutiques can be found here, as well as a crop of new boutique hotels. If culinary innovation and cutting-edge interior design are what you're after in a restaurant, this is the neighborhood for you. Right now, the W Hotel's Solea is the hottest place in Mexico City. The restaurant (designed by the U.S.-based Studio GAIA) has a chicly minimalist feel—like dining inside a giant LEGO construction—and it offers all sorts of innovations meant to wow Mexico City's jet-set class as well as international visitors. All the hostesses and waiters have, it seems, been trained to speak at least rudimentary English (definitely not the norm even in many of the city's top dining establishments). The menu offers a number of playful, surprisingly delicious Mexican-Asian-fusion concoctions. Ceviche is served from a trolley table that the waiters wheel to you (everywhere else, this common Mexican dish—think lobster salad in Maine—is prepared in the kitchen). You choose from an array of shrimp, octopus, oysters, and fish, and they mix it for you at your table (while conversing in English). Other highlights include a delicious appetizer of cold shrimp served with jicama, guacamole, and a sangrita sorbet. Here you can also sample one of the justly acclaimed new Mexican wines, the 1998 Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon from Baja California, a big-bodied red with a pleasing, earthy finish. Campos Eliseos 252; 52-55-9138-1800; starwoodhotels.com.

Epicenter of Trendiness

Nine years ago, the restaurants in La Condesa were still nondescript affairs, but even then there was a hint of the change about to come—not just in the neighborhood but in Mexican society as well. A low-key café called La Garufa, for example, had something rarely if ever seen in Mexico City: smart, pretty, young waitresses from middle-class backgrounds, who were all studying to do something else with their lives (to become actresses, graphic designers, or academics) and living alone or with friends in their own apartments. In the past, women from this socioeconomic set rarely took such "menial" work; in fact, most stayed at home with their parents until they married. (Young men of similar backgrounds also work in the restaurants and bars, but the women's presence there, given Mexico's historically rigid class- and gender-bound society, is much more significant.) This small development was an early manifestation of the way globalization has altered attitudes in Mexico City, creating an atmosphere in which young people now share many of the same assumptions about life as their counterparts in North American and European urban centers. Avenida Michoacán 93; 52-55-5286-8295; garufa.rest.

The first great restaurant to emerge from La Condesa's recent development boom is the hip and always-crowded seafood place Contramar (pictured above) located on Calle Durango, on the border between La Condesa and Colonia Roma. The interior is well lit, cheerful, and surprisingly simple. The goal, explains manager Rigoberto Fernandez, was to recreate the environment of the palm-thatched huts known as palapas, which serve food and drink at Mexico's beloved beaches. And on afternoons (Contramar is not open for dinner) when the wait to be seated is long and the tables are filled with Mexican cinema stars such as Gael García Bernal, the ambience remains relaxed and enjoyable. The raw tuna and smoked marlin tostadas are perfect starters. For a main dish, try the pescado a la talla, a butterflied and grilled catch of the day, one half covered in a sauce of red chili and achiote, the other in a green sauce of parsley and garlic. Simple and fresh, it is the ideal seafood dish. 200 Durango; 52-55-5514-3169; contramar.com.mx.

If you want to compare Polanco's glamorous if somewhat self-conscious nightlife with La Condesa's, fight your way into the rowdy crush at Pata Negra (30 Tamaulipas; 52-55-5211-5563, patanegra.com.mx) a tapas bar that is currently one of the neighborhood's (and the city's) most popular nightspots. To sample the excellent small bites and even to enjoy a bit of elbow space at the bar, you may want to arrive before 6 p.m. At 30 Tamaulipas; 52-55-5211-5563.

Another place to eat extremely well is Specia, which has been situated on the corner of Michoacán, on the other side of Parque Mexico since 1984. It is a favorite of the neighborhood's more moneyed longtime residents, and draws a busy lunchtime crowd of businesspeople. Its owner and chef, Gabriel Herrera, is invited to cook for the pope whenever he comes to Mexico. The restaurant specializes in Eastern European cuisine. Every meal begins with an appetizer of deliciously salty herring spread on a crepe. The roast duck is justifiably famous, but for me there is a special reason to go. Whenever I want comfort food—if I have a cold or just need a revitalizing meal—I head there for a bowl of their mushroom soup (to be followed by an order of stuffed cabbage). This simple concoction is layered and as rich and flavorful as its fragrance (like the deep forest after a rain) seems to promise. 241 Amsterdam; 52-55-5564-1367.

Bustling Hotel District

A friend of mine jokes that once something comes into fashion in Mexico City, it never goes out: The sidewalk mariachis, for example, have been singing Beatles songs for forty years. Chilangos, as residents of the D.F. are somewhat pejoratively referred to throughout Mexico (supposedly for their snootiness, though nobody here appears to mind the term), like to embrace the next big thing, but unlike, say, New Yorkers, they also like to hold on to the past. An example of this loyalty can be found on the old, polished cedar walls at Bellinghausen—in La Zona Rosa, the past-its-prime but still-busy tourist hotel zone halfway between La Condesa and the old city center. On these walls hang plaques honoring customers who've achieved the milestone of eating at the restaurant at least once a day for 25 years. The friendly and courtly white-jacketed waiters all seem to have been around at least as long. 95 Londres; 52-55-5207-6149; bellinghausen.mx.

