9+ days in Mexico City: The Trip Report
We're back from our trip to Mexico City and I'm very excited to share some thoughts! First off I want to say thanks to everyone who chipped in their feedback. It was all very valuable and our experiences were greatly assisted by Chowhound as well as Nick Gilman's excellent book, a couple of tv shows on the Mexico City food scene and our own gut feelings. Also, my wife will be documenting the trip on her blog, Tasty Trix, over time with posts broken down in themed chunks and full of photos. So stay tuned for that.
Secondly, I just want to say that Mexico City is a truly awe-inspiring place. From the sheer amount of human activity and collaboration on display on every street to the massive amount of cooking going on every time you peek around a corner, it's not an exaggeration to say that this might be the most ALIVE place on Earth.
A couple of tips for travelers to Mexico City before I get started: We relied heavily on the excellent metro system on our trip. While it gets crowded, each individual car is no more crowded than a rush hour subway in New York. The difference, of course, is that when I commuted in New York I would regularly wait 15 minutes for those cars to arrive, while the mind-bogglingly cheap and efficient Mexico City metro arrives every 30 seconds… and is STILL that crowded! My wife made liberal use of the women-and-children-only cars at the front of the trains while I sweated it out in the next car. It's a simple yet elegant solution to a basic problem.
We expected to take cabs from sitio stands but those staying in the Centro should be aware that you will not see any sitio stands. I think we saw one (in Coyoacan) the entire trip. I have no advice on taxis since we barely used them. Our hotel did call a "tourist" cab to take us to Dulce Patria and we kept the guy's number and called him to pick us up and to take us to the airport a couple of days later. Nice guy.
Also, I'm not going to lie: We didn't get away without any gastrointestinal issues. But c'est la vie, you just have to go with it! I wouldn't give back any of the experiences that we had.
One last tip, appropriately enough on tipping. As economical as most of the dining is and as excellent as the service is, even in the cheapest places, we tipped very well. But make sure to tip the specific person. At first we just left the tip in the envelop with the rest of the bill which led to confusion. Get your change back and then tip everyone that you want to tip individually. We paid with cash everywhere except Dulce Patria and used Santander and Scotia Bank ATMs (thanks to the Bank of America checking account I opened solely for this purpose) and didn't pay any fees anywhere. Definitely made travel easy! On to the report!!
We arrived in the DF on Friday evening and, after dropping off our things at the hotel, strolled up to CAFE EL POPULAR, which had been suggested as a good starting point for weary travelers. And it really was perfect. We ordered enchiladas divorciadas, which were awesome, and a mole tamale that was lighter than you'd think. The enchiladas were particularly amazing and took us back to a Mexican restaurant on 5th avenue in Brooklyn back in the 90s. That place had been touted as "authentic" and now, thanks to some shared flavors, we realize that it was! The vibrant plate, the colors of the Mexican flag, was a proud and lively dish with which to start our trip.
The next day we started out with breakfast at the hotel. The Hampton Inn has a surprisingly awesome free breakfast for guests. Maybe a little too awesome as we were so enthusiastic about the carnitas, quesadillas and chilaquiles that we ended up being too full to eat much else a couple of times. Eventually we had to break the habit and settle for just coffee and juice.
We headed out into the city to explore. The walked through the Zocalo and the busy Saturday market with all the great vendors shouting TAMALES TAMALES TAMALEEESSS!!!", strolled along Calle Tacuba, past the Palacio Des Belles Artes, past the Alameda (unfortunately closed for renovation) and eventually over to Paseo de La Reforma, which took us to our well-needed lunch at FONDA EL REFUGIO. This welcoming little fonda had a lovely, relaxed vibe but was actually one of the "nicer" restaurants of the trip (we didn't have a base of comparison yet.) We started off with tacos de lengua, which were tender and were really vibrant when topped with all the lovely fixings. We then had albondigas, meatballs stuffed with eggs and bathed in a lovely tomato sauce. Really great. We finished with chiles rellenos, which were the least greasy, lightest version we're ever had. We also tried some different mezcals and beers from lesser-known beer producing regions of Mexico. Fonda El Refugio is definitely worth a visit.
