A FOOD-FOCUSED REPORT: MEXICO CITY, PUEBLA, OAXACA

Old Jan 15th, 2015, 10:06 AM
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A FOOD-FOCUSED REPORT: MEXICO CITY, PUEBLA, OAXACA

Before the memories fade even further, here are a few notes and assorted comments on my 19-night October/November visit to Mexico which included:

7 nights Mexico [email protected] Alcobas http://www.lasalcobas.com/

2 nights [email protected] Casona de la China Poblana http://www.casonadelachinapoblana.com.mx/

7 nights [email protected] Oaxaca http://www.casaoaxaca.com.mx/

We flew into Mexico City from JFK and returned home from Oaxaca with a connection in Mexico City; flights were on AeroMexico, which was just fine, with the exception of the food served on board. Travel from Mexico City to Puebla and from Puebla to Oaxaca was by luxury public bus.

I have been to Mexico many times and traveled in many regions of the country, but my most recent visit was about 20 years ago. My partner had never been south of a couple of of the border towns. This report will focus on what we ate, rather than traditional “sights,” as food was my focus and the main attractions are covered in all the guidebooks.

Although our trip was to take place very close to the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, I purposely avoided being in Oaxaca during that weekend in order to avoid the crush of tourists that descend upon the city at that time. And although we were in Mexico City during the holiday, we did not visit Mixquic,as I had been before and had head of horrific traffic and an overwhelming tourist presence at the cemetery.

While choosing a hotel in Puebla and in Oaxaca was a snap, it was difficult to decide on where to stay during our week in the capital, mainly because the city is so vast and seems to be lacking in upscale hotels with character as one might find in other world capitals. Although I was leery about staying in Polanco, the glowing reviews of Las Alcobas were hard to ignore and I eventually booked our week at that small “boutique” hostelry set amidst the international designer chain stores, embassies, and polished bars and eateries of this wealthy residential and commercial district. I suppose if one is looking for an analogy, Polanco might be compared with Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

While the area was not the most interesting from a tourist perspective, and the hotel was a 20-minute or so walk from either of two Metro stations, we were very pleased in every way with Las Alcobas. Behind the uninspiring 10-story or so steel and glass facade lies, to use a hackneyed phrase, a true oasis in this often overwhelming city. I booked the hotel with Virtuoso, which entitled us to free daily breakfast, a big plus as the breakfast (served at table rather than buffet style was excellent. (A spa massage was also a perk of booking with Virtuoso). The agency that I used for the booking was Brownell Travel of Birmingham and Atlanta.
We chose the least expensive of a couple of room categories. Although some guests might consider the room to be on the small side we found it to be more than fine. The bathroom was great: we had a jetted tub and separate shower, and this was the first time that I had experienced the miracle of a Toto Washlet toilet in a hotel. (I've not seen this mentioned in any of the reams of online reviews of Las Alcobas).


We eventually did discover a few interesting eateries in the Polanco neighborhood, and I spent many hours wandering the adjacent streets admiring the architecture, ranging from Neo-Churrigueresque mansions to flamboyant contemporary residences to Modernist apartment buildings. The vast array of architectural styles in evidence throughout this city might come as a delightful surprise to first-time visitors. I wish that I had thought ahead and booked an architecture-focused tour.


We flew to Mexico City on AeroMexico, departing from JFK about 9am and arriving around noon. (There was a one-hour time difference in late October)

I bought a taxi voucher near the terminal exit doors and, once outside, looked for the taxi stand corresponding to the name on my voucher. (Several companies sell these vouchers, which are exchanged for a fixed-rate ride with prices determined by the zone of one’s destination). The price to our hotel in Polanco was about MP250.
(At the time of our visit, there were 13 Mexican pesos to 1 US dollar).

This brings me to an important piece of advice:

Make sure to have the address of your hotel, not just the name. The same is true of sights. It is not enough to ask the driver to take you to Hotel Las Alcobas in Polanco, or to the Frida Kahlo House in Coyoacan. You need the exact address, preferably with the cross streets. Even better, bring a map that you have looked at beforehand so you know at least a vague idea of the route. While these cautions may be less true of “hotel” or sito taxis, we almost always (with the exception of the ride from the airport and a few rides after dark) used street taxis. We saw no GPSs in any taxi and most drivers do not speak any English. Nor will they offer to phone their base to ask directions, so prepare to spend some time riding around while the driver works out your ultimate destination. I will add here that I speak fluent Spanish and am at least vaguely familiar with the general outline of the city; newcomers with no Spanish skills should pay extra attention to my words of advice, above.

