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Where to Eat and Where to Stay in Mexico City and the Mayan Riviera
By Heather Sperling and Antoinette Bruno

A remarkable diversity of produce grows in the lush, fertile land surrounding the metropolis of Mexico City. Like the cuisine of Spain, with which it shares a language and a history, the regional cooking of our southern neighbor varies greatly from north to south, east to west. But while many of the more ubiquitous products and dishes have made their way north of the Rio Grande, true Mexican cuisine with its myriad chilies, spices, sauces and seeds remains a relatively unknown culinary entity. This is a direct result of its short history in the fine dining restaurant world, and its frequent misrepresentation in casual restaurants as nothing more than beans, rice and cheese.

Unlike Spain, Mexico has not yet experienced a culinary renaissance on the international stage. Before Ferran Adrià burst onto the map with his capsules and foams, regional Spanish gastronomy was rarely understood outside its national borders. As leaders in the global development of molecular gastronomy, Spanish chefs also shed light on their country’s classical cuisine, introducing traditional ingredients, methods, flavors and styles, and sparking a general interest in Spanish food.

With a group of historically conscious, innovative chefs at the helm, Mexican cuisine is entering a modern period not unlike that of Spain in the 1990’s. Mexico City is leading the way; once known mainly for its traffic and crime, the “Distrito Federal” is today recognized as the epicenter of Mexico’s trendy cuisine and design scene. Sleek, modern restaurants and equally stylish boutique hotels have sprouted up throughout the city, providing upscale dining and lodging to the ever-growing, cosmopolitan crowd.

The aim is innovation and elegance: hotels like Habita offer cutting-edge amenities and a calculated modern aesthetic. Dishes at the city’s top restaurants, Pujol, Izote and Águila y Sol, are cleverly crafted fusions of traditional tastes and contemporary techniques that give new life to the ancient cuisine. And the scene is decidedly female. According to Mexican tradition, the matriarch runs the cocina; today Mexico City’s culinary landscape is ruled by female chefs able to balance life, family and success. This is a notable counterpoint to what in many cultures, especially the United States, is a male-dominated field.

Male and female alike, a significant challenge of Mexico City chefs is gaining access to the wealth of produce that surrounds them. The city’s market system is centralized, meaning that farmers sell products to a wholesaler who in turn distributes the products to stands in the market. Restaurants can buy from the stands and the wholesaler, but often have difficulties sourcing their products directly from small farmers. Transportation of time-sensitive goods within the traffic-ridden city is another obstacle. The greatest challenge, though, is one which all but a handful of chefs across the globe face every single day: creating a balance between what the customer wants and a restaurant’s own need to evolve.

Mexico has a cuisine to rival the oldest and the best. The multi-faceted layers of traditional dishes, like those of Chef Carmen Titita at El Bajio, are stunning. But years of misrepresentation in inexpensive restaurants and fast food chains have lead to a general ignorance of the cuisine’s complexities. The blossoming of Mexico City’s fine dining scene is a chance for Mexican cuisine to be noticed, for the myth of uniformity and simplicity to be dispelled, and for the cuisine’s true depth to be understood; innovation is Mexican gastronomy’s ticket to greater understanding and appeal.

 
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Mexico City:
RESTAURANTS:

The dining room at El Bajío on StarChefs.com

The dining room at El Bajío

El Bajío
Avenida Cuitlahuac 2709
Colonia Obrero Popular
Mexico, D.F. 02840
Phone: (52) 55 5234 3763
Open for breakfast and lunch only

Chef Carmen Titita Ramirez is an internationally recognized expert on Mexican cuisine. In her brightly colored restaurant in the Obrero Popular district, Titita serves perfectly seasoned and prepared home-style Mexican cuisine. Using the best indigenous ingredients of the region, and rich with layers of texture and flavor, it is traditional Mexican at its most natural and its very best. The sauces are remarkable—a vibrant, fresh salsa verde, a piquant salsa roja made of boiled tomatoes and chiles, and a firey, paste-like chile chipotle meco of fried, pureed chipotle peppers and garlic. Huevos el Bajio, tortillas topped with beans, fried eggs, longaniza sausage, acuyo leaf and zucchini flowers, yield a different flavor and texture in every bite. Titita is an icon of traditional Mexican gastronomy, and deservedly so.

