15 Minutes of Fame: The Best of 2012

1. The Gone With the Wind we-knew-who-would-win award for best restaurant of the year goes to: Máximo Bistro Local. The popularity of this now much lauded Roma eatery has gone viral, but the quality remains uncompromised. The chef has integrity and just refuses to abandon ship for Hollywood stardom. Bravo!

2. The Maria Felix award for prettiest and best Mexican is undoubtedly deserved by Limosneros. The newest high-end centro resto, in a gussied up colonial palace is the best option for a romantic dinner downtown. And the bar features everything national. ¡Andale!

3. The Katherine Hepburn she-keeps-on-winning-over-and-over award is gladly handed  to Rosetta. Once again the Roman Italian beauty must be congratulated for the constant high standards of its kitchen. Hats off to chef Elena Reygadas.

4. The Sophia Loren girl-from-the-barrio award goes to Fonda Kelly. It’s a little hip gem of a place in the middle of Tepito, paean to artist Phil Kelly that serves surprisingly good midday chow. And it’s for those on a budget (note: sadly, Fonda Kelly closed as of the end of 2012)

5. The Julie & Julia award for best Mexican cook book of the year is well deserved by Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico. Several books came out this year about street or snack food, but none as uncompromising as this lovingly written homage to the author’s homeland (and home city of D.F.). If you want to open your own puesto, this is the book with which to start.

Honorable mentions:

Best place to get smashed: Chonicler of DF's underbelly David Lida reports that "I would be hard pressed to choose one place, given the number and the variety and of course what mood I would be in. But I would  rely on an old favorite Cantina Tio Pepe at the corner of Independencia and Dolores in the centro

Best Ice Cream: Helados Palmeiro. Eugenio Palmeiro's ice cream stand in the Mercado Medellín is, according to the owner, an Habanero, made according to his memories of that iconic Havana institution, Heladeria Coppelia. He also offers malteadas made with real malt just as they should be.

Best mole – by far, that of the little 50-year-old downtown hole in the wall, Fonda Mi Lupita. Their rich, lightly sweet chocolaty concoction is divine.

Best bakery – Panadería Da Silva, who has a couple of new locations, including the easily accessible mezzanine store in the Downtown Hotel brings great Portuguese breads and pastries to our previously deficient city. His pasteis de nata are unparalleled, better than those famous ones in old Lisboa.

Best bread: Pastelería Bó, with a couple of Condesa loacations does the best baguette in town. The French Lady says so. And their tarts are good too.

Best arrachera - El Hornero in the Roma, is according to the carnivorous Sr. de la Torre, the place to which all such animals must return.

Best tacos al pastor – El Huequito is still it. But only the original, on Ayunatmiento.

Best Asian – Benkay in the Nikko hotel no longer offers that tempting buffet but they serve up fine Nipponese fare in their pretty new space and it’s like a trip to Tokyo. The seasonal bento, at $325 is a good deal too. Runner up: Mojing, in the centro does Chinese for Chinese very, very well.

Best old time market – The Mercado Jamaica is classic, there’s good food to eat, decent quality fruits and vegetables, the aisles are wide making for easy access and they have around the clock flower market. What’s not to like?

Best new time market – The recently disappeared French Market inside the late (and not lamented, by this author, anyway, Le Bouchon) is sure to resurface. J'espère que nous reverrons bientôt…


