[Traditional beauty meets modernity. On the left is a birdhouse on the wall of a wonderful open air restaurant in the San Angel area of Mexico City. On the right is the Estela de Luz, a monument erected for the Bicentennial]
I have to write as soon as I get home of all of the lovely details before they get mixed up with the flotsam of everyday motherhood and they float back out to sea with the skinned knees, forgotten notebooks, and small victories. Thus, I published my missive on Cuernavaca and Tepoztlan as quickly as I could upon returning to Texas. Now, I’ll try to tell you about the second half of our journey, four days in Mexico City.
We were lucky enough to escape Texas a few days early for the Cuernavaca days…but we picked up one more couple at the airport on Thursday and the six of us (Dan & Tina, Shannon & Margaret, Pitts & I) ventured on into the city. I must say, if you have never been to Mexico City, flying into this urban ocean is an incredible sight. There is no end to it. There is colorful, dense, urban landscape as far as the eye can see. The color makes it particularly compelling aerially. Let’s face it, American cities do not look like this from the sky. Mexico City looks like highly motivated architects went to work with bigger-than-life size Legos or a giant box of crayons. Red, yellow, purple, blue, pink, and green spaces are packed densely, and forever. But the vastness of the city is something to try to take in as you fly in. Open the window shade. Do not miss it. Insist on the window seat.
On the ground, the color is still ever present, but you are now in the landscape. Old buildings, new buildings, regal buildings, dated buildings, people, graffiti, vendors selling everything from gum to games at every intersection. We took a car downtown to the main boulevard called Paseo de la Reforma and we were immediately greeted by the iconic Diana fountain. She is a nine foot buxom goddess upon an impressive fountain. She holds her bow aloft after just having released an arrow at the stars. The most interesting thing about the fountain is the road she has traveled. Sculptor John Olaguíbel created this homage to Diana the Huntress for the Mexican people and it was installed in 1942. Like all good nudes, she caused a major stir and the sculptor, to his horror, had to affix a metal bra and skirt to the goddess. She was even moved to an obscure location. Eventually, reason and form won out over prudishness and she now stands in all of her nude glory gazing at the sky. But she wasn’t returned to this location until 1992.
The St. Regis Hotel is on Diana’s roundabout, and this is where we stayed while in the city. I know I must come off as unrelentingly positive about everything on these travel posts, but believe me when I tell you that if you can find a good deal on the St. Regis, stay there. It is lovely, modern, polished, luxe, and the service is impeccable. Our room was gorgeous in that “Why isn’t my bathroom at home this nice?” kind of a way. There is a huge balcony off the third floor with wonderful views of the city. It became our meeting spot and our retiring spot. One of my companions, Dan, could be found out there, occasionally, sipping a Negro Modelo and a nice little glass of Patron. The weather was sublime and we had no watches on, figuratively, so why in the world not?
While I do not partake, I sometimes think, “If I did, that is exactly what I would have.” I assure you that I would have had a Negro Modelo and Patron, and perhaps even a cigar, with Dan. And, I also would have had one of the margaritas served downstairs at J&G (Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s steakhouse) which my friend Margaret ordered. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more beautiful, frosty (but not frozen) margarita. Some beverages are truly environmental (think beer at a ball game), and the veranda at the St. Regis is perfect for some sipping.
But margaritas aside, as the only non-traditional fare we ate in the city, J&G was solid. Notably, several at our table had sliced avocado pizzas that were not only gorgeous to gawk at but delicious, as well.
But back to the life outside. The Paseo de la Reforma is a long and lovely boulevard that starts by the Chapultepec Castle which contains the National Museum of Art and goes down past the Angel sculpture and the U.S. Embassy. It is a strolling boulevard and it has been curated with permanent and transient art installations. Young people sit on benches kissing and whispering and old people sit on benches holding hands. People whiz by on one of the many Ecobici bikes that are available to anyone who pays a yearly membership fee. They sit at a bikestand and a member can just grab one and go, to commute, sight-see, or exercise. As long as it is returned at another station within 45 minutes, all is well.
On Sundays, the Reforma is essentially closed to street traffic and Mexico City is invited to come pedal up and down the boulevard. Imagine shutting down Main Street in your downtown every Sunday just so families could go biking. It was quite a sight.
