Hit by a devastating earthquake in September, Mexico City has certainly faced some challenges this past year. But life in the city marches on, and adventurous foodies can still find a great meal simply by following their nose. Our DF correspondents did just that in 2017, rediscovering some old favorites and branching out into unchartered territory.
By far my favorite food experience of this year was exploring Jamaica Market. Mostly known for its wholesale flower section, this large market offers much more: fresh produce, colorful piñatas and incredible food. In fact, it is home to three of my favorite food stands in the city. There’s El Profe, a mini restaurant of sorts run by the Blanco family. They have been raising their own sheep and selling delicious barbacoa (pit-roasted mutton) tacos at the market for decades. Las Mas Altas Montañas, another taco vendor in the market, also makes the cut. Their specialty is green chorizo tacos – every day the special chorizo is freshly made by Juventino Gananami Barrios and his crew in Toluca and brought to the market for hungry customers, many of whom are regulars. I’d even go as far to say that it’s probably the best chorizo I’ve tried in Mexico. When I’m in the mood for surf rather than turf, I go to Mariscos El Paisa, where chefs Daniel and Jonathan Silva prepare some of the most delicious seafood dishes in the city. Each of these spots provided exceptionally memorable meals this year.
Taquería El Progreso
I love the contained chaos at Taqueria el Progreso. The small shop opened 23 years ago, selling beef head, suadero (a cut similar to brisket) and tripe tacos, jugos (fresh juices) and licuados (milk shakes), a combination that’s surprisingly rare in Mexico City. But now it’s almost triple the size and occupies the shop next door, where a second taco stand offers a large variety of tacos, ranging from bistec (steak) to chuleta (pork chop). Several trays right next to the griddle offer a wide array of toppings you can add to your taco. The red salsa is made with pasilla pepper, while the spicier green is made with avocado and fresh green peppers. There’s also mashed potatoes, cooked beans, nopales (cooked cactus paddles) and pickled onions. While there are sometimes too many choices in this busy shop, where orders are shouted and customers move in between the two stations, I like going to the second taco stand for campechanos (suadero mixed with chorizo) and tongue tacos in large, handmade tortillas, which I then stack with toppings. It keeps me full all afternoon.
Last year, while I was on the hunt for the best tacos de guisado in Mexico City (guisado is a general term that refers to any cooked meat or vegetable that can be served as a main dish), I came across Los Barriles at the Sullivan Market. Every guisado I tried was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and it quickly became my favorite spot for tacos de guisado in the city. My hunt continued in 2017, and I have to admit that no other place has bested Los Barriles. It’s hard to pick a favorite since they’re all so good (Isaura Gonzalez, the wife of owner Alonso Perez, makes all the guisados at home). But I can say that I was particularly impressed by the lengua en salsa de morita, delicious and tender beef tongue in morita pepper sauce; suadero a la diabla, beef shank in a spicy red sauce; chicharrón en salsa verde, pork cracklings in green sauce; and rajas con crema, julienned poblano peppers in a creamy sauce. While they have been serving tacos at the Sullivan Market for only two or so years, they are old-timers at Narvarte Market, where they have been selling tacos on Sundays for 15 years now. – Ben Herrera
Quesadillas de Flor de Calabaza at Las Jirafas y La Mula
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I waited in line for half an hour to get a lunchtime table at this restaurant named after giraffes and a mule (the former refers to the “long-necked” quesadillas served at Las Jirafas, which measure 45 cm apiece). But would quality accompany quantity, or were the dozens of people waiting to be served here for the novelty rather than the flavor? Once I reached the front of the line, I was happily surprised to discover that Las Jirafas offered quesadillas de flor de calabaza, or squash blossoms. These delicious and beautiful pumpkin flowers are a staple of Mexican cooking, especially in DF, where they’re served in everything from omelets to flautas. They have an almost bitter flavor and a soft, leafy texture that serves as a counterpoint to the smooth, savory cheese that fills out the rest of the tortilla. Las Jirafas features a long, buffet-style island full of toppings like diced onion, salsa verde and sliced radish. I poured a healthy amount of each topping onto the quesadilla and wondered no more: Not only were these jirafas huge, they were also delicious. I suggest pairing one of these mammoth quesadillas with one of the “yards” of beer Las Jirafas serves in a cup the length of a man’s forearm, held in place by metal stands pre-drilled into every table in the restaurant.
Soy Chorizo Tacos at Por Siempre Vegana
The concept of a vegan taco in Mexico City is still an oddity, something between a joke and an act of sacrilege in the minds of most locals. The empty dining rooms of most vegan taquerias across the city reflect this reality. In the capital of tacos with meat, there isn’t a great demand for tacos without meat. Usually. But I’d heard that on a corner of Avenida Insurgentes hordes of people every day descend upon a vegan taco stand, waiting in line for the guilt-free version of one of the guiltiest pleasures in Mexican cuisine, chorizo. So one afternoon I set out for Por Siempre Vegana, an unassuming taco stand at first glance that gives itself away as vegan by placing trays of gluten-free carrot cake on the front counter. In all my years of dining at taco stands in DF, this was the first time I’d ever encountered vegan baked goods sitting aside a plate of lime slices. I worried about what this might mean for the quality of tacos. But I didn’t come for cake – I came for fake pig sausage.
