“We have a word in Spanish: malinchismo,” explained Ezequiel Hernández, chef and owner of Mexico City seafood restaurant Campobaja, spelling out: M-A-L-I-N-C-H-I-S-M-O. “We saw ourselves as something less than other countries, something inferior in Mexican society. We didn’t appreciate, as a culture, what we have and what we do. We didn’t appreciate ourselves.”
Mexico City is leaving behind its inferiority complex, Hernández suggested, and that’s being helped by US President Donald Trump.
From the street food to the city’s top restaurants, Mexico’s capital has already established itself as a world class foodie centre over the last decade. But Donald Trump’s attacks on Mexico over the last two years, from the ‘wall’ and border taxes to speeches about “rapists” and criminals, has seen a defiant response in Mexico. Mexicans are increasingly buying local, rather than US brands, and there's been a surge of national pride, including in Mexican food.
“The food is key. Gastronomy is the main reason to go to Mexico City now,” I was told by Jose Luis Leon, manager and ‘Head of Bars’ at Limantour, the “best bar in Latin America”. “The time is now. We have great products, great flavours. It’s the right time to be proud of Mexico.”
Chef Yasuo Asai preparing fish with corn at ASAI Kaiseki (Graeme Green)
There’s plenty of reason for that pride, with chefs across Mexico City pushing the foodie scene in bold, original directions. ASAI Kaiseki in Polanco has to be one of the most novel of the city’s new restaurants. Stepping inside was like stepping into a classic sidestreet restaurant in Tokyo or Kyoto. Smart chefs with shaved heads, white robes and sharp knives, and a waitress wearing a traditional kimono, stood behind a long wooden counter, just long enough to feed 14 people at a time.
Japanese chef Yasuo Asai set up in Mexico City because of the quality of the country’s seafood, found in local markets, like Mercado San Juan, and the availability of traditional Japanese ingredients, like seaweed, wasabi and dried bonito. He produces Kaiseki (a traditional set of courses, moving from sushi and sashimi through rice, soup and grilled fish to dessert) using traditional Japanese techniques.
But what's most interesting is his use of Mexican ingredients. “I don’t like the word ‘fusion’,” Yasuo stated firmly. “I wanted to do authentic Japanese food, but including things you can only find in Mexico. There are local ingredients that don’t exist in Japan. Huitlacoche, for example, is a very special ingredient that I never saw before, only in Mexico.”
Elegant sashimi at ASAI Kaiseki (Graeme Green)
Yasuo has taken the gimmicky Scorpion Tempura, which caused a bit of a stir when the restaurant first opened, off the menu now. What we have instead, from first course to last, is delicious Japanese food, the fatty tuna, sea bass and clams all coming from Baja California, with subtle Mexican touches.
The grilled fish dish, for example, had black cod, salmon and trout marinated with soy sauce, all built around a gently spiced mini-cob of corn (about as Mexican an ingredient as it comes) and a guacamole yoghurt. Elsewhere, Yasuo switched a garnish that would traditionally be radish for the very Mexican jicama.
Using chopsticks, Yasuo arranged each course with care and precision, scrutinising each dish to check it made the grade before serving. There are Mexican touches in the presentation, too, the dishes served on colourful Mexican ceramic plates and bowls.
As well as innovative restaurants, Mexico City is a place for visitors to “experience authentic Mexican food that you can’t find in any other country or city,” Yasuo suggested, as different from the international Americanised take on ‘Mexican’ as traditional Italian cuisine is from Spaghetti Bolognaise. “I’d never really tried authentic Mexican food. I thought it was something like Taco Bell. But it’s not. You can see many new things.”
Sebastian Fernandez mixing drinks at Limantour (Graeme Green)
From ASAI Kaiseki, we made our way to Limantour, also in Polanco (they have another bar in Roma, too). The bar was full on a Friday night, a dark cool interior, with bartenders noisily shaking cocktail cups. Shelves behind the bar were stacked with bottles, old cameras, a globe and an orange Nemo fish.
In the World’s 50 Best Bars competition, Limantour’s featured in the Top 50 for three consecutive years as the Best Bar in Latin America and the Caribbean, moving up the Top 50 from 47th in 2014 to 13th in 2016, edging ever closer to that Number One slot. “It gives me chills to think about the dedication and work to stay on this list,” bartender Sebastian Fernandez told me, as he delivered the first drink of the evening, a signature gin cocktail with grapefruit and rosemary, known as Mr Pink.
