Mexico City Part One: Food
Our first stop on this whirlwind tour was the magnificent Mexico City. Steeped in history, lined with spectacular street food, fizzing with culture and bursting with personality, this place totally exceeded my expectations. It reminded me of New York for a lot of reasons. It’s mix of opulence and poverty especially struck a chord. One moment you’d be dining in the most exceptional restaurant you’ve ever experienced, then you turn a corner to see beggars and street vendors scrapping a living together. It has that same unrelenting noise and looming presence that feels simultaneous empowering and oppressive. Anything is possible here, for both better and worse. Let’s start with what was undoubtedly the highlight.
I thought I knew food. Or at least, I thought I was starting to get a grasp of it’s power and ability to bring people together.
I knew nothing.
After spending a month eating my way through Mexico City I depart packing an additional six pounds around the waist, but a hell of a lot of experiences to show for it. As the saying goes, the more you learn, the more you understand how little you know. But this was such an eye-opening experience that it has left me not dismayed at the mountain of knowledge left to discover, but inspired to continue my journey to becoming an even halfway decent chef.
Food is everywhere in Mexico. You can’t walk a block without passing numerous street carts selling an array of delicious morsels. It’s not a ‘grab and go’ situation either. After jostling with the locals to get the attention of one of the servers, and stumbling your way through an order in your limited Spanish, you either take up a pew at the stall or find a spot to plant yourself on the pavement and tuck in. There’s something really neat about eating there right in front of the cook while she makes up another round, getting to taste the final product while appreciating all the little subtleties of it’s preparation. The really good cooks will steal a little glance up to check your expression as you eat. Not to make you anxious about whether you’re doing it right, but just to check in to see if they’ve done a good job. It’s a wonderfully mindful moment, standing quietly shoulder to shoulder with the locals, considering the flavours and textures of your dish, and what you’re going to order next. That’s the dangerous part. Find a stall that you love, and they’ll happily just keep serving you tacos until your drop. In fact it’s almost rude to pay for your first order right off the bat, seeing as it would assume that you’re not going to like it enough to order another round.
My favourite tacos came from a spot called Taqueria Los Cocuyos near the ‘Zocalo’ historic centre of town. The duo that run this hole in the wall were hilarious, and had a fantastic time serving us up tacos filled with every which bit of a pig you can imagine. No part is spared. The snout, the eyeballs, and of course the delicious belly, everything is bubbling away right in front of you in two massive vats, one with oil, the other with water. Despite the fact that we’d already eaten lunch (and were due to go for ice cream soon after), I couldn’t help but making repeat orders. Their tortillas were by far the best I’d had, with a light crunch that just held the whole thing together wonderfully, and offset the amazing burst of favour that exploded in your mouth when they gave way to the filling.
By random chance the first place I ate in Mexico City also happened to be one of the best. Famous for it’s Pozole stew, La Casa de Tono was located right around the corner from the hotel I stayed in on the first night. I found it by just randomly walking around until I was beckoned in by the attendant outside, the man extolling the virtues of the menu in Spanish as I just politely nodded (not understanding a word) and made my way upstairs into the dining hall. A waiter soon whisked by, dropping in front of me an array of salsas, some corn chips, an order form, and a pencil. I pointed once at the picture of a Corona, and once in the air to indicate that I might need a second to figure this out.
Pride of place on the menu was a great bowl of stew which looked entirely new and entirely fitting for my first Mexican feast. What landed in front of me was a great bowl of Pozole, a traditional stew made from hominy, broth, meat, topped with shredded lettuce, radish, and as much lime and hot sauce as you care to smash on there. It’s kind of like a Mexican minestrone, wonderfully homely and filling, you can’t help but let it put a smile on your face. This is true right across Mexican cuisine, even in the fanciest restaurants. It’s a kind, welcoming cuisine, that made me feel in one short month like I’d know it forever.
Fun fact: Pozole is a celebratory dish. Back in ancient times it was used as a vehicle for distributing the bodies of human sacrifices amongst the townsfolk for consumption as an act of religious communion. You would know where you stood in the social hierarchy by which part of the body you got. Heart and brains, you’re right up there. Foot and toes, not so desirable. I had mine with chicken.
