And the winner is…The best of 2011

It’s that time of year, the end of the cycle. Many new restaurants have opened in our sprawling metropolis and, try as we may it’s impossible to keep up. It’s nice to see that the wolf is not beating at the kitchen door here. So, in the spirit of complete autocracy, I offer my best list. Take it or eat it.

1. The Pedro Infante “Best Mexican” award goes to…

Fonda El Refugio – This old timer has been spiffed up, its kitchen brought up to 21st century Slow Food hipness, without sacrificing traditional flavor and recipes. Grandma would be proud.

Runner up: Coox Hanal – still the best Yucatecan food in the city if not nation.

2. The Anna Magnani “Best Foreigner” award goes, once again, to Rosetta. Chef Reygadas’ Italian kitchen just gets better and better.

Runner up: Osteria 8 – this little upstart Italian does the best pizza in town and the ambitious menu doesn’t fail to impress. Now if only we could gussy it up a little and provide a little more elbowroom.

3. The Pan Am International award goes to....
Mero Toro, the Condesa temple of consistantly creative high-falutin cooking.

Runner up: D.O. It's multi-regional Spanish and they get everything right.

4. The Eve Harrington ‘best newcomer’ award goes to…

Máximo Bistrot Local. This pretty, unpretentious place at the corner of Tonalá & Zacatecas in la Roma, does French a la Mexicana, is hip to local and organic, and is generally full of ‘buena onda’. ¡Felicidades!

Runner up: El Beso Huasteco. A pretty, restored house, nicely presented Mexican classics, low prices. What’s not to like?

5. The Jack Kerouac ‘best street stall’ award goes to…

El Caguamo. Still the best seafood stand in the city.

Runner up: El Tacetón. (corner Baja California & Tuxpan, Col. Roma)This busy stand near the Chilpancingo metro stop serves a tempting selection of tacos de guisados.

6. The Frank Sinatra ‘one for the road’ award for best watering hole goes to:

Pulquería La Pirata (Calle 13 de Septiembre, corner of 12 de Diciembre, and right below the Viaducto, Colonia Escandon). For pure Mexican ambience, it doesn’t get any better.

Runner up: Mezcaleria La Nacional Querétaro, corner of Orizaba, Colonia Roma
This fairly new addition to the growing hipster scene in ‘La Roma’ offers a large selection of reasonably priced mezcals, as well as light food.

And the jury’s out on:
Azul Condesa. We really want to love Ricardo Muñoz’ uptown venue but have been repeatedly disappointed.

Izote. I confess I had avoided Patricia Quintana’s world famous venue in recent years due to her sky-rocketing prices and inconsistent quality. But she’s given the joint a makeover and there’s a new menu so we’ll be back soon and let you know.

May my reader’s have a happy and fattening New Year.

A note to my readers: The new, expended 2012 edition of my book is now for sale on Amazon. See the bar on the right of this page to click and buy


From Chiapas to Chihuahua: Regional Mexican Cuisine in El D.F. - Part II

Almost 2000 miles separate Mexico’s northern border with the United States and its southern extreme, which meets Guatemala. While both regions share ingredients and techniques we associate with Mexican cooking – corn, chilies, beans, etc. – the cultural and environmental influences are very different and the flavors are, too.

Chiapas, the southernmost state is home to several indigenous cultures, those least affected by colonialization and the reforms of the Revolution. Poor and marginalized to this day, Mayan people of the region have conserved much of their cultural and culinary identity. The state embraces ocean, tropical lowlands, and mountains, so there’s a great variety of materia prima. Fewer types of chilies are found here, but unusual herbs, vegetables, and fruits, such as chipilin, yuca, chicozapote, guanábana, and chirimoya are daily staples. “Pre-hispanic” meats such as armadillo, iguana and jabalí (wild boar) are found in the markets. Corn, as always in Mexico, is the basis of every meal, but unique to Chiapas are drinks made of ground and toasted corn and a wide variety of tamales.

