A Taste of Chilango Life in Mexico City
“Have you been to Mexico City before?” “Why Mexico City?” “Mexico City?…interesting!” Such were the responses garnered upon sharing that I’d be spending Christmas in Mexico City. My Aunt Justine had lived there with her son for 8 months a few years ago, and was excited to return to give us the grand tour.
Family ties or not, the Distrito Federal (Mexico City’s pseudonym) was apparently not at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list. And while I can’t say I’m counting down the days until I return, the place did leave a lasting impression. Mexico City seems to be a city in transition – For all its traffic, graffiti, and poverty, it’s managed to in some places reinvent itself and in others, fully embrace its everlasting culture.
Stick around the hip La Condesa and posh Polanco neighborhoods and you’ll be hard put to find any sign that this city is anything but luxurious. But drive into the Zócalo and you’ll be stricken by the squalor of your surroundings. At every stoplight, we were approached by vendors and performers: men selling chicle or breakdancing in the cross walks, and in one case, a woman carrying her small child while juggling bowling pins for spare pesos. In the Plaza Garibaldi where we spent one evening at Salón Tenampa with Mariachis and the drunk audience that comes with the territory, we watched a street performer take a bite from a plate that had been already bussed.
Paddling through the filthy waters of Xochimilco, we passed tired shantytowns shoddily constructed right to the river’s edge.
But for everything this city perhaps lacks in elegance, it makes up for in an unshakable work ethic and fucking delicious food.
Let’s start with tacos, where Al Pastor is the name of the game. Each taco spot is landmarked by a twirling cylinder of pork, Turkish street meat style. The open fire char-cooks the bright red pork and with each taco ordered, the pastor guy shaves off some meat right into a fresh corn tortilla. Most places have a host of salsas, ranging from really hot, to holy-shit-where’s-the-beer-my-tongue-is-gonna-fall-off-hot. The right way to do an Al Pastor taco is with melted cheese on top with a slice of avocado and plenty of salsa.
While El Huequito is all about the tacos and horchata, we went what some might consider “overboard” at El Califa with Queso Fundido, Chicharron de Queso, and also everything else on the menu.
On a less greasy, lard-soaked note, we visited a few spectacular places that had the bougie foodie in me doing backflips.
Ojo de Agua is a cute café adjacent to the Parque México in La Condessa, the neighborhood I’ve labeled as “where adult hipsters live.” The walls of Ojo de Agua are lined with baskets of fresh fruit (I’ve never seen so many ripe mangos!) and the menu is just as fruity.
I got an acai bowl that put San Francisco’s offerings to shame and we ordered fresh fruit juice like it was going out of style.
Mercado Roma is in Colonia Roma Norte, where conversely, all the young hipsters hang.
This isn’t your average bustling, frantic Mexican market. Instead, carefully curated stalls fill the huge space with a living wall as its backdrop and giant skylights as its light source. The stalls sell everything from carnitas to pho, and you’ll even find artisanal candles and salsas to take home. We picked up a Noche Buena, Mexico City’s favorite seasonal beer and wandered around to bask in the bougie glory of it all.
There are a few restaurants in Mexico City that have put it on the map as a fine dining destination. Among them is Rosetta, a dreamy Italian/Mexican-ish restaurant in the heart of Colonia Roma Norte.
Rosetta is located in a tall, narrow, and olllld colonial townhome. Each floor is home to a different dining room, designed with subtle touches like hand painted wall decals, opulent mirrors, and exotic flowers.
After attacking the rosemary focaccia (which we had seen baking moments earlier), we went crazy with the menu, which changes regularly with the seasons.
The pastas were a crowd favorite, especially the gnocchetti with short rib and rosemary. Other stand-outs were the fresh pappardelle with chicken liver, fennel lemon risotto, and endive salad with gorgonzola and grapefruit.
For dessert, we ordered pink mole, which, even for a dessert, wasn’t too sweet! Our meal at Rosetta was one of my favorites – the perfect combination of a carefully crafted setting, refined and focused menu, and impeccable service.
But the real food of Mexico City can’t be found on Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet. Instead, it’s inside the kitchens of locals, where hand-painted ceramic pots hold simmering stews and condiments are the name of the game.
