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Helen Rosner

The 38 Essential Mexico City Dishes and Restaurants

The essential culinary experiences of Mexico City, from street tamales and tacos to sweets, leisurely lunches, tasting menus, and traditional breakfasts

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The first thing any visitor to the Mexican capital will take in — probably while staring in awe out the window as their airplane descends over the intense, urbanity-on-steroids sprawl — is the sheer size of this town, 573 square miles in total. It's densely populated and patchworked with distinct neighborhoods, each with its own culinary identity. It would take several lifetimes to get to know all of the street stands, holes in the wall, neighborhood favorites, and high end destinations in this city.

Yet this list — 38 restaurants, dishes, and culinary experiences that define Mexico City's gastronomic identity — should offer a comprehensive starting point for any visitor. It includes the obvious and the over-publicized; it also includes hidden gems. There are tacos, tortas, tasting menus, and tamales. There are enough sweets to satisfy the most dedicated concha enthusiast and some old-school breakfasts for the nostalgists. Whatever the type of place, it provides standout food and a taste of something visitors can't get back home.

See guides to all of Mexico City's greatest neighborhoods — plus everything you need to know about eating in DF, one of the best food cities in the world — in the Eater Guide to Mexico City.

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Guzina Oaxaca

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Oaxacan food is praised throughout Mexico for its rich moles, umami-rich insects, stewed meats, and deep nuances. Here, Oaxacan chef Alejandro Ruíz brings the dishes he popularized at his first restaurant in Oaxaca, Casa Oaxaca, to Mexico City's Polanco neighborhood. The tortillas are made to order, and don't miss the tostada coated in chapulines — grasshoppers — a crispy, crunchy bite warmed by housemade salsas and a squeeze of lime.

Cochinita Pibil at El Turix

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Some (street food snobs) say the only reason to venture into Polanco at all is to taste the cochinita pibil at this classic spot. Unlike everything else in the area, it's decidedly no frills and stands out as a vestige from another era. The roasted, braised meat (a technique from Yucatán) is meltingly tender and needs only a topping of pickled onions to set off its richness.

Daniela Galarza

Dulce Patria

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Layered salsas, soft guisados (stews), and rich soups are cooked and presented with a forceful femininity at chef Martha Ortiz's Dulce Patria. Almost everything is accented with a flower or petal, but the natural beauty of a dish can belie surprisingly aggressive, tongue-stinging flavors. Dulce Patria means "sweet homeland" in Spanish. An homage to Ortiz's hometown pride, the restaurant celebrates Mexico's bounty and the dichotomy between sweet and spice, hot and cold, masculine and feminine, modern and classic.

Dulce Patria

Lunch at Restaurante Nicos

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Restaurante Nicos, the best restaurant in Mexico City, is formal but not stuffy, respectful to local ingredients and traditions but not precious, and venerable at the age of 60 but not a time warp. Go all in and get the tableside guacamole treatment to start, the tableside coffee roasting to end, and a visit or two from the mezcal cart somewhere in between.

Helen Rosner

Mercado de la Merced

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Merced is terrifyingly large and complex and you probably want to go with a seasoned guide. But it's also incredible and vibrant and chock-full of delicious food stalls and tasting experiences. We recommend hiring a private guide from Eat Mexico to squire you around and get you to the best tacos, atole, dried bugs, mole, and beyond.

Helen Rosner

An Afternoon Drink at Cantina La Mascota

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It used to be that all cantinas served free botanas (snacks) with each round of drinks, but La Mascota is one of the few remaining dives that still does this. Bring a group, order a mezcal (con sangrita) or a cerveza and then feast on (gratis) seafood stew, raw oysters, and camarones a la diabala (spicy shrimp).

A Pastry at Pastelería Ideal

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Pastelería Ideal, a giant and popular bakery downtown, has everything from traditional Mexican breads, pastries, and cookies to special occasion cakes and jello molds. Do not skip the second floor, which houses a seeming museum of giant, opulent, and whimsical wedding and children's birthday cakes. Take a break from sightseeing in El Centro to ogle them.

Helen Rosner

Churrería El Moro

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Churreria El Moro, an 80-year-old churro shop downtown that was gutted by a fire in 2010 and painstakingly restored to its original glory, merits a stop for the live show alone. In front of a grease-stained window, two churro makers pipe wet dough into smoking hot oil and spiral the long oblong stream into a spiral rep. After a flip, they come out and are cut into pieces and tossed, fresh to order, in either plain sugar or a sugar cinnamon mix. Get a bag to go or grab a table to enjoy them with hot chocolate.