Needless to say, although our taxi driver knew how to find Polanco, and even to find Avenida Masyryk, where Las Alcobas is located, we wasted about 30 minutes trying to find our hotel, with the driver insisting that the Google map on his phone had pinpointed the location even though there was clearly no hotel on that spot. My repeated admonishments that Google map was not always 100% accurate went unheard. Why was the driver so reluctant to get out of the taxi and inquire of a pedestrian? (Other drivers, on other "lost" journeys later in the week, would eventually resort to this probably un-macho behavior) How much simpler would it have been if I had been armed with the exact street address!

I did buy a map the next day, but the city is so large that to unfold the map required a vehicle far more commodious than the average taxi in any city. Next time I will buy a copy of the Guia Roji, the bible of Mexico City atlases, available at stationery and book stores.

Before I proceed to our first meal in Mexico, I will offer another tip:

Even more so than in the Mediterranean, the mid-day meal, or comida, is the principal meal in Mexico. Outside of the resort areas to a certain extent in cities and towns of touristic interest, many restaurants are not even open in the evenings; if you see dining rooms filled with patrons at 6pm, this is the crowd lingering after comida, not an early bird dinner group. Restaurants that do remain open for the evening meal will often have the second string laboring in the kitchen, so keep all this in mind when booking your reservations. And if you have specific restaurants in mind, do make advance reservations, even if this means phoning, or having a hotel staff person phone, the morning of the day you wish to dine. For our visit to the DF, I booked Pujol on OpenTable (they take reservations earlier than the usual 30 day or one month window) and e-mailed my hotel to request that they book a couple of others for me. Almost all of our reservations were for the mid-day meal; we tended to have what we would call a big lunch, and then stop into a sidewalk or street stall if we were hungry later. (I hate to miss an opportunity for trying local foods, but after the large breakfasts and lunches, there were days when I had very little appetite at 7 or 8pm.) We also ate in a couple of places that did not take advance bookings, as I will relate shortly.

Outside of plowing through Spanish and English-language food sites including the excellent MEXICO COOKS by Cristina Potters who we would dine with and tour with during our weeklong stay, and buying a copy of Nick Gilman’s GOOD FOOD IN MEXICO CITY, devoted mainly but not exclusively to street food and simple fondas, I did very little advance planning for this trip. But remember that I had been to the city before and had a general idea of where I wanted to go.

http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com/

http://www.amazon.com/Good-Food-Mexi.../dp/059544346X





Although it’s not a guidebook, anyone wishing more than a superficial knowledge of Mexico City should put FIRST STOP IN THE NEW WORLD by David Lida, whose love for his adopted city shines through on almost every page, at the top of their reading list. I could not put this book down!


http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/tr...6armchair.html

Good, too, but not in the same class as the Lida book is the more cynical THE INTERIOR CIRCUIT by author and The New Yorker contributor Francisco Goldman.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/bo...dman.html?_r=0

Another book that I found fascinating, and harrowing, is THE BEAST: RIDING THE RAILS AND DODGING NARCOS ON THE MIGRANT TRAIL. The title reveals the subject matter; highly recommended for anyone interested in the subject of migration.

