More insider guides for planning a trip to Mexico City
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Regionalism is a powerful factor in Mexican cuisine. Oaxaca does its own variety of mozzarella. The chile poblano – a mild green pepper used in chiles en nogada, the de facto national dish – takes its name from Puebla. Tequila was a place before it was a drink. From Yucatán comes the pit-oven technique known in Mayan as p’ib – as in the al fresco fiesta classic, cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pig seasoned with annatto seeds). The epicentre of culinary experimentation is Mexico City, but it’s also the place to try food from street vendors and in fuss-free taquerías and cantinas specialising in botanas (snacks) and boozing.
Basically, you’re hugely spoilt for choice. For a meal to brag to your friends about, try to get a table at Pujol – chances are chef Enrique Olvera will have invented some novel ‘theme’ for his tasting menu. For cold beer and salty snacks and a sense of the past, aim for La Opera cantina. For a fiesta atmosphere, Azul Histórico is great, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings – and the food is arty but fun, and filling.
Mexican cantinas – the equivalent of inns in the UK or saloons in the United States – are about atmosphere as much as food or drink. Operating since 1876, La Opera has wood-panelled walls, tiled floors, filigreed ceilings and red velvet booths, and is a lot fancier than some of the more spit-and-sawdust Tecate-swilling joints. Famous because Pancho Villa fired a bullet hole in the ceiling – still visible – it draws after-work locals and tourists with bespoke cocktails, straight tequila (served with sangrita, a tomato-based shooter) and cold beers – at the bar you get these with a botana (snack) such as spicy peanuts or refried beans with crisps. Main courses are as traditional as the venue: the Galician octopus (pulpo a la gallega) is hearty and generously proportioned.
Address: 5 de Mayo 10
Contact: 00 52 55 5512 8959
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 1pm-12am; Sun, 1-6pm
Nearest metro: Bellas Artes
Reservations: Walk-ins only
In the heart of things, a few blocks west of the Zócalo, this is a great place for a big Mexican breakfast (eggs with everything, from beans to cheese to greens) before a city tour, or later for an evening meal. Tucked inside a historic building off a street packed with old jewellers’, it feels romantic and intimate – the lighting is low on the gorgeous tree-filled terrace – yet also ultra-social, attracting groups of Mexican tourists and after-work diners. The menu is proudly Mexican, but lovingly prepared and invigorated by novel touches: representative dishes are veggie enchiladas filled with hibiscus flowers, suckling pig with achiote (annatto) and fish in pumpkin seed and cilantro sauce. There are also branches in Condesa and in the UNAM area close to the MUAC art gallery (Ciudad Universitaria).
Contact:00 52 55 5510 1316; azul.rest
Opening times: Daily, 9am-12pm, 1pm-11pm
Nearest metro: Zócalo
Flower-filled fish bowls on the tables and splashes of pink and red give this vivacious 90-cover restaurant – one of two officially tied to the excellent Las Alcobas hotel – a youthful, contemporary feel. Feminine and feminist blur colourfully on chef Martha Ortiz’s creative menus – a ‘Feminine Psychedelia’ evening menu featured ‘colour-shifting lime soup’ and ‘octopus with vivid colours’. Flavours, too, are excitingly original but rooted in the traditional Mexican kitchen, with fish ceviches livened up with mango, guacamole with pomegranate and the steak with sweet oranges and ‘pre-Hispanic papyrus’.
Contact: 00 52 55 3300 3999; dulcepatriamexico.com
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 1.30pm-11.30pm; Sun, 1.30pm-5.30pm
Nearest metro: Polanco
Enrique Olvera is Mexico City’s current gastro-superstar. His relocated Pujol is airier, brighter and a little greener than the original; service remains slick and staff informative. The menu is famous for its moles (pronounced ‘mo-lay’ and meaning sauces) – notably the 5-year-old (and counting) mole madre or ‘mother sauce’ – you can feed a mole much as you might a sourdough starter. The seven-course taster is heavily fish-focused, featuring ceviche, sea bass and spiny lobster, all zinged up by Mexican sauces, chillis and innovative elements such as habanero ink, salt made from toasted maguey worms and a juiced white corn that goes by the evocative Nahuatl name of cacahuatzintle. The taco bar is cheaper if you don’t want to break the bank.
Contact:00 52 55 5545 4111; pujol.com.mx
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 1.30pm-10.45pm
Nearest metro: Polanco
Best table: The private ‘Open Table’, with close-up kitchen views
Former protégé of Pujol’s Olvera, chef Jorge Vallejo has come into his own at Quintonil, crafting edgy – and extraordinarily beautiful – dishes from cactus, heritage corn and escamoles (ant larvae – also known as Mexican caviar). His elegant, naturally lit restaurant in tree-filled Polanco is known for its urban garden – quintonil is a salad leaf of the amaranth family – with veg and herbs growing nearby so they can be picked and plated in a matter of minutes. Nopal cactus ceviche, fish in grasshopper adobo (marinade), turkey in cacao-shell-scented sauce and charred avocado tartare give some sense of the inspired indigeneity of his cooking.