Helen Rosner

A Caffeine Fix at Café Villarías

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Follow the aromas to this coffee roasting facility that has been operating in the city center since 1942. The beans are sustainably grown in Chiapas, at a high elevation perfect for arabica. While the shop itself sells only beans, a few doors down, in the middle of a plaza just off the street, is a small espresso bar where you can taste Villarías' beans in a coffee drink. Snag a stool and order a cappuccino or the house specialty, a St. Toña.

Daniela Galarza

An Octopus Tostada at El K-Guamo

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K-Guamo, a street stand within walking distance of Mercado San Juan, serves pitch perfect seafood tostadas. Get one. Get many.

Helen Rosner

Las Duelistas

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Some compare the taste and texture of unflavored pulque to snot. It's not so bad when it's flavored with something like jamaica (hibiscus), mango, pineapple, oatmeal, or strawberry. Order the taster here, a set of shot glass samples with every flavor on offer. That's not much more than a full sized pint and will give you just the right amount of buzz.

Daniela Galarza

Bósforo

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Bósforo is an almost (almost!) painfully hip mezcal bar hidden away on a dark sidestreet. It plays trippy music, has a mezzanine with cushions on the ground instead of seats, and serves a wild list of great mezcals.

Tacos de Canasta at La Abuela

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Tacos de canasta (basket tacos) can be found on almost every street corner, but La Abuela, manned by the charming septuagenarian Arnulfo Serafín Hernandéz, makes some of the best. His aunt, known as Señora Delfina to you — and abuela (grandmother) to her grandchildren — created all of the recipes. The ternera (veal) is especially popular but the chicken tinga and cochinita pibil are also worth a taste. These tacos are small and only a few pesos apiece, so make a meal by ordering one of each.

Daniela Galarza

Bollos de Romero at Panadería Rosetta

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Skip the jam-packed Colima location and head a few blocks north to the Havre branch of Panadería Rosetta, the beloved cafe and bakery from chef Elena Reygadas. Over two small floors and a quiet side terrace, waiters serve a full menu of snacks and drinks, but know you're really here for the doughnuts, the pastries, and the super addictive savory-sweet rolls called bollos de romero. Ask for them as soon as you sit down.

Helen Rosner

La Casa de Toño

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This 24/7 operation is a favorite among hungover hipsters, but families, business folk, and teenagers are just as likely to frequent the brightly lit, efficiently run, diner-style dining room. All of Mexico's standards are on offer but the pozole is the draw. A soupy porridge filled with meat and soft hominy, the broth is red and rich and perfect for soaking warm tortillas in. It goes well with a michelada cubana: beer cut with lime and the umami tang of Worcestershire.

Daniela Galarza

Buna Café Rico

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No burgeoning hipster food destination is complete without a slew of third wave coffee shops. Mexico City's best offering in this regard is Buna Cafe Rico, a minimalist and stylish cafe with a coffee nerd pedigree in Roma Norte. Buna boasts all manner of perfectly pulled espresso drinks and inventive cold brews (mixed with horchata, for example, or tonic water). Want something sweet? Try the Mokka Valenciano, a chocolate coffee with subtle orange undertone that's just exquisite.

Helen Rosner

Tortas at Merendero Biarritz

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Torterías can be found across the city, but this place has at least two generations of fans. Order by checking dishes off on a short sheet of paper. When the sandwiches come — laden with hot, crispy fried breaded chicken or pork — unhinge the bread and coat the thing in salsa and onions (set out in bowls at the ready) before diving in face first.

Daniela Galarza

Chamorro at El Sella

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The nearby hospital supplies most of the clientele. Suited in white lab coats and blue scrubs, everyone is here for the chamorro, a braised pork shank served with an endless supply of tortillas. Chamorro is a popular dish made at many restaurants across town but this version is particularly succulent. Arrive early because the dining room fills up fast every day of the week.

Daniela Galarza

Lunch at Maximo Bistrot

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This beautiful, light-filled space on a tree-lined block of Roma has become a go-to for lunch among locals and food-obsessed DF tourists. They celebrate local ingredients and sustainability with a French-leaning Mexican menu.

