I've been immersed in Mexican cooking for years. As a cook working in New York City restaurants, many of my colleagues were from Mexico, and they cooked Mexican food for the staff regularly. Then, since moving to Jackson Heights, Queens, in January—one of the country's most diverse neighborhoods with a big Mexican community—I've become obsessed with Pueblan specialties like cemita sandwiches. Not to mention the standard amount of Mexican-food-eating we all do in this country.
But for all my exposure to Mexican foods, I'd never actually been to Mexico, a travel omission that was feeling more and more glaring as the years went by. When a good friend decided to have a wedding in Tulum several weeks ago, my girlfriend Kate and I made sure to tack on our own trip to Mexico City in the days preceding it.
Here are some of the best street foods, snacks, and restaurant dishes we ate there, as well as a few highlights from an impromptu visit to Puebla.
I'd argue that one of the main things that separates really good Mexican food from all the rest is the quality of the masa, the corn-flour dough that's used to make tortillas, tamales, and countless other corn products. At the very least, I think that's one of the biggest problems with Mexican food in New York City: There's not nearly enough good, freshly made masa here, and our Mexican food suffers for it. (It's not an accident that one of my favorite Mexican foods in New York is a sandwich that's served on bread, not tortillas.)
I actually have a really weird Proustian memory of fresh-made masa from my childhood (weird, in that you'd sooner expect a guy who grew up in Oaxaca to have a deep-rooted masa memory, not a half-Jewish guy from Brooklyn who'd never been to Mexico before).
When I was little, I'd visit my bubbe in Silver Spring, Maryland, and we'd frequently go to the Children's Museum in D.C. The place was really cool: I remember staring in wonder at a wall of license plates from every single state, and dressing up in a real firefighter's coat to slide down a mini version of a firehouse pole. But one of the most memorable parts of that museum was a small, dark room in an area of the museum dedicated to Native Americans. It had an especially hallowed feel, and on some visits, a woman would be sitting on the floor of the room, pressing freshly made masa into tortillas, and then cooking them on an electric griddle. She'd hand them to the children as snacks.
To this day, that smell triggers intense memories for me. I don't know for sure, but I think she was using fresh nixtamalized masa, that is, made from scratch and not from masa harina, because the memory comes back strongest on the rare occasions that I get to eat the real thing.
Walking around Mexico City, where plenty of independent mills still make fresh masa daily and sell the tortillas for a song, the aroma pours out onto the street. My mind returned again and again to that recess in the Washington D.C. Children's Museum.
What I'd give for these kinds of tortilla-makers in New York.
I'm just gonna cut to the chase and show you the thing that will gross the most people out: Insects. A lot has been written about the potential for insects to become an important high-protein human food-source, and in much of the world hardly an eyelash would bat at the idea. But here in the States, eating insects is still a troubling idea for a very big portion of the population.
I've always wanted to taste more insects, and while the opportunity has come up from time to time, this trip to Mexico City was my first big chance to go hog wild on bugs. And the thing is, if you haven't eaten bugs yet, let me tell you: Bugs taste good.
First, we have the fried worms you see in the photo above. They're actually not really worms, but caterpillars. More specifically, they're caterpillars that feed on maguey plants (the agave used to make tequila and mescal); in Mexico they're called gusanos de maguey or chinicuiles.
But what do they taste like? To me, they're like the lovechild of French fries and fried clam strips. That makes them an incredibly delicious food in my book.
I've eaten ants before, mostly in gag gifts like those silly lollypops with bugs encased in the candy. But I'd never had ant eggs before. They're called escamoles, and they have a wonderful creamy, almost caviar-like texture (but with less of a liquid-y pop) and a mild, earthy flavor. The ones above were cooked with garlic and maybe a little butter, and we ate them folded into tortillas.
My pal Ernesto here is about to take a nice big bite of escamoles, and just look how happy he is! See? There's no reason to fear ant eggs! (In case you can't tell by his expression, we were pretty sloshed on mescal at this point.)
Apologies for the low light in the photo above: Kate and I were in a mescal bar lit exclusively by candles. Still, I wanted to get a shot of our spread: mescal, orange slices, pumpkin seeds, some baby corn, and a nice big bowl of chapulines—grasshoppers cooked with lime juice and salt, among other things. They're tart and crunchy and as addictive as pretzels. No, scratch that, they're definitely more addictive than pretzels. In dark rooms, though, I'd recommend not thinking too much about how they could be mistaken for a bowl of roaches. Roaches are a line I will not cross.