Silver Bells: The Medellín Night Market

For those visiting or living in el D.F., be sure to pass by the Mercado Medellín night market to see  Christmas in full throttle. Stands line the east side of the market (on calle Campeche) and besides offering real Christmas trees, an apparent D.F. tradition,  feature decorations of all kinds, from baby Jesus's most likely made in China to handmade decorations that conjure a warm Yuletide carol. The mood is pure  gaiety as normally homebound families emerge into the increasingly frosty eve to shop and - best of all - eat.
The comedores open around 6pm and remain in service until midnight. Jolly diners fill long picnic tables set up in the street while purveyors hawk their goods luring new customers in. They offer a large variety of antojitos from rich red pozole with all the trimmings to enchiladas to sopes. Try a tostada of bacalao a la Veracruzana, the beloved end-of-year dried cod stew. Or a sope of romeritos, a green vegetable done in a mole-like sauce with dried shrimp. Tamales waft their tantalizing steam while giant pambazos, those salsa-slathered torta bombs sizzle away.  There is warm fruit-filled punch to wash it all down and flan or buñuelos - giant rounds of crispy fried bread - with honey for dessert. This is a  don't-miss neighborhood Navidad tradition in the city. The Mercado Medellín is located between Monterrey and Medellín, Coahuila and Campeche in the Colonia Roma. If you arrive by Metrobus, get off at Campeche and walk east. Nearest metro stop is Chilpancingo. The market will be open seven days a week until midnight through December 23rd.

A note to my readers: See my DF recommendations in this month's Condé Nast Traveler:


East Side/West SIde: El Parnita & Dulcinea do Mexican Right

I’ve never been a fan of the new-fangled; I resisted CDs, cell phones, even computers, for years. And that goes for food as well. I’ve been cynically sampling ‘upscale’ Mexican cuisine for decades, ever since I hung at El Olivo, Roberto Santibanez’ long defunct hipster spot of the ‘80’s (where, no doubt, more was snorted in the WC than consumed at table) and the long-running La Tecla started experimenting with such dubious nouvelle dishes as pasta with mole and deconstructed chiles en nogada.

Then a few Polanco chefs (you know who I mean) came along and did away with tradition altogether, going for global gastro-trends. Flor de calabaza became a foam. Unspeakble things appeared in sorbets and sauces. That’s why I celebrate what appears to be a new trend: a tweaked return to basics, or ‘grandma with a twist'. Pretention is exchanged for simple updating of the tried and true. New places at every step of the scale, are opening offering good Mexican food to 21st century diners used to clean preparation and pretty presentation. Cases in point at either end of the fancy spectrum: Limosneros and Fonda Kelly, which I recently lauded.

Aztec Cravings: El Parnita
The name of this unassuming antojería means ‘pal’ or friend’. They’ve been dishing out comida corrida for over thirty years, but just recently hit the charts--it’s where the arts and media crowd meet for lunch in uber-chic Colonia Roma.

The large renovated space recalls an ordinary lunch spot, blaring TVs and all – until one realizes that those ordinarily intrusive boob tubes show photos of works of art instead of Televisa toons. Ambience is likewise downplayed in a hip Paris bistro sort of way – umbrella-topped tables spill out onto the street and jazz softly plays.
Best of all is the food. It’s simple, but the flavors are vibrant.
Antojitos (corn-based snacks) rule. The marvelous tacos viajeros, tender, tangy pork served with red onions and an array of smoky and spiky sauces, are wrapped in house-made tortillas.
The fried shrimp taco is also a good choice, the fresh crispy sea creature served with greens—a crunch-fest. Another fine oceanic option is the ceviche, lightly marinated chunks of scallop and fish served with warm tostadas. Parnita’s variation on the Jalisco classic torta ahogada (drowned torta) is the best we’ve sampled in the city, a perfect balance of soft/crunchy texture and umami laden filling – with a perfect whallop of chili. Parnita is a friendly place and prices are friendly as well – lunch will run 100-150 pesos, if you behave yourself.

El Parnita
Avenida Yucatán 84, (Near the corner of Yucatán and Monterrey)
Tel. 5264 7551
Open Tuesday – Sunday, 1:30-6pm

Gente ‘Nice’: Dulcinea
Leave your car with valet parking and stroll about in Polanquito, the lively heart of Polanco, Mexico City’s 'East side' neighborhood—it’s a delightful part of town. There are a lot of swanky options for dining, but I often head to Dulcinea, a simple café whose tables spill out invitingly onto the sidewalk. The crowd is a genial mix of young ‘ladies-who-lunch’, business types and foreign residents. And the food is carefully prepared and presented with flair.