A short taxi ride south of the centro histórico, Chamula’s is the only restaurant in Mexico City specializing in authentic Chiapaneca cuisine. The old-fashioned dining room is decorated with colorful hand-woven tablecloths and local crafts. Many unusual dishes are offered; start with a refreshing pozol, a slightly sweet drink made with toasted corn and chili. Notable among the entremeses (appetizers) are several kinds of tamales including one scented with chipilin, a pungent green herb. Chicken with mole or pork with pipian are favorite main courses, as is grilled tasajo (thinly sliced beef marinated in an achiote-flavored chili sauce). The Lacondon menu even offers wild boar and iguana. On weekends, a great marimba band, the music typical of the region, plays.

At the northern extreme of Mexico from Chiapas, the rough, dry terrain of Chihuahua has a culture influenced by American and European immigrants (including a large community of German dialect-speaking Mennonites, famed for their cheese) and by the indigenous nomadic tribes. With less variety to choose from, it’s cowboy and beef country up here—they like their meat, spiced up with lots of picante chilies. Wheat tortillas are more common than corn.

This homey place specializes in the cuisine of Chihuahua, the state from which owner Raul Vargas hails (his wife is from Jalisco, explaining the incongruous use of “Tequila” in the name). Red and blue tablecloths, yellow walls, wooden floors, and Northern-themed prints create a warm and comforting atmosphere. Sopa de tortilla is fragrant with cumin, and garnished with chicharrón, avocado, and roast chiles. Frijoles norteñas come sprinkled with pungent, white queso Chihuahua, and slices of pickled chiles. A popular main course is asados: grilled beef prepared in red colorado or green pasado sauce and served with fresh wheat tortillas. Vibrant red cecina adobada (dried, pounded and chilied beef) was a big hit at our table. The lemonade is rich and not too sweet, and the tequila flan is exceptional. Ask to sample their special house mezcal, produced in the state.

Chamula’s Bar
Bolivar 438, corner. Torquemada, Colonia Obrera
Metro José Peon Contreras
Tel. 5519-1336
Open daily 1-9 PM.

La Toma de Tequila
Toluca 28-C at Baja California
Metro Centro Médico (at the exit marked Toluca)
Tel. 5584-5250
Open 1PM – 8PM Daily
No credit cards are accepted.


Eating Around: Regional Mexican Cuisine in El D.F., Part I

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.


On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: Don Toribio

Why is the combination of a beautiful view and decent food so hard to find? Too often I’ve encountered lousy grub while enjoying some of the world’s most spectacular vistas, from the rooftops of Paris to the docks of Singapore. The D.F.’s potential best, the bar/restaurant in the Torre Latinamericana, is a disaster of vulgar music and overpriced, mediocre food. I am pleased therefore, to have found an exception, so obvious, had it been a dog it would’ve bit me. Situated atop a Deco edifice in the heart of Mexico City’s centro histórico, Don Toribio, open for several years now, overlooks the Alameda. The view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes is stunning. And on a recent crystal clear October afternoon I could make out the snow-dusted mountains up north.

Enter through a tacky mini-mall and take the elevator on the right to the 5th floor. Doors open to a broad terrace, a nicely appointed space with white tablecloths and plain, modern furniture —all very appealing. Several tables front the outdoor terrace; others are glassed in with wrap-around vistas.

The simple, wisely limited menu is Argentine – Mexican. Don Toribio bills itself as a parilla (grill) and grilled meat such as arrachera (skirt steak) is excellent. An order of nicely appointed mixed sopes or empanadas will make good starters to share. Main dishes –hearty salads or grilled meats are accompanied by soup of the day – the sopa de tortilla is exemplary. Avoid the complicated “a las finas hierbas”) and stick to the basic (“a las brasas”).
The best news of all is that the prices are more than reasonable. A comida can be had for under $100. When has a nice glass of Argentine wine cost $40 in recent years?
Breakfast is offered daily, and there is night-time service Thursday and Friday.

Don Toribio
Juarez 30, 5th floor
Open Monday, Tuesday , Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday, 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
Thursday, Friday until 11
Tel. 5518 - 7595


If Walls Could Talk: Fonda La Reforma

“Stop!” I yelled as our car sailed down a narrow street in Colonia Guerrero, an area north of the historic center, bustling with funky Sunday commerce.

