It’s hot in Mexico City and Gerardo Vazquez, head chef of Nicos Restaurant, is thinking about cooling off.
“Spring in Mexico City is hot,” he says, “And for me, it is very connected to Lent…so, fresh foods, cool things, vegetable-focused dishes.”
Tostadas are on the menu at Nicos today – crunchy baked tortillas, one with a cobia fish ceviche, and another with smoked trout, yogurt, arugula and tomato – as well as an Acupulco ceviche with olives and capers, and a cool mango ceviche.
Vazquez is a man who thinks in seasons. He came up as a young chef working with two of the biggest promoters of the Slow Food movement in Mexico – husband and wife team Giorgio De Angeli and Alicia Gironella – and has integrated the slow food philosophy into his approach to Nicos menu.
“Food that doesn’t make a mark on you, that doesn’t have that spirit of eating for enjoyment, doesn’t provide the same pleasure. So [Slow Food] is a return to regional cuisine, to traditional flavors, to original products and to techniques that achieve that pleasure.”
The dining room at Nicos is already bustling on this Monday afternoon. The ambiance is causal but refined, the tickle of glassware blending with the steady grinding of mortars and pestles being used by waiters to make the famous tableside salsas. A smartly dressed younger couple eats alongside what appears to be the girl’s parents – her date a little more fidgety and nervous than she is. Regulars stop by to talk to Chef Vazquez, offering praise of the dishes and a side hug for the man that feeds them so happily. The culinary pilgrims who have ventured out to visit Nicos discreetly snap photos of their food and then look around guiltily for exposing themselves as newbies.
Set on an unassuming street in Mexico City’s Azcapotzalco neighborhood, Nicos Restaurant is a decided detour from the regular gastro-tourism trail that snakes through Mexico City’s Roma, Polanco and Condesa neighborhoods. But Vazquez says the restaurant’s hyper-locality has developed into one of its most important characteristics.
“This was how Nicos was founded, as a neighborhood restaurant. The style of food we served was what my parents knew well, family-style dishes. So after several evolutions, some of them good, some of them bad, what I did was try to recover the original idea of a neighborhood restaurant.”
Despite its distance from the tourism corridors, or perhaps because of it, this restaurant has become a must-stop destination for anyone looking for delicious, traditional Mexican cuisine in the city. Rice of the day with mole and egg, a sopa seca de natas recipe from the 1800s, rabbit in chile piquín and sesame sauce – each menu item reflects the fundamental roots of both traditional Mexican cooking and Nicos itself.
“Life at home was very much connected to the kitchen table, to food, to products. Like in a lot of traditional families,” he says about growing up with his parents Elena Lugo and Raymundo Vazquez, who opened Nicos in 1957. Vazquez’s first memories of food are not that of the restaurant, but of his mother in the kitchen. Everything he creates at Nicos tries to get back to those original flavors.
You can’t defend a cuisine, a regional cuisine, a local cuisine, if you don’t defend its ingredients. And you can’t defend the ingredients if you don’t defend ecology, the environment, systems of production – everything is interconnected.
And while Nicos is firmly planted as a neighborhood favorite, in the last several decades with Vazquez at the helm, the restaurant has reached even greater heights, consistently named one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2015, and listed in every Mexico City eating guide worth its salt.
Mexico, as a center of pre-hispanic trade, has a long tradition of eating seafood and fish Vazquez tells us as we dig into the camarones al mojo isleño – herb-grilled shrimp on a bed of creamy sweet potato mash and sweet plantains. He has spent years researching traditional recipes and digging into culinary history across the country. When we mention he’s been called a culinary archaeologist, he rolls his eyes – Vazquez rejects the hype that surrounds him and Nicos and insists that’s he just a guy running a restaurant.
But he does have a passion for ingredients that’s not easy to ignore – four types of heritage corn are growing in a planter outside the restaurant and he proudly shows us an unusual bean – frijol arroz – that he stumbled upon in a market in the state of Chiapas.
“You can’t defend a cuisine, a regional cuisine, a local cuisine, if you don’t defend its ingredients. And you can’t defend the ingredients if you don’t defend ecology, the environment, systems of production – everything is interconnected. And you can’t defend any of that if you don’t defend the farmer, the producer, the fisherman, the creators and producers of food.”
Each one of Nicos dishes highlights that deep respect for traditions and ingredients – it’s part of what makes this restaurant one of the best in Mexico City and beyond.
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Published on June 08, 2022