Mexico’s City’s culinary awakening shook the globe several years ago when chefs Enrique Olvera at Pujol and Jorge Vallejo at Quintonil surged into the upper ranks of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants by mining their country’s rich cultural heritage and redefining what it means to be a cook in Mexico. Their movement caught fire and remains inextinguishable. Proud, inspired and emboldened, Mexico’s capital today easily competes with the hottest restaurant scenes in all of the Americas. And with a strong U.S. dollar, dining out in Mexico City is an incredible bargain.
Flying into to Mexico City for several days of nonstop eating has become an annual (sometimes semi-annual) pilgrimage for me in recent years. And while I’ve previously written about Pujol, Quintonil, Lorea and other top restaurants (see Where to Eat in Mexico City, part 1), those marquee names barely scratch the surface.
Just as Quintonil’s Vallejo was once a protégé of the legendary Olvera at Pujol, a growing roster of disciples of both of those chefs (and other incubators like Biko) have become rising stars in their own right. Names to watch: Edgar Núñez, Rodrigo Estrada, Marco Cruz and Sofía Antillón, among others. These are the chefs and restaurants I’m obsessing over right now.
Huset labels its food “cocina de campo,” or country cooking. Just about everything, I believe, is cooked over a wood-burning fire. And most of what they procure comes from local farms and producers, and sometimes even their own garden. The Chilango chef/owner, Maycoll Calderón, burnished his résumé in the prestigious kitchens of Arzak, El Bulli and Jean Georges. He’s dialed it back here, preferring a more rustic style of simpler times. Although intensely local, the cooking appears to draw inspiration from France and Italy, with hand-crafted pizzas being extremely popular. I skip the pizzas, though and opt for things that sounded a bit more Mexican, like a mixed aguachile with shrimp and sea bass in a zesty serrano-mezcal bath.
Because Mexico gave tomatoes to the world, and this was the height of summer, a tomato salad seems in order, and it is everything and more. Absolutely perfect tomatoes need very little fussing, and that’s how they’re handled here. Also very good: wood-grilled ribeye with jalapeño pesto and roasted plantain in black mole.
Most customers pull strings to sit outside in the courtyard, a lovely tree-covered patio in the heart of bustling Roma Norte, but given the choice I immediately gravitate indoors. The interior design is gorgeous, a thoughtful balance of romantic hacienda glamour and urban sophistication. Colima 256, Roma Norte, +52 (55) 5511-6767, huset.mx
Chef Edgar Núñez is most famous for his restaurant Sud 777 in Mexico City’s far south side neighborhood of Pedregal. I’ll trek to the city’s southern fringe someday, perhaps on my next visit. But for now I’m obsessed with Núñez’s other, much more casual offering in Polanco: Comedor Jacinta. The restaurant occupies a prime curve on Virgilio Street, one of the hottest destinations in Polanco, which most days becomes a pedestrian-only promenade that forms a circle with Avenida Emilio Castelar. Day and night, this is one of the best spots in the city for people-watching.
The kitchen is said to be inspired by the dishes of his youth in Mexico, which suggests Núñez grew up eating extraordinary tuna tosdadas and zarandeado-style grilled red snapper and somewhere along the way discovered lava-hot molcajetes overflowing with chiles and carne asada. Maybe it’s because I ordered so much food, or maybe they treat everyone like this, but the complimentary tequila and sangrita at the end of the meal was a heartwarming gesture. Virgilio 40, Polanco, +52 (55) 5086-6965, comedorjacinta.com
La Buena Barra
Perched on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Avenida Presidente Masaryk (Mexico’s Rodeo Drive) and Calle Aristóteles (a block from Pujol), La Buena Barra commands a scene. The hostess looks me over from head to toe, judging whether I look the part, and then she shakes her head and says, “Sorry, I don’t see your reservation.” But I’m one step ahead of her, having already glanced at the computer and spotted my name. “Nope,” I say, “I’m right there. And I’m right on time.” At which point she sighs, acquiesces and gives me one of the best tables on the patio. Once inside, everyone is treated like a VIP, and there’s always a friendly waiter within arm’s reach.
