How do you sift through Mexico City’s roughly 57,000 places to eat — more than twice as many as there are in New York City — and choose the most essential dishes? “In a city like Mexico City, how do you narrow it down? It’s insane. The exercise is absurd to begin with,” says Gabriela Cámara, the chef and owner of Contramar and three other restaurants in the Mexican capital, at the outset of the video conversation I’d arranged to do just that: identify the specific meals or bites (or drinks) that best represent the metropolis’s formidable food scene right now. Nonetheless, Cámara was up for the challenge, as were the four other panelists I’d convened, all of whom live in Mexico City either year-round or part time: Ana Dolores, the chef and owner of Esquina Común restaurant in the Condesa neighborhood; Anais Martinez, who founded the Curious Mexican, a street-food tour company, and recently opened Manada, an all-Mexican cocktail and natural wine bar in Narvarte; the food writer Alonso Ruvalcaba, the author of the guide “24 Horas de Comida en la Ciudad de México” (2018); and Carla Valdivia Nakatani, T Magazine’s art director, who splits her time between Manhattan and Mexico City, where she co-owns a boutique in Roma. Before we met as a group, I’d asked each participant to nominate around 10 dishes, including a sweet and a drink, from 10 different spots, ranging from fine-dining restaurants to street carts and market stalls. Then we spent two hours and several subsequent emails and phone calls debating our choices, trying to whittle down the 50-plus nominations to 25 in order to produce a list like those in the ongoing T 25 series devoted to food in Paris and in New York.
As often happens with these types of endeavors, that initial longer list for Mexico City had just a few duplicate dishes (the green mole quesadilla from Jenni’s and the date pie from Al-Andalus), reflecting not just the panelists’ varied tastes but their individual experiences eating across the gargantuan city, home to some 22 million people in the greater metropolitan area. But the panel did share one obvious preference: They overwhelmingly favored classics, in terms of both the food and the purveyor — time-honored recipes rigorously used at taquerias, cantinas, street stands and the like — over gastronomic wizardry. Only three nontraditional restaurants ultimately made the cut (although Cámara’s Contramar received three nominations for various dishes — the famed tuna tostada among them — before I reminded the panelists that their own restaurants were excluded). When I asked the group why they collectively gravitated to informal, mostly older spots, even as the city seemed awash in fashionable new restaurants these days, the consensus was that many of the newcomers lacked originality (“They all seem the same. Or weirdly French,” says Valdivia Nakatani) and appeared designed to appeal to the recent stampede of expats. And for these locals, at least, the city owes much of its culinary greatness to the people safeguarding the dishes that have been passed down for generations, whether those rooted in pre-Hispanic traditions or those inherited from the immigrants who arrived in Mexico decades ago. Nostalgia came up a lot in our conversation, but that’s not to say that innovation was overlooked entirely.
The biggest challenge was deciding which of the seemingly infinite varieties of tacos to include. Instead of eliminating choices, more were added; any suggestion of paring down was met with good-natured groans. In the end, after several subsequent emails and phone calls, we finally reached a compromise and agreed to feature just five in the final list, which appears in unranked alphabetical order below. But no list of this nature can please everyone. Consider it an inspiration to make your own, and you’ll see just how absurd and deeply gratifying an exercise it can be. — Deborah Dunn
The interview portion has been edited and condensed.
1. The Arroz Tumbada at Fisher’s Lomas Verdes
Grupo Fisher’s — a seafood chain with 32 locations in Mexico, Madrid and San Diego — was established 34 years ago in Naucalpan, an upper-middle-class suburb north of the city center. The restaurant’s founders, Jazmín and Simón Hamparzumian, chose Lomas Verdes, on the edge of the burgeoning neighborhood, for their second location in 1993. Today, it’s still a popular spot for locals, who come for the boisterous atmosphere, reminiscent of the thatched-roof joints along Mexico’s coasts, and for the generous portions. The standout here is the Arroz Tumbada, a rice-and-seafood dish from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. Served in a crockery bowl, it consists of a bubbling shrimp broth and a savory jumble of shrimp, small clams, bits of octopus and red snapper. It’s garnished with fresh cilantro, but you should add a squirt of the house bottled habanero salsa and fresh lime juice. Servers also supply a shot glass of vodka, which you can pour into the broth or use to join your fellow patrons in toasting their favorite soccer team — matches often play on the large televisions lining the walls. The music, leaning heavily on Mexican pop songs from the ’80s and ’90s, can be a tad loud for intimate conversation, but it pairs well with a boozy bowl of tumbada. — Dudley Althaus
Avenida Lomas Verdes 896-B, Colonia Santa Cruz Acatlán, Naucalpan de Juárez.
Gabriela Cámara: Now everybody in Mexico City, including Contramar — but we did it 25 years ago — is serving seafood. Fisher’s has been doing it for 30 years.
Alonso Ruvalcaba: I go with my mom. She lives just across the street. We have drinks there and the tumbada. It’s a beautiful dish. And they come and they ask if you want some vodka with your dish. Yeah. Of course I want that.