Wandering back towards the Centro we stumbled on a saturday afternoon dance event at Plaza de la Ciudadela. Sitting in the park, watching the dressed-up older folks dance was a definite moment of bliss. I love stumbling on things like that!
For dinner that night we went to EL HUEQUITO on Calle de Bolivar for the tacos al pastor. We couldn't stop eating them! The pork had a crispiness from the spit that came as a textural surprise and the mix of salsas gave each bite a huge range of flavor. Standing out on the street, ordering one little plate after another, I lost track of how many we had.
The next day we planned to hit a lot of the sights in the immediate area of the Zocalo. We started by watching a huge crowd gather right on the square. Was it a political protest? A celebration of a significant date in Mexican history that we didn't know about? No! It was the setting of the Guinness Book of Records for most people doing zumba! From there were explored the Metropolitan cathedral, Templo Mayor and the various exhibits in the National Palace. One interesting thing that we learned was that Mexico had an Austrian emperor for 4 years in the mid-19th century. Every time we travel we learn some new, weird aspect of the Hapsburg empire's global reach. Since my family is Austrian I love to learn about that stuff. Too bad for the emperor his short reign ended in front of a firing squad!
For lunch we hopped on the metro and headed out to Lagunilla, having read in Gilman's book about a good torta stand in a flea market. Um, flea market? Lagunilla should be one of the wonders of the world. It should be called a flea CITY! We shuffled our way through tiny aisles crammed with vendors for what seemed like an eternity. We joked that we were looking for a torta in a haystack. People who gave us suggestions of where to go sent us in totally random directions. But it was fun, since every corner we turned offered an eye-popping array of goods and people. Then, suddenly, we saw it: TORTAS DE BACALAO. We bellied up to the stand and ordered one torta de bacalao and one torta de cochinita pibil. They were smaller than we expected, which was good. And they were really, really great. The pibil was spicy and sweet and smokey… The bacalao was salty, just how I like it. Sitting at the stand in the middle of this roiling market was amazing.
We were just getting ready to order more, however, when we realized that despite there being three guys working the stand, one guy was handling both the food AND the money. That was something we had hoped to avoid, so we decided to move on. Wandering around some more we spotted a stand where a small team of women were making tlacoyos and tortillas and filling them with all sorts of great stuff. Well, we spotted her but really she spotted us, and sort of lured us over in a very smooth and motherly style. The blue corn tortillas and tlacoyos were definitely something we were interested in, so we sat down. We had tortillas filled with zucchini blossoms and with huitlacoche. The blossoms were delicate and a little sweet, the huitlacoche were beautifully woodsy. We then had a tlacoyo stuffed with beans and topped with nopales and all sorts of other good stuff. Tlacoyos really need to make their way up here! My wife got a brief impromptu lesson in how to hand-form them so we'll just make our own.
We explored the Lagunilla area a little more and walked back to the Centro. Eventually we made our way to CANTINA LA MASCOTA with the intention of sitting a spell and slowly sipping some tequila. That place started to feel like home very quickly. We ordered the tequilas with a side of spicy sangria and let our young server (who became our buddy over the next few days) suggest most of the menu. The food is free as long as you're drinking - and everyone there is drinking! We had Camaron al Ajillo (the sauce was great, the big head-on shrimp mane a little overcooked), tostadas de atun (simple, crisp, refreshing), filete a la veracruz (absolutely awesome), a hearty soup (with a really rich broth), and costilla en adobo (the sauce, again, just out of this world). We were in there for a couple of hours and got to watch how the regulars interacted with each other, sang along to the jukebox, and just generally enjoyed being in that familiar space. Great experience.
The next day we intended to head down to Coyoacan and San Angel to see some museums. We rode the metro down, wandered the Viveros park (beautiful!) and then realized that we were in such a disorganized vacation state-of-mind that we completely forgot that it was Monday and most museums are closed. So instead we just randomly explored the area, taking in the peaceful tree-lined streets of those neighborhoods, often a half-block away from the utter chaos of the busy avenues. We stumbled on Calle Arenal, which has to be one of the most lovely, green urban sidestreets in the Americas. There was even a little pastry shop where we grabbed a French macaron just for fun.
