Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Best Restaurants in Mexico City
A steal deal
Your tummy and your wallet will smile
Yikes! But if it's on my list, it's worth it
Note: As of this writing, the US Dollar is equivalent to 7.5 pesos. I will rate the restaurants on the system, but even the priciest spot by Mexican standards is still a bargain for dollar-holders. Calling from the U.S., the dialing codes are "011-52-5" for Mexico City, then the number listed.
Maria Isabel Sheraton
Paseo de la Reforma 325 , Zona Rosa
Is it a bar? supper club? mariachi mecca?? A little of all three. The Bar Jorongo is somewhat of an institution in Mexico City, as least for lovers of mariachi music. And who wouldn't want to take in the fun while visiting the capital? The music begins at 5 p.m., although the crowds don't start to pour in until much later. And once things get going, it's a whistling, yelping, foot-stomping extravaganza which is a guaranteed good time. The bar is a dark and cozy room with seating on several levels, all of which face the brightly-lit stage. You can get a light bite while you're here, along the lines of crunchy tacos de pollo (chicken tacos), a pepito ranchero (steak sandwich) or the burritas, warm wheat tortillas which are filled with melted cheese and ham. Have a late lunch (de rigeur in Mexico City) and stop by the Jorongo for some late-night revelry. You can always spend the night, you know. Light supper only. (Rates at the Maria Isabel Sheraton are USD $189 to $249 per night; check for special seasonal rates.)
Zona Rosa 207-4978
For those familiar with San Francisco's Tadich Grill, Bellinghausen is the Mexico City version, or simply put, the place to go for a traditional (and tasty) power lunch. All the touches are here -- elegant wainscoting on the walls, horsey oil paintings and waiters in short white waistcoats zipping about. Men (and the occasional woman) are seated at elegant tables and are heatedly discussing the issues of the day, their businesses or maybe the menu. I'll simplify the menu for you, because although it's extensive, a few choices are all you need. Start with the tacos de camaron (shrimp tacos), which are chunky shrimp sauteed with onions and red pepper and placed on a small corn tortilla. The shrimp are tender and oh so flavorful, but add a couple of drops of lemon juice to take this appetizer to new heights. Proceed to the filete chemita, a tender and buttery filet of beef which is grilled to perfection and comes with even more buttery mashed potatoes. The "chemita" is not on the menu, but ask for it anyway. It's always available and the main reason why people come to Bellinghausen. Your dining companion should order the cabrito al horno, goat's leg baked to a delectable crisp, yet moist and tender on the inside. This dish is accompanied by a white bean stew in a kicky tomato broth. End your meal with thehelado de turron de jijona, an ice cream treat flavored with a traditional sugary Spanish candy. All of the ice creams are made at Bellinghausen, but choose this one. There is also a lovely, bougainvillea-draped patio for al fresco dining.
Cafe de Tacuba
Tacuba 28 @ Bolivar, Downtown
This restaurant was opened in 1912, which means it has a bit of history. Sure, well-known politicians, businessmen and celebrities have been making the rounds for years, but unfortunately, one never made it out the door. In 1936, a prominent politico was murdered at table #1. I'm sure the argument that led up to this event was not over food, because that has been the hallmark, and a good one, of the Cafe de Tacuba for many years. Situated in a 17th-century manse, the restaurant, with its vaulted, whitewashed ceiling and ornate tilework, is more reminiscent of a chapel. Rows of linen-covered tables fill the two main dining rooms. The food is traditional Mexican fare and includes a variety of enchiladas along with fresh seafood dishes. Try the enchiladas Tacuba,which are stuffed with chicken and chile poblano and topped with a creamy spinach sauce. Or perhaps the pollo especial Tacuba, a breast of chicken covered with fiery rajas, one of the spiciest chiles around. The Cafe de Tacuba is a safe bet, in every sense of the word.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Carrillo Puerto 2, Plaza Jardin Centenario, Coyoacan
This cafe is a combination eating place/bookstore/record shop rolled into one, and the location is hard to beat. Right on the lovely plaza in the center of the artsy Coyoacan neighborhood, this is where Mexico City's bohemian set loves to linger over countless cappuccinos. Frida Kahlo used to live right around the corner, and I'm sure she and Diego strolled around this plaza more than once. The cafe is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the accent is on lighter fare. The seating is on an outdoor patio in front of the bookstore, where small wrought-iron tables are covered in cheerful green linens. Breakfast and lunch are best for people watching, and also a good time to nibble on the empanadas (filled with your choice of ground beef, tuna, spinach and the like) or to graze on the plato combinado, a plate piled high with empanadas, tortilla Espanola (a yummy egg and potato omelette), cheeses, ham and a sweet pastry. The coffee drinks are excellent at Parnaso, and go especially well with the chocolatines, gooey layers of chocolate cream wedged between sticky-sweet phyllo dough. Leave the calorie counter at home, which is what Frida would have done.