2. The Barbacoa at Los Tres Reyes
More than a dish, barbacoa’s a ritual. It involves cooking a whole animal — usually a young lamb — overnight in an underground pit. Once it’s butchered and wrapped in maguey leaves, the meat is set over a pot of heavily spiced broth, placed at the bottom of the pit and left to slowly braise until morning. The Gonzalez family, who own Los Tres Reyes, have replicated what’s typically done in a rural setting in the backyard of their home in the middle-class neighborhood of Alfonso XIII. The yard, about 1,400 square feet in size, is large enough to accommodate six pits, a tortilla-making station and a covered patio with dozens of plastic tables. On weekends and holidays, families descend for elaborate feasts, while guitar-playing musicians compete for attention. The meat, served by weight, goes from the pit to a scale to your hands. You can choose any part of the animal, including the head or the guts, or a blood sausage, but lomo (filet or tenderloin) and costilla (short ribs) are good choices for first timers: they combine tender meat with lean and fatty parts and crunchy bites from the golden skin. Each order comes with freshly made tortillas and an assortment of toppings, so you can be austere or indulgent as build your own taco. Start with the basics: finely chopped cilantro and onion, salsa and a squeeze of lime. Then add layers of flavors and textures: radishes, fresh herbs, slices of avocado, fresh ranchero cheese from Aguascalientes. And if you go on a chilly afternoon, there’s no quicker or more satisfying way to warm up than with a cup of consomé, a thick and delicious broth made from barbacoa juices. — Mariana Camacho
Pablo Veronés 12, Colonia Alfonso XIII.
Cámara: They serve the lamb barbacoa right out of the [underground] oven, so it’s always burning hot. And the meat acquires a smokiness, which makes it irresistible. They also have delicious freshly pressed corn tortillas. A cold beer or curado de pulque [fermented juice of the agave plant], and you are in heaven.
3. The Charred Avocado at Tizne Tacomotora
Until fairly recently, vegetarian tacos were something of a rarity in carnivorous Mexico City, but on the menu at Tizne Tacomotora, a six-table modern taqueria in the largely residential neighborhood of Del Valle, south of the city center, they’re one of the main draws. That’s even more surprising considering that the proprietors, Pilar García and Jorge Linares — cooking-school graduates who started their business selling tacos from a tricycle with a smoker, then opened their permanent place in 2016 — are best known for their smoked and grilled meats, inspired by Southern American and Korean barbecue. As in most of their dishes, including the brisket and pulled pork, García and Linares grill each half of an avocado over an open flame to caramelize the flavors of the fruit and its spice rub (featuring both guajillo and ancho chile powder and tortilla ash) and infuse the dish with a deep smokiness. Then they’re placed on a pewter plate alongside blue corn tortillas so that you can make your own tacos — no guacamole necessary. — Liliana López Sorzano
Diagonal 39, Colonia Del Valle.
Anais Martinez: They use small producers and heirloom corn for their tortillas. They came up with this whole concept of innovating a taco without making it feel like it’s fancy or obnoxious or, like, not a taco. And that specific rub on the avocado is an elevated extra punch of flavor.
Cámara: To me, the genius of this taco is precisely its apparent simplicity, which turns into a sequence of deep and complex bites that just keep on getting better and better. Of course, the fact that the tortillas are freshly made, from different native-Mexican nixtamalized corn [a process that involves soaking the grain with limewater or another alkali] depending on the season, is the true secret.
4. The Chile Relleno Taco at Taquería La Hortaliza
The neighboring Condesa and Roma neighborhoods of Mexico City have become its de facto gringolandia. Though both have long been beloved by the expat community, the pandemic spurred a new wave of remote workers to move there, lured by the beautiful parks and museums and an ever expanding slate of restaurants. It’s a mark of its popularity and endurance that Taqueria La Hortaliza has withstood the area’s evolution, clinging to the western edge of Condesa, next to a highway. Owners Domingo Osorio and Emelida García Flores opened the storefront 33 years ago. Mainly, it’s populated by workers grabbing an efficient lunch for about $2. Wednesday through Saturday, you can find the taco de chile relleno in its lineup: an earthy chile ancho — a.k.a. dried poblano pepper — stuffed with queso panela, battered and fried, then doused in a thin tomato sauce. Chiles rellenos can also be served as a fork-and-knife entree, but in taco form they’re to be eaten lustily, before the tortilla disintegrates in the tomato sauce. — Laura Tillman
Circuito Interior, José Vasconcelos 48, Colonia Condesa.
Ruvalcaba: There’s this silly debate that always comes up when you’re talking about tacos: What’s the most important thing? The tortilla, the filling or the sauce? But the taquero at Taqueria La Hortaliza, the understated Señor Domingo, thinks about something no one ever talks about: how to heat up the tortilla. He flips it violently in a way that makes it stay hotter longer. I’ve tried to replicate it at home, but it’s impossible. He’s like a sushi master.
Carla Valdivia Nakatani: The thing about this taco is that they use a chile ancho, so the taste is very different from that of the more common green poblano chile. It’s smoky, earthy, oily and unexpected.
Ana Dolores:I have gone to La Hortaliza a bunch of times, and I have never managed to get there in time to try the chile relleno. It’s crazy — they run out like that. I always end up ordering something else — there’s lengua and chicharrón prensado in salsa verde, and everything is delicious. But I’m still determined to try the chile one of these days.
5. The Classic Margarita at San Ángel Inn
The origin of the most famous tequila cocktail may be one of the world’s great mysteries, but at the monastic San Ángel Inn, a converted early-17th-century hacienda, there’s no question that the margarita has been on the menu since the restaurant opened its doors in 1963. The bartenders prepare the classic version, with just four ingredients — silver tequila, triple sec, lime and salt — then send the drink out in a chilled ice bucket (rather than mixed with ice) so it doesn’t get diluted on its way to your table. There, the server carefully pours it into a martini glass rimmed with finely grained salt. San Ángel offers strawberry and tamarind as well, and even frozen versions, but the classic margarita is by far the best seller. In a restaurant that gives its neighborhood — a quiet cobblestone enclave about eight miles south of the city center — its name and that is adorned with paintings of how Mexico City once looked, it makes sense that the classic would reign. — Jorge Valencia
Calle Diego Rivera 50, Colonia San Ángel Inn.
