City Portrait

City Portrait: Mexico City

This Mesoamerican capital’s old-world charm, incredible architecture, and buzzing food scene are just a quick flight away

Photo: Jody Horton

The margarita service at San Angel Inn.

I’ve just polished off the best margarita in Mexico City—two of them, actually—when Blair Richardson flashes me a startled look. “We’re late for tlacoyos!” she says. 

We’re resting weary bones on the third and final day of my Mexico City jaunt in the cloistered courtyard of the San Angel Inn, a seventeenth-century hacienda turned restaurant, after wandering the leafy streets of Coyoacán, a colonial gem of a neighborhood in the city’s southern reaches. Little matter that tlacoyos—football-shaped corn-masa patties stuffed with cheese, fava beans, or chicharrón and topped with nopal cactus and other goodies—are street food, which we could have gobbled down at any number of corner stands. Or that I’m hardly hungry, having chased the margaritas with rib-eye tacos, guacamole, and escamoles, a buttery delicacies made from ant larvae. Apparently there is one particular spot that we absolutely must try in the bohemian Roma neighborhood, and nothing stands between Richardson, a tough, petite Virginian, and her favorite provisions in her adopted hometown.

Take the margaritas. When stateside friends visit, the San Angel Inn is a must. Each potent cocktail arrives in a tiny silver carafe nestled in a chipped-ice-filled silver bucket, a presentation so lovely Richardson bought a set for her mother. After the first drinks, we were powerless against the lure of another round of silver buckets.

Kick back or keep moving: These are the opposing forces of travel, especially in a locale as rich with options as Mexico City. The Western Hemisphere’s most populated metropolitan area (New York City is third), Mexico’s capital perches seventy-three hundred feet above sea level in a cool, lush valley ringed by mountains. The tropical abundance and indigenous-European mash-up help make it a “cultural superpower,” in the words of the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes. And if you live in the American South, it’s a destination close enough for a long-weekend getaway: two and a half hours by direct flight from Houston, three and a half from Atlanta, and a little over four from Charlotte. Even Washington, D.C., where I live, is only five hours—with no jet lag.

Kick back or keep moving: These are the opposing forces of travel, especially in a locale as rich with options as Mexico City

I’m here for the history, art, and architecture, the cobblestoned plazas, and the vine-draped gardens. I’m here for the peppery bite of village-made mezcal hauled in from rural palenques in sloshing jerricans, decanted into hand-labeled bottles and served with reverence in dark bars. And I’m here because this part of Mesoamerica, once a cradle of agriculture, is now one of the world’s great gastronomic hubs. Today’s Mexican chefs, with a citywide network of 320-plus traditional markets at their fingertips, are on fire, fusing new ideas and ingredients with proud traditions. 

As for crime, it exists. But while there are neighborhoods it’s best to avoid (and you should always exercise common sense when traveling abroad), most of the cosmopolitan capital has been largely immune to Mexico’s cartel turf wars. The city proper is not currently included in any of the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings for the country, though it does advise caution in several municipalities east of the city.

The grand exterior of the Centro's Palacio de Correos.

Photo: Jody Horton

Capital Time

The grand exterior of the Centro’s Palacio de Correos.

“When friends who are considering visiting ask if it’s safe,” Richardson explains, “I tell them, ‘You’re going to feel silly you asked that once you get here and see for yourself.’”  

Richardson, a thirty-seven-year-old graphic designer and my guide for this trip, grew up in Roanoke and lived in Austin, Texas, before moving to Mexico City with her husband, Jorge Munguía Matute, a native of Guadalajara, seven years ago. The couple lives in a stately 1905 townhouse in Roma. 

With only three days, I have to be strategic—and a bit ruthless—so we’ve narrowed our focus to three neighborhoods that give a diverse-but-doable cross section of Mexico City’s multitude of pleasures. Two fall in the city’s core: the Centro Histórico, the traditional hub, making a stunning comeback after decades of neglect, and Roma, the city’s hottest food destination. We added Coyoacán—only eight miles south of the center, but worlds away in look and feel—as a contemplative counterpoint to the dense downtown. Besides, how could I say no to Mexico City’s best margarita? 

