From Mexico City’s street food stalls to fine-dining reimaginings of the nation’s classic cuisine. By Alex McClintock.

Taking Mexico City’s grand tortilla

A busy taqueria in Mexico City.
Credit: Lars Plougmann / Flickr

Amid the Mexico City megalopolis there are patches of green: a willow hanging over a wall, the odd bit of lawn in Chapultepec Park and an unimaginable number of limes.

The Art Nouveau suburb of Roma has both the willows and citrus in abundance, and the small, thin-skinned Persian limes that Mexicans favour make up an integral part of a hard-hitting, jet-lag busting breakfast: consommé of barbacoa – slow-cooked lamb – from the nameless stand on the corner of calles Manzanillo and Campeche.

The footpath stand is nothing to look at: an old red tarpaulin slung lazily between a telegraph pole and a sickly looking tree, which covers a communal table, a barrel full of lamb bits and a tree-stump-cum-chopping-board made concave by years of machete strikes. The tarp shields 20 or so diners sitting at a long table from the weak winter sun, and imparts a nuclear submarine glow that renders faithful Instagramming impossible. The complete outdoor dining room arrives on Saturday morning and packs up on Sunday afternoon, which explains why the eight-year-old waitresses aren’t in school.

The word consommé is either optimistic or misleading; the imitation Bakelite bowls of soup are as cloudy as miso and taste like your grandmother’s roast lamb, assuming grandma was liberal with the dripping. The limes do a great job of cutting through the rich, fatty aftertaste and middens of squeezed-out fruit build up all over the table. Soft tortillas full of pulled lamb – suaves – are dipped and slurped while patrons politely ask each other to pass the communal salsas.

A bespectacled Mexico City yuppie man spends 20 minutes talking to the woman sitting next to him about his dog, a weimaraner tied up a few metres away. The beast is stoically unmoved as the woman’s toddler crawls all over it. The politeness is overwhelming. Every departing diner wishes the rest of the table buen provecho when they stand up to leave. And you eventually have to leave, if only out of courtesy to the people lining up for your seat. Besides, with breakfast out of the way it’s nearly time for lunch.

The suburb of Coyoacán, south of the city centre, has more willows and grass than Roma, but if you were to choose a single colour for the neighbourhood it would be blue. Coyoacán’s most famous attraction is the Casa Azul, the house Frida Kahlo lived and died in; a magnet to daytrippers.

Once a town in its own right, Coyoacán was devoured by the ever-expanding city proper in the middle of last century as the capital’s population exploded from about 500,000 to today’s 21 million. In much the same way, Tostadas Coyoacán has annexed a great deal of the suburb’s covered market since it started life as a single shopfront in 1956. Today it seems to dominate much of the building, with canary yellow signage and tablecloths spiralling out away from the mother ship across the market’s thoroughfares. Diners sit on high stools in the market’s narrow corridors, eating tostadas – crisp, flat tortillas covered with a variety of toppings – served on dinky plastic plates at a bright yellow bar.

An enormous variety of toppings, from ceviche to sautéed mushrooms, are dispensed onto the tostadas from dangerous-looking mounds at the back of the original stand. The tortillas remain impossibly crisp, even when piled high with cured octopus, avocado, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce and soft cheese.

Tostadas, though, present a problem to the communal diner – they’re impossible to eat with decorum. Like the crispy Old El Paso tacos that used to pass for Mexican at Casa McClintock, their brittleness is a serious structural deficiency, and they are vulnerable to catastrophic collapse. Fortunately for visitors, Mexicans themselves are yet to find a solution to this issue, so sticky fingers and flying pieces of chopped iceberg lettuce are entirely acceptable.

The sight of patrons licking sour cream off themselves goes some way to explaining why communal dining has never taken off at Mexico’s high-end restaurants.

À la carte dining was introduced to Mexico by the French in the 1860s as a byproduct of their attempt to impose the rule of Emperor Maximilian, a Hapsburg. Maximilian didn’t last long and was executed by firing squad (an occupational hazard for Mexican historical figures), but he left the country’s upper class with an enduring love of fine silverware and waiters in waistcoats.

Hostería de Santo Domingo, my next day’s lunch spot, is a case in point. It’s located a few blocks behind the cathedral in the Centro Histórico, the part of town that, due to its sheer age, has borne the brunt of a citywide road grime problem. Until recently strict rent control gave landlords little incentive to give things a wipe down or repair broken windows. The only green here comes from the ancient restaurant’s green awning.

The paintings on the walls, the fountain and the moustachioed pianist all appear to date from the restaurant’s founding in 1860. The food, however, is fresh. If there is such a thing as classic Mexican cuisine, Hostería de Santo Domingo is where to get it. The mix of pre-Columbian and Spanish cookery is obvious in almost every dish on the daily changing menu.

Rather than flat tortillas, the quesadillas are more like Spanish-style empanadas, stuffed with stringy Oaxaca cheese and huitlacoche, a corn fungus. The delicate, nutty fungus perfectly complements the salty cheese and crispy pastry. It hardly needs to be said that the whole thing goes down extremely well with an ice-cold Cerveza Victoria, one of the benefits of eating with a roof over your head – the city’s street vendors are prohibited from serving alcohol.

Two more classics follow: chile relleno (stuffed chilli pepper) and pollo con mole poblano (chicken with a dark sauce). The chilli is stuffed with white cheese  – Mexico is not a welcoming destination for the lactose intolerant – and bathed in a thin red salsa; a subtle combination of different textures. The dark, chocolatey mole poblano sauce has a serious claim to being Mexico’s national dish. One common tale has it that the sauce was invented in the 16th century by nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, who needed to put on a banquet and found that the larder was mostly bare. According to the legend, fate, in a Heston Blumenthal mood, blew a complicated mixture of herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, chillies and chocolate into a pot.

The worst moles look and taste like sooty adhesive, but the Hostería de Santo Domingo version is thinner and more subtle; there’s chocolate and cinnamon there, but coriander, pumpkin seeds and pepper, too.

Mole, and perhaps Mexican cuisine as a whole, has reached a peak at Pujol, a great choice of restaurant for a last-day-in-town splashout. At the world-famous restaurant, in the Polanco neighbourhood, they cook their mole madre (“mother mole”) for more than a year. A splash of bright red, new mole is added to the dish, accompanied only by tortillas. The result is an intense contrast between the almost unfathomable complexity of the old mole and the comparatively fruity spice of the new.

Other elements from around town turn up, too. Barbacoa appears on a green corn tortilla with guajillo chilli adobo and pearls of avocado puree. Octopus slides in on a squid ink tostada with finely chopped habanero and oregano mayonnaise; though there’s no chopped iceberg to be seen, it’s still impossible to eat gracefully. Not that the crowd of Mexican one-per-centers, international management consultants and food tourists seems to mind.

Baby corn skewers slathered in chilli mayonnaise, coffee powder and pulverised ants arrive inside a dried pumpkin full of smoke. Chef Enrique Olvera has a laugh by using kale in his version of chicharrón, the pork rinds served in all Mexican bars.

Pujol is a perfectly distilled, concentrated version of Mexico City’s cuisine, though the prices are, as you might expect, somewhat higher than on the street. Even in this refined atmosphere the flavours are unapologetic and the theatre is half the fun. There’s history, variety and vibrant colour.

To savour all the culinary delights on offer in monumental Mexico City, it’s well worth hitting the streets and following your nose, as well as booking a table at its unforgettable restaurants.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "Grand tortilla". Subscribe here.

Alex McClintock
is the author of On the Chin: A Boxing Education.