Being from San Diego, my first trip to Mexico City in 2013 was almost too easy. The 3 hour flight made me think about how tempting it would be to turn the next 3 day weekend into a Mexico City excursion, almost less hassle than going to L.A. or even crossing the border at San Ysidro. So 3 years later, I finally made it happen, leaving from Tijuana and accessing the airport through the new CBX cross-border bridge. After a quick drive to Otay Mesa in south San Diego, following the “not to miss” signs, you arrive at the CBX entrance. Print your boarding pass at the kiosk, purchase a round trip CBX ticket, pass through immigration to then proceed from the US to Mexico on an enclosed walking bridge that connects directly to the Tijuana airport, and then go directly to your airline ticket counter to check any bags. Stress free, hassle free and almost free (with the money I saved flying from TJ instead of San Diego). It was an easy, no frills, flight, and my best friend and I even arrived in Mexico City 40 minutes early.
From the arrangements of travel, accommodations and of course where you decide to eat during your stay, planning to visit a new city is always an adventure. A recent reminiscing session with my mom brought up the memory of having to rely on travel agents, many with their own agendas, or others within your circle of friends for advice on what might be the best things to experience in your city of choice. Today’s internet-reliant world almost offers too much information to a traveler who loves an element of surprise and adventure. But because you don’t want your 5 days abroad to be a total bust, you do your research, jot down the musts do’s and leave the rest up to fate and a few shots of good tequila.
During my first visit, we commuted through the city by Metro or taxi, but this time around we decided to take Uber. Mexico City was the 1st city outside of the US Uber set up business. The drivers were prompt, friendly and everything that you would expect in the states, many had water and mints if desired. An extra dollar tip was often pushed away by the driver, thinking it was too generous. But with the gas crisis as it is there now, we insisted every time.
In 2013 I stayed at a very magical place, a B&B named The Red Tree House. Tucked into the Condesa neighborhood, it is so completely charming with a staff that will treat you like family, well at least my family. I have sent many travelers here in the past years but due to them being booked during our stay we thought that
the current experience demanded a millennial take on the city. Airbnb led us back to the Condesa area, my favorite neighborhood by far. Condesa is a progressive, hip neighborhood full of cafes, bars, boutiques and plenty of construction. There is definitely no shortage of construction, noise or smog in this enormous city of 21 million people and 17 million cars. 3 years after my first visit, many buildings are being renovated and modernized. Bustling with young residents who know how to balance life and fun. There is a hip eatery at every corner and a topography studded with beautifully maintained and landscaped parks and public spaces. Being outside and socializing is an important way of life for many Mexicans and the health conscious citizen was abundant with runners, bikers and daily dog walkers. Our modern, IKEA decorated apartment was comfortable and smack dab in the middle of all of the action in the heart of Condesa. We walked everywhere within reason and treated ourselves to UBER when the need arose.
Tuna Tostadas and Seafood Cocktel at Contramar
Our exploration of the neighborhood began early the first night as we scored a premiere seat on the patio at Contramar, a long time standard for friends, family and co-workers to gather for a late afternoon meal and many rounds of drinks. The décor is simplistic but accented by the fullness of the restaurant. There is barely space to maneuver to the bathroom and the loud happy people filling the rectangular open room created such an immense heat that I was thrilled to be on the patio with the fresh air and a front row to people watching. The simple seafood preparations of tostadas, sopes and cocktel adorned our table with the most delicious spicy pickled white onions to add on the side. The classic margarita was so fresh that it demanded ordering a second round. A must here is the Tuna Tostada, we would have order 10 of these if we could, but with so many more places to try we had to keep our big eyes and bellies in check.
I can attest to the fact that the Condesa neighborhood truly has something for everyone including Conselero, a karaoke piano bar, Pata Negra, a hipster bar, Trapista, a beer centric bar where the bartender can not only serve a fantastic drink but also whip up a restaurant worthy tostada and a mean 4 cheese and 3 meat torta to satisfy your late night munchies. These stand outs and a few more in between ended us up at 2 taco shops to close out the night Although my search for the perfect al pastor this trip was not successful, El Califa offered up a true hit with their griddled queso and nopales dish, served with fresh made tortillas and a selection of 5 house made salsas. A perfect end to the perfect 1st day abroad.
