Mexico City consists of sixteen boroughs with a population of over 20 million people. Classed as an Alpha City, big and economically important, it houses the largest Spanish speaking population of any city in the world.
Food fuels it, with the rich and diverse smells of street vendors filling every layer of the sprawling megalopolitan’s hot air. Traffic jams, of which there are many, are punctuated by the calls of thousands of street sellers, “tacos, tamales, chalupas, quesadillas”, they shout, hawking their wares past gleaming rows of hot car windows. The metal clink of large knives cutting, chopping, bashing, crushing, mix harmoniously with these entrepreneurial cries, while plastic radios powered by batteries and petrol generators provide clave, conga and bossa - rhythms that bind together, creating a beautiful song for the street, a song played only in Mexico, by an orchestra of over 100,000 street vendors.
Food is heard, seen and smelt from almost every corner and with the average worker commuting around two, sometimes three hours a day, most people eat standing up. A day spent exploring the city’s street food is a day spent discovering new flavours, dishes, techniques and traditions, but just remeber that the innocent looking fish taco, that sweet smelling breakfast tamale and that creamy looking plate of bean soup can lead to a world of pain - locals even have a name for it, “Montezuma’s Revenge”, referring to the ninth emperor of the Aztec empire who was defeated by the invading Hernán Cortés. Everyone, no matter how strong their constitution, has suffered at the merciless hands of Montezuma.
With this in mind, here’s my Montezuma free guide to eating in Mexico city. Some simple suggestions on where to taste contemporary Mexican flavours while avoiding tear inducing chilli, killer tacos and salsa that’s sure to put you and your stomach into messy divorce proceedings.
Breakfast with Bite
Breakfast in Mexico can take many forms but a nice light way of starting is with sweet crispy pastries called oreja - named because of their resemblence to an ear. Huge fluffy milky breads called conchas, thanks to their similarity to shells, and rebanada de mantequilla, a nice wedge of bread with creamy butter. A perfect place to try this is Peltre, a small Brooklyn style cafe in the chic district of Condesa. The cafe, which is owned by chef Daniel Ovadia, also serves a range of torta’s, omelettes, pastries and Mexican coffees.
Another great breakfast option is Eno, a gourmet store and coffee shop concept by chef Enrique Olvera. They serve up a range of soups, sandwiches, salads and fresh fruit with yogurts and granola. For a contemporary take on a traditional Mexican breakfast go for the Molletes - a dish of bread that’s usually topped with creamy refried beans and cheese before being grilled in the oven. At Eno it’s topped with three Mexican cheeses and cut in triangle shapes as opposed to the usual round offering. The tamales here are unusually light when compared with most offered across Mexico City. This is thanks to Olvera working to create a super fine masa - a corn based flour-like ingredient. The chef has also worked to create the perfect balance between the masa and the fatty protein filling - usually pork. All this combines to offer one of the most delightful, lightest tamales in Mexico City - perfect for breakfast. Eno has three location across the city but opt for the one in Palmas, it's located within a curious design store that offers a mix of unique products from across Mexico.
Lunch with Love
Avoid the queues on the street and head to one of three places:
Nicos: Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the decor in this family run restaurant. It’s been around since 1957, when it was first opened as a small cafeteria, and now serves up arguably some of the most traditional Mexican style dishes in the city.
Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo is the founder of Slow Food Mexico and has a dedicated approach to sourcing interesting new ingredients from across the country. At Nicos the simplicity of just a few ingredients are somehow transformed to create a wholly new and rounded flavours - something as simple as onion, mushroom and pepper with oil can be elevated to exiting new heights. Guacamole is crushed tableside offering the perfect explosion of flavours on the plate as soon as they’ve been crushed and, if you’re daring, you can opt for escamoles (ant larvae) - or as they say in Mexico, insect caviar. They’re sautéed lightly in butter with some herbs, also done tableside, and have a creamy, buttery flavour.
The mix of great local producers, top quality ingredients, home recipes and welcoming atmosphere make for some truly tasty and long lunches. Make sure you ask about Mezcal as Chef Lugo has a fine collection and deep knowledge of the product. Forget your watch and take an empty stomach.
Merotoro: Step away from classic Mexican for a while and enjoy a mix of influences, including Californian, created by chef Jair Tellez at the Merotoro restaurant. Tellez comes from the periphery of Mexico in Tijuana and brings with him a distinct offering of dishes that showcase recipes from home. Lots of Baja Californian style dishes, seafood, ceviches, pan-fried Iberian ham pork jowl with braised lentils and poached egg, ribs, soups and even a risotto dish adorn the menu in this classy establishment which opens up right onto the street.
La Barraca Valenciana: Chef José Miguel García is part of the young breed of Mexican chefs breathing life into Mexico’s old style eating houses. After stints at places like elBulli and El Celler De Can Roca he went back to Mexico and eventually took over his family restaurant, originally opened in 1988. The restaurant services a group of loyal locals who come for the famous tortas. You can also order a mix of fried seafood alongside simple Tapas style dishes such as pan tomato con jamon serrano and patatas bravas. The daily specials menu is where the tradition evolves taking on a more contemporary feel thanks to García’s obvious flare, you’ll also find a large selection of of artisan beers from around Mexico.
Street Food with Style
If you still fancy some street style flare without the aforementioned revenge, head to the brand new Mercado Roma - a sleek, modern market fitted with over 50 different vendors who are bringing the idea of market food in a modern setting to Mexico City. It’s packed with restaurants, producers and chefs looking to show off wonderful organic foods. There’s also a terrace with a bar and space for a vertical garden, eventually allowing the sale of products grown directly on site.
Food Trucks Mexico is a co-operative of around 40 food trucks working in Mexico City. Because the truck owners are not officially certified by the Mexican authorities they can’t legally operate on the street, instead they team up and offer bazar style markets with food from all over the world. You can find upcoming dates on their website and it’s well worth tracking down their latest bazar. Many of the trucks are operated by chefs who also own high end restaurants across the city, this really is a taste of the future of street food in Mexico, a world away from Montezuma and his belly bubbling revenge.