Reprinted with permission from saradeseran.com.
Mexico City—aka DF, or Distrito Federal, as it’s also called—is so huge and varied, it’s hard to classify. It sprawls like Tokyo and takes architectural risks like LA. It’s an indoor/outdoor city, full of nooks and crannies and funk like New York, but Spanish in its colonial buildings and late-night dinners. The food is amazing. And the people—there are just so many nice people. So what is there to do? The choices are endless. My husband Joe and I tend to obsess over restaurants and design in lieu of museums and parks. Since we were only there for three nights, we narrowed it down to a lot of dining and snacking with a bit of culture thrown in for good measure.
If this sounds like your kind of traveling, you’ll find much to love if you follow this hit list based largely around Roma and Condesa, which are just such great neighborhoods, it’s really hard to want to venture much further.
WHERE TO STAY
We splurged and stayed here this time around. Often described as ground zero for hip, the boutique hotel is centrally located in the beautiful neighborhood of Condesa. Design-wise, it’s one of the more inspired spots I’ve stayed in: a shock of teal is accented with teak furniture and lush plants making it modern without being cold. The European-y, white, wood-floored rooms look over and onto the restaurant, which is located in a ground-floor atrium covered by a canopy. The downside? It’s spendy, and the rooms are small and can be noisy. You might be better off just stopping in for brunch or a drink on the roof deck.
THE RED TREE HOUSE
When we first visited Mexico City three years ago, we stayed at the Red Tree House, a bed and breakfast also located in Condesa. Generally, I’m not a B&B kind of girl; I’m not nice enough in the morning to talk to strangers. However, I adored this place, which has some private rooms located outside of the main house, and a kind host and co-owner named Jorge. The beds are comfortable, which in Mexico is not a given, and the house dog is a sweet lab named Avril. I tried to stay here again but they were booked, so reserve early. If it’s anything like it was last time we visited, I can’t recommend it enough.
When my husband visits Mexico City without his prissy wife, he stays at practical, lower-priced hotels, including this one located in Zona Rosa, which according to him, has nice amenities and a roof pool and can run you around $90 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
This is not a off-the-beaten-path dining list for the jaded Mexico City diner. But dine at any of these spots, and you’ll leave both happy and satiated.
Tacos here can amount to nothing more than a slice of beef and a tortilla. It’s all about the salsas, of which there are four to choose from, all with their own level of vim and vigor. You don’t need to be a vegetarian to love the nopales y queso in which whole baby cactus paddles are enwrapped in cheese then put directly onto the comal until the cheese turns into crispy-oozy deliciousness, ready to be wrapped in warm tortillas. I’m getting hungry just writing this.
All hail this expansive, lunch-only, see-and-be-seen Mexican seafood restaurant. Servers wear black vests and bow ties and crisp white aprons and the food is generally very simple seaside Mexican (except that you’re eating it in the heart of DF). Think tostadas with crab salad and pescado a la talla (served butterflied, grilled, and topped with a red and green salsa) and, most importantly, Contramar’s famous tuna tostada, which we have honored with our own version at Tacolicious. But it’s the scene that really gives this place flavor. Around 3:30 pm, it fills up with the power lunchers of Mexico City. The people watching is great and the energy is contagious. Don’t come any earlier.
Also owned by Gabriela Cámara of Contramar (who, by the way, has moved to San Francisco to open a restaurant in Hayes Valley!), this bistro-sized spot in Roma served some of the best food we had on our trip. We started with a salad tossed with whole leaves of licorice-y shiso (the most underrated herb out there), followed by the most amazing tostada topped with a little mound of pulpo (octopus) ceviche begging to be anointed with a judicious sprinkle of charred habanero salsa mixed with olive oil and lime. This was followed by a beautiful, very un-Mexican, risotto cooked down with red wine and studded with fatty bits of bone marrow. Theses three were memorable—the kind of dishes I’m still thinking about.
Food-forward cities are increasingly opening culinarily-driven markets. Think of San Francisco’s Ferry Building, New York’s Eataly. As of this spring, Mexico City now has its own version: Mercado Roma, a schmancy, if a bit crammed, spot with all sorts of pretty food, from truffles and ice cream to boozey paletas and ceviche. Joe and I chose to sit down at the counter of Azul Antojo, which is part of chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita’s mini empire. I can’t say that the cochinta pibil there was the best I’ve had, but it’s worth visiting the market if nothing else just to ogle the cool, tile floors, see the crowd, and walk back out into the fray of the city, hedonistically double fisting it with a coconut-caramel gelato in one hand and an espresso in another.
Owned by the same people that own Tacos Hola, Tacos Gus is one of the many beloved tacos de guisado spots in the city. Guisados are generally classified as braised meats and vegetables in various incarnations, usually on display bubbling away in cazuelas. Choose what appeals to you (I got two: beef in chile verde and greens with potatoes—see the photo above)) and the filling is spooned into a warm corn tortilla. It’s up to you how you want to garnish it but I highly recommend a bit of salsa and a big spoonful of the thinly sliced pickled onions and chilies. Wash it down with a beer or a hibiscus agua fresca.
As Joe put it, this pretty little bistro in Roma is kind of like Delfina 15 years ago. The food is farm-to-table California more than it’s Mexican. In flickering candlelight, with walls of windows open to the sidewalk tables outside, we dined on a perfect salad of fennel, green apple, and arugula; bread salad with tomatoes and burrata tossed with sweet, thick balsamic vinegar; a perfect beef sugo with pappardelle, a couple entrees, and a great bottle of wine. I’ve heard there’s a nice rooftop bar above, but we missed that.
For mezcal lovers, this tiny place in Roma Norte is the spot. It feels like an apothecary, which I suppose it kind of is.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE NOT EATING
Assuming there are a few moments when you’re not actually eating or on your way to do so, there are plenty of other activities to keep you busy until your next meal.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY
This museum located in Chapultepec Park houses one of the world’s biggest collections of artifacts from pre-hispanic Mayan civilizations to the Spanish conquest. However, the 1964 wonder of a building designed by Pedro Ramirez Vasquez captivated us more than the pottery inside it did. (It turns out our attention span is embarrassingly low when it comes to ancient history.) I could have sat in the shade of the atrium for hours, in awe of its massive canopy held up like an umbrella.
FRIDA KAHLO MUSEUM (plus the Coyoacán market)
Joe and I visited the Blue House, as it’s known—the house that the famed painter was born, lived with Diego Rivera, and ultimately died in, on our last trip and I must say, it was amazing. It’s in the beautiful, historical neighborhood of Coyoacán which is full of cobblestones and colonial buildings. Pair a day there with a trip to the Mercado de Coyoacan, which is completely charming and less overwhelming than the famous Merced market.
BIKING AROUND (for free)
Ecobici is the city-based free bike service. With 4,000 bikes available to tool around town on, it’s also now available for tourists. Mexico City is nice and flat, unlike SF, and, also unlike SF, has safe bike lanes with little bumpers that keep cars in their own lane.
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