Heading back to the Centro we had a late lunch at COOX HANAL, a restaurant specializing in cuisine of the Yucatan. This was another experience in just how broad Mexican cuisine is (and how under-recognized it is as a true top culinary experience back in the States) since some of the flavors pushed the boundaries of what we expect in Mexican food. The most dramatic: Papadzules, tortillas filled with (and topped with) chopped up hard-boiled eggs and slathered with a beautiful green pumpkin seed sauce. The only relative to the tastes in this dish that I've had in my travels is a dish of beans in pumpkin seed cream at Weinhof Wieninger, a heuriger in Vienna. Given the truly international influences on Mexico (and the discovery of the Hapsburg connection the previous day) it was all starting to fit into place. We also had a rich and smoky caldo de pavo, tortillas topped with cochinita pibil, and Pan de cazón, a layered dish with tortillas and fish, topped with a thin tomato-based sauce. The second-story location, wide-open windows and large main dining room lent itself to a breezy, relaxing, friendly experience. The live music was just the icing on the cake. Great place!
We spent the rest of the day just sort of wandering and relaxing and actually didn't end up eating again, which I find hard to believe in retrospect! We could have fit in a couple of tacos al pastor at least!
The next day we rode the metro up to Autobuses Del Norte and boarded the extremely cheap public bus up to Teotihuacan. I'm really glad we chose this route rather than a private driver or tourist-focused bus. The station was gleaming and easy to navigate, the bus was convenient and comfy, and the young guys who got on to play guitar and sing were terrific. The pyramids were probably my non-food highlight of the trip. Just being surrounded by such grandeur is a memorable experience without equal. Plus the wild dogs were a treat for us dog lovers. We wandered the Avenue of the Dead, climbed the Temple of the Moon and made a pilgramage to the temple of Quetzalcoatl, something that this lifelong fan of the B-movie "Q: The Winged Serpent" had always wanted to do!
Riding the bus back to the DF we noticed that there are a bunch of interesting looking road-side restaurants just outside the Teotihuacan complex. Unfortunately we were already on the bus but I was left wondering if we missed out on any cool dining opportunities right there. When we got back to the DF I noticed that we were making a stop at Indios Verdes before returning to Autobuses Del Norte. We made the on-the-spot decision to hop out and explore a new area and I'm glad we did: The Indios Verdes bus station is what I had been concerned (incorrectly) that Autobuses would be: Total chaos! A great place to explore if you don't have to find your bus. So my suggestion: Leave from Autobuses and return to Indios Verdes!
We hopped in the metro and got off at Balderas, strolling up to CUCINA MI LUPITA, which is known for its mole. One quick note: Nick Gilman lists this place as Fonda Mi Lupita and the address as being ON Buentono, just OFF Delicias. But it's actually named Cucina and is ON Delicias, just OFF Buentono. It was almost an accident that we actually spotted it. This tiny storefront restaurant has a real home-cooking vibe, with a giant cazuela of mole burbling by the front and assorted monster dishes running back and forth. The owner, an older woman, was just as interested in getting down and fixing a wobbly leg on our table as she was in making sure she ladled us extra mole after we had already sopped up all of ours. We had a couple of beautiful soups and some tummy-soothing glasses of horchata, then the main course in this comida corrida: The mole dishes. I had a big plate of shredded chicken while my wife had a leg. The star of the show, the mole, lived up to all expectations. It's possible that mole, in the hands of a master like here, is the most complex flavor I've ever had. Smoky, sweet, spicy, perfect acid, perfect tang, just perfect. I wanted to dive into it!
This was another day, apparently that we didn't eat dinner! I'm shocked looking back at the pictures on how many opportunities for meals we skipped!
The next day we headed back to Coyoacan, strolled the Viveros again, and finally got to see Frida Kahlo's house. As a painter, it was great to get to see her studio as she used it and just be in the space. A very special museum. We wandered the bucolic neighborhood some more until we stumbled on Mercado Coyoacan and, in our usual stunned and enthusiastic manner, gawked at the mountains of beautiful food on display. On the way back to the metro a young man asked us if he could interview us for his English homework. Even though our tummies were rumbling with hunger after all the food we saw, we stopped and chatted a while. It really is true that you can make friends anywhere you go, if you have the right attitude.
