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Taste of Travel: Mexico City : Viva La Comida! : In Mexico’s capital, where life centers around eating, the best restaurants mix ingredients of the country’s complex culinary heritage

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Those who are surprised by the notion of a 4 1/2-hour Mexico City lunch do not understand how serious an affair food is in Mexico.

Nothing, not even politics, bullfighting or soccer has the same following as food. Mexicans discuss politics while doing breakfast. Lunches, the main meal (or comida ) of the day, take forever because they are always business wrapped in pleasure. The whole world is fixed at dinner time.

As a native of Mexico City who has also dined at a considerable number of well-known restaurants in Europe and the United States, I propose that few cities in the world can boast as many great restaurants as my hometown and fewer still can claim a complex culinary tradition that blends so many rich cuisines with so much history. The restaurants that best reflect this compare to the likes of Patina or Citrus in Los Angeles in terms of clientele and quality.

Consider Montezuma II, for example. Yes, the same Aztec emperor (1480-1520) who was leader of the highly advanced Amerindian civilization that was famous both for its sophistication and the capabilities of its warriors. Except that this time, picture him elegantly selecting from a table displaying erotic-looking, textured delicacies with enticing aromas.

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In his “Chronicle of the New Spain,” Bernal Diaz del Castillo recounts the refinement of the emperor’s table. His everyday menu consisted of more than 100 different dishes prepared from huitlacoche, the smoky-flavored fungus from corn; chilies that came in different colors and degrees of piquancy; tomatoes, both green and red; ground squash seeds and beans, cocoa and chocolate; fowl, as in pheasant or turkey; fish and seafood, such as lobster and shrimp, red snapper and tuna brought daily from the Gulf of Mexico especially for him; delicacies such as frog legs, winged ants and cactus worms; fruits such as pineapple, papaya, guava, avocados and plums; vegetables such as chayote, yucca root, jicama; flowers from the vanilla and zucchini plants; herbs such as epazote (a pungent herb that is used to flavor black beans, soups and quesadillas); drinks such as pulque (a Nahuatl alcoholic concoction prepared from fermented cactus) and sweeteners such as honey.

Aztec cuisine was famous throughout the empire because of the inventiveness of its chefs and their willingness to experiment and mix ingredients from the recipes of kingdoms and conquered towns.

Corn was the Aztecs’ most basic food staple, as was the case for most pre-Columbian civilizations. According to the “Popol Vuh,” the sacred book of the Mayans, “Man’s flesh was made of yellow and white corn: The arms and legs of man were made of corn dough. Only corn dough went into the flesh of our fathers, the four men who were created,” hence the dominant role that corn, to this day, plays in Mexican dishes.

This is apparent in the menus at the trendy Cicero-Centenario restaurants, which opened last year in two Mexico City locations. Those who enjoy chic neighborhoods can stop at the one in old Colonia Juarez, more popularly known as the Zona Rosa. The other restaurant is in downtown Mexico City in an old Mexican colonial house that must have been a vecindad, a multifamily dwelling, until architects and interior decorators turned it into a magnificent establishment that keeps the basic design of the original two-story structure.

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The first impression in both locations is drawn from the lobby and bar areas, which resemble high-brow cantinas. At the Zona Rosa, “Captain Vejos,” the maitre d’ who has been a fixture at the best restaurants in Mexico for the past 35 years, greets you and guides you to your table in the exuberant main dining room.

In the downtown location, going up the staircase you arrive at a corridor that connects the different rooms where lunch and dinner are served. Each room is decorated differently, but they all remain loyal to turn-of-the-century Mexican style, typified by armoires filled with old dolls and vitrines displaying famous old china from Puebla, Mexico.

Both Cicero-Centenarios have become gathering places for politicians and journalists who, after a splendid lunch, can lock themselves in private rooms to wheel and deal while sipping cognac or anisette and smoking a good Havana cigar.

Both offer eclectic menus that blend old Mexican cuisine with Spanish, French and Italian influences. Their specialties include appetizers such as dobladitas de fideo (two small tortillas folded in half and filled with oven-dried thin noodles called fideos, cheese and chipotle chilies, $6) or the platanitos rellenos de picadillo (mashed bananas fried and filled with ground beef that has been cooked with olives, pine nuts, raisins, onion and garlic, $8).