Contact: 00 52 55 5280 2680; quintonil.com
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 1pm-4pm, 6.30pm-10pm
Nearest metro: Polanco
Italian food is big in Latin America – bigger in fact than Spanish, as the 19th century saw a major wave of immigrants. Mexico City wasn’t considered a go-to destination for the cuisine though until Elena Reygadas began to get noticed. Her restaurant, Rosetta, occupies a colonial townhouse and feels at once grand and inviting. Handmade pastas are the all-important base for her high-end home cooking, with delicate, perfumed sauces. A seasonal menu also finds space for risotto with rich-tasting sea urchin, gnocchi and oxtail, and an exquisitely tender braised short rib with creamy polenta. Reygadas also runs four hip bakery-cafés, one very close at Colima 179.
Contact:00 52 55 5533 7804; rosetta.com.mx
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 1.30pm-11.30pm
Nearest metro: Insurgentes
Sometimes you need a quick fix of comfort food or carbs to power your culture-seeking and city-hiking. This funky food hall, open till late, in trendy Juárez, serves up all the short orders from generously filled tortillas and tacos to great burgers and an epic choice of hot dogs. More indigenous soups, towering ceviches and seafood dishes are also available, as well as chilled draft beer. Stand-out stalls include Chimi Burger, for its burgers with hints of Argentina, the seafood tacos at El Camarón Ahogado, and the pistachio and mango and passion fruit with chilli lollies at Bendita Paleta. The food makers have passed the drinks service to two dedicated stalls – one a bar, the other a coffee shop. From Thursday to Saturday, Lucerna Comedor hosts gigs in the evenings, from jazz bands to DJ sets.
Contact: 00 52 55 5535 8665; see Facebook page
Opening times: Sun-Wed, 9am-11pm; Thu-Sat, 9am-2pm
Nearest metro: Cuauhtémoc
Reservations: Walk-ins only
Tradition is hugely important in Mexico and this venerable slow-food eatery, opened in 1957, is a shrine to it. The menu ranges from classics such as tortilla soup and chiles en nogada (poblano chilli stuffed with minced meat and drenched in walnut sauce – the closest thing to a national dish) to rabbit in piquant pequin pepper to pit-barbecued wagyu beef. From outside Nicos looks homely, even quaint, but inside it’s all white tablecloths, elegant waiters and pared down décor. It’s slightly away from the well-trodden tourist routes, in the middle-class residential neighbourhood of Clavería, and is easily reached by the Metro or taxi.
Contact: 00 52 55 5396 7090; nicosmexico.mx
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 7.30am-7.30pm; Sat, 8am-7pm
Nearest metro: Cuitláhuac
Jardines del Pedregal
In the upscale El Pedregal district, Edgar Núñez – a regular fixture on the annual Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list – turns out enticing dishes such as smoked watermelon, guajalote (turkey) with mole negro and beef tongue with local beans, in a coolly urban architect-designed space. His thoughtful, refined cuisine embraces the subtler flavours of avocado, vanilla and chocolate as much as spices and moles (sauces) and makes full use of the multicultural character of produce in Mexico. The wine list is wide-ranging.
Contact:00 52 55 5568 4777; sud777.com.mx
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 2pm-11.30pm; Sun, 2pm-5pm
All around the city
Across busy commercial colonias such as Centro, Juárez and Roma and also on the heavily trafficked corners of smarter residential neighbourhoods such as Condesa (eg at Alfonso Reyes 139), Mexican street food vendors offers tantalising small dishes known as antojitos – usually translated as ‘appetisers’, but eat two or three of them and you certainly won’t be after a ‘main’. Skilled cooks serve up budget-price stews, soups, grilled meats and tacos (usually soft tortillas here) filled with grilled chicken, pork intestines, shrimp, cheese or marlin fish, as well as crispy quesadillas and chilaquiles (like nachos, smothered in sauce-slathered meat, cheese and tomatoe). Some stalls sell churros should you need a dessert.
There are thousands of street food stalls and street-side kioskos (holes-in-the-wall) and the fun is discovering them, but if you want a couple of sure-fire snacks, try the breakfast tacos at Mercado La Merced (Rosario 156) – the biggest market in the city; the tacos al pastor trumpa (meat shaven like a kebab) and grilled beef and melty cheese tacos at the Rey del Taco stall on the corner of Coahuila and Mérida in Roma Sur; and the to-die-for cochinita pibil at hole-in-the-wall El Turix (Calle Emilio Castelar 212) in Polanco.