I’m no stranger to a good churro, and was excited to find some top shelf ones in the motherland. El Moro certainly did not disappoint, serving up a combo of four churros, caramel dipping sauce, and Mexican hot chocolate that I needed enlisted some serious assistance to an attempt getting through. It still beat me, and those who know how powerful my sweet tooth will know how serious that is. The hot chocolate ended up being just a cup of spicy molten chocolate, so thick that it was still searing hot 30 minutes after coming out of the massive vat behind the counter. Not so much intended for drinking (although I tried), this acted as a massive cup of hot chocolate dipping sauce which partnered with the crunchy cinnamon sugar perfection of the fresh churro itself. Pro tip: dip in the caramel, then add a layer of chocolate on top, and make sure you have somewhere to take a siesta afterwards.
I got the hot tip on Contramar from Runaway’s owner and principle investor, David Haslingden, who has spent a lot of time in the city over the years (his family even has a house to the south). He propped it up as one of his favourite places to eat, so when plugging it into Google Maps after one of our calls and discovering it was a mere two blocks away I thought, well, there’s no time like the present.
You’d be forgiven for being wary of a specialist seafood restaurant in a landlocked city, but the vibe of Contramar is immediately inviting and chill, it’s white and blue décor giving you the feeling that you’ve just sat down dockside. I was attended to by an exceptional English speaking waiter, who recommended all the right things and made me feel incredibly welcome at my little table for one, despite the madness going on everywhere else around him. Despite all his effort he was genuinely surprised and grateful when I gave him a 20% tip with the bill and thanked him profusely for a wonderful time.
This sort of humble excellence is everywhere in Mexico. It’s like the country is that nerdy girl who takes her glasses off and lets her hair down for the first time at the school ball in one of those terrible American high school comedies, still bashful at not knowing how pretty she is. Anyway, the food!
Tostadas, a toasted tortilla topped with pretty much anything you can imagine, were an entirely new thing for me in Mexico City, and here I had the best by a long shot. I can safely say the tuna tostada with chipotle mayonnaise was the best seafood dish I have ever had, and has deservedly earned it’s reputation. Breaking through the crispy tostada into the creamy mayo and delicate sashimi grade tuna was mind blowing. Topping it off with a generous dose of habanero chillies and fresh squeezed lime takes the whole thing to another level. When the waiter placed the saucer of habaneros in front of me he pointed at them and looked me directly in the eye, “careful, very hot.” When he returned after the appetiser course to discover the chillies all but demolished, I returned his shocked expression with a wide smile.
The octopus tacos that followed were excellent as well, but my mind couldn’t help but dwell on that tuna. I had to go back, and take some of my new friends. A nice touch at the end of the meal was picking a desert not from a menu, but from a tray they brought around that had a dozen different delicious looking items on it. Paralysed by choice I randomly pointed at the tray and ended up with a delightful piece of pie that capped off a fantastic meal and sent me straight back to the apartment to nurse my food baby.
On the morning Uber ride out to one of my local experience events, I had a nice chat with my driver who wanted to practice his English. I was telling him about my food adventures so far, and he was pleased to hear I’d hit some of the best spots already, but I had to ask him what his favourite taco in the city was. El Califa was his unreserved answer, so of course it went right into my Google Map as a stop for later that day.
I have to admit I wasn’t super impressed with the décor or the service of the place. Being a chain it was a lot less homely and personal than many of the other place’s we’d been, but holy crap when those Bistec con Queso tacos landed in front of me I couldn’t have cared less. They were different than anything I’d seen yet, like a fusion of classic taco with dirty American grilled cheese. Generous strips of beef covered a thick and delicious tortilla, topped with wads of cheese that had been dropped straight on the grill. Add on a ludicrous amount of chunky guacamole, fiery salsa, and fresh cilantro and you have in your hand a mountain of flavour.
So impressed by the tacos, I had to have a look at the ‘postres’ (desert) menu, which was a terrible mistake, as I ordered the brownie, which ended up being just as massive and delicious. Anyone seeing a pattern here?
