Eating your way around Mexico City

LA Times | Travel

Mexico City has a sophisticated and cosmopolitan dining scene that includes foods from all over the world as well as outposts of molecular gastronomy (chef Enrique Olvera's boundary-pushing Pujol), contemporary American seafood (with chef Michael Mina's Nemi) and sushi a-plenty. On a recent tr...

By Monica Eng // 03.29.09

Mexico City has a sophisticated and cosmopolitan dining scene that includes foods from all over the world as well as outposts of molecular gastronomy (chef Enrique Olvera's boundary-pushing Pujol), contemporary American seafood (with chef Michael Mina's Nemi) and sushi a-plenty.

On a recent trip, there were no fewer than three Starbucks within a few blocks of our hotel.

Still, the tastiest food in town--for our palates--is the intensely local food that's served in humble eateries, bustling markets and little kiosks on the street. Using the speedy subway, we traveled from the bustling Zocalo and trendy Condesa districts to the tranquil neighborhood of Coyoacan and vast greenery of Chapultepec Park--each offering its own food treasures.

On our four-day winter eating escape in the nation's capital, we had a lot of memorable meals. But we've boiled it down here to 10 great things (or places) to try in Mexico City.

Coctel de fruta, a fruit cocktail at any clean-looking fruit stand you see: I know that most people think you shouldn't eat raw fruit and vegetables during a short trip to a foreign country. But everyone has different bugs in their gut, and it turns out that ours had no problem digesting the copious cups of fresh fruit and juices that were prepared before our eyes all over the city. We dived into silky chunks of sweet papaya, refreshing watermelon, fragrant pineapple, juicy oranges, crisp jicama and crunchy cucumber. All were peeled, sliced and topped with traditional but optional salt, chile powder and lime juice. A 40-ounce fruit salad should not cost more than 15 pesos ($1.05), and a 20-ounce cup of fruit pureed in a blender--we like the papaya, guava and pineapple--costs about 20 pesos (about $1.40). Our favorite of the trip was at a stand near the exit of Chapultepec Park on Avenida Reforma where you rent paddle boats.

Chiles en nogada at Restaurante Fonda El Morral, Allende 2, Col. Del Carmen, Coyoacan: When you walk into this popular restaurant, you'll find women gathered around a huge griddle preparing tortillas by hand. Minutes after you sit down, a hot basket of them hits your table, along with tangy cactus salad, rich crunchy pork rinds and a hot creamy green salsa. Rolled together, this combo will weaken your knees. But wait until the arrival of your chiles en nogada--roasted poblano peppers stuffed with ground meat, pine nuts, raisins and spices and topped with a creamy white walnut sauce and rubylike pomegranate seeds. Even though it tastes European, with its creamy sauce and fruit and meat marriage, it's a dream dressed in the colors of the Mexican flag. Also don't miss the comforting French bread pizza-like molletes that you top with pico de gallo. Each main dish is less than $9.

Churros and chocolate combination at Churrería El Moro, Metro stop Juan de Letrán, Lazaro Cardenas 42, at the corner of República de Uruguay: This house of tubular doughnuts and hot chocolate bustles 24/7 year-round. We arrived during a lull on a late Sunday morning and actually got a seat in the Spanish-tiled dining room that has charmed "chilangos" (Mexico City natives) since 1935. Ladies in starched gray dresses and white aprons gracefully deliver trays of churros, hot chocolate and tall milkshakes (malteadas). OK, so these churros aren't exactly fine pastry, but when they're fresh from the fryer, tossed in cinnamon sugar and dipped in Moro's rich Spanish-style chocolate, they possess abundant charm. (Chef Rick Bayless plans to open a spot modeled after Moro next to Topolobampo on Clark Street in Chicago later this year.) Moro patrons hungry for more can get a plate of tacos or sandwiches from an adjacent stand and eat them in the dining room with the sweets. Come for the chocolate, stay for the unbeatable ambience. Four churros and a hot chocolate cost about $4.