Our first morning, we set out from Richardson’s home in Roma and take an Uber to the Centro, where we meet up with another Southern expatriate, Charleston, South Carolina, native Olivia Andrews, and her film-producer husband, Victor Zavala, for breakfast at El Cardenal. Housed in a four-story Beaux-Arts building with stained-glass windows, this Mexico City institution crawls with liveried waiters dishing out plates of rustic comfort food. Andrews and Zavala are urban pioneers, raising their two children in an art deco high-rise near the Zócalo, the city’s central plaza. Over omelets wrapped in squash blossoms and house-made breads slathered with nata—the thick, silky cream skimmed from boiled raw milk—Zavala ticks off the reasons they’re bullish on the city’s historic center: major investment by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, government-funded infrastructure improvements, and a crime-reduction plan designed with input from former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The couple owns a half dozen Centro Airbnb rentals, and they’ve begun redeveloping historic buildings abandoned after the 1985 earthquake.

A shopkeeper shows off a handmade ceramic skull at Onora.

Photo: Jody Horton

A shopkeeper shows off a handmade ceramic skull at Onora.

“We have all these services—old-fashioned markets, butcher shops, and hardware sellers,” says Zavala, who is also the president of the Centro’s neighborhood association. “It’s like a little town.”

A town on steroids, that is. The scale is breathtaking, starting with the fourteen-acre Zócalo, a sea of paving stones that serves as a pedestrian square, concert venue, and site for political rallies. A more relaxed rendezvous point is simply named Downtown Mexico, a swank hotel in a seventeenth-century stone palace. Opened in 2012, the seventeen-room Downtown shares its gorgeous colonial space with a dozen boutique shops and two restaurants, including Azul Histórico, housed in the palace’s interior courtyard and led by chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Mexico’s top gastronomic scholar.

The Centro is delightfully walkable and filled with museums and other diversions. We stroll through the recently renovated city park Alameda Central, with its tree-lined garden paths, fountains, and statues. Organ-grinders in crisp beige uniforms fill the streets with music. We gaze up in wonder at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an art nouveau–style performing arts and museum space topped by a tiled dome the colors of a sunset. 

After we visit other popular spots—the massive Museo Nacional de Arte and the observation deck atop the iconic six-hundred-foot skyscraper Torre Latinoamericana—Richardson leads us off the beaten path into the interior courtyard of the Secretariat of Public Education building, housed in a huge former convent. Here is where the renowned muralist Diego Rivera painted some of his early works—more than a hundred panels covering more than seventeen thousand square feet—between 1922 and 1928. And we have the whole place to ourselves.

Around cocktail hour, we head back to Roma, where the food map reads like a who’s who of the country’s top chefs. Enrique Olvera of Pujol fame, Elena Reygadas, and Eduardo García have all opened restaurants here. One draw was the 2010 opening of Mercado el 100, the city’s first open-air organic farmers’ market. We pop into Fonda Fina, cocreated in 2015 by Jorge Vallejo, whose flagship is the raved-about Quintonil in the posh Polanco neighborhood. Traditionally, fondas are mom-and-pop eateries, and like other celebrity chefs who have expanded into the leafy, Brooklyn-like Roma, Vallejo opted for authenticity over flash. We taste the homey goodness in the pork belly and cactus-fruit sope (like a small corn-masa pizza) and tamales with beans and smoked Oaxacan chiles. 

One of Diego Rivera's early murals.

Photo: Jody Horton

One of Diego Rivera’s early murals.

“There’s tremendous creative energy in Roma, whether it’s theater, museums, street art, or food,” David Vera, the chef and co-owner of El Mero Mero, tells me the next day, when we stop for a snack of fish tacos and aguachile, a spicy ceviche-like dish from the Sinaloa state on Mexico’s northwest Pacific coast. He opened this hyperfresh seafood restaurant last spring.

