« Nobuo at Teeter House | Main | Mexico City - Day II »

September 29, 2010

Mexico City - Day I

Taco Al Pastor Dominic Armato

They let me out of the country again!

After spending so many years where two months was a long time to remain stateside, it kind of feels like an escape these days on the rare occasions when I get to clear customs. Right about the time my son was born, I retired the passport twice expanded with extra pages as well as the Hong Kong travel pass and got a crisp, shiny new RFID passport that still, three years later, looks like it was just issued. But a month ago, I got 46 hours outside of the country, which after the 31 hours I got last year, can be considered progress, I think.

Once again, Mexico City was my destination and the trick, of course, is cramming as many ethnic eats as possible into a work trip with an indeterminate amount of free time. Last time, I managed to spend a day in the Distrito Federal without sampling a taco al pastor or a single bite of street food. A year later, the shame remained, but this time I would not be denied.

Carving the ConeDominic Armato

Day one, arriving shortly after lunchtime, we had plans for a business dinner, so it seemed street food would have to wait at least until day two. But with a little time to kill, I figured I'd better see if I could knock at least one of my goals off the list. And while doing a bit of online research in preparation to wander around the neighborhood and see what I could find, I discovered that an outpost of El Tizoncito, a local chain and one of the establishments that lays claim to the invention of tacos al pastor, was a brisk twenty minute walk away. With an hour and a half before our departure, I figured I'd have just enough time to powerwalk a mile and a half, pound a few tacos, powerwalk back and take a quick shower before dinner. Good thing I brought my walkin' shoes. Five minutes into the journey, I found it odd how easily I was becoming winded, which is about the time I remembered that Mexico City is located at 7,350 feet, almost half a mile higher than the Mile High City itself, Denver. I thought of charred, marinated pork and pressed on.

The branch I hit was located in Cuauhtemoc, which struck me as a rather comfy neighborhood, streets lined with trees, lush parks every few blocks, and a far cry from the dingy urban sprawl that is the impression many folks have of the city. El Tizoncito -- this location, anyway -- is a small corner shop tucked into a residential neighborhood, a comfortable place to park and have a beer and some eats, with tables and chairs out on the sidewalk and a fellow carving the beautiful cone of pork right on the edge of the sidewalk, for everybody to see. The pork was densely layered, bright orange and rotating in front of a box filled with live coals. The gentleman tending it wielded a blade that looked more like a small saber than a kitchen knife, and he'd use it to quickly shave a few thin layers of pork into the tiny tortilla in his left hand, before a quick flick of his wrist sent a chunk of pineapple flying from the fruit impaled atop the cone, which he'd deftly catch in the center of the tortilla down at waist level where he was holding it. Unfortunately, he was in the middle of filling an order of what must have been thirty tacos just as I walked up, which meant that the outer char had been completely stripped from the meat. But I wasn't about to turn around and head back, so I ordered two tacos and a coke and grabbed a seat.

Tacos Al PastorDominic Armato

A few minutes later, he dropped two tiny tacos in front of me with a smile. And they were *hot*. In a move that I expect was meant to compensate for the lack of char, as he finished filling the tacos he'd invert them on a nearby flattop for a few seconds, to heat and sear them a little. It helped, but it was no substitute for the carbonized bits of pork that, for me, define the form. Still, these were tasty little morsels (I stress little -- like silver dollar pancakes). Later in the trip I'd be informed by our hosts that despite the reputation, there's far better than El Tizoncito in the city. I was... less than surprised. But still, I'd finally established a baseline. I'd now tasted a benchmark taco al pastor in the heart of Mexico City, and on subsequent visits I could search for the standouts. After inhaling the first two I ordered and adding a couple more, I hoofed it back to the hotel, took a five minute shower, and headed off for the ritzy Polanco neighborhood, and one of Mexico City's premiere fine dining restaurants.