Queso, nopales y salsas at El Califa
In 2013 I visited Mexico City on a chef’s tour. I dug up some of my reflections and writings from back then and realized how right on I was, if I could only make money from predictions like this…. “We had the opportunity to try a few restaurants, which have made the list of the top in the world as well as Latin America. What we noticed was that these passionate, young, technical chefs are putting out top-notch food, service and decor in restaurants that most of us don’t know exist in this part of the world. Very much like the revolutionary food and wine scene of Baja, Mexico City has put itself on the culinary map and in about 10 years from now, if not sooner, it will be sought out by the rest of the world. Watch out New York, San Francisco and Paris, there is a new kid in town. The chefs were more than level headed, gracious and so very talented, teaching and giving back to their staff, as well as us interested Americans. It is a very exciting time in Latin American cuisine and food culture and I am so lucky to be a part of it and to have gotten to know the modern day innovators. If through the passion for food we can begin to break the border boundaries and begin to embrace each other’s culture, I am proud to be a part of this special transformation.” It was at this time that I fell in love immediately with the progressively modern yet rustic, lively yet laid back, gastronomically focused culture of this metropolitan, historically rich city. After a week of acquainting ourselves with authentic foods and ingredients of Mexico, meeting many of the up and coming chefs of the city who now in 2017 own their own restaurants and find themselves on the top 50 Best list in Latin America, and eating at some of the best taco shops and fine dining establishments, I realized that I never really got to see the historical aspects of the city. The multitude of parks, museums, churches, murals and monuments were overlooked and I was determined to step foot into the smog laden city once again to explore its history and of course even more food.
Tuna Tostadas and Esquites at Kaye
Nopal Ceviche at Quintonil
The culinary fare in Mexico city varies from traditional street tacos, tortas and guisados to fine dining molecular gastronomy and everything in between. So many options and so difficult to narrow down but we were up for the challenge. Breakfast began at El Cardenal, one of the most famous breakfast places in the city (there happens to be multiple locations). To be honest I am not sure what all of the hype is about, it is a safe zone for tourists not wanting to dig deep into the true Mexican culture. The “Gringoized” menu was quite bland. We did find a hidden gem with the authentic Birria, braised lamb in a beautiful rich chile sauce with flavors of warm spices like cloves and cinnamon, served with classic condiments of diced onion, cilantro, lime and fresh corn tortillas. Still needing a little heat, the waiter brought us a selection of house made salsas which were a perfect kick in the pants, just what this food needed! Although the pan dulce looked a little to be desired, the house made rolls brought to the table were warm, perfectly crusty and an absolutely divine medium to sop up the rest of the birria sauce.
Attempting to burn off some calories to make room for the next meal, we walked the streets of the city near the Zocalo in Historico Centro, a large plaza representing the city center. With a sea of people walking in the streets closed off to motor vehicles, the noise and laughter was infectious as you saw everyone enjoying a beautiful weekend day with their friends and families. One does have to wonder though, as you get sucked into the sea of people walking though the streets, where is everyone going? Each direction leads to a historical building, painted mural lined street market, peaceful demonstration, church, or just another street. On each block, older men were staged along the sidewalks playing a small organ-like instrument. Their musical tempo was slow and sounded like somewhat saddening circus music. We wanted to give him money just so he could play it a little faster! As we continued down the street we were no more than an ears length away from one street performer before you began to hear another.
There is a special feeling that takes hold of you while being in a historical part of Mexico City on a Sunday. While on the street, people all around us, young and old, were riding their bikes, walking their dogs and eating ice cream. Wandering the city streets, you will encounter an occasional smell of masa wafting out of mini makeshift tortilleria storefronts no bigger than my home kitchen. Sundays, as I’m sure most days are, seem to be a good day in Mexico City. Apparently all of the museums in the city are free of charge every Sunday so we made our way to the museum of Modern Folk Art. A stunning array of hand crafts ranging from wood carvings, to clay sculptures and colorful textiles were enjoyed by all. If only my house had 10 more walls, it could be a museum itself. We caught a glimpse of the Sunday service at the Metropolitan cathedral. The altars were ornately decorated in gold, carved wood and clear glass windows with modern and geometric elements to stand out.