Fonda Fina

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Chef Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil) opened this casual spot in Roma a few years ago. Luckily, Vallejo's perfectionism is not lost among the more moderately priced dishes. Tamales, tacos, and guisados are satisfying and hearty, but larger plates like the arrachera with pineapple salsa and black beans have all the finesse of a fine dining establishment. Get the crème brulée rice pudding for dessert.

Ruben Musca

Lunch at Contramar

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Contramar, the buzzy, vibrant, and enduringly popular seafood restaurant from chef and restaurateur Gabriela Cámara, is the ideal spot for a long lunch, either in the sweeping dining room or out on the sidewalk. The tuna tostadas are just as good as everyone says, and we beg that you save room for a slice of the fig tart for dessert.

Helen Rosner

La Clandestina

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La Clandestina, a hole-in-the-wall mezcal bar without signage, is a super fun and crowded spot for sampling a variety of 20-plus mezcals from across Oaxaca. The menu is an intense booklet mapping out how and where every bottle is made.

La Botica

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La Botica is a small, quirky mezcal bar that opens onto a tree-lined Condesa street. It have a long, handwritten, somewhat difficult to decipher list of options that includes a chicken-infused mezcal (pechuga de pollo) as well as some serious snacks.

Helen Rosner

Street Tamales for Breakfast

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Tamal vendors can be found all over the city — just look out for someone on a street corner with steamer pots. One will be filled with all varieties of tamales (wrapped in either corn husk or banana leaf) and the others will hold hot atole drinks made from masa. A champurrado (a chocolate atole drink) and a tamal together make for a perfect and dirt cheap Mexico City breakfast.

Daniela Galarza

Barbacoa at El Hidalguense

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There's a long menu here but locals know to order the barbacoa: farm-raised lamb from Hidalgo roasted for at least 12 hours — right in front of the dining area — and served in leaves charred from the flames.

Mezcal and Sangrita at Romita Comedor

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Hidden upstairs inside a gorgeous old colonial home on the fashionable Avenida Álvaro Obregón is a bar and restaurant. Skip the food and instead order drinks. The gin and tonic is especially lovely thanks to a cucumber infusion; mezcal and sangrita (a gazpacho-like chaser) is a classic choice.

Tacos Árabes El Hayito

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The taco arabe originated in Puebla in the 1930s, after immigrants from the Middle East imported the vertical doner spit. Only a few are found in Mexico City proper, but they are worth seeking out. A large, thick flour tortilla holds marinated pork and salsas; the whole thing roughly resembles a gyro, but the flavors — chile, cumin, onion, herbs — are wholly Mexican.

Late Night Pastor at El Vilsito

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This spot, outside a car wash, set a new standard for al pastor theatrics. For each taco, taqueros slice the layered, lacquered pork and place it into a warm tortilla. Then, with a twist of the wrist, they reach up to the pineapple crown at the top of the massive stack of meat and flick a slice of warm, charred fruit through the air and catch it, using the open tortilla like a baseball glove. It's one of the best places to finish off a long, drunken night.

Breakfast at Fonda Margarita

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Early riser? Hungover? Head to this casual, family-run, Anthony Bourdain—approved restaurant for a hearty breakfast. A rotating selection of guisados is always bubbling away in the large clay cauldrons (which rest atop actual coals — not a gas fire), but do order the frijoles negros con huevo, a mash of black beans and eggs folded into the shape of an omelette.

Daniela Galarza

Molcajetes Calientes at Los Sifones

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An old standard in the Southern part of the city best known for its tortillas cuadrados (square tortillas), the real draw here is the molcajete caliente— a sort of Mexican hot pot -- with meat, chilis, cheese, spring onions, and so much sauce. Picante, it arrives at the table still boiling. Use the tortillas to sop up all of that thick salsa, and order a tongue-cooling agua fresca or horchata to sip on the side.

Daniela Galarza

Birria at Michoacanissimo

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Birria, a richly flavored goat stew, can be found throughout the city but this is one of the best versions. Here, whole goats are coated in adobo and slow roasted before becoming the base of a mahogany broth. Order a small bowl, tortillas, and a plate of avocados and radishes. Servers weave between tables to refill bowls of broth (gratis). Mariachi and boleros provide entertainment. Expect to wait in line.

A Late Night Snack at Tacos Cocuyos

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Arrive after 10 p.m. for the full Cocuyos experience — an empty street in the center of town with bright lights shining on every cut of meat, plucked from a bubbling caldron of mixed braised meats and chopped to order.