Off of Reforma is a mall simply called Reforma 222. I didn’t come to shop for opulent things, so to speak. By that I mean we have Hermes and a Carolina Herrera store in Dallas, and I rarely choose to see the inside of those, either. I saved my shopping for the markets and bazaars. But I mention the mall for two reasons. First, it houses a wonderful little restaurant called El Bajio, where we had our first meal upon arriving in the city. We ordered family style and passed around a plate of pulled pork and a plate of lamb and made tacos with fresh tortillas, lime juice, onions and fiery salsas. It was a great and simple start to a food filled weekend. The second reason that I mention the mall is that should you be a serial shopper, Mexico City is going to be your little happy heaven. The Presidente Masaryk avenue in Polanco is reputed to be on par with Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue and appeared up to the comparison, but that is judging from the back of a Suburban which we did not cause to even slow down for the occasion. Again, bigger fish to fry.
Our next evening’s meal was wonderful. too. Tina had done her homework. We ate at Patricia Quintana’s restaurant, Izote. Quintana uses indigenous and traditional ingredients to delicious ends, a simple corn soup being my favorite. What I didn’t know until we returned to Texas is that in taking us to Izote and El Bajio, Tina had taken us to two of the most notable restaurants in Mexico City. And while it is a side note, I was thrilled to have visited two restaurants run by respected female chefs. Mark Bittman wrote about the greatness of Quintana and Carmen Ramirez Degollado, of El Bajio, in a New York Times article titled “The “Matriarchs of Mexican Flavor.”
“…they learned to cook at home from their mothers and grandmothers. After leaving home, they were essentially self-taught, came to the restaurant business more or less by accident and became symbols of strong, independent women in an industry long dominated by men. Most important, they run two of the best and most distinctive restaurants in Mexico City. Which is another way of saying they run two of the best and most distinctive Mexican restaurants in the world.” -Mark Bittman
We visited the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City. Big name, big church. It took over two centuries to build and is a flurry of sights and sounds. Alcoves contain relics and little chapels. There are tourists walking amongst the prayerful. I am always of two minds about walking around a noted church while the business of the church is taking place. People in pews were reverently repeating prayers as I walked around with dozens of others snapping photos. It bothers me, but clearly didn’t stop me. A tour guide was actively seeking a group. But, it is hard not to gawk and wonder at all of the treasure and all of the real and touching evidence of the faithful.
A huge board of pinned milagros caught my attention as did a little podium that was covered with hundreds of padlocks that had prayers and names taped to them. They are prayers to San Ramon Nonato to stop gossip and rumors and to keep secrets. I must admit that I’m very attached to these little devotions. It is just part of growing up Catholic, and I find them charming. It is also not lost on me that every lock, milagro, candle flame or worn out rosary bead contains hopes, dreams, pain and faith of people who look to God for help. It is hard not to be significantly touched at the physical symbols of that much devotion and trust.
Let’s, however, turn from spirituality back to a bit of gluttony. One of my favorite outings was a late night taco tour of Mexico City. It is a funny thing to pay up big money for street food, but having a Mexico City native take you to her six or so favorite spots in town saves an awful lot of time and indigestion. Actually, the food cost next to nothing, so what we paid for was the excellent company of our tour guide and driver, and it was worth every penny. Our guide was Natalia Gris, who was not only bilingual but a devoted fan of the art of street food. We were in good hands. The company that runs the Late Night Taco Tour, EatMexico is owned by Lesley Tellez who is an expat, a food writer and the woman behind the wonderful blog The Mija Chronicles. They specialize in street foods such as tacos and market tours. Our tour began with a stop for esquite, a herb simmered corn dish that you will be hearing more about from me, because it was simple and outstanding.
We went on to several different stops and dined on dishes including tacos árabes (pork on a type of pita with avocados), volcanes de queso (a tostada with steak and cheese), and tacos al pastor (marinated pork tacos with pineapple). We also stopped briefly for a Mezcal tasting and a Pulque tasting. Mezcal is a sort of tequila. Correct me if I’m wrong but the saying goes, “all Mezcal is tequila but not all tequila is Mezcal.” It is a product of the agave plant and it is a protected name, much like Champagne. For a spirit to qualify as Mezcal it must meet certain stringent standards about geographic origin and purity or ingredients. Pulque is made with the same type of agave as Mezcal (maguey) but it is a fermented beverage that is flavored by each “Pulqueria.” Pulque has ancient origins but is enjoying something of a resurgence with the hip, cocktail set it seems.