Classic churros served up at El Moro
After a long walk on our historic downtown adventure we had to pay a visit to the classic El Moro for churros y chocolate caliente. Through the window, I watched intently and studied the every move of the man who cranked the handle of the large metal churro machine. As the piped churro batter fell directly into the hot oil he coiled one long strip into perfect concentric circles reaching at least 2 feet in diameter. As he pulled them from the oil, they were cut into foot long pieces with a scissors and tossed in coarse sugar and cinnamon. If only everyone knew what a real churro tasted like, thin and crunchy on the outside and still chewy inside with just the right amount of sweetness, the world would be a better place.
Another unique option in Mexico City on Sundays is to rent a bike. The city closes over 17 miles of roads to allow its citizens to get out and ride through the city. Not only is it a great way to limit the carbon emissions for a few hours but it is an incredible view of a city generally laden with cars. Renting a bike was easy, there are hundreds of bike rental racks throughout the city, but without registering your credit card on their site, it makes a last minute decision a bit challenging. So we headed toward Chapultapec Park and an independent bike rental allowed us to grab a bike by the hour (50 MXN per hour) and set us free. It is easy to join up with the biking crowds near the park and through what looked like the financial district. Serious riders, small kids still with training wheels and even dogs puling bikes were out in full force. As the road blocks were being cleared to make way for the cars once again, we headed to ride though the park and check out the many happenings there. Rows and rows of blue umbrellas shade the street vendors selling candy, chips, toys, and trinkets throughout the park. There is definitely no shortage of snacks in this city. The lake was studded with aqua paddle boats, the spring flowers were starting to emerge from the landscape and there was just a general happiness in the air.
It has made me happy to immerse myself in the culture of Mexico City and it would not have been complete without a visit to the Stadium Azteca where team America was hosting Veracruz. Although I am not a soccer fan whatsoever, enjoying the culture of fútbol fanatics was quite fascinating. Simply being in a stadium that seats 100,000 people makes you feel quite miniscule. And even though most of the seats were vacant, the energy emitted from the die-hard fans through their chanting, horn blowing and flag waving was infectious. I have to admit I had a great time, even though I found myself a majority of the time studying the snack selection offered in the stands. I loved the creative upsell of the Corona, a michelada setup to pour your beer into for an extra dollar. And the assorted nuts that you could add a selection of hot sauce and lime to, but I seemed quite perplexed about the hot Cup Noodles that made it’s way around many times throughout the night. These seem to be all the rage from inside the airport to street vendors. I will leave the mystery of this food trend for another time.
Island of the Dolls – Xochimilco
One last adventure found us on the outskirts of the city, about a 40 minute drive, in a small UNESCO world heritage site called Xochimilco. Xochimilco is best known for its canals, which are left from what was an extensive lake and canal system that connected most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico during it’s pre-hispanic past. These canals, along with artificial islands called chinampas, attract tourists and other city residents to ride on the colorful gondola-like wooden boats called trajineras around the 110 miles of canals. During our short 1 hour excursion, as our guide pushed us along by simply forcing a long wooden pole along the rivers bottom, we passed homes along the waters edge, an abundance of plant nurseries and an odd site named “island of the dolls” where a creepy array of Barbies, baby dolls and other trinkets are imbedded and hanging in the trees that line the water. To enhance the experience, other gondolas transporting full Mariachi bands will play a song for a small fee as you glide together along the water. You can purchase food, drink and even blankets and souvenirs from vendors that pull up alongside your vessel throughout the trip. Although we decided to just get a taste of what this unique experience has to offer, I recommend this as an all day floating adventure enjoying the music, food and friends.