Daniela Galarza

Azul Condesa

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Azul Condesa is such a solid standby. It's slightly upscale but not pretentious or overly modern, and the food — from food historian, author, and chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita — never disappoints. Try the guacamole with grasshoppers, anything made with their mole negro, the cochinita pibil, and one of their margaritas.

Breakfast at El Cardenal

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A gorgeous landmark from another era, El Cardenal serves a fantastic, upscale breakfast (it's also open for lunch and dinner). Order the chilaquiles, which arrive perfectly sauced and with some crisp left in each drowning chip. White tablecloths and suited waiters turn an everyday meal into an experience.

Candy at Dulcería de Celaya

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The original location of Mexico City's oldest candy shop, in the heart of town, looks like a jewelry store. Gilded curlicues and silvered mirrors decorate the small space. Behind glass cases hundreds of different types of sweets stand at attention. Don't leave without tasting the tamarind-sweet potato chews, candied squash, and the surprisingly delightful lágrimas (tears).

Daniela Galarza

The Tasting Menu at Pujol

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At this point, tasting menu spot Pujol is a destination for gastro-tourists (it's not uncommon to hear as much English spoken as Spanish inside its walls), but what chef Enrique Olvera is doing here — applying modern, high-end cooking techniques to traditional Mexican ingredients — is important, ever-relevant, and, crucially, delicious. He pays respect to the traditions and styles of Mexican cooking while pushing the boundaries of flavor. [Update April 2017: Pujol relocated and re-opened in 2017.]

Quintonil

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Jorge Vallejo's fine dining restaurant in Polanco is elegant but comfortable, intimate but bold. Vallejo was once chef de cuisine at Enrique Olvera's Pujol, and the influence shows, but here the plates are far less precious. Vallejo's signature dish, huazontles (a vegetable similar to broccoli) with cheese from Chiapas and a spicy tomato salsa reflects his playful cooking style wherein traditional ingredients are featured but techniques come from around the globe. Alejandra Flores, Vallejo's wife, runs the front of house and wishes diners a good night as they exit.

Viernes Media Lab

Tortas at La Barraca Valenciana

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Not far from the center of Coyoacán in the southern part of the city, this spot makes some of the city's best tortas. Don't let the other dishes on the menu deter you — what you want is a torta, either the Cubana or the Bacalao, both of which will be bigger than your face.

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Guzina Oaxaca

Oaxacan food is praised throughout Mexico for its rich moles, umami-rich insects, stewed meats, and deep nuances. Here, Oaxacan chef Alejandro Ruíz brings the dishes he popularized at his first restaurant in Oaxaca, Casa Oaxaca, to Mexico City's Polanco neighborhood. The tortillas are made to order, and don't miss the tostada coated in chapulines — grasshoppers — a crispy, crunchy bite warmed by housemade salsas and a squeeze of lime.

Cochinita Pibil at El Turix

Some (street food snobs) say the only reason to venture into Polanco at all is to taste the cochinita pibil at this classic spot. Unlike everything else in the area, it's decidedly no frills and stands out as a vestige from another era. The roasted, braised meat (a technique from Yucatán) is meltingly tender and needs only a topping of pickled onions to set off its richness.

Daniela Galarza

Dulce Patria

Layered salsas, soft guisados (stews), and rich soups are cooked and presented with a forceful femininity at chef Martha Ortiz's Dulce Patria. Almost everything is accented with a flower or petal, but the natural beauty of a dish can belie surprisingly aggressive, tongue-stinging flavors. Dulce Patria means "sweet homeland" in Spanish. An homage to Ortiz's hometown pride, the restaurant celebrates Mexico's bounty and the dichotomy between sweet and spice, hot and cold, masculine and feminine, modern and classic.

Dulce Patria

Lunch at Restaurante Nicos

Restaurante Nicos, the best restaurant in Mexico City, is formal but not stuffy, respectful to local ingredients and traditions but not precious, and venerable at the age of 60 but not a time warp. Go all in and get the tableside guacamole treatment to start, the tableside coffee roasting to end, and a visit or two from the mezcal cart somewhere in between.

Helen Rosner

Mercado de la Merced

Merced is terrifyingly large and complex and you probably want to go with a seasoned guide. But it's also incredible and vibrant and chock-full of delicious food stalls and tasting experiences. We recommend hiring a private guide from Eat Mexico to squire you around and get you to the best tacos, atole, dried bugs, mole, and beyond.