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Restaurante Nicos got its start back in 1957, when María Elena Lugo Zermeño opened a small cafeteria in the middle-class Colonia Clavería neighborhood offering family recipes passed down through the generations. Over the years, the cafeteria evolved into a full-scale – and well-known – restaurant, one that pulls in customers from across the city with its excellent dishes and warm, inviting atmosphere.

The ambiance is simple yet tasteful, elegant yet unpretentious. Tables are set with white tablecloths and china, while local musical acts serenade eaters into happy bliss. María, her husband and their son – architect turned head chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo – make their way around the dining room from time to time, chatting up familiar customers, answering questions or offering bits of specialty chocolate found on a recent trip to source new flavors for dishes. The local sourcing is part of Chef Gerardo’s philosophy as a founder of Slow Food Mexico, part of the global movement that seeks to preserve regional culinary heritage and educate people about the origins of their local food culture.

Fittingly, the Vázquez Lugo family has created a stunning menu filled with rich, unique flavors. When we go to Nicos with friends, we like to order several menu items to share and the staff is more than happy to divide a single dish into smaller portions so everyone gets a taste. On our most recent visit, we started off with fresh guacamole and tortilla chips. A server rolled a cart over to the table with large containers of avocados, diced onions, tomatoes, chilies and cilantro, and we told him we’d like a bit of everything. The ingredients were thrown into a molcojete, or stone mortar, and then ground and mixed into the creamy, green – and fantastic-tasting – mixture. We then moved on to an order of sopa seca de natas, a dish (whose name translates to “dry cream soup”) that has its origins in colonial times and was handed down to María from her grandmother. The “soup” looks a bit like lasagna and tastes a bit like it as well, with layers of thin, crepe-like pancakes, tomatoes, chicken and poblano chilies that have been baked.

Of the main courses, we sampled the conejo al chile piquín, or rabbit in piquín chili salsa, which had been slow cooked, bone-in, and was very tender and juicy. The piquín can be a very hot pepper, but in this case the orange sauce was mildly spicy and added much more flavor than heat. The pollo en hoja de aguacate con pulque, or chicken with avocado leaf and pulque, was also a winner. Pulque is a pre-Hispanic alcoholic drink produced by sucking out sap from the maguey plant and letting it ferment. To make the dish, the viscous, milk-colored liquid was mixed with orange juice and butter to make an exceptionally tasty sauce for the chicken. Although we were stuffed already, we couldn’t resist trying the tamal de chocolate for dessert. Like most tamales, this tamal had a corn masa base but, instead of salsas or meat, it was heavily infused with dark chocolate from Oaxaca. The taste was close to chocolate cake, but the texture was far lighter.

The combination of locally sourced ingredients courtesy of Chef Gerardo and recipes from his mother that go back generations make Nicos really stand out from its competitors, and it’s no surprise that the entrance wall is filled with awards and accolades. For us, though, it’s not just the remarkable food but the fact that in more than half a century, Nicos has never shown diners anything less than the best.

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Ben HerreraBen Herrera and Mark Alor Powell

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