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Jun 1, 2009 12:32 PM

Getting a feel for Mexico DF

If you are going to DF for the first time, it might be helpful to get a simplified "socio-econo-geographic layout" of this massive overly complex metropolis. So I am going to translate DF into Angeleno because that is a city I know like the palm of my hand:

Here is a simple map with points of interest:

La Villa up near the top is where the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine is found... and you can think of this as the heart of Mexico City's blue collar, graceful poor part of town. The LA equivalent would be Montebello, Pico Rivera etc., this is your lower middle class... not rich, not cosmpolitan but not desperately poor either. Good food comes in the form of Tianguis, Rosticerias, Cenadurias & little corner stores & Cremerias.

Xochimilco is the big green area in the South - Southeast part of the map. This is a very indigenous part of town with many people still speaking Nahautl and the best place to find ancient Native cuisine like roasted or grilled rabbit, acociles (local crawfish), steamed trout, pulque, huitlacoche tamales etc., There is lots a decent food in the tourist part where all colorful boats are... but there are also a few Fondas serving organic ingredients grown within the Chinampa. See this for some pretty good insights:

UNAM is west-northwest from Xochimilco in the Pedregal region. That is where you will find Cafe Azul y Oro by Ricardo Munoz Zurita... THE man in Mexican culinary research. Also the area around UNAM... San Angel & Coyoacan are basically the Pasadena of Mexico City with huge old mansions, cobble stone streets, graceful parks that host art fairs, farmer's markets.... and generally play home to the bohemian, poor artist crowd.

From a food perspective... this part of town is home to a lot of the young professionals (and college students)... and many joints are geared towards meeting young people. Lots of bistros & sports bar type places... its very equivalent to the neighborhoods around UCLA, also home to some of the best Argentinian & Brazilian meat centric restaurants.

Secondarily... Coyoacan & San Angel are home to the 2nd tier wealthy people (just like Pasadena is in L.A.).... and this is where you find some nice, traditional haute restaurants set in colonial haciendas. Of the bunch I think Antigua Hacienda de Tlalpan is the best:

The Zocalo is nearly in the center of the map... not far from the Airport. As you go west from the Zocalo and see the World Trade Center & Chapultepec.... that Blvd. is Reforma... think of it as the Wilshire Blvd of DF.... most of the attractive Architectural sites (sculptures, parks etc.,) as well as the Financial District, Hotel & Gastronomic Zones etc., are along Reforma and its off shoots.

The Centro Historico around the Zocalo is the home to the best traditional bars, Mercado La Merced, Mercado San Juan, Parque de la Alameda (birthplace of the bacon wrapped hot dog) and of course the Templo Mayor ruins & museum... this was literally the heart of Tenochtitlan. The place to hit is Bar La Opera, Fonda de Don Chon (temple of insect dishes) and lots of great street food all over including branches of El Tizoncito (the place that invented Tacos Al Pastor) & Pozolcalli (chain devoted to many styles of Pozoles) etc.,

> The area west & northwest from Chapultepec is the real high end part of town. If you have watched the film Man on Fire... this is where the girl's family lives. Within Polanco you will find Avenida Masaryk... very much equivalent to Rodeo Dr. and home to Izote and other high end restaurants.

Ciudad Neza is the part of town where the big Rave takes place in Man on Fire.. you can see it on this map its East of the Zocalo & Airport...

... if you have watched Amores Perros... this move ends on the industrial edge of Neza... its a surreal place that used to be devoted to agriculture... but with the mass emigration to DF from the Ranchos in the 1950's the government went in & built a very dense, grid dominated slum with no parks. This is ground zero for Naco lifestyle.... life is so dreary & congested there that people become incredibly creative with the little real estate they own... namely their own bodies & ideas... lots of tatoos, crazy hair dos, Rage Against the Machine t shirts, crazy culinary inventions using processed foods & semi cooking etc., The best analogy is South Central & South L.A.

The areas north of La Villa are pretty neat... most are Aztec villages with ruins & the whole spiel that in the 1950s were seperated from the City by forests & countryside... now they have been swallowed up by industrial parks, grey concrete housing projects & haphazard urban growth... but they still retain their charm with colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, ancient ruins... and lots of people that speak Nahuatl, Otomi & other languages and have interesting food traditions.

Cuauttilan Izcalli & Tenayuca are the biggest draws.

Back to the Center of town.... as you go from the Zocalo to Chapultepec there are a number of areas along the way including Roma, Condessa & Zona Rosa. The Zona Rosa was the tourist area back in the 60's & 70's... its now a bit cheesy & outdated, and just starting to update.