Valdivia Nakatani: This is the most elegant margarita in the most lush garden setting! I love how they give you a little extra margarita in a mini ice bucket for you to enjoy in your own time.
Ruvalcaba: You have to sit in the garden — but go early. Mexico City is worse than London: It rains all the time here, and usually in the afternoon. And when it rains, it pours. So get there by 11 or 12. I’m more of a wine guy, but I love the vibe there.
Cámara: It’s as close to perfection as one can get when it comes to sipping a drink in this city.
6. The Conchas, Nata and Hot Chocolate at El Cardenal
There are six El Cardenal locations in Mexico City and each one offers a lunch and dinner menu, but you’ll rarely hear about those meals. It’s the breakfast that packs the fairly formal dining rooms with locals and tourists, usually in the mood for house-baked conchas, seashell-shaped buns with a crunchy, sugary crusts. Here, the panes dulces are delivered to your table by gray- and black-vested waiters fastidious about making sure they’re still warm and fluffy when they arrive, ready to be sliced and slathered with nata, a clotted cream made at El Cardenal’s own dairy in Zumpango, north of the city. Run by the same family since it opened in 1969, this mini-empire has made a name for itself by trumpeting traditional Mexican dishes, which makes it feel near sacrilegious not to partake in one of the country’s most time-honored culinary traditions: dipping your concha and nata into hot chocolate, another of El Cardenal’s house specialties, which is whisked tableside. — M.C.
Martinez: This is one of the most home-style breakfasts you can have in Mexico. It reminds me of my childhood, when I used to go visit family who had a ranch, and they’d boil the fresh milk and make nata. And then we’d always grab a concha to eat with it. So at El Cardenal, you get this thing you’d normally only find at home, but it’s also in a beautiful restaurant setting. And the hot chocolate it serves is Mexican hot chocolate, made with a washed cacao, which tastes very nutty.
Valdivia Nakatani: Before you can even sit down, you are asked if you’d like a hot chocolate, a concha and nata. The answer should always be “yes,” even if it extends your stay because your breakfast turns into a three-course meal. Of all the Cardenals, the one on Palma Street in the Centro Histórico, with its stained-glass windows, is the prettiest.
Cámara: I always go for the savory instead of the sweet for breakfast, and my favorite thing on El Cardenal’s menu is the omelet with huazontles [a plant native to Mexico]. But the concha and nada are inarguably great.
7. The Date Pie at Al-Andalus
The sprawling market district of La Merced at the eastern edge of the Centro Histórico has always served as a port of call for new arrivals to Mexico City, among them the Lebanese immigrants who started making their homes here in the late-19th century. Most of those families have since moved on to wealthier districts, but many come downtown to eat at the original Al-Andalus (there are now several branches around the city), run by the chef Mohamed Mazeh and his family since 1994. A pair of heavy wooden doors open off the chaotic cobbled street into the shaded courtyard of a gracious 17th-century house, a vestige of the Arab architecture that the first Spanish colonizers brought to the Americas. Up a flight of stone stairs, families and local business owners gather in the rambling collection of dining rooms, their high ceilings striated with wooden beams. Hourslong meals of mutton shawarma and mezze like labneh, grape leaves and raw kibbe end, invariably, with honey-soaked blossoms of puff pastry or, ideally, a perfect wedge of date-and-walnut tart. The nut-paste filling, at once crumbly and creamy, is enriched with seams of shredded dates and topped by a pockmarked surface of shattered walnuts. Paired with bittersweet Turkish coffee, the pie — the whole experience of Al-Andalus, really — transports you not to the Middle East or the Maghreb, but to Mexico City’s many pasts. — Michael Snyder
Mesones 171, Centro Histórico.
Ruvalcaba: Al-Andalus is in theLebanese neighborhood, which has all these beautiful buildings. I had been living about two blocks away for around 10 years when I started dating a woman who told me we had to go there. She said, “We’re going to have dessert first because you’re probably going to eat too much and you won’t want dessert, but you have to try this pie.” So I did and it blew my mind. I obviously fell in love with her. I would definitely have that pie one last time before I die.
Cámara: It’s perfect.
Martinez: Al-Andalus is really cool. Middle Eastern gastronomy had a ton of influence on our cuisine. Tacos al pastor are just one example. But we’ve had three different waves of immigrants from that part of the world, so the culture is very strong here.
8. The Enmolada at Pujol
Puebla, Mexico City’s neighboring state, and Oaxaca, both to the southeast, are considered the birthplace of mole, an elaborate sauce made with chiles, chocolate, seasonal fruits and dozens of spices that’s known for its countless variations. Pujol, the famed fine-dining restaurant in Mexico City’s genteel Polanco neighborhood, is the birthplace of Mole Madre, conceived by the chef Enrique Olvera and his team in 2013 and featuring the rare chilhuacle chiles (also from Oaxaca) and roughly 25 other ingredients. The restaurant has been adding to that “mother” sauce for a decade now, serving it pooled below a spoonful of freshly made nuevo mole as the signature dish in Pujol’s five-course tasting menu, these days overseen by the chef de cuisine Jesús Durón. But there’s a less obvious way to sample those two moles: the enmolada, one of the 10 courses that are part of Pujol’s taco omakase, which is offered only at the 10-seat bar. There, you’ll get a hoja santa tortilla — the herb, similar in flavor to anise, is also central to Oaxacan cooking — drenched in mole nuevo and folded into a triangle that rests on a bed of mole madre and comes topped with sesame seeds. Subtly complex and deeply aromatic, it’s the star of the menu and rightly so. — L.L.S.
