By Guillaume Jan Photos Mickaël A. Bandassak

The land where breakfast is king

When it comes to what Mexicans consider the most important meal of the day, you can have it sweet, savoury or spicy. Be it in a restaurant or on the street, desayuno is always a pleasure, and the frijoles, tortillas and tamales are always served with coffee.

5:30 a.m. The sun has barely risen, but things are already heating up in the Fonda Margarita kitch- ens. Long, stainless-steel common tables, neon lighting, corrugated sheet-metal ceiling — the epicurean customers of this establishment, which opens only in the morning, aren’t here for the décor, but for the top-quality cooking. The menu lists dish combinations for each day of the week: we try a frijoles con huevo, a mixture of red beans and eggs del- icately seasoned with herbs. This whets our appetite for everything else that’s cooking, from chicharrón (fried pig skin) to beef simmered in pasilla (a spicy homemade sauce) to cerdo en salsa verde (tender sliced pork in green sauce). As the saying goes, “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper.”

The Fonda Margarita kitchens. (left) Chilaquiles and café con leche on the El Popular menu. (right)

6:30 a.m. The kitchens at Café El Popular, a 24-hour downtown institution, are bustling at every hour of the day. At breakfast, the atmosphere is working-class and lively: in the dining room with exposed beams, men and women sit on wooden benches facing the large windows. The uniformed mesera (server) brings them a café de chinos, very strong coffee with milk added to each cus- tomer’s taste. The multi-page menu offers desayuno options made with eggs, corn, meat, onions, vegetables, herbs and spices served with tortillas, the same ingredients in varying proportions crafted into molletes, chilaquiles, quesadillas, enchiladas. “The workers won’t have another break until lunchtime, around 3 p.m.” one of the servers reminds us, “so they have to eat hearty.”

7:30 a.m. On the sidewalk across the street, at Jugos Canada, employees pack the display shelves with pineapples, bananas, oranges, water-melons, lemons and other in-season fruits. Here, for a few pesos, you can enjoy fresh juice, either straight or mixed with water or milk. “It’s a chance to stock up on your day’s vitamins,” remarks Cecilia as she has us sample some delicious nopal juice (made from squeezed prickly-pear pads).

8:00 a.m. The Centro Histórico sidewalks have been taken over by puestos, tiny stands that sometimes come equipped with a table and a comal, a traditional metal cooking plate used to prepare tortillas, onions, meat and vegetables. Employees from nearby offices hastily grab a bite and down a steaming cup of coffee before going to work. Coffee has become a popular beverage here, having been grown in Mexico since the late 19th century. It is consumed black, Americano style, or with milk. The Chilangos (Mexico City residents) also love cinnamon-tinged café de olla, kept warm all morning in a pot and ladled into cups.

Orange juice at the Jugos Canada counter. (left) On the sidewalks of the Centro Histórico, puestos serve breakfast on the go. (right)

9:00 a.m. On the same street, Isabel la Catolica, several vendors sell tamales: ground corn (masa) — often mixed with spiced meat or sometimes sweet ingredients like dried fruit — wrapped in corn or banana leaves and steamed. They are high-calorie treats, especially when enjoyed with an atole, a fermented beverage made from corn flour.

10:00 a.m. All morning long, the café tables in every Mexico City neighbourhood are occupied by couples, retirees, students or tourists enjoying the special moment that is desayuno. They also come for professional meetings: in the Roma district, a journalist is waiting for her editor on the patio of the Cafebrería El Péndulo. “The desayuno is a special meal, a unique part of people’s day,” explains the young woman. “Here, it’s more social than in other countries, so it’s not uncommon for people to make breakfast appointments. There are a lot of options: fruit juice and cereal, eggs served every way you can imagine, red beans, meat broth to help shake off a hangover.” We try some mollárabes, small pancakes of beans with tomatoes, onions and herbs, a delicate, fragrant and slightly spicy dish. Everyone’s tastes can be satisfied at desayuno-time, from simple to subtle to searing.

12 noon. Though it’s past noon, the central table at Lalo! is still populated with guests who have come in for a late breakfast. We drink an Americano coffee and sample traditional specialities — succulent grilled grasshoppers served with guacamole, as interpreted by the young up-and-coming culinary genius, Eduardo “Lalo” García. The décor is fresh, bright and colourful, like the many new establishments open- ing in this ever-astonishing capital, which seems to be waking up to the world after a long sleep. _