It was the sign on a corner restaurant that had caught my eye. “Fonda La Reforma: We’re backed by 75 years of tradition” it proudly proclaimed. I love tradition--and old, timeworn places. By the time I left my city of birth, New York, we had little of either left. But here in Mexico City, venues for nostalgia still abound. They linger, sometimes languish, waiting to be re-discovered and lauded by, well, people like me.

Aluminum soup pots, dented by years of serious stirring and ancient chipped cazuelas, browned by flame and mole, filled the window of the open kitchen. An old lady, in no hurry at all, stirred one of them. In another window the words “exquisito mole” were emblazoned over a crude painting of a mole pot. This is an archetypal fonda. It offers 35 or 40 peso comida corridas like any other.

But here there’s a difference. Besides its age--over 80 years--La Reforma has the distinction of having been a hangout for one of the most important writers of Mexico’s golden age, Salvador Novo. Poet, essayist, novelist and general bon vivant, Novo (1904-1974) was perhaps best known as a chronicler of life in the big city. A genuine eccentric, gay and out at an early age, he was sort of a Mexican Oscar Wilde but with a relatively happy ending. Novo loved all things urban, especially food. His Cocina Mexicana is and informal chronicle of cooking and eating in Mexico City. The Fonda la Reforma appears in its pages. Novo ate here with Octavio Paz. One of the elderly owners claims that other famous people also graced her humble dining room, but she can’t recall their names. If walls could talk.

Located across from the huge Mercado Martinez de la Torre (see my earlier post), La Reforma was founded in the late 1920’s by Maria Canales as a simple puesto offering pancita to feed hungry market venders and shoppers. It was taken over a few years later by her daughter, who had no less than 12 children herself.

Two generations later, the restaurant is still in the hands of the Canales Sánchez family. ‘Baby brother’ Marco Antonio, 60-something, whips up egg whites for the chiles rellenos, a house specialty since time immemorial. Meanwhile, sister Jovita, who’s approaching 80 (from which direction I’m not sure), deep-fries the chilies themselves. And they’ve got those chilies down! The crust is crisp but fluffy, the chili and cheese light as a cloud, the caldo de jitomate just thick enough and mildly spiky.

I sampled an earthy verdolagas con carne (purslane with chunks of falling-apart pork). The chocolaty mole (offered only Saturday, Sunday and Monday) is if not quite exquisite, certainly good. Lunches are served daily to old-timers and young locals alike. As they have been for 80 years.

I don’t promise a four-star meal at La Reforma. But for those wanting a soul-satisfying, authentic home-style meal in a prototypical inner-city D.F. fonda, this is the place.

Fonda La Reforma is located at the corner of calles Heroes & Degollado,
Colonia Guerrero
It's 2 blocks north and west of Metro Guerrero
Open daily for comida

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A note to my readers: Good Food in Mexico City has been chosen by Saveur Magazine as one of the top Global food blogs! See: http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/SAVEURs-Favorite-Global-Food-Blogs


Dinner at Eight: Osteria 8

I was skeptical, even though a French friend had highly recommended the place. “This little hole in the wall is GOOD?” I thought as we sat down at one of the eight little tables. But this particular lady, Françoise, had owned a restaurant in Paris, so I figured if she said “c’est bon” I'd try it.

Little did I imagine the gem I would find. No bigger or fancier than the fonda it undoubtedly replaced, this mini-trattoría and pizzeria does some of the best Italian this side of the Lido. Owner Stephan Gialleonardo hails from that bastion of great Italian cooking--the Bronx. “I learned from my grandfather, a Napolitano who worked as chef on a depression-era gambling boat,” he explains. “Those floating casinos were owned by some rather discerning eaters.” he adds. The chef, who later studied at New York’s French Culinary Institute, decided to open his own place. He and his wife Patricia Ramirez inaugurated Osteria 8 two years ago and it has been a well-kept secret amongst savvy Condechis ever since.