Recommended Dishes:

  • Huevo Estilo el Bajio
  • Tamal Ranchero
  • Tamal of Beans with Avocado
  • Hot Beverages: Atole de Guayaba & Champurrato
  • Gondita in Flats de dulce
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Pujol
Francisco Petrarca 254
Colonia Polanco
Mexico, D.F.
(52) 55 5545 4111

Sea Scallop with Clavito Mushroom and Corn Cake at Pujol on StarChefs.com

Sea Scallop with Clavito Mushroom and Corn Cake at Pujol

Chef Enrique Olvera is Mexico City’s up-and-coming risk taker. After graduating from the CIA and training at Chicago’s Everest, Olvera returned to his native Mexico City to open the sophisticated and innovative Pujol. His background is evident in high-concept, clean-flavored dishes that feature local ingredients in inventive pairings. His risks are rewarded; dishes like cacao-crusted venison with three kinds of bananas, and duck carpaccio with pumpkin seed vinaigrette and mezcal foam elevate the flavors and ingredients of traditional Mexican cuisine to a new level.

Recommended Dishes:
  • Pan Seared Sea Scallop with Clavito Mushroom, Corn Cake and Epazote Mojo
  • Duck Carpaccio with Pipian Vinaigrette and Mezcal Foam
  • Robalito “al Pastor” with Pineapple Pure and Cilantro
  • Cacao Crusted Venison
  • Squash Blossom Cappucino
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Izote
Av. Presidente Masaryk 513
Colonia Polanco
Mexico, D.F. 11560
(52) 55 5280 1671

Squash Blossom Tamales at Izote on StarChefs.com

Squash Blossom Tamales at Izote

Chef Patricia Quintana’s dishes are reflections of her: graceful, elegant, and loyal to the Mexican tradition that inspires them. From her beautiful restaurant decorated with volcanic stone, she transforms rustic, traditional dishes into artistic, fine-dining plates. Chef Quintana loves her roots; her dishes are well-researched and well-thought out, with brilliant results. A series of ceviches are delicate yet bursting at the seams with complex flavor, the flavor of impossibly sweet prawns explodes when accompanied by a decadent, creamy pumpkin sauce—this is traditional cuisine made elegant through impeccable preparation and presentation.

    Recommended Dishes:

  • Trio de Ceviches
  • Chile Poblano Relleno de Huachinango a los Citricos
  • Enchilads de Camaron en Salsa de Pipian Verde
  • Tamalitos de Flor de Calabaza
  • Pescado con Timbal de Cuitlacoche e Infusión de Crema al Azafrán
  • Natilla a la Vainilla de Papantla
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Águila y Sol
Moliére 42
Colonia Polanco
Mexico, D.F.
55 5281 8354

Agua Frescas at Águila y Sol on StarChefs.com

Agua Frescas at Águila y Sol

Águila y Sol is the hottest restaurant in Mexico City at the moment, and its chef Martha Ortiz Chapa is quite the personality. Clad all in black, Chef Ortiz Chapa is a culinary artist, media darling and maitre d’; no longer in the back of the house, she works her dining room like a pro, and it is easy to imagine that guests come not only for the food but for her presence at their table. Her cuisine is contemporary Mexican served in a sophisticated setting decorated with a rotating display of local art. The cuisine of Águila y Sol has some very successful moments. The plating is artistic and creative, and refined versions of street-corner treats like agua fresca and ceviche are stimulating and delicious.

    Recommended Dishes:

  • Agua Frescas
  • Chamuco
  • Red and Green Ceviche
  • Duck with Black Oaxacan Mole
  • Corn Cake with Chamomile
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Ceviche at Bros on StarChefs.com

Ceviche at Bros

Bros
Lope de Vega 226
Colonia Polanco
Mexico, D.F. 11570
Phone: (52) 55 5250 1325

Both Peru and Mexico claim responsibility for the development of ceviche; regardless of its origin, the dish has come to occupy a prominent position in Mexican gastronomy. The myriad fish of the region pair beautifully with local produce (limes, chiles, herbs) resulting in a refreshing dish with vibrant, layered flavors. Bros is known for its ceviche, and makes a wonderful version with mackerel, manzano chile, red onion, avocado and cilantro. It is pungent and spicy, but not overwhelming—the perfect accompaniment to a local Modelo cerveza.

