During my youth in a mid-sized British city, there would sometimes be a marijuana drought. This didn’t affect me much, but I remember the excitement among my stoner friends when one of them eventually found a new supply—they’d discuss the discovery in tones of wonder and joy.
Which is exactly how an expat American neighbor of mine sounded when she told me she’d finally found good bread in Mexico City, at a small bakery called Pancracia in the Roma Norte neighborhood.
The baguettes are heavily toasted, with a taste that edges towards darkness, a crust with acid notes and a dense, chewy interior
Some context: Mexicans eat a lot of bread, but most of it is simply not good. The typical bollilo (bread roll) that accompanies a meal seldom tastes of much, though it’s an adequate vehicle for extra sauce or soup. Pan dulce (“sweet bread”) is ubiquitous and looks enticing, but for all the variety of shapes, sizes and names (“mustache,” “horn,” “volcano,”), its flavor is pretty uniformly boring. So Pancracia really is a revelation.
The narrow bakery, wedged between a tortilla shop and some apartments, turns out fantastic bread full of personality, with multiple layers of flavor that linger on the tongue. The baguettes are heavily toasted, with a taste that edges towards darkness, a crust with acid notes and a dense, chewy interior. The conchas — one of Mexico’s most famous sweet breads — are the best I’ve tasted. Pancracia ferments the yogurt that goes into them, and the result is an unusual depth of flavor, with savory hits to balance the sugar. The bakery also does fabulous brioches and a constantly rotating selection of small loaves with a hint of sourdough, flavored with herbs such as thyme or studded with berries.
It’s bread you can eat on its own, and the quality is down to the exacting standards and occasionally eccentric methods of Pancracia’s owner, Hugo Gonzalez Gómez, a 32-year-old Paraguayan who can recollect in detail the loaves he ate as a child.
Gómez has the bright eyes of an active man who gets too little sleep (arriving at 4AM to turn on the oven will do that to you); by the time customers show up, he is usually coated in a light dusting of flour. Gómez is particular enough that he stopped selling conchas for two months because he couldn’t get the exact butter he favors, and he often says it’s essential to respect the times in recipes. Yet while I was there I watched him pull some bread from the oven at its appointed moment, only to casually throw it back in for five minutes because the color didn’t look right.
Science, art and intuition are all at play here, with most of the bread baked on stone slabs rather than standard trays. Gómez allows that part of the reason for that is just the romance of it, but he says it also gives the the bread a certain “no sé que.”
The public seems to agree: 80 percent of Pancracia’s bread goes to restaurants, including some of the city’s best, and there’s a steady stream of customers throughout the day. They range from ex-pats in need of a fix to locals who are newly discovering the pleasure that can be conjured from flour, water and an obsessive attention to detail.
Roma Norte, Cuauhtémoc,
06700 Ciudad de México, D.F.
Pulpos A La Antigua is an elaborate, colonial-era octopus dish with a very Baroque appearance — it looks like something a viceroy might have eaten, back when there were viceroys: a black base, from the creature’s own ink, pierced with shards of red, green and brown courtesy of peppers, chiles, herbs and an assortment of nuts. It was brought to me by an immaculately dressed waiter, holding it above his head on a tray as he gracefully navigated the packed dining room. As he set the plate before me on a linen-clad table I looked around and registered the fact that I was surrounded by accountants wearing bad suits, in a room with a Styrofoam tile ceiling.
Such is the charm of lunch at Nico’s, which happens to be one of the city’s best restaurants despite its lack of frills or fanfare. Many of the dishes are as complex and refined as what you’d be served at Pujol, Biko, or the city’s other internationally renowned eateries, but the interior is far from fancy, and very few customers are upper-class Mexicans or international gastro-tourists. The place is full of regulars—office workers, business people and families—and none of them ever photograph their food.
Located in the unremarkable district of Azcapotzalco, Nico’s was one of the first restaurants in Mexico to be part of the Slow Food movement and the chef, Gerado Vasquez, began sourcing local and organic ingredients long before it became fashionable. A former architect, Vasquez is also fascinated by food history, and his menu is positively scholarly. For example, the recipe for sopa seca de nata — a dish that most Americans would identify as pasta, but which falls into the Mexican category of dry soups — dates from a 16th century convent in Guadalajara. More importantly, it’s delicious, as is the rabbit in pulque (the fermented, alcoholic sap of the maguey plant), the crab in amaranth-pumpkin seed batter presented in a lagoon of green mole, and many more specialties.
