The memory of 2017’s devastating earthquake still lingers in the minds of many in Mexico City, but perhaps the biggest challenge the city faced in 2018 was gentrification. Ambitious development initiatives have resulted in safer neighborhoods; however, the cost of real estate has soared, leaving many long-term residents and business owners at risk for eviction, particularly in the Historic Center.
Yet chilangos are showing their support for their favorite culinary institutions that are feeling the crunch. Likewise, our DF correspondents revisited some old favorites in 2018, as well as branching out into uncharted territory.
I’m always looking for excuses to visit the main square of the Santa Maria La Ribera neighborhood. With the gorgeous “Moorish Pavilion” at its center, which was made for the Mexico display at the New Orleans World’s Fair, the plaza is a meeting place for young and old, skaters and danzón dancers, tourists and long-term residents. All that, and the food surrounding the plaza is top-notch.
Just around the corner is Comixcal, a restaurant bringing creative Oaxacan dishes into the heart of Mexico City. I first heard of Comixcal because the restaurant was a major donation center when an earthquake devastated Juchitán in September 2017. Once they had the kitchen open again, I knew I wanted to go check it out.
Chef Marahí López is from Juchitán, Oaxaca, and teamed up with Alexis Jiménez, from the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, to open Comixcal in 2016. The cozy restaurant’s menu changes every few months, as López and Jiménez experiment with dishes from each region of Oaxaca. If you think tlayudas and mole negro are the extent of Oaxacan food, Comixcal is a great place to try dishes like garnachas (small tortillas topped with seasoned beef and pickled vegetables) and enchiladas de coloradito (yellow mole).
Jiménez selects mezcals for the restaurant, offering varieties like Tobalá, cuishe and espadín from small-scale Oaxacan producers. He studied anthropology, and when we sit down to try some mezcal, he launches into an explanation of the drink’s significance in rural communities in Oaxaca.
Lucky for those of us who live in Mexico City, we don’t need to travel to Oaxaca to get a taste of inventive interpretations of classic dishes. Comixcal serves them up with care in Santa Maria La Ribera.
Gradios Café Deli
Tucked in among the taco stands and cantinas of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico are several coffee shops that offer excellent brews and plenty of neighborhood color. Centro is living proof that millennials did not invent specialty coffee culture. Or maybe that’s how I justify my two-espresso-a-day lifestyle. In any case, I head to Gradios when I want a perfectly-brewed cup of Mexican coffee, without the hipster aesthetic.
Just a few blocks south of the Central Alameda park, the small coffee shop is nearly always packed. In the early morning, it’s bureaucrats stopping by on their way to downtown offices; by 10 a.m. neighbors have spread out their newspapers to read while sipping coffee; and the lunch rush brings in office workers and students.
Food-wise, I’m partial to the chilaquiles with a red salsa that is just spicy enough. Freshly baked cakes and pastries are also tantalizing.
But the highlight is, of course, the coffee. Gradios serves it up in any specialty presentation you can imagine (French press, Japanese siphon, etc.) as well as cappuccinos, lattes and the like. Their house blend is an Oaxacan roast from the Pluma Hidalgo region, which you can also buy by the kilo.
Gradios represents what I love about Mexico City neighborhood culture: teenagers sit alongside customers old enough to be their grandparents, grungy student rub elbows with well-coifed businessmen. And at the heart of it all is a good brew.
I had passed by Tortas Robles many times before lining up for my first torta. Located on the corner of the Alameda Central, just steps from the bustling Hidalgo metro stop, Tortas Robles has been a neighborhood institution for decades. I didn’t step inside until this summer, when I heard that the historic shop was at risk of shutting down – like many others, I took for granted that it would always be there.
On first bite, it was clear that I had been missing out. Mexico City tortas are in a class of their own, yet even in the capital’s highly competitive scene, Robles is a stand-out. The soft roll soaks up just enough grease from the griddle and the layers of mashed beans, avocado and cheese converge in each warm, delicious bite. Chorizo, ham, pierna (pork leg) or milanesa are the most popular fillings, but you can also go vegetarian with egg and cheese. The tiny shop is filled with historic photos and a line forms out the door most days.
Tortas Robles was founded in the 1940s and has weathered earthquakes and political tumult. But this year, the building it’s housed in, the Trevi Building, was bought by developers. Its tenants, including Tortas Robles and dozens of apartment residents, received eviction notices. Talking with Guadalupe Robles, the daughter founder Alejandro, she worried that they wouldn’t be able to afford rent in a new location.
After I wrote about Robles, CB put out the call for a tortathon this summer in support of the shop. Hundreds of people showed up. Major Mexican media outlets covered the story and prominent journalists penned homages to the shop. Now when I walk by Robles, I am reminded not of the demise of historic restaurants, but the strength of community.
For the time being, Tortas Robles is still standing. While changes continue in Centro Histórico, at least this torta shop won’t go down without a fight.
