Mexican Medley

Mexico City has long suffered from a terrible reputation of being overpopulated, sprawling and chaotic — and that’s just for starters.

But the Mexican capital’s bad rap is largely undeserved, and the city’s size and diversity make it an exciting destination for travellers who love art, culture, history and, above all, exceptional food. Whether you’re looking for white-tablecloth dining or finger-licking-good street food, you won’t go home hungry. Enthusiasm for locally grown food isn’t a fad here, it’s a way of life. So grab a fork and dig in.

Where to stay

Budget-friendly El Patio 77 is the city’s first eco-friendly B&B, serving fair-trade coffee and exceptional traditional breakfasts, including dishes such as molletes (toasted beans and cheese sandwiches) with fresh fruit.

Luxe boutique Downtown México is a 17-room boutique hotel in a 17th-century mansion. It also houses a complex of restaurants and shops, including a bakery, a mescal/tequila bar and Azul Histórico restaurant, which specialises in regional Mexican cuisine. The hotel’s vertical garden is eye-catching.

Las Alcobas is a luxury boutique hotel in the city’s business and entertainment district. It has two restaurants on site, Dulce Patria and Anatol, and is within walking distance of other top eateries.

Chain with class Camino Real Polanco México is part of a Mexican hotel chain, but that doesn’t mean it lacks character. An architectural masterpiece built in 1968, it has eight restaurants including Iron Chef star Masaharu Morimoto’s delicious Mexican outpost, Morimoto Mexico City.

Places to eat

When Restaurant magazine releases The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list annually, foodies begin reassessing their culinary bucket lists. Two Mexico City eateries have been dancing in and around the Top 50 since 2010: Pujol, headed by wildly popular chef Enrique Olvera, and Biko, a restaurant influenced by Spain’s Basque cuisine. Pujol nabbed 20th spot this year; Biko 59th. Although reservations can be hard to come by, lucky diners will likely be surprised by the cost of the exceptional prix fixe (fixed price) tasting menus at each restaurant (about $105 and $80 respectively).

Also in the Polanco neighbourhood is Quintonil. Run by husband-and-wife team Jorge Vallejo and Alejandra Flores, the restaurant opened in 2012 and, this year, earned 21st spot in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Like Pujol, its strong suit is regional Mexican fare updated with modern techniques.

For fast cheap food it’s hard to beat Tacos Joven, which serves plump tacos de canasta, stuffed with your choice of shredded beef, refried beans and potatoes. And for something to wash it down? Take care of that at MUTEM, the Museum of Tequila and Mescal. Your ticket includes tastings of Mexico’s favourite spirits.

If those tipples aren’t enough to wet your whistle, step outside and you’ll find yourself in Plaza Garibaldi, ringed by bars and restaurants.

Must-see spots

Mexico’s capital is humming 24 hours a day and, with so much to see, do and eat, it’s best to get an early start. Head to the heart of the city, the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución S/N, Colonia Centro), for a flag-raising ceremony full of pomp and circumstance. The largest flag you’re ever likely to see will be run up in the square by a contingent of military police and soldiers.

Before heading over to rub elbows with the city’s top chefs doing their early morning shopping at Mercado San Juan (above; Ernesto Pugibet 21, Colonia Centro), stop by El Moro Churreria for churros and hot chocolate. Open since 1935, this charming spot is a city institution.

Once at the market, wander around the neatly stacked fruits and vegetables and try local specialties, such as huitlacoche, an edible corn fungus. Also, be sure to grab a bag of chapulines, fried grasshoppers — a popular and tasty snack.

Don't leave without...

Visiting MUJAM, the antique toy museum of Mexico, a temple packed floor to ceiling with toys, many of them Mexican in origin.

Take a food tour with Eat Mexico or Mexico Cooks!, both of which specialise in street food and market tours.

Browse through Mercado el 100, the city’s first all-local organic market. All products sold here are sourced within a 160-kilometre (100 miles, hence the name) radius of the capital.

Suburb spotlight

Most visitors head to the neighbourhood of Coyoacán to visit the Museo Frida Kahlo, also known as the Casa Azul or Blue House. It was the home and studio of artist Frida Kahlo, who lived here with her husband, fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Don’t miss the kitchen, a work of art in its own right, with an array of traditional Mexican clay cooking pots.

The area is also home to several classic hacienda restaurants, including the 17th-century San Angel Inn with its elegant courtyard and garden. For a vibe that’s more contemporary and laid-back, have drinks at La Bipo, the Coyoacán bar co-owned by Mexican actor/director Diego Luna (of Y tu Mamá También movie fame).

Living like a local

Chef Martha Ortiz travels throughout Mexico to meet home cooks, farmers and food producers. These encounters inspire the menu at her Mexico City restaurant Dulce Patria (sweet homeland).

What markets do you like the best? Xochimilco (Av. Nuevo León), because time hasn’t caught up with it. I like it for its folklore, flowers, its authenticity and the marvellous canals full of trajineras [gondola- like boats].

What’s your favourite spot in the city? I love browsing the Plaza del Angel bazaar, for old cookbooks, dishes that can tell me stories, and cooking utensils or other vintage items that catch my attention.

Which of your dishes are you most proud of? The one that gives me most pride — and I have the most fun with — is María va a la florería (Mary goes to the florist). It allows me to create a gastronomic narrative that changes from one season to the next.

Hidden gem

To learn about Mexico’s culinary history, visit Museo Gastronómico de Fundación Herdez. The museum takes visitors through centuries of tradition, from the pre-Hispanic era to the present. Especially impressive is the library, housing more than 4000 volumes. The museum also hosts workshops and cooking classes — from learning bakery traditions to cooking with local seafood.

Words by Julie Schwietert Collazo - Published in Voyeur July 2014
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