The magic of Mexico City

Local food scene merges tradition, innovation.

How integral is food to Mexico City’s culture? My taxi driver from the airport offered me a plate of her chicken tinga tacos. From a covered platter she kept inside her cab. She didn’t try to sell them to me. She wanted to give them to me, to welcome me with a taste of her native Mexico City. And maybe to show off a little for the food writer.

In only her third week on the job, she said she was more adept at cooking than driving. I believed her and was prepared to accept her gift, but our conversation was interrupted by her frequent stops for directions and my excited wonder. I was battling cognitive dissonance. Just three hours earlier I had breakfast in Austin; now I was in a different world.

No time-zone hopping. No jet lag. No weariness from hours folded inside a plane. Just a couple of hours on a direct flight from Austin, and suddenly I was engulfed in beautiful Old World architecture, dynamic street art, stark poverty, a dizzying foreign language and the wild flow of traffic that played by a set of unwritten rules. If I had flown to Chicago, I’d have still been in the air.

I didn’t get a chance to try the tacos. It wasn’t out of lack of interest. I was dropped into traffic at the edge of an intersection, like grabbing a tree branch to pull myself from a raft charging down a raging river. I had arrived in Colonia Roma, a hip, centrally located neighborhood that would be my home for part of my stay in a vibrant city I’d come to find as hospitable, safe and easily navigable through the use of public transportation.

The friend with whom I was staying made my first dining selection. Mexico City’s street corners are dotted with torta stands and street vendors. To an outsider they may look the same, but locals have their favorites. We went to the corner of Colima and Mérida streets, where a couple of women worked in tandem, grilling quesadillas and tlacoyos on a large metal plate that resembled a plow disc.

One lady formed rounds of doughy blue corn masa, stuffing them with fava bean puree, brown beans, chicharron or requeson (like Mexican ricotta). She folded the soft ovals and topped them with chopped cactus paddles (nopales) or slightly bitter lamb quarters and salsa. Crunchy, creamy, tangy and steaming hot, each tlacoyo cost about $1 and was as good as anything I’ve eaten at a Mexican restaurant in Texas.

Dinner the following night a few blocks away was a seated affair. Chef Eduardo Garcia and his wife, Gabriela, run Maximo Bistrot Local, one of the hottest restaurants in the popular artistic neighborhood. The small candlelit restaurant is colored with green checkerboard tilefloors and calming cream walls highlighted by a relief of a tree that gives a graceful sense of nature to the farm-to-table restaurant located in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities.

The handsome-but-relaxed bistro blends rustic Italian and French influences while staying true to its Mexican roots. An appetizer of fresh burrata, figs and prosciutto mixed creaminess with sweet and salt, and a dish of al dente tubes of black garganelli pasta arrived with an abundance of crab in a roasted tomato sauce. French influences could be found in an asparagus and poached egg dish flecked with chives, while Mexico and Italy wed in a plate of supple ravioli stuffed with Mexican cheese and huitlacoche, an earthy corn fungus some call the “Mexican truffle.”

You can trace some of the French influences in Garcia’s cooking to his time at the vaunted Le Bernardin in Manhattan. Garcia also spent time in the kitchen of chef Enrique Olvera’s celebrated Mexico City restaurant Pujol. Located in the swanky neighborhood of Polanco, Pujol has been named one of the world’s 50 best restaurants and one of the top two in Latin America. (The chef is slated to open Cosme, his first U.S. restaurant, in New York in June.)

Pujol was in the midst of celebrating its 14th anniversary the day I visited Olvera’s minimalist space for lunch. Chefs from some of the best restaurants in New York (Roberta’s and Blanca), San Francisco (Coi), Stockholm (Oaxen Krog) and London (Clove Club) were collaborating on a 10-course dinner. To commemorate the occasion, the dining room walls and ceilings were painted with designs from more than a half-dozen Mexican artists. One installation of graffiti-style art featured the words “magic tricks” and “corazon,” fitting for a restaurant that made its name on inventive preparations but has stayed true to representing Mexican cuisine.

There was a touch of magician’s flair in the opening dishes at the eight-course lunch (approximately $100). A “sno-cone” of fennel, herbs and lime cleansed the palate before a smoking gourd arrived. The irons in the invisible fire were thin ears of baby corn slathered in a rich chili mayonnaise and rubbed with coffee and a powder made from crushed ants that gave the corn a crunchy tingle.

Some culinary abracadabra gave a bitter kale leaf the texture and appearance of a vegetal chicharron, and some American diners might not have believed their eyes when they saw a leek filled with egg larvae. The charred vegetable boat overflowed with sautéed insect baubles that popped and released a nutty and umami flavor complimented by the primal cream of bone marrow mayonnaise.

The Mexico City-born Olvera, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, honors and personalizes Mexican tradition with his “mole madre.” The sauce, served with tortillas and no animal protein, is a living thing. The kitchen adds to the mother sauce over many months, adjusting, enhancing and enlivening the flavors. The result is a deep harmony of bitter, sweet and toasty notes. Familiarity with a twist continued with a savory and tangy barbacoa taco served on a floral and piquant tortilla made of white corn, cilantro and habañero.

You can find less intricate and more moderately priced tacos all over the city. And if you think picking a taqueria in Austin is hard, try narrowing your choices in Mexico City. I took a page from Austin restaurant La Condesa’s book in deciding where to visit. The Second Street District restaurant opened in 2009, and the owners said they received inspiration from Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood. The Austin restaurant’s El Califa taco (steak sealed in crispy manchego cheese) is a hybrid of the savory hammered ribeye taco from Taqueria El Califa and the fried cheese taco from El Califa’s across-the-street neighbor, El Farolito, which opened in 1962. I split my allegiances, eating a ribeye taco covered in cheese from the former and a citrus-tinged al pastor at the latter.

La Condesa, along with countless restaurants in Mexico City and beyond, also takes inspiration from Contramar. The tuna tostadas at Contramar an airy restaurant colored with sand and sea in Roma Norte are the kind of dish on which you can build a restaurant’s reputation. The ruby slabs of tuna come on chips smeared with chipotle mayonnaise and are topped with smooth avocado and crispy twirls of fried leeks. (La Condesa alters the flavor profiles by using crispy shallots and pickled cucumber.)

Contramar’s guests queue for the lunch-only spot before it opens, so arrive early. The restaurant, one of the ultimate see-and-be-seen spots in town where on my visit we spied at least one famous actor fills quickly, and people line the sidewalk waiting for more than an hour for one of the indoor or outdoor tables. It stops seating at 6 p.m. but people linger deep into the evening.

Following our leisurely lunch and a trip to the market, we marveled at the sunset and nearby mountains on my final evening from the observation deck atop downtown’s Torre Latinoamericana. The 45-story landmark opened in 1956 and somehow remained unscathed after the devastating earthquake of 1985.

Late that night another earthquake rippled the ground in Mexico City. We had concluded the night with a spirited trip to the sexy and sultry Bósforo, a mescal bar downtown, so I wasn’t sure if the middle-of-the-night jostle was a figment of my inebriated imagination. After a few hours of sleep, the cab driver gave me the news during our hazy trip to the airport. I wish he’d offered me chicken tinga tacos.

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