Classic Mexico City Restaurants

Halfway through our trip someone in Oaxaca asked me if I had any recommendations for restaurants in Mexico. “Like, nice restaurants?” I asked. It was only then that I realized we hadn’t been to any formal restaurants in Mexico City. So consumed with hitting market stalls, filling our late night taco cravings, and enjoying cheap three course comida corridas, we hadn’t spent much time with menus that weren’t verbally recited to us or handwritten on the wall. This is testament to the outstanding variety of eating options available when traveling in Mexico and on one hand, it made us proud to have accidentally explored this part of Mexico City’s eating culture so diligently. On the other hand, that left only three days for us to stuff ourselves silly at restaurants so that like real food bloggers, we would actually have something to tell people about restaurants.

When we say classic in Mexico City, we mean Pancho Villa brought the troops here for breakfast. We’re talking dishes the way grandma made them in 1920. While most Mexican restaurants, despite their settings, have dishes that use traditional recipes, when we say classic we’re including the architecture, the service and the history of the restaurant, which in Mexico City can go back to the 1860’s. Most of these places have their own ghost stories, at Hosteria de Santo Domingo they tell the story of a nun known to appear in the dining room shadows still looking after a hidden treasure. While most of the time when I hear ghost stories the question that bursts out of my mouth is something along the lines of “but do you really believe in ghosts?”, in the case of these phantom kitchen wanderers I say, “well, can you blame them for choosing perfect juevos rancheros over heaven?”

Cafe de Tacuba: This spot is blown up. People tell you to come here when you ask where to eat something classic Mexico City. But the truth is, it’s good food and absolutely charming. The dining room is surrounded by a series of arches, towards the ceiling painted hummingbirds, peacocks and vines adorn the walls, and the blue and white talavera tiles wrap around the dining room. We came here for breakfast at about 10 and had no trouble finding a table. A good Mexican breakfast to me is exactly what we ordered: Juevos divorciados (juevos rancheros, one egg with red salsa and another egg with green), chilequiles, a glass of juice, a cafe con leche, and a bowl of papaya and melon.

Hosteria de Santo Domingo: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover is right when walking by the Hosteria Santo Domingo. Just a few weeks before we had been in this neighborhood after our Lucha Libre escapade. Desperately needing to pee we got more of a tour than necessary as we walked in and out of abandoned buildings, seedy hotels and grimy parking lots looking for a bathroom. My ladies, walking here you’ll be whistled at more so than other places downtown, but once you come inside you’ll find yourself in an oasis of vibrant papel picado and stained glass, rose colored walls and deep blue arches, and sounds of the sappy chamber music. Taking a look around we noticed that the two most popular dishes were the chile nogada and the pechuga ranchera de nata. Chile nogada is a festive dish often made around Christmas time, a dish we had heard a lot about and never tried. Bearing the colors of the Mexican flag, it’s a giant dark green poblano chile stuffed with mixed meat and dried fruit covered in a creamy white walnut sauce and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds. This is a dish I’ll bet most Americans wont like. The sauce is cold and it feels like it should be hot. It’s also sweet, something most of us aren’t accustomed to with our entrees. The meat, however, is a damn good meatball.

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Pechuga Ranchera de Nata is a chicken dish with a bright orange sauce made from- excuse the lack of culinary knowledge if there is some official translation- the skin of boiling milk. It tastes like it sounds, milky. A little too milky for me, but hey, we were proud to have tried something new.

The best part of our meal was the before and after. For appetizers we had empanadas stuffed with huitlacoche (sometimes spelled cuitlacoche), a corn fungus considered to be a delicacy here, similar to the truffle in Italy. This was also a completely a new taste for us- earthy, somewhere between corn and mushrooms, a little fungaly, but tasty. To wash it all down for dessert we had two items we knew would satisfy our palates, a 7-year cuban rum and the flan.

Sanborns: There are probably hundreds of Sanborns in Mexico. And while I know most of us don’t like chains, most chains don’t house their flagship in an 18th century tiled palace. Casa de los Azulejos (translates to house of the glazed tiles) became known as such thanks to the Countess del Valle de Orizaba, who made it her mission to cover the magnificent building with ceramic blue and white tiles traditionally made in Puebla (although I read somewhere that they were made in China, figures). The building changed hands many times before the Sanborn brothers opened a restaurant and soda fountain inside in 1917. A romantic peacock mural covers the courtyard walls, a 1925 Jose Clemente Orozco mural towers over the stairwell, and from the top floor you can look down into the the dining room and oogle over the layers of blue and yellow tiles, tall columns and glowing lamp shades that make this a lovely oasis in the heart of Mexico’s hectic centro. From the 1880’s until the 1940’s the top floor was home to one of Mexico’s most exclusive social clubs, that is until the revolutionary army moved in to occupy the building. (As Oscar tells us, “Pancho Villa came in here with the troops to eat breakfast! Can you imagine that!?”) While we didn’t try the food, the menu looks just like any other Sanborns- ordinary dishes for moderate prices. Here there were men in suits, elderly couples reading their morning papers, and families having brunch, it’s an everyday meeting place for locals. Walking in here for a casual meal may suddenly make even the most precious of brunch places in San Francisco feel shabby, but at least when you get home you’ll have a nice restaurant to recommend in Mexico City.

Hosteria de Santo Domingo: 72 Belisario Dominguez, Col. Centro, Mexico City. Cross street is Republica de Chile.

Cafe de Tacuba: Tacuba No. 28 Col. Centro, Mexico City. Cross street is Bolivar.

Sanborns: Madero 4, Col. Centro, Mexico City. Cross street is Lazaro Cardenas.

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