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

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; F01

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.

All this fan can promise is a watering mouth and a heightened appetite as you're led from the entrance, where a man might be carving hot slices of pork from a spit in the window, to a table in one of several festive blue-and-orange dining rooms, legwork that is likely to take you past a tortilla-making session here and a salsa demonstration there. Who needs a cooking class when you've got a reservation at El Bajio, where most of the chopping and patting and stirring is done right in front of you? My eyes tear after I sit down next to a group of gloved men busy stripping a pile of red chili peppers of their seeds ahead of the (late) lunch rush; the potent oils of the peppers wafting my way soon dissipate, but the scene emphasizes the labor-intensiveness involved in Mexican cuisine.

The menu is long and full of temptations. Plantain empanadas fat with intense black beans. Gorditas -- faintly crisp, bursting-with-flavor corn tortillas -- filled with white cheese and true to their Mexican name: "little fat ones." Instead of tortilla chips, we use crunchy shards of chicharron, or pork rind, to scoop up the fresh, lime-brightened, pale-green guacamole. The rinds taste like a cross between bacon and air and are thus easy to make disappear. Before we see any of these snacks, however, a wise waiter ties a bib around each diner's neck.

A colleague who ate in advance of me raved about El Bajio's mole, and sure enough, the complex sauce, black as tar, served with the chicken enchiladas weaves together ground nuts, chocolate and three different peppers, or so a waiter shares the CliffNotes version of the recipe. Between appearances of food, friends and I get up to watch the myriad cooks (mostly women) assemble everyone's meals and note that the clientele throughout the vast restaurant, which is open only for breakfast and lunch, is mostly Mexican: yet another encouraging sign.

The strapping plates at El Bajio negate ordering dessert. Forge on and find room for the capirotada. It's fried bread drizzled with honey and littered with salty peanuts, swollen raisins and cheese. The only logical chaser to the concoction: a siesta.

Avenida Cuitlahuac 2709 (in Colonia Obrera Popular); 5234-3763. http://carnitaselbajio.com.mx. Entrees $6-$25.

First, there's the short elevator ride to the second-floor dining room, which overlooks an intimate bar and a dance of flames from a woodless fire pit. We're led to a broad table decorated with an orchid and small wooden sleeves holding menus bound in leather, one for each diner. The occasion -- our last night in Mexico City with a new friend in tow -- calls for a drink and a toast at Oca, and as we mull our dinner options, a server arrives with elegant snacks from the kitchen. They include savory, marshmallow-light cookies made with crushed pecans; thin sheets of spicy peanut brittle set upright in a wooden holder; and what appear to be ceramic flowers but turn out to be caramelized pumpkin blossoms. These shatter like glass on contact with our teeth and hide a delightful shock: jolts of tamarind and lemon.

Open since last May, Oca is fresh in several respects, thanks to the vision of owner Karen Wix, who hired Vicente Torres, a native of Ibiza, Spain, to lead the kitchen. He trained in some of the finest restaurants in Europe, including Lucas Carton in Paris and Martin Berasategui near San Sebastian in Spain. More recently, Torres, 35, worked at La Sucursal in Valencia, where his cooking was rewarded with a Michelin star.

His food at Oca, beguiling and beautiful, underscores why so many see Spain as the country to watch these days when it comes to culinary innovation. Indeed, some of his cooking resembles that of Washington chef José Andrés. Foie gras is served in a shallow bowl, a pink rink of rich liver pâté topped with a veneer of sweet wine gelatin and strewn with tiny purple and orange flowers. Sí, there's rosemary-flavored foam alongside an entree of goat set on barley and other grains. But the goat is fabulous and crisp-skinned, just like the suckling pig. The pork arrives on a lovely nest of bok choy and with a burst of fruit on the plate, from kumquats.

The showstopper of the night was introduced in a glass cloche, filled with smoke that had been pumped into it just before it left the kitchen. When the lid was removed at the table and the cloud had dissipated, the entree came into focus: some of the most amazing squid I've ever encountered. Unbelievably tender, it was stuffed with sweet shallots and arranged on pureed potatoes that had picked up some of that smoke.

Torres's cooking is only part of the seduction. The two-level restaurant in the city's fashionable Polanco area is an inviting study in modernism, distinguished with pierced ash-wood walls, black slate and glass. Upstairs, the outdoors is brought indoors with ivy crawling across thin steel cables, creating a vertical garden. The chef's wife, Jocelyn Porras, helps pamper patrons; Wix, his boss, doubles as the sommelier.

Oca is all about the fine points. With your bread comes a choice of six different olive oils. Unlike a lot of top restaurants in the city, this one celebrates Mexican wines with 70 different labels. Lots of high-end establishments offer macarons at the end of a meal; Oca tucks the confections into tiny boxes designed to tilt on one edge (a la a ballerina en pointe). It's a memorable farewell from a fashionable venue in a city that makes itself hard to forget.

Moliere 50 (in Polanco); 5281-5055. http://ocarestaurante.com. Entrees $21-$31.

Gallery: Mexico City restaurants

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