Nico’s is a place of contrasts: its kitchen uses techniques that are older than Columbus, alongside others popularized by Ferran Adria at El Bulli
Simpler dishes like enchiladas, grilled beef and tortilla soup mean that Nico’s can also accommodate conservative eaters—or those who find it hard to have a productive afternoon after lunching like a 19th-century sugar baron. If you’re making an event out of your visit, it’s worth perusing the 100-bottle wine list, put together by three of Mexico’s leading oenophiles. Nico’s also has an impressive selection of mezcales and other agave distillates from 11 different states, which arrive on an old-school bar cart.
Touches like that are nicely balanced by the traditional musicians who play on Thursdays and Fridays, creating an atmosphere more akin to a cantina than a culinary destination.
Nico’s is a place of contrasts: its kitchen uses techniques that are older than Columbus alongside others that were popularized by Ferran Adria at El Bulli. The silverware is changed several times during a meal, and the plates and stemware are costly, yet Vasquez, the chef, is adamant that his is not a “luxury restaurant.” He’s right: it’s actually something much more special.
Av. Cuitlauac No. 3102, Azcapotzalco
02080 Ciudad de México, D.F.
In the daytime the narrow, pot-holed streets around Bosforo, a mezcal bar in the city’s Centro neighborhood, hum with activity. Noise is constant, foot and car traffic unruly, and the border between them ill-defined. Shops on the ground floors of old, crooked buildings are crammed next to each other, mostly selling blenders, washing machine parts, plumbing supplies or, in a couple of cases, an extraordinary range of light bulbs. The smell from hole-in-the wall taquerias perfumes the air — or pollutes it, depending how you feel about street meat. There are people everywhere.
By 8PM the area is dead, perhaps a little spooky in its quietness. Commerce is done for the day, and even the restaurants are closed. It no longer feels like the beating heart of North America’s biggest city. So when you enter Bosforo, parting the red curtains that hang on the other side of the unmarked black door, the place hits you in the sternum. It’s packed, it’s hot, and it’s chaotic. The double-height concrete ceiling of the narrow space gives it the feel of a bunker, albeit one where you wouldn’t mind being trapped.
The crowd is a nice mix of Centro-dwellers and some posher-looking folk from other colonias: it’s a significantly more varied (and less white) bunch of people then you’d fine in the bars of Condesa, Polanco or Mexico City’s other more upscale neighborhoods. Waitresses move among the crowd like hummingbirds, hovering in front of a customer long enough to take or deliver drink orders, then zipping off to the next.
When a server spills some mezcal on the bar, he cleans it by setting fire to it with a nearby candle, rather than using a cloth
Stationed at the corner of the L-shaped bar, with the air of a captain at the prow of his ship, is Arturo, the owner, who looks like he could be a younger cousin of Jim Jarmusch. He doesn’t say much; most of his communication with the crowd happens when he’s crouched under the bar selecting music — an attention-grabbing mix of weird rock, reggae, funk, blues and a few nameless genres, all put together with a very particular, esoteric sensibility.
Bosforo’s mezcales, which range in flavor from light and sweet to deep and vegetal, are chosen with the same degree of care as the music: 90% are acquired directly from their makers. Around 45 different bottles sit on a table that looks like the drinks station at a house party. Whatever the staff pours you, whether a common espadin or a more esoteric verde or chato, it’s likely to be strong: when a server spills some mezcal on the bar (a relatively frequent occurrence, thanks to its wonky granite surface), he cleans it by setting fire to it with a nearby candle, rather than using a cloth.
For a metropolis this big, Mexico City is actually short on proper bars (cantinas are plentiful), and more than a few of those that do exist feel generic. Bosforo’s great charm, as simple as it sounds, is that it feels like itself: you might like it, and you might not. “Sometimes people come in and they don’t know what to do,” says Arturo. “There’s no décor, it’s not fancy. The music’s strange — you can’t really dance to it.” Like most good things, Bosforo is not for everyone, and it’s all the better for it.
Ciudad de México, D.F.
Photography by Carlos Alvarez Montero