Chef’s Table is one of my favourite shows, so as soon as I knew we were going to Mexico City I had to lock down a reservation for Pujol. Food becomes so much more special when you understand the people and the stories behind it. This series has a unique ability to capture the spirit of the chef it studies. Because many of us on this trip are food nerds, we arranged a special viewing of the episode on the rooftop of our workspace, complete with snacks and wine. This was one of the first truly special moments of my whole trip, sitting with new friends sharing this inspiring story, watching the last light of the day dip over the city horizon, glass of Amisfield Pinot Noir in hand that I’d proudly brought from home to share, everything came together and any anxiety about the trip faded behind peace and the beginnings of a true bond with my new tribe.
A few nights later we set out from our apartment, dressed to the nines, fizzing with anticipation for our first fine dining adventure of the trip. I’ve done tasting menus before, and I thought I’d been to nice restaurants before, but walking through the door of one of the best in the world will totally reframe your expectations. As you make your way past the humble yet elegant exterior, a procession of staff greets you warmly, like you’re some foreign dignitary, leading you into the cosy depths of the dimly lit and immaculately composed dining room. A wonderful wood smoked smell accompanies the warm light bouncing off wood panel walls and tables, giving a homely feel without compromising any of its elegance. This feeling of comfort, and that intoxicating smell, permeated the entire night and every dish. It felt fitting to kick things off with Mezcal while we waited for the whole table to arrive. Once those were knocked backed and our full contingent were gathered around, we popped the wax seal on the envelopes in front of us, reviewed the tasting menu, and promptly told the waiter that we were in his hands. Just bring us what you would have.
What followed were 6 courses and matching drinks that would convince even the harshest cynic that Mexican cuisine is far more than cheap street food, but that it can indeed stand up with the best food in the world. We started with ‘street snacks’, from which the highlight was a chia tostada with avocado puree, then led into the famous baby corn with powdered chicatana ant mayonnaise, served up in a very fancy pot overflowing with tendrils of that signature smoke. The jerky tartar was surprisingly tender for how chunky they had left the meat, but just okay.
Thankfully the suckling lamb taco that came next got us right back on track, and easily goes down as the best taco I have tasted. Funny, eating a street style taco in the 25th best restaurant in the world. My rabbit for the main was great but nothing to write home about, but the slam dunk came with the mole madre, mole nuevo, a blend of the exceptional fresh mole, and a sample from the vat which they have now kept going for 1185 days! It was so fun to try the two both side by side. The flavours were so complex, the old smoky and flat, the new bright and alive. Throw them together and you get a wild party in your mouth that has so many things going on that your brain is hard pressed to keep up. The ‘happy ending’ of churros and desert wine was a bang-on end to the night, but thinking back on it, it felt like a good version of something I’d had before. In fact, mole aside, I can’t say I tried anything new at Pujol. I had a great time with some amazing friends, chat, food, and atmosphere. I certainly left happy, believing that must be the pinnacle of eating. But then again, I didn’t have another Top 50 experience to compare it to, until the next day.
High on the fabulous time we’d had at Pujol, we let rum and Cuban cigars carry us into the wee hours of the morning, which probably wasn’t the best idea ever when I had lunch booked at Quintonil the next day. Oh well it’s just a lunch, and I’d never heard of the place before, so I wasn’t nearly as invested. There wasn’t nearly the sense of anticipation. So I gave myself a healthy sleep in and rolled out of bed in time to join my friends back across town at the fancy restaurant district of Polanco for what I thought would be a pretty casual afternoon at the 12th best restaurant in the world. What came next caught me totally off guard and will stay with me as not only one of the best meals I have had in my life (if not the best), but a display of grace, precision, and imagination that inspired me to be a better creative entrepreneur.
In contrast to Pujol’s sleek and moody opening, Quintonil’s entrance and dining room is modest, bright, open, and refreshing. The roof of the courtyard opens up to cast sunlight over the light wood panelling and greenery, evoking their garden a mere 30 meters away which provides many of the ingredients for their dishes. It’s hard now not to see the feeling of the place as a reaction to Pujol, which may make sense knowing that chef Jorge Vallejo was a protégé of Pujol’s Enrique Olvera. This contrast extends to the food, which was a far cry from the safe bets we had sampled the night before. What was set down in front of us over the course of 4 hours and 9 courses was a tour de force of creativity and vision, which took me to places I had never been, fired neurons I didn’t even know existed, and dramatically broadened by understanding of what food could be.