Condessa & Roma is where its at... with some drop dead gorgeous urban neighborhoods... 1920's Art Deco buildings, narrow cobblesone streets lined with lots of trees.. lots of little make out alleys, upscale & chic hotels, restaurants, bars & clubs, art galleries & museums.... this is the part of town you can stroll around with the sig other. A

couple places to hit there for a few drinks:

In Polanco there two standout bars... one is inside the Camino Real (hotel designed by Ricardo Legorreta)... Bar Azul... and the other is the rooftop bar at Hotel Habita.

So what is special about Mexico City street food (in addition to things like Tacos al Pastor, & Huaraches that have already been covered Ad Naseum?

> Tacos de Fritangas.... these vendors have cauldrons bubbling with manteca used to cook all kinds of offal... this is the place to sample tacos de Rinon, Corazon, Machitos etc., everywhere you see a grouping of street vendors there is bound to be one of these. In Xochimilco and points south... you are more likely to find Fritanga vendors that specialize in things like Frog Legs, Crawfish, Freshwater shrimp etc.,

> Tacos de Canasta... you will see guys on bicycles, with baskets on them selling you the dumpling like steamed, folded tacos

> Quesadillas de Comal... made from fresh masa & stuffed with things like Huitlacoche, Flor de Calabaza etc.,

> If you encounter a Tianguis look out for the Potato Chip & Donut fryers... pretty great stuff straight out of the lard.

> Tacos de Guisados... again there should be at least one in every grouping of street vendors.... serving up a dozen guisados, ladled over a corn tortilla & a layer of rice (to prevent the taco from falling apart)... true Homecooking housed in edible, convenient, urban packaging.

> Licuados & Agua Fresca vendors inside the Mercados... we are talking places with 25 to 50 types of Agua Fresca "on tap" and a huge variety of Licuados, Eskimos and all types of milkshakes & smoothies.

> Rosticerias... fantastic rotisserie, tortillas, salsa & salads to be found in all the blue collar neighborhoods.

> Cremerias... this are places are basically Mexican delis that specialize in Cheeses, Embutidos (the Mexico City term for Charcuterie), and great variety of preserved, savory foods. They usually offer snack foods as well such as Pig Feet tostadas topped with Artisinal Cremas & Cheese, Headcheese sandwiches & little rolls of deli thin Ham rolled around cheese & strips of house made Jalapenos en Escabeche.... maybe some green olives on the side etc.,

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  1. Let me be the first to thank you, great post. I hope this helps a lot of people, and I know it will help me. Maybe a list of your absolute favorite places to eat would be helpful too?

    Mexico City is a funny place. Several times I've mentioned El Tizoncito to Mexicans who grew up in DF, and they said... What? Never heard of it before... Yet they're everywhere, and incredibly famous. Shocking really, but then again, what isn't shocking in DF? :)

    12 Replies
    1. re: SocksManly

      Hi, I think you hit upon something noteworthy. If you are coming to Mexico City from the U.S., Canada, Europe etc.,... just because DF is full of sky scrapers, modern architecture, contemporary art & an efficient, clean subway... don't be fooled into thinking its organized. Its no Zurich hell its no NY... Mexico City is a chaotic place where few things are thoroughly documented, thoroughly organized, thoroughly understood... perhaps its the daunting enormity of it all... but Mexico City isn't one of those places for which you can open up a handy guide or web application... punch in Veracruz cuisine... and find the 500 establishments that specialize in Jarocho cuisine, along with nice editorial reviews & consumer rankings etc., Hell the food writing establishment probably hasn't even hard of the 490 not found on Paseo de la Reforma or Insurgentes etc.,

      On the flipside... just because some expat moves to Mexico City and has discovered El Tizoncito and written about it, maybe even taken Bourdain to one, and its now famous to legions of foreign foodies & travelers... it doesn't mean the vast majority of the typical residents have ever heard of it. You talk to a typical local about Al Pastor... and they probably have tried 10 or 20 different independent vendors within the radius of their own little world.. found the 2 they prefer and probably aren't going to leave their everyday routes to pursuit the famous one. On the other hand.. many DF residents instinctively go on the road almost every weekend to try specialities at nearby towns like Texcoco or Chinconcuac etc., Its will definitely seem a little bizarre to most foreigners.

