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.
Last January, we declared 2018 as “The Year of the Neighborhood,” and what a fruitful year it was. We had our fair share of fresh experiences and were also able 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 again focus on neighborhoods off the main tourist trail in 2019, as well as the people and places that keep them going. Below is a compilation of the less-visited areas that our correspondents are planning to explore this year:
Mexico City: Colonia Juárez
Mexico City’s Juárez neighborhood, with its central location along Avenida Reforma, is one of the city’s oldest. Yet successive waves of residents and businesses have changed the face of the neighborhood many times over. Nowadays, despite being small, Colonia Juárez encompasses the vast diversity of Mexico City.
The neighborhood was originally created in the late 1800s by the Chapultepec Land Improvement Company – the American businesspeople that owned the company divided up the lands of a former hacienda. The area was subsequently named Colonia Americana when it was formally recognized in 1898 (it was renamed Colonia Juárez in 1906 to commemorate the centenary of President Benito Juárez’s birth). Some of Mexico City’s richest families settled here in palatial homes along streets named after European cities: Berlin, Barcelona, Turín. Yet Juárez was hard-hit in the 1985 earthquake, leading many residents to abandon the neighborhood. During the 1990s, Juárez, specifically Zona Rosa, earned a new reputation as a haven for the city’s growing LGBTQ community.
Today Insurgentes, the longest avenue in the city, cuts the neighborhood in half, east-west, and the two sides couldn’t feel more different. You can still find vestiges of the old Juárez in historic homes on the neighborhood’s eastern edge and traditional eateries near Mercado Juárez, which is tucked in the southeastern corner. We often find ourselves at Gabi’s Café for chilaquiles and panque (pound cake), and to soak up its old school feel, which manages to endure even as new restaurants, like Café Nin, one of the neighborhood’s upscale breakfast spots, and high-end condos pop-up around it. (For its proximity to the business district of Reforma and the hip enclave of Roma, Juárez is one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, making it a popular spot with entrepreneurs and restaurateurs.) We also frequent the fondas, or lunch restaurants, near the market that still offer full meals for as little as 40 pesos ($2), a rarity as cost of living in the neighborhood creeps upward.
But if you head west to Zona Rosa, the neighborhood’s heart, you’ll find Japanese and Korean restaurants, sometimes in the shadow of skyscrapers. Mapo Gal Bi, with its cozy wooden booths, offers the best Korean barbeque in the area; for Japanese food, we head to Kaminari Tonkotsu for delicious ramen and Tokyo Restaurant for affordable set lunches. The Japanese community in Mexico City goes back generations, but since trade cooperation expanded between South Korea and Mexico in the 1990s, the Korean community has grown; both have largely settled in the area.
Sometimes, though, the new and the old stand side by side. Like La Nature, an organic food store that sells all its products in reusable containers to cut down on waste, which is located across the street from Mercado Juárez. It’s this unique combination of trendy and traditional that makes Juárez one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in Mexico City. – Martha Pskowski
Click here to read the full neighborhood guide.