Find the best dishes in one of the world’s top foodie destinations, known for its blend of local ingredients and experimental flavors, as well as its haute culinary scene.
Bon Appetit ranked it the top travel destination for food lovers in 2008. The New York Times food critic, Mark Bittman, has practically swooned over it. Saveur has done a cover feature on it, calling it “North America’s food capital.” And there’s an entire library with volumes of books dedicated to it in the Centro Histórico.
“It” is Mexico City, where the food scene is as vast, complex and exciting as the city itself. There are the street food stalls, of course, which have been serving up comida corrida (fast food) for decades: heaps of spicy, grill-cooked meat piled atop corn and flour tortillas, garnished with onions, peppers, cheeses and various salsas. Market food stalls have been around even longer, slow-cooking enormous clay pots of soups and stews for hungry workers taking their afternoon lunch break.
But increasingly, Mexico City is also a preferred destination for travelers with a taste for haute cuisine. This phenomenon should be little cause for wonder. Mexicans have some of the most diverse, adventurous palates in the world. Want proof? Just read the ingredients for mole, one of Mexico’s prized plates.
Furthermore, Mexico produces the majority of food it consumes: vegetables like squash blossoms, zucchini, broccoli and an innumerable variety of chili peppers; fruits, including blueberries, strawberries and papaya; exotic meats, such as ostrich, wild boar, goat and venison, as well as locally raised beef, chicken and pork; and seafood—including jumbo shrimp larger than any you’ve ever seen—that rivals the best port cities.
Mexico also offers a whole range of regional, artisanal cheeses and some homegrown foods that are truly unique: chapulines (roasted grasshoppers) and worm’s eggs mixed with salt to rim cocktail glasses. There’s no lack of local ingredients to stir inventive chefs’ imaginations, and hungry diners are the beneficiaries of so much inventiveness.
Mexico City is home to several culinary institutes, including an outpost of Le Cordon Bleu. In addition to turning out a bumper crop of domestic chefs each year, the capital consistently attracts top chefs from abroad, making Mexico City a competitive cooking scene and one of the most exciting food destinations on the planet. So how can you possibly choose from the thousands of options on your plate? The answer: Take advice from a local who has chewed her way around the capital.
First, there are some cultural culinary conventions to learn to make your meal more memorable.
Fortunately, Mexicans love to talk about food as much as they love to make it, eat it and share it, so you’ll not be at a loss for an enthusiastic local to decode the menu for you if you ask.
While there are several places to get terrific food, here are three of my favorite places that offer a top meal and great atmosphere.
Gone are the days when hotel restaurants were only for guests who were desperately hungry or reluctant to venture out into the surrounding neighborhoods. Today, at least in Mexico City, hotel restaurants are themselves a worthy destination. The food at El Patio in the boutique hotel Condesa df in the hip Colonia Condesa Mexico City neighborhood is exceptional (super-fresh fish, tender and toothsome meats, and a divine chamomile panna cotta), but so is the setting. The lighting is low, the space is ample, the vibe is cool without being pretentious, and the neighborhood offers plenty of options for before or after meal activities, including a walk around the adjacent park or free bicycle rentals. At an average of $16 to $20 per entrée, the prices aren’t bad, either.
Avenida Veracruz N. 102, Colonia Condesa. Tel. +52-55-5241-2600. Hours: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. www.condesadf.com
You wouldn’t think that a restaurant on a university campus has much more draw than a hotel restaurant, but Azul y Oro is consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants in the city. Getting there is a challenge—it’s in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) compound, located just at the edge of the city’s limits—but the reward is worth it. The menu is influenced by the traditional foods of Oaxaca, with some contemporary flourishes. The prices are high for students, but are likely to be comfortable for most travelers, with entrées topping out around 100 pesos (US$10).
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico campus. Tel. +52-55-5622-7135. Hours: Sun. to Thu., 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Biko in Mexico City has been rated one of the 100 best restaurants in the world (and one of only two in Latin America) by the British magazine, Restaurant, so a foodie virtually has an obligation to eat here and decide whether he or she agrees. The foundation of the food is Spanish (as in Spain), with touches of Mexican ingredients and techniques, but the concept, presentation and setting are as important as the meal itself. It’s a pricey meal, but a memorable one, so save this recommendation for a splurge-worthy occasion.
407 Presidente Masaryk, Colonia Polanco. Tel. +52-55-5282-2064. Hours: Mon. to Sat., 1:30 to 11 p.m. www.biko.com.mx
Destinations: Mexico City