MEXICO CITY — “You weren’t expecting a place like this in the ‘Third World’,” says my guide with tongue firmly planted in cheek as we eat dinner at Sud 777, a haute-cuisine restaurant in Mexico’s capital that has been voted not only one of the Top 50 restaurants in Latin America, but one of the best of the world.
My dining companion isn’t just any guide, either. Introducing me to the city’s food scene is Cecilia Núñez, the well-travelled editor of Food and Travel Mexico, the Spanish-language edition of the British magazine that explores culinary trends happening in every corner of the world. She also appears regularly on radio in Mexico and was a judge for Top Chef México.
Cecilia thinks too many visitors have stereotyped views of her country and its food and wants me to know that it’s even more rich and varied than I can imagine.
It is my first night on my first visit to Mexico City and Cecilia has driven me through the sprawling city’s notorious traffic to this restaurant which lies in Jardines del Pedregal, an affluent and leafy southern neighbourhood that is a good distance from downtown.
On the way, Cecilia explains to me that the food scene in Mexico is a bit like the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán, for which the city is famous. On the top, there are fine-dining establishments like Sud 777, in the middle are everyday restaurants serving every type of cuisine you can think of and at the base are the street food vendors and market stalls that are ubiquitous throughout the country.
Left: Food editor Cecilia Núñez is passionate about Mexican cuisine. Right: Chef Edgar Núñez of Sud 777.
We start our culinary exploration at the top of the pyramid.
At Sud 777, chef Edgar Núñez, no relation to Cecilia, welcomes us into his intimate restaurant. His culinary resumé is impressive, having worked in the kitchens of Ferran Adrià at elBulli in Spain and René Redzepi’s Noma in Denmark. Cecilia explains to him that she is here to introduce me to Mexican food.
“I’m a Mexican, cooking with Mexican ingredients so this is Mexican food,” said Edgar, but the dishes he serves are far from the traditional tacos and tamales that most visitors associate with the country. Edgar personally introduces each course brought to our table and surprises us with inspired dishes that offer unlikely combinations of ingredients like a watermelon and tomato tart with thyme, and a duck breast with coconut crust and red cabbage.
“I don’t look for flavours. I look for combinations,” says Edgar. “It’s like music. Take the tracks apart and it might not sound great, but together, they make incredible music. The same is true for combinations of food.”
When the meal is over and the restaurant is empty, Chef Edgar joins us at our table and the conversation slips between Spanish and English as we debate the merits of Michelin stars in Mexico and what Edgar’s reaction was to being named the 64th best restaurant in the world on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list and the 11th on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list.
The next day, we slide down a star or two and a step down the Mexican food pyramid to brunch at Merendero Las Lupitos in the city’s scenic Coyoacán neighbourhood. The food here is traditional and Cecilia encourages me to sample atole, a hot drink thickened with corn and flavoured with cinnamon. It comes with conchas, which are sweet buns that pair perfectly with the drink. Both are delicious. My main course is huevos las Lupitas, which are two baked enchiladas, one with a green salsa and one with a red salsa, which are topped with cheese, cream and two fried eggs. It tastes like Mexico.
When we’re done, we go to the nearby Coyoacán Market, which is a paradise for food lovers. This indoor market, which is only one of a multitude in the city, covers several blocks. It is a maze of stalls selling mountains of food and household goods that is a sensual overload of smells, sounds and sights.
Above: Restaurant chefs scour the local markets in Mexico City looking for quality products for their dishes.
Our stomachs are still full from brunch, but the smell of the food cooking here is overwhelming. We sample carnitas, which are tasty shreds of pork, fat and rinds served on a small corn tortilla. Cecilia demonstrates to me the correct way to eat them. She squeezes on a bit of lime juice and some salsa verde then carefully pinches the tortilla closed and begins eating from one end, trying not to spill any of the contents. I give it a try and when the flavour bomb hits my tongue, I immediately want to eat 10 more.
As we stroll through the aisles, we admire all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables, some familiar, others exotic. Cecilia wants me to try the chapulines — toasted grasshoppers flavoured with garlic, lime and some salt containing an extract of agave worms.
The vendor grumpily lets us sample her wares, thinking we are tourists who are only here to take photos and not actually buy anything. The insects are crunchy and have a smokey flavour and taste better than you’d think. Ceci buys a bagful, but complains that she pays the “gringa” price because I’m with her.
Above: Traditional Mexican cuisine is featured in most of the high-end restaurants in Mexico's capital.
In the streets surrounding the market, we encounter food vendors on every corner. Some are selling elote, which is corn seasoned with mayonnaise, cheese and spices that is served on sticks; others are selling raspados that are shaved ice drinks topped with flavoured syrups. There are also homemade potato chips served with slivers of fat and deep-fried churros, Mexico’s answer to doughnuts.
“Mexico is a paradise for street food,” Ceci proudly proclaims. There is such a cornucopia of things on offer from these vendors that I am overwhelmed by the choices and I can’t ask questions fast enough to learn what they all are.
I’ve not even been here for 24 hours, but Cecilia has succeeded in her mission of teaching me that Mexico’s cuisine is more varied than I imagined.
Not every visitor to this country’s exciting and boisterous capital will have the advantage of a local guide, but Mexicans are rightfully proud of their food and are eager to share it so don’t be afraid to ask questions and taste as many things as you can.
In the end, isn’t that why we travel?