Sunlight filters through turn-of-the-century stainglass windows as the Cardenal waiters descend in button-down white dress shirts and black vests. They offer a coffee, a concha, a hot chocolate – and in a flurry of dining activity you suddenly feel like the only person in the room. One of Mexico City‘s most well-loved eating establishments, El Cardenal overflows with extended families having Sunday lunch, tourists gawking at the restuarant‘s dining room murals, and long-time clients greeting the hostess by name as they pass by on the way to their favorite table.
There’s a reason why El Cardenal is always mentioned in the best of the best restaurants in Mexico City. From humble origins, the restaurant has transformed into a veritable institution and has remained an iconic part of the community for over 50 years. El Cardenal continues to cook up some of the city’s best traditional Mexican cuisine, with an expansive menu of dishes from across the country that draws both locals and visitors from across the globe in search of the perfect breakfast. What started in a simple space in the Centro Histórico has now has expanded to five different locations across the city, each with its own particular charm.
Still in the hands of Marcela, Tito, Coty and Jesús – four of the children of original owners Oliva Garizurieta and Jesús Briz – the Cardenal empire started out in a small fonda on Moneda street, serving home-style dishes to the neighborhood’s workers, in particular government workers from the National Palace next door. The original menu was a classic repertoire of dishes from the home regions of the restaurant’s owners.
“My parents loved food,” says Marcela Briz, “My mother came from the north of Veracruz, the Huasteca, and my father from a town close to the Purépecha Plateau in Michoacán. They came here to start a business to support their family and so they worked at what they knew.”
Marcela grew up working in the restaurant along with her five siblings.
“They were difficult years, that now of course we remember with a lot of fondness,” she adds.
Some of Oliva and Jesús’ first dishes still grace El Cardenal’s menu – dark, rich moles with a hint of spice; perfectly cooked Mexican rice; a soup that Jesús baptized the caldo purépecha with chicken, avocado and hard-boiled eggs. It was in the early stage of the restaurant that they started to nixtamalize their own corn and bake their own bread on site, and developed their famous clotted cream (nata) to eat alongside sweetbread.
“El Cardenal started out as an everyday place,” insists Marcela, even though today it has become, for many of its diners, a place for a special day or night out, often reserved for big family meals, birthdays and holidays.
The essence of the original menu reflected those two regions – Veracruz and Michoacán – but has since expanded to include many more dishes from across Mexico.
“It happened later,” Marcela says about the now massive menu, “with a lot of thought of put into it by us to include more of the country’s regional cuisine.”
The family dug deep into the past to preserve some of Mexican cuisine’s original recipes – not only searching in their own personal family archive, but also using ancient cookbooks and even a 18th-century manuscript they helped to edit and republish for the public.
But all the effort wouldn’t mean much if the food wasn’t absolutely delicious. El Cardenal’s buttery ant egg omelet is among the many famed breakfast dishes here, and the salty codfish torta with olives and tomatoes is what capitalinos salivate for each spring during Lent. The fresh queso de rancho cheese (made on their own dairy farm in the Estado de Mexico) served alongside slices of avocado in green salsa might be one of the most talked about side dishes in the entire city.
The restaurant has also done its best to maintain the traditional techniques of Mexican cooking – continuing to process their own corn kernels for dough (nixtamalización) and baking all their bread in-house, including their now-famous tortas de agua with bubbling crusts and warm, silky interiors.
No longer on Moneda street, the restaurants can now be found in a beautiful Porfirio-era former piano factory on Palma street; the downstairs lobby of the Hilton Hotel on Reforma (with its own interesting history); a gorgeous turn-of-the-century mansion in San Angel; a modern setting in Las Lomas de Chapultepec and a new, more intimate locale in the Napoles neighborhood. At each, you find waiters in their button downs and smart-looking vests, offering considerate but not overbearing service and whisking up hot chocolate tableside for the foamiest cup guaranteed. El Cardenal is even reopening our favorite location on the Manuel Tolsa plaza downtown with an incredible view of the many iconic buildings that sit at the plaza’s edges, such as the National Museum of Art.
Whichever location to you decide to try, start with a hot chocolate and concha with nata cream. Maybe move on to a comforting plate of fideo seco sprinkled with fresh cheese, and then finish off with a plate of romeritos en mole negro. We are sure no matter what your order, you’ll find deep, traditional flavors, and the same hospitality from when this restaurant started 53 years ago as a simple place to feed hungry stomachs in the heart of Mexico City.
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