One last insect call-out was this dish from the stellar restaurant called Pujol (more on that below). This is a signature dish at the restaurant: fresh baby corn, still connected to their tender husks, smoked in a dried gourd and coated in a creamy sauce made from coffee and red ants. I can't say I was able to discern the exact flavor of the red ants, but altogether it really is a remarkably delicious dish with an equally striking presentation.
Milanesa Cemita in Puebla
Cemitas were one of the foods I was most excited to eat during our trip. And I'd assumed that Mexico City—a bustling metropolis located just a few hours away from Puebla—would be an easy place to find some truly great ones. But it became pretty clear after a few days that while there are spots in the DF that sell cemitas, the only way I was going to try the real deal would be to go to Puebla. So Kate and I hopped on a bus to Puebla early one morning. In case there were any doubts, yes, I will travel for hours just to eat a sandwich.
Even in Puebla, though, we had trouble finding a good cemita at first. I was almost in disbelief: Was it be possible that New York actually has tastier cemitas than Puebla, Mexico? Thankfully, the answer ended up being no, though there are some interesting differences between the cemitas I get in Queens and the ones I ate in Mexico. (One day, in a larger cemita piece that I'm planning on writing, I'll share the story of one of the worst cemitas I ever had, right there in Puebla, the heart of cemita country.)
As we walked the streets in search of something to restore my faith in the cemita as it's made in Mexico, we finally came across Cemitas del Carmen (above). It called to me like a mirage in the desert.
Inside, I found a man I can only describe as the Dom Demarco of cemitas. He lovingly put my milanesa (breaded cutlet) cemita together, pan-frying the cutlet to order, masterfully shredding the Oaxacan cheese into angel-hair-thin strands, thoughtfully placing the leaves of papalo, and layering each successive ingredient with such care. It was a joy just to watch.
The result was the beauty above, an example of perfect construction and proportion.
He asked us to sign the wall. We were the first English speakers to do so, and I couldn't help putting a little Serious Eats tag in there, just so it was clear which gringos had wandered in first.
Travelers to Puebla, be sure to seek this place out (and sign your names next to ours)!
Tacos Arabes in Puebla
Puebla is also home to one of the more interesting taco variations: tacos arabes. A relative of al pastor tacos, tacos arabes also feature marinated pork cooked on a spit, but instead of being served in a corn tortilla, they're served in pita-like flatbreads called pan arabe.
It's like a gyro and an al pastor taco smashed into one. Why haven't more people started selling these? (Especially places that serve crap tortillas...)
Barbacoa Tacos at Arroyo, Al Pastor Tacos at El Vilsito, and Suadero, Longaniza, and Cabeca Tacos at El Borrego Viudo
There's no way to go to Mexico and not eat an obscene number of tacos. First up, the barbacoa tacos at Arroyo, which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest Mexican restaurant in the world. It certainly did seem huge, so I'd believe it.
The barbacoa, here made from sheep, comes as a massive slab of meat that you pull apart in shreds and chunks and stuff into tender tortillas, topping it with whichever of the housemade salsas you desire. I've seen several trusted sources that claim that Arroyo is one of the best places to get barbacoa, and while I believe that, the Arroyo experience is about more than just the meat: The dining rooms are packed with families out celebrating birthdays and other milestones, the ceiling rafters flutter with colorful paper flags, and mariachi bands play Colombian hits like Jorge Caledon's Que Bonita Es Esta Vida*.
I couldn't help but sing along when the band whipped that one out. It's infectious!
Update: A reader informs me that Jorge Caledon's track is actually a cover of the original Mexican version by a group called Tres De Copas. I think I've found the recording here. Oh, and look, now I've found a mariachi version as well.
For more Mexico-City taco intel, I reached out to my good friend Jordana Rothman, who's currently writing a taco-focused cookbook with Chef Alex Stupak. They'd taken an insane whirlwind taco tour of Mexico City a few weeks before, so Jordana had eaten at literally dozens of taquerias and sent me her handpicked favorites. Score!
Jordana's top pick had been El Vilsito, and I have to agree. Not only are the al pastor tacos great, but the whole scene is worth taking in. Apparently it's an auto-body shop by day, and then at night they roll up the walls to unveil the taqueria. There's an electric energy there, and it isn't because there are shelves of spark-plugs nearby.
The taqueros themselves are worth watching. I've never seen such deft carving and taco assembly: Holding the tortilla at hip height, these masters of marinated pork slide their knives along the skewered meat, and paper-thin slices tumble into the tortilla below. Then they swipe at the pineapple perched at the top of the skewer, flicking the slices of fruit through the air and catching them in the taco-holding hand. It's not even showmanship, it's just pure skill and efficiency.