Raw ingredients are fresh, seasonal and, in many cases organic and local. Pasta is house-made. A smartly limited menu of regional standards includes six appetizers (e.g., fried calamares and several salads), five pastas--none of them clichés--and a risotto ‘de chef’. There are specials, such as the knockout ‘ensalada romana’, soon to appear on the regular menu by popular demand. ‘Lechuga romana’ is iceberg lettuce and I admire a chef who’s not afraid of it. Here the old steakhouse special has been given a touch of class – a perfect wedge is swathed in a light gorgonzola sauce, then accessorized with chopped tomato, red onion and bacon – a Park Avenue debutante never looked so pretty. Chef Gialleonardo takes advantage of what’s in the market: “I love this season –especially the wild mushrooms, which right now (September) are particularly good” he says, disappearing into the tiny kitchen to prepare a spectacular tagliatelle with chantarelles. The lighter-than-angel’s-wings pasta is tossed with delicate slivers of golden mushrooms and bits of guanciale (a type of unsmoked bacon), good olive oil and parmesan. Divine. A home-made sausage I sampled was just as good. “The sausage recipe was my grandfather’s,” the chef explains. “But it took a lot of experiments to get it just right”. Then arrives what is just about the prettiest pizza I’ve seen outside Fordham Road – or Naples. Patricia does the pizzas. “My wife’s a kick-ass pizza-maker”, the chef assures me. She is indeed: the tomato-based mushroom and guanciale number I order is textbook-perfect. I’m an old New Yorker: when it comes to pizza, you CAN be too rich and too thin. This one has chutzpah, but is delicate and subtle at the same time.

Desserts are rich, dairy-based affairs your
nonna would fatten you up with: panna cotta, crème brulée, gelato, all done correctly.
House wine is decent and its price customer-friendly. Service is swift and efficient. Prices may seem
on the steep side for such an apparently humble place ($200-300 per person), but it’s worth every peso.
Plans to open a larger space in the neighborhood are underway. But meanwhile, we’ll gladly pack into this little gem of an Italo-hole-in-the-wall. Cin cin & buona provata!

Osteria 8
Sinaloa 252, (near Av. Veracruz) on the edge of Colonias Roma & Condesa

Open Tuesday- Saturday 1:30 - 11 p.m., Sunday until 8, closed Mondays

A note to my readers: Good Food in Mexico City has been chosen by Saveur Magazine as one of the top Global food blogs! See: http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/SAVEURs-Favorite-Global-Food-Blogs


Back to the Future: Fonda el Refugio

1978: a giddily dilapidated, pre-quake Mexico City. I was a fresh-faced college student, here on a mission to study the murals. I strolled through the legendary Zona Rosa, which was already resting on the glamorous laurels of a bygone era, like some aging old-Hollywood diva who hadn’t made a picture in years. I passed the faded Hotel Geneva, which according to my mother, had been home to artists and bohos from around the world.

It was lunchtime. My dog-eared guidebook suggested I eat only in “nice” places for traditional Mexican food and this was it . I remember entering the portal of the Fonda el Refugio with a sense of relief, a feeling that someone’s grandma would take care of me. Little did I realize that she would indeed be there, perhaps minding the books if not the kitchen. The room was cozy, old wood floors and ceiling framing dark colonial style furniture punctuated with bright Frida-like touches. It still is.

I recall the mole verde, a beautiful jade colored sauce whose nutty/minty taste and soft reassuring texture gently cradled a velvety chicken breast. I can smell the heady aroma of roasted corn that wafted from the little basket of hand-made tortillas. The memory of my first dinner at el Refugio is iconic, nostalgic and one of my fondest early Mexican experiences.

But nice dreams suffer, memories fray at the edges. Repeated visits, over the years, to this 57 year-old bastion of Mexican goodwill did not fare so well. It went downhill.

Claudio Hall, grandson of the founder, agrees. Hall’s grandma was neither an indigenous braided countrywoman nor a chef. A glamorous upper-class lady, she was an astute businesswoman who liked the idea of creating an elegant restaurant that served Mexican food. It took off, and during the ‘época de oro’ of the Zona Rosa the Fonda became a hangout for the likes of Cantinflas and Maria Felix.

