24 Hours in Mexico City

I am in Mexico City, suddenly, at the invitation of my pal Michael, partner in Del Maguey single village mezcal, who has come on business. My business, as a chef, food blogger and brand consultant, is to learn all I can about his business — and as a Del Maguey advocate, to experience a golden-ticket immersion in artisanal mezcal production. We are on our way to Oaxaca to experience mezcal at its source. But first, there is the business of Mexico City.

Popocatepétl from the airplane window

Del Maguey recently commenced a partnership with the world’s second-largest spirits company, the French firm Pernod-Ricard, Mike is here to meet the Mexico City team, discuss efficiencies and processes. In other words, he’s taking a lot of meetings. I, on the other hand, am taking a lot of walks.

Gabe, Mike’s director of sustainability who is up from Oaxaca for the meetings, suggests places I might want to visit — markets, museums, sights — and advises Uber over the metro. I will do neither — I like to get to know cities as best I can by food, either walking or running. I am a bit under the weather, the sky is a smoky brown from the angry Popocatépetl volcano threatening on the city’s horizon, so I forsake my running this trip.

Giant Aztec sculpture in the Bosque de Chapultepec

The museums, markets and sights sound great. But it is mostly tacos that I am after.

Mexico City is Mecca for tacos. In other words, if you are a Muslim, you must once in your life make the pilgrimage to Mecca. If you are a tacoist, you must make the pilgrimage to Mexico City.

I have done a bit of research on what and where is the “best” taco in Mexico City. As you might guess, there is a diversity of opinion on the subject. But I will only be here 24 hours, I will have to narrow the field — and get to work.

I begin my odyssey a couple neighborhoods away from my hotel at El Faraon, for which I have read reverent testimonials online.

The restaurant is curiously empty at 1 p.m. I order three al pastor tacos and a Pacifico. The striated pork taco meat is shaved thinly from the rotisserie, beautifully rose colored and crisp, served with a round of five salsas. It is a superb taco indeed, although not that different from tacos I have had in other Mexican cities.

Al pastor tacos at El Faraon

Now I’m full and can’t think about tacos anymore. So I walk — many miles, through mercados I stumble upon, down side streets and across plazas, until I wind up at the Zocalo, the city’s main square. It’s Monday, the museums Gabe told me to visit are closed. So I gawk at the ruins of Montezuma’s Templo Mayor, the center of the great lake-island city of Tenochtitlan so effectively wiped out by Cortez and his merry band of conquistadors, before slogging home to collapse in bed for a rest.

Soon it is dinner time, and the Pernod-Ricard team sweeps up to our hotel in their fleet of armored SUVs to take us out on the town.

Dinner with the Pernod-Ricard team

There are three of us and 20 of them. We are decidedly outnumbered. Our first destination is a restaurant in the trendy Condesa neighborhood. We are handed mezcal cocktails as we make the rounds of introductions. Most of our hosts are French, and it will prove a humorously incongruous experience shuttling from mezcaleria to mezcaleria to a phonic aura that is more Paris than Polanco.

We are seated, Mike and I, beside Pierre and across from Jerome, who speak French and make toasts and wave their hands as mezcal is poured and dish after dish of food arrive — ceviches of all sorts, small black huaraches with beans, empanadas, piles of chicharrones, and tacos! an array of tacos in which I can detect chicken, carnitas, fish and who knows what else. They begin to all taste the same. At some point, I must hold up a hand to stop the waiter and his busy tongs — I am stuffed like a relleno, and my main course of octopus hasn’t even arrived yet.

A mood-setting jar at a Condesa mezcaleria

This is stop one of five.

It is fascinating to watch the convergence of two corporate cultures, I am a fortunate ephemera — Mike’s “chef” chum. And they, in turn, all want to hear about my cheffing as we work our way through Mexico City’s sickeningly sweet craft cocktail scene. (Which has the upshot of not inspiring me to drink too much.) It is a little before 1 a.m. when our hosts drop us back at the hotel.

The next day, feeling a bit better, I lace up my sneakers and set out again — this time into the sprawling Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico’s City’s big central forest and park. There are interesting museums here, I’m ready for a little culture. And have identified some promising taquerias around the perimeter.

Aztec Stone of the Sun

I greatly enjoy the Rufino Tamayo museum, a modernist temple feature works by the postwar master and his international buddies. A short walk away is the sprawling National Museum of Anthropology.  Much like navigating the British Museum or the Met, properly seeing the splendors of the at least five civilizations on display here would require several days. And we have an afternoon flight to Oaxaca. So I speed past Mayan temples and giant Aztec sun calendars and head toward the neighborhood of Polanco.

I am only a couple blocks from Pujol, chef Enrique Olvera’s temple of avant garde Mexican cuisine, one of the world’s top restaurants, with its new taco omakase bar. But I have only an hour and no reservation, so brokenhearted, I proceed instead to El Farolito.

My research has promised a great cecina de Yecapixtla taco — salted dried beef. The restaurant has just opened, I take a seat — the sole customer — and order the recommended taco. It is quite good, slathered with either of a bracingly hot green sauce or a smoky red sauce.

They are large tacos, it is a lot of meat. But I believe I have room for one more before checking out of the hotel and heading for the airport.

Cecina de Yecapixtla taco at El Farolito

On the walk home, I am looking for El Villamelón — a six-decade institution! — and their costeño taco of mixed chopped meats and chilis.  I reach the general vicinity (lacking a proper address), pace about a bit, and can find no trace of the taqueria — which is just as well. I’m not really hungry, I can see my hotel, my feet are tired from the 20 or so miles it feels like I’ve walked in the past day, and I’ve got Oaxaca on my compass.

What was the best taco I had in Mexico City? They were all good, as likely were the thousands I didn’t get to try. Which only served to reinforce my pre-existing opinion — that no matter where in Mexico you happen to be, the best taco is always the one sitting in front of you.

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