Ernesto makes one more cameo with his al pastor taco. We'd actually already had a full sit-down dinner, and this was the first of several after-dinner tacos we ate the night. It's what I'd call a Bang-Bang-Bang.
After El Vilsito, we headed to El Borrego Viudo, a Mexico City institution that specializes in cabeza (from the meat of beef heads, above) and suadero (a beef cut from near the belly, below) tacos. The longaniza (sausage) tacos there were also pretty great. Bang-Bang-Bang.
Breakfasts at Red Tree House
On the very strong recommendation of a friend, Kate and I stayed at a hotel called the Red Tree House in Condesa, a great neighborhood for walking and eating.
I don't usually put much thought into the places I stay when traveling, as long as they're clean. For me, a hotel is mostly just a place to store my stuff and sleep, and otherwise I don't want to be there. The Red Tree House really challenged my thinking. The staff there is exceptional: personable, helpful in a way that goes above and beyond, and frankly, you just kinda want to be pals with them all (we actually did become pals with them—Ernesto, whom you saw above eating the ant eggs and al pastor taco, works there and Kate and I ended up going out with him and his girlfriend quite a bit).
Anyway, when we first arrived at the hotel, they told us they served breakfast in the morning. That's the kind of thing I normally tune out. I'm in Mexico City, dammit, and there's a whole city's worth of food to eat outside these hotel doors: I'm not wasting one square inch of stomach space on a hotel's continental spread.
Turns out I'm an idiot. I looked forward to breakfast at the Red Tree House more and more every day: fresh tortillas with refried beans and melted cheese, or with flavorful stewed tomatoes, or with salsa verde (and more melted cheese), plus churros, fresh papaya, on and on. It's worth whatever digestive real estate you can spare. (And no, they're not rewarding me in any way to write this.)
Quesadilla at the Lagunilla Market
Kate, Ernesto, his girlfriend Sally, and I spent a Sunday wandering the Lagunilla flea market, a sprawling tangle of tents stretching several streets and filled with all kinds of interesting tchotchkes. Ernesto and I got blotto pretty quickly, first on massive paper cups of michelada with sticky chile-infused, cherry-red syrup dripping down the sides, then with a bottle of mescal Ernesto had stashed away in a bag. Only later did we find out that the police had been at the market nabbing people for drinking in public, so I guess I narrowly dodged a trip to a Mexican lockup.
This one stand at the market caught my attention with its wide comal (griddle) and buckets of fresh masa, some from blue corn, some from yellow. There were all sorts of things to order, but I went for a Mexican-style quesadilla, which features an ovoid tortilla filled with heaps of melted cheese.
Tlacoyitos at El Parnita
Tlacoyos, which also go by the diminutive tlacoyitos (perhaps only when they're made in a smaller size?), are a specialty of Mexico City that I had never heard of before.
The ones pictured here are from a restaurant called El Parnita. It's a trendy place that makes a lot of good seafood (among other things) and, as we discovered, there can be a bit of a wait to get a table. Everything we had was delicious, but these tlacoyitos stood out in my mind: they're almond-shaped cakes of masa stuffed with refried beans and topped with melted cheese and avocado, so simple and so good.
Pretty Much Everything at Pujol
As I mentioned above and also in my article on aguachile (a style of Mexican ceviche), chef Jose Enrique's Pujol was one of the most exciting meals I've had in a long time. One of the sad side effects of working in the food industry and eating a lot of really excellent food all the time (I know, poor me!) is that it can become harder and harder to feel truly ecstatic about high-end restaurant experiences. At a certain point, it's rare to encounter great food that you feel you've never seen before.
Pujol was not one of those experiences. Everything felt new to me—unfamiliar ingredients, different flavors, totally refreshing. It's one of the best things about travel, really. Pujol is tasting-menu only, and it's hard to choose a favorite dish, so I'll give you a quick tour of several.
This wild mussel was amazingly sweet, backed up by a fresh ocean brine and topped with a broth infused with guajillo chiles and cucumber.
Pujol offers three different tacos on the menu, and guests generally each choose one of the three to try. Kate and I opted for all of them.
They're the most beautiful tacos I've ever seen.
Tuna Tostada at Contramar
Our last stop in Mexico City, Contramar, is another excellent spot for seafood, like fish tacos done in the style of al pastor (surprisingly good) and octopus aguachile. But I think the highlight for me was this tuna tostada that the restaurant brought to the table as an amuse-type freebie. Topped with fried leeks and avocado, it managed to be both light and fresh, yet also rich and deeply flavored.
If you're only in Mexico City for a day, which places should you go? Sorry, no way to choose. You're just going to have to make a Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang day of it.