http://www.amazon.com/Beast-Riding-D...ords=the+beast
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 12:24 PM
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Ah! At long last . . .
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 01:20 PM
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Brilliant. I am so looking forward to the rest of this report and ma already following up on links given thus far
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 07:11 PM
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Ditto the above! And thanks for the book recs. in Colombia now, but on to Mexico for Feb!
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 07:31 PM
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Re taxis and addresses. I tell and tell again my taxi experience returning from a restaurant in Mexico City to our fab vrbo apt. Self to taxi driver: "Queremos ir a Ocho de BOLivar." Taxi driver: "no hay BOLivar."
Self (regretting taking DF taxi, thinking of hysterical taxi stories read, fearing cheating, crime, and death or kidnapping, feeling indignant, "si hay BOLivar, dentro Tacuba y Cinco de Mayo!,". Taxi driver: "Ahhhh.... boLIVar.... ". Esta bien. What a difference correct pronunciation can make..... So sometimes the card of the hotel or restaurant is best. But, then again, you never know, as you do run into the occasional illiterate driver in all countries. Always good to be prepared .....
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 08:13 PM
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Thank you for starting your TR. great info so far.
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Old Jan 16th, 2015, 05:34 AM
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That taxi story is funny! What surprised me is that even in the "hotel" aka "fancy and expensive" taxis, there was no GPS and drivers did not, for the most part, have any maps in the cars. I, too, have read all those scary tales but I will say that apart from getting lost, we had no issues at all. Taxis had meters (although they do not like to use them after dark) and drivers were polite. The prices of the street taxis are very low, much lower than the hotel taxis.

One more tip: If you do not want to hail the taxi on the street, your hotel can call a street taxi for you. Ask them to call a "taxi economico," and you will pay just the additional charge for the distance to get to your hotel. You need to specify that you want the economico taxis, for if you ask a hotel to call you a taxi without that specification, they will probably call a sitio taxi. Prices for the first are far lower (less than half) of the price for the latter.

I don't want to get ahead of myself with the tale of our taxi accident!
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Old Jan 16th, 2015, 05:48 AM
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Just looked at the scribbles in my notebook for an example of how taxi prices compare:

Between our Polanco hotel and Restaurant El Bajio in Azcapotzalco:

Price of "economic sitio" taxi to get there: 150 pesos, or about US$10

Price of street hail taxi to get back to hotel: 35 pesos, or about US$2.40


So I was mistaken, above, about the economico taxis being just a bit more pricey if called by the hotel. The price of a regular (usually white) sitio taxi would have been much higher than the 150 pesos we paid.


The flag fall for street hailed taxis at the time of our visit was MP 8.74.

A new law has been enacted that requires street taxis to be painted fuchsia and white. So these will gradually replace the older gold and red ones, I imagine.
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Old Jan 16th, 2015, 06:12 AM
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Now I am confused on the taxis. We will be staying at an apt. Is it safe to hail a taxi on the street? Or do we always call one? I had thought that it was still not a good idea to hail taxis off the street? Is that no longer accurate info? thanks!
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Old Jan 16th, 2015, 07:10 AM
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I'm sorry if I was confusing, above. Most of the time, we hailed taxis on the street. We had no problems (other than getting lost, and having one accident--details to come on that later).

I have read all of those scary reports and was also leery of hailing taxis on the street. The opinions of residents seem to be divided between those who always hail from the street and those who say they "never" do that. The hotel concierges seemed to indicate that it was fine during the day to use street taxis, so that is what we usually did. (I should add that UBER is very popular in the DF and many locals ride that way exclusively. If I were to return, especially to an apartment, I would join UBER and try that, knowing that it will not be the cheapest way to ride, but likely will be more comfortable than using the sometimes fairly decrepit street taxis.)

I'm still being confusing, I think, so perhaps this will help:

Three types of taxis:

1. Street hail--red/gold or white/fuchsia. Stick up your hand and wave down taxi with that flapping motion. Meters used in daytime. Very inexpensive, not more than equivalent of a couple of US dollars to cross the city. We used these most often.

2. Sitio "economico"--same type of vehicle as above, but can be called by the hotel, or by you (get a card from the sitio nearest your apartment or hotel). May use meter, but more likely, will quote you a price before you depart. See example of the difference between this and regular street-hail taxi, in the post 8:48am, above (150 MP vs 35MP)

3. Regular sitio taxi, often called "hotel taxi;" You can find these at the nearest sitio, or have your hotel phone them. Cars are usually white, and larger and more comfy than other taxis.
MUCH more expensive. In the comparison I gave, above, the hotel taxi price would have been about 250MP, I imagine. I would use these only at night if #2 was not available.