Chef Lucy Acuña, who runs the show, studied at New York’s Culinary Institute of America.  Chef Lucy acknowledges tradition, but gently pokes at it, and gussies it up a bit.

Her simple sopa de tortilla, for example, contains the usual garnishes of fried tortilla strips, roast chilies and avocado, but all served dry—the brick-red broth is poured at table over the garnishes, French bistro style. The crema de cilantro, pretty as a Seurat landscape, is lightly perfumed with avocado leaves.

Aguas de frutas are served in homey white enamel pitchers that seem straight from the
marché de puces – a nice touch.   

Several antojitos are offered. Sopes de arrachera is the most traditional – corn masa shells, fresh and crisp/tender, the meat buttery. Tiradito de pulpo blends thin slices of buttery octopus with a chili/tomato glaze, served over a puree of celery with a whisper of ginger. It’s both light and hardy—a winner.  

A notable main dish is the arrachera, offered with mole de jamaica, a light, sweet-sour sauce.  Pollito de leche (aka Cornish hen) is roasted and served with fruity tamarindo or jamaica sauces.

Desserts are predictable but satisfying: flan, crepes, chocolate mousse.

Dulcinea also serves breakfast. ‘The French Lady’ breaks her fast regularly here, and highly recommends the chilaquiles divorciados—with two competing sauces, red and green, as well as pancakes, better than Jemima ever made.

Dulcinea’s prices reflect its surroundings (it’s right around the corner from the Café Snob - I'm not making this up)– you’ll spend at least $250 pesos per person for a light lunch, without drinks. But the quality is good—you’ll get what you pay for and leave happy.  

Oscar Wilde 29,  Polanco
Tel. 5280 8909
Open Sunday, Monday  9am-6pm
Tuesday-Saturday  9am-1am

A branch is coming to Santa Fe Santa Fe


Beggar’s Opera: Limosneros hands out fine Mexican fare

The continuing transformation of Mexico City’s centro histórico into a happening glamor spot is astounding.

It was quite by accident that we noticed the latest venue for chic Mexi-dining. A very old building, which for years sat waiting to be restored to its colonial splendor, has at last been reincarnated as Limosneros, the newest entry in the centro’s list of top-notch restaurants.

The story goes that the building was home to the local artisan’s guild, whose members collected funds (limosnas i.e. “donations”) to build various public buildings. Fast-forward to the 21st century, whose post-modern style is in evidence here. Juan Pablo Ballesteros, son of the family that owns the venerable Café Tacuba just around the corner, took it upon himself to acquire and restore this two-story Spanish colonial edifice, exposing volcanic stone walls, brick ceilings and cantera doorways. The effect is tradition gone mod. Tones of black, brown and beige abound. Some wood gives warmth. Lighting is low. Music is patron-friendly  - that is, it stays in the background where it belongs.

But the best news of all is that the kitchen puts out some of the most refined Mexican food in the city. An intriguing menu has been designed by gastronomic scholar José Luís Curiel and chef Lula Martín del Campo. It updates classics in a hip, modern but unpretentious way. Unlike at other high-falutin´alta cocina Polanco palaces, this food aims to please without ostentation or dubious re-invention. Presentation is pretty, almost Japanese. But recipes generally stick to the contents of grandma’s larder or gently introduce a new but familiar element--always straight from the market, not from the lab.

I love the antojitos offered as entradas, and could make a meal of them. Flautas de flor de Jamaica are golden crunchy tortillas, stuffed with a sweet-sour mix of fragrant purple hibiscus flowers and topped with cream. Elegantly served on a slab of dark grey slate, this dish is illustrative of the attention paid to detail, respect given to marketplace comfort food; not a cliché is in evidence.

Likewise, the tamal de camarón crocante is another twist on the ordinary, a corn tamal served in a banana leaf, crowned by a quick/deep-fried shrimp, which is to be devoured head, shell and all—a smart texture-fest.