Tennyson 133, Polanco.
Cámara: We wouldn’t even be having this conversation had it not been for Pujol. Mexican food, as the world now knows it, [exists] in large measure because of Enrique Olvera.
Martinez: The mole is what everyone comes for — it’s a good representation of how much Oaxacan food has influenced Olvera’s cuisine.
9. The Esquites at Elotes Estrada
You can satisfy a craving for grilled corn, on and off the cob, by stopping by the stands all around Mexico City. But to fully appreciate the staggering variety of options, go scan the mountains of fresh ears piled around the Estrada family’s stall, a fixture at Jamaica Market, south of the Centro Histórico, for more than three decades. The crowd-pleaser there is the cupful of esquites, a traditional corn snack that the Estradas make using either the cacahuazintle, known for its thick, soft kernels, or crunchier small-kernel corn. The classic choice is the traditional esquite, in which either kernel (or both) is sautéed with onions and aromatic epazote leaves in giant clay pots, then combined with mayonnaise, lime juice, salt and chile powder. From there, you can add a handful of other savory toppings, including mushrooms, bone marrow or chicken’s feet. Many locals favor suadero, a thin, fatty beef cut from just under the skin. And for nontraditionalists, there’s the Doriesquites: esquites with melted cheese and Doritos for scooping. — Cristina Alonso
Mercado Jamaica, Door 1, Aisle 1, Stand 18.
Valdivia Nakatani: There are lots of esquite stands to choose from all over the city, but this one has a special place in my heart because of its undeniable consistency in flavor and location in the city’s largest flower market — when I had a flower-arranging business, I would arrive at 7 a.m. to shop and end my trip with a reward: an esquite from Elotes Estrada. I normally go for the classic preparation with mayonnaise, chile and lime.
Martinez: Because they’re also corn vendors, they give you the freshest corn that you can get. And they have so many different kinds. My favorite are the charred esquites with mushrooms and chile de árbol.
10. The Fideo Seco a los Tres Chiles at Restaurante Nicos
“Fideo” means noodle in Spanish, but in Mexico it most commonly refers to the prepackaged thin semolina ones sold in most convenience stores and used in fideo seco — a plate typically slathered in a chipotle sauce and often served as a first course for fixed-price meals in neighborhood restaurants known as fondas. For Nicos’s version, chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo uses the same dried product sold all over town but crafts his own rich and smoky three-chile sauce (ancho, pasilla and guajillo) to coat the noodles and then showers them with fresh cotija cheese from a nearby dairy cooperative and sprigs of cilantro grown in an urban garden. When Vázquez’s parents opened Nicos in 1957, part of their mission was to bring quality dining to their local neighborhood, Azcapotzalco, at the northwestern boundary of Mexico City; a few decades ago, when he took the helm, the restaurant became one of the first in the city to embrace the slow-food movement and support small producers, honoring traditional dishes from around the country and preparing them with regional ingredients. — Lydia Carey
Av. Cuitláhuac 3102, Claveria, Azcapotzalco.
Martinez: This is a very Mexican way to use pasta, which I don’t think Italians would appreciate. It’s almost overcooked. It wasn’t until I went to culinary school that I learned that pasta was not used in that way outside of Mexico. Nicos’s take on traditional Mexican recipes is amazing. It’s casual but still has the feel of home. Vazquez’s mom — I think she’s almost 90 — is still there, going around to every table to say “Hi.”
Cámara: Nicos has been so important for the Mexico City food scene and for bringing attention to Mexico’s wonderful ingredients. [As for the fideo seco,] talk about syncretism. My mother is Italian, and when I was growing up she was like, “How can they call this pasta?” But I love it. And if you make a taco with the leftovers, even better.
11. The Gelato at Joe Gelato
José Luis Cervantes never imagined himself opening a gelateria. But after cooking in elite restaurants in Mexico, Japan and Australia, he ended up working as a station chef at the three-Michelin-star Le Calandre in Padua, Italy, where he also made gelato for its more casual restaurant next door, Il Calandrino. After moving back home in 2015, Cervantes opened a Mexico City restaurant that closed after the 2017 earthquake. After that, he opened Joe Gelato on a busy corner in the Colonia Juárez, with its stylish boutiques and grand Porfiriato facades (the late 19th to early 20th century architectural style named for the former President Porfirio Díaz). Its seasonal menu can include nogada — inspired by the walnut sauce on the iconic dish chiles en nogada — and marigold, made from the flower that is commonly used to decorate graves during Día de los Muertos.But the shop always has three standard flavors: a slightly salty, roasted pistachio; a dense, dark cacao; and olive oil, which is both bright and rich at once. The olive oil, sourced from either Baja California or Umbria, Italy, emphasizes the sweetness of the milk, just as it does when drizzled over fresh mozzarella. — L.T.
Calle Versalles 78, Colonia Juárez.
Dolores: This is the best ice cream in the city. The texture is perfect; Joe, the owner, makes it himself every day. It’s also such a warm, friendly place. My favorite flavor is probably the salted caramel, but I also love that he does these wild experiments. He’s made black garlic gelato, jicama with sriracha — he’s always exploring.
Martinez: I love him so much. The olive oil is the house specialty. But I like the cacao. It’s water based, and he uses the entire plant. He’s like a chemist.