Most customers are dressed to kill, even for 5 o’clock happy hour. Roving bartenders push cocktail carts through the standing-room-only crowd. One cart is focused exclusively on fancy gin and tonics. Others pour only mezcal or champagne.
Although this is essentially a bar (the name, after all, translates to “the good bar”), it’s probably more appropriate to think of it as a serious steakhouse with a killer bar menu. One of my favorite things here is the tabletop trompo, a miniature rotisserie fueled by hot charcoal that they bring to the table loaded with either pork al pastor or Brazilian-style steak picanha (garlic-rubbed sirloin cap). You carve the meat and make your own tacos at the table. It’s absolutely brilliant. Aristóteles 124, Polanco, +52 (55) 5280-6699, grupobarra.info
Agua y Sal
Chef/owner Rodrigo Estrada makes ceviche. All kinds of ceviche inspired by the entire coast of Latin America. Funny, although from Mexico, he first fell in love with Peruvian ceviche in San Francisco — and it stuck, so that’s a big part of the mix here.
Agua y Sal is deservedly one of the busiest restaurants in Polanco, situated in the shadow of the recently (beautifully) revamped Hyatt Regency across the street. All the old ladies who lunch are here, many apparently with weekly reservations, all sipping tequila and sangrita as their drivers wait around the corner.
The menu lists dozens of different ceviches, categorized by spice and sweetness. There’s even a designation for vegan ceviches, including a phenomenal composition of cherry tomatoes. The shrimp aguachile is probably my favorite of all, though, the exemplar of its genre. Campos Elíseos 199-A, Polanco, +52 (55) 5282-2746, aguaysal.com.mx
Chefs Marco Cruz and Sofía Antillón garnered wide acclaim for their restaurants Nómada and B’ui Cocina de Campo in San Miguel de Allende. Tres Tonalá marks their foray into the lion’s den of Mexico City.
You might also notice the restaurant’s name spelled Tres Tonalá or even 3 Tonalá. The former is how it appears in their logo, but Google Maps and other internet searches have trouble finding that spelling. The name is a confusing reference to their address, which is on a triangular corner of Calle Tonalá but not No. 3. They’ve converted a lovely old French architectural building overlooking a charming tree-shaded dog park in a quiet residential corner of the neighborhood where street musicians constantly stroll past, stopping to play a song or two before moving along.
Although open for only a few months, they have already assembled one of the best wine lists in the city, at least as far as Mexican terroir is concerned.
They make an extraordinary ceviche of shrimp, octopus and corn. Although they call it ceviche, it’s really more of a cold corn soup — and it is absolutely extraordinary. In San Miguel, the chefs had abundant access to local farms, and that connection is evident in a plate of grilled vegetables, which is as pretty as it is delicious.
Beef short rib is meltingly tender, braised in some sort of dark mole and topped with roasted huitlacoche and hoja santa, plus chile mije pesto. Pork en chile verde is equally high-brow. Tonalá 171, Roma Norte, +52 (55) 5264-0929, instagram.com/trestonala
The first time I discovered chef Alejandro Ruíz’s food was in Oaxaca City, where he has operated Casa Oaxaca for more than 20 years. He branched into Mexico City in 2014 with Guzina Oaxaca.
The tiny restaurant accommodates no more than maybe 50 diners at a time, and yet the bar offers one of the finest collections of Oaxacan mezcal in the city.
Two cooks are stationed in the front window, making tortillas by hand and cooking quesadillas, tacos and tlayudas on a four-foot-wide comal. The aromas of mole and chiles sizzling on the grill lures passersby from the sidewalk on Polanco’s bustling Masaryk.
The tamales (they call them tamalizas here) are superb. Blue-corn quesadillas are stuffed with Oaxacan string cheese and crumbled chorizo. And the mole negro is everything you would expect from Oaxaca’s most famous chef. Avenida Presidente Masaryk 513, Polanco, +52 (55) 5282-1820, guzinaoaxaca.com
GETTING AROUND CDMX