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There are Great World Cities and there are Great Eating Cities. Often, of course, they are one and the same, but not always. To be a Great Eating City, it is not enough to have great food. You have to feel as though eating there is built into the bloodstream of the city, that to visit and not prioritize food and drink would be to miss something essential about the place.
Mexico City is a Great Eating City.
Options overwhelm: high and low; plates balanced on knees while you sit on plastic chairs on the sidewalk or avant-garde tasting menus served in gleaming towers (“Look for the security guards” were the instructions I was given on the way to one of the latter); markets, pastry shops, cantinas, and cocktail bars; late night, early morning; ingredients and dishes from every part of Mexico and from the wide world beyond. I arrived pre-full.
The Great World City part, anyway, should be well established, as Americans have headed to Mexico City in droves in recent years, coming back with tales—and social media feeds—depicting a fantasia of cafés, museums, galleries, and parks, all a relatively short flight away. Going there can feel like that dream of suddenly discovering an unknown extra room in your house, if that room was Paris.
Such comparisons—“the New Berlin” is one of the more popular—have both boosted and bedeviled Mexico City. In a megalopolis of 22 million people, the vast majority of whom live on the wrong side of a massive economic divide, the reality is far messier. Yes, Mexico City is genuinely, splendidly cosmopolitan: There are great restaurants, great coffee, great museums, and great parks. There are also bike lanes and boutiques and bookstores. There is a distinguished culture of long, boozy lunches and equally extended nightlife. In addition to a subway system that New Yorkers might envy, the city is said to have the most Uber drivers of any in the world; that, along with Airbnb, may have done as much as anything to smooth the way for the recent influx of visitors. The city has a venerable history of literary and political exiles, a bohemian frisson evoked by a particular species of old-world-seeming characters you see lingering in cafés and restaurants with their rumpled suits, heavy-framed glasses, and stubby cigarettes.
But Mexico City is thrillingly, maximally, urban in more ways than just these: The way it fills the airplane window as you first glimpse it, mile after mile of streets and buildings, spilling to the horizon in all directions. The layers of ancient, modern, and every era in between, in what has been a world capital for seven centuries. The buzz of infinite human activity. The chaos and the tantalizing glimpses of whatever baroque, tenuous, shifting systems hold the chaos together. It’s bewildering, a little frightening, containing multitudes, ultimately unknowable, though I was determined to do my best.
Mostly, though, I came to eat. At Contramar, where squadrons of waiters swoop in and out between the tables of politicians, actors, and other important Chilangos (as Mexico City dwellers are called), rolling the circular tables around like military ordnance, I downed chef Gabriela Cámara’s famous tuna tostadas. (Perhaps the most transgressive thing I’ve done as a food writer was to eat both lunch and dinner there in a single day, with a glorious nap in between.) At the city’s other legendary lunch spot, Restaurante Nicos, I tucked into fillet of trout, the flesh steamed in a tamale wrapper and perfumed with the pungent herb epazote. I crowded into a tiny eating area at Pescadería El Puerto de Alvarado, a stall in the Centro’s San Juan Market, for sweet, briny “chocolate” clams, plucked straight from the ice, and I settled into the plush, ocean-liner-like dining room of Carmela y Sal, in tony Polanco, for pejelagarto, a toothy garfish native to Tabasco, served as a “taco” on crisp, cold disks of cabbage.
Of course I wanted tacos minus the quotation marks, too. Al pastor, to start—one of the few dishes Mexico City can claim as indigenous— but then all the rest: carnitas, tripe, tongue, endless varieties of guisados, ladled out of rust-colored earthenware bowls arrayed in street stalls. The warm tortillas in which all of these came wrapped was only the tip of the iceberg compared with the Nebraska-sized acres of corn-with-something-onor-in-it I would consume. As many words as Inuits are said to have for snow, so too do Mexicans for nixtamal corn—boiled and soaked in an alkaline solution, then pulverized to make masa—in its various incarnations: formed into disk-shaped sopes and football-shaped tlacoyos, stuffed with beans to make huaraches or stuffed itself into corn husks or banana leaves to make tamales. After a few days, I felt a bit like a tamale myself.
