España. The word alone has a plethora of implications here – history, conquest, blood and glory. As many as 80% of Mexicans today can trace their lineage back to the mother country, and, perhaps, 10% are of pure Spanish descent. Mexico’s culture is influenced on every level by lo español, from art to music to language and food. With the conquest, the great mestizo culture, the blending of the indigenous and European, was born. The Spaniards brought plants and animals to the continent that no one knew: olive oil, rice, wheat, sugar, apples, oranges, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. Cooking techniques such as stewing and frying in oil or animal fats were not known before the conquest. Spanish foods and culinary concepts were in turn influenced by the Moors and Sephardic Jews.
More recently, many Spaniards and their families came as exiles from Franco’s dictatorship, welcome by Mexico’s post-revolutionary open door policy.
Artist Jaime Montes, 50, was born in Mexico to parents from Galicia, in Spain’s northwest, where he spent summers with his family. He grew up eating both Mexican and typical Galician dishes. “My folks were typical. They had to have foods that weren’t available here. My father smoked sausages on the roof and made wine with a couple of other ex-pats. My mom grew berza [a green used in the famous soup caldo gallego] in flowerpots.” Nowadays a trip to the San Juan market or even the 'super' will satisfy most discerning cooks.
My introduction to Spanish food was abysmal. As a student back in 1984 I traveled through the country for four months, eating nothing but fried meat, potatoes, and lousy wine. But another extensive trip 15 years later turned my head around. I now venture to say that the regional cuisines of Spain are on a par with those of France and Italy. And, perhaps, Mexico. What had changed, it or me? A little of both. During the Franco years there was little available beside the most basic foodstuffs and regionalism was frowned upon. With the opening up of the country, a reverse trend was set in motion and now great pride is taken in local foods and dishes. Everywhere you go--and Spain is a huge place—you’ll find fine cooking, dishes prepared with pride based on local ingredients and tradition. Simple and fresh are the keywords. So, it is only natural that here in the New World, Spanish-trained chefs have a keen eye for what’s local, seasonal and fresh, adapting it to their techniques and recipes. It’s no wonder Spanish cooking is currently trendy around the world. Some of Mexico City’s best restaurants these days are Iberian.
The Casino Español is one of my favorite places to go in the city, as good as a trip to Madrid. It is housed in an ornate neo-classical edifice dating from 1903, grand ballroom and all. The dining room is where the Spanish exile community congregates on weekends – you’ll see large families with grandma in tow. It has the grandiosity of Paris without the pretension. An array of Iberian standards are offered. The “greatest hits” type menu usually makes me suspicious that they’re trying to cover too much territory, but here the classics are all done well. I like such starters as pimientos piquillos relleno de bacalao (small sweet peppers filled with salt cod), or the classic tortilla española (a potato and egg cake that has nothing to do with Mexican tortillas). Zarzuela de mariscos (a seafood sauté) or the classic paella valenciana are well prepared. Authentic cocido Madrileño (a hearty stew of meats, vegetables and garbanzo beans served in two courses, soup and meat) is occasionally available on special daily menus—Spanish ‘comfort food’ at its best.
Biko’s young chefs, Mikel Alonso and Bruno Oteiza, studied at Arzak, the temple of gastronomy in Northern Spain. Biko means “couple or “duo” in Euskara, the language of Basque Spain. This elegant place features two menus, one traditional and the other “evolutionary”, i.e. more creative. All the dishes I sampled were fresh and subtly flavored; recent standouts were: alcachofas con almejas, a Basque classic reinterpreted: a tender artichoke heart is wrapped in lightly spiced batter and nestled in a clam shell- the reduced clam broth made me want to lick the plate. Also exemplary were the traditional pimientos piquillos rellenos de bacalao, whose balance of sweet and salty was nearly perfect. The creative caldo de guisantes trufado y callo de hacha is a light pea soup perfumed with truffle oil poured over several succulent scallops cloaked in thinly cut mushrooms - three subtle but egotistical ingredients that formed a perfect trio - it worked. Escolar verde apio, a grilled white fish bathed in a simple, light aromatic sauce of reduced poultry stock with a hint of celery, was well executed. The menu is seasonal and constantly changing, so you’ll find new and tempting creations on each visit. The service is attentive and gracious, the wine list extensive and reasonable, and includes many unusual Spanish options. The tasting menu is highly recommended.