Cazuela de cuitlacoche
A little cazuela de cuitlacoche presents this oh-so-delicate black corn mushroom, lightly sauteed and gratinéed, to be eaten on mini white wheat tortillas that have been pre-shmeered with a spikey ‘chipotle varnish’. It’s a perfectly balanced yin/yang experience and goes to show what a cunning Mexican kitchen can do.

A comforting sopa de quelites is, as the delighted Miss L exclaimed, “Mexican matzoh ball soup.” The wild greens swim in a sea of rich chicken stock, the matzoh-like corn masa balls bobbing about like beach balls in a Frankie Avalon picture.

Even better is a refined sopa de tortilla, one of the best I’ve sampled. An old-style recipe is barely tampered with: the brick-red broth is enriched with two kinds of chilies and topped with the usual assortment of avocado, chicharrón and fresh cheese. Deep.

Tamal de camarón
The main dish menu is divided into meat and fish; the kitchen excels at the former. A standout is filete al limón, a buttery-tender cut of beef swathed in a subtle, quiet, red chili sauce perfumed with lime. The sauce doesn’t over-whelm, as a good French sauce wouldn’t. It’s Aztec-Gallic fusion at its best.

Costillas en salsa de morita y mezcal are falling-apart tender, and recall those crowd-pleasing red ribs that old-style Chinese restaurants used to offer. But a more complex smoky aroma from the mezcal marinade reminds you that this is Mexico not Chinatown.

Recommended for the non-carnivorous are the huazontles capeados, the stuffed amaranth greens in their tomato caldo given pizzazz by a fresh goat cheese. It almost goes without saying that products are local and even organic when possible.

The dessert menu follows current DF trends and doesn’t stray much; included is the ubiquitous but well realized crème brûlée de mamey and a heady volcán de chocolate, a melting chocolate dessert with a ‘blackberry mole’.

Featured on the drink menu are fine artisanal beers and mezcals. Tequila, as is the current fashion, is played down and pricey as well - 90 pesos a shot – ouch! There’s an astutely chosen wine list featuring Mexican vintners, but prices are high; it would be nice to see a couple of purse-friendly house reds, as none offered are under $550.  

The caveat vis a vis drink prices is only to say that food is reasonable – a meal with a drink should cost $350-500 per. Well worth it for the quality.

Small details of service add a level of delight here, e.g. the small handmade tortillas that are served in a little embroidered pouch, the amuse-bouche of esquites (a corn dish mostly known as a street food), or the excellent trio of salsas that appear at the table seconds after being seated.

Juan Carlos photo: Peter Norman
Breakfast is served on weekends and features a divine birria, that rich goat stew and broth from Jalisco as well as a curious omelette of beef "ceviche". There are also more familiar Mexican egg dishes and a children's menu that includes house-made catsup!
Limosneros has not been open long and I have no doubt that it will just get better. And it’s already very good – it trumps all other ‘high-end’ options in the centro and most in the city. Palms up. 

Allende 3 (near Tacuba), Centro
Tel. 5521 5576
Open Monday-Friday, 1:30 -11 p.m.
Saturday 9 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sunday 9a.m. - 7p.m.


The Maja Clothed: Spanish cooking at its best

Northern Spanish cooking has been on everyone’s mind in recent years. Chefs Arzak and Adriá have become household names - well, in foodie circles, anyway.  It’s amongst the world’s finest as well as simplest cuisine. Local, indigenous, sustainable ingredients are au courant and that's what it's about.  Why are people just discovering Spain now? Well, during the Franco dictatorship the words Spain and gastronomy didn’t mix. The country was closed, poor and cultural regionalism frowned upon. The local populous barely had enough. So you didn’t go to Spain to eat.