      As far as my favorite places... under what circumstances? I was born in Azcapotzcalco then my family moved to L.A., and when I went back as a teenager I lived in two different places... the El Molinito neighborhood in Naucalpan and the La Loma neighborhood of Tlanepantla... later when I was in college I spent a summer in San Angel... and on various trips afterword I have stayed mostly around Polanco.

      Living in Naucalpan with my uncle Pancho I was lucky his wife (a true native of the area whose parents still spoke Nahuatl) was an excellent cook who still went to the mercado almost every day and cooked all the regional food that you rarely can find in restaurants. When we ate out... we went to a Pizzeria very close to the Windmill monument that had all this fantastically weird toppigns like salty, dried goat cheeses, fried eggs, chorizo, squash blossoms served on strangly etc., At first it was bizzare to this Domino Pizza fan... but when I went back as an adult it was very cool & chow worthy.

      In addition.. on the main commercial drag in El Molinito there was a fantastic rosticeria that we frequented we pick up from there almost once a week... wood fired rotisseries chickens (we would pick up two), they carried tortillas from the tortilleria tow doors down, 3 containers of salsa, several containers of Nopales, Beans, Rice or Fideos or Vegetables cooked Al Sudado method)... the place is still there... no name its just the one with the line out the door.

      On the same street as the Rosticeria was a Fonda run by a family from Chiapas that put out amazing, exotic food that seemed so different than what I grew up with. At night time my school age cousins ran a hamburger stand in front of their home... solid homestyle burgers with irregular patties, fresh Bimbo buns, homemade mayo & jalapenos to maximize profit, slightly past perfectly ripe tomato slices & avocados (purchased on sale after 2 PM from the local mercado since they had to make room for the next day's shipment of just harvested produce).

      There was also a Cantina we used to frequent with my oldest cousin where we would eat Seafood Cocktails, Oysters on the half shell & cold cervezas... I don't know if it was any good but the waitress was hot.

      Living in La Loma... uncle Juan's wife who was from a rural, wealthy family of Jalisco was not quite the cook as Pancho's wife... but we ate deliciously simple food that would seem very familiar to most North Americans... lots of Roasts like whole chickens seasoned with thyme, oregano, marjoram... stuffed with vegetables.. the main difference is these would be served with Beans, Salsas & Tortillas (purchased from the bakery around the corner) instead of Breads etc., overall very continental like food (not surprising since Oralia's family descended from Northern Spain).

      Eating out... there was a Tianguis (Street Market) literally around the corner once a week, and another one about 2 blocks away that ran twice a week (same vendors at both)... there was a great burger vendor (Beef & Chorizo patties), a potato chip vendor, a chicken tostada vendor. In addition the Tianguis 2 blocks way set up in front of a Taqueria specializing in Machitos (threaded, knotted sheep intestines deep fried) that were fantastic. And there was a Cremeria we used to frequent (because it had the Video Games that we liked)... that made proper Nachos (using Queso Chihuahua & home made Jalapenos en Escabeche), as well as Headcheese Tortas, and homemade Yogurts served with tropical fruits & granolas... typical teeny bopper snacks we would down sitting on a milk crate in front of the cremeria.

      As a college student I rented a room in a Pension... and ate fantastic home meals from the nice elderly couple that ran it... and really learned how to be a savvy street food eater all over DF and nearby communities. Its simple really... stumble upon the any of the thousands of street food vendor groupings around subway exits, plazas & foot traffic heavy thoroughfairs... look for the longest line, observe for cleanliness & following sanitary practices... start chatting them & patrons up.. before you know it... you find out they are from Oaxaca and that there is a bunch of Oaxacans that hang out at X fonda for real Oaxacan homecooking... you try it out... fall in love & try to find more like it.

      Later on as a tourist with a little more money I hit alot of the iconic mid to high end restaurants and have had many great meals throughout the city.

      You tell me what you are looking for & I can recommend places I think are good. But in general my favorite places have been little, nameless eateries scattered all over the city... but none of them are so unique that you can find something else like it wherever you are. Its not like in LA were people argue about the best of 3 or 4 distinguished Delis and you know there really isn't any better. In DF people can argue about El Tizoncito or Charco de las Ranas or whatever and then you randomly walk into nameless 2 table places on the side streets that blow away the "Official Best Al Pastor in the City"... there is just too many options and competitions to narrowly define favorites.

      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        >>> But in general my favorite places have been little, nameless eateries scattered all over the city

        Truly, truly great post. Thank you so much.

        In the late 90's I worked near the old bull ring and it is the nameless places that made me fall in love with Mexican food. I only regret at the time I was too timid to really take advantage of more of it.