El Patio at the Museo Franz Mayer
Avenida Hidalgo 45, Downtown
Franz Mayer was a financier born in Mannheim, Germany who spent most of his life in Mexico. During his lifetime, he acquired a vast art collection which is now on display at the museum which bears his name. Located in a convent which dates to 1583, the museum is an indoor-outdoor space with great charm and wonderful light. Focal point of this edifice is the interior courtyard, where the patio cafe is located. A simple fountain is at the center of the tree-lined patio and provides a visual treat. You'll enjoy your breakfast or lunch amid the chirping birds and piped-in classical music. The menu is a mix of cakes, pies, pizzettas and light sandwiches. You can sit indoors if you'd like, but the far better choice is one of the round tables lining the patio. Enjoy the Mayer collection, then while away a few hours writing postcards to the not-as-lucky-as-you folks back home.
Hamburgo 87 @ Copenhague, Zona Rosa
Focolare (rhymes with "Volare," that 50s croon which made 'em swoon) is nothing if not festive, a riot of color from top to bottom. The walls are sponged a sunny yellow, a sea of colorful basketry is suspended from the rafters and a rooster crows from his cage in a far corner of the room. Now if they could only teach that rooster to sing "Volare"... A skylight overhead lets the sun shine in and puts you in the mood for some delicious Mexican food. Focolare's menu accents the cuisine of various regions of the republic, namely Yucatan, Oaxaca and Veracruz. Mexican foodies are quick to point out that some of their country's tastiest fare comes from Oaxaca and Veracruz, so with that in mind, start with the nopales en escabeche, succulent chunks of cactus (minus the needles) sauteed in garlic, onion and olive oil. Continue with the filete de pescado a la Veracruzana, snapper in a sauce flavored with tomatoes, onions, olives and chiles, or the cochinita pibil, the classic dish of the Yucatan, a hunk of pork in a zesty marinade infused with spicy chiles and bitter oranges. Top your meal off with the arroz con leche, a lemony rice pudding. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Fonda El Refugio
Liverpool 166 @ Amberes, Zona Rosa
The late Judit Van Beuren, a writer who spent much of her life in Mexico City, opened this charming restaurant over 40 years ago. Scattered throughout several rooms on two floors is a retrospective of Ms. Van Beuren's life -- folkloric paintings in one room, shiny copper pots and pans in another, chicken platters, baskets and jars in yet another. Her whimsical chicken salt shakers still grace the white-linen tablecloths. The writer also collected some wonderful recipes over the years, and her children see to their flawless preparation to this day. Traditional Mexican favorites are the specialty, and a good appetizer is the hongos a la cazuela, a light and tasty plate of sauteed mushrooms. Follow that with the mole poblano, a breast of chicken drenched in a delightfully chocolatey sauce, or the albondigas chipotle, meatballs laced with the ultra-spicy chipotle chile. There are daily specials, and on most Tuesdays you can order the manchamanteles (which loosely translates to "tablecloth stains"), chunks of chicken in a delectable sweet and sour sauce. Be sure to use your napkin. Lunch and dinner.