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And both are justly famous for the variety and richness of their moles. Mole is a Nahuatlan word that means “concoction,” and for centuries no party in Mexico could do without one. If you want to have your own private celebration at either Cicero, there are three different varieties of mole, all for the same price ($19). The most popular is the red-purple poblano style served with turkey breast.

Equally enticing is boned chicken breast in green pepian, a sauce made of pumpkin seeds, mixed chilies and tomatoes. Known originally as mole verde de pepita, it is a true central-Mexican classic.

The third kind is the mole de olla, which is actually a stew made with pork, assorted dry chilies, green tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, corn, chayote, potatoes and epazote .

It is hard to choose one over the other because they are truly different. But you really don’t need to choose. Instead, go to the restaurant three times and try them all.

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When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in 1519, along with their swords and horses they brought wheat, olive oil, garlic, black pepper, oranges, sugar, olives, saffron, cheese, almonds, wine and sherry--all products imported from Spain’s Iberian Peninsula. They also brought foods inherited from their Jewish and Arabian ancestors, who had inhabited the same land for many centuries.

After the conquest of 1521, the magnificent Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City now stands) was transformed into a European capital. Churches were built where temples had stood; Amerindian palaces became convents and fortified walls were erected in place of canals that had flowed within the city. The famous Indian market of the great Tenochtitlan was also transformed. To entice customers into buying their products, the new markets set up aroma-filled kitchens where they would prepare alluring dishes using the same ingredients they sold.

But the true experimentation with products from the Old and New Worlds began in Mexico’s convents, haciendas and palaces. Cooks, nuns and housewives invented new dishes and discovered how to combine the olive oil, garlic and onion with huitlacoche to prepare dobladitas de huitlacoche or pork loin filled with huauzontle flowers.

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Throughout Mexican history, chefs have embraced eclectic methods of food preparation and by the end of the 17th Century, some elements of French and Spanish cuisines had merged and food in Mexico had acquired a special character that was expressed differently in the separate regions. While in the south the Amerindian tradition dominated, in the east the Spanish character prevailed and the foods of central Mexico showed the eclectic character of the new Mexican food.

The French influence, however, increased by the time the colonies rebelled and gained their independence. It was as if the tastes of the criollos (people born in Mexico of Spanish parents) and mestizos (people born in Mexico of Amerindian and Spanish parents) had grown more sophisticated with nationalism and preferred the French touch. But it was not until the late 19th Century when Maximilian, archduke of Austria, became emperor of Mexico that French cuisine took hold and the new culinary terms echoed throughout the kitchens: mayonnaise, feuillete, aspic, bisque, bouillabaisse, brioche, chaud-froid, foie gras , hors d’oeuvre, souffle, crepes. It was then that beef, fish, fowl and vegetables were whitened with sauces such as bechamel, that broths were clarified and that Mexico came to adopt the ingredients and cooking methods of the French.

When French style and cuisine became fashionable in Mexico, the crepe substituted for the tortilla to create the almost divine crepes de huitlacoche, that can still be tasted in places such as Hacienda de los Morales, a beautiful restaurant with an unblemished reputation in the culinary arts.

In the 16th Century, the first mulberry trees were planted for an incipient silkworm industry in the yard of this hacienda in the western part of Mexico City. (The hacienda took its name from the Spanish for mulberry trees: los morales. ) After several renovations, the main house in the hacienda became one of the finest restaurants in the city.

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Because of its location on the west side of town and its close proximity to the sophisticated Lomas de Chapultepec and Polanco neighborhoods, the Hacienda draws its clientele from the old elite and tourists with sophisticated tastes.

As mentioned, the house specialty is crepes de huitlacoche ($8), which are prepared by cooking the corn fungus with onion and garlic in olive oil, then seasoning it with epazote and serving it in a crepe with a thick cheese sauce melted on top.

Another specialty of Los Morales, is caldo tlalpeno, a clear example of the eclectic Mexican tradition. It is prepared with shredded chicken, avocado, green beans, carrots, tomato, chicken broth, rice, epazote , chipotle chilies and porcini mushrooms.

The abalone al chipotle ($28) is also superb. Thin slices of abalone are cooked with lime, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil and chopped onion and served with a tomato sauce spiked with chipotle chilies.