We were greeted at Teresa’s house with a cold Leon and many kisses on the cheek. I’m not quite sure what we were celebrating, but it seemed like a combination of birthdays and Christmas festivities. Teresa is my cousin’s grandmother, and although neither she nor most of her family spoke a lick of English, we were welcomed and fed like true Chilangos (Mexico City natives).
The meal was outstanding – a spread of meats, vegetables, and tortillas like no other.
When one clay pot would empty, another piping hot one would appear in its stead. Here I was introduced to Nopales (cactus) and Huitlacoche (a black mushroom like fungus that grows on the end of old corn ears). Each flavor was distinct and rich, unlike any “Mexican” food I’d had even in Los Angeles. The meal culminated with a giant chocolate cake, Matlida style. 5 hours of eating later, we waddled back to the hotel, realizing that we’ve been “doing lunch” wrong our whole lives.
The afternoon we spent at Flavia and Mauricio’s house only confirmed that lunch is in fact the most important meal of the day in Mexico. Flavia and Mauricio are friends of my Aunt Justine and graciously welcomed my entire family in for another homemade feast. Located in the heart of Colonia Roma Sur, their family’s home is carefully curated with contemporary art and photographs peppered with personal relics and collected items from around the world.
The meal began with Mauricio's Fideo Secco, a classic dish made with short spaghetti noodles cooked in tomato sauce. Give me a bowl of that stuff and I’ll be a happy camper. But that’s not all they had in store for us. Next came the homemade taquitos, honestly just a vehicle for salsa and guacamole, of which there was plenty. The meal meandered on, taking the afternoon with it. By the time we kissed cheeks and said goodbye, the sun was setting on yet another delicious day in Mexico City.
Oaxaca is not too far from DF, especially if you’re a witch. I can’t confirm that the mole pictured below was delivered via broomstick, but it was indeed crafted by a true bruja (Spanish for witch). As Carlos, my cousin’s dad and our host that night, explained, mole is an “enchanting dish.” Eat it and you will be stricken with good luck, possibly similar to the magical realism scene from Like Water For Chocolate, which ironically was edited by Carlos himself in its film rendition. The mole was rich and intense with a sort of heart-warming effect. This was the kind of meal that warms you to your bones and brings you to life after a long days’ work. The brown one was nutty and a little tangy while the green had an earthier flavor. The shredded chicken stirred in was the perfect host to soak up all the rich chocolaty goodness – so good that we went back for seconds, then thirds, and so on until there wasn’t a drop left.
With all of this said, there’s much more to Mexico City than its food. In honor of those sights and experiences, here’s a quick recap:
Museo Frida Kahlo is a playground for Frida lovers. Get tickets online to avoid the around-the-block line.
But if you must, you’re in good company – the churro guy sells his sugary treats cheap and in bundles of four, plenty to last you the wait.
While you’re down in San Angel, stop by the Tostadas Coyoacan stalls in the Coyoacan market for a tostada. You can’t miss the bright yellow signs and heaping plates of seafood, meat, and chicken.
Head to the edge of Mexico City to Xochimilco and find colorful painted boats with long picnic tables awaiting your arrival.
Your captain will push your boat through the murky canals of the infamous neighborhood, past family gatherings, organic farms, and plenty of other boats selling treats, meats, and even live Mariachi ballads.
After our boat ride, we wandered right through a Chinelo parade. Chinelos are costumed dancers with pointy chin masks and bouncy steps. Their performance began with the blending of Catholic and indigenous cultures and is particularly popular in the Xochimilco neighborhood. The song they marched to will be forever stuck in my head.
For shopping, enjoy a curated selection at Fonart, or head to La Ciudadela for artisanal tchotchkes galore.
In the Zócalo, you’ll find a massive church, sinking under its own weight into the water Mexico City was built upon.
Wander through the Palacio Nacional, where Diego Rivera has sprawling murals you could lose an afternoon to.
And if you have the time and a mode of transportation, you can’t miss Teotihuacan, the town that’s home to a largely undiscovered ancient civilization.
Carb up at any of the zillion neighboring restaurants before climbing the narrow steps to the top of the Sun and Moon pyramids. Chilaquiles anyone?
In such a short period of time, I really got to know this place. To leave a city so vast and unfamiliar with any sense of understanding is remarkable. Even more so is the authenticity of our experience – a taste of local life here, a nibble of tourism there, and so on. All that’s left to say is wow, I’m full.