In a city where it can be hard to keep track of trendy new restaurant openings, dining at El Mirador is a timeless tradition. Open since 1904, the beloved cantina stands in a corner across from the city’s iconic Chapultepec Park, hiding more than a century of history behind its green awning.
Stepping inside El Mirador immediately calls for a decision: sitting on the restaurant side or in the cantina. Cantinas, which rose in popularity during Porfirio Díaz’s presidency in the early 20th century, are laid-back watering holes where food and drink are usually served with a side of live music and games such as dominoes. While similar in decor – green chairs, white tablecloths, ornate plates hanging on the walls – the restaurant and cantina at El Mirador offer two different ambiances, especially as the week progresses. On weekdays, business colleagues, neighborhood regulars and a few tourists populate El Mirador, blending the sounds of relaxed conversation with the Mexican music in the background. While there is always some sporting event playing on the restaurant’s TVs – usually soccer – the volume is off.
Come Friday and Saturday, though, the scene transforms considerably. Both the restaurant and cantina are packed. At tables small and large, groups of friends of all ages sit for hours, enjoying a seemingly endless parade of shareable appetizers and drinks. As lunch extends well into the evening, it’s easy to understand why El Mirador is the ideal place to experience the beauty of the classic cantina – and why it has been for more than a century. Here, there’s no such thing as trendy dishes or creative cocktails; no hit music or Instagrammable anything. The menu, the vibe and the spirit of El Mirador remain remarkably true to tradition.
El Mirador’s glory days came in the 1930s when socialite Don Juan Celorio Torres purchased the restaurant. A true visionary, Don Juan embarked on a quest to elevate El Mirador, serving top-quality tinned food and pouring fancy foreign beer like Guinness. Years later, his son, Juan Manuel, took on the business, bringing El Mirador into a new golden age. During the 1960s, the spot was a favorite among local politicians and celebrities, drawing crowds of hungry customers who lined up outside waiting for a table. Legend says that almost every Mexican president has dined at El Mirador since the 1950s.
On our most recent visit, we decided to sit in the cantina area, which would have been impossible a couple of decades ago, as women were not allowed in cantinas until the 1980s. It was a cloudy Sunday, which allowed us to experience the most relaxed version of El Mirador. Around us sat friends and couples, while most families opted for the restaurant. Before diving into the menu, our server brought us a couple of lifesaving Clamatos, an invigorating tomato-juice-and-beer concoction – it’s safe to say that half the diners in the cantina were hungover to some degree – and invited us to explore the long list of spirits. Not today, we replied, responsibly.
A feast at El Mirador has to begin with a “Tribilin,” one of the house’s signature creations. This mix of shrimp, beef tips and diced fish is marinated in olive oil, Maggi sauce, lime and Worcestershire sauce, and garnished with onions and grilled jalapeños. Strange-sounding to some, the Tribilin is packed with flavor and has remained a house favorite for decades. This dish is best enjoyed with crackers or in tacos, and like most options here, it’s great for sharing.
Next comes a sizzling pan of pulpos a la gallega (Galician-style octopus), which, along with a handful of other Spanish specialties, is a staple at many cantinas across town. Seasoned with paprika, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, the tender octopus is cooked to perfection, leaving a flavorful oil on the plate that demands to be soaked up with bread – protocol be damned.
Not all protocol, of course. Service is serious business here. Take the Caesar salad, prepared tableside, as all Caesars should be: As our server whisks the egg yolks, olive oil and mustard, we feel compelled to stop our chat and appreciate the ritual, up until the moment he places the dressed leaves on each of our plates. These traditions are upheld and respected and are as important in maintaining a loyal clientele as are the food and the atmosphere.
And when it comes to atmosphere, El Mirador is second to none – especially on Friday and Saturday afternoons. It’s not unusual to spot tables where long domino matches take place among regulars over the course of the afternoon. Live music fills the space, courtesy of tríos – three-piece bands – circulating around the dining room, treating diners to their musical requests. The more people who can sing along, the better. And the more tequila poured, the more heartfelt the renditions.
On this particular Sunday, though, the mood is laid-back. At our table, there are still decisions to be made. Other signature Mirador creations beckon, like the salt-baked fish, the sirloin tartare or the milanesa manchega, a tasty, thin breaded steak stuffed with ham and manchego cheese. The menu also features dishes like tortilla soup, Roquefort filet and grilled chistorra sausage, so the options seem endless, but our appetites are not. After a few minutes of indecision, we opt for the Gobernador tacos, stuffed with grilled shrimp and melted cheese.
It’s easy to glance at other tables and feel jealous about what they’re eating. It’s also easy to feel a bit embarrassed when we tell our server that we are too full for dessert when he brings a beautiful tray lined with slices of cake and flan. But not to worry; we’ll come back soon. Perhaps on a Tuesday, when we can have a weekday lunch and split a milanesa. Or even better, we’ll take a Friday afternoon off, and order way more than we can eat. If there’s anything more comforting than the meal we just enjoyed, it’s the fact that El Mirador is not going anywhere.
Published on January 31, 2024