One evening, after a solo visit to a giant supermarket (the Chedraui in Polanco, near the Museo Soumaya--might be the largest supermarket I've ever visited and quite something to experience!) and a pop into the adjacent Costco (almost a carbon copy of the ones back home) I found myself standing on a busy intersection, unable to find a street taxi. I finally walked over to the sitio stand on a nearby corner and asked the price of a ride to my hotel. The walk to this spot had taken me about a half an hour; I think I paid about MP75 to get back. So clearly very expensive by local standards, about US$5.

http://www.chedraui.com.mx/




4. Airport taxi--from airport. Buy voucher in terminal, with price determined by destination zone. Taxis are yellow.

We encountered no drivers who spoke more than a few words of English. None had GPS and none used maps. Only one got into an accident, although many got lost. UBER drivers are reportedly likely to have GPS, though I've never used this service.

There is a Metro system, but stops are pretty far apart. Those on a strict budget should try for lodgings close to a Metro station.

Locals tend not to tip for taxi rides, unless the driver helps with luggage or performs an extra service. We tended to tip a small amount..10% or so. Tips were always received with gracious thanks. All drivers we encountered were courteous and, on long rides, we had some very interesting conversations.

I hope that helped more; please let me know if you have any other questions..answering them, or trying to, will help me relive my trip!

To stock your apartment, try to find a nearby Chedraui just so you can experience this extravaganza. Their prices are very low; I was surprised at how few small local foods stores we spotted in any neighborhood, perhaps these giant chains have meant their demise. And if you have a Costco card.....


Where is your VRBO apartment? I think that should be a great option in the DF!

I will try to get more written later today!
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Old Jan 16th, 2015, 08:01 AM
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Thanks, very helpful. I think I've got it. Good info on the Chedraul.

Our Apt is thru airbnb which I have never used before. It is located in Condessa. I thought about joining Uber, but in general have some issues with their business model so we'll see.
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Old Jan 16th, 2015, 12:38 PM
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DULCE PATRIA in Hotel Las Alcobas, Polanco



After checking into our room at Las Alcobas, we relaxed for a short time before heading downstairs to Dulce Patria, where I had booked reservations for 2:30. The chef, Martha Ortiz, who was present during our meal, enjoys a solid reputation for her tweaking of traditional dishes, producing stellar edible kaleidoscopes that beg to be photographed. The simple two story dining room washed in black and fuchsia, creates a foil for dishes that rank among the most beautiful concoctions I’ve seen on a plate. How was the food? Excellent.

We ate lightly, sharing appetizer of Quesadillas Multicolores, (MP$146) a quartet of savory pastries that were more empanada than quesadilla. The accompanying salsas were excellent and thought the quesadillas were tasty enough, they were nothing special. (I wished that I had done more research on recommended dishes beforehand).

Zucchini Blossom Soup ($128) with Turmeric Cream, on the other hand, was fabulous in both presentation (As I mentioned, Dulce Patria excels at presentation and each dish was visually spectacular) and in taste. I thought about this soup for several days afterwards; even in a land of remarkable soups, this one stood out.


I skipped the main course, but my partner was very pleased with the “Baroque” sections of chicken breast sections rolled round a savory blend of caramelized fruits, robed with an exquisite black mole, and accompanied by a pressed cube of fideos. A safe, but very good, dish ($294)

Savory filled rolls, baked in house with pork, mole, cheese and pimento, and black bean, were brought round to the table multiple times by the gracious servers, most of whom were fluent in English. There is an English menu available.

With one beer and one agua de guanabana, spiked with dried coconut shards (just one of an array of non-alcoholic “aguas,” the total for this light lunch was $806, or about US$59 before tip in late October. (The restaurant has a full bar and the selection of mezcals runs into the dozens)

http://www.dulcepatriamexico.com
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Old Jan 17th, 2015, 11:57 AM
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The next day, a Wednesday, was our first full day in the city. After first of the lavish breakfasts we would consume at Las Alcobas, we set off by taxi for the historic center, asking the taxi driver to drop us at the Zocalo, one of the largest public squares in the world and the former ceremonial heart of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. A clutch of giant skulls, each colorfully painted by a different artist, dotted the square in anticipation of the upcoming Day of the Dead holiday.

