Having made a career out of assisting well-known chefs, I’ve done my fair share of travel planning. Though I loved doing my job, there’s a palpable dissatisfaction in making reservations and researching the highlights of a place that you’re not going to see. Like getting all dressed up for the prom only to sit the dances out. So after planning a Mexico City trip twice and trying not to drool on my boss’s itineraries, you can imagine my elation in finally getting to see the place for myself.
Mexico City has gained a strong reputation for not only being a street food haven, but for being on the forefront of culinary innovation as well, with chefs such as Enrique Olvera and Jorge Vallejo embracing their strong Mexican traditions and flavors and reimagining them to produce incredible tasting menus at their award winning restaurants. You can have an equally tasty and exciting meal at Olvera’s Pujol than you can at the taco stand outside its doors, which is saying something really special and unique. Rather than rebel against this rarity, the city’s chefs celebrate it. No trip to this colorful and gigantic city is complete without acquainting yourself with both.
Tacos de canasta, or basket tacos - little fried tacos stuffed with potato and chicharron sold all over the city & a bargain at 5 pesos each.
There is no such thing as bad street food in DF. Drop your bags off and start eating. I recommend basing yourself in the fashionable Colonia Roma neighborhood or its older sister Condesa. (Think of Bushwick to Williamsburg with more warmth than irony.) From there you can explore most of the city’s starkly unique regions with ease. The common thread you’ll find is that the street food is always good. But you also can’t miss the late night taco spots, neighborhood fondas and bustling mercados:
Taqueria El Turix
Cochinita pibil at Taqueria El Turix
El Turix in the tony Polanco neighborhood is the authority for conchinita pibil, or stewed pork. It’s literally the only thing on the menu, served dripping from a torta, wrapped in a tortilla and dunked in the juices, or in a crispy taco with a swipe of black beans and topped with pickled onions. Order all three with a beer and stock up on the napkins.
Some of the numerous, energetic cooks and servers at El Borrego Viudo.
El Borrego Viudo is a late night taco crawl institution in DF. You can walk in or sit in your car in the parking lot and have a waiter bring you your food. There are 5 or 6 different varieties of tacos including al pastor and loganiza. I especially liked the tacos de seso, or brain, washed down with a fermented pineapple drink called tepache.
The al pastor institution El Huequito
El Huequito is all al pastor all day, and it’s a great example of the Mexico City staple. Crispy, salty, slightly sweet from pineapple and perfect with a liberal dose of their piquant salsa verde. The tacos are so small you could eat about 12 before you’d notice.
Poultry grandly on display at the Mercado San Juan
Right across the street is the Mercado San Juan, where rows and rows of produce, meat, seafood and specialty foods are displayed. Of the hundreds of mercados scattered around the city, this seemed to be the cleanest and well organized, with friendly, helpful vendors.
Tamale Cart (NE Corner Of Av Álvaro Obregón And Tonala In Colonia Roma)
Hot tamales fresh off the cart. On the right, tamale solo and in a guahalota
Tamales are a perfect breakfast food in my opinion; a hearty dose of carbs to energize you for a long day of exploring. This unnamed cart draws a crowd and sells out quick, so you know they’re good. If you are brave and in need of a hangover cure, get a guahalota - which is a tamale crammed into a fresh baked bread roll.
Flor de lis, the tamale masters of Condesa.
This company has been serving tamales for nearly a hundred years, and practice makes perfect. It’s a good primer to the variety of traditional fillings for tamales. Order ones wrapped in banana leaves, which keep the maize soft and smooth.
Barbacoa Ochoa (SE Corner Of Calle Coahuila And Av Yucatan)
Barbacoa and pancita tacos
Like most carts I stumbled on this by accident. Order some barbacoa tacos and don’t forget the pancita, which is all the offal and leftovers from the animal (in this case beef), well seasoned and slow cooked in a sack alongside the meat. It is chopped up and grilled crispy before served alongside a cup of consommé (the stock the meat was cooked in), and it is a savory, unctuous marvel.
Pancita of barbacoa de borrego at the Mercado de Xochimilco
My favorite barbacoa was served at a stand at the Mercado Xochimilco, called Tres Parricos. They serve barbacoa de borrego, which is a type of mountain sheep, cooked the traditional way wrapped in banana leaves. The gamey flavor sky rocketed this pancita to a next level, extreme umami and spiciness. Go to Mercado Xochimilco for this barbacoa, stay for the old world charm and a ride down the canal on one of the colorful boats, or lanchas.
