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Dining in the DF: food and drink in Mexico's capital

Karen Hursh Graber

Last month's column focused on the gastronomy of the Estado de Mexico, the state that nearly surrounds Mexico's capital. This month, we'll take a look at the myriad dining experiences to be had in the capital itself, Mexico City, commonly known as "el D.F.", short for Distrito Federal.

The city has been a center of migration for people from all parts of the country since pre-Hispanic times, when it was the center of the Aztec Empire and the best and most distinctive ingredients were brought as tribute from outlying areas. Today, its restaurants and markets feature food from every region of Mexico as well as several foreign countries.

While visitors have a choice from a variety of Asian, Middle Eastern and European cuisines, as well as the ubiquitous "international", the regional and Mexican specialties are not to be missed, and present a wide choice of cooking styles and dining ambiance. With over 15,000 restaurants, not including taquerías, torta shops and comida corrida (daily special) restaurants, there is something for every appetite and budget.

Within each of the following categories, a place to try the particular specialty or cuisine is suggested, but this is only a starting point. Explore the city and discover your own favorites. In addition to restaurants, there are countless puestos, or stands, offering the staple corn dough-based snacks, including tamales, quesadillas, sopes, memelas, and tlacoyos, plus those serving fresh fruit and juice, ice cream, and sweets. The following Mexican culinary offerings in the D.F. reflect its role as national melting pot and gastronomic mecca.

Mexican Specialties

Cooking techniques for Mexican specialty items vary to the extent that many restaurants concentrate on only one of them. The preparation of meat for barbacoa, for example, requires different equipment than that of tacos arabes, neither of which can be done in a standard kitchen. With many of these specialties, watching the preparation is half the fun.

Barbacoa: Meat, generally sheep, cooked in a deep pit, requires lengthy overnight preparation and is most frequently found on the city's eastern outskirts on weekends. In the city itself, one of the most famous is Los Tres Reyes, located in a tarp-covered patio at Pablo Veronés 12, Colonia Mixcoac (Tel.5563 5282)

Birria and pozole: These hearty meat stews, which originated in western Mexico, require long cooking and are usually served in cazuelas - deep clay bowls - that come in various sizes, according to budget and appetite. Birria and pozole, nearly always found together, are served at several locations throughout the city, including Tixtla, at Hernandez y Davalos 36, Colonia Algarín (Tel.5538 8120)

Cabrito: The northern Mexican style roast goat, cooked on a spit, is served, among other places, in Noste, a restaurant founded during the last days of the Revolution, and with all the old-fashioned ambiance of that era. At Guerrero corner Luna, Colonia Guerrero (Tel.5526 5404)

Caldos: The Mexican meal-in-a-bowl soups of beef, chicken or a combination, loaded with a variety of vegetables, are always a popular late night-early morning meal. One of the oldest restaurants specializing in caldo is Paisa, open until 1:00 a.m. at Ayuntamiento 44, between Luis Moya and Ernesto Pugibet, Colonia Centro (Tel.5521 4640)

Carnitas and chamorros: Mexicans enjoy carne de puerco prepared in many ways, especially carnitas, deep-fried pork cut up to order, and chamorro, pork leg roasted with adobo sauce. Los Chamorros offers every cut of pork imaginable at Colombia 96, Colonia Centro (Tel.5702 0804)

Pancita: For those who favor tripe, tasty dishes are served up at El Gran Rabano, founded in the 1930's as a food stall in the old Portales market and moved to the new market in the 1980's, under the direction of the original owner's grandchildren. At Victor Hugo 72, Colonia Portales (Tel.5672 8457)

Tacos and flautas: Taquerías in Mexico City are everywhere, but worth mentioning are Beatriz, long among the most popular in the Centro Historico, at Uraguay 30, Colonia Centro (Tel.5518 0912) and El Tizoncito, famous for its tacos al pastor, the Mexican version of Middle Eastern spit-roasted meat, wrapped in pan arabe, a thick, pita-like flour tortilla. At Campeche corner Tamaulipas, Colonia Condesa (Tel.5211 5139)

Tortas: Also found nearly everywhere in the city, these grilled sandwiches on a hefty bolillo (French roll) make a tasty, filling repast at any time, day or night. The oldest tortería in the city is Armando, founded in 1872. At Independencia 95, Colonia Centro (no telephone)

