Mexican food is not one cuisine, but a conglomeration of many. Like Italy or China, differences from region to region are great, and ingredients are influenced by climate, geography, and patterns of immigration. While most states in Mexico have at least some distinctive dishes, several stand out for their truly distinctive and highly elaborated gastronomic traditions: Puebla, Oaxaca, and the Yucatan are the best known, and Mexico City is the one place where you can find it all.
Everyone thinks of mole poblano when they talk about Puebla. This dark rich sauce, made of dried chillies, nuts, seeds, tomatoes onions, and spices—and the famous touch of chocolate--is most often served over chicken, or as enchiladas (sometimes called enmoladas). But it is only one of the exquisite dishes from this state, south-east of Mexico City. Another highlight of Puebla’s cuisine is chile en nogada, a stuffed poblano chile smothered with a cremy sauce of ground nuts and dotted with pomegranate seeds. The red, white and green of this dish—the colors of Mexico’s flag-- make it a favorite around Independence Day. Pipian (green or red) is a simpler sauce with a base of ground pumpkin seeds.
My favorite place for cocina poblana in Mexico City is Casa Merlos (Victoriano Zepeda 80, Colonia Observatorio, Tel. 5277-4360, open Thursday-Sunday from 1-4 pm). Although located in an out-of-the-way neighborhood west of the centro, it is worth the effort to reach. Start with chalupas (literally “little boats”), which are essentially another form of sopes. Manchamanteles (“tablecloth stainers”) is a juicy stew of pork cooked with dried and fresh fruit (often pineapple or apples). Pipian, and of course, the renowned mole poblano are also excellent here. The family-run Casa Merlos features several seasonal festivals: in October up to 10 different moles are offered.
The state of Oaxaca has a large indigenous population and its cuisine reflects this. An enormous variety of chilies (amarillos, chilhuacles, chilcostles and costeños are some of the most popular), herbs, particularly the anis-flavored hoja santa, exotic fruits such as..., unusual meats like armadillo and iguana, and insects (those famous chapulines or grasshoppers) are eaten here. Known as the "Land of the Seven Moles," Oaxaca is, along with Puebla, the state most famous for this sauce.
Delicious Oaxacan food can be found at La Bella Lula, (Río Lerma, betweem Río Rhin and Río Sena in Colonia Cuauhtémoc. Tel. 5207-6356, There is also a branch at Miguel Angel de Quevedo 652 in Coyoacán. Both are open daily from 10am-7pm). This popular restaurant, around the corner from the Hotel María Cristina, has been serving authentic southern specialties since 1982. There are always a few of Oaxaca’s seven moles on the menu; my favorite is the almendrado, mildly sweet and tart, yet complex. For a real taste of Oaxaca, don’t miss the tlayudas con asiento, large, thin, crisp tortillas spread with unrefined manteca (better than it sounds), or the tasajo, tender strips of pork marinated in chile and spices. Their hand-made tortillas are top-notch, the ambience populár and festive.
The Yucatan peninsula is geographically isolated from the rest of the country, so its culture, heavily influenced by Mayan civilization (as well as Spanish, Carribean and Lebanese) has remained quite distinct. It is characterized by very hot sauces (typical of very hot places), and local ingredients like achiote (or anatto, a fragrant red spice) lima (an aromatic lime), and naranjas agrias (sweet-sour orange). Turkey, wild boar, and shark provide the protein .
I love Yucatecan cuisine and have tried many places in the city, but my favorite is Coox Hanal (Isabel La Católica 83, 2nd floor, near Mesones, open daily from 10:30am to 6pm), a simple place in the centro. Start with a sopa de lima, (chicken soup perfumed with those special lemons and tortilla strips), then move on to panuchos (tortillas with black beans and cochinita pibil, a spicy marinated pork), papadzules (tortillas rolled up with chopped eggs and an earthy, green pumpkin seed sauce--a good option for vegetarians) and my favorite, pan de cazón, (tortillas layered with fish, black beans and a light, spicy tomato sauce) Beware the fiery chile habanera that sits on top (also used in one of the salsas you find on the table)—it is the world’s hottest chile. Wash it all down with their ice-cold horchata, a milky-looking drink made from ground almonds and rice.