A trip to Mexico City is essentially the perfect getaway. There's fantastic food, a plethora of art and architecture, vibrant color, rich history and best of all- it doesn't break the bank.
Upon arriving, we checked into our AirBnb above Café Zena in Saint Miguel Chapaultepec. It was a small modern loft tucked in the trees, with sliding glass doors facing out to a balcony even larger than the apartment itself. Pleased with our location, we decided to walk to one of the dozen of lunch spots that were recommended to us by friends. It’s as though everyone dreamed of these restaurants, so much that there were enough recommendations to fill a whole trip (we didn't even come close to making it to all of them). Of course, it started to pour in true rainy season fashion. It felt invigorating running through unknown streets in the rain, coming from sundrenched LA. Just as it started to really come down, we reached our destination: El Parnita.
It was a very open restaurant, bustling with people. It had been a very popular food cart, turned restaurant due to high demand. It was just as it was described- a place to see and be seen. The walls were filled with quirky objects and plasma screens hung from the ceiling with quirky art slideshows. We sat down and opened our menus in disbelief. This was not the typical Mexican fare you'd find in LA-we couldn't understand a thing! Truth be told, our Spanish is nonexistent and our trip was fairly spontaneous.
As soon as I started to fish through my bag looking for our Spanish-English dictionary, I locked eyes with the girl on the next table over and she asked if we needed some help. She and her boyfriend started going through our entire menu for us- helping Ryan with vegetarian options, making suggestions (they seemed to be regulars) and ultimately ordering for us. They even went on to write a list of different places to go and monuments to see. It was so incredibly sweet. In retrospect, I don't really remember what it was that we ate- it was a mix of tacos with fish, salty cheese, some meat. Most had pickled red onion and a creamy aioli-sort of sauce. They all hit the spot and simply put, it was a very cheap feast!
Full of a buzzed satisfaction, we mosied next door to the restaurant's mezcal shop. The gentleman there insisted that we try his favorites and even a piece of chocolate with grasshopper (a fairly common ingredient in Mexico City). We couldn't resist buying a bottle- it burned to a very smooth finish (and it was only $30 USD!). By now the rain had passed and we walked through the lush green park, amazed by the tropical trees. We stopped at a hole in the wall bar to regroup and ordered some more mezcal. This was the start of a very good thing.
WHERE TO EAT
Fonda El Refugio
This immediately became our favorite spot. A photographer friend recommended it for its homey atmosphere and traditional fare. Oaxacan spheres (gigantic ornaments) hung scattered across the ceiling, with beams painted in Mexican Pink and a wall of copper tableware. I ordered their Poblano Mole, enticed by its dark chocolate base. The mole was perfect- rich of flavor, sprinkled with sesame seeds. The poblano chile was stuffed with succulent, smokey meat. From there on, it became my litmus test sort of dish, but nothing ever came close to comparison. Ryan ordered a Chile Relleno in a tomato base (don’t remember exactly- could be a red mole). It looked like a painting with its sauciness and scats of onion and stringy cheese. And then there were the margaritas. They came in gorgeous little blue glasses and they were certainly packed with punch. Upon first sip, we both agreed they were the best we’ve ever had. Two days later, we came back for a late night treat of margaritas and a tapioca pudding dessert. The one waiter who spoke incredible English talked with us for quite a bit. He has been working there for 30 years and he was very insightful, very very sweet (it’s a trend in Mexico City!). Ask for Ishmael if you go- you won’t regret it.
For our last dinner, we of course went here. This time, I ordered the specialty Chile en Nogadas- it was freshly in season. It was hands-down the best meal I had all trip. The sauce was a creamy walnut-based mole, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and crushed walnuts. It was much more rich and less oily than the Chile en Nogadas I had at Hostel de Santa Domingo (though the restaurant is famed for it). The pepper was stuffed with spiced meat, dried berries and nuts. I was so full but polished it off completely. When it comes to the Clean Plates Club, my dad taught me well. We asked Ishmael what the secret was to the margaritas and he ushered us back to the kitchen bar. He said it was quite simple, and the chef showed us the ratios and the secret trick of frothing the drink with a blender. Hopefully with my great notes, I will be able to drink an imitation Refugio margarita as I dream of the food of El Refugio.
This place is a MUST. $$$ Entrees are approximately 180-295 M$/ 11-18 $USD.
Located in Zona Rosa (think: St. Marks of Mexico City).