Hacienda de los Morales
Vazquez de Mella 525, Polanco
Now this is where you wear your Sunday best, although you'll have more fun if you do it late at night. The Hacienda de los Morales may be the most elegant restaurant in Mexico City, and the good news is that the food is as exalted as the setting. The restaurant is housed in a four-centuries-old ex-hacienda and is located on land originally given to the explorer Hernan Cortes by the King of Spain. The grounds were planted with mulberry trees to encourage a silkworm industry, hence the name "morales," a variation of the Spanish word for mulberry. The trees are largely gone, but their legacy is a shrine to haute Mexican cuisine. The many rooms of the ex-hacienda invite diners to enjoy their meal in candlelit splendor. Chef Roberto Rangel uses a subtle hand with some classic dishes. A must starter is the crepas de huitlacoche, the "huitlacoche" being a small black mushroom which grows on a corn stalk. This truffle-like delicacy is placed inside thin crepes which are bathed in a creamy bechamel sauce, and the resulting dish is a marvel. Continue with the trucha en salsa verde con romeritos, trout stuffed with "romeritos," which are a leafy vegetable similar to spinach but much more tart. The fish is covered in a green salsa made with tomatillos, chile, onion, green pepper and cilantro. Hopefully you've come a deux, and your companion can order the puntas de filete al albanil, beef tips lightly sauteed with bacon, onion, mushroom, chile and fines herbes. You'll want to savor this wonderful meal for a while, but before you go, order the mango flambe. Lunch and dinner.
Las Flores del Mal
Alvaro Obregon 99 @ Orizaba (in the Casa Lamm), Roma
The Casa Lamm is a cultural center in the heart of Mexico City. In one of its many rooms you'll find Las Flores del Mal, a new restaurant offering nouvelle Mexican cuisine, still a bit unusual in these parts. This is a cuisine which doesn't really need updating, but then a little tinkering might not be a bad thing. Chef Eric Tapie has great fun with his combinations and preparations. Start with the ensalada de langosta y pera con vinagreta de mango, a salad with chunks of lobster and sliced pears which is drizzled with a mango vinaigrette. Follow it with the medallones de cordero con crema de ajo confitado y perejil, medallions of lamb coated with a creamy garlic and parsley sauce. There are three prix fixe menus available for folks who can't make up their mind or can't take their eyes off the exquisite woodwork on the ceiling. Lunch and dinner.
Plaza Jardin Centenario 12, Coyoacan
"Los Danzantes" translates to "the dancers," and everything about this restaurant is fluid, lyrical and magical. It's also barely two years old and very likely the best restaurant in Mexico City. Located on the pretty Plaza de Coyoacan, the restaurant is an indoor-outdoor space, with a number of outdoor tables set among a tree-lined patio in front and leading to the more modern interior. A swanky bar backed with cobalt-blue glass is the focal point of the main dining room, which is dotted with small tables topped with simple, elegant place settings. Young chef Gabriel O'Farrill is Swiss-trained, but he is clearly celebrating his Mexican heritage with interesting and innovative preparations. Begin with the ensalada de lechugas, manzanas, aguacate y almendras en vinagreta de mostaza y naranja, a confection of baby lettuces, sliced apples and avocados drizzled in a mustard and orange vinaigrette. It's a light and fresh delight. Continue with the fettuccine con salsa de jitomate, ostiones ahumados y chile pasilla, al dente pasta topped with a sauce of smoked oysters, tomato and mild chiles. The flavors work beautifully. For your entree, choose between the medallones de filete en salsa de chile chipotle, tender medallions of beef in a slightly creamy, not-too-spicy chipotle chile sauce, or the pechuga rellena de queso con salsa de cabuches. The latter dish is a juicy breast of chicken stuffed with cheese and enveloped in a semi-tart "cabuche" sauce, cabuches being the fruit of the viznaga cactus. Finish with the trufa de chocolate, a chocolate truffle pie which will make you want to cry. You can accompany your meal at Los Danzantes with one of over fifty tequila selections on the menu. Chef O'Farrill is clearly the brightest light on the "nouvelle Mexican" culinary scene. Don't miss out. Lunch and dinner.