12. The Green Mole Quesadilla at Jenni’s Quesadillas
Of all Mexico City’s culinary eccentricities, none is more confounding to the rest of the country than quesadillas made sin queso — without cheese. But the quesadilla de mole verde prepared by 71-year-old Elena Rojas Vara at her stall in the Roma neighborhood is the notable exception. Rojas started coming to the neighborhood at age 14, distributing tamales and atole (a drink made from ground corn) from a rolling cart. About 40 years ago, she opened a stall on the corner of Colima and Mérida — it consists of a folding table and a steel comal, the round flat cooking surface at the heart of traditional Mexican cooking — in what would soon become the city’s most fashionable district. At their home just outside of Mexico City, Rojas and her daughters prepare fillings like wilted quelites (garden greens) and strips of chile poblano drenched in cream. But it’s the mole verde — thickened with pumpkin seeds, brightened with herbs like cilantro, epazote and pápalo and spiced with pepper and cloves — that best captures the subtlety and care of Mexico’s rural cooking. Much to Rojas’s consternation, the family’s stall has for years been known erroneously by the name of a particularly charismatic employee, Jenni, who was eventually enshrined on Google Maps. Whoever they’re named for, Rojas’s quesadillas, impeccable in their bare-bones simplicity, have become a comforting mainstay and a fragile link to the past in a constantly changing corner of the city. — M.S.
Corner of Mérida and Colima, Colonia Roma.
Dolores: Everything is good, but the mole verde always impresses me. It has the exact right amount of heat and spice. When I worked at Campo Baja [a seafood restaurant right across the street], I would sometimes eat there three or four times a week. I go less now, but anytime I’m nearby I stop in. Even if I’m not that hungry, I can always make a little space.
Cámara: I love that Jenni’s is so successful, but I hate that all these amazing places are full of gringos. And I know I’m also benefiting from it. I mean, it’s very complicated, but putting a street stand in The New York Times has always made it explode, which is a great thing. But I think [when you send tourists here], the charm of finding something unknown on the street is lost. And Jenni’s is already packed.
Martinez: I think Jenni’s is really good, but you can also find great quesadilla ladies at every other market.
13. The Green Pozole at El Pozole de Moctezuma
Founded in 1947 by Balbina Valle and currently run by her grandchildren and great-grandsons, the restaurant near the northern edge of the Centro Histórico has withstood the construction of a metro stop nearly on top of it, the expansion of two major roadways on either side, which cut it off from the surrounding neighborhood, and the earthquake of 1985. There is no sign to mark the entrance, only a tiny slip of paper next to a doorbell that reads “Pozole,” as if it were a resident’s surname. Yet the two dining rooms — fluorescent lit with pleated green curtains and heavy wooden furniture — fill up every afternoon with diners indulging in brimming casseroles of pozole verde. The pozole at Moctezuma, served in a pale green broth thickened with pumpkin seeds and herbs, is an impeccable rendition of the classic pork-and-hominy stew as it’s typically prepared in the western state of Guerrero. Ordered “preparado,” the pozole arrives alongside a rolling cart crowded with bowls of minced onion and serrano, ground oregano and chile, a shot glass of lime, a whole avocado and broken sheaves of chicharrón (fried pork rinds). One by one, the server adds these accompaniments into your bowl and then beats in a raw egg, sardines and a drizzle of mezcal. — M. S.
Moctezuma 12, Colonia Guerrero.
Martinez: It’s likea pozole speakeasy. It feels like an apartment, but it’s a working restaurant. And then they make this really good pozole and give you so many more options for toppings than other pozole places. They really go beyond.
14. The Mapo Tofu at Hong King
When Hong King first opened in 1963, the capital’s Chinatown — a few pedestrian-only blocks in the Centro Histórico — was just starting to take shape. Historians believe that Chinese immigrants had been living in the country since as early as the 1600s, and over the centuries that followed, large communities formed across Mexico to work in agriculture or on the expanding railroad, but a violent backlash in the 1930s forced many Chinese Mexicans to leave the country or move to the capital, which had a more diverse population. Joseph Tam, who now helps manage the restaurant, recalls his father surveying tables to find out which elements of each dish customers enjoyed — and which he might adapt to the local palate. The mapo tofu epitomizes that process of addition and subtraction: Shrimp and chicken are proportional to the chunks of tofu; mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns are replaced with smoky, dried chile de árbol. The best tables are upstairs by the window overlooking the red lanterns and parasols that float on wires above the dense commerce of the streets below. — L.T.
Callejon Dolores 25 A, Colonia Centro.
Cámara: You know, I think it’s one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world.
Ruvalcaba: Yeah. And anti-Chinese racism still exists in Mexico City. But Chinese Mexican people have been here for at least a hundred years.What I find incredibly satisfying about Hong King is that when you go there and you ask for the mapo tofu, which I love, you might expect to get chile oil or soy sauce, but instead you get Salsa Valentina, this hot sauce from Jalisco. That’s the most Chinese Mexican thing ever.
Cámara: I think it’s really cool. And the mapo tofu is actually worth going for.
