As the calendar year turns over, we’ve grown accustomed to the barrage of lists telling us where to travel during the next 12 months. Oftentimes these places are a country or even a whole region – you could spend an entire year exploring just one of the locations listed and still barely make a dent.
We like to travel on a smaller scale. Forget countries and cities, for us the neighborhood is the ideal unit of exploration. Celebrating neighborhood life and businesses is, of course, essential to what we do as Culinary Backstreets. Since our founding in 2012, we’ve been dedicated to publishing the stories of unsung local culinary heroes and visiting them on our food walks, particularly in neighborhoods that are off the beaten path.
But this year we are planning to dive even deeper into the cities we work in. Getting off the beaten path leads to fresh experiences, but more importantly, it’s a way for us to contribute to the economies of neighborhoods otherwise neglected by the tourism industry. Tourism is an important economic force in many cities, as it should be, but if it is not dispersed responsibly, it can devastate the urban ecosystem, one that’s based on the sound health of all of a city’s neighborhoods.
With that in mind, we are happy to declare 2018 as “The Year of the Neighborhood,” one in which our focus will be on lesser-visited neighborhoods and the people and places that keep them going. To get things started, below is a compilation of the less-visited areas that our correspondents are planning to explore this year:
Mexico City: Santa Maria La Ribera
Mexico City may be continuing to sprawl outwards, but the last decade has been defined by the revival of the city’s central neighborhoods. The Centro Histórico, bustling during the day but previously a barren wasteland after dark, has been revitalized over the last few years and is now home to a number of outstanding restaurants that have helped turn the area into a dining destination. Downtown’s Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, meanwhile, have become something like Mexico City’s answer to Brooklyn: enclaves of cool – at least in the popular imagination – filled with hip restaurants, bars and cafes.
This revitalization of the city’s core has not been without its costs. The growing popularity of some of these areas has led to the usual cycle of gentrification: higher rents followed by the exodus of long-time residents and businesses that can no longer afford to stay, ultimately resulting in the loss of what had been the neighborhoods’ original character.
One downtown district that has managed to avoid this fate is Colonia Santa Maria La Ribera, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Founded in the late 1800s, this was Mexico City’s first suburb, an area of grand residences that at the time was far enough from the center of town to give the well-to-do families that moved there the feeling of being out in the countryside. As Mexico City grew, its center eventually enveloped the neighborhood, driving its wealthier residents even further away from downtown. In their place came a mix of middle class and blue-collar families drawn by its convenient location northwest of the city center.
Santa Maria La Ribera might look a bit grimy these days, but it remains one of the city’s more inviting neighborhoods, full of architectural and cultural gems hiding in plain sight. There’s the city’s Geology Museum and the Chopo museum of contemporary art, both housed in dramatic early 20th-century buildings. There’s also the beautiful Sagrada Familia church, which dates to 1899, and – most striking of all – the sublime “Moorish Kiosk,” a cast iron gazebo that was constructed in 1884 to represent Mexico at an international exposition in the United States and was then relocated to Santa Maria La Ribera in 1910, becoming a proud emblem for the neighborhood.
But it’s the food scene that, to me, makes Santa Maria la Ribera so appealing. It’s a neighborhood that keeps surprising me – it seems like every time I go there I find something new. More importantly, the food spots here – some of the best in the city – are still very neighborhood- and family-oriented, with restaurants that have been around for generations. Some local favorites include Maare, one of the best Yucatecan restaurants in the city; Salon Paris, among the oldest cantinas in Mexico; Birria el Güero, a hole in the wall that serves a classic goat soup from the state of Jalisco; and La Oveja Negra, which has been selling barbacoa in the area for more than 60 years.
Gentrification is certainly nipping at the edges of Santa Maria La Ribera and exiles priced out of Roma and Condesa are slowly moving in, but it’s still a neighborhood that feels like a neighborhood – something that can’t be said about every part of downtown Mexico City. – Ben Herrera
Click here to read the full neighborhood guide.