Finally! You Can Get Good Mexican Food in Mexico City

mexico city el bajio
mexico city el bajio

Get shell-shocked by the tacos at El Bajio, which has grown into a chain all over Mexico City.

By Michael Gross

On a Sunday morning in June, a long line stretches out the door of El Cardenal, one of four branches of a 45-year-old restaurant, this one set in Mexico City’s Hilton Hotel. But few of the diners are hotel guests. They are all from “afuera,” outside, says Cardenal’s owner, Tito Briz.

They had come for a Mexican Sunday breakfast with families and friends. And they confirmed a change in attitude toward their nation’s traditional cuisine; developed over 3,000 years, it has only now become fashionable. “It was never in style, now it’s in style,” says Carmen Titita, chef-owner of the 42-year-old El Bajio, across the city in the decidedly untrendy northwestern district, Azcapotzalco. “Everything was better than Mexican food; the people didn’t embrace or understand it,” she says, smiling broadly, no doubt savoring El Bajio’s recent growth into a chain of 14 restaurants all over the city. “Everything has its time.”

Then begins a long lunch, lubricated with tequila. Titita, as she is universally known, serves garnachas Orizabeñas, small tortillas topped with red and green hot sauce, shredded beef and diced onion and potato from her hometown in Veracruz. They’re followed by panuchos yucatecos, more tortillas, this time from the Yucatán and topped with cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork with black beans, onions and habañero chili. Next up, gorditas, the puff pastries Titita calls Mexican soufflés; plantain and crab empañadas; tostados with duck, herbs, and Veracruz olive oil; cornmeal cakes with bean and avocado leaves; a chicken leg and thigh in mole with rice; and finally, two traditional postres — flan and bread pudding. “I ate like this when I was very little,” the chef says.

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Hilton Hotel in Mexico City
Hilton Hotel in Mexico City

The Hilton Hotel in Mexico City where El Cardenal is located. (Photo: pegatina1/Flickr)

Titita cites two women as vital to the narrative of Mexican cooking. The first is La Malinche, born at the turn of the 16th century into the Nahua, the indigenous people of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, and later the slave-mistress of Hérnan Cortés, the conquistador who led the Spanish troops that conquered and colonized the Aztec Empire. La Malinche, says Esteban Matiz, one of Mexico’s leading fashion designers, is symbolic of the pathology that prevented his countrymen from appreciating their own heritage.

“Everything was from Malinche,” Titita agrees. “Mexico always embraced what was not Mexican.” But then, Titita cites Diana Kennedy, 91, a Briton who came to Mexico in 1957, began studying its regional cuisines, and has been popularizing them ever since. “She parted the waters,” says Titita. Now, though the Distrito Federal, or DF as Mexicans call their capital, still boasts a thriving international restaurant scene, Mexican food has finally stepped front and center.

At Dulce Patria, in Polanco, a district equivalent to New York’s Upper East Side, chef Martha Ortiz celebrates the Mexican feminine in what she calls a “gastronomic narrative of flavors,” stories she tells in her Mexican-Baroque-inspired restaurant through ever-changing menus inspired by artists from the DF’s thriving art scene. Dinner there started with an agua fresca, flavored water like mango with herbs, followed by black quesadillas with corn mushrooms and cheese; patriotic guacamole, so called because its green avocado is garnished with the other colors of the Mexican flag (red pomegranate seeds and white queso fresco); a palate-cleansing chili and papaya sorbet; and filet of beef with fiery pasilla sauce, corn fungus, and carrot purée.

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Dulce Patria
Dulce Patria

A flowery snack at Dulce Patria.

“I’m not afraid of our identity,” says the dark-haired, diminutive Ortiz. “We need our identity to be in the world. Our identity has violence in its flavors. It’s the flavor of the people. It’s feminine. It’s fire. It’s not cold like French cuisine. I’m very proud of being Mexican. Everything is moving in Mexico.”

El Cardenal’s Tito Briz feels the same. “My family came from the provinces,” he says as a waiter at tableside stirs a traditional bitter hot chocolate with a molinillo, a wooden whisk, “and in the house where I grew up, we always had breakfast just like this.”

To reproduce the experience he had as a child in Morelia, in Michoacán state, Briz has bought a ranch about 20 miles from the DF where he grows the corn for Cardenal’s tortillas and keeps 100 cows that produce the unpasteurized orden de natas (or order of cream), which floats to the top of raw milk left exposed overnight. Cardenal serves it the next day with freshly baked crusty bread. “I couldn’t get it, so I had to do it myself,” he says.

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El Cardenal
El Cardenal

Chocolatey treats at El Cardenal.

Briz sees the renaissance of Mexican cooking as a positive side-product of globalization. “The upper classes started to feel more Mexican little by little,” he says, “they are admired and they are followed. It’s a long process.” He proudly notes that one day earlier, Carlos Slim, Mexico’s wealthiest man, had dined at Cardenal with talk show host Larry King. “He tried worms and grasshoppers,” says Briz. “Then he had two bowls of frijoles. Then burritos with frijoles. Then tacos with frijoles.”

Even in the newest hot spots in DF, traditional Mexican cuisine has taken pride of place. Mercado Roma opened in June in a formerly abandoned building in the Roma district. It was conceived to showcase emerging food trends, with stalls selling organic vegetables, pastries, and gourmet foods like foie gras, terrines and Scottish salmon. It also has a rotisserie restaurant called Carbon on its second floor and a huge bar on an outdoor terrace that fills with good-looking DF hipsters on weekends.

Historico Mexico City
Historico Mexico City

Dine al fresco at Downtown hotel’s Historico. (Photo: Undine Pröh)

But the first thing you see as you enter the industrial-chic open structure is Azul Antojo, the latest link in a chain of eateries (in this case a snack bar) run by Ricardo Muñoz who, like Carmen Titita, is a pioneer of traditional Mexican cooking and author of highly regarded cookbooks. It, too, serves cochinita pibil alongside tinga de pollo and pollo in black mole and pipián sauce. Among the other Azuls are one surnamed Condesa, a few blocks from the Habita group’s ultra-hip CondesaDF design hotel, and another called Historico, which occupies the courtyard of Habita’s latest outpost, Downtown, in the historic center of DF. All these hotels and restaurants honor Mexico’s heritage while pointing the way to its future.

“In the past, every time we went out, it would be French food,” says Muñoz. “So were Mexicans traitors? No. You didn’t pay for what you had at home. Now, there’s a generation of chefs, and I’m part of it, thinking, ‘Why not Mexican?’ We’re doing what we were taught when we were kids, the way the family gathers, the way Mom cooks. It’s complex, intriguing, and it’s old. The ancient times are very present. And the continuation is amazing.”

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