        I may be driving thru during the next year and looking forward to taking advantage of more of the food. This will be a help.

        1. re: rworange

          Driving through on your way to Guatemala? That could be a fantastic chow trip... you should get sponsored by Chowhound to write it up. Not that Leff's wasn't half bad... but this could be one intriguing Story =)

          1. re: rworange

            Just for the record, I'm not a Taco encyclopedia, I just came up with this nickname when asked for it.
            But talking about taquerias, I used to try the ones outside Metro stations. For me, they were the best place to get Tacos de Suadero and Tripa. It's easy to get to them, you just take the subway. My favorites were the ones outside Hidalgo station, near Alameda. I can name a few others like the ones at Metro Tasqueña, Metro Chapultepec, and Metro Copilco. Yes, that's it! Metro Copilco has the best and they're easy to find. And next to them you would also find the greatest tacos de Guisado taco stand. But beware! For health reasons you should avoid them if your immune system isn't at its best.

            1. re: Tacopedia

              Funny you mention that, it's very often heard in conversation about tacos inside DF to "never eat close to a bus or subway station" (but in spanish) because of the extra smog in those areas. Many locals think that's my favourite spanish word - guacala. ;)

              Others take it even further to include anything on the street, which is just snotty.

              However I'm not scared, I'll eat just about anything.

              1. re: Tacopedia

                In addition the murals at Metro Copilco station are pretty freaking awesome... if I am not mistaken they were all done by prison inmates as part of a rehabilitation process.

            2. re: Eat_Nopal

              You outdo yourself! :P Ever thought about writing a book? And don't say you haven't!!

              Walking into random places in DF is always an experience, and since sitting down to eat isn't the luxury that it is here, it's relatively low risk. I remember on my last trip I was starving (sorry hungry, I need to learn to choose my words better if I ever intend to live there.. I don't know what starving is. Same with "ridiculous" I can't seem to stop myself from saying.. Anyways) and we had some time to kill, I was with my wife's father and he was buying some tiles for a house he's been building (for the last FOUR years, he says nonchalantly lol).. So we stopped at some place, ordered a few quesadillas or tacos or whatever, and after trying them both of us looked at each other like uhhh.. time to go! Just wasn't that good, and why waste a food eating opportunity on bad food.

              So we looked around the 7 or 8 way intersection, and ran across a street to get some tortas.. the place we went to was closed and only opened at night we found out.. So we walked across another street or two at the same intersection, and saw a small sign that said Tortas sticking out ever so slightly from a tiny little convenient store. It was really the last place I'd expect to be selling fresh cooked food.

              There were 2 or 3 backless chairs, 2 fridges behind the chairs, a wooden false front basically inside with a glass window one guy sold stuff out of, and then another booth in front of the chairs where the second guy made his tortas. Each time a customer came in we had to lean forward for them to open the fridges behind us, and then lean back so they had enough room to pay.

              We sat down, and I babbled on in my broken spanish about this and that, my father in law explaining best he could understand when they got confused.. We both ordered the "everything I have here to put on a torta" torta, and man was it delicious.. Utterly delicious. We yabbered on for long enough that the store owner asked if I wanted a beer? I said sure, and so he disappeared on the street and came back with a few bottles in a bag, and of course he wouldn't accept payment for the beer.. Nor did he take one out of his own fridge......... :)

              It was really a great time eating that torta, I left smiling from ear to ear, and I'm sure they did too. That's Mexico City to me. An adventure around every corner (whether you want one or not) and always something interesting happening. I often say to people who have never experienced it that you can sit on a bench on any street in Mexico seemingly for hours and never get bored, there's just so much to look at and observe, so much happening at once.

              The first time I visited Mexico I took a greyhound bus (well, about 15 of them) from Toronto to DF, through many US cities and eventually I had to walk across the border with all my things at Brownsville, into Matamoros. I mean what a culture shock. You can literally stand on that bridge and look to the US side, and pretty much nothing is happening. Big empty lawns, green grass, nobody to be seen. Organized and clean. The car lineup is another feat to behold. 5 cars long going into Mexico, 250 cars long going into the US.

              30 seconds later across the other side of the bridge, there's huge puddles in the street, stray dogs running past you, prostitutes in doorways waving you over, 200 mexicans and seeminly 400 eyes all staring at you. Just finding the bus stop from there was an adventure. I tried to pay the first bus driver with an american dollar bill because at that time I couldn't even ask how much it cost, then an older lady started yelling at the driver, he yelled back, she waved her fist at him, and then begrudgingly he held out his hand to give me my change... I get CHANGE I'm thinking? :) She smiled at me and asked if I needed help, and hell ya, I needed help.