15. The Orecchiette at Meroma
Visitors and locals alike have been flocking to Meroma, situated in a busy section of Roma, since it opened in 2016. They go for the décor — the minimalist restaurant is housed in a circa 1950s modernist building with a glass-topped dining room and outdoor terrace. And they go to share refined small plates, none as enduringly popular as the orecchiette — a constant on the ever-changing, seasonal menu. A warming bowl of freshly made pasta, cumin-spiced lamb merguez (prepared in-house in keeping with the kitchen’s goal to waste as little protein as possible) and broccoli braised with bread crumbs and peppery mustard leaf, with a slight kick from Korean red chiles, it’s the kind of thoughtfully simple dish that the chef Mercedes Bernal specializes in. Bernal worked at Manhattan’s Café Boulud, among other restaurants, before returning to the city where she grew up to open Meroma alongside her husband, the American chef Rodney Cusic. They devise the menu together, with Cusic overseeing the wine list and cocktails. What drink to pair with the orecchiette? Cusic and Bernal suggest the Mezcal Fresh: Its mix of smoky espadín mezcal, celery juice, ginger and spiced honey “helps the palette enjoy the fattiness of the pasta,” Bernal says. — D.A.
Meroma, Calle Colima 150, Colonia Roma Norte.
Valdivia Nakatani: Meroma’s now one of my favorite places to just celebrate with people I love because it feels kind of bar-y and Italian. I always order the orecchiette. The shape of the pasta perfectly delivers the juiciness of the lamb in every bite. It’s definitely a comfort dish for me.
Ruvalcaba: I also order that when I go there.
Cámara: Me too. Good for them. Meroma’s come up with a classic.
16. The Pork Shank at Bar El Sella
How exactly to define a cantina is a vexing question. Most have been around for at least 50 years, some for well over 100. They all serve drinks and food and assiduously avoid trends. Servers, often as not, wear bow ties and vests. El Sella, bought in 1955 by José del Valle Caso and currently run by his son and grandson in working-class Colonia Doctores, is easily among the city’s best: It’s loud and crowded, especially on weekends, and old-fashioned without being stuffy. Drawing equally on the culinary traditions of Mexico City and Asturias in northern Spain, where the owners trace their roots, El Sella serves an excellent chorizo cooked in cider and a fine dessert of ate con queso (quince paste with cheese) flambéed tableside. But the showstopper is the meltingly tender chamorro, or braised pork shank (order it on the bone), which arrives at the table glistening with fat and luxuriating in its own fragrant juices. — M.S.
Dr. Balmis 210, Colonia Doctores.
Cámara: The pork shank at El Sella is one of my favorite dishes in the city. The silky meat, fresh onion, cilantro and hot sauce — it never fails.
Dolores: This is definitely the best chamorro. The guys in the kitchen have been there forever, and they cook from the heart.
Martinez: They cook the pork for so long that the meat just falls off the bone, and you get warm tortillas and salsa on the side. The [space] itself is very cool. You go there to decompress after work and to have a traditional drink like a Cuba libre. Old-school everything.
17. The Refried Beans and Eggs at Fonda Margarita
A fonda is typically a small, inexpensive restaurant serving home-style food, and Fonda Margarita, on a pretty plaza behind a colonial church in the Colonia del Valle, does this with exceptional skill. When Margarita Lugo de Castillo first started selling food from an outdoor stall here in 1945, this area had just begun to urbanize. The guisos (or cooked dishes) that bubbled away in her clay pots fed the construction workers, plumbers and electricians who had been brought in to build the new upper-middle-class district. Few dishes in her repertoire were heartier or more elemental than her refried beans and scrambled eggs, dense and lush and heavy as a brick. By 1948, Lugo had moved to the modest, garage-like room now managed by her children, who open it from 6:30 a.m. to noon each day except Monday. Big casseroles set up on burners at the back of the room — not unlike those that Margarita once used — hold a selection of guisos that might, on a given day, include pink longaniza (a sausage similar to chorizo) in a salsa verde or pork spine in a deep red sauce of chile guajillo. But the beans and eggs, made with unknowable (and probably unthinkable) quantities of lard, have been a constant for more than three quarters of a century. — M.S.
Adolfo Prieto 1364B, Colonia Tlacoquemecatl del Valle.
Martinez: This dish is also called huevos tirados, which means dropped eggs, because it kind of looks like you dropped the scrambled eggs into the beans. It’s like an enhanced version of country food. The setting is also really cool. They have these old musicians at the door who have been there for 100 years. That plus the smell of the wood fire and the copious amount of lard on everything is amazing.
18. The Shabu Shabu at Yoshimi
Few places in this crowded, chaotic city are as instantly calming as Yoshimi, the Japanese restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Polanco. It has the kind of elegantly spare décor and pale wood furnishings you might expect to see in Tokyo. You can even opt to sit in the restaurant’s “Zen garden,” an outdoor terrace scattered with boulders and enclosed by a wall of bamboo. The kitchen is overseen by chef Miriam Moriyama, who was born in Argentina to Japanese parents and sources many of her ingredients from Japan, including the ponzu sauce, much of the meat and about half the seafood (although she’s partial to Baja California’s bluefin tuna). And while the sushi might lure in newcomers, regulars routinely order Moriyama’s favorite dish, the shabu shabu — a substantial heap of leafy greens, tofu and mushrooms combined with noodles and thin slices of rib-eye steak that are cooked in a boiling dashi broth at your table until meltingly tender. Each serving is big enough to feed two and comes with sashimi and a cucumber salad, which makes for a relaxing feast. — M.C.
Campos Elíseos 204, Polanco.
Cámara: The Japanese influence in Mexico City is a thing. You can’t escape mayo with chipotle. It was because of the Japanese influence that I made my tostada atún. [At Yoshimi], the quality is consistently high, and it’s also very private. You go there when you don’t need to be in a sceney place.
Valdivia Nakatani: I’m a sucker for very traditional Japanese places; it’s some kind of nostalgia for times when my mother’s side of the family would host Christmas. The shabu shabu at Yoshimi is pure in its flavors — all the ingredients come through crisp and clean and leave you feeling warm.