    Recommended Dishes:

  • Ceviche Peruano
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El Charco de las Ranas
Montevideo 637
Colonia Lindavista
Mexico, D.F. 07750
(52) 55 8589 1027

Meat for Tacos al Pastor on StarChefs.com

Meat for Tacos al Pastor
at Charco de las Ranas

Authentic Tacos al Pastor are a treat rarely found outside of Mexico. Pork is slow-roasted on a vertical stick (reminiscent of Turkish döner kabab), traditionally by small street-side vendors and taquerias. At the renown Charco de las Ranas, thin slices of the tangy and savory marinated pork are flavored with achiote, pineapple and cilantro are piled atop fresh tortillas. From the buying and grinding of the corn, to the making of the masa dough, the tortilla process is carefully controlled by the restaurant, which stresses the importance of native (not genetically modified) corn. The results, in our esteem, are nothing short of the best tacos ever.

    Recommended Dishes:

  • Tacos al Pastor
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Margarita at the San Angel Inn on StarChefs.com

Margarita at the San Angel Inn

San Angel Inn
Diego Rivera, 50
Colonia Polanco
Mexico, D.F. 01060
(52) 55 5616 1402

The best margarita in Mexico is more reminiscent of a martini than the sour-mix infused concoctions claim its name in bars across the United States. The margarita at the San Angel Inn is made two hours in advance so the flavors meld, then shaken and served straight up. The result is dry and sexy, with no sugar and just enough key lime to give it color.

    Recommended Dishes:

  • Margarita
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Azul y Oro
Centro Cultural Universitario
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM)
(52) 55 5622 7135

Author, food historian and chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita has transformed the campus dining experience with his restaurant in the Cultural Center of the University of Mexico. Zurita has written, among other things, an encyclopedia of Mexican gastronomy and a cookbook on chiles; he brings the same gastro-intellectual pursuit to his menu of classic and re-imagined Mexican cuisine. We did not get a chance to sample Ricardo’s fare at Azul y Oro (it was closed for the summer), but it is certainly on our list for next time.

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PASTRY SHOPS:

Cookies at Artesanias del Dulce on StarChefs.com

Cookies at Artesanias del Dulce

Artesanos del Dulce
Lago Tanganica 47C
Colonia Granada
Mexico, D.F.
(52) 55 31 3832

Maria Ramirez Degollado, daughter of Carmen Titia, is one of the three owners of Artesanos del Dulce, a pastry factory and shop that makes both European and Mexican pastries. The owners worked together at Drolma in Barcelona, Spain before returning to Mexico to open up shop. A large kitchen and factory space is behind the small storefront, which sells a variety of cookies, chocolates and cakes.

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HOTELS:
Habita Hotel

Av. Presidente Masasryk 201
Colonia Polanco
Mexico, D.F. 11560
(52) 55 5282 3100

A room at Habita Hotel on StarChefs.com

A room at Habita Hotel

Habita is a sleek, stylish boutique hotel in the center of Colonia Polanco, the city’s hippest, trendiest shopping and restaurant district. Cool colors and an airy, modern design permeate the cutting edge property, a glass cube that rises above the surrounding landscape of designer shops and big-name restaurants. Sleek, sexy rooms are decorated with comfortable minimalist decor with a clean grey and white palate. A rooftop “infinity” pool is spectacular in its simplistic elegance, and the hotel staff is remarkably knowledgeable, caring and attentive.

Rooms: 32 rooms, 4 Junior Suites
Rates: $195-$315

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CONDESAdf
Avenida Veracruz 102,
Colonia Condesa
Mexico, D.F. 0670

The downstairs bar at CONDESAdf on StarChefs.com

The downstairs bar at CONDESAdf

We visited, but did not stay in, this stylish member of the Habita boutique hotel group. Located in a renovated 1920s apartment building with a fantastic, intimate rooftop lounge, CONDESAdf is the result of the collaboration of international designers. From the logo to the furniture to the staff uniforms, the hotel is designed to offer a styled, singular experience that is both comfortable and chic. And with Executive Chef Sonia El-Nawal (formerly Pastry Chef of Theo in New York) overseeing the hotel’s Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant, this hotel is definitely next on our list of places to stay.

