Way downtown – Doña Chela of Tlapan

Doña Chela herself

Reluctant to venture south of the Viaducto, I recently risked bearings lost and made my way down to Tlalpan. A surprisingly tranquil little hamlet, Tlalpan was another one of those villages, like Coyoacán, that eventually made its way into the greedy maw of that hungry beast, ‘El D.F.’ Its quaint small-town center and colonial buildings survive, testaments to the day, not so long ago, when Mexico City’s centro was the centro, and these places existed autonomously and were visited on burro or tram through fields of corn. Central Tlalpan, home to a mix of Marxian lumpenproletariat and the decidedly well-heeled, is still tattered at the edges. It could use a little loving care. Huge mansions are minimally maintained. A hundred year old convent is topped by what looks like a five story parking lot, way above the supposed limit – who did those nuns pay off to get their ‘permiso de contrucción’? Unlike Coyoacán whose center is relatively intact, Tlalpan struggles to keep face like an aged Hollywood diva of yore. But a walk down the streets surrounding the peaceful, recently renovated zócalo, pays off. An ancient church, San Agustín de las Cuevas, shimmers, its meditative courtyard providing refuge for the city-weary. Casa Frissac, a mansion of bygone days, houses a museum and cultural center. And the red brick Mercado de la Paz dates to 1888 and is the oldest still functioning market building in the city. Enter through one of its welcoming portals. Inside, down the well-trodden stone paths happens to be one of the best fondas in town: that of Doña Chela.

“¡Sabor y Calidad!” shouts the sign, and Chela doesn’t mince words, just chilies. Covering several stalls due to popular demand, she cooks up a veritable encyclopedia of Mexican antojitos, from tacos de guisados – filled with green or red mole to enchiladas, tostadas, grilled meats, sopes, huaraches (no, not shoes, but large oblongs of meat topped masa). On a cool day one can order a piping hot and rich pozole. If you had a few too many last night, try a bowl of pancita, that offal hang-over cure, famous from here to Tijuana. And now is the season for chiles en nogada. I had to try one. Chela’s are exemplary – the chile charred just enough to lift the crunch, the savory filling fragrant and, best of all, the ‘nogada’ or creamy nut sauce, which is so often cloying, is sweetened judiciously with a light touch of cinnamon and nutmeg. A winner. I asked Chela, who is surprisingly young to be such a market diva, from whence emanates the recipe. I expected to hear “es de mi abuela” or some such comforting answer. But Chela’s efficient reply was “viene del Once”…that’s TV’s channel 11, the culture station. Let’s face it, sometimes life imitates art and it’s not a bad thing.

Fonda Doña Chela

Mercado de la Paz, just off the main plaza of Tlalpan

The best way to get there by public transportation is

Metrobus to Perisur, then a short taxi ride.


Down in the Valley: Humbertos & Fonda 99.99

Salbutes de 'but' negro

Colonia Del Valle is that quiet, resolutely middle-class, luster-less neighborhood where lots of people live, essential to every big city. Think Queens. There are nice, post-war vintage homes, clean streets, a few tidy parks. You don’t feel the genteel breeziness of Polanco, the buzz of the Condesa, the encroaching hipsterism of La Roma, the intellectual vibe of Coyoacán or the walk-on-the-wild-side artsiness of Santa Maria la Ribera. But there are some cultural and culinary gems hidden in the Valley’s streets. The Centro Libanés is one. Fonda Margarita is another. And now I've discovered two Yucatecan mini-institutions, owned by brothers, that sit back to back on a particularly quiet thoroughfare. These busy kitchens whip up their versions of that most incendiary of Mexican regional cuisines, and are amongst the best in the city.

Fonda 99.99 is the simpler of the two, its décor practically non-existent – it’s bright and clean inside, at least –the color scheme is hospital white. The menu is limited to those well-worn peninsular antojitos: cochinita pibil, in its various guises, such as tacos, panuchos and tortas. The sopa de lima has that particularly satisfying savory balance of perfumy and picant. And padadzules, those eggy, blue concoctions, a rare (in the Mexican lexicon, anyway) vegetarian, if not vegan dish, are creamy and nutty. I asked a manager from whence comes the 99.99 theme – she couldn’t tell me. Avis's old “we try harder” ethic, I suppose.

