What we love about eating in Mexico City is that you can have a tasty meal of a few tacos for less than a dollar/pound or you can pay two hundred times that amount (no, that’s not a typo) for a seven-course gastronomic feast that is easily as sublime as any meal you’d find in the world’s finest eating cities such as Barcelona or Paris.
We ate at every kind of eatery during our two-week stay in Mexico City, from street food stands and casual taco joints to traditional Mexican restaurants frequented by middle-class families for Sunday brunches and gastronomic fine-diners filled with suits for three-hour lunches. Here are our favourites, and the only ones we’d recommend to friends…
CAFÉ EL POPULAR All day café
Cinco de Mayo 52, Centro
CENTRO’S BEST BREAKFAST EGGS
Lara: I have a soft spot for El Popular because we ate breakfast here frequently on earlier trips, but I’d still rate it as one of my favourites. There are few better ways to start the day than with a café cortado, a plate of huevos rancheros, the soft eggs swimming in spicy salsa, and a freshly squeezed orange juice. The waitresses don’t leave the dish of sugary pastries on your table, as they once did – which is a good thing as they were always so tempting!
Terence: Well, as this was the place that inspired my obsession with breakfast eggs, what more can I say?
CAFÉ LA BLANCA All day café
Cinco de Mayo 40, Centro
CHOICE CHILAQUILES IN THE CITY
Lara: Another place I’m fond of – I’ve spent a lot of time here eating late night meals on my own over the years! I love that it hasn’t changed: I still recognize a few of the white-coated waiters from my trip 15 years ago, and I love that they haven’t modernised the retro interior. Like El Popular they do scrummy breakfast eggs, but I’ve always gone here for the chilaquiles con pollo en salsa verde, which are delish!
Terence: Still just as I remembered it! Groovy. The food is simple and hearty, but consistently good.
SALÓN CORONA Taco joint
Filomeno Mata 18, Centro
DOWNTOWN’S TASTIEST TACOS & TORTAS
Lara: These are some of the tastiest tacos al pastor I’ve ever tried! (The Taco Journalism guys would love these!) And such great value at around US$0.80 cents each! The quesadillas were also delish. We ate here at all hours, late afternoon, evening, late at night, and it was always fun, especially when we snagged an outside table on the pedestrian street – the people-watching opportunities are worth lining up for!
Terence: I love this place so much that I insisted that we get some take-away here on our last night in Mexico City after the wrestling. Lara foolishly went to bed leaving a couple of tacos al pastor untouched. They didn’t last until dawn.
BAR LA ÓPERA Traditional Mexican
Cinco de Mayo 10, Centro
TRADITIONAL MEXICAN IN TIME-HONOURED SETTING
Lara: I would love this elegant old place for the history (Pancho Villa’s bullet hole in the ceiling and all that) and the opulent interior alone – the red upholstered booths, polished wood, plenty of gilt and mirrors – but I also love the old-fashioned service, which is always sincere, and the hearty traditional Mexican cuisine. The classics here are solid: the ensalada César, sopa de tortilla, and enchiladas verdes are all good. It’s also fun just to sit at the bar and have a beer. Only the television sets spoil the atmosphere.
Terence: A beautiful space and the classics done to a degree almost worthy of the surrounds. The actual bar should be more happening. Even if you don’t eat here, you must at least drop in for a drink.
CAFÉ DE TACUBA Traditional Mexican
Tacuba 28, Centro
ATMOSPHERIC EATING IN EL CENTRO
Lara: Another beautiful old restaurant that oozes history, I prefer the ground floor room for people watching (canoodling couples who shouldn’t be!) and the upstairs room for atmosphere. The food, while fine, isn’t as great as I remember it, and the service can be very slow. It’s loads of fun if the mariachis are around and the nostalgic locals are singing though.
Terence: My meal was fairly average. I’d rather go to Bar La Ópera.
EL CARDENAL Traditional Mexican
Juárez 70, Centro
INEXPLICABLY POPULAR AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Lara: Many people still consider this to be one of the city’s best traditional restaurants, but I was disappointed at the inconsistency and excruciatingly slow service. Sure, we ate here on a busy Sunday lunch when the whole of Mexico City seemed to be waiting for a table, but that’s no excuse. I did enjoy my Chiles en Nogada though.
Terence: I don’t get it. It’s just a place to be seen as far as I’m concerned and the other branch (in the same building as the Brazilian Embassy) was only full of ‘ladies who lunch’. Not feeling it at all.
DULCE PATRIA Modern Mexican Cuisine
Anatole France 100, Polanco
GOURMET MEXICAN IN GORGEOUS SURROUNDINGS
Lara: A disclaimer: I’m smitten with the charismatic Martha Ortiz, so I’m certain my dining experience was imbued with her aura or whatever it was that lingered after she left our table. I love the warmth of the room, the first-rate service, and the creative cocktails she invented. The food is a refined expression of popular traditional cuisine, and while it was accomplished cooking, I was enchanted more by the tiny artistic touches, the pretty plates, the the miniature painted sideboard our petits fours were served on.
Terence: I do think the place is still finding its feet (it had only been open for two weeks when we went), but it was very impressive both in the kitchen and with the plates that we were presented with. I adored the pork with mole – probably one of the best dishes I tasted in Mexico. Martha certainly knows how to work a room too. People love her, but she’s still a very passionate chef with a very focused vision of what she wants to do – and that’s half the battle won.
IZOTE Contemporary Mexican Cuisine
Presidente Masaryk 513, Polanco
CONTEMPORARY BUT HEARTY, HONEST COOKING
Lara: I was super-impressed by Patricia Qintana’s contemporary versions of classic Mexican, including pre-Hispanic, dishes. My trio of miniature cebiches – scallops, red snapper and the Acapulco-style cebiche – were simply sublime, the langostine and shrimp enchiladas with pumpkin seed sauce were scrumptious, and the shrimps in hibiscus mole were some of the finest and most perfectly-cooked shrimps I’ve had – a fantastic meal. My only complaint? The portions were too large. I’d have preferred a tasting menu of tiny portions.
Terence: I have to agree. A tasting menu would have been more advantageous as there were so many dishes we wanted to try! Outstanding food, just too much of it for us.
PUJOL Creative Contemporary Mexican
Petrarca 254, Polanco
MEXICAN FINE DINING AT ITS FINEST
Lara: This was the most memorable meal and the experience was on par with some of our best dining experiences in Barcelona. This is innovative gastronomic cuisine of the kind I’d hope to discover more of in Mexico City. It wasn’t as consistent as Izote but even when a dish didn’t quite work it was always an interesting experiment in textures and flavours. I really like what the chef Enrique Olvera is doing and would love to see him open a smaller bistronomic like Jordi Artal’s Cinc Sentits in Barcelona. The seven-course tasting menu we had is a must for foodies, but at 950 pesos per person (US$73/UK£48) without wine, it’s an expensive meal by Mexican standards.
Terence: After the heaviness of a lot of the meals we ate in Mexico City, especially at places like El Cardenal, Pujol was a revelation. Until the bill arrived. It did blunt a wonderful dining experience – but if it was French or Spanish cuisine I would not have baulked at handing over that much money. Do I think that Mexican cuisine doesn’t reach the heights of what is being done with Spanish and French cuisine? No – the first cookbook I bought was on Mexican cuisine! I do like what they’re doing, I just wish there were more restaurants like Pujol that are more approachable in the way that Barcelona’s restaurants have democratised the work and legacy of chef Ferran Adrià. I’d be the happiest guy in the world if I came back and saw more food like this than the somewhat stale cuisine of many of Mexico City’s more popular and relatively expensive traditional restaurants.