Back in the Centro we went to CAFETERIA EL CUADRILATERO, owned by luchador Super Astro. It's a measure of how good the food on the trip was overall that this was one of the less talked-about meals, since if this gut-busting sandwich joint was near me I would eat there ALL THE TIME (although I'd end up better suited for sumo wrestling thank lucha libre.) I ordered the micro version of the namesake sandwich (which is piled high with meats and eggs) and my wife got some other kind of sandwich loaded with goodness (the exact ingredients escape me but it had avocado, cheese and meat). They were both killer sandwiches.
That night we stepped out for a drink at the HOTEL MAJESTIC rooftop bar but the actual rooftop was outfitted for full dinner guests only so we got stuck in the enclosed bar along the side. Not quite as majestic as we thought but we did get to glimpse the view and it really is glorious.
The next day started out with probably my most highly anticipated meal: Breakfast at FONDA MARGARITA. After reading that it was in the middle of nowhere and reachable by taxi or bus we returned to the trusty metro, headed out to the Division Del Norte stop and enjoyed a lovely 15 minute early morning stroll through the peaceful neighborhood as kids headed to school and commuters headed to work. Fonda Margarita itself was a revelation of flavors. The open space with its long communal tables, was buzzing by the time we got there and live music accompanied the happy eating. We ordered a variety of dishes that simmered away in giant cazuelas: pork in salsa verde (maybe the best thing we had on the trip; truly, truly rich, spicy and amazingly flavorful), bistec in a dark, rich sauce, and a breaded cutlet in a tomato broth. We also had a couple of plates of the refritos con huevos, which don't look like much but might be the best beans I've ever had. The staff seemed to love our enthusiasm and we definitely shared some knowing smiles with other diners. This is the place to come to eat, no joke! I wish we could have gone multiple times!
After breakfast we headed to the Chapultepec to see the zoo, which is very impressive and mostly filled with beautiful, natural habitats, and the castillo, which was an interesting mix of European castle, Mexican revolutionary art, and pre-Hispanic flourishes. Interesting stuff. On the way out we got some sweet gorditas from a vendor that were a nice snack.
That night we were starting to a feel a little run down so we headed back to CAFE EL POPULAR for some soul food. We got awesome cafes con leche (the dinner drink of choice, judging by the rest of the tables) and a couple of soups. The sopa azteca was particularly delicious, with its melted cheese, tortilla strips and little plate of things to add (dried peppers, avocado). We also ordered something off the menu on a whim with no idea what it was. Turned out to be a huge plate of liver and onions. I love that sort of thing but my wife wasn't as thrilled.
The next day we took in the view from the top of the LatinoAmericana Tower and just strolled the streets some more. We ended up back at LA MASCOTA for some refreshing beers and a few plates of their treats: A cochinita pibil leg, a tlacoyo topped with nopales and cheese, chile rellono, and a fried quesadilla de papa. I won't say that every individual dish at La Mascota is as good as similar dishes elsewhere, but the overall experience of eating such a diverse menu in such a fun environment definitely makes it a trip favorite.
That night we went to see lucha libre at Arena Mexicana. Once again, the metro took us straight there and we were ready to go. Word of advice: If you want to take pictures inside make sure to hide your camera. Otherwise you have to check it at the front door, which we did (and got it back safe and sound afterwards). Between the costumes, the music, the ring girls, and the midgets it was a memorable and insane experience. I will say that the funniest part was probably watching how the crowd reacts to the drama in the ring. Madness!
After riding the metro back from the arena (were we not supposed to ride it at night? We had no problems.) we headed back towards El Huequito, only to discover that the spits were empty! No worries, we strolled up the street to TAQUERIA LOS COCUYOS, home of a giant pot of assorted simmering meats. We got a bunch of tacos filled with things that we just pointed to: sausage, roast meat, who knows. These were also among my favorite things from the week. These tiny little tacos, piled with cilantro and salsas were packed full of textures and flavors. I'm telling you, if I lived in the DF you'd see me at these places all the time!