The quarter-century-old Humbertos, entered through 99’s driveway or from around the corner, sports warmer decoration. It features a long and intriguing menu. Expectant diners line up for a table – they look happy when they are seated and eat a lot. Here, the ‘99’ theme spills over, and all prices end in .99, even though we no longer use 1-centavo coins in Mexico. “99 44/100 per cent pure” promised those old Ivory Soap ads. As a particularly cynical kid I always wondered about the other .56 percent. The missing percentage here undoubtedly refers to the part of the menu that isn’t Yucatecan. Could be ‘spaghetti rojo a los 6 quesos. Six cheeses! Don’t order it. Stick to the many southern regional specialties, some familiar others less so. The afore-mentioned cochinita is succulent and perfectly complimented by the fiery but aromatic jade-green salsa. Try the delectable but oddly named salbutes de ‘but’ negro: light crispy sopes are topped with ground meat steeped in the salsa called recado negro. I never really ‘got’ this sauce myself, it always seemed thin and lacking in complexity. But here it works, perfuming the meat with a delicate smokiness. A little chopped egg makes for pretty. Tacos de lechón, suckling pig, were addictive - I lusted after my neighbor’s huge plate of pure lechón, Monday’s special. But I had ordered the tacos de cazón, that light baby shark with which the Yucatecans work so well. The classic pan de cazón, is presented here as a pretty stack of herby braised fish, black beans and tortillas swathed in gorgeous red tomato/chili sauce like a Dior model in crimson organdy. Of course you’ll wash it all down with ice-cold horchata or Montejo beer.

Prices in both places are reasonable – a comida will set you back no more than $100 pesos. But be aware that they are only open for lunch - no late night chilli-fests.

So go down to the valley - it can get hot there.

Fonda 99.99

Moras 347, between Miguel Laurent & San Lorenzo, 6 blocks east of Av. Insurgentes, Col. Del Valle (Metrobus Parque Hundido)

Tel. 5559-8762

Open Tuesday-Saturday 1-8PM, Sunday until 6

Restaurante Humbertos

Patricio Sanz 1440, (entry from Calle Mora, see below)
Col. Del Valle

Tel. 5559-8760

Open every day but Tuesday, 1-6PM

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A note to my readers: See my new article about eating in Egypt:



Cuba Libre: Cuban lunch in the Mercado Medellín

I’ve always liked Cuban food. I’ll never forget the recently disappeared Victor’s Café, haven for ex-pat Cubans and their fans and a beloved New York institution. I hung out there with my mother back in the ‘70’s. Aromas of garlic soup, roasted red peppers and spicy picadillo greeted entering patrons. The intoxicating strains of Afro-Cuban music blared from the juke box. These were some of my earliest and most pleasurable foreign restaurant memories. So it was my nose and ears that led me to an extra-ordinary stand in the middle of the Mercado de Medellín. This better-than-average traditional market located in the heart of Colonia Roma, is home to several stands that offer exotic looking South American products. But it’s rare to find a market stall offering anything other than prepared Mexican food. Several months ago this Cuban lunch counter, Banquetes Viant, opened up, the first of its kind in Mexico.

Gina & Rafael

The affable Gina and her looming business partner Rafael hail from Havana but have lived in Mexico for 16 years. From 'the island' they imported their outgoing good humor, criollo cooking skills and penchant for peppering their speech with ‘mi amor’s. Gina started cooking for other ex-patriots out of her kitchen and recently decided to expand. The simple menu includes the dense yellow achiote infused Cuban tamales. Or those grilled Cuban tortas: if you’re lucky Gina will have some succulent ‘lechón asado’ - suckling pig - on hand to fill them. I usually order what on her menu is called simply ‘moros y cristianos’ (mixed black beans and rice). This ‘blue-plate special’ includes a dollop of chicken, pork or beef cooked in a fragrant garlicky sauce, crispy tostones (plantain chips), a small salad and the requisite eponymous rice and bean mixture. All for $50 pesos. Accompany your lunch with a Malta, a refreshing sparkling malt flavored drink, like a sweetened, non-alcoholic beer.
If you're in the mood to celebrate, buy a cone from Eugenio Palmeiro Ríos' ice cream stand at the corner - it's just about the best in Mexico, and, according to Palmeiro, also an Habanero, made according to his memories of that iconic Havana institution, Heladeria Coppelia.