“Grandmother never touched a stove in her life”, explains the affable Hall, who speaks in unaccented English.

“Surely the recipes are treasured family secrets?” I ask. “Not a one” he replies. “She was a great collector of classic Mexican cookbooks – we have an amazing library. All our recipes come from books”.

When he returned to Mexico a couple of years ago after a few years in the US, he felt lost at sea and was looking for a job. But he had never thought of going into the family business. “After grandmother passed away the place went downhill. In fact, we were on the brink of bankruptcy. I decided to inject some life back into it, in effect, to save it.” Hall is not a chef. He went back to school to study gastronomy.

Thankfully, he has changed nary a thing on the menu. Classic dishes rule. You’ll find antojitos such as enchiladas, garnachas and sopes, moles, pipianes, chiles rellenos,--you name it, they do it. I was happy to see manchamanteles, that fruity mestizo stew, once a staple in houses that looked just like this (Tuesdays only).

The chile en nogada I sampled was textbook perfectan ideal balance of sweet and savory spice, and the cream sauce did not cloy.

That memorable green mole is offered on Wednesdays. Everything’s done the old-fashioned way: salsas are ground in stone molcajetes, tortillas are hand-pressed. “I didn’t want to change anything,” Hall claims, “just improve and bring back the quality. It was no mean feat: some of the staff have been here for decades and didn’t want to be told what for - old habits are hard to break”.

So, no new concepts, no pretentious 21st century updating. Just better quality raw ingredients, as much as possible locally grown. That isn’t to say the menu won’t offer surprises: there are unusual daily and seasonal specials, as well as mezcal tastings –perhaps one of the few nods to current fashion.

“I hired one chef who insisted on re-inventing everything--he wanted to serve something with foam!

We let him go”, said Claudio.

“Andale!,” I say. And I’m sure grandma would agree.

Fonda el Refugio

Liverpool 166, near Insurgentes, Zona Rosa

Metro: Insurgentes

Tel: 5207-2732

Open Monday-Saturday 1-11 p.m. , Sunday until 10.


STRANGE FRUIT: Tropical wonders from the market

Our Mexican summer rainy season brings some of the most visually and gustatorily compelling tropical fruits to market. Most, such as the hot pink Frida-portraited pitahaya or the sugary chico zapote are good for gawking at and eating fresh, nothing more. Others, like the mealy but perfumy mamey or the gooey black zapote negro are better when prepared. Below are a few suggestions.


These beautiful rosa mexicana guayabas (guavas) are common around the State of Mexico. They were in great demand in the pre-conquest era. The Spaniards brought them back and made 'ate' or guava paste which is also available here in markets stalls where chiles and moles are sold. Easy to make is 'agua de guayaba': just throw a few whole guayabas into the blender with some water and a little sugar. Strain and serve.


The mamey, whose beautiful orange-red interior color I once tried to paint my kitchen with middling success, is native to Mexico but common all over Latin-America, especially the Carribean. Currently fashionable amongst creative chefs of so-called Nueva Cocina Mexicana as an ingredient for tarts and créme brulée, it's best consumed at home as a liquado or milkshake. Scoop out the pulp, blend with 2 cups of milk, a little sugar if desired and a few ice cubes.


These delightful fruits, in the city called zapote chico are also native to tropical Mexico - they are grown in low-lying areas near el D.F. as well. Their flesh, tasting like brown sugar, is sublime all by itself.


The zapote prieto or negro is related to the fruit above in name only. It is native to the central Mexican states. The jet black pulp of these odd, squishy anomalies are commonly scooped out of their skins, seeds and membranes discarded, mashed and augmented with orange juice and perhaps a shot of tequila, then eaten with a spoon as dessert. Their preparation makes a mess but will impress your guests.


Nopal cactus fruits are called 'tuna' in Spanish, confusing many visitors. They are full of seeds so make for annoying eating. But an agua preparada de tuna - fruit peeled, in the blender with water, then strained - nothing else - is more refreshing than Blanche Dubois' lemon-Coke. They vary in color from green to yellow to a deep royal crimson.