Concoctions were mixed and poured in front of us, from a Margarita Pastor (tequila, lime, agave honey, Cointreau, pineapple) and a Four O’Clock Punch with whisky and Twinings tea, served in a tea cup, to a spicy Mezcal Stalk, a personal favourite.
Limantour's signature cocktail Mr Pink (Limantour)
As in Yasuo’s restaurant, there was attention to detail, top ingredients and lots of creativity in what they do. “From the eyes, love comes,” Sebastian Fernandez told me, when I asked what it took to get on the best bars list, meaning that, first of all, cocktails need to look fantastic. “We also need each cocktail to have a great taste. It takes discipline. This is a place that is never static. It’s constantly reinventing itself.”
There’s more change on the way. Limantour create a new menu every six months. The last menu focused on Latin America, including twists on classics, like the Pisco Sour. From May, though: “The new menu will focus on Mexico,” Jose Luis Leon, the creative force behind Limantour, told me. “The gastronomy of Mexico is growing a lot. We’re going to focus on Mexican brands and we’re looking at inspiration from all of Mexico.”
Jose Luis Leon, Head of Bars at Limantour, Roma (Graeme Green)
Of course, that means Mezcal and Tequila. But the new menu will also celebrate lesser known spirits, such as Bacanora, Pox and Sotol, alongside an intriguing take on the Pina Colada, a Charanda Colada, using the 'Marmite' of Mexican booze, the love-it-or-hate-it Pulque (fermented agave sap).
“Since five years ago, there’s been a pride in Mexico,” Jose Luis told me. The new menu is also a timely response to international politics, though. “Definitely, we want to show a different face to Mexico,” Jose Luis continued. “People have some ideas in their minds about tacos, burritos and sombreros. Then they come here and see a modern city. People who sit at the bar change their minds about what Mexico is. They feel the real culture.”
Oaxacan ingredients for a spicy salsa at Guzina Oaxaca (Graeme Green)
10 or so cocktails down, we somehow managed to walk in straight-ish lines across to Guzina Oaxaca, another of Polanco’s top restaurants, this one focusing on the cuisine of Oaxaca. The state, in southwest Mexico, has a reputation as the country’s most interesting foodie region, with huge diversity in the chillies and the moles (chocolate chilli sauces), the spiritual home of mezcal, and an abundance of fresh ingredients, from fruit and veg to seafood.
It’s exactly the kind of warm welcoming place with hearty and rich food you want to sit down to late at night after more than a couple of drinks.
The mezcal menu came first, the waiter recommending a few for us to sample, selecting orangey Pechuga de Pollo. The food was earthy, with freshly baked corn tortillas, and a woman chopping and mixing a plate of colourful ingredients into a fresh, ‘picante’ (hot) salsa, made right next to a table.
We shared Taquitoes de Hoja Santa, mini tacos with cheese, beans, the common Oaxaca herb Hoja Santa herb and, a very Oaxacan ingredient, Chapulines (grasshoppers), and Molotito de Platano Macho con Mole Negro, a stuffed banana with cream, cheese and a rich thick black mole sauce, then Colita de Res (beef stew) and Chihuacle (Oaxacan chile)-crusted tuna on creamy rice.
Desserts at Guzina Oaxaca (Graeme Green)
Desserts were a rich chocolate cake with a liquid centre and a light creamy Pastel de Elote (Cornbread).
“A lot of people know this place as a little corner of Oaxaca,” explained chef Oaxaqueño chef Carlos Galán, who came to the table at the end of our meal, pointing not only to the food but the Oaxaca ceramics and cushions in the restaurant. “It represents the whole of Oaxaca gastronomy. We’re tradition-keepers.”
Just as a restaurant like Campobaja might be a taste of Baja California’s seafood, Guzina Oaxaca is a taster of what to expect in the gastronomy of Oaxaca. Mexico City represents not just the art, music and culture from across the entire country, but also each states’ food. “Mexico City is like the ‘first contact’, a way to see more of the country,” said Carlos. “It is the centre, our nucleus. It’s the first sight of each state, the first view of the whole.”