This 89-year-old restaurant is one of a number of similarly enduring treasures that really distinguish the D.F. as a unique and wonderful dining city. It manages somehow to unite the elegance of one Mexican golden age (the 1930s era of the great bolero singers, muralists, writers, and film stars, like Dolores del Rio and María Felíx) with this new golden age in which the city seems to be overflowing with creative talent in all disciplines—from Gabriel García Márquez to the young Belgian artist Francis Alys—and Mexican films, like Y Tu Mamá También and Amores Perros, are once again winning international acclaim.

The restaurant is a favorite gathering place for politicians and some of the city's most venerated media and literary figures, such as the legendary newspaper columnist and writer Carlos Monsivais. Bellinghausen's food is consistently great, whether you order the salpicón de pescado (a tropically spiced red snapper tartare), the fantastic roast goat, or the famous filete chemita—an unusual center cut of beef that is one of the restaurant's trademark dishes: larger, softer, and tastier than filet mignon and served with a simple side of puréed potatoes. 

Nearby is the extraordinary Fonda el Refugio, opened 50 years ago by Judith de van Buren, a vanguard writer, diplomat, activist, and all-around woman ahead of her time. Of several excellent and long-lived restaurants serving classical Mexican cuisine in the city, this remains my favorite. (I'm not the only one who loves it. It was the Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz' favorite too. And Rick Bayless, chef of Chicago's Frontera Grill and champion of authentic Mexican cooking, has featured Fonda el Refugio on his television show and in his cookbooks.)166 Liverpool; 52-55-5525-5352.

Occupying a two-story house, it looks as if it were decorated by Frida Kahlo on one of her sunnier days; the gorgeous tiled kitchen-steal a peek—has been presided over by the same female chef for 26 years and she leads a noisy all-female crew of cooks. The waiters could be twin brothers of the friendly crew over at Bellinghausen. This must be the last restaurant in Mexico City that makes its own tortillas from scratch—the staff hulls and grinds the corn themselves—every day. Everything is delicious here, but the seasonal specialties are especially good, including chiles en nogada (mid-July to October), which are tricolored like the Mexican flag, stuffed with a ground-meat-and-dried-fruit mixture, and topped with a frothy cream of crushed walnuts and red pomegranate seeds. During the rainy season, try any of the dishes featuring huitlacoche, the flavorful and earthy corn fungus. My personal favorites also include their unmatched rendition of the classic tortilla soup, and pipian colorado, chicken in a sauce of ground pumpkin seeds and red chilies. 

Quiet, with Colonial-Era Charm

Located in a bucolic, cobblestone-paved neighborhood in the far south of the city, The San Angel Inn is one of my favorite places in Mexico City for cocktails. Once a Carmelite monastery, this 300-year-old former hacienda was at one time the plantation house of Spanish viceregal counts and marquises and, at another time, was the home of the 19th-century author Señora Frances Calderón de la Barca. The Scottish wife of the Spanish ambassador to Mexico, de la Barca wrote of her experiences during a two-year stay in the city in the immortal Life in Mexico. The building is also the site where Pancho Villa and General Emiliano Zapata made their pact during the Mexican Revolution. It has been an inn and restaurant for most of the last century and was a swank celebrity hangout decades ago—Robert Kennedy, Gina Lollobrigida, Rock Hudson, Brigitte Bardot were just a few of its many well-known patrons. Today it draws a mix of tourists and locals who make regular pilgrimages for a special night out. 50 Diego Rivera; 52-55-5616-1527; sanangelinn.com.

The restaurant's central patio garden is vast and beautiful; patrons sit in leather sofas or deep armchairs arranged in the covered outdoor corridors, or at tables amid the flower beds and around the central fountain. Cocktails are brought in a silver pitcher nestled in a bucket of ice so you can serve yourself chilled refills at your own sipping pace. The bar is a masculine, wonderfully comfortable timber-and-stucco haven with blazing fireplace on chilly nights. Sadly, the food is uneven; if you end up staying for dinner, many head to nearby Trattoria della Casa Nuova the chile rellenos are a good bet. One highlight from San Angel's menu not to be missed is isla flotante (floating island), the delicate classic dessert made of meringue, vanilla cream, and succulent strawberries and blackberries. 40 Avenida De La Paz; 52-55-5616-2678.

Old City Center Gets a Facelift

The old downtown is in a period of ambitious and hearteningly optimistic renovation right now. Investors and urban planners hope to restore the center, with its streets of centuries-old buildings—beautiful but in many cases dilapidated—to its long-ago glory. But many of the city's venerable restaurants are located here and won't need any facelift. My favorite among these is the old Basque seafood house Danubio founded in 1936—one of a number of downtown restaurants and cantinas opened by refugees and exiles from the Spanish civil war—whose signature dish of langostinos al mojo de ajo, a heaping platter of succulent, garlic-steeped crayfish, might be my favorite meal in all Mexico City. Popular with politicians and media types, as well as a favorite family gathering place on Sundays, Danubio's walls are covered with framed squares of tablecloth that have been autographed by notable clientele, including one signed in 1938 by the bullfighter Armillita Garza and another, signed more recently, by President Vicente Fox. 3 Uruguay; 52-55-5512-0912danubio.com.