The colorful lanchas awaiting a ride down the canal in Xochimilco
Getting his stand ready for the day, a man sets down an enormous pan of carnitas
Fonda La Beatricita
The phenomenal pozole at Fonda La Beatricita
Tortillas rolling out by the dozen at Fonda La Beatricita.
The Mexican fonda is similar to our notion of an American diner or coffee shop; a comfy casual spot that serves traditional fare. Beatricita is a classic that has been serving the Zona Rosa neighborhood for generations. A little woman hovers over an ancient tortilla machine in the corner, spitting out 20 fresh tortillas per minute with such ease that it looks like a dance. Their specialty is their chicken tacos with mole, either poblano or verde, and a seriously delicious pozole.
If you need a break from the taco crawls and mercados, there are a few spots that have stretched the boundaries of Mexico City cuisine and are doing their part to educate and inspire their guests with fresh and unique fare. Especially in Colonia Roma, a small community of chefs and vendors are changing the way we think about the city’s culinary offerings.
The beautiful dining hall at Mercado Roma
A modern Mexican marketplace designed to be a platform for the region’s artisans and purveyors who value quality and care in their products, such as Rancho El Camino, an organic farm just outside the city that sells produce there. It’s a place where you’ll find heirloom beans and grains for sale next to the finest Japanese sushi chef, down the hall from a fresh baked churro stand.
The intimate, bustling bakery sister of the popular Italian restaurant Rosetta has helped to change the perception of the Mexican bakery with addictive chocolate croissants and perfect cappuccinos.
Maximo Bistrot Local
Crostini con escamole - ant eggs - at Maximo Bistrot Local.
Chef Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia is perhaps the blaziest of the trailblazers, starting with this warm, cheerful, inviting bistro. Looks can be deceiving, however, word has spread about his immense talent in the kitchen and waits for a table can stretch into several hours. I highly recommend a reservation. Chef Garcia masterfully blends classic French training with a strong regard for quality ingredients and at times a playful addition of traditional Mexican flavors. The result is at once mind blowing and comforting. My favorite of the meal was a crostini topped with escamole, which are ant eggs, a local delicacy and delightfully fluffy and floral.
The bright and vibrant communal dining table at LALO!
Just across the street from Maximo is LALO!, Chef Garcia’s new somewhat casual spot. It has a loud, engaging and slightly rebellious decor that is complimented by simple, well done breakfast fare and wood oven fired pizzas at night. Spots like LALO! are setting the tone for the community, friendly social gathering spots that don’t skimp on quality and taste.
As hard as it may be to imagine, you might find yourself curious about what else there is to do in DF besides eat. Among the myriad of different Anthropological sites, modern architectural marvels and art museums, I concentrated on the historical spots related to the lives of Mexico City’s most celebrated artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
This intimidating and immensely beautiful structure in the center of the city is home to several of Frida’s works as well as a replica of Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural that was infamously destroyed from the Rockefeller Center in New York.
No Frida/Diego tour is complete without taking in the stunning architecture and evocative history of Diego’s former studio.
The Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Khalo
The museo is located in San Angel, and the adorable cobblestone streets and colorful Plaza San Jacinto are a nice detour before moving on to the next stop.
La Casa Azul: Museo Frida Kahlo
Naturaleza Muerta (Tondo), 1942 by Frida Kahlo on display at La Casa Azul.
Frida’s distinct and lovely childhood home and final resting place is a moving, essential visit, showcasing some of her most celebrated work.
Tourists on Dia de los Muertos in the courtyard of La Casa Azul.
After the trip to the Mercado de Xochimilco swing by this lovely museum commissioned after Mexican businesswoman Dolores Olmedo, who was a close friend and companion to both Frida and Diego. In addition to the numerous works of both artists housed here, the enigmatic hairless Xoloiztcuintle dogs that live on the property are a special treat.
Heidi Brown spent the last decade creating a niche managing the administrative tasks for high profile restaurants such as Bouchon, Quince, Momofuku and most recently handling PR and communications for The Restaurant at Meadowood. She is now an independent hospitality consultant and freelance writer based in the Bay Area.