Postcard From Tom: In Mexico City, restaurants favor the authentic approach

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema finds that you can eat extraordinarily well in Mexico City.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Here's what three recent days in Mexico City taught this food lover: Some of the top restaurants are open only for lunch.

Tourists are the only ones who tend to eat dinner before 9 p.m. ("Seven-thirty doesn't exist here," jokes Nicholas Gilman, the author of the well-regarded "Good Food in Mexico City" and a generous guide during my stay.)

If you like to debate, bring up the subject of pork tacos. Everyone seems to have a favorite source and is quick to defend it. (My pick of the pack: the always-hopping El Califa, at Altata 22 in Condesa.)

You can eat extraordinarily well for very little money. Zingy with red chili, cool with pineapple and served on a just-made corn tortilla, that pork taco at El Califa, one of many treasures I encountered in 72 hours, set me back 85 cents.

That snack illustrates the beauty of the culinary scene. "It's authentic in the sense of traditional food untouched by trends and recent outside influences," says Gilman, "and it's available here in infinite variety and at many different levels," be it a street cart or a fancy dining room. Though Mexico City has plenty of tempting trendsetters that explore other parts of the world, it differs from other great dining destinations in that globalization has yet to significantly affect the way people cook or eat here, adds the critic and blogger.

The evidence, please:

The contrast couldn't be greater: Outside Casa Mexico in the Zona Rosa sit a McDonald's and a 7-Eleven. Inside the spare white restaurant, open only since December, are dishes that rely on organic ingredients, revel in freshness and embrace the whole of the country. Dinner starts with a snack that takes me back to Oaxaca: juicy citrus segments alongside crunchy golden grasshoppers.

Over the course of the next few hours, chef Enrique Briz, 29, will repeatedly tickle my guests and me with his cooking. I recall a soup made haunting with huitlacoche, the prized corn fungus. Small tacos stuffed with wild greens and oozing fresh goat cheese. Brains nestled in a quesadilla. Shark cooked Veracruz style, fried and spiked with red chilies. Chicken, sassy with capers and tempered with raisins.

But most of all, I remember Briz's way with bone marrow, because it's the best I've ever experienced. Simply fried in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, the cubes of near-liquid fat exploded in my mouth, releasing a torrent of wicked decadence.

The joys of a meal here run through dessert. My favorite finish is a chocolate cake shot through with my preferred way of sipping through a meal in Mexico. Mezcal, it turns out, is as good on a plate as it is in a glass.

Genova 70 (in Zona Rosa); 5255-4997. Entrees $7-$12.

If you go to only one restaurant in Mexico City, make it the original El Bajio, one in a family of six like-named establishments watched over by the esteemed cookbook author Carmen (Titita) Ramirez Degollado and located in the working-class neighborhood of Azcapotzalco. Insiders claim that the oldest establishment, now in its 38th year, is the best.

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