D.O. is short for denominación de origen, the official Spanish designation for distinctive regional foods. It is one of Mexico City's best restaurants, and my favorite. The menu overseen by chef Pablo San Román is based on regional Spanish classics, many from the Pais Vasco (the Basque country of northeast Spain). Starters, which can also be ordered as tapas (hors d’oeuvres) include the classic Andalucian rabo de toro, (ox-tail stew), croquetas (deep fried balls of bechamel spiked with ham), and a good selection of Serrano hams. Main courses include: kokotxas con gulas (cod cheeks with eels, a Basque classic), chipirones en su tinta (small squids in their own ink from Galicia), conejo confitado en cava (from Catalonia) and chuleton (a big juicy steak from Castilla), and an excellent solomillo (like filet mignon).
The sun-filled front dining room is open to the street; inside is darker and intimate, more reminiscent of a typical Spanish taberna.
Tezka is also arguably one of the best restaurants in Mexico City. The menu, originally designed by the celebrated Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak, offers food that is innovative and inspired, combining local seasonal ingredients in inventive, but unpretentious ways. This is the essence of Basque cuisine, which like that of northern Italy, is deceptively simple and highly refined.
The current spring menu offers such creative concoctions as sopa de mamey, malanga frita y pez espada ahumado (soup of mamey, fried malanga root and smoked swordfish),
besugo, puré de col y almejas en salsa verde (bream with cabbage puree in parsely/garlic sauce), and corzo aromatizado con cascara de piña, canela, naranja y uvas (venison scented with pineapple skin, cinnamon, orange and grapes).
The fine kitchen is run by young chef Pedro Martín Rodriguez who hails from the Canary Islands and studied with the master. The recently remodeled Zona Rosa location is clean and cheerful with a campy post-modern touch—a big improvement over the former dowdy hotel look of the place. Service, unfortunately, is not up to the standards of the food; it can be unprofessional and haphazard. There is a good, reasonably priced selection of Spanish and Mexican wines. The tasting menu, at about US $55, is a real deal.
Isabel La Católica 31, Centro
Open daily 1pm-6pm
Prices are reasonable: $100-250 pesos per person
Amberes 78, Zona Rosa
Open Monday-Friday 1pm-5pm and 8pm-11pm, Saturday 1pm-5 pm (closed Saturday evenings and Sundays)
There’s a branch at Periferico Sur 4363 (inside the Hotel Royal Pedregal) in Colonia Pedregal.
Open Sunday-Tuesday 1:30pm-5pm, Wednesday-Friday 1:30pm-11pm
$600-800 pesos per person
Hegel 406, (corner of Masaryk) Polanco
Tel. 5255 0612, 0912
Open Monday – Saturday 2PM-2AM, Sunday 1:30-5PM
$400-600 pesos per person
Presidente Masaryk 407, Polanco
Open Monday to Saturday 1:30-11pm
$600-800 pesos per person
Also worth trying are:
16 Republica de Uruguay, Centro
Tel. 5518 2937
(There’s a branch in the Hotel Camino Real in Colonia Anzures.)
$200-400 pesos per person
Circulo Vasco Español
16 de Septiembre # 51, centro
This old stand-by is recommended for the lechón (roast suckling pig) and asados (roast meats).
$200-400 pesos per person
Terraza del Centro Cultural de España
Guatemala 18, Centro
Calle Regina 49, Centro
both $100-250 pesos per person
These two bars, run by the same owner, offer typical Spanish tapas. The new Akelarre, on ‘happening’ calle Regina, is a transplanted Madrid tapas bar, complete with Almodovar-like ambience.
This article has been published in The News, Mexico City; photo by Rodrigo Oropeza