Madero 73 @ Monte de Piedad, Downtown
The Majestic Hotel has been located in a centuries-old building on Mexico City's zocalo, or main square, since 1937. On the seventh and top floor is the hotel restaurant, which offers indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor tables, covered by large umbrellas, face the stately Parliament building. Over to the left is Mexico City's grand Cathedral. With a view like this, by all means eat outdoors, ideally at breakfast time, with the sun gradually rising over the Parliament building and casting a warm glow over the red, white and green flag of the Mexican republic. The menu is simple and straightforward and features a host of traditional Mexican dishes. Good morning choices are the chilaquiles con pollo, soft pieces of corn tortilla topped with shredded chicken, cheese and a mild red or green chile salsa, or the huevos rancheros, perfectly-cooked over-easy eggs resting on a corn tortilla and doused with red chile salsa. A full breakfast buffet is also available, and lunchtime standards include pollo almendrado (almond chicken) and crema de queso Sonora (a creamy Sonora cheese soup), with tasty crepas de cajeta al tequila (butterscotch crepes in a tequila sauce) a nice dessert. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Uruguay 49 @ Isabel la Catolica, Downtown
This restaurant is located in a house which dates to, you guessed it, the year 1900. The dining room is located in an airy patio with a skylight suspended three stories overhead. An Italian architect designed the house, and the grand Carrera marble staircase tips you off to the fact that no expense was spared. The star today, however, is the food, which is classic Mexican cuisine with some lighter, more modern touches. Specialties of the house include filete de trucha con hongos al vino blanco, trout in a mushroom and white wine glaze, and pozole de mariscos al estilo "San Blas," a spicy seafood stew. The bizcocho de chocolate con crema de almendras is an ultra-moist chocolate cake topped with almond cream. A small bar at the front of Mexico 1900 is as dark as the restaurant is light, and an ideal spot for a romantic drink. Lunch only.
Parador de Manolo
Presidente Masaryk 433 @ Goldsmith, Polanco
If you're in the mood for Spanish, not Mexican food, the Parador de Manolo is your best bet. As you walk in the door, the heavenly scent of paella wafts up to greet you. Several rooms form the main dining room and all are done in a soft yellow. A pretty stained glass window is the centerpiece of the largest room. Start your traditional Spanish meal with the fabada Asturiana, a white bean soup brimming with tender chunks of sausage, bacon and pork. Sample the gambas al ajillo, large prawns sizzling in a garlicky olive oil, and get ready for the paella, a seafood and rice casserole which is the essence of Spanish cookery. At the Parador de Manolo, you have five different paellas to choose from, but go for the paella especial Parador, which is plump with lobster, crawfish, shrimp and squid along with the usual chunks of chicken and sausage, all nestled in a well-seasoned saffron rice. Dessert could be a stretch after this meal -- just know you have options. Lunch and dinner (live Spanish music during the evening meal).
Mazatlan 138 @ Michoacan, Condesa
This restaurant is located in the Condesa neighorhood, one of Mexico City's older and more residential neighborhoods. Surprisingly, a hip restaurant row has sprung up along Avenida Michoacan, and Puras Habas anchors this strip at one end. The dining room is ultra cozy, with only ten tables, while another five are on a small outdoor patio facing tree-lined Avenida Mazatlan. The accent is on nouvelle Mexican fare, and owner Carlos Basave is updating old recipes with his fresh, flavorful (and usually low in fat) interpretations. Many of the recipes came from friends of the owner, and all I can say is I wish his friends would have me over to dinner, because the food is terrific. Start with the Anacondesa, a leek and onion tart which rests on an anise-flavored sauce. This is the best dish I've had in Mexico City, this tart being the flakiest, semi-sweetest pot pie you've ever tasted. It cannot be missed. Another excellent appetizer is the mousse de pepino con salsa de naranja, a pickle mousse (really!) bathed in a fragrant orange sauce and dusted with sesame seeds. Spread it on the crunchy crackers and delight in the creaminess of this mousse. Grazing on appetizers is not a bad idea here, but you may want to proceed to the rocio de chipotle, squid-ink fettucine is a sauce of saffron, parsley and chipotle chiles. The pechugas tomate a Mao are chicken breasts topped with a sweet and sour glaze of tomatoes, chipotle chile and caramel. Even the higados estilo Tona are a treat, tender chicken livers in a red wine sauce with a slight kick. I dare you to eat dessert. Lunch and dinner.