The agressive looking guanábana contains a docile white custard-like and headily perfumed flesh. It is usually made into a paste, ice cream or agua fresca, but can be consumed as is. But be sure to buy a nice ripe one.


The spectacular pitahaya has been justly celebrated in Mexican still-life painting since colonial times. A cactus fruit native to the Americas, it has become even more popular in Asia and is common in Thai and Malaysian markets. The inner flesh can be bluish-white or deep red. Its taste is unremarkable, somewhat like a kiwi but less acidic. It is simply admired and consumed as is.

Shopping in Mexico is a never-ending mind-blowing experience. Support your local tianguis and/or traditional market.

Text and photos © 2011 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved


Shelling out - How to tip in Mexico

I’ve slung hash. I started as a busboy at Miss Colleen’s Chinese Restaurant. There was no future in it, as to graduate to a waiter you had to write in Chinese. But I got to take home all the leftovers. I then worked at a Jewish Deli (low pay and tips, no comment), a jazz club (no customers, no tips, but I could get drunk every night for free). By the time I was ready to retire – at 25 - from the ‘food services industry’ (i.e. toiling in Mafia owned kitchens) I was wearing what they used to call a monkey suit and was chosen to serve champagne to then President Mitterrand at a French Embassy event (I hid under the table but they found me). So I know what it’s like to work for tips. As I considered myself a very good waiter, who worked efficiently and gave a minimum of attitude, I’m both sympathetic and highly critical of bad service. But I know a girl’s gotta eat.

Mexico is a service-oriented country. There are a lot of people here whose work is doing something for someone else. Most middle class people have maids. People are available to carry your bags, pump your gas, shine your shoes, bone your chicken. Few of these people are well paid. Some aren’t paid at all.

Many foreigners, recent émigrés or visitors to The Big Taco are confused about tipping. One wants to do it ‘right’, do as the natives do. My father, who spent his last years in Japan, where they’ve never even heard of tipping, always told the story of having left a few yen on a restaurant table. His worried waitress came running out after him to give it back – not to offend. Likewise, my friends in Madrid wouldn’t let me leave a euro in the dish of a bar, claiming that wait-people are well paid in Spain. Not so sure about that. I think now, given Spain’s economic situation, these same friends would pocket my tip themselves.

Here is my advice on what gratuity to leave. Of course it’s subjective. I tend to err on the side of generous. Let’s face it, most of the people who serve you a 400 peso meal can’t afford one themselves and never will. I feel guilty when I buy a bottle of wine that costs what the bagger earns in 3 days. So I do what I can.

Street stalls - nothing is expected, and most people don’t leave tips

Market stalls/owner run fondas – I usually leave a few pesos. If the lunch is $35, I’ll leave 5. It’s optional – some people do, many don’t.

Restaurants (from Vips to Pujol) – Here, 10-15% is the norm (not 15-20 as in the US), although I tend to err towards 15. This is where you may leave more or less depending on the quality of the service. But remember that what you and I may think of as over-zealous service is here considered attentive. People are taught that it’s not nice to leave dirty plates in front of someone, so they are whisked away even when others are still eating. We may think that’s rude, here it’s good service. So don’t penalize your server for this. Wait service in Mexico is generally friendly – have you ever had surly waiter snap at you here? I haven’t.
A few high-end places add a ‘servicio’ charge of 15% onto their bill, as restaurants in France do. Although this is uncommon, it happens. I don’t like this phenomenon at all, because most people don’t expect it here, and leave a tip on top of the service. So, take the advice of my mother and always check your bill. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll find an error, and it never seems to be in your favor.

Bars – if you only drink, a small gratuity is the norm, in a dive, perhaps a couple of pesos, in a ‘nice’ place more.