              My spanish has all been learned from listening and speaking, not a single book, lesson or course. Because of that, I can speak really fast, understand what's going on, ask for anything I'm thinking, and I have no fear of talking to anyone. However I surely sound like a 2nd grader to them, as I have no understanding of how to make a sentence, how to conjucate a verb, past and present tense all that, sex of words, and of course I'm missing a lot of words. However I'd take my spanish 1000x over what I hear coming out of schools. One, word, at, a, time, with, no, accent. Y'know? I guess I 'express' more than speak correctly, you can just tell when someone doesn't understand you, and if you look at them back correctly, they can understand when you don't understand too, with no need to explain.

              I met this girl Rosetta Stone the other day, maybe she'll help me, if I ever call her back.

              I'd love to be able to contact you outside of CH Nopal, wanna e-mail me or something? You seem like an invaluable resource. ;) My e-mail is socks @ adult site surfer dot com. I hope I didn't break any rules there, but uhhhh, that's what it is!

              I plan to move there as fast as I can, storing all my worldly posessions here and driving there with basically nothing but my wife and baby. I have always been an entrepreneur, so I would need to start my own business. I have lots of ideas, but picking the right one is paramount. I think something to do with youth perhaps, as the average age in Canada is 37 years old, and it's only 23 years old in Mexico. That's really, really young. The lowest average age in the world is 15 years old, in Uganda, for reference.

              Another thing I have of use, is that the last time I visited DF I was very passionate about food markets, and visited a number of them. Not nearly as many as I'd like, and this visit was a real shock to me too.. I always go for a whole month, and yet I had hardly any time to myself. Having a baby just changes everything like that. It was family this, family that, baptism (he HAS to be catholic??? those people HATE me you realize??) it was hectic, plus christmastime, the little trips as you mentioned here and there to different towns, etc.

              SOOOOO.. Back on track here food markets.. When I found Mercado San Juan, it was later in the day and almost everything was closed. I made them promise me we'd come back the next day, and I brought my camera this time. I took pictures of every store that was open, got a business card, and took a picture of that in front of their place. I intended to start a small website/blog with the pics and info, so that people can find more information about it and the vendors there. My family said nobody would let me take their picture, but I knew they would.. Not a single vendor said no. One of them even cut up a baby veal shank in front of me (the really small ones) and then proceeded to tie the tendons up into a beautiful pattern.

              I'll get around to it. I'd like to continue that project next time I'm there, to include the larger markets like Central de Abastos (speechless) and La Merced (haven't been there yet). With maps. Like you said things just aren't documented enough.

              Next time I go I'll be sure to think up some restaurant recommendations. My favourite foods I've found so far there are Birria from anywhere, La Polar is really nice, and Cabrito, usually from a nicer large oldschool type Mexican restaurant/cantina. Deliiicioooso as Dora's backpack would say.

              1. re: SocksManly

                You are one crazy gringo. I really look forward to all your posts & reports. Good luck with whatever you do.

              2. re: Eat_Nopal

                this post is amazing. i must make it over to DF sometime.

                1. re: SocksManly

                  Hi there!
                  About El Tizoncito, well, I know it and I know it very well. I grew up in Mexico City and I used to go to the one in Miramontes. Now I live in Monterrey and I really missed a good al Pastor Taco. In Monterrey you get Tacos de Trompo, some are good, some aren't. Last year they opened the first Tizoncito and god they're good!! It's the way they cook the meat that makes them so different. I wished they openedd more DF like restaurants in here, like Bisquets de Obregon...

                  1. re: Tacopedia

                    Seems like an El Tizoncito would go great in just about every city on earth. Who doesn't want to eat that after a night of drinking for example?

                    Do they franchise?

                    And what's that brown chipdip salsa they always serve? I only really see it there, and it's so delicious.. Recipe anyone? :)

                2. Wonderful post, E_N, but Potzollcalli?? Mediocrity at its best. (I admit, we had only one meal there, but it was just "así-así).

                  While we are on the subject of pozole, we also ate twice at the well-recommended Pozolería Tizka, on Calle Zacatecas, Col. Roma Norte. Tasty, but the soup Pozole Verde) was tepid, the avocadoes for garnish were hard. I wouldn't go there again.

                  1. hey EN have you been to a Pulqueria in DF? Theres a couple were gonna seek out this weekend