San Angel Inn
Diego Rivera 50, San Angel
The San Angel Inn is located in an old Carmelite monastery. If this is how the nuns lived, we should all convert. In a word: opulence. This has to be one of the grandest properties in all of Mexico City. Granted, the Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota lived here for a while, as did a handful of Spanish Viceroys, so maybe they made some improvements. What you have today is a wonderfully elegant setting for a memorable meal. The Inn is a series of formal dining rooms filled with gracious dark furniture and beautiful paintings. Sink into your regal chair and order the crepas de huitlacoche as a starter. These delectable crepes are filled with truffle-like mushrooms and covered with a light tomato sauce and melted cheese. Your serving will seem far too small. Proceed to the chiles en nogada if they're in season (usually fall). These large chile peppers are stuffed with a ground beef and dried fruit mixture, then coated with a sauce made of nuts, fruit and goat cheese. It's not the chiles that are seasonal, it's the nuts used to make the topping. This much-loved Mexican dish is expertly rendered at the San Angel Inn. If you don't visit in the fall, order the pollo en mole Poblano, another Mexican classic (breast of chicken in a chocolatey mole sauce). Save a little room for the crema Bavaria con frambuesas, Bavarian cream drizzled in a strawberry sauce. Lunch and dinner.
Sanborns de los Azulejos
Madero 4, Downtown
Sanborns is a chain of 130 restaurants located throughout Mexico. It's more than just a restaurant, though. At Sanborns you can buy newspapers and magazines from around the world, film, jewelry, curios, books, records, cigars -- oh, and it's a pharmacy, too. The original superstore. One location, however, stands out from the rest, and that's the original, housed in the centuries-old Casa de los Azulejos, or House of Tiles. The exterior of this Sanborns, located in the downtown historic district, is covered with beautiful blue and white tilework. Make your way to the restaurant inside for unpretentious and delicious Mexican food. Sanborns is a great way to start the day, and if you choose to do so, order the chilaquiles, crushed soft corn tortillas covered in a green chile sauce and smothered with cheese. Ask your waitress to top this dish with a couple of over-easy eggs and you'll be in heaven. The menu at Sanborns is huge and reasonably priced and the service is polite and efficient. There are daily breakfast and lunch specials, and the huevos rancheros are a big favorite any day of the week. The coffee's great, too. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Amberes 78 @ Liverpool , Zona Rosa
Chef Juan Mari Arzak comes from a long line of chefs in San Sebastian, Spain. His restaurant Arzak is a temple of gastronomy in northern Spain. What a treat that he's made it over to North America and opened Tezka in Mexico City. This restaurant is a showplace for French-Basque, or more specifically, new-Basque cooking. The modern dining room, accented with copper metalwork and shades of green and beige, is one of the smartest eateries in town. Start with the sopa de esparragos verde con camarones, a creamy asparagus soup brimming with shrimp. Seafood is the chef's specialty, so go with the lomo de robalo en salsa verde con kokotxas de huachinango, sea bass and red snapper in a tangy green chile sauce, or the laminas de bacalao al pil-pil de pimientos rojos, the chef's signature dish, tender codfish in a garlic and red-pepper marinade. The desserts are divine, so you may want to consider the pastel de chocolate caliente con salsa de fresas, a warm chocolate torte resting on a fresh berry sauce. Lunch and dinner.
Varsovia 3 @ Paseo de la Reforma , Zona Rosa
After reviewing my recommendations up to this point, you may be ready for a light meal. In that case, go to Yug, a cheerful vegetarian restaurant in the heart of the bustling Zona Rosa. The dining room is filled with light, which may explain why the many plants look so happy. Breakfast and lunch are served, and you can start your morning with fresh carrot, celery or spinach juice or one of an assortment of healthy drinks. Food-wise, the crepes are a good bet, whether they are filled with champinones (mushrooms), cebolla (onion) or espinacas (spinach). The latkes de papa are potato latkes topped with a creamy cheese sauce, and milk, eggs and cheese can be found on this not-so-strict vegetarian menu. At Yug, you will nourish both body and soul, a good rule of thumb for any and all meals.
Elaine Sosa is a freelance food & travel writer who legitimizes her coffee addiction through her business, JavaWalk, a walking tour of San Francisco coffeehouses.