The next morning we walked toward LA MERCED, the giant market district east of the Zocalo. On the way we stopped at some interesting sites, including the place where Cortes met Moctezuma, and eventually found ourselves on the main avenue that runs through this wholesale district, a street where the word "bustling" is woefully inadequate. We looked around us at the massive amount of business taking place and recognized that we had no clue how to find the produce stalls. One kind gentleman offered to walk us towards it, winding through many hundreds of stalls selling everything else imaginable, before opening up into the largest produce market I've ever seen. The size of many football fields, this place was incredible. Stacks of nopales 20 feet high, giant baskets of chiles, jumbo burlap sacks of tomatillos. This was ground zero for food gawking, for sure. We wandered the aisles, chatting with people here and there, taking pictures and just generally being blown away by the sounds, smells and colors on display.
After having worked up an appetite we walked back west in the direction of Mercado San Juan to eat at MARISCERIA EL CAGUAMO, a stand specializing in seafood. We had a caldo de camaron and a ceviche cocktail to start. The broth in the soup really tasted like a fresh blast of the sea. The cocktail had a zing of acid and a bit of heat but was also incredibly soothing and satisfying. We also had a flaky, fresh seafood empanada and a fried filet topped with avocado, mayonnaise and salsa. Yet again we found ourselves proclaiming that we were eating some of the best food on the trip! Amazing.
We visited Mercado San Juan (actually we had strolled through once before, but they were shutting down) and it's a testament to how massive the other markets had been that this one, which would easily be the best food market in most cities, felt almost quaint.
Now we get to a complicated part of the story. For dinner this night we had our long-awaited reservations at the highly-recommended DULCE PATRIA. We dressed to the nine (lovely dress for the wife, jacket and tie for me) and took a cab out to swanky Polanco neighborhood (this was our only cab ride of the trip, other than to and from the airport.) Dulce Patria is a lovely space with a very fine energy. But I have to say we did end up feeling underwhelmed. Most of the diners were in jeans and some in ragged t-shirts. The food was good, but after what we'd been eating on the street and in unassuming fondas, it was less than a revelation. We like to try to have a "fine" dining experience on trips to see how the local food is being adapted to that environment. The perfect example is La Degustation in Prague. We LOVED the food in the Czech Republic, but I'm not going to lie: It doesn't necessarily display a variety of textures, colors and flavors. La Degustation, through innovation and global influence, added a brightness that other places didn't necessarily have. But in Mexico every taco on the street that costs a buck has the full range of culinary wonders: From sweet to spicy, soft to crunchy, chilled to piping-hot, often all in one bite. Dulce Patria didn't add to that. If anything, being so disconnected from the people actually making the food took away from it a little. Most of the dishes were GOOD, but none were transformative like the mole at Mi Lupita, the cocktail at El Caguamo, the salsa verde at Margarita. And we missed the smells, sounds and sights of being so close to the cooking itself, sharing those grins with our dining neighbors, laughing with the staff at our sad attempts to communicate in Spanish.
But what did we eat? Our apps were a tasty selection of tiny empanadas stuffed with different indigenous ingredients (huitlacoche, machaca, epizote and squash blossoms) that came with some really lovely salsas, and a plate of "corn chicarrones" which was nothing to write home about. We ordered soups: The tortilla soup "with literary arrangement" was very nice (although not that different from the tortilla soup at Cafe El Popular in taste despite the "literary arrangement," and a squash blossom soup that was comforting but lacked that little something extra to put it over the edge. I ordered pork stew adobo for an entree, which was a perfectly cooked and tender cube of pork topped with a crispy slice of skin but was surrounded by less-than-exciting slices of vegetables, and my wife ordered arrachera steak with tamales. It was a perfect medium rare but without the tamales, I'm afraid it would have resembled the kind of fajita platter you get at standard TexMex restaurants. The tamales, however, were nice. They also treated us to a little ornate chair covered with small treats for dessert. We also had some frosty cocktails at the start (I think I had one created with horchata and mezcal) that were really cool and Mexican wine suggested chosen by the somelier to pair with our entrees.
Now, this meal at Dulce Patria cost about a quarter of what our dinner at La Degustation did, and really was a steal for how much we ordered, so it was a good value, for sure. And if it were located in Baltimore it would be a treasure. But when we return to the DF someday I think we might skip the fine dining altogether and stick to the more modest stuff. That was where we had all our favorite experiences.