Art stall in the gardens of San Angel (Graeme Green)
We walked off hangovers next morning, exploring the Saturday art markets around San Angel, leaving behind the street corners, where organ-grinders cranked handles on music boxes, for the quiet backstreets of San Jacinto, cobbled roads lined with purple jacaranda and pink bougainvillea.
At Coyoacan, we entered a lively backstreet food market, the air thick with cooking oil and corn. Locals ate sopas, quesadillas, tostadas and flautas at colourful stalls. “All the kinds of food you find here are ‘antojitos’,” Mexico City native Andrea Moreno told me. “It translates as ‘little cravings’. It’s not the kind of food you would have everyday, because it’s too heavy or greasy. But people come here to give themselves a treat, especially on Saturdays and Sundays.”
I ordered a gordita, a fried corn tortilla split like a sandwich, filled with onion and white requesón cheese (like ricotta), adding a little of the sweat-inducing green salsa. The gordita was heavy and filling; a family could've lived off it for a week.
Donald Trump piñata (Graeme Green)
We walked past stalls selling fresh-baked biscuits, barbecued sausages and fresh mango to Coyoacan market, not far from Frida Kahlo’s former home, the ‘Blue House’. Among stalls of colourful fruit and veg, there are bags and purses with the popular artist’s face on them, as well as masks and piñatas of the decidedly less popular Donald Trump.
Across the city, we visited Mercado San Juan, the huge market where Yasuo and other chefs get their ingredients from. An ‘exotic meats’ café here sells lion, ostrich and crocodile.
We explored stalls, where friendly owners offered spoons to sample chilli jam or a pinch of dried jalapenos that lit up my face. There were also bags filled with chapulines (grasshoppers), popularly served with mezcal.
Ezequiel Hernández preparing ceviche at Campobaja (Graeme Green)
Campobaja, for lunch next day, was the final stop on our foodie weekend in the city. Jazzy, trumpet-heavy Mexican music filled the busy dining hall.
We started with clamatos, a popular Mexican hangover drink, a spicy Bloody Mary combined with beer, and then mezcal cocktails with chilli and salt around the rim of the glass.
“Do you want it ‘hot’?”, Ezequiel, a burly chef with big black spider tattooed on his arms, asked, grinning, a potentially lethal question from a Mexican, when I order the scallop ceviche, which he served inside a giant clam shell.
But the dish of the day, and one of the most appealing I saw in Mexico City, was a whole sea bass, cooked to perfection, with crisp veggies and the fish’s head arranged on a wooden board.
Sea bass at Campobaja (Graeme Green)
“I’ve always been very proud of Mexican products,” Ezequiel said, when we discussed the rising pride in Mexico’s gastronomy. “The US and Trump was a catalyst. But Mexico City was already on its way. There’s a new sense of pride. Now, people want to feel cosmopolitan in Mexico City, like Tokyo or London or New York, and that’s about having that food.
“A lot of people went around the world and realised that lobster sashimi in Tokyo was from Mexico,” Ezequiel continued. “People realised that we have the best food, the best products: Rainbow trout from Michoacan, bald black pig from Yucatan, the Baha lobster, abalone and sea urchin, mezcal and cactus from across the country… The whole world craved this food but we have it right here. Of course, there’s a lot we are proud of.”
The author travelled with Journey Latin America (020 8600 1881, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) who have a 3-night stay in Mexico City, including accommodation, airport transfers and street food tour of San Juan market, from £647 per person.
For more, see Campobaja (campobaja.com), Asai Kaiseki (www.facebook.com/ASAI-Kaiseki-Cuisine), Limantour: www.limantour.tv, Guzina Oaxaca (www.guzinaoaxaca.com) and Visit Mexico (visitmexico.com).
British Airways have return flights from London Heathrow to Mexico City. To book, visit www.ba.com.
Graeme Green is a travel photographer, journalist and travel writer. For more, see www.graeme-green.com.
Follow Graeme on Instagram (instagram.com/graeme.green/), Twitter (twitter.com/greengraeme) and Facebook (facebook.com/graeme.green).
Main image: Ezequiel Hernández, chef and owner at Campobaja (Graeme Green).