Much of the best food in Mexico City, including all of the above, is found on the street, in the infinite array of puestos—from simple pushcarts to virtual mini-restaurants—that crowd sidewalks everywhere. For visitors, this is the most forward-facing piece of what David Lida, the author of the prescient and entertaining First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, calls Mexico City’s “improvised economy.” But masa is hardly limited to the streets. Making nixtamal is an ancient and elemental process, but it is also enjoying a kind of hipster renaissance as a reaction against industrialized foods, particularly the more than 2,000 tortillas that each Mexican is said to consume every year. The entire means of craft tortilla production—from barrels filled with soaking kernels to a press stamping out perfect circles—is on display behind the counter of Molino el Pujol, a bright and airy tamale shop recently opened by chef Enrique Olvera, whose high-end Pujol has long been an international dining destination. The same is true at Tamales Madre, in the quickly emerging neighborhood of Juárez, where you descend, Peter Pan–like, over a ledge and through open French doors into a slightly sunken, almost Japanese-feeling space for seven varieties of tamales made on premises, each with its own wrapper and accoutrements. “Whose mother is honored in the restaurant’s name?” I asked the chef, Rubén Amador, as he worked on wrapping a new batch. “¡Todas las madres!” he answered, without hesitation.
An omnipresent obsession with food is nothing new in Mexico City. But, Elena Reygades told me, something has definitely changed in the past decade or so. Though only in her early forties, Reygades qualifies as something of a grande dame—one of a group of women, including Contramar’s Gabriela Cámara and restaurateur and TV personality Mónica Patiño, who have defined Mexico City’s food scene. We were sitting in the sun on the sidewalk patio outside Reygades’s flagship restaurant, Rosetta; we could see the perpetual line outside her pastry shop, Panadería Rosetta, across the street. When she opened Rosetta, in 2010, the native Chilanga said, there was still plenty of head-scratching at the mostly Italian menu. “People would ask, ‘Are you really going to eat Italian food in Mexico City?’ ” She said the skepticism was frustrating. “We had this huge Mexican tradition, but maybe we treated it with too much respect. We weren’t really free.”
In recent years, she said, the influx of visitors and a more intimately connected food world, in which ideas and inspirations rocket around the planet via Instagram, have broken down some of those barriers and ushered in more globally minded restaurants.
Not surprisingly, that movement is also driven by a group of inspired women. At Masala y Maíz, Norma Listman is exploring the intersections of Mexican, African, and Indian cuisines. At Meroma, Mercedes Bernal uses immaculate Mexican ingredients for dishes that draw inspiration from all over the world—including something as simple as Caesar salad—best enjoyed on a leafy balcony that overlooks the sidewalks of Roma Norte. At Pizza Félix, Adriana Lerma is aiming to reproduce the perfect Neapolitan pizza. At Cicatriz, set on a pretty roundabout in Juárez, American expat Scarlett Lindeman and her brother, Jake, have built a convincing simulacrum of an all-day Brooklyn café, complete with avocado toast and laptops, a chicken sandwich that perpetually makes the Instagram rounds, and a raucous scene of creatives enjoying classic cocktails by night.
It happens that all these women are friends and part of an ad hoc online support group. They exchange practical information and help one another negotiate the byzantine hurdles of Mexico City’s bureaucracy. “Someone will be like, ‘I got all these beautiful pears. Who needs some?’ or ‘My dishwasher didn’t show up! Does anybody have a spare person?’ We try to help each other through the maze,” said Lindeman.
If the food and style these places create do not seem sufficiently “Mexican,” well, that opens a set of metaphysical questions about place and culture and “authenticity” that confronts nearly every modern traveler in our ever-shrinking, ever-more-similar world, whether to New Orleans or Paris, or Indianapolis, or Minsk. They are, though, indisputably a part of how Mexico City eats today.
One restaurant (I use that word against the wishes of its chef—who also doesn’t want to be called “chef” ) seemed to embody nearly all the contrasts and contradictions and pleasures of dining in Mexico City. This in itself was a kind of paradox, because it was also unlike any place I’ve ever eaten.
It’s called Expendio de Maíz Sin Nombre, or “the corn shop without a name.” Coming upon it, on the otherwise gentrified Avenida Yucatán in Roma Norte, you feel you have stumbled onto a stage set: a dark, cavern-like re-creation of a rural Mexican kitchen, open to the street, built from roughhewn black stone and dominated by a comal, a wide, smooth cooking surface. Straw baskets containing herbs and vegetables hang from the ceiling. Rust-colored ceramic bowls and grizzled mortars-and-pestles called molcajetes are stacked like archaeological artifacts beneath the counter. Between this tableau and the street are two picnic tables for customers.
There is no menu; after a conversation with your server about your level of hunger, dishes simply begin arriving. For me, it was a warm, fresh tortilla piled with squash blossoms, pepitas, hominy, and the sharp, almost minty herb hoja santa. A squat corn cake beneath a guisado of smoky chile de arbol and beans, brightened with shreds of Swiss chard. A taquito providing a cracker-thin platform for beans and cecina, the salted beef. There is no earthly reason why dishes so overstuffed shouldn’t be a total mess, but somehow these had structure, balance— even a kind of lightness. After each, the server would approach.
“¿Quiere mas?” You want more?
