Eating Mexico City, An Introduction

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Eating Mexico City, An Introduction
From stellar street food to memorable meals with modernist influences, Mexico City offers a tantalizing array of dining options. What all these eateries have in common is a love of local produce and pride in tradition.
By Julie Schwietert Collazo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo
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    Start with the Street Food
    Combine a sprawling city whose streets are lined with sidewalks wide enough for stalls with dozens of markets peddling fresh-from-the-farm ingredients, add millions of inhabitants, and you have all the makings of a vibrant street food scene. Even if you're fluent in Spanish, you'll find that street food has its own parlance and you may want a guide to teach you about ordering and eating street tacos, tlacoyos, and tlayudas. Outfitter Eat Mexico will do just that, showing you all the safe—and scrumptious—spots for street food eats. (They also offer market tours.)
    Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo
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    Fine Mexican Dining
    Each year, Restaurant Magazine releases a list of the world's 50 best restaurants; in 2015 and 2016, three Mexico City eateries ranked on this prestigious roster. Pujol, by chef Enrique Olvera, is largely credited with giving birth to modernist Mexican cuisine. Olvera's menu is rooted in Mexican culinary traditions and ingredients, though always with a twist—whether in technique, taste, presentation, or all three. Quintonil, helmed by chef Jorge Vallejo, has a similar focus; in fact, Vallejo was an Olvera protégé. Biko, run by two chefs from Spain's Basque region, is a larger restaurant with two menus—one more traditional, the other more avant-garde. All three restaurants are located in the Polanco neighborhood. Book in advance.
    Photo courtesy of Biko
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    Breakfast of Champions
    Mexico redefines the breakfast of champions. Though plenty of folks grab a pastry and a café con leche and others opt for lighter fare like yogurt, the typical Mexican breakfast is a stomach-filling meal that will keep you going until lunch—traditionally taken around three in the afternoon. Breakfast favorites include huevos divorciados (divorced eggs—two fried eggs, one topped with red salsa and the other with green salsa) and chilaquiles (tortilla chips heaped with eggs, salsa, cheese, beans, and often chicken). Try either dish at the restaurants inside any Sanborns department store, which evoke the bygone era of the lunch counter–type diner.
    Photo by Jared Castaldi/age fotostock
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    The Tastes of Modern Mexico
    Modernized Mexican cuisine is all the rage in the capital's upscale kitchens, but this is no flash-in-the-pan trend. Contemporary chefs, many of whom cite Enrique Olvera of Pujol as an influence, hardly need to look beyond the country's borders for inspiration: Mexico has a thriving farming industry, a rich and remarkably diverse culinary history (each region has a distinct style of cooking and signature dishes), and an ever-growing number of artisanal producers making everything from Mexican cheese to chocolate, honey, wine, and beer. Top spots to try modern Mexican include Dulce Patria, where delicious meals are matched by whimsical plate presentations, and Quintonil, where traditional ingredients such as cactus find new life.
    Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo
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    Grasshoppers and Other Market Munchies
    One of the most beloved institutions in every Mexico City neighborhood is the local market, where produce, meats, fish, sweets, and snacks of every conceivable variety are sorted and stacked into irresistible piles. No cajoling from vendors is required to seal the deal, but you may need some guidance in identifying goods you've probably never seen before. At Mercado San Juan on Calle Ernesto Pugibet, the preferred market for Mexico City chefs, look for bags and buckets of chapulines. These airy, slightly crunchy grasshoppers are a traditional snack, and are often sold enchilados, or spiced. If these strike your fancy, you may also want to try ants, ant larvae (escamoles), and more.
    Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo
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    Snacking on the Street
    You can never go hungry in Mexico City. In addition to stands and stalls selling tacos and other meat-cheese-vegetable-tortilla combinations, vendors with pushcarts sell all sorts of snacks on-the-go. While these are ubiquitous, they're most easy to find in and around parks and around the periphery of the city's main plaza, the Zócalo. Popular treats include homemade potato chips, doused with a generous splash of hot sauce; freshly peeled fruit (coconut, mango, melons, papaya, pineapple, mamey, and jicama), gilded with chile powder and a squeeze of fresh lime juice; big ears of corn on the cob, slathered with mayonnaise and rolled in cheese (chile optional); and all other manner of sweet and savory treats.
    Photo by Richard T. Nowitz/age fotostock
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    Mexico City's Sweet Tooth
    Mexico City is a tough place to visit if you're on a diet; pastries, ice creams, and other dulces tempt you at nearly every turn. For traditional pastries stop by Pastelería Ideal, which has been satisfying customers since 1927. Be sure to visit the second floor, where large cakes are displayed (you won't soon forget the lucha libre-themed cake). If your sweet tooth wakes you up in the middle of the night head to El Moro Churrería, an institution since 1935. This spot specializes in churros and hot chocolate served four different ways (Mexican, French, Spanish, or Swiss), and is open 24/7. For artisanal treats, visit Que Bo! or Le Caméléon, where novelty chocolates feature fillings like grasshoppers or chili.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    International Eats in Mexico City
    As Mexico's capital, Mexico City has a large expat population; each year, many restaurants focused on global cuisine open around the city—some run by expats, others by Mexican chefs inspired by their travels. Head to the Zona Rosa neighborhood for Korean bulgogi at Biwon, or to Asian Bay in Condesa for Cantonese food. El Jamil, also in Condesa, is one of several Lebanese restaurants in the capital, and is widely considered the finest. For handmade pasta and Italian favorites, upscale Rosetta in Colonia Roma is the place to go; located in a colonial mansion, the restaurant is headed by a Mexican chef who perfected her skills under an Italian chef in London.
    Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo
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    Eating around the Clock
    Culture and commerce thrive at all hours in Mexico City and so, of course, must restaurant kitchens. No matter what time of day or night hunger strikes, you can find a spot to get sated. A surprising number of restaurants that stay open late (or even 24/7) are upscale, including Au Pied de Cochon and Brasserie Lipp, both of which are located in hotels in the Polanco neighborhood. For humbler fare on a budget, there's La Casa de Toño, which serves up pozole (a hominy and pork–based stew) all day and night; it's the perfect post-party meal if you've been clubbing in Zona Rosa. And if you're looking for sweets, El Moro serves churros round-the-clock.
    Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo
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    Historic Restaurants and Caf├ęs
    There are many reasons why some of the most epic episodes in Mexican and Latin American history have happened—or at least got their start—in the capital's cafés and restaurants. For one thing, Mexico City is the country's crossroads, and one of the region's most important capital cities. For another, traditions like the late, leisurely lunch (which can take several hours) and sharing drinks with friends at a cantina inevitably invite long conversations. Visit Café La Habana to see where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro planned the Cuban Revolution, or Bar La Opera, where a notorious cast of characters central to the Mexican revolution got soused. Pancho Villa left his mark there—ask about the bullet hole he left behind.
    Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo