Mexico City's restaurant scene rivals those of the greatest international food cities. Beyond the exquisite street food and markets, DF contains multitudes: high-end tasting menu concepts for gasto-tourists, hip bakeries, sceney French bistros, creative takes on regional cooking on both the high and low ends, outposts of international destination restaurants, and hundreds upon hundreds of rustic neighborhood spots.
Yet the one restaurant a newcomer (or returning regular) to Mexico City absolutely must visit is a smallish, bustling, low ceilinged, 60-year-old lunch institution in the blue collar neighborhood of Azcapotzalco, about a 20 minute cab ride from El Centro. Restaurante Nicos was founded in 1957; it's formal but not fancy, busy but not crowded, and pays tribute to the ingredients and recipes of both modern and ancient Mexico in a way that is respectful yet not at all precious. In a town ruled by long lunches and perfunctory late dinners, this is the ultimate place for a drawn-out comida.
On my first visit to Nicos I was convinced it was closed, or that I was in the wrong place. I knew it was a favorite spot of an in-the-know and food obsessed chilango friend, so after enjoying a slew of sceney, somewhat glamorous lunches at hipster-friendly spots lke Contramar, Maximo Bistrot, and Azul Condesa, I expected a stylish room, maybe a patio with laid-back creative types drinking gin and tonics and micheladas. Instead, I found a storefront restaurant in a squat building on a dusty strip in a far-flung neighborhood. It sports blacked-out windows with venetian blinds, a drop ceiling with a few slow-spinning white ceiling fans, and an unfussy interior that probably hasn't been touched in decades. Stylish it is not.
But it's wonderful. The food is delicious, yes, but what's most remarkable about Nicos isn't just what you eat, it's the entire package: the service (attentive but never overly solicitous), the showmanship (prepare for expert tableside preparations of everything from guacamole to caesar salad, plus a roving mezcal cart), the sourcing (chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo, the son of the restaurant's founder, started the Slow Food chapter in Mexico), the scene (business meetings, boisterous family lunches, quiet dates). It's all very earnest and unassuming — and wildly charming.
María Elena Lugo Zermeño founded Nicos nearly seventy years ago, as a platform for her home cooking. But when her son Gerardo took it over in 2006, the restaurant slowly evolved into a destination for traditional yet progressive Mexico cooking. That means tableside flourishes, as well as a scholarly menu annotated with historical references to original recipes, shout-outs to local producers, and tributes to the wonders of nixtamalization, the ancient technique of softening corn with lye to make chewy pozole kernels and ground masa for tortillas. It means the tableside cafe de olla service involves 15 minutes of grinding coffee beans tableside and mixing it in a clay pot with spices and sugar. And it means the most standout dish on the menu, a creamy tomato and chicken millefeuille called sopa seca de natas (literally, "dry chestnut soup") is made from a 19th-century recipe from Capuchin monks.
Nicos isn't a secret. Its praises have been sung by loud voicess — Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, the World's 50 Best List, and local publications of note — so it's not really an off-the-beaten-track secret waiting to be discovered. But in that unexpected space, in that unexpected neighborhood it still, very wonderfully, feels like one.