Wednesday, August 19, 2015


                                      Detail of mural by Diego Rivera in (SEP building, Mexico City)

Since I live with a food writer I usually keep mum (in print, anyway) about my personal food preferences in order to assure  domestic tranquility. But recently I've been asked by several friends for my '10 Best' list of food in Mexico City. I wrote the first version of this post back in 2007 and was surprised that I've made only one change since then (#10--I used to have a favorite dish at Izote, but it closed). Although I include some restaurants, my list is more about specific dishes that I keep returning to, many of them at street stalls. (If it were just about restaurants, I would include Maximo Bistrot Local, but I couldn't think of one single stand-out dish--they all are great). So here's my list of ten things I eat regularly that make me happy to live in Mexico City.

1. Several times a week I stop at the fruit juice stand near Insurgentes and Sonora to get a liter of fresh-squeezed orange or mandarina (tangerine) juice--and wonder why every civilized city doesn’t offer such healthy convenience. Fresh fruit stands are all over the place and often seem to appear magically whenever I get really thirsty. Orange and carrot juices are standards, but my favorite is the vampiro, made of orange, carrot and beet juices (sometimes celery) that is easily recognized by its blood-red color. Jugos Canada (on 5 de Mayo near the Zócalo) offers one of the biggest selections of fresh fruit and vegetable drinks in the city.

2. I’ve never eaten better tamales than those sold by Mexico City street vendors (in my experience always better than what you find in restaurants). Every morning (and in some places late at night) on street corners, markets, and metro stops you will see vendors tending large aluminum pots, often with steam escaping from under the lids. Mexico City’s tamaleros are an essential part of urban life. Most tamales are wrapped in a corn husk, with standard fillings of mole, rajas (strips of green pepper) in red sauce, chicken with green sauce, or tamales dulces, sweetened and dyed pink (kids love them). Some vendors also sell tamales oaxaqueños, made from more finely ground corn that is wrapped in a banana leaf.

3. I don’t feel completely human in the morning before my first cup of coffee, and I always feel a bit cheated if I must drink coffee other than what I buy in the Centro at Café Jekemir (Isabel la Católica at the corner of Regina). Their dark roasted beans are the best I have had in Mexico. Sometimes, after a hard yoga class, I treat myself to a café con leche at Bisquets Obregón, a chain of restaurants with locations all over the country (see their website The coffee is served in the two-handed Veracruz style, one urn containing a thick, syrupy coffee infusion (very concentrated--don't try to drink it straight), the other hot milk. Mexicans tend to drink it very milky, and waitresses are usually surprised by my asking for a 50-50 mix, which turns out just right for me.

4. Tlacoyos are found all over the city, usually made by women tending small charcoal fires in metal anafres on the street.  They are frequently found outside markets and metro stops. They are palm-sized ovals of masa (corn dough), formed by hand and filled with frijoles, requesón (mild white cheese), or habas (fava beans—my favorite). Cooked on a greaseless griddle, they are served with nopales (cactus), onion, grated cheese, and a choice of red or green salsa. Healthy, delicious, and cheap, they are one of the most satisfying snacks in town.

5. I am a big fan of mole, and whenever I return from a trip outside Mexico, I order a plate of enchiladas de mole to make me feel at home again. ‘Mas Mexicano que mole’ is the equivalent of ‘As American as apple pie.’ My favorite is found at Fonda Mi Lupita (Buentono 22 in the Centro, near Salto de Agua metro stop), a simple hole-in-the-wall, where they've been serving spicy, chocolatey mole since 1957. The enchiladas are topped with onion rings, sesame seeds and crumbled queso fresco.

6. Mexican cuisine offers many regional specialties that are usually found only in their places of origin—unless you are in Mexico City. The best Yucatecan food I’ve ever had is here in the Centro at Coox Hanal (Isabel la Católica 83, near Mesones, on the 2nd floor). I keep going back for their papadzules, tortillas filled with chopped, hard-boiled eggs, bathed in a thick green sauce of ground pumpkin seeds. The word ‘earthy’ always comes to mind when I eat these subtle, nutty-flavored antojitos--one of the few Mexican specialties that will appeal to non-meat eaters.