“¿Tiene mas?” You have more?
Peering into the kitchen, I could see that the comal was being manned by a woman with thickly tattooed arms and broad, plaited braids dyed blue. I had the feeling that as long as I kept saying “Sí,” she would keep sending out ever-more-creative dishes. It was—I’m very sorry—a Mexican standoff.
I did, eventually, cry “Enough!” but I returned that evening to meet the man who is behind Expendio. During a post-closing family meal, Jesús Tornés sat at one of the tables, surrounded by his staff, with a big jug of clear, homemade mezcal making the rounds. Tornés has messy, longish hair, sleepy eyes, and a guru vibe. The woman with the blue hair introduced herself as Ana González. I sensed she was the secondin-command but that such hierarchies were frowned on in this place. “I hate chefs” was one of the first things Tornés said, kicking off a long story of his education at a much-hated culinary school. He teared up at one point, eliciting murmurs of “Ay, papi” from the rapt staff. After school, he traveled widely through Mexico’s countryside, especially his native Guerrero, largely by bike, learning rural cooking techniques and building relationships with farmers and producers. Eventually he opened a stall in Mexico City’s organic Mercado el 100, where he met the businessman who let him set up shop next to his existing restaurant, a bar popular with fresas (as Chilango yuppies are called), few of whom are likely aware of the bizarre culinary art project going on next door.
Tornés often cooks himself, but when he’s off at the market, or visiting his network of farms, whichever deputy takes the helm has total freedom: The cook might re-create a pre-Columbian dish from Guerrero, or riff on Peruvian ceviche, or something entirely from imagination. Some diners may stand by international stars like Pujol or Quintonil. I’m convinced that Expendio de Maíz Sin Nombre has the best tasting menu in Mexico.
“What I want is for you to feel that whoever is cooking was waiting here to make love to you,” Tornés said, closing his eyes. “To marry you.” The table murmured its assent.
The mezcal in Tornés’s jug was clear as rainwater but rich and wild-tasting. Floating down Avenida Yucatan after a few slugs, I could feel it moving through my bloodstream, just as I felt, for a brief moment, a part of the flow of the city around me. “It’s a place that could only exist in Mexico City, that’s for sure,” someone had told me with a laugh, before I went to Expendio, which is all the qualification for a Great Eating City that I, or anyone else, should ever need.
Mexico City Essentials
ROSETTA, PANADERÍA ROSETTA, AND CAFÉ NIN
The beautiful dining room at Rosetta, Elena Reygades’s flagship, is the ideal setting for her deft fusion of Italian and Mexican cuisines. Folks have long lined up for pastries at the Panadería across the street, but they can now get the same items at Café Nin, in the Juárez neighborhood.
MASALA Y MAÍZ
A restaurant that plumbs the connections between South Asian, African, and Mexican foodways in dishes that are unexpected, inspired, and wildly delicious.
The food at this bi-level restaurant encapsulates the wave of globally-influenced cuisine spreading through the city.
MOLINO EL PUJOL
Mexico City’s king of highend dining, Enrique Olvera, recently opened this casual, masa-centric spot for breakfast and lunch.
Gral. Benjamín Hill 146; 52-55-5271-3515.
This one-room, modern haven is dedicated to the many faces of one of Mexico City’s most ubiquitous foods. Calle Liverpool 44a; 52-55-5705-3491.
An international all-day café done to Brooklyn perfection, on a lovely Juarez square.
This classic al pastor stall in the Centro is a sublime introduction to Mexico City’s seemingly endless street-food scene.
EXPENDIO DE MAÍZ SIN NOMBRE
Jésus Tornés’s sidewalk restaurant is unlike any other—an adventure in rural Mexican food and beyond— and is worth giving yourself over to.
BÓSFORO AND SIN NOMBRE
Located in the Centro, Bósforo has a legendary collection of mezcals from around Mexico. At Sin Nombre’s dark nook of
a room next door, you can fortify yourself with simple but revelatory small plates. Luis Moya 31; 52-55-5510-2697.
This venerable lunch spot blends traditional Mexican cuisine seamlessly with innovative technique
A raucous daytime canteen for Mexico City’s elite (and plenty of American visitors), Gabriela Cámara’s restaurant is a dream for the mariscos-minded.
CARMELA Y SAL
Chef Gabriela Ruiz Lugo brings her inimitable soulful cooking to an upscale space in tony Polanco. Pedregal 24; 52-55-7600-1280.
MERCADO DE SAN JUAN
Stalls selling various edible insects (with shots of tequila) are only the most sensational part of the Centro’s food market, which overflows with fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish. Calle de Ernesto Pugibet 2
David Lida leads excellent tours focused on themes ranging from street food to culture.
WHERE TO STAY