A highlight of our time in this area was a visit to the immense National Palace (free; line up outside and show your passport) where murals by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico (“Mexico Atraves de los Siglos,” painted from 1929 to 1951) emblazon the walls of the staircase and the second story arcade. These murals are a do-not-miss sight that I consider a highlight of a visit to Mexico City.

http://www.hacienda.gob.mx/cultura/m...ac/shcp_mv.htm


A sad sight outside the Metropolitan Cathedral were the shabbily attired unemployed men seated along the fence, holding signs attesting to their long history in various trades and their desire for work: (“20 years of tile/masonry experience; will take any opportunity”)

From the Zocalo, we wandered along the pedestrian Francisco Madero to calle Bolivar and turned left, continuing until we reached the #58, between Republica de Salvador and Republica de Uruguay. Announced by an orange awning and a turning spit wrapped with slices of fatty pork, the flagship of El Huequito, draws patrons from throughout the city for superlative tacos al pastor. These “shepherd-style tacos” are tacos filled with thinly cut pork that has been marinated in orange and spices, a local adaptation of the lamb shwarma brought by the legions of Lebanese Christian immigrants who emigrated during the 19th and 20th centuries.


Bite for bite, El Huequito’s taco al pastor, ordered with salsa and without onions, devoured on the street (they do have a dining room) was probably the taastiest, and certainly among the least expensive, food I put in my mouth the entire trip, with a great textural contast between the charred ends, the pork itself, and the edgeing of fat. At $MP14, or just over one US dollar per taco, it was certainly the best value for money. How I wished we had had the time to return for more of the same, and to sample other items from their fairly extensive menu. (The al pastor I tried a few days later at El Tizoncito in Condesa was not in the same league; lacked the burnt ends of El Huequito, for one thing). The tacos at El Huequito, however, do not bear the fresh pineapple topping typical of the dish.

There is a spacious and clean dining room, but many patrons, myself included, devour their tacos standing on the street where there is a tiny counter next to the bola, or spit. There is a full menu, heavy on meat offerings, but most people come for the tacos al pastor, which has given the place its fame. If you order directly from the guy at the bola, he will ask you whether or not you want salsa, and onions. You can also ask for a steel tray containing limes, and dishes of various salsas to be piled atop your taco.


http://www.elhuequito.com.mx/

I would have stood here and gorged on these morsels, but comida awaited, so we reluctantly tore ourselves away and hailed a taxi to transport us the 20-minutes or so to the barrio of Azcapotzalco where, nestled amisdt the long lines of auto parts stores that line both sides of Avenida Cuitlahuac, we found Restaurante Nicos.
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Old Jan 17th, 2015, 12:07 PM
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Tacos al Pastor are one of the many wonders of Mexican food.
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Old Jan 17th, 2015, 01:21 PM
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Love the murals in the National Palace.

Salivating over the tacos.
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Old Jan 17th, 2015, 04:22 PM
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I like pina in my tacos al pastor. I like it when they shave off some pina from the top of the spit where the entire skinned pina is dripping all down the meat as it grills.
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Old Jan 17th, 2015, 09:57 PM
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I am living vicariously through this report, since I had to cancel my own trip due to illness. What a treat!
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Old Jan 19th, 2015, 01:29 PM
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April I hope you recover quickly and can plan a future trip.

Here is a bit more:


The choice of Nico’s had been made by Cristina Potters, who was to be our guest for lunch on that Wednesday. As I mentioned, above, Cristina is the author of the blog, MEXICO COOKS.typepad.com, the repository of her knowledge gleaned from decades of living in Mexico, first in a humanitarian post in Tijuana and later, in Morelia and the D.F. as a blogger and leader of food-focused expeditions including market tours such as the one we had arranged for later that week. We asked Cristina to choose a good restaurant popular with locals and after our lunch there, I cocur wholeheartedly with her choice.

Greeting us as we entered the bustling dining room was an elaborate altar, or ofrenda, bearing treats for the departed including eleborate displays of marigolds, flourescent sugar skulls, candles, incense, alcohol, chocolates, mezcal, and other treats. We’d see these ofrendas all over the city during that week, including in hotels, other restaurants, and public squares.