– Martha Pskowski
Taquería Los Parados
While the food at Taquería Los Parados has always been a hit, going back there this year after many a season reminded me that the real draw is the circus-like atmosphere of the joint, where hungry barflies, mariachis and Roma hipsters pack in wall-to-wall. Be ready with your order, because things move fast, with five or six guys swirling around the massive flattop grill grinding out orders in a blur as smoke billows out in all directions. With the meat cut right off the spit, the tacos al pastor at Los Parados are a solid take on the Mexico City staple, but don’t fill up, even when they going 2-for-1, because there is just so much to try. The cheese-cauldron volcanes are great for vegetarians, but for taste, the prize goes to the tacos al pastor de arrachera – a crossover of styles made famous by Los Parados that switches out the pork for seasoned beef skirt steak. The best plan of attack here is to go with some pals and order a bunch of different options to share. Don’t forget side orders of grilled cebollitas (green onions) and avocado slices, and make sure to load up on the various salsas.
I got to spread my wings a bit on a visit to Jing Teng this year. With Mexican cuisine so rich and varied in the capital, getting something truly outside of the standard styles and ingredients requires going well off the beaten path. Located in a working-class Chinese enclave in Colonia Viaducto Piedad near Metro Viaducto on the blue line, this unassuming diner caters to the recently arrived Chinese immigrants who live in the area – friends and family gather here to socialize and have a laugh between bites, as Chinese TV news program buzzes in the background. Before starting my meal, I love sitting down with a cup of hot red tea and taking in the scene.
The best food experience at Jing Teng is, hands down, the dim sum. Even with at least a dozen options, it often runs out around midday. Be sure to arrive early and, since each basket has roughly three or four servings, it’s best to bring company. My favorite was the pork spare ribs served in black bean sauce; the mini-black bean clusters, in particular, packed a satisfying umami punch when paired with the ribs. Otherwise, I’ve never gone wrong from picking something fun from the huge menu, although perhaps the best thing I had this past year was a side of cai xin – a vivid green veggie topped with butter and garlic.
Antojitos Mexicanos Raquel
This blink-and-you-miss-it food stall located in a strip of book and movie stands along Balderas Avenue has become over the last two decades my go-to torta stand, serving up what is to me the gold standard of the basic street food sandwich in Mexico. Run by Raquel and her sister Evi, the stand is often known simply as “Las Hermanas” (“The Sisters”), as in “No hay mejor que las de las hermanas” (“There is no better than the sisters”). After years of coaxing, I was thrilled when Raquel finally let me write about the stand, making it easily one of my best bites for 2018. Handling about 200 customers every weekday, the sisters run the grill with machine-like efficiency and loving grace. While you can’t go wrong with the tortas, they offer up all the basics: tacos, huaraches, enchiladas, flautas, etc. For me, the top-quality ingredients are the quesillo (Oaxacan cheese) and thin-cut bistec (skirt steak) strips, which can go into just about any dish they serve. It’s one of the few street spots I stand by as consistently offering good food, big portions and great prices – the most expensive item on the menu is only 45 pesos.
– James Young
Francisco de Santiago (“Paco”), one of CB’s Mexico Team Leaders, has taken a slightly different approach to his “Best Bites” of 2018. Here is a month-by-month look at his favorite meals of 2018:
January: Rosca de reyes at Sucre i Cacao
The best way to start the year is with a rosca de reyes (“kings’ cake”), a Mexican Catholic tradition that was first introduced by the Spanish colonizers. If you’re lucky enough to find the baby Jesus figure inside this sweet bread decorated with candied fruit, then you have to pay for tamales on February 2, the Día de la Candelaria (Day of the Candles). The rosca de reyes made by pastry chef Carlos Ramírez Roure at Sucre i Cacao is by far the best I’ve ever had – he’s bringing back the best baking traditions from 19th-century Mexico.
February: Itacate at Comida Tradicional Tepozteca de Doña Isabel Morales
Tepoztlán, a town 50-km south of Mexico City, contains many treasures from ancient Mexican cuisine. Right in the main square, located in the middle of the food market labyrinth, Isabel Morales’ food stand is one of the best places to try culinary delights like itacate, a triangle-shaped thick tortilla made from corn that is stuffed with various ingredients such as huitlacoche (sometimes spelled with a “c”), which is a fungus that grows on corn, squash blossoms and wild mushrooms. My favorite, though, is stuffed with requesón, a Mexican ricotta.
March: Pastel de arroz at La Arrocería
My dear friend and pastry chef Lynda Balderas, who lives in Cuernavaca, surprised me with a delicious rice cake on my birthday – it was the best gift! She’s very involved in the promotion of rice from Morelos, which recently obtained a Denomination of Origin for its high quality and cultural and economic importance.
April: Chicharrón de pescado at Restaurante El Viejo Aztlán
This past April, I was invited by chef Alondra Maldonado to spend Easter in the remote mountains of Nayarit. On my way home from this unforgettable trip, I stopped at Santa María del Oro, a little village with a beautiful reservoir that was an unbelievable turquoise color, on her recommendation. I sat down at a restaurant with a view of the lake and ordered chicharrón de pescado, a dish that was new to me. It consists of tilapia fillets dipped in salt and lime juice, and then very slowly fried. The fish was both crispy and tender, and tasted divine with a cold beer.