Carnitas breakfast at El Bajio, Reforma 222, Col. Juárez: Now that this Mexico City favorite boasts four locations, some feel it has gotten a little too fancy-pants. The elegant modern location in the swank Reforma 222 mall certainly feels upscale, but the house specialty--long-braised pork called carnitas–still rocks. We asked for the "carnitas surtido," which offered an assortment of chopped pig parts, including intestines--all tender and delicious. But you can also just order meat. The carnitas come with hot tortillas, killer salsas, beautifully chopped white onions and cilantro and impeccable service. A manager overheard us whining about our weak coffee and had it replaced immediately. Full breakfasts cost about $8.

El Jardin de Pulpo in the Mercado Coyoacan, L 24 Coyoacan, Coyoacan: Long communal tables at this marketside restaurant fill up fast with families enjoying ultra-fresh ceviches, deep-fried red snapper and a thirst-quenching limeade (limonada) that haunts us still. Douse your bright-tasting ceviches with some lime and salsa, perch them on a chip or cracker and you are in seafood heaven. Pair it with a jicama salad from the fresh fruit and juice stand inside the market, and it gets even better.

Tacos de canasta (tacos from a basket) at Pepe S, just west of the Zocalo's Templo Mayor on Calle Tacuba: My mouth is watering just thinking about the snack we had at this little lunch counter where your prepared tacos--filled with meat, cheese, potatoes and beans–come out of a cloth-covered basket. With all of their sauce and cheese, they will remind you of enchiladas as you messily eat them from plastic plates covered with brown paper. Douse them with condiments and enjoy, even if you can't get one of the counter seats. These were certainly the best 25-cent tacos we've ever had.

Turkey mole tacos at Xel-Ha, Parral 78 Bis, Col. Condesa: This midpriced Yucatecan-style restaurant in the trendy Condesa neighborhood is about as fancy as our dining got. Although this place is famous for its slow-cooked, banana leaf-wrapped cochinita pibil, we were disappointed by its lack of depth. What did knock us out were the juicy chunks of turkey topped with a brown mole and rolled in tortillas. Plus the restaurant let us stay late and chat with friends deep into the night.

Tacos al pastor at the stands near Napoles and Londres Streets: On a Sunday in the Reforma neighborhood, most of the taco stands were closed. But this stand (right next to an excellent fruit and juice kiosk) serves up fantastic tacos al pastor with a mean green mole at lightning speed despite the long lines.

Novelty snacksDoughnuts on a stick: Cafe El Jarocho; Cuauhtemoc 134, at Allende: People seem to adore the coffee at this 55-year-old neighborhood institution where they roast their own beans, but I found it weak and cardboardy. What I did love, however, were the superkitschy doughnuts on a stick they sell for about 50 cents.

Creadillas at Bar La Opera, Cinco de Mayo 10; Centro: This dark, ornate historic bar that, as the story goes, still bears a bullet hole from Pancho Villa does not serve delicious food. And if you touch the dry bread, pot of butter or pickles brought to the table, they will be immediately added to your bill. Still, for the atmosphere and the opportunity to order bull testicles (called criadillas) in a fancy restaurant, it's worth a trip.

Frozen yogurt from Nutri-Marel's Natural Foods, Genova 39 B; Juarez: One of the biggest surprises for visitors to Mexico City is the number of health-food kiosks in the subway and beyond. This branch of a popular health-food store sells tangy frozen yogurt that can be topped with amaranth, flax seed and fresh almonds, which is what we got and enjoyed on a hot day.

Tacos al pastor show at El Tizoncito, Campeche 362-A at Cholula (among other locations), We had high hopes for these famous tacos al pastor, but I found the tortillas dry and the actual meat bland compared with just about any pastor I ate on the street. The real reason to come here is for the pastor carvers who perform a show with each taco, deftly slicing the meat off the spit and then effortlessly flicking a chunk of pineapple into the air and catching it in a waiting tortilla. But you don't have to buy one to watch; you can spy the show from the

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