Maximo Bistrot Local
A hip spot that features a mash-up of Old meets New World cuisine. Reservations were recommended, but we lucked out with a table outside right away. The menu is small, with seasonal ingredients. We both had the margarita special to drink, a “Mezcaleria” with spicy salt, cucumber and lemon-it was fantastic. We the ordered a beet salad and celery salad to start. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but the beet salad was just sweet enough. The celery salad was a hodgepodge of sorts, with artichoke and corn and more- Inever thought a celery salad could be quite so interesting! For my main course, I went with the baby pig that the waiter recommended. It was perfectly crisped and the meat just melted off the bone. Pure heaven. Ryan had the fish with a verde mole sauce. The one bite he allowed me to have tasted fresh and bold. Even the bathroom flower arrangement was dynamic. This place is a must- a fixture on the exciting restaurant scene of Mexico City!
$$$- The most pricey of all, but so so worth it!
Located in Roma.
A lunch-only, very happening spot. Great place for people watching and interesting tacos. Lively atmosphere- see description above.
Located in Roma, just outside of Condessa.
A wonderful spot for breakfast! This was the café directly below our AirBnB- and we were spoiled with free breakfast all week. The breakfast is great- especially the Huevos El Caldo- it’s a dish of scrambled eggs served in a steamy bowl of very saucy chile sauce with beans. This place is very special, more of a café-cum-social venue- with repertory film screenings, talks, occasional karaoke nights, and even a rotating library of art theory. If you go, tell Tania that Lucy & Ryan say hello!
Located in San Miguel Chapaultepec, very easily accessible by metro.
A three-story old-school restaurant located Downtown. Eat traditional Oaxacan cuisine while listening to a pianist play a couple tables away. The Poblano Mole was great here (though El Regugio takes the cake!).
$$-More average in price.
WHAT TO SEE
Casa Luis Barragan
Luis Barragan is known for his Turrel-esque, subliminal “emotional architecture” in saturated hues. You may recognize his study with the floating staircase or the roof-top garden of monumental walls in Barragan Pink (otherwise known as Mexican Pink). Photographs of his architecture are stunning for their graphic qualities, but the experience of the space is a must in order to truly understand its shifting light and consuming color. I’d kill to spend a day there.
This is a private home designed by Luis Barragan for two bachelors. It's the last home he designed before his death. Call ahead to arrange an appointment- now a family of one of the bachelors resides there. The bachelor's son, who had the luxury of growing up there, gave us a very informative, private tour of the premises. The highlight was a hallway of yellow light and Oaxacan spheres (this was a common element in Barragan houses, used as a place of concentrated energy). The hallway lead to a truly remarkable indoor pool with saturated walls of color that bounced off the water and a view into the modernist courtyard.
Visit the Blue House of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera in the cute neighborhood of Coyocan. I had the unfortunate luck of waiting in a long line during a downpour, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. It's worth it to see the few rooms that are kept staged "as left;" and to see the assortment of Frida's hand painted corsets and casts, and most notably her hand-designed prosthetic leg, an embroidered red boot. Frida contracted polio when she was six, leaving her right leg slightly thinner than her left. It was after a horrible trolley accident that she started painting.
Museum of Anthropology
It would be easy to get lost in this museum, with its endless ancient artifacts. An Aztec codex was especially great to see- so reminiscent of contemporary art!
WHAT TO DO
The Pyramide de Sol, the Pyramide de la Luna & the Place de la Luna at Teotihuacan
A truly magical square of ancient pyramids dating back 2,000 years. The Pyramide de Sol is believed to have mystical properties and I have to say I'm a believer... Climb to the top of the mystical Pyramide de Sol and at the summit, you'll find a dozen butterflies flying around you as you soak in the outstanding view of the city. There's also a handful of magnificent Aztec murals that have been conserved. Definitely worth the 45 min drive outside of the city! We uber'd there and took a bus back.
While in Teotihuacan, you must walk to Restaurante Techinanco- it was a bit of a hike in the heat, but it was so worth it. We managed to avoid all the other tourists and had the whole restaurant to ourselves. The best part- we were dining outside directly behind the Pyramide de la Luna! The food and chilled beers were great, too.
Watching the luchadores at a Mexican wrestling match couldn't be more entertaining. It's highly choreographed and completely staged, but that makes it all the more better! The energy is infectious and characters are hilarious! One very popular luchador, Maximo, really played up his gay persona. He kept trying to kiss the other wrestler while wearing a skirted leotard and donning a pink mohawk.
An incredible (& somewhat frightening) bustling market with live stock animals, including peacocks and iguanas, as well as black magic oddities.
Centro de Artesanias La Ciudadela
Here you will find amazing traditional Mexican arts and crafts, including papier-mache sculptures and diaromas, beaded huarache sculptures and jewelry, colorful textiles, hammered metal, baskets & more. I still regret not bringing more home with me.
To top it all off, we lucked out and got bumped up to first class on our flight home. The perfect way to end an already great trip!