May: Chocolatina at Tu Ceviche
A hole in the wall in the busy streets of the vibrant Coyoacán neighborhood, Tu Ceviche is one of my favorite places in CDMX for seafood. Owner Eduardo Lucero’s ceviches are works of art.
But this year I was blown away by their chocolatina, a sweet bite. The dessert has a gelatinous consistency thanks to the fact that it’s made with chocolate de metate (Mexican milled chocolate) and topped with tamarind sauce, shavings of chile piquín (a hot chile pepper) and toasted cacao beans. Heavenly!
June: Taco de tripa at Amaranta
Intestines, tripe and other types of offal – the cheapest cuts of meat – have long been viewed as working-class street food. But among foodies, this kind of meal is described as the real “haûte Mexican cuisine.”
Pablo Salas, the young chef at Amaranta in Toluca, a city not far from CDMX, elevates the street food classic of tripe tacos. Pablo’s tripe is clean, light and incredibly crispy, mounted on a bed of refried beans and topped with thin radish slices, avocado mousse and coriander sprouts.
July: Barbacoa at Barbacoa Renatos de Horno
Barbacoa is an ancient pre-Hispanic technique that involves slowly cooking any kind of meat in a pit in the ground. The steaming process leaves the young lamb meat (in this case) softer than handmade tortillas. No wonder they call barbacoa the “king of tacos.”
My favorite barbacoa is at Barbacoa Renatos, a family business established 58 years ago in San Martin Xochinahuac, at that time an autonomous village but now part of Mexico City. Today Renato’s children, Adriana, Bruno and Renato Jr., run the place, still respecting native techniques and ingredients. The latter is why the barbacoa here is so tasty: they use Mexican lamb while most other spots import lamb from New Zealand.
August: Torta de pastel de pollo at Tortas Robles
I discovered this tortería during my student years – we all used to go there because it was what we called a “3 Bs” place. That means it was “bueno, bonito y barato” (good, nice and cheap), a combination chilangos are always on the hunt for.
But there were concerns that this year may be the last for Tortas Robles after they received an eviction notice from the new owner of their building. The gentrification of Mexico City seems to be devouring those urban institutions that have fed chilangos for generations. To raise awareness on their plight, we organized a “tortathon,” which saw many people come out in support of this beloved shop. It also gave us the chance to eat our favorite sandwich, the torta de pastel de pollo (chicken patty sandwich).
September: Chile en Nogada at Roldán 37
If anyone knows about chiles in Mexico City, it’s Rómulo Mendoza. He is the third generation in his family to import chiles from Veracuz. Seven years ago, he restored his grandparents’ house in the heart of the formerly wealthy neighborhood of La Merced and opened it as a restaurant called Roldán 37.
Rómulo’s chile en nogada, a dish normally eaten on Independence Day (September 16), is faithful to historic recipes – it’s like feasting on the building blocks of Mexico City. I particularly loved its balance of ingredients.
October: Huaxmole de espinazo y caderas at El Mural de los Poblanos
Liz Galicia, the chef at El Mural de los Poblanos in Puebla, recreates many local favorites over the course of the year. But I’m always waiting for her version of huaxmole de espinazo y caderas, a traditional soup made using the hind legs and backbone of a goat. The dish is practically the definition of seasonal: after months of grazing on cactus, herbs and salt, the goats are brought down from the mountains to the town of Tehuacán to be ritually sacrificed on October 15. The extremely concentrated flavor of the soup is enhanced by the use of guajes, edible seeds very popular in indigenous cuisine.
November: Pan de muerto at Pasillo de Humo
November is when we honor the dead in Mexico. During this time, pan de muerto, one of the most popular treats for Day of the Dead altars, can be found just about everywhere. This year, our favorite take on this sweet bread was made by Alam Méndez, the chef at Pasillo de Humo, a relatively new Oaxacan restaurant in Mexico City.
His version was round and decorated with little bones – as tradition dictates – but was then split in half and filled with nicuatole de rosita de cacao (a mousse made with corn and a flower commonly used to prepare tejate) and café de olla (Mexican style coffee with brown sugar and cinnamon) cream. It’s like having three desserts in one.
December: Paella at Plaza de Toros México
Plaza de Toros México is the biggest bullfighting ring in the world and can seat over 45,000 people. But the so-called “Fiesta Brava,” the name given to Sunday bullfights, is not only about the deathly dance between man and bull, it also involves lots of other rituals, particularly when it comes to eating before or after the spectacle.
For me, I always fight to get a seat at the stand of El Chel, the master of paella. The dimensions of his paella dish are as enormous as the bullring. People love it so much, it’s hard to find a space after 2 p.m. (by 4 p.m., his paella is sold out).
The portion is extremely generous, as it should be, and you eat like a king. Fresh ingredients and the expertise of El Chel are what make it my best bite of December.