Cactus paddles and coffee mayonnaise: A culinary crawl through Mexico City

The megalopolis of Mexico City is infamous for its crime and congestion - but also graced with one of the most vibrant food cultures on the planet.

Forget the smog, North America's other capital is graced with a vibrant cuisine

The Zocalo in Mexico City, decorated for Dia de los Muertos, or Day Of The Dead, on Nov. 1. Mexico's capital is graced with a vibrant culture, particularly when it comes to food. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

On a street corner in Mexico City's leafy Roma Norte neighbourhood, the going rate for a quesadilla is 20 pesos, or about $1.30 Cdn.

These snacks bear only a cursory resemblance to the cheese-stuffed carbohydrate bombs familiar to most Canadians. In fact, quesadillas don't even come with cheese in Mexico City unless  you order them con queso.

Ask for a quesadilla on this particular street corner and a fresh, oblong blue corn tortilla is quickly filled with fried onions and mushrooms, folded over and heated on a comal, the flat-topped grill ubiquitous in Mexico. A sheet of wax paper is then slapped on a reusable plastic plate, followed by your quesadilla. 

You scarf it down while standing, leaning forward to ensure any greasy bits fall on to your mobile dining surface instead of your dress shirt or your jeans.  

This precarious posture is adopted millions of times a day on thousands of street corners across Mexico City, a 21-million-person megalopolis infamous for its crime and congestion, but also graced with one of the most vibrant food cultures on the planet.

Five salsas await dispersal at Taqueria 'Orinoco,' a Monterrey-style taco chain in Mexico City. Clockwise from upper left: Roja, verde cremosa, cilantro-tomatillo, yoghurt and pequin chile. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Street fare of exceptional quality is easy to find in what the locals call Ciudad Mexico, or simply CDMX, possibly because the difficulty in getting across its vast expanse requires Chilangos, as the residents are known, to rely upon a decent snack wherever they happen to be.

But food in general seems to be an obsession in this city, much the same way it is in Barcelona, Bangkok or any other truly great culinary destination.

On any given block laden with taco stands, you can pick up a 15-peso ($1 Cdn) round tortilla topped with everything from ​the cactus-paddle strips known as nopalitos to the slow-simmered cut of porks labelled as carnitas to huitlacoche, an immensely flavourful bluish-grey fungus that grows on corn.

For a few more pesos, a street vendor will hand you a crispy tlacoyo (a larger oval tortilla usually topped with beans and cheese), a very messy pambazo (a fluffy white bun stuffed with fried potatoes and chorizo and then soaked through in guajillo chile sauce) or a deliciously greasy torta (a pressed sandwich filled with the likes of avocado, jalapeno strips, cheese and your choice of meat, often a schnitzel-like milanesa fried cutlet).  

The main infredient in tacos al pastor: pork rubbed with spices, pressed on to a spit and then carved from the exterior, much like shawarma. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

If you choose, you may actually sit down and eat in this city. The local version of a diner is called a fonda, where you can grab a morning breakfast that usually starts with a bolillo, a small baguette-style bun leftover from a the French occupation of Mexico City in the 1860s. Cut in half and covered with beans and cheese, this bun becomes molletes, an open-faced breakfast sandwich.

During the mid-afternoon meal, traditionally the largest of the day in Mexico City, some fondas offer three courses for about 75 pesos, or about $5 Cdn. It's a great way for travellers on a budget to eat very well.

But the relatively low cost of very high-quality restaurant fare — CDMX is like a cosmopolitan European city at Mexican prices — makes it worthwhile to splurge a little.

In relatively upscale Roma Norte, which has a vaguely hipsterish vibe, you can find seafood of exceptional quality at prices Canadians would consider reasonable.

Contramar, which opens only for lunch, is locally famous and justifiably so. Their tuna tostadas are simple slices of glistening raw pink flesh placed on crispy tortillas with crunchy fried leeks and a little chipotle aioli. Softshell crabs are chopped and fried in butter with chile and garlic. And an entire red snapper is butterflied, deboned and rubbed with parsley butter on one side and chile sauce on the other before going under the broiler. All this will set you back less than 1,000 pesos, or $65 Cdn.

A reina clam, chopped and placed back in its shell in vinaigrette at La Docena in Mexico City. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

A few blocks to the east, on the broad and busy Avenue Alvaro Obregon, shellfish bar La Docena is open much later and features a far more raucous vibe. The show stoppers are raw clams, either the dark-brown chocolata variety from Baja California or the larger almejas reina. They pull the pink-and-white meat, chop it and return it to the shells in a vinaigrette.

But if you're only going to damage your financial health with one high-end meal in Mexico City, head to the bougie neighbourhood of Polanco, home to Pujol, where chef Enrique Olvera has been playing with traditional Mexican ingredients for 18 years.

You can make a reservation for a table, but a more fun attraction is an 11-seat taco bar designed specifically for taco omakase seatings modelled on the prix fixe meals served in high-end Japanese restaurants.

The eight-course taco omakase meal on offer at Pujol includes a finger of eggplant on a blue corn tortilla overlaid with a hoja santa leaf. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Eight courses of Pujol tacos will set you back just under $200 Cdn, which is roughly the same price as buying 200 tacos from a street stand in a more central neighbourhood. But the experience, which takes almost three hours and winds down in a beatific outdoor garden, is worth the cognitive dissonance, and not just because of the mezcal pairings that come with every course.

The meal starts with a trio of appetizers, most notably a spear of smoked baby corn smeared in coffee mayonnaise and dusted with ant powder. Yes, ant powder. Mexicans are not afraid of eating bugs.

Two mole sauces on a plate at Pujol, a restaurant in Mexico City's Polanco neighbourhood. The light-brown inner puddle is fresh; the darker outer ring is made from a base more than four years old and augmented every two days. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Taco courses on a single visit included: A rectangle of eggplant on a blue-corn tortilla overlaid with a leaf of hoja santa, fragrant Mexican herb; caramelized cauliflower covered in peanut sauce and crispy chicken skin; and seabass al pastor, where the fish is rubbed with seasonings usually applied to pork cooked on a vertical spit.

If all that sounds too involved, simply stay up late one night in Mexico City and head to a restaurant that specializes in regular tacos al pastor. This is definitively Mexican fusion food: Middle Eastern immigrants brought over shawarma, which eventually morphed into slabs of spiced pork, instead of lamb, pressed on to a spit below a pineapple, instead of an onion.

Order a lager to wash these tacos down. And don't afraid if they do get messy. 

Chilangos are capable of consuming the sloppiest of tacos without shedding a drop of  salsa. Canadians can only hope to approximate this skill, even sitting down.

A glass of artisanal mezcal with a beer chaser and a bowl of chapulines - crickets - at La Botica, a 20-seat mezcaleria in Mexico City's Roma neighbourhood. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.