Baby Corn AmuseDominic Armato

It's a business dinner, after all. But while a street corner comal was my primary goal for the trip, I can't say I was broken up over the prospect of hitting someplace with a reputation like Enrique Olvera's flagship restaurant, Pujol. Unlike Patricia Quintana, whose Izote we checked out last trip, Olvera is one of the young turks of upscale Mexican cuisine, only in his mid-30s but already with a ten-year-old internationally acclaimed fine dining restaurant under his belt. Going in, I knew the name, I knew the food was upscale, and I knew that I could probably expect something special. Beyond that, I opted not to do any research, preferring to go in without any preconceptions. The restaurant was recently redesigned, and it was evident from the get go that if the decor is any indication, Olvera is doing his utmost to contemporize the cuisine. It's a food paparazzo’s dream, dark, blank grey walls surrounding 15 tables with white tablecloths and brilliant spotlights, stark and modern and obviously intended to put the focus on one place -- your plate. Our hosts were kind enough to indulge our desire to try the full tasting menu, and the first item to hit the table was an amuse of skewered baby corn that I believe had been pickled, grilled and then slathered with a completely unidentifiable (to me) mix of creamy and earthy elements that may or may not have included huitlacoche and/or escamoles... ant eggs. Since I've never sampled escamoles before, I can't say. I only know that I think one of our hosts said something about ants before suddenly becoming reluctant to translate the dish's description for me. Or he may have been referring to one of Olvera's signature dishes that serves escamoles like caviar, I can't say. Too bad... he needn't have feared. But in either case, the corn was vinegared, lightly grilled and had a sort of smoky, earthy flavor that was a great way to warm up. Excitement was building.

Cebiche pescado a la VeracruzanaDominic Armato

Olvera's famous playfulness was immediately evident at the top of the menu. He took the traditional pescado a la Veracruzana and made it cold, serving lime-cured salmon (Arctic char? I should've taken notes) with the traditional accoutrements, except in cold fashion. Slivered raw onions, fresh sprigs of micro herbs, pickled capers, tiny halos of sliced green olive... the elements were there, but completely repackaged in a cold ceviche. I'm honestly unsure whether this was brilliance or tradition, but to me it was a fresh idea that I greatly appreciated. The ceviche itself was very understated, a subtle combination of flavors anchored by perfect ribbons of fish that had been only barely cured, leaning almost more towards sashimi than ceviche. It was a perfectly elegant beginning.

Aguacate rellenas de camarónDominic Armato

With the second dish, Olvera remained in the seafood realm, but started to kick things up a bit. Creamy, cool shrimp sat atop a clean and simple cilantro pesto, and both were hidden beneath an avocado canopy arranged so artfully that it looked like it could have been constructed by Frank Gehry, and topped with a punchy dollop of mayonnaise spiked with fruity puya chiles. Shrimp, mayonnaise, avocado, cilantro, chiles -- it's as common a combination of flavors as they come, and that he was able to elevate them to such a level that they didn't feel the least bit out of place in a fine dining restaurant is, I think, a testament to his technique, which is impressive. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this dish even more than the ceviche, cool and creamy with the herbal notes and just enough punch from the chiles to slice right through. Delightful.

Tamal de cuitlacocheDominic Armato

When the third dish arrived, I briefly considered the possibility that we'd received the wrong item, but you can rest assured that there's a tamale in there. It was a small one, composed of masa and huitlacoche, the corn fungus that routinely makes lists of challenging foods for reasons I'll never understand (it tastes like a particularly earthy breed of mushroom -- what's the big deal?). It was buried, however, in a somehow perfectly-shaped foam bubble that was made with a fresh, sour farm cheese. That the dish was visually arresting goes without saying, but for me this was a great example of non-gratuitous foam use, because it allowed him to integrate that very naturally sour cheese while at the same time lightening its impact so that it didn't kill the huitlacoche and natural sweetness of the corn tamale which, incidentally, was beautifully warm and tender.

Sopa de chicharrón y tortillaDominic Armato

The fourth dish was tortilla soup. Tortilla soup! Now it was almost as though he was showing off, taking the most basic foods he could come up with simply to prove that he could turn them into fine dining material. And he did admirably. Though this was one of the evening's humbler entries, it was nonetheless atypically delicious, a velvety, spicy stewed tomato concoction that tasted as though the flavor of two bowls of tortilla soup had been compressed into one. For an extra dimension, both in terms of flavor and texture, he served the soup with crunchy chicharrones, their airy pockets soaking up some of the soup while still maintaining their crunch. I wouldn't call this dish a highlight of the meal, but it took tortilla soup to unusually refined heights, and on that basis alone it was very, very successful.

