Spicy chiles aside, there’s no hotter dining city in North America than the capital of Mexico. Since it was first established by the Aztecs in the fourteenth century, Mexico City has sprawled in every direction, and today the metro area contains upwards of 21 million people.
As the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, Mexico City provides a crash course for any foodie interested in learning all there is to know about Mexican cuisine, and while there are authentic, family-run food carts on seemingly every corner, it’s the city’s young, dynamic chefs that are placing the its restaurants on the world culinary map.
Gorge on modern creations using ancient methods
Any analysis of Mexico City’s exploding food scene must start with Pujol. Chef-owner Enrique Olvera’s modern Mexican creations have put him at the forefront of the North American dining scene; Pujol is one of the world’s highest-rated restaurants, and Olvera’s influence has extended beyond his native land. (He recently opened his first American restaurant, Cosme, in New York City.)
The kitchen’s ever-changing menu highlights local ingredients, and utilizes both ancient and modern techniques. For a perfect example, look no further than the restaurant’s signature offering: baby corn covered in a mayonnaise made with coffee and powdered red chicatana ants, and served in a smoke-filled pumpkin shell.
A smoke-filled pumpkin dish © Fiamma Piacentini
Diners revel in Pujol’s famous mole sauces; the house mole is aged, and diners are informed how old the base is at the time of their dinner. (At the time of writing, the house mole was nearing 700 days old.)
Try it all with a tasting menu
In the intoxicating San Ángel neighbourhood, Paxia offers a modernist dining experience that wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen or New York. Chef-owner Daniel Ovadía wows diners who think they’ve seen it all through his playful, creative take on Mexican classics.
Multi-course tasting menus often incorporate such smile-inducing dishes as a deconstructed tortilla soup, mini-wagon of mole sauce, or bite-size churros. One of the country’s most lauded young chefs, Ovadía owns numerous restaurants around the city.
Among the main attributes of the Mexico City culinary scene is how it incorporates flavours and traditions found across the country; one can easily eat their way around all of Mexico without ever leaving the city.
Churros from Paixa
Family favourites fresh from Oaxaca
In a quiet corner of the ritzy Polanco neighbourhood, Guzina Oaxaca offers a contemporary take on the beloved staples of Oaxaca. Chef-owner Alex Ruiz, who first gained fame with his restaurant Casa Oaxaca in Oaxaca City, impresses hard-to-please foodies with his family recipes and hard-to-find ingredients. (Oaxacan produce and products are trucked in every week.)
Diners plow through orders of memelas (thin corn cakes), tlayudas (avocado leaf-mashed beans and cheese on a large tortilla), and little tacos wrapped in hoja santa (a popular, aromatic herb).
At the sleek, centrally-located St. Regis Mexico City, the J&G Grill offers a classy atmosphere in which to enjoy a curated selection of the international celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s greatest hits.
When not straining their necks to spot out-of-town celebs enjoying a discreet dinner, patrons often spy the dynamic young chef Olivier Deboise Mendez manning the partially-open kitchen. The menu incorporates fresh, local ingredients into popular dishes such as piping hot mini-pizzas topped with thinly-sliced Mexican avocados, and crispy grouper served with sweet peppers, papaya, and celery.
Influences from the USA and beyond
It’s not only Mexican chefs who are leading the new wave of Mexico City gastronomy, though. Anatol’s Justin Ermini is a Connecticut native who has worked with some of America’s foremost culinary titans. The restaurant at boutique hotel Las Alcobas offers a unique, farm-to-table menu for each season.
As an outsider, Ermini balances between offering the familiar – such as fresh-made guacamole topped with crunchy, earthy chapulines (grasshoppers) – and his own take on native ingredients.
Repeat customers swear by the chef’s black bean soup; made from Chiapas black beans, the velvety soup is packed with flavour thanks to the use of duck fat and a trio of chiles: chipotle, pasilla, and chilhuacle negro.
Guacamole from Anatol
Vampire ceviche and artisanal mezcal
Just next door at Dulce Patria, the celebrated chef Martha Ortiz celebrates her country’s cuisine (Dulce Patria translates to “sweet homeland”) by offering an incredibly colorful assortment of traditional dishes reinterpreted in a modern context.
Ortiz’s menu reads like journey through Mexico’s regional cuisines; mini tacos are packed with chilorio, a chile-pork stew from Sinaloa, while sweet dessert bites are presented on little toy handicrafts from rural regions outside of Mexico City.
For an inventive take on a familiar favourite, Ortiz’s “vampire” ceviche offers a one-two punch via its spicy flavours and cooling temperature. The stylish dining room provides an ideal locale for sampling artisanal mezcals, served with the traditional accompaniments of fresh citrus and crispy gusanos (maguey worms).
Chocolate at Que Bo! © Gerrish Lopez
Visitors with a sweet tooth shouldn’t leave town without discovering Que Bo!, a diminutive chocolate café tucked away in the city’s historic centre.
A labor of love from one of North America’s best young chocolatiers, Jose Ramon Castillo, Que Bo! serves a variety of incredible confections. The young, internationally-acclaimed Castillo prides himself on using only Mexican chocolate, with no refined sugar or dairy, and everything is flavoured naturally using fresh ingredients running the gamut from coffee to grasshoppers.
Indecisive types and scene-chasers flock to to the heart of Roma, where the Mercado Roma houses little outposts of some of the city’s best restaurants all under one roof.
The hip complex offers both indoor and outdoor seating, including a living garden wall and the city’s only rooftop biergarten (serving Mexican craft brews). There’s something for everyone, from boozy popsicles and fresh seafood to meaty sandwiches and regional delights. Tiny kiosks sell everything from Mexican cookbooks to heirloom beans, making the market a fun spot for grabbing a bite with a side of education.
Featured image by Adam Goldberg. Explore more of Mexico with the Rough Guide to Mexico. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.