My first trip to Iberia was in 1984, when Spain was rapidly emerging from the dark years. I traveled through the country for four months, eating nothing but fried meat, potatoes, and chilled house wine. I fell in love, permanently with the artists of the ‘siglo de oro’ (Velazquez, Ribera, Murillo), flamenco, toasted bread with olive oil on it (perhaps the best thing I ate) and Madrid. But I didn't eat well.  Another extensive trip 15 years later turned my head around, gastronomy-wise. What had changed, it or me? A little of both. I’m much more experienced in finding what’s true and good to eat. And with the opening up of the country, a reverse trend was set in motion and now great pride is taken in local foods and dishes. Everywhere you go--and Spain is a huge place—you’ll find fine cooking, dishes prepared with pride based on local ingredients and tradition. Simple and fresh are the keywords. So, it is only natural that here in the New World, Spanish-trained chefs have a keen eye for what’s local, seasonal and in the market, adapting to old-world techniques and recipes. It’s no wonder Spanish cooking is currently trendy around the world. And Mexico City’s best restaurants these days are Iberian.

Chef Paulina Morel
Now there’s Maja. The word, in Castilian slang means ‘cool’ or, more specifically ‘beautiful’ as in the ‘que padre’ of Mexican parlance.  Maja the restaurant is all of the above.

Set in a restored Porfiriano mansion, with a pretty patio, the grey-toned post-modern décor is innocuous but it doesn't matter: the food is the star of the show.

Young chef Paulina Morel studied for several years in San Sebastian the mecca of Basque cooking and then worked here at the esteemed Biko. Her menu is northeastern Spanish, i.e. it encompasses the Basque country, Catalonia, Asturias and Cantabria, with a couple of central and southern dishes thrown in for good measure.

Start with the iconic croquetas de jamón; a magically thin bronzed crust surrounds velvety, smoky ham-infused béchamel – textbook perfect. Pulpo a la feira, buttery grilled octopus is a delight. And patatas bravas, the paprika shmeered roast potatoes ubiquitous in Spain, and so often compromised here because of our pallid Mexican papas, are crunchy and richly flavorful.

Although neither northern nor seasonal (in Spain anyway) a gazpacho appears on the menu,  and it’s not the Anglicized tomatoey version, but the real thing: olive oil thickened with bread and livened with tomato, garlic and sherry vinegar. As good as I’ve had in Sevilla.

The hot soup option, sopa de pescado Donostiarra​ (or Basque fish soup) is really a reduced bisque, redolent of the sea –a winner.

From the main menu, and a true test of any Spanish chef, is the deceptively simple fish of the day en salsa verde, which contains only five ingredients. This green sauce is comprised of emulsified olive oil, perfumed with sweated garlic, finely minced parsley and the juice a couple of happy clams. A perfectly sauteed filet sits in a little puddle of it. Chef Morel proves she learned a thing or two in the old country as here these lovely ingredients are precisely balanced. Brava!

The Asturian classic, solomillo en salsa de Cabrales, can hit like a bomb: a tender steak is smothered in a cream of the spiky blue cheese of the eponymous town. Here it is light and just rich enough.

A side of salteado de verduras pleasantly surprises: its perfectly cooked vegetables retain the right amount of crunch and conceal a delightful payload of Catalan romesco,  the sauce of roast red peppers thickened with hazelnuts.

Top off the meal with a standout torrija caramelizada​ a typical dessert that falls somewhere between French toast and bread pudding.

The wine list is not long but varied enough in its offerings and price range  to satisfy, although on several visits, staff was not knowledgeable as to its contents.
Dinner for two will be around $1000-1200 (pesos) with a bottle of low end wine.

Maja is a fine and welcome addition to the growing list of superior venues for Iberian cuisine. Boinas off to the chef!

Restaurante de Comida Española de Autor

Durango 279, near Av. Sonora, Roma/Condesa
Monday - Wednesday: 1:30 - 11p.m.
Thursday to Saturday: 1:30p.m. - 1:30a.m.
Sunday until 1:30- 6p.m.
Tel.  5211-7972​  /  5211-4964