Mexico City Is the Most Unsung Food Vacation

published Sep 7, 2017
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(Image credit: Lauren Rothman)

For most of U.S. history, Paris reigned as the food-vacation Mecca. To get your gourmet cred, to validate your thoughts on bread and fine dining, you had to have spent time at the bistros of Saint Germain and wandered the alleys of the Marais.

But it’s high time to put that myth to rest, chuck the Euro-centric view of food, and realize that the best food vacation destination is closer and cheaper than France.

I’m talking about Mexico City.

Why You Should Go to Mexico City (Instead of Paris)

Mexico’s capital and center is quick and easy to get to from the rest of North America, simple and safe to navigate by public transportation (as well as taxi and ride-share app), absurdly friendly, and incredibly affordable. That last point counts double for the food: CDMX, as it’s called for short, offers culinary value from the $0.75 you pay on the street for your freshly handmade tamales to the $75 that will get you a 10-course fine-dining tasting menu at one of the best restaurants in the world.

Chefs who worked at the top European and American restaurants, under Rene Redzepi and Eric Ripert, have brought their training back to Mexico; married it to local ingredients, techniques, and traditions; and now helm restaurants like Quintonil, Pujol, and Maximo Bistrot that compete for top honors in worldwide restaurant rankings.

Beyond the headline-grabbers making international waves, other restaurants add even more nuance — places like Yuban, which brings Oaxacan cuisine to the capital, or Limosneros, which turns pre-Hispanic ingredients into high-end cuisine.

5 Fine-Dining Restaurants to Try in Mexico City

But if you ask 10 Americans what they most want to eat in Mexico City, affordable high-end cuisine probably isn’t the first food they’ll come up with. Yes, the street food in Mexico City is as good as its reputation. It is not, however, as dangerous as people think.

Real talk, America: Your “Montezuma’s revenge” jokes aren’t funny and they are racist. Crib notes on safety: Get in long lines, order food you watch being cooked at high heat or exit a still-steaming pot, and leave your disrespectful jokes at the border.

Instead, come with a smile for the women who crouch on street corners, patting out the blue corn masa to make tlacoyos — the flat football-shaped treats stuffed with pork skin or cheese, then griddled on a searing hot comal before getting dressed to your liking with salsas and more cheese. Early morning hot tamales from big metal canisters and the brimming, simmering pots of meat parts chopped and crisped to order for your tacos shouldn’t be feared — they should be revered as modern beacons of one of the world’s greatest food cultures.

But what makes Mexico City such an incredible food vacation isn’t just having the best food at both ends of the dining spectrum — it’s everything in between. It’s sitting down on a Sunday morning to barbacoa (pit-cooked lamb made in a nearby town and brought in for the weekend lunch tradition), followed up by a leisurely boat ride (with a michelada bought from a neighboring boat) through Xochimilco, the canal system south of the city whose floating island farms once supplied the entire Aztec city with produce (and still supplies some restaurants).

It’s entering the massive, many-block Mercado de Merced with no plan for how to get out (not that it would work if you had one) and wandering the rows of moles, avocados, and tortillas until your feet hurt. (Pro tip: Get on the subway to escape. It’s easy to find and you can get oriented at the next stop.)

It’s sitting down to a multi-hour lunch at three in the afternoon at Contramar and letting $50 buy you a few hours of drinks, people-watching, and the general excitement of the see-and-be-seen crowd — with a side of glimmeringly fresh tuna tostadas.

There, as at Bósforo, a mezcal bar across town, or at breakfast with live music at Fonda La Margarita, a stranger will smile at you. Maybe you’ll chat quickly about what to order, maybe you’ll end up friends and follow each other on Instagram. Maybe they’ll tip you off to the restaurant next door with no name (but some of the best food in town). Someone else might lean over and explain what pulque is — a fresh-fermented drink made from maguey sap — and where to find the city’s best.

Because Mexico City doesn’t just have the best food at every level. It has the best people — ones who love their cuisine and culinary culture, and who can’t wait to share it with every visitor.

Have you been to Mexico City? What’s the one food discovery you share with everyone?