Myth: Culinary travelers should only eat “street” food when they travel to Mexico City.
Reality: There is more to Mexico City than tacos, flautas, and pozoles, delicious though they may be. Mexico City is, without question, one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities. Like all cosmopolitan cities, it has world-class museums, a thriving business center, trendy boutique hotels, and, naturally, some of the world’s best restaurants. A short stroll around tonier neighborhoods like Condesa and Polanco reveal restaurant after restaurant upon wine and cocktail bars. To eat only street food in Mexico City is like visiting Chicago without going to a Paul Kahan restaurant.
You should eat street food. (For that, I highly recommend Nicholas Gilman’s book, “Good Food in Mexico City: Food Stalls, Fondas & Fine Dining,” or the Culinary Backstreets blog.) The cultural benefit to eating street food in a city like Mexico City is not that it’s necessarily so unique that it’s worth seeking out for itself, but that it puts the food in context. Pozoles are commonly eaten at markets, and tacos al pastor are usually eaten off-the-street, perhaps after late afternoon drinks in Condesa. If you have tacos on a Sunday afternoon or as a mid-afternoon snack at a market, you’re eating like a native; tacos all the time — well, you’re eating like a tourist backpacker.
I’ll rephrase: You should eat street food, but not exclusively. Mexico City is regularly placed in the upper echelon of global dining due to a group of extremely talented Mexican chefs that are worth seeking out. Based on my visit there, there is abundant local pride for these chefs, and the broad attention they’ve brought to the vast traditions and varied pantry of Mexican cuisine.
“From cab drivers to bus boys, they asked me, ‘Are you going to Pujol?'”
In particular, Enrique Olvera of Pujol and Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil are two Mexico City chefs that should not be missed. For those keeping count, Pujol ranked No. 17 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (2 places behind Alinea), and Quintonil is No. 22 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Pujol aspires to demand the world’s attention with its stark dining room and somewhat somber service that mimics the polished four-star service in Europe and the United States. The night I was there, half the dining room was filled with Americans. (In fairness, it was Thanksgiving weekend, essentially vacation time for Americans.) Quintonil, on the other hand, feels like an undiscovered neighborhood restaurant.
Olvera, who opened Pujol 14 or so years ago, is somewhat of a wunderkind. His menu is a journey through many of the building blocks of Mexican cuisine. It is cerebral, mature, and extremely refined. It refers to family recipes, such as the Mole Madre, and an amped-up version of an elote, utilizing (or paying homage to) an aunt’s recipe, which is served in a pumpkin filled with the smell of sweet smoke that wafts across the dining room every time it is served.
That Mole Madre is a signature savory dish at Pujol is evident by its placement on the tasting menu before the palate cleanser. I’ve had a lot of bad moles in Chicago that were two-note or off-balance. Few are transcendent. Olvera’s mole is “aged,” and “fed” over time like a bread starter. I tasted it on the 237th day of its existence. (For those wondering how long Pujol will keep a mole, the restaurant plans to toss it on Day 365 and start over.) It was rich and savory with developed dark bittersweet chocolate and dried-fruit notes–not unlike an aged Zinfandel–but with a subtle heat from chili pepper as opposed to alcohol. It was only served with a tortilla. It didn’t need anything more.
A huitlacoche dish was gorgeously delicate, balancing its earthy flavor against sweet pureed tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes appeared again along with chiles in a chilacayota squash dish. The squash was prepared filet-style as you might with a piece of fish, and distilled in one dish why Mexicans have such a love affair with all types of squash. The rest of the tasting menu combined diverse ingredients in single plates but never strayed too far from authentic Mexican flavors and traditions — for example, in an homage to raspado, the classic summer refresher similar to a snow cone, chico zapote (similar to mamey) acted as a palate cleanser; tonka beans came together with ground cherries as a tart-savory dessert. Olvera is not trying to be the modernist Mexican version of Grant Achatz. He’s uniquely connected to and understands his culture’s cuisine, but he’s unafraid of letting it express itself as a more sophisticated version of itself.
The other side of the coin is the more casual Quintonil, which walks a line between heartier, more homespun food and refinement. Behind Quintonil are two young people, chef Jorge Vallejo, and his wife, Alejandra Flores, who runs the front of the house. (I have encountered few front of the house people who are as gracious, precise and warmly sophisticated as Flores.) Though deliberately more approachable, this food is no less delicious or modern in refining traditional food, and there is a special emphasis (at least when I was there) on blending the cuisine of the various regions. Although I had often encountered diced panela cheese in soups in Mexico City, I wasn’t quite prepared for how refined simple Oaxacan string-cheese can be in a soup. This soup was smooth and creamy, and made richer by chunks of crispy pork belly, and rounder by sweet plaintain. If comfort food is soulfully satisfying, then I guess this is Mexican comfort food at its best.
One of the more interesting dishes was ‘huauzontles,’ which is an oblique reference to the name of the restaurant (Spanish for amaranth). The slightly bitter huauzontles (a member of the goosefoot family) were boiled, minced fine, and served with a sweet tomato sauce and cheese from Chiapas. Mexico benefits from year-round production of crops like tomatoes and peaches that are highly seasonal in the Midwest. Thus, Quintonil and Pujol had the luxury of using tomatoes in November in pleasing ways to offset either the richness or bitterness of certain dishes, and Quintonil’s naturally sweet tomato puree was a welcome foil to greens that are not themselves a major culinary draw. Chilacoyota squash made an encore appearance at Quintonil, where it was treated quite differently than at Pujol, and served with a strong, savory mole, showing how versatile an ingredient pumpkin is. In a city filled with craft cocktail bars, Quintonil’s cocktails, made with a panoply of indigenous Mexican ingredients and Mezcals, were especially well-crafted.
Mexico City is a relatively cheap, three-and-a-half hour flight from Chicago. Rather than devote money to doing another season at Next, why not fly down to Mexico City to experience their gustatory coming out party?