After waiting 15 minutes, my fears were assuaged. Por Siempre Vegana’s soy chorizo is fried and flavored to perfection, which isn’t to say it tastes exactly like chorizo, but it replicates the sensation of eating meat. Complimenting what would already be a great taco is an open bar of toppings that include guacamole, beans and fresh cilantro. I especially love the almond cheese addition to the chorizo tacos, giving their already soft, fleshy texture a gooey counterpoint that makes the dish feel even more like a gooey dessert. In the end I didn’t need the carrot cake after all.
Honey Butter Chips at Fat Boy Moves
One of my favorite culinary discoveries this year hides in plain view along the uber-cool Avenida Tamaulipas in Condesa. What drew me in initially wasn’t the food, but the music. Fat Boy Moves bumps with ‘90s hip-hop, and the first time I walked by its storefront, the unmistakable flow of Biggie Smalls beckoned me inward, a rare feast for my ears in Mexico, where hip-hop is still a fringe genre. I sat down to find a menu full of Korean dishes with a Mexican twist.
While Fat Boy Moves is ostensibly a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant, its most intriguing offering echoed the owner’s time as a cook at New York’s Momofuku before moving to DF. The honey butter chips are what they sound like: freshly made potato chips glazed in honey and butter, topped with a scoop of sweet vanilla ice cream. That this dessert boasts the U.S. holy trinity of sweet, salty and savory is no accident: The owner is a Korean-American who moved to Mexico with his Mexican wife three years ago to become part of DF’s gastronomic renaissance. Nevertheless, the dish is obviously a take on a Mexican comfort food, substituting sweet flavors for the hot sauce drenched potato chips one finds on the city’s street corners. I felt a bit giddy as I waited for my order, nodding my head to the sound of A Tribe Called Quest on the speakers accompanied by the hot sizzle of fresh chips in the deep fryer. I admit feeling trepidation when the dessert was finally laid before me. There seemed a million ways this dish could go wrong. However, while it was a strange feeling at first, slicing into a chip with a spoon, by the second bite I was in love. The sensory experience of freshly fried glazed potato heating the tongue while cold ice cream cools the upper palate rivets the mouth. I’ll be back soon for more dessert and more Biggie. – J. Alejandro
While the Trump administration forges ahead with plans to build a border wall, Mexico’s relationship with its own southern neighbors is equally fraught. Central American migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are routinely robbed, murdered or disappeared while crossing Mexico on their way to the U.S. border. As a journalist covering immigration, I was excited to find El Trapiche this year. The only Honduran restaurant in Mexico City, El Trapiche serves as a bridge between Honduran immigrants and Mexico City natives.
Even though El Trapiche’s owner, Lilian Mendoza, immigrated to Mexico in the 1980s, she didn’t open her restaurant until 2002. Named after her hometown in the Olancho province of Honduras, El Trapiche cooks up baleadas, pupusas and other Central American specialties. Mendoza seeks to cater to the city’s growing Central American population, and has added dishes from neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala.
I love the Honduran horchata, red bean and cheese baleadas – the ultimate comfort food – and fried yucca. During the weekday lunchtime rush, the small restaurant fills with workers from nearby offices. On weekends, Hondurans gather to watch soccer matches and find a home away from home.
As the U.S. fortifies its border, more Central Americans are putting down roots in Mexico. El Trapiche is both a gathering place for Hondurans in Mexico City and a window into Honduran culture for Mexicans.
Agua de Alfalfa
Whether you’re inhaling tacos or car engine exhaust, Mexico City isn’t the healthiest place to live. My favorite quick fix when I am feeling under the weather or drained by the chaotic city atmosphere is a fresh fruit juice. For less than $2, you can select from a tantalizing array of flavors for your fresh juice or smoothie: Pineapple, mamey, mango, strawberry, apple and guava are a few of the fruits on hand at most neighborhood juice stands.
In 2017 my favorite has been agua de alfalfa, alfalfa juice. An agua, a fruit-based water, differs from a jugo, a pure fruit juice, or a licuado, a milk-based smoothie. Alfalfa water is a nutritious and tasty beverage for a city where street food is heavy on the meat and lean on the vegetables. In addition to alfalfa, the drink is made with lime, guava, pineapple and ground pingüica, the fruit of a local shrub. The result is a refreshing, not-too-sweet infusion to fuel a long day of exploring Mexico City.
Juice stands are scattered across the city and usually open early and close in the late afternoon. I recommend Jugos Maratón, at Calle López 117, in Centro. Owned by a long-distance runner and health nut, Jugos Maratón offers a wide selection of juices, fruit waters and smoothies in an old-school storefront in Mexico City’s historic downtown.
In a city of over 20 million, it can be hard to find a little peace and quiet in Mexico City. But the stress of navigating bumper-to-bumper traffic and jam-packed Metro cars melts away every time I walk into the courtyard of Santa Maria 138 in the Santa Maria de la Ribera neighborhood.
Named for its street address, just a block from the picturesque Moorish pavilion at the neighborhood’s center, the restaurant serves up Sicilian specialties based on the cookbook of founder Cristina Cialona’s mother. Cialona and her Mexican husband Mario Llaca retrofitted an antique property, with a seating area under tents in the back patio. The rustic and relaxing atmosphere is the perfect place to enjoy Sicilian-style pizza and irresistible Italian desserts.
I love the caramelized onion pizza, as well as the red wine and goat cheese white pizza. Heat lamps keep the outdoor seating comfortable year-round, and the familial atmosphere is a relaxing departure from the flashy modern décor of many nighttime joints in Mexico City. When I’m in the mood for authentic pizza, or a peaceful evening out, Maria 138 has been my spot in 2017. – Martha Pskowski
Published on December 25, 2017