My runaway favorite taco, though they were all great, was found at a shop that is operated by a car mechanic by day. But when we drove up, closing in on midnight, it was abuzz with food and fire and people. This wonderful spot is called El Vilsito Taqueria. Much of the taco meat for these stops was cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Fire belches out of the furnace and cooks the meat. The cook spins the meat as it is cooked and slices off the cooked portion with a big knife. This is a sight to see because it is a very active process. The men we saw doing this cooking were very serious and working very hard. There is a certain artistry and dance about the whole thing that was fun to watch as well. They would slice and spin and catch and stuff and plate and spin and slice and repeat…all night long…all in the face of open flames.
I’ve tried to think in 100 ways of how to recreate these tacos at home but I think this is a method that is important to the particular result. The slightly charred, just cooked, hot-from-the-flames meat would be a trick to replicate. My hat is off to these taquerias for using very simple ingredients and a lot of physical labor to create some of the best food I had in Mexico.
Now, that being said, here is the rub. When you have good food like this that costs pennies, it sets a very high standard for the folks making the expensive stuff. Though, you will be pleased that everything is still less costly than state-side. We ate at one of the other high-end restaurants during our stay which will remain nameless, not because it was bad at all, but because I would have rather been eating tacos on the curb than dealing with architecturally significant food. But that is my problem, I suppose. Everything is fun with this particular group of people, though. Everything we did was laugh filled. I’ll spare you the details, but don’t be surprised if you see us on the street and we bust out into a spontaneous Carly Simon sing along. One of us, who also shall remain nameless, will be not so subtly wearing noise cancelling headphones and gently shaking his head with disappointment, though.
At any rate, I’ve saved the best for last. On Saturday, we ventured up to San Angel to attend the Saturday Bazaar. As our driver (a relatively inexpensive and wonderful option from the St. Regis) took us up a little side street so that we could start uphill and work our way down, I spied a tiny restaurant as we drove by. I registered something as brief as “Oh wow, that looked lovely,” and let it go. Fortunately, Dan noticed it too and recommended that we go back and check it out. It turned out to be a tiny courtyard restaurant bathed in the warm yellow reflection of the stucco walls with hot pink bougainvilleas overhead. Inside were only about five tables. The open kitchen consisted of a stove-top and a work surface. If my memory serves, it was staffed by one cook and one very nice server. And, there to make sure each of us was happy was the owner, and it turns out, painter and owner of the attached art gallery, Teresa Creel. The gallery is called Galería Doce.
The gallery was one of the loveliest spaces I’ve seen for such an endeavor, considering the nature of the art exhibited. The work space upstairs was a painter’s dream, I should think. I have no such talent but I firmly believe that if I were a painter I would spend my days happily in the lovely spaces up those steps.
But, the bottom line is, should anyone ever offer you Sopa de Flor, say yes. Say it swiftly and confidently and just wait for a beautiful thing to be set in front of you. I also had a quesadilla made with similar squash blossoms that graced the sopa, as well as a lovely Cucumber and Lime Agua Fresca. Finally, a recipe that I have been able to duplicate at home.
We walked the market and looked at art. Margaret and I bought ourselves rather grand Dia de los Muertos aprons. We admired textiles and marzipan wonders. The market had all of the tourist goodies that a soul could want plus a great selection of lovely things that you simply couldn’t find anywhere else.
On our final morning, Pitts and I hiked our overfed selves up the hill to the Chapultepec Castle. To get there one gets to wander through the park which was filled with families and bustling activity. After all, it was a Sunday afternoon. The park is home to an impressive monument known as Niños Héroes which honors the lives of young cadets who fought to the death during the Mexican-American War in 1847. After their general called for a retreat, the six honored youths continued to battle and died. The hill up to the Castle provides what must be one of the best views of Mexico City. We hurried through the castle and relics and ruins housed therein, to make it to the far veranda to make sure we go a photo of the boulevard from that high vantage point, before joining our friends to go back to the airport. And just like that, we were home in Dallas.
You see, Mexico City is not far away. It is truly a hop down South. Same time zone, gorgeous weather, lovely people, nice exchange rate, killer food, lovely hotels, good friends, laughter, etc. If you have somehow not made it to Mexico City (I had not) you should add it to your list. It is time.
And kudos to our mystery traveler who shall only be known as S who scored tickets to the massive America v. Guadalajara soccer game in the Estadio Azteca and still made it back to dinner on time on Saturday. Hard core.
Be sure to read about my other favorite travel spots by keeping tabs on my new “travels” index which can always be found above the banner on The Meaning of Pie.