Regional Food

The most distinctive of regional Mexican cuisines are available in the city, since ingredients from all parts of the republic are found in many of its markets, including the twenty-acre Central de Abastos, where 24,000 tons of food arrive each day. Among the most popular regional dishes in the city are those of:

Puebla: With its mole poblano, considered the national dish of Mexico, and both red and green pipian - seed-based sauces - plus sweet, baroque desserts, poblano cuisine is considered one of the most important in the country. A wide selection of poblano dishes is served at Ikaro, located at Monte Alban 25, Colonia Narvarte (Tel.5519 3735)

Oaxaca: The southern state called "the land of the seven moles", and the home of the agave-based alcoholic beverage mescal, is represented at several restaurants, among them the fifty-year-old Casa Neri, where Oaxacan specialties are served in a large, provincial-style patio at Bélgica 211, Colonia Portales (Tel.5539 3386)

Yucatan: The famous pibil dishes of the peninsula, plus chilmole, pollo tikul and other favorites are served by personnel clad in traditional regional dress at El Habanero, located at Alabama 54, Colonia Napoles (Tel.5682 8269) (For those wishing to duplicate some of these at home, the Medellín Market, in Colonia Roma, is the place to shop for banana leaves, habanero chiles, recaudos - seasoning pastes - and other authentic Yucatecan ingredients.)

Norteño: Northern Mexican grilled meat and cheese dishes such as sopa de queso, chilorio and machaca, are served at Las Lupitas, located in the beautiful colonial Plaza Santa Catarina in the historic Coyoacan district. At Plaza Santa Catarina 4, corner Francisco Sosa, Colonia Coyoacan (Tel.5554 3353)

Veracruz: The quintessential dishes of the Gulf coast are made with pescados y mariscos - fish and shellfish - and none is better known than huachinango a la veracruzana - red snapper in a piquant tomato sauce with capers and olives. This and other popular regional specialties, including the potent toritos - alcoholic drinks made with tropical fruit - are served at La Fonda del Recuerdo, at Bahía las Palmas 39, Colonia Anzures (Tel.5260 7339)

For a variety of dishes from several regions, El Bajio restaurant, run by world-famous chef Carmen Titita Ramirez, serves a thirty-ingredient mole among other specialties, including a meal that duplicates the favorite recipes of Frida Kahlo. Located at Cuitláhuac 2709, Colonia Azcapotzalco (Tel.5341 9889)

Pre-Hispanic Food

The most authentic of all capitalino food is the pre-Hispanic cuisine of the Aztecs, who ruled their empire from Tenochtitlan, the center of present-day Mexico City. The Nahuatl-speaking people who inhabited what was then an island dined on a wide variety of fish, game, small animals and insects.

These native dishes are showcased today in Fonda Don Chon, where escamole de hormigas - red ant roe, called the "caviar of Mexico"- fried grasshoppers, and armadillo in mango sauce appear on the menu. For the not-so-adventurous, other pre-Hispanic specialties include duck in green pipian sauce, rabbit in adobo and the very popular quail. Located at Regina 160, Colonia Centro (Tel.5542 0873)

La Nueva Cocina Mexicana: Nouvelle Mexican Cuisine

It seems that nowhere did the nouvelle cuisine trend adhere more to the culinary landscape than in México City. The fusion of traditional ingredients with modern presentations is particularly suited to Mexican food because it is a fusion itself to begin with. Mexican artistry takes this a step further with plating that makes the most of the vibrant colors of fresh herbs, blossoms and chiles.

At Izote, chef Patricia Quintana's original menu features creative combinations such as ancho chiles stuffed with fois gras, lasagna with huitlacoche, and brie empanadas. Located at Presidente Mazaryk 513, Colonia Polanco (Tel.5280 1671)

Named for the pyramid in Veracruz, El Tajín is the place where Alicia Gironella and Giorgio de' Angeli present such innovative dishes as soft shelled crabs with sesame seeds and chipotle. At Miguel Angel de Queveda 687, Colonia Coyoacan (Tel.5659 4447)

And at Las Sirenas, overlooking the ruins of the Templo Mayor, one can dine on a starlit terrace, savoring Cornish hens in mango sauce. Located at Guatemala 32, Zócalo, Colonia Centro (Tel.5704 3225)

Cafes

Mexicans, like Europeans, are great aficionados of cafes, both indoor and out, lingering over café con leche, espresso, hot chocolate, herbal tea and conversation. Pan dulce - sweet rolls - and pastries are always offered at cafes, which often have menus ranging from almuerzo (brunch) to cena (late supper) specials. Whether enjoying coffee and the newspaper or ordering a full meal, the cafes are good, reasonably priced places to sit down and unwind.

