More than tacos and tequila: Mexico City’s culinary scene is on the rise

Patrons at a Roma restaurant dine al fresco
Patrons at a Roma restaurant dine al fresco

When one thinks of Mexican food, a number of Americanized staples almost certainly come to mind. Tacos, enchiladas, burritos and, of course, tequila — these are items many first-time visitors to Mexico City would likely expect to find on most menus. And, yes, the city’s eateries offer their fair share of traditional Mexican cuisine.

What first-time visitors to the increasingly more gentrified city might be surprised to learn, however, is that Mexico City’s culinary scene is as diverse and dynamic as the city itself. Mexico City seems poised on a threshold, with roots in traditions both old and new.

The topic of tequila, for example, is sure to spark lively discussion — and strong opinions — among natives. Old-timers are faithful to the spirit, quick to expound upon its many virtues and to eschew its trendier cousin mezcal (a similar liquor distilled from the maguey plant, a form of agave), which the city’s younger and hipper denizens have become enamored with of late. Entire bars dedicated to the spirit, which is similar to tequila but with a smokier flavor (and is becoming increasingly common on menus in U.S. cities as well), have sprung up in chichi areas of the city — ask an older Mexican gentleman, however, and he’ll tell you it’s just a passing fad.

The city’s dining scene is similarly marked by old and new world flavors. Travelers who have dined in culinary meccas like New York and Paris will feel at home in swiftly on-the-rise neighborhoods like Roma (Mexico City’s answer to Williamsburg) where well-heeled, well-dressed young urbanites fill the sidewalk-side tables of hip restaurants and browse artsy (and often pricey) boutiques that would be right at home in one of the aforementioned metropolises.

For foodies traveling to Mexico City, we’ve rounded up a few must-hit restaurants at which both the food and the ambience capture the unique cultural balance that defines this city in flux.

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Eduardo García at work in his kitchen

Maximo Bistrot Local
Be prepared to wait at this bustling restaurant in the neighborhood of Centro. Locals and tourists alike flock to the unassuming eatery (its homey, minimalist design belies its sophisticated fare) where the eclectic, French-leaning menu is marked by gastronomic flourishes that will leave diners pleasantly surprised. Eduardo García, the young chef and owner, is a firm believer in sustainability — he employs his own divers to procure the fresh seafood that graces the often-changing menu and is an avid proponent of the farm-to-table movement that is on the rise in some of the best new restaurants in the States.

C’est la Vie
More often than not, hotel restaurants are forgettable, if functional, providing travelers too exhausted to venture out into the city in search of more exciting cuisine with a quick and easy meal before bed. Not so this sleek restaurant located on the ground floor of Le Meridien hotel. Decidedly modern dishes and surprising flavor profiles mark the menu — a creamy, yet surprisingly light asparagus soup poured tableside from a ceramic carafe and a succulent duck breast cooked to perfection with glistening crispy skin are two standouts. Bonus points for an extensive wine list along with a variety of traditional Mexican beer options.

La Ópera Bar
For more casual dining, try this eatery in the heart of the city’s center. Dark wood paneling, red-velvet upholstered chairs, and low lighting add to La Ópera’s nostalgic, old-school vibe. Locals enjoy long repasts at the no-frills restaurant where, famously, the Mexican Revolutionary General Pancho Villa once fired a bullet above his head and into the ceiling, in a fit of rage over a table of fellow diners he felt were behaving too rowdily. That bullet hole is still there, adding to the sense of history and intrigue in the eatery. The menu, likewise, offers more traditional Mexican fare (try the mole) though more sophisticated epicurean delights share the large menu — among them a heaping dish of tiny sea snails in a savory Chipotle sauce.

Restaurante Tamayo
Another restaurant on the forefront of Mexico’s City’s culinary revolution, this small cafe-like restaurant is tucked away in the shade of twisty trees just across the fairway from the lush greenery of Chapultepec Park (one of the largest city parks in the Western hemisphere, more expansive by far than New York’s Central Park, where residents gather to escape the bustle of the urban city center). Inside, the menu is elegantly written in chalk on a blackboard above the restaurant’s take-out bar and simple wildflowers in mason jars adorn the tables. The locally-supplied menu changes often and offers some surprising options (a fresh Caprese salad, for example) alongside more traditional Mexican standbys.

Azul Condesa
This high-energy, multi-level hotspot brings in a guest chef who spotlights recipes from a different state in Mexico each month. The guest chef’s menu is offered nightly with the restaurant’s regular menu (which offers ancient Mayan dishes alongside more modern Mexican cuisine) and guests won’t go wrong sampling dishes from either (we recommend ordering something from both). Here too, the mole is divine (try the smoky Oaxacan mole, over a protein of your choice) and the service attentive and eager to explain the menu’s more confusing options. Adventurous diners must try the guacamole con chipulines — fresh guacamole served with crispy, roasted grasshoppers. Yes, grasshoppers. (They’re not bad — if you can get around the legs — trust us!)

Guacamole with grasshoppers — it's better than it looks!
Guacamole with grasshoppers — it’s better than it looks!

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