By Jessica Festa
There’s so much more to Mexico City than guacamole. I got to explore this recently when the Le Meridien Mexico City invited me to come shadow the brand’s James Beard award-winning pastry chef, Johnny Iuzzini. He would be visiting from Brooklyn, searching the city for inspiration for his locally-inspired Le Meridien eclair recipe, part of Le Meridien’s Eclair Diaries series. Also in tow was world-renowned coffee connoisseur Esther Maasdam, in charge of training Le Meridien’s food and beverage staff on the art of coffee making and turning them all into Master Baristas (a program by Le Meridien).
Basically, I was in good hands to explore cuisine, coffee and culture in Mexico City.
The Stay Experience
The first thing I noticed when entering the Le Meridien Mexico City was the festive holiday decor (my stay was in December). A winding staircase allowed for fun shots of a giant Christmas tree accented by bulbous lights, not to mention a holiday tree crafted from books near the open bar.
My 13th floor room was even more spectacular, with aerial city views, free Wi-Fi, a full mini bar, unique Malin + Goetz bath products (cilantro conditioner, anyone?), and a big comfortable bed showcasing a plush robe which I lived in for my stay. Being a Starwood rewards member — Le Meridien is owned by Marriott, which recently acquired Starwood — I also got a free drink in the bar, which I sipped in the deep soaking tub while reading a book (a simple luxury I never seem to have the time for at home).
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A Delectable Mission: Mexico City Market Exploration
I didn’t spend all my time in the hotel room, though. Remember, one reason I was there was to explore Mexico City flavors with Chef Iuzzini, and see how the destination influenced his latest eclair recipe.
The eclair is a traditional French pastry typically filled with chocolate or fresh cream and gowned in chocolate icing; until Iuzzini gets his creative hands on it. We headed to Central de Abasto, the world’s largest wholesale market with over 2,000 vendors and 500,000 visitors per day, to look for ingredients and inspiration. We also brought along husband and wife chