From $ to $$$: Cheap Eats to Haute Cuisine in the Gastronomic Capital of Latin America

By Carole Reedy

Rituals, tradition, enjoyment, and family: these are the elements that make dining in Mexico City an integral part of your visit. Wherever and whenever you roam the city, food is offered; from kiosks selling sweets to informal outdoor cafes and coffee shops to formal dining rooms. Pay 50 pesos or 500 for a meal in Mexico City. Whatever your taste or budget, savory restaurants with fresh food abound, and fruits and vegetables are available year round.

One of the biggest attractions in this megalopolis is the sheer variety of cuisines. Not only are there the traditional flavors of different regions of Mexico (Oaxacan moles and tamales, cochinita pibil from Yucatan, carnitas from Michoacan, and the African-Cuban influence of Veracruz), but gourmets will find themselves in food heaven given the range of international selections–French, Spanish, Argentinean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Lebanese, to name a few.

A most refreshing factor in eating out in Mexico City is that variety and quality are found in all price ranges. Here are just a few recommendations. All estimates are for a complete meal per person, alcohol and tip not included. Of course there are hundreds of restaurants in the city, but those mentioned are conveniently located in tourist and business areas.

$ Under 100 pesos

Hands-down the best value for a delicious meal is the comida corrida. This main meal of the day is eaten by Mexicans between 1 and 5 pm. Comida corrida consists of four courses: soup; an appetizer of rice, salad, or spaghetti; the main course; and dessert. All include a pitcher of the agua of the day, be it melon, watermelon, Jamaica, or whatever’s in season. There’s tremendous turnover daily in these establishments, so you can be confident the food is extremely fresh, prepared just that morning.

Several of these eateries conveniently line the streets of Rio Lerma and Rio Sena, just off of Paseo de Reforma, close to the Monumento del Ángel. You’ll enjoy dining among local businesspeople, possibly finding yourself the only foreigner, but not to worry, you’ll be welcome. The price of a four-course meal is between 47 and 90 pesos per person. A typical meal would be tortilla soup (sometimes referred to as Azteca soup) or a consume de pollo; rice, plain or with a garnish; a choice of three main dishes (grilled chicken or beef, prepared with a different sauce each day; enchiladas or chile rellenos; or fish, for example), and a pudding or cookie for dessert. The menus vary daily, and from time to time surprises pop up. Yesterday I went into one of the restaurants to find that a hamburger and French fries were the main course. I opted for the conchinita pibil. (If you’re salivating for a hamburger try WLB (We Love Burgers) in Condesa, Michoacan 172.)

In Condesa, among the pricier and trendy tourist bistros, you’ll find the locals eating at one of the several outdoor restaurants on Parras street, just steps from two of the most beautiful parks in the city, Parque España and Parque Mexico. The corrida comida at these eateries costs between 90 to 100 pesos per person, the choices more varied and the creativity of preparation less traditional than those on Rio Lerma. The other day, for example, I had a carrot soup, followed by pasta in a delicate tomato sauce, a pork chop teriyaki accompanied by rice with saffron and pine nuts, a small lettuce salad, a small dessert, and agua of the day.

$$ 100 to 999 pesos

El Bajio restaurants, with several locations (Reforma 222 in the Zona Rosa and in Colonias Napoles, Polanco, Lindavista, and Santa Fe, among others). Since the 1970s, the family of Carmen Titita has been serving genuine Mexican cuisine. The carnitas (braised or roasted, and then fried, pork) are the tastiest and most tender you’ll ever experience, and it’s a wonderful dish to share since you order it by the kilo. A quarter kilo is perfect for two. Fill your corn tortilla with the meat and a garnish of cilantro, onions and/or salsa.   Add an Azteca soup, and a margarita or cold beer to complete your typical Mexican lunch.

Mezzo Mezzo, Rio Neva 30, Colonia Cuauhtémoc. This small Italian outdoor bistro is a favorite with my repeat visitors. What’s its magic? Perhaps sitting outdoors among the eight or so other tables with diners of all ages, some businesspeople, students, and a few tourists. It’s cozy with a European ambiance. Although the owner is French, the cuisine is definitely Italian. Their special pizza is a hit with everyone. It is called Gypsy pizza (Gitana) and is topped with ingredients such as figs, Serrano ham, and Brie cheese, individual flavors blending for a heavenly experience. Pastas, salads, and excellent brioches and wines complete the menu.

Villa Condesa, Colonia Roma, Colima 428. This quaint, charming boutique hotel was named by Tripadvisor as the best in Mexico City and its lovely restaurant is open to the public. Recently I lunched with a group of 15 friends in the outdoor garden among the flowers and vegetation as we were carefully and courteously attended to by several knowledgeable waiters. The owners, Daisy and Homero, were waiting at the door to greet us with a special drink, tepache, which is fermented pineapple with a touch of mezcal. Our lunch was fresh tuna, chicken, or a tender filet mignon, with an appetizer, soup, and dessert. This is also a beautiful location for a small group to gather as it allows maximum privacy and staff attention. Breakfast is served at the Villa and is a perfect way to start the day before strolling through the streets and parks of Condesa. Reservations required.

Al Andalus, Centro Historico, Mesones 171, and another location in Colonia Napoles.

Lebanese food at it finest for a population that enjoys the delicate spices and flavors of the Middle East. You’ll find all your favorite specialties of the region here: falafel, eggplant, jocoque, pita bread, and lamb dishes. The ambiance is elegant and peaceful, a welcome contrast to the hustle bustle of the streets of centro historico.

 

$$$ 999 pesos and up

Pujol is the crème de la crème of restaurants in the city, located at Francisco Petrarca 254 in Colonia Polanco. It has been named one of the top twenty restaurants in the world. When a Chicago visitor graciously invited me to dine with him at Pujol, my first thought was “oh, I don’t eat in those fancy restaurants!” But, my second thought was “why not,” and how delighted I am in retrospect. From the moment I made the reservation by telephone, the staff was friendly, efficient, and polite. Before I could hang up, a written confirmation of our reservation appeared in my email inbox. This was to be just the beginning of Pujol’s excellent service and attention to detail, in an unpretentious and friendly atmosphere. There’s a thorough explanation of Chef Enrique Olvera’s menu on the restaurant’s website, which is almost as much fun to read as the food is to eat.

Each of the seven courses (for a fixed price of $1,170 pesos) is a surprise, presented by a professional and amenable wait staff who explain (yes, in English, too) each ingredient that makes up the visually interesting and aromatically comforting courses, leaving you with a gastronomic evening to remember. You’ll be treated to Mexican traditions, such as mole verde, escamoles, fresh tortillas, and the vast variety of Mexican spices and garnishes (cilantro, mint, garlic, ginger and avocado) prepared in vegetable, fish, and meat dishes in a unique way. The peanut ice cream with banana cake finale couldn’t have been more perfect. Make reservations well in advance for a multiple-course dining experience at this popular and intriguing restaurant.

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