19. The Taco al Pastor at Tortas el Paisa
At all hours of the day, Tortas el Paisa’s massive trompa — the cone of pork used to make Mexico City’s emblematic tacos al pastor — turns slowly on its axis, strands of onion dangling like tinsel from between layers of slowly roasting meat. About five or six taqueros move swiftly among customers, collecting and distributing plates, while others slice sheaves of half-cooked pork from the trompa that tumble onto a sizzling flat top below. There, they continue to cook in their own rendered juices before being crisped on a plancha inside the tiny storefront and slipped onto tortillas or between glossy lobes of bread. Al pastor, arguably the Mexican capital’s most significant contribution to the national cuisine, traces its roots to Middle Eastern shawarma, brought to Mexico by Iraqi families who fled Baghdad after the collapse of British rule in the Levant in the early-20th century. Settling in the city of Puebla, they traded out lamb for pork and yogurt for a thick red salsa, retaining shawarma’s vertical rotisserie and wheat-based pita, or pan árabe. A few decades later, in the 1960s, tacos árabes came to Mexico City, where the meat was slathered in a bright-orange adobo and served on corn tortillas to make al pastor. Based in the leafy middle-class neighborhood of Viaducto Piedad — today, the heart of Mexico’s small community of first-generation Chinese immigrants — El Paisa serves an unusually subtle version, its flavor dominated by sweet alliums that caramelize slowly as the day wears on. — M.S.
Coruña 298, Viaducto Piedad.
Dolores: These are just great tacos. A lot of the pastor you see around the city is this super-bright-orange color — usually because it’s made with a paste that has a lot of axiote [a native seed]— but here the flavor is more about the pork and, of course, all that caramelized onion. The “best” pastor is such a personal thing. If you grew up in Mexico City, it’s about what you’re nostalgic for, and I’ve been going here since I was a kid. There’s really no such thing as the best pastor, but El Paisa is unique.
Martinez: There are only a few dishes that are originally from Mexico City, and tacos al pastor is one of them. There are two kinds — one with pineapple and one with caramelized onions. This one has the onions.
20. The Taco Campechano at Ricos Tacos Toluca
In 2003, Ted Oliver Rossano Terán opened a tentlike stall in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico that specialized in stewed longaniza. In the past 20 years, he’s moved his business twice, opening its current location — on a spacious corner storefront between two municipal markets — in 2020. In that time, Rosanno has also gradually shifted his offerings toward the cured meats and sausages produced in his native Estado de México. Every Tuesday through Saturday, Rossano commutes 90 minutes with his wife, Rosa, and their son, Ted, from the town of Mexicaltzingo, their pickup truck packed with salt-cured beef, or cecina, and homemade sausages in four flavors — the familiar chile-spiked rojo, tropical habanero, sour tamarind and vegetal verde, stained green with parsley, cilantro and poblano chiles — all rounded out with crunchy peanuts and juicy raisins. In the taco campechano, a generic term in Mexican cooking that refers to a mix of two or more ingredients, the chorizo (order the verde), crisped on the plancha along with thin pieces of cecina, is decadent, bright, familiar yet surprising. — M.S.
López 103, Colonia Centro.
Dolores: I love this place not just because the chorizo verde is delicious, but because the family who run it are so kind. They make everything themselves, and it’s all fantastic: the chorizo verde and the cecina, but also the obispo, which is like a big uncured sausage with manzano chiles, and, wow, the head cheese. People from wealthier parts of the city tend to look down on dishes like head cheese — there’s a lot of classism in the way people in Mexico City eat — so I love that they serve these things proudly.
Martinez: It’s a family-owned business and they make their own chorizo. And I love that going here takes people to the back streets of the Centro Histórico.
21. The Tamal de Rajas at Tamales Fer
Fernando Soriano’s tamal cart operates only between 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, turning its usual spot, outside a Walmart in Narvarte, Roma’s more residential neighbor to the south, into hallowed ground. Soriano has been setting up shop in the same location for the past 10 years, prepping each evening’s batch at his home nearby with the help of his family. They mix the cornmeal dough by hand, soak and dry the corn husks used to wrap the classic tamales (or the banana leaves for the Oaxaca-style ones), prepare their own subtly spicy red jalapeño salsa and switch up the fillings depending on the season (summer brings the blackberry and cream-cheese varieties.) But Tamales Fer loyalists know that, year-round, at least one of the giant metal steamers will be filled with sublime tamal de rajas. Once you untie each parcel, the masa inside is dense, soft and spongy, cradling melted Oaxaca cheese, rajas (roasted strips of poblano peppers) and a little salsa. In the hands of less exacting tamal makers, the masa might be too soggy or too crumbly by the time you unwrap it, but here, the texture is ideal, holding remarkably well even if you shove a bunch in a bag to go. Still, like all good street food, it’s best consumed immediately. — C.A.
Xochicalco 295 (outside Walmart), Colonia Narvarte.
Valdivia Nakatani: There are a million tamal carts in the city, and everyone has their go-to. Don Fer’s is mine, both because Narvarte is one of my favorite neighborhoods and because his tamales de rajas are always perfect. For the full experience, you have to get it with the atole de guayaba, a delicious warm and hearty drink made with corn flour and guava.