Other, non-dining tipping situations:

Taxis – a tip is not expected. This will surprise New Yorkers where a full tip is not only expected but extorted. But I usually round off and give them a little extra. Come on, taxis are very cheap here…

Gas stations – Those Pemex guys expect a little something: 2-5 pesos, depending on whether they do extra things like wash your windows or check the oil. Let’s face it, it’s nice not to do it yourself, and it’s not sexy for a lady wearing high heels and a Little Black Dress to pump gas.

Gas delivery – tip those guys who carry the heavy cylinders to the roof - $5 (pesos) each. And give the truck 10 or 15 or they’ll never come back.

Water bottles – I give 2 or 3 pesos extra per ‘garrafon’.

Car parkers/'cuidadores' - we give these guys 5-10 pesos; sometimes more: the lady at the Lagunilla market (on Reforma) wants $20 to look after our car. It's worth it.

Baggers at the super – I’m generous with these people. There’s a sign in my local Superama (which is owned by Walmart, a company known for its miserliness) that clearly states that baggers aren’t paid at all. You just spent $70 on Haagen Daaz. Shell out.

Bogart to Ann Sheriden: "What do you reccomend?"; Ann to Bogart "Nothing, I never eat here, myself"

A note to my readers: Good Food in Mexico City has been included, amidst stellar company, in the New York Times' Diner's Journal

Text © 2011 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved


Shanghai Express: Mojing's back & Super Día has the Goods

Miss Anna May Wong might have moved to el D.F. had she known...

"I'm an occidental woman in an oriental mood for love", Mae West once sang. I know how she felt, only it's the food I'm usually in the mood for. We need not worry, for the Chinese are coming. Their products are everywhere, from the tianguis to Palacio de Hierro. It is said that Mexican flags and Virgins de Guadalupe are all made in China now. There used to be a Chinese community here in Mexico, workers brought in the 19th century to build railroads. They later opened 'fast food' restaurants called cafés de chinos, serving nominally Chinese dishes like chop suey as well as eggs, coffee and sweet rolls, much like the typical American coffee shop of yore. A few remain. But the Chinese themselves either assimilated into the population, left, or were, sometime around the revolution, ungratefully kicked out. But as we all know, things have changed. Communism ain't what it used to be. They're coming back in droves, this time not as abused laborers but as savvy business-people. And if that means more Chinese restaurants for us, I say, more power to 'em.

Mojing, a Cantonese palace hidden inside a Chinese mini-mall, is amongst the few venues for 'real' Asian food in the city. It opened last year and was reported on in a popular lifestyle magazine that feigns 'hipness' (but in fact panders to the dumbest Malinchista instincts of middle class Mexicans). It was described as an anomaly, a 'wierd' Chinese restaurant where frogs are eaten whole. Sadly, 'authenticity' when referring to cuisine, is still not much appreciated here. Hence the plethora of lousy chop suey joints of the type that back in the US went out of style sometime around the demise of the Beatles. Of course, smelling "Chinese for Chinese" I went as fast as I could and wasn't disappointed. An expert chef from Hong Kong, Tan, prepares dishes for an almost exclusively Asian clientele, so no chow mein or sweet & sour is to be found. In fact, the waiters speak little Spanish (much less English). I had trouble getting them to understand that I wanted tea! Better to order it in Chinese: cha. And they stared in amazement when I ordered and proficiently handled chopsticks (palillos en español). The menu, however, is well translated into Spanish. There are so many interesting dishes to try, I couldn't possibly list them all here. Start with some dense steamed dumplings, served with the proper black vinegar, soy and hot oil dipping sauce. And/or some savory hongos en salsa picante. Soups are large - the "chica' is enough for six bowls. I like agri-picante con mariscos. Try the carne en salsa ligeramente picosa, fragrant beef with ginger and semi-crunchy green peppers and onions. Or, a whole fish with ginger and scallions and soy sauce. Camaron frito con anis chino and carne de cerdo con queso de soya deshydratado (pressed tofu,which is common in NY's Chinatown but something I've never seen in Mexico) are just two unusual but mouthwatering options from the large menu. Vegetables are fresh and bright: order estrapajo con ajo picado, the chopped garlic perfectly complements the crunchy, verdant zucchini-like loofah.