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The filete chiapas-- grilled medallions of beef topped with melted manchego cheese and served with a pasilla chili sauce--are extraordinary ($16).

For dessert you can have berries in feuillete (puff pastry) covered in an almond cream or a typical Mexican sweet paste made of baked almonds, pine nuts or nuts. Almonds are ground with sugar until a paste is formed. Then egg yolk, a bit of butter and a dash of cognac are added turning it into a sort of egg nog sauce.

Another of my choices, La Traviata, reflects the influence of Italian culture on Mexico City’s cuisine. The restaurant is located in the ancient Amerindian city of Tlalpan, which literally means, “on the land,” to distinguish it from its neighbor, “the floating gardens of Xochimilco.” Near the magnificent 18th-Century house called La Casa Chata, which is home to the Museum of Charreria, La Traviata offers a unique variety of traditional pastas improved by the addition of pasilla or poblano chilies or cilantro and even saffron flavoring, all in the pasta dough.

Surrounded by Mexican restaurants in what has traditionally been the “taco” corridor of the city, Traviata offers a more sophisticated menu with an added incentive. Its owner is Roberto Luna, a young architect who creates beautiful old Mexican ironwork staircases, woodwork for doors and all sorts of interesting pieces for interiors. Some of these objects are exhibited on the restaurant’s patio, which has become a meeting place for people interested in this craft.

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La Traviata’s pasilla fettuccine is outstanding served al burro (in butter)--simple and yet flavorful ($7). But so is the chili poblano fettuccine ($7) in a sauce prepared with cream and pine nuts and served with pomegranate seeds. Another favorite dish at La Traviata is ravioli stuffed with zucchini flowers ($7.50).

If you are into hearty dishes, try the luscious golden manchego cheese soup seasoned with croutons and (if desired) finely chopped serrano chilies. Or you may try the chicken breast in pesto sauce with pine nuts on top.

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Last but not least is the restaurant El Discreto Encanto de Comer (The Discreet Charm of Eating . . . a play of words on Luis Bunuel’s 1972 movie “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), which provides a good example of the many influences on Mexican food.

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El Discreto is located in Colonia Roma, one of the tracts that flourished in Mexico at the turn of the century, became obsolete in the ‘40s and ‘50s and revived as an art colony after the 1985 earthquake. The architectural revival of this section of town, with its gracious tree-lined streets that run into splendid plazas filled with sculptures and fountains, invites people to stroll. But the magnificent old houses that characterized the original tract have also been refurbished and are now the homes of Mexican artists, many of whom are El Discreto’s clientele. Yet the restaurant stands alone as a temple of sophisticated experimentation with food.

Picture, for example, escargot and wild mushrooms in feuillete served with a white wine sauce ($12), or zucchini flowers filled with cheese and dried chili sauce ($10). The mixture of fish and seafood with epazote is outstanding and consists of shrimp, lobster and crab mixed with bits of red snapper, cod and sea bass, all wrapped in agave leaves and cooked in the oven.

The true gem of this restaurant, though, is the Paul Bocuse pear. Rested in feuillete, the poached pear, stuffed with Roquefort and honey, is washed in a pistachio sauce ($8).

The phenomenal speed with which new and more innovative restaurants open in the city makes it impossible to list them all. These are merely four places, located in the four cardinal points of the city, that may help you trace a history rich in textures, flavors, aromas and influences and yet remain uniquely Mexican.

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GUIDEBOOK

Mexico City Restaurants

Where to eat: Reservations are recommended for these restaurants:

Cicero-Centenario (two locations), Londres 195, Zona Rosa, Colonia Juarez; telephone from the U.S. 011-52-5-533-3800, and Republica de Cuba 79, Centro Historico (downtown Mexico City); tel. 011-52-5-512-1510.

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El Discreto Encanto de Comer, Orizaba 76, Col. Roma Mexico 06700; tel. 011-52-5-511-3860.

Hacienda de los Morales, Vazquez de Mella, 525 Col. del Bosque (Polanco) 11510; tel. 011-52-5-281-4554.

La Traviata, surgentes Sur 4087, Tlalpan (next to Bancomer); tel. 011-52-5-513-2754.


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