Rooms: 40 rooms and suites
Rates: $165-$395 USD
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Mayan Riviera:
RESTAURANTS:

Blue Terrace
At Azul Beach Resort
Carretera Cancun-Puerto Morelos, Km.27.5
Quintana Roo, México 77710
(52) 998 872 8080

Chef Karl Mayrhofler blends his classic European training with local Mexican ingredients, resulting in full-flavored dishes that fuse traditional flavors of both worlds. The fusion manifests itself well in dishes like duck in a sweet orange glaze, flavored with the smoky burn of roasted chipotle chiles.

    Recommended Dishes:

  • Duck with Orange Chipotle Glaze
  • Veal with Avocado, jalepeño and corn
  • Marinated Cherries with Black and White Chocolate Mousse
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Tainan
At Azul Beach Resort
Carretera Cancun-Puerto Morelos, Km.27.5
Quintana Roo, México 77710
(52) 998 872 8080

Sushi at Tainan on StarChefs.com

Sushi at Tainan

Azul Beach resort’s sleek restaurant combines high concept design with pan-Asian cuisine that clearly benefits from the proximity of the sea. The fish-based menu ranges from sushi to shrimp tempura to tasty red snapper with a sweet and sour sauce, and decadent desserts like ice cream tempura and fried bananas. French and Chilean wines, among others, round out Executive Chef Karl Mayrhofler’s elegantly presented cuisine




    Recommended Dishes:

  • Sushi
  • Sweet and Sour Red Snapper
  • Fried Bananas with Chocolate Sauce
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La Carreta
At El Dorado Seaside Suites
Carretera Cancún-Tulum Kantenah, Km.95
Riviera Maya
Quintana Roo, México 77710
(52) 984 875 1910

La Carreta features traditional Mexican ingredients and flavor. Chef Efrain Arias approaches his menu with an eye for creativity and local produce—pozole is made with local spiny lobster, espazote and limes, veal is paired with Mexican chorizo and rich, flavorful huitlacoche essence.

    Recommended Dishes:

  • Lobster Pozole with Scent of Lima and Espazote
  • Veal “Pok Chuc” Style with Chorizo and Huitlacoche Essence
  • Grandma’s Rice Pudding with Aztec Sauce
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HOTELS:

A cooking class at El Dorado Seaside Suites on StarChefs.com

Beach Bed at El Dorado Seaside Suites

El Dorado Seaside Suites
Carretera Cancún-Tulum Kantenah, Km.95
Riviera Maya
Quintana Roo, México 77710
(52) 984 875 1910

Seaside Suites is an adults-only resort located on the pristine, blindingly white Kantenah beach, just north of the well-known Playa del Carmen. The goal of the resort is to pamper and please; from a rose petal filled bath to cocktails classes, the resort makes sure that its guests are never lacking for luxury and entertainment. The culinary activities are part of a new “Gourmet Inclusive” package that includes meals, drinks and culinary-minded events ranging from cooking classes to candlelit beachside dinners.

Rooms: 196 Junior Suites
Rates: $127-$340 USD

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Fresh fish grilling on the beach at Azul Beach Resort on StarChefs.com

Fresh fish grilling on the
beach at Azul Beach Resort

Azul Beach Resort
Carretera Cancun-Puerto Morelos, Km.27.5
Quintana Roo, México 77710
(52) 998 872 8080

Azul Beach offers large, roofed beach beds and at-your-service beach butlers for a whole new level of beachside luxury. Each Sunday a fishing boat pulls into the beach, and Chef Karl Mayrhofler selects delicacies from the catch to be grilled on the beach for lunch. It is touches like these that set Azul Beach apart from its rivals, making it an extraordinary destination for all-inclusive travel.

Rooms: 97 rooms and suites
Rates: $187-$750 USD

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BARS:

Fresh fish grilling on the beach at Azul Beach Resort on StarChefs.com

Tequilas at Agavero Tequila Lounge

Agavero Tequila Lounge
At Azul Beach Resort
Carretera Cancun-Puerto Morelos, Km.27.5
Riviera Maya
Quintana Roo, México 77710
(52) 998 872 8080


This sumptuously decorated lounge at Azul Beach Resort offers over 30 different kinds of tequila plus a trained tequila expert, or “tequilier,” to assist in tastings. If you're staying at the all-inclusive resort, everything at the bar is free.

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   Published: September 2006
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