They know they’re good too. Quintonil has a quiet confidence in every aspect of its execution. It slowly creeps up on you, catches you off guard. You’re lulled into a sense of security with a glass of champagne and a simple taco, you sit back and relax, and then boom, an explosion of colour arrives in front of you and suddenly cactus is your new favourite thing. A chef arrives from out the back with a cast iron pot of roasted beets, the smell so delicious it makes you go cross eyed (I swear it wasn’t the wine), then personally opens up each one to expose it’s sparkling encrusted interior, like slicing deep into the earth and uncovering a rich vein of some exotic gemstone, scooping out the glistening jewels into the waiting nest of herbs. This personal presentation was one of my favourite parts of the experience. We must have met half a dozen different chefs over the course of the afternoon as they each came out to explain their dish. They did so with a composure and passion that was absolutely captivating. It just made me think, “Shit! That is exactly what I want to come across like when I present my work!” Proud, confident, smooth, and precise. They could have served me anything and I would have eaten it, I trusted them that much. Which is a good thing as one of the courses was ant eggs (which were phenomenal).
This professionalism was exemplified by the Sommelier, whose arrival commanded the attention of the whole table without needing any grand flourish. He would just arrive tableside with the latest bottle in hand, gently lean forward to present it, and explain its origin and tasting notes in the softest of voice, as if anything too loud would disturb the delicate balance waiting for us in our glass. You could hear a pin drop. The thing that blew me away with the wine pairings though was how perfectly they worked with each dish.
Complement isn’t the right word, they felt essential to the dish, like an extension of it, so perfectly did their flavours punctuate the experience of the food. Now, granted, I love white wine and at least half the selection was vino blanco, but when the red did turn up it did not disappoint. The 2013 Volcan Cabernet Sauvignon, described by the sommelier as his favourite Mexican wine, was one of the best reds I’ve ever tasted. I’ve subsequently been hunting for a case of my own to tuck away back home.
One of my favourite moments was when a chef brought a frying pan out to the table in which they had been finishing off a piece of corn infected with the fungus cuitlacoche. Not a fate that farmers would traditionally wish upon their crops, this particular fungus is prized in Mexico, sometimes called ‘black gold,’ and is used extensively in the local cuisine. Nestled in bunches of rosemary and still gently simmering in its juices, the chef displayed the beautiful charred cob proudly to the table as he explained the tradition of the fungus, before taking it out back for final preparation.
Another highlight was when after presenting his delicate little tamale on a pool of mole, one of the feistier chefs chastised one of our table for attempting to eat it with knife and fork. “You’re in Mexico man, grab it with your hand!” Welcome to fine dining in CDMX.
This same chef delivered my favourite dish, a creation he had been wanting to put on the menu for quite some time, and had finally plucked up the courage to run it past Vallejo. A tidy little mess of greens served in what looked like a sundae dish, it was my favourite because it was so unassuming, really nothing to look at, then twisted by brain in new directions with the brightness of it’s flavour. This encapculated Quintinol for me perfectly, modest presentation, exquisite execution.
Opinions in our wider group were divided as to whether Quintonil or Pujol was the better experience. Many thought they must have gone to a different restaurant when I described how utterly inspirational my time had been at the former. But as I’ve reflected on my experience at both, and talked to others about what they loved so much, I’ve realised that at this level of cuisine (or any craft) it is impossible to please everyone. To create someone’s favourite meal, favourite experience, you must push beyond the realm of the comfortable, and test them in ways that they have not been tested before. For some people, this will not be pleasant. For others, it will be life affirming. This reminds me of a quote from one of my favourite game developers, Nathan Vella, who said in reference to his indie game hit success, “if you are making a game for everyone, you are making it for no one.” This is such an important lesson to learn as a creative individual. To have the confidence to know that what you are doing will be hated by some, but having the belief in yourself to drive forward and find that audience that absolutely fall in love with your creation.
I would far prefer to have a few people savour my game as the best they have ever played, than try to make some lukewarm experience that marginally pleases most people. In this regard Quintonel inspired me to be a better game developer, a better writer, more than any game or book has in recent memory. If I can create something that sparks the same joy and adventure that I felt on that day, even for a passionate few, then I will feel complete.