We began our comida with an order of guacamole ($MP90), painstakingly crafted in a large lava-rock molcajete at tableside to our specifications (leave the onion and diced chili on the side, please, for the lone spice-shunner among us). This was the best version I’d ever tasted of this ubiquitous avocado preparation.


On to the main courses, the star of which were the enmoladas rellenos de pato, ($180) moist and tender duck meat wrapped in soft tortillas and then rolled in a fragrant dark mole, ordered by my companion who reluctantly provided a couple of tastes. Absolutely one of the best dishes of the entire trip, and a dish I continued to salivate over even days later. I looked for duck dishes on menus after that for the rest of the trip.

Cristina and I were both very pleased with our choices: For her, Conejo en Pulque (MP$210) rabbit in a sauce made from pulque, and for me, perfectly cooked filets of red snapper, ($240) Lomito de Huachinango alla Talla, that allayed any lingering hesitancy about ordering fish so far from the ocean. (The city boasts several superb fish restaurants and there were counters and stalls with wonderful fish and shellfish in all of the markets we visited)

The only less-than superb dish in a stellar lunch was the rather ordinary salad of grapefruit and greens, the Ensalada de Toronja (MP$105)

We shared a large carafe of fresh lemonade with chia seeds (native to Mexico and incorporated into many of the lemon aquas); I downed many fruit aguas during the trip, most with ice, and had no gastrointestinal problems from those, or from many of the foods consumed in market stalls and on the street.

Our meal cost MP 935, or just under US$70 for three diners, before tip.


While the location is out of the way among the endless blocks of auto parts dealers in the Azcapotzalco neighborhood, it is well worth the taxi ride of a few dollars (as I mentioned, above, the ride from the less expensive of the two types of taxis used by the hotel cost MP$150, and the ride back, by taxi hailed on the street, cost a quarter of that) from more central districts to dine at this popular eatery which is separated by only a block or two from the flagship location of the El Bajio mini-chain where we would dine later in the week.

Like most restaurants patronized by a largely business clientele during the week, Nico’s is open for breakfast and closes at 7:30pm weekdays; 7pm on Saturdays.

http://www.nicosmexico.mx



Almost directly across Avenida Cuitlahuac from from El Bajio and a block or two from Nico’s, we were drawn by the delicious smells emanating from a hole-in-the wall bakery named HARINA GOURMET, at Av. Cuitlahuac, #2724-B. Highly recommended for both savory and sweet pastries and tartas to take away.
     
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Old Jan 20th, 2015, 06:17 PM
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Knots of chaffeurs and bodyguards loiter on the street alongside idling Audis, Mercedes and even a Ferrari or “Lambo” or two lining the blocks facing south onto Polanco’s Lincoln Park, where cafes and restaurants draw lithe spike-heeled beauties and their slicked-haired male companions bedecked in gold chains that peek out from tapered shirts open to the navel.

Needless to say, we passed these addresses by in search of more compelling eateries, which seemed few and far between in this shiny neighborhood.

There was at least one bright light, a hole-in-the-wall at #212 c/Emilio Castelar between Ibsen and Goldsmith .....marked by perpetual lines eager for sopa de lima and cochinita pibil. El Turix serves only these two dishes with the latter, the quintessential Yucantecan marinated pulled pork, available in three renditions differing only in what encases the savory sauced pork: tacos, panuchos, and one more rendition which I forget. No matter.

Such is the reputation of this Yucatecan fonda that there seemed to be people queuing outside whenever we walked by. Pay no attention to reviews that denigrate the hospitality of the staff: The host at the door, the cook, and the woman who acts as cashier were more than welcoming to us.

What El Turix does not offer is comfortable seating. There are a couple of places along the window, and perhaps four more astride a counter below the baring tv set. Never mind, the cochinita pibil is as good as it gets and I’d bet the sopa de lima is the same, even if they were out of this signature Yucatecan chicken-based soup on the evening we were there.

Three tacos of cochinita pibil=$42. Open daily from 10am.

EL TURIX, Avenida e. Castellar, near Goldsmith, Polanco. Open daily from 10am, including Sundays, although the later you go, the more chance they will be out of the sopa de lima.
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Old Jan 20th, 2015, 06:19 PM
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El Turix in Polanco, exterior:



https://everymealmatters.files.wordp...522-091228.jpg
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