22. The Tlacoyo at Tlacoyos Medellín
On virtually every street in Mexico City, you’ll find a modest stall serving up a range of corn-based snacks known collectively as antojitos (“little cravings”). The humblest is the tlacoyo: a football-shaped pocket of blue-corn masa stuffed with requesón (Mexico’s answer to ricotta), puréed black beans, mashed favas or cottony chicharrón prensado (crispy pork skin pressed in a mold to remove excess fat). Cooked on a comal, it’s then slit open and topped with nopales, shredded cheese, onion, cilantro and salsa, either red or green or both. For the past 36 years, the women of the Peña Miramón family have served a superlative version at their stall outside the Mercado Medellín in the Colonia Roma. Made in clay casseroles at their home in Estado de México, more than an hour’s commute away, the fillings are intensely earthy and flavorful, and the surrounding layer of masa, cooked over charcoal rather than propane, is shatteringly crisp. — M.S.
Corner of Campeche and Medellín, near the entrance of Mercado Medellín, Colonia Roma.
Martinez: The skill with which those ladies make everything in front of you is unbelievable, and [their stall] is right in the middle of fancy Roma, where you have some of the best restaurants in the city, and they’re just there and making amazing food as well.
23. The Torta Chilaquiles With Chicken Milanesa at La Esquina del Chilaquil
Among the most iconic stands in Condesa, La Esquina del Chilaquil specializes in the combination of two classic street foods: the torta, a sandwich made with a crusty bolillo bun, and chilaquiles, fried tortilla chips drenched in salsa. Owner Perla Flores attributes the idea of putting together bread, originally brought by Spanish colonizers, and tortilla, a precolonial staple, to her mother: Rosario Millán was selling chilaquiles on the same street corner when, in 1996, one customer complained they couldn’t eat them in their office because the smell of warm salsa would waft into their boss’s nose. To trap the scent, Millán, who died in 2020, shoved the chilaquiles inside a roll. These days, the family sells tortas with chilaquiles to scores of office workers daily, some of whom stand in line for more than an hour and buy the tortas in bulk to take back and share with colleagues. Their best seller is the torta with chilaquiles in green tomato salsa, along with a smear of refried beans, a slice of fried chicken, shredded cheese and sour cream. The torta with chilaquiles in red salsa is slightly spicier. Can’t decide? Ask for a torta mixta and get them both inside the same bun. — J.V.
On the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas Avenidas, Colonia Condesa.
Martinez: If you just hear about it, it doesn’t make any sense. Breaded and deep-fried chicken inside a bun that’s filled with deep-fried mushy tortillas? It’s insane, but it somehow works.
Valdivia Nakatani: It’s a classic for families and hung over people. The soupy chilaquiles and the milanesa live inside a classic bolillo (our version of the New York deli roll), which is the perfect container: crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside to soak up all the salsa from the chilaquiles. Then there’s the crunch of the tortilla chips and the breaded chicken. It’s just to die for!
Cámara: What’s really brilliant about this is that it’s like a contemporary version of the torta de tamal [a tamal inside a bolillo bun], which is such a Mexico City thing.
24. The Torta de Cochinita at Tacos de Oro XEW
Now entering its fourth generation in the city’s Centro Histórico, Tacos de Oro XEW first opened nearly 80 years ago next door to the radio station from which it takes its name, serving nothing but cochinita pibil, the spiced, slow-cooked pork dish emblematic of the Yucatán Peninsula. Located since the 1980s in a slip of a storefront on Calle López, the Centro Histórico’s most famous food street, Tacos de Oro serves its cochinita in one of three ways: rolled into tacos, nestled atop crisp panuchos(slender rounds of masa stuffed with beans and deep-fried) or tucked between the halves of an airy bolillo to make a perfect torta. Many Yucateco restaurants in the capital serve cochinita that more closely resembles pulled pork, so tender and fat laden that it’s almost a spread (delicious in its own right). But at Tacos de Oro, the pork holds its shape in a brothy sauce stained red with achiote. Thrown on the plancha, the bolillo flattens out and becomes as yielding as a dumpling wrapper. — M.S.
López 107, Colonia Centro.
Ruvalcaba: I think [Tacos de Oro XEW] uses the whole pig to make the cochinita, or at the very least makes it out of a variety of meats: There are little bits of skin and probably ears. This is not at all common in Mexico City.
Martinez: The meat is cooked to tender perfection and, together with the freshness of pickled red onion on top, is complete magic.
25. The Vuelve a la Vida at Marisquería El K-Guamo
For the past 49 years, the Tamariz family has run the El Caguamo seafood stand in the Centro Histórico on busy Ayuntamiento Street near the Mercado de San Juan. Ten years ago, the Tamarizes opened the brick-and-mortar K-Guamo, with metal tables and chairs and beer service, just down the block. Often packed for lunch, K-Guamo has a large, ever-changing menu that draws from the abundance of the city’s fish market, second in size only to Tokyo’s. The greatest way to try it all is with the Vuelve a la Vida (or Back to Life) platter, its name a wink to the Mexican custom of eating seafood to cure a hangover. Out comes a medley of ceviches: crab, octopus, squid, tilapia, oysters and shrimp, all served in a slurry of sweet, ketchup-based cocktail sauce that has just the slightest heat. It’s topped with a mound of chopped red onion, cilantro, a few slices of ripe avocado and a succulent pata de mula clam, and all it takes is one scoop on a saltine cracker to feel revived. — L. C.
Ayuntamiento 10, Colonia Centro.
Martinez: It’s Veracruz style, so it’s really heavy on the tomato-y sauce. It’s just so fresh — you can tell that we have the second-biggest fish market in the world just by going there.
Cámara: My favorite is the coctel campechano, usually with shrimp, octopus and fish, either in the crispy corn tostada or a glass mug. It’s been a tradition of mine to make a stop at the El Caguamo stall after going to the market for as long as I can remember.