As our trip comes to an end, I feel like I have been trapped in a place I never want to leave. The feeling like you truly belong in a place so far away that you do not call home is a magical thing. Mexico City has proven to be a magnificent mecca of young modern talent infused with tremendous cultural pride and a zest for life. Despite the chaotic traffic, uneven sidewalks and graffiti buildings it also showcases brightly painted buildings, intricate ironwork on doorways and balconies, handcrafted art, lively music and sophisticated spices creating this deep culture in which forces you to look at its inner beauty, not what is on the surface.
As no country is perfect and there is a tremendous amount of corruption still in this part of the world, Mexico has been plagued in the U.S. by bad press, dangerous drug cartels, gas price surges and now the unfortunate discriminating discussions of a border wall. For the last 7 years of my career, I have dedicated myself to forming positive cross border relationships and have met many people across the border who I am proud to call my friends. We all share the same love for food, drink and living life. We all share the same daily struggles of relationships, careers and stress. I will not let a wall divide human beings. I am infected with the joy of travel and I will keep exploring the world and allow the places I go and the people I meet to put their imprint on me, as I hope to do the same. Mexico is not just a country or a city or a village, Mexico is life.
El Cardenal – Breakfast classic in the Hilton lobby. Not to miss: Birria, fresh French rolls
Rosetta Panaderia – Stunning European feel pastry café, Not to miss: Fresh juice blends, Guava and cheese pastry, delicious sandwiches and house made pickled vegetables on the table.
El Maque – Neighborhood bakery offering a large array of pan dulce and breakfast dishes as well. Patio seating.
El Moro – Classic churro restaurant, offering 7 types of hot chocolate.
Contramar – Popular casual eatery offering fresh seafood selections. Not to miss: Tuna Tostada!
Lardo – Lovely neighborhood restaurant with thoughtful and delicious fusion fare, wood fire oven, great wines and engaging kitchen staff. Not to miss: Curry Octopus, Roasted Cauliflower Salad, Seabass Ceviche with Jamaica broth, complimentary flatbread with olive oil.
Kaye – Modern restaurant with beautifully presented dishes, condiments and cocktails. Not to miss: Bread and butter display, tuna tostadas, creative cocktails.
Quintonil – Voted #12 of Worlds 50 Best List, I have tried the tasting menu but this time we ordered many selections to share from the menu. All of them delicious! Fantastic service, upscale but not pretentious.
El Califa – Taco Shop – best for late night dining, Not to miss: Chicharon de Queso, Seared Queso y Nopal
Tacos Faraon – Taco Shop – good late night dining, Al Pastor tacos were flavorful and moist.
Guisados Hola – Hole in the wall open for breakfast and lunch, specializes in guisado tacos, try one of each!
Conselero – Karaoke-Piano Bar, basic drinks but great old-school atmosphere with die-hard singers.
Pata Negra – More modern/hipster bar with craft cocktails and a DJ on weekends, live music next door.
Trapista – Tiny beer-centric bar with a good selection of tequila and mescal too. Unusually great late night snacks put together by a kitchen-skilled bartender.
Salon Paris – Stop here for a drink where the Jose Alfredo Jimenez, the famous Mariachi writer/player got his start.
Things To Do:
Frida Kahlo Museum/Diego Rivera – Tour this museum, once the home of Frida and Diego. Do not miss the very informational video/documentary shown throughout the day on the patio.
Artisanal Mercado – For all lovers of fine crafts, this is a great artisan market with collections of goods from all over Mexico. Small booths of textiles, crafts and food line this interior market.
Bike Rental Poray – Located near Chapultapec park, call the number on the bike out front if it looks like the door is closed, they will answer and bike rentals are 50 pesos/hr.
Chapultapec Park – The “Central Park” of Mexico City. Museums, events, the castle, paddle-boating, botanical gardens and so much more is found within the grounds. Sundays are the busiest days and museums are free to locals.
Xochimilco – Ride the trajineras (gondolas) throught the ancient canals that used to connect the city. Start and end at the Natiuvitas port. Bring a group of people with you for a day of fun in the sun!