Mexico City – el DF, for Distrito Federal -- is a moveable fiesta. Sampling the local fare in Mexico's capital gives any visitor a deep appreciation of Mexican cooking traditions…and shows how scantily represented Mexican cuisine is in the States. These were the most outstanding of many memorable dining experience I had in el DF.
Suspend disbelief when you enter Restaurante Arroyo, the world's largest Mexican restaurant. Its vast rooms seat more than 2,200 avid diners. Equally outrageous is Restaurante Arroyo's ceiling, abloom with multi-colored paper bunting.
Food is prepared in open hearths, where women in traditional Mexican dress grind spices, fry pork skin, and pound fresh tortillas. Restaurante Arroyo specializes in barbacoa, or slow-roasted mutton. Pre-Columbian, only-in-Mexico foods not for the faint of heart include escamole, moist ant larvae often called "Mexican caviar."
Restaurante Arroyo is a boisterous place. Mexican beers flow freely, and mariachi bands roam the dining rooms. Sometimes, they attain a decibel level you hear only on a runway.
- Restaurante Arroyo: Insurgentes Sur 4003, Tlalpan, Mexico City
Las Danzantes' patio faces the historic square in upscale Coyoacan, one of Mexico City's most beautiful neighborhoods. Sitting here is reward enough for a DF visitor.
Add the glorious Oaxacan cooking by TV Chef Ruben Amaro Reyes, and you have an unforgettable experience. Las Danzantes serves a spectacular quesadilla made with Oaxacan cheese inside an hoja santa, an emerald-green medicinal leaf serving as a tortilla wrapper.
Intrepid eaters should dare themselves to try the tacos de chapulin, crunchy, chili-crusted…grasshoppers. For diners seeking something slightly less exotic, the tuna with habañero sauce (shown) has a wicked bite of hot pepper.
- Las Danzantes: Jardin Centenario #12, Coyoacan, Mexico City
If your idea of an ideal morning in Mexico City is poring over a book by Joseph Campbell or Octavio Paz while tucking into sweet Mexican bread, airy pancakes, or eggs rancheros, Mexico City has just the place. El Pendulo, a popular bookstore cum breakfast stop, is for you.
El Pendulo has a wide selection of books in both Spanish and English. But the real surprise is the terrific food. Chilaquiles, corn tortillas with Oaxacan white cheese and tomatillo sauce, are wonderful (shown). So are the Mexican pastries and juices, squeezed fresh to order here.
- El Pendulo: Six city locations, including Hamburgo 126, Zona Rosa, Mexico City
Mercado San Juan
No gastronomic adventure in Mexico City is complete without a visit to a local mercado, or market. Mercado San Juan, built on the site of a pre-Columbian Aztec market, is the city's most colorful and complete market. It's a fact that chefs shop here, from restaurant chefs to TV top toques to dedicated home cooks, and a visit is both educational and entertaining.
Mercado San Juan has everything, from dazzling displays of dried chilies (shown) to a celebrity mushroom vender, Doña Guadalupe. Stalls burst photogenically with tropical fruits, vegetables, flowers seafood, and regional specialties. Well worth trying are embutidos (deli meats and sausages) and artisanal cheese handmade by local producers.
The Avenida San Juan side of the market has a few places to sit and nibble on DF prepared specialties such as caldos (soups) and breads.
- Mercado San Juan: in Colonia Central, Mexico City
Izote chef Patricia Quintana is a Chilanga, or Mexico City native. Quintana is also Mexico's biggest food celebrity, and she shows why at her cozy Polanco-neighborhood restaurant, Izote. (The name is Spanish for yucca flower.)
Tip: sit upstairs at Izote for a more intimate meal. Your dinner will be leisurely; Quintana's dreamy dishes require time and technique. One choice is market-fresh fish cooked with pipian sauce, based on pumpkin seed. Another is a nationally beloved, festive dish that combines the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag: chile en nogada, chile with walnut and pomegranate (shown).
Don't stop there. Izote's whole chicken, baked in banana leaves and lavished with mole sauce, will make your jaw drop and your palate sing.
- Izote: Presidente Masaryk 513, Polanco, Mexico City
Tacos Hola (also called El Guero)
Chicago chef Rick Bayless featured this Condesa-neighborhood institution on his PBS-TV show, and with good reason. The variety at Tacos Hola is incredible, and the flavors amazing.
Tacos Hola is always crowded, and the lines are chaotic. So do like the Chilangos do, and elbow your way to the counter.
One popular choice at Tacos Hola is al pastor, slow-roasted spiced pork carved from a spit. A healthy, tasty vegetarian alternative is acelga, kale mixed with rice.
- Tacos Hola: corner of Avenidas Amsterdam and Michoacan, Condesa, Mexico City
Street Cart Bun Venders
Flavorful, piping-hot, and remarkably cheap, el DF's savory, stuffed, round buns make the perfect mid-morning snack. Fillings range from spicy bean to chicken with potatoes to melty white cheese.
Buns are sold by cart venders from 8 a.m. until noon most mornings, and tend to cost less than a buck. Excellent examples served directly across the street from Condesa DF Hotel near pretty Parque España.
- Bun Cart: across from Condesa DF Hotel, Avenida Veracruz near Parque España, Condesa, Mexico City
Acquarello is an elegant restaurant with tabs that suit its setting in Polanco, one of Mexico City's priciest neighborhoods.
Acquarello specializes in cucina del sole, cooking of the sun. It has a Continental spirit; you'll feel like you're in Brussels or Milan.
Service is solicitous in Acquarello's softly lit dining room. Tables are luxuriously draped and set with sterling silverware from nearby Taxco.
Appetizers can be a little over-the-top at Acquarello. The tuna mosaic (shown) looks too pretty to eat. Don't hesitate. Your dining partner can start with a rich crema de langosta soup, like a lobster bisque. Then, consider roast duck with apples as a main course.
- Acquarello: Presidente Masaryk 298, Polanco, Mexico City
Local chef Elena Reygadas, who honed her craft in London, serves authentic Italian cooking at Rosetta. The rustic design is by the chef's husband, architect Jaime Serra. Rosetta is narrow and dimly lit, with high ceilings and tables set with vintage cloths.
Cooking is seasonal, with daily specials. But you'll always find crusty Italian bread and terrific panzanella Tuscan bread salad; Rosetta's signature fresh pappardelle pasta laced with creamy chicken livers (shown); whole roasted and stuffed game hen; and braised short ribs.
One mysterious Rosetta menu inclusion: salty, tender house-cured corned beef, which pays homage to Mexico City's sizable Jewish community. "I love corned beef," shrugged charming, red-headed Chef Elena.
- Rosetta: Colima 166, Colonia, Mexico City
Museo Dolores Olmedo occupies an estate once owned by an influential Mexico City socialite and art collector called Doña Lola. A must-visit, the museum houses a a treasure trove of artworks strong on paintings by local legend Frida Kahlo.
Stroll the magnificent grounds and visit Doña Lola's Hacienda La Noria, parts of which which date from the 1500s. Then repair to the very pleasant museum café, which serves coffees, teas, delicate pastries, and various antojitos, Mexican snacks.
Especially good are natilla vanilla pudding and various Mexican sweets made from tamarind, coconut, and other tropical fruit.
- Café del Museo: Museo Dolores Olmedo, La Noria, Xochimilco, Mexico City