We also sit for a proper midday meal at the Roma pillar Contramar. Opened eighteen years ago by restaurateur Gabriela Cámara, this all-day lunch spot sets the city’s gold standard for seafood. Abuzz with conversation, the dining room is a flurry of purposeful movement—impeccably dressed servers orbiting between tables and the kitchen, collecting drinks from two jocular bartenders. “It looks choreographed,” Richardson whispers. The whole place exudes charisma, and the seafood is some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted. 

Our final day brings us south to Coyoacán—and eventually to those San Angel margaritas. When the neighborhood was still a pre-Hispanic village on the southern shore of Lake Texcoco, Cortés holed up in the area during his conquest of Tenochtitlan. Later, wealthy Spanish colonists built country estates here. We stroll, admiring the gardens and walled homes, some ancient, others strikingly modern. It’s a nice change of pace.

The intimate scale of Coyoacán’s museums is a welcome change, too. Two of the most popular are in former homes, one that belonged to the exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky and the other to the artist Frida Kahlo. Crossing Coyoacán’s lovely central plaza, we pause in the shadow of the circa-1550 parish church to watch an old man twisting palm fronds into souvenir crickets. 

We finally decamp to the San Angel Inn, but the tlacoyos are soon calling, and we Uber back to our Roma home base, praying Richardson’s favorite vendor hasn’t battened down her booth. Arriving at the corner of Colima and Mèrida streets, we spy a pair of women working a large round griddle, and Richardson lets out a yelp. The stand has no sign, but the aromas wafting from it are enough to draw a crowd.

Richardson greets the women and orders three tlacoyos: one with chicharrónes; another with huitlacoche, a fungus also known as the Mexican truffle; and a third with gooey farm cheese and oyster mushrooms. Maybe it’s the margaritas or the dramatic dash to get here, but the crispy-chewy masa with its oozing flavors makes my knees weak. 

Living amid the bustle and grandeur of the Centro, he says, “feels like a scene from a Tennessee Williams play, like I’m in the French Quarter right after the war.” 

We spend our final night, which will culminate in a blur of mezcal and surprisingly good Mexican craft beer, in the Centro and the streets around Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s Champs-Élysées. We had meant to carve out more time during our three days to explore the grand avenue, which cuts diagonally, like a proud military sash, across the city’s northwest shoulder. But other than quick jaunts to the hilltop castle in Chapultepec Park and a couple of excellent nearby design shops—Onora and Taxonomia—the bulk of the Reforma corridor would have to wait for the next trip. 

We join yet another Southern expat, Michael Parker-Stainback, a charmingly downbeat Virginian who, ten years ago, chucked it all and moved here to try his luck as a writer and translator. Living amid the bustle and grandeur of the Centro, he says, “feels like a scene from a Tennessee Williams play, like I’m in the French Quarter right after the war.” 

After a stop at Parker-Stainback’s neighborhood cantina, a moth-eaten, matador-themed joint called La Faena, we head to Richardson’s favorite bar, another Centro joint called Bósforo. Much hipper but equally authentic and low profile, Bósforo is known for its selection of village mezcals and great music. The man responsible for both is proprietor Arturo Dozal. When I meet him, it’s midnight, his bar’s packed, and he’s struggling against a wall of sound to communicate the psychic significance of the smoky agave spirit. It has something to do with “transparency.”

Parker-Stainback then leads us to our last stop, a speakeasy called Hanky Panky in the on-the-rise neighborhood of Juárez, just a few streets south of Paseo de la Reforma. I’m dubious at first. Is this some derivative cocktail-culture import from north of the border? But then we enter a brightly lit, plain-Jane eatery—where off-duty taxistas might wolf down comida típica—and slip through a kitchen door and into something magical. We join a shimmering scene, where patrons perched in bar-height club chairs sip from martini glasses and coupes. We pile into a half-circle booth of red tufted leather and order from a menu of classic cocktails. This time we call it quits after one round. As we leave, a host ushers us through a velvet curtain. I duck through a door, and I find myself, once again, in the plain-Jane eatery, blinking away the fluorescent glare. When I look back, all I see is a buzzing, glass-fronted beer fridge—Hanky Panky’s secret exit. The abrupt transition feels exciting and otherworldly. Like Mexico City itself.

Soak up the city’s magic like a native