I’m on the road so much for work that I rarely feel envy when I hear about other people’s travel plans. But jealousy did ripple through me 18 months back when I learned that a few of my fellow Eater editors were headed to Mexico City to create the insanely comprehensive guide we published last March. Mexico’s capital had been on my short list to visit for too many years. Unquestionably, this is the It city for food and travel writers right now. If your social media feeds are anything like mine, at least once a week someone I follow is checking out Pujol’s new digs or powering through an al pastor taco crawl.
I finally got myself to Mexico City in April, on a trip to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday. Now I, too, am a believer: CDMX is a swirling, thumping, enveloping marvel. Pujol’s swank midcentury-modern setting indeed dazzles. Hedonic, hours-long lunches at Contramar and Restaurante Nicos made me mourn America’s rejection of midday dining culture. The tacos reset the bar again and again. I had a wonderful solo moment scarfing down a guava danish from Panaderia Rosetta while wandering down the middle of Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s major boulevards, gazing up at the Angel of Independence monument; it was a Sunday, when the city blocks off the thoroughfare for joggers and bicyclists.
To add a little something fresh to the conversation, I asked local food writers for advice on new restaurants that haven’t yet received much attention in English-language publications. Two suggestions I particularly savored draw inspiration from Oaxacan cuisine. In the way that New York’s vast culinary ecology is home to restaurants specializing in regional American cooking, Mexico City’s amazing breadth supports businesses that serve the diverse foods from the country’s 31 states. Oaxacan cuisine and its rich complexity, I’ll venture to say, is to Mexico what Southern cooking is to the United States: a rooted, indigenous, yet ever-changing seat of gastronomy that’s an exceptional source of pride and pleasure.
The confluence of smoke, earth, sweet, and spice that helps define Oaxacan cooking is literally in the air at Pasillo de Humo, the restaurant atop the new Parián Condesa food hall in the posh, tree-lined Condesa neighborhood. You breathe in the flavors here before you taste them. The chef, Alam Méndez, is the son of Celía Florian, a renowned chef known for her moles and other regional specialties; she runs Restaurante las Quince Letras in Oaxaca. Méndez is clearly blazing his own reputation. In the light-filled, three-story room, eyes turn to the cooks in the display kitchen, grilling meats, hand-forming tortillas, and assembling tlayudas — the pizza-like constructs made from crackly, oversized tortillas and layered with combinations such as chorizo, chapulines (fried grasshoppers, all crunch), avocado, chilies, and queso fresco.
Pasillo de Humo serves breakfast and lunch: chilaquiles and enfrijoladas (enchiladas submerged in inky black bean sauce), soups and salads, tamales and tostadas — all made with unusual care. Not surprising, given his background and lineage, Méndez threads silken attenuations of moles throughout the menu: perhaps mole verde for chilaquiles, and a fiercer red mole for chicken, and subtle mole amarillo for fish.
Dessert was a mind-opener: nixtamalized papaya — the fruit soaked in slaked lime, an abbreviated variation on the treatment for corn used to make masa — in yogurt flavored with a minty herb called poleo. Simple but otherworldly, the flavors seesawed between tropical-sweet and gently sour, with every other bite zinged by the tingling poleo. I’d hoist this revelation on friends who say they hate dessert.
Mention of this herb, which grows prolifically in Oaxaca and is used (among other purposes) as a tisane, leads me to another restaurant worth a mention: The place actually is called Poleo, and it’s also on a leafy avenue in Condesa. Rodolfo Castellanos won the inaugural season of Top Chef México. He opened his first venture early this year, and at first glance the dining looks a little stodgy, claustrophobic in a clubby sort of way and trimmed in muted grays and browns. The cooking, though, comes through as dynamic and wholly modern. It’s the kind of food that looks fussed over on the plate but comes together brilliantly in every bite.
Castellanos smokes rice before stirring in cilantro to make classic arroz verde; he uses this as a bed for precisely grilled, head-on shrimp. Molotes, a Oaxacan variation on an empanada, zip around the sweet-savory-spicy equation with mashed plantains, chilcostle chile (popular in moles), crema, and melty string cheese.
And yes, there is a mole — a variation on the cocoa-colored, headily spiced sauce called chichilo negro commonly served with beef; in this case, tongue. If you’re squeamish about that cut, this is the gentlest possible introduction. The rush of bright, rugged flavors in the chichilo doesn’t leave room for the brain to experience anything other than contentment.
I sat at one of Poleo’s sidewalk tables in the early evening, watching people walk with clear intent and disappear into apartment buildings on both sides of the restaurant. I wondered how I could simply slip into this colossal city’s rhythms and make a home here. Then I paid my check and strolled back to the hotel to pack. Maybe in another lifetime.
Pasillo de Humo: Av. Nuevo León 107, Mexico City, Mexico, 52-55-5211-7263
Poleo: Calle Amsterdam 225, 06100 Mexico City, Mexico, 52-55-5087-2132, poleo.mx
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