Last time I lunched at Gina's lively spot a hunky young Cubano dressed in sports clothes, gold chains, muscles bulging, stopped by to enjoy the salsa blaring from the radio behind the counter, bumping and grinding, singing a few bars, before moving on to do his shopping. That’s what Cuba, its people and its food does to you.

Banquetes Viant Comida Cubana
locales 203-204
In the middle of Mercado Medellín near the entrance to the ‘food court’
Tel. 5564 8440
Between Monterrey & Medellín, Campeche & Coahuila, Colonia Roma
Open daily for lunch

See my previous articles on Cuba, its cuisine and culture:
A Weekend in Havana
I'll See you in C.U.B.A.


Low Price ‘Nice’: The Polanco Tianguis

Polanco isn’t my cup of tea. Kind of reminds me of New York’s Upper East Side, where I always feel underdressed and everything smells like Chanel or fake strawberry. But we art & good food loving Chilangos all end up there once in a while to hit the fine-dining restaurants, the blue chip galleries, maybe do a little shopping at the Antara mall or visit our friends who do live there, most of them in enviable sprawling apartments. But let’s face it, Polanco’s set up for the gente ‘nice’ - my favorite slang term for those who don’t need to count their pesos, or as we New Yorkers used to say, the ‘Park Avenue set’. There are, therefore, fewer reasonably priced places to shop for food and eat than in other parts of town. That’s why the sprawling Saturday tianguis (or street market) that sets up at the eastern end of Parque Lincoln is such a welcome and much needed addition to Polanco’s genteel scene. I spent last Saturday morning there.
The customary fruits, vegetables, meats and Mexican staples like chilies are all on offer. Unusual is the spectacular display of produce, brought to you “in living color” as they used to say on NBC, by the ingenuity of a few vendors and the open space the park provides. But best of all are the prepared food stalls. A veritable encyclopedia of Mexican antojitos stands lines the Luís G. Urbina side of the park. On offer are delectable tacos of mole verde at Doña Chela’s guisados stand. The good Doña will even prepare a full comida corrida including soup, for 30 pesos. At Tacos el Cuñado, you can sample such meaty specialties from the State of Mexico as cecina adobada, (salted, chilies meat) or campechana (cecina + chorizo). Next is a nameless stand offering everything blue: sopes, quesadillas, tlacoyos (eye-shaped gorditas stuffed with fava beans, frijoles or cheese) –all made with blue corn. The sign for barbacoa (pit roasted mutton) from Capulhuac, also in Mexico State, lauds it as ‘exquisite’ and so it is, succulent and earthy. Spicy, fragrant mixiotes, shreaded meat wrapped and roasted, segues into a tidy fish and seafood stand which elbows Dany, the carnitas vendor from Michoacan. There’s even a little hamburger puesto which sits by itself, as, I suppose, it should and attracts a youthful clientele. And the smells that waft from it are alluring. A colorful aguas de frutas table and an old-fashioned vendor of tepache (fermented pineapple juice) quench thirsts. And desserts aren't forgotten at the booth that offers flan, arroz con leche, cakes and fruit concoctions.

Saturday, after I finished my ambulatory brunch, I wandered west, thinking I would pick up a little of that good pastrami from Kurson Kosher, the only Jewish deli in Mexico, on the other side of the park – until I remembered what day it was.

The Polanco Tianguis

Parque Lincoln,

Calle Aristotoles, between Emilio Castelar & Luís G. Urbina

2 blocks south and 3 west of Metro Polanco

Saturdays, 9-5, más o menos