One of the most popular, Café La Blanca, originally a dairy and still sporting a Holstein cow logo, was converted into a restaurant in 1930. Local characters, including the waiters themselves, discuss politics and city life at the counter while other patrons peruse the extensive menu, which covers breakfast, brunch, dinner and supper at 5 de Mayo 40, Colonia Centro (Tel.5510 0399)

Café Tacuba, also in the Centro Historico, was founded in 1912 and has traditionally served freshly made tamales every morning, plus a wide variety of typical Mexican food, including mole poblano, during the day. Pastries are a particularly popular item here. At Tacuba 28, Colonia Centro (Tel.5518 4950)

Cantina Cuisine

Perhaps associated in foreigners' minds with the boozy atmosphere of old movie depictions, cantinas in Mexico City are often historical and beautifully preserved establishments. They are known for dependably good food, and cantina cuisine has been the subject of several cookbooks. Since the cantina tradition is to serve a free botana, or snack, with each round of drinks (and some of these "snacks" are quite hearty: bowls of soup, tostadas, etc) customers can eat the equivalent of a whole meal while paying for as little as two or three beers. Since the early 1990's, when the peso underwent a drastic devaluation, many of the city's cantinas have become familiares, catering to family groups and lunch break clientele of both sexes. Many cantinas offer selections from a menu as well as the botanas, and are known for outstanding house specials.

Seafood, which goes particularly well with beer and other drinks, is a logical choice for the cantinas to serve. At the Puebla, shrimp in guajillo sauce and chiles stuffed with shrimp are among the popular menu items. Located at Eligio Ancona corner Fresno, Colonia Santa Maria la Ribera. (Tel.5547 3303) And at Salon de la Luz, the seafood chile relleno with chipotle sauce competes with percibes in parsley sauce for the customer's gastronomic preference. In the Zona Rosa at Chapultepec corner Niza, Colonia Juárez (no phone)

Meat dishes, running the gamut from sausage to lamb, are also popular in cantinas. Perhaps the meatiest of all is the combination of roasted chorizo, bacon and barbequed goat served at La Unica de Guerrero, in business for over seventy years and located at Guerrero 258, Colonia Guerrero (Tel.5526 8394). At La Victoria, near the gourmet San Juan Market, guisado de carnero is a lamb stew more closely resembling an Irish stew than a Mexican guisado, containing no chiles but lots of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and squash. Located at Lopez 43 corner Victoria, Colonia Centro (no telephone) La Ciudad de Leon serves up rabbit in guajillo sauce and meatballs in herb sauce, typical Central Mexican regional favorites, at Eje Central 96, Colonia Centro (Tel.5529 2544)

Another cantina serving food from the Central region is El Gallo de Oro, established in 1874, where wild mushroom soup with epazote is a traditional botana. Located at Bolivar corner Venustiano Carranza, Colonia Centro (Tel.5512 1145) Wild mushrooms are also a culinary highlight at La Zaragozana, where they are sautéed with chipotle chiles and tomatoes and topped with hot fried peanuts. At Frontera 32 corner Puebla, Colonia Roma (Tel.5525 0521)

And finally, Bar La Opera deserves a special mention here for its place in the history of México City's bars and restaurants. Founded in 1870 and located on one of the most beautiful blocks in the Centro Historico, La Opera has hosted innumerable Mexican political and artistic figures over the last 130-plus years. Its back bar was carved in New Orleans during the 19th century and its beautiful Art Nouveau ceiling, including the mark left by one of Pancho Villa's bullets during the Revolution, has been meticulously preserved. The menu includes Mexican specialties as well as steak, seafood, salads and pasta dishes. At 5 de Mayo corner Filomano Mata, Colonia Centro (Tel.5512 8959)

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2004 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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