7. Years ago, while still living in New York City, my Mexican friend Marta came to visit for six weeks. About a month after her arrival, we were sitting around chatting one evening, when suddenly she whined, “Quiero tacos!” There was a deep sense of longing in her voice for her native comfort food. Mexico City must be the taco capital of the world, and the variety is impressive. Those crunchy shells filled with ground beef, shredded orange-colored cheese and lettuce that pass as tacos in the U.S. do not exist here. Tacos in DF are soft corn tortillas with a small amount of filling (usually meat). Tacos al Pastor, those towers of marinated pork roasting on a spit that you will see all over town, are a Mexico City classic. The sliced meat is served with a bit of pineapple and your choice of salsa. In my neighborhood, La Condesa, two places stand out: El Tizoncito (Tamaulipas at Nuevo Leon), which claims to be the originator of tacos al pastor, and La Califa (Alfonso Reyes at Altata). Each taqueria has its followers, both are excellent examples of one of the favorite foods of Mexico City residents. My other top tacos are vegetarian. I go out of my way for the the tacos of torta de broccoli and torta de coliflor at the (nameless?) taco stand at the corner of Tuxpan and Baja California, at the Metro Chilpancingo stop. Thier salsas and 'add-ons' (cole slaw and beans) are first rate.

8. It took me a while to warm up to pozole, that thick soup made with pork and hominy (large corn kernels), but I’ve since become addicted to this most satisfying dish, which has been around in a similar form since Aztec times (reportedly Moctezuma ate it with a bit of human meat leftover from the sacrifices at the Templo Mayor).  Most places offer red pozole, but one of my very favorite things to eat in Mexico City is the pozole verde served at Pozoleria Tizka (Zacatecas 59 in Colonia Roma), which is thickened with ground pumpkin seeds. You can order it with chicken instead of pork to lighten it up a bit. Their tostadas are crisp and fresh (you'll hate the packaged ones after these), and the lemonade excellent.

9. I have a fairly aggressive sweet tooth, but it's often disappointed by desserts in Mexico. After lots of research at the chocolate counter of Sanborns, I 've discovered the prize winners. Look for maronet amargo, avellaneda, hoja cassis, and tortugas--all excellent in the dark chocolate category. Sanborns stores are found all over town, the most famous being the Casa de Azulejos on 5 de Mayo in the Centro Histórico. For a delicious vanilla treat, try the merengues filled with cream at the Pastelería Gran Via (Amsterdam 288 near Sonora in Colonia Condesa)--avoid their other things.

10. Although I've eaten in some of Mexico City's high-end restaurants (Pujol, Quintonil, Biko, e.g.), I think my luck has been bad at those places, as so many others rave about them, and I've left them all impressed only with the size of the bill. But recently I ate at El Puntal, a swanky Spanish restaurant in Las Lomas, whose fideua negra (fine noodles with squid ink) took me back to Madrid at first bite. ( Their croquetas, my test for good quality comida española, were as good as any I've had in Spain.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

High E-flat in el DF

Did you know that one of the most famous notes in musical history was recorded right here in Mexico City? It was the night of March 7, 1951 and the singer was Maria Callas, just taking off on her meteoric rise to operatic stardom, was singing Aida at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. 

Callas had been tempted by the opera's director, who told her that 19th century Mexican soprano Angela Peralta was famous for interpolating a high E-flat into the opera's Triumphal Scene.
She was also annyoed by the antics of tenor Kurt Baum who, during rehearsals and on opening night, held his top-notes in show-off fashion, ignoring signals from the conductor to straighten up.
During the first intermission, mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato who was singing Amneris, reportedly went to Callas's dressing room and said to the soprano: "Cara, per me...da il re-bemol!" ("Dearest, for me...take the E-flat!") and Callas agreed. Simionato told the other singers and the conductor of Callas's intentions but left the tenor in the dark. When the moment came and Callas latched onto the unwritten note, Baum went ballistic and swore never to sing with her again.
According to one first-person account, at the end of the second act, Bellas Artes 'se convertió en un manicomio' (turned into a madhouse). The audience was hugging and kissing one another, cheering wildly 'like at a bullfight', and waving handkerchiefs in the air.
The Mexicans adored Callas and when she was invited back the following year for more Aidas the public expected her to interpolate the E-flat again--and she didn't disappoint. The 1950 E-flat is remarkable though not as well-captured on tape as the 1951 when she hurled the note into the house like a javelin.
Here, in very primitive sound, is the finale of the Triumphal Scene from the 1951 Mexico City Aida (the famous note is around 4:40); Callas is Aida, Oralia Dominguez sings Amneris, Mario del Monaco is Radames and Giuseppe Taddei is Amonasro.

(I'm not sure if this one's from Mexico City, but it's even more insane:

(Thanks to Oberon's Grove for historical background material)