Escolar en adobo OaxaqueñoDominic Armato

The next dish, another fish course, was an absolute joy. It had been a long time since I'd had escolar, and I'd forgotten just how wonderful this fish can be, but it's possible I've never had a piece as perfect as this. Glazed with a spicy and ever so lightly sweet adobo, it was served alongside an herb puree (missed it -- buried in the fish), small pieces of squash blossom leaves, and huitlacoche "nixtamalizado," which I believe means it was somehow treated with lime (the alkaline kind, not the citrusy kind), in a manner similar to how corn was historically treated to loosen the skins and prepare it for grinding. The huitlacoche arrived as small, almost dumpling-like chunks with far more body than its previous appearances in the menu. But this was all about the fish. And oh, was it all about the fish. Escolar has an incredibly distinctive flavor that I'm not sure I know how to describe, and it's a wonderfully firm, meaty fish that's incredibly satisfying to eat. Here, it was treated just perfectly, dense with body but simultaneously so tender and so flat-out juicy that it seemed as though we could have squeezed a full shot glass worth of essence of escolar out of every serving.

Frijol con lechónDominic Armato

The final savory dish? Pork and beans. Really. The pork was a sizable braised cut, with deeply colored skin and tender flesh that still maintained some resistance. Though some smashed beans were present, they mostly served to create the broth, a bold and earthy but still very clean and refined consommé that, if you still haven't caught onto the theme here, took a very classic and humble flavor combination to an unusual level of refinement. Spicy shaved radish, avocado and micro oregano rounded out the garnishes, and though I loved the dish and thought the pork was spectacular, this was the only one that left me wanting a bit, for some salt or acid or something to add a little bit of sharp contrast to the very deep, earthy, base flavors of the main ingredients. Spicy pickled radishes were, I think, going in the right direction, just not quite far enough. Still, a very good dish.

Cremoso de limónDominic Armato

Dessert, though not quite so high-concept, was done with the same amount of precision. We received three spoonfuls of a tangy, cold lemon curd topped with a sort of meringue brittle that had been concocted from jamaica -- Mexican hibiscus and ginger tea. It was plated alongside a quenelle of frozen yogurt, situated atop a pile of coconut "sand." I loved it. The lemon curd was unapologetically sweet and sour, the brittle provided textural contrast as well as wonderful floral notes, the frozen yogurt was lush and creamy and possessed of a very strong natural tartness. There's no traditional touchstone I'm aware of that served as the genesis of this dish, but no matter. If Olvera had set out to prove a point, it was already proven.

MignardisesDominic Armato

Some mignardises, chocolates, pates de fruit and a third item I didn't taste, gave me time to digest and reflect. Needless to say, I felt it was a truly wonderful meal. Unlike our previous experience at Izote, which ran the gamut from wonderful to awful, our dishes at Pujol ranged from outstanding down to merely very, very good. Pure, bold flavors just work in a minimally-presented fine dining context, and that's exactly Olvera was doing. Though his dishes were almost exclusively classed-up versions of downscale foods, the irony is that in many ways the application of complicated, refined technique actually made the dishes simpler. In terms of presentation, of course not. But the flavors were clean and distinct and pure, as though the dishes he was emulating in his personal fashion had been distilled down to their basest essence before being prettified for an upscale table. In searching online, it was clear that "Izote or Pujol?" is a very common question for food geeks en route to the D.F., and while I generally try to avoid such comparisons and would need to apply the caveat that all bets are off during chiles en nogada season, I know where I'm going nine times out of ten. Pujol is definitely one of the year's dining highlights for me.

Mexico City - Day I   |   Mexico City - Day II   |   Mexico City - Day III


damn- that looks awesome.

No char on the pork! sorry to hear it...

I wish it were possible to read your write up of our meals BEFORE we eat them! Nice job - now I know why I enjoyed the meal. I guess I also should have joined you for the street food but having not been in power walking mode for a few decades I guess we might have missed dinner which would have denied all your readers this write up.

So glad to hear you enjoyed your DF visit! One of the best parts of Mexico City for me is the ability to spend either <$1 or >$100 on food, and still have amazing meals at either end of the spectrum. Great write up!

This dish reminds me of Shawarma. The meat cutlet beats have the flavor that does not over power other ingredients.

The comments to this entry are closed.