By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
During our frequent trips to Mexico City, we almost always stay in the Polanco neighborhood. This upscale area is safe and walkable, near Chapultepec Park, loaded with museums, theaters, movies and an incredibly rich supply of restaurants. For short-term stays we usually check into the Intercontinental El Presidente, because we qualify for free nights using our IHG Club points. It’s worth every point just to be able to swing by the restaurant Au Pied du Cochon any time of day or night for a bowl of their delicious French onion soup.
For longer stays, our favorite home is a condo with an incredible view of the Soumaya Museum. Although the condo has a well-equipped kitchen and we’re a hop, skip and jump from Costco and a super-sized Chedraui with delicacies galore, we are tempted to walk a short block and enjoy our meals at one of the many restaurants in Plaza Carso, located between Museo Soumaya and Museo Jumex.
We rarely go out for breakfast, but when we do we head for the first-floor Carso location of the ubiquitous Sanborns. We’re early risers, and unlike most breakfast places in the area that open at 8 or 9am, Sanborns’ doors open at 7am. The Sanborns chain always provides sparkling clean surroundings, friendly and efficient service, wholesome dishes, and hot strong eye-opening coffee at very moderate prices. In addition to their usual breakfast menu, Sanborns has seasonal specials that are fun to try. This year we were there on January 1, when many places are closed, yet Sanborns welcomed us to a New Year’s Day breakfast with a smile.
For lunch or dinner La Imperial is one of our favorites. The cuisine is Mexican with a Oaxacan flair. At first glance, the offerings seem to be fairly typical Mexico Mexican. But after another look, mouth-watering specialties stand out. One of us can’t resist the beef tongue tacos; the other, tacos filled with shrimp, Oaxaca cheese and chipotle sauce. Other specialties include sea bass in green sauce with verdolagas (purslane), nopales and lime soups, and a molcajete filled with octopus, shrimp, avocado, Oaxaca cheese, Cambray onion and jarocha sauce. The salads are crisp, fresh and delicious. Even mundane-sounding dishes such as quesadillas are prepared with a gourmet twist here. La Imperial is located on the second floor, where most of the Carso restaurants are. Inside, there’s a formal pub-like atmosphere with white linen tablecloths and uniformed waiters, but you can request the more relaxed “outside” seating next to the pedestrian walkway in the mall.
One afternoon, when the clock and our stomachs indicated that it was time for comida, and we were feeling carnivorous, we headed up to the second-floor entrance of Loma Linda, and then up another flight of stairs to their roof-top restaurant with a view of a lawn and a side of the Soumaya Museum that you don’t see from the street. The restaurant’s logo indicates that it was founded in 1924, but in truth the original restaurant, located in the Las Lomas area of Mexico City, was sold in 1944 to the well-traveled José del Moral Gadsden, who decided to introduce Mexico City to Argentinean dishes. Since we had spent a winter in Argentina, our mouths started to water when we saw the menu listing empanadas and a large selection of meats available to be grilled. After a long wait, although the restaurant was almost empty, we resisted the waiter’s urging to select the most expensive cuts (extremely expensive) and ordered a less expensive (but still expensive) cut that would have been superb in Argentina. Sad to say, it was just okay and so were the empanadas. The grilled vegetables that we ordered as a side dish were the best part of the meal. You can find better Argentinean food in Huatulco – or, of course, in Argentina.
When our palates crave Asian flavors but our minds are on our wallets, we head to P.F. Chang’s. Part of an international chain, the P.F. Chang’s in the Carso Plaza seems to pay more attention to creating their Chinese-American dishes than many of their sibling restaurants north of the border. One of our favorites is the lettuce wraps. The lettuce is crisp and the filling, tasty. And, as in all Chang-chain locations, meals are accompanied with different sauces so that patrons can create spicy, salty, or sweet adaptations that meet their expectations. In the U.S., the usual way Jewish people spend Christmas Day is to go to a movie and have a Chinese dinner. Both can be done in Plaza Carso. But on December 25, the dinner must come first, since P.F. Chang’s closes early enough for their staff to go home and join their families.
The City Cafe is our go-to place when we want a light bite to eat, usually after a weekday movie since it is open until 11pm. Located right outside Sports City, also on the second floor of Plaza Carso, meals are offered for the calorie-conscious that are nutritious but still flavorful. The soups and salads are perfect for a late cena. Of course, for people with a sweet tooth, a tempting array of cakes and pastries are also provided. Since the cafe is right outside the sports club, one can indulge and then go burn off the calories.
We tend to eschew carbo-loading. But every time we walk by the large plate-class windows of the Italian restaurant Vapiano, we can see dozens of people contentedly snarfing down pizza and a variety of pasta. And when the door opens, the aroma of garlic and tomatoes is enticing. One day we’ll break down and try it. But we don’t intend to try places in the food court down the hall from Vapiano, even though Burger King, Subway and the 15 other fast-food stalls obviously appeal to the crowds of people that flock there.
There are many excellent restaurants in the rest of Polanco and still many other restaurants we haven’t tried in Plaza Carso. Maybe later this year … but not on New Year’s Eve. Last December 31, we went to a movie with a friend, intending to have an early dinner before the real celebration began. When we emerged from the Cinépolis back into the mall, the place was absolutely deserted and the escalators were not running. We laughed our way down the unmoving escalator stairs and continued into the usually teeming but now empty street. Back at our condo we had a well-stocked refrigerator, as we had previously shopped at Costco and the super-sized Chedraui. We had tempting morsels that probably no restaurant at Plaza Carso could provide. Besides, we knew that the next morning bright and early we could have breakfast at Sanborns in Plaza Carso.