The space is large, with typical Chinese restaurant kitchy decor, a TV blairing Chinese programming. Tsingtao beer is available and only $25 pesos. Prices are reasonable; a full meal will be around $200 pesos. Although closed for a couple of months this spring (2011) they are back in business as of August with not one but TWO chefs, the friendly hostess promissed me. And an inexpensive ($65 peso) buffet is offered weekdays which is light years ahead of the normally gloppy competitors.
This is the real thing...津津有味 (Jīnjīnyǒuwèi: Buen provecho!)
Mojing Comida China
c/ Humboldt 56 (inside the mall)
between Artículo 123 & Juarez, Centro
Te. 5512 6901
Open Daily 12-11PM

Meanwhile, in the most unlikely neighborhood is found Super Día, a huge Chinese supermarket. It will not dissapoint those in need of any sort of dry or bottled Asian ingredient. From noodles of every kind, to Szechuan bean sauce and many types of sesame oil, chili oil, oyster sauce, dark or light soy etc. etc., even the hard to find Shaoxing cooking wine, it's all here. A nice selection of woks are in stock, and for anyone thinking of opening a dim sum parlour, industrial size steamers are available.
Super Día is located in Colonia Tabacalera (near the Museo San Carlos, Between Metros Revolución & Hidalgo) Av. Puente de Alvarado 34

A note to my readers: Good Food in Mexico City has been included, amidst stellar company, in the New York Times. See: Diner's Journal


In Search of Lost Time: Pâtisserie Dominique

I love Paris. Who doesn’t? I sometimes have fantasies of moving there, of being as French as possible, of breathing my last breath in a brasserie, napkin tucked in, spoon in hand, crème brulée cracked. Maybe that’s my future, maybe not. Meanwhile, I’ll make do with an occasional fattening visit (see my article on that), and a periodic foray into the land of Francofilia a la Mexicana that our great Euro-leaning city affords. But the best French food here is to be found at The French Lady’s house, that is, when she proffers an invitation.

One of my favorite parts of life in Paree is that morning experience, always full of bittersweet nostalgia for I don’t know what, when, sitting in a café, I tear open a warm, crusty, buttery croissant. Never in Mexico, nor, for that matter, anywhere else in the highly civilized world have I been able to recreate that divine Proustian sensation. Believe me, I’ve tried. In New York, no matter how good the pastry is, either the cup is paper, the price annoying, the traffic blaring or the company ornery - none conducive to reflection. In Madrid they put sticky stuff on their pastries so that you have to eat with knife and fork or you get punished-–ants at the meditative picnic. Here in Mexico, in theory, we have all the right elements for romance: old-fashioned cafés, a laid back, poetic ambience, nice people who think about life and death a lot. But no good croissants. Until now, that is.

Dominique, who hails from the Alsace area of France near Germany, where they know a thing or two about baking, works miracles. Her eponymously named French-style hole-in-the-wall patisserie has been quietly churning out pastries and little French breakfasts for over three years now. I don’t know how I missed it. Located on a quiet, fairly well preserved street in Colonia Roma that recalls Paris as far as possible in this urban jumble, you walk through pretty turn-of-the-century doors into another world. Exquisite looking chocolate confections are preserved under glass, and baskets of fresh breads and those buttery breakfast morsels await. Sit at one of the two little round tables, surrounded by light, swirly French grande-mère décor, and order. The complete breakfast, consisting of juice, eggs, bread and coffee is, at 100 peso, a bargain. There are only two choices both pure bistro: omelettes or oeufs en cocotte: eggs swirled with crème fraîche and baked in a little ramekin. Perfect. Coffee - I order ‘café crème’ of course – is rich as it should be. And there are those croissants. She even does the almond ones. Correctly. I can now have my Parisian moment not ten minutes from home. What does The French Lady think? With a reluctant Parisian sniff, she gives Dominique the heads up. Allons-y.

Patisserie Dominique
Chiapas 157-A (between Monterrey & Medellín), Col. Roma
Open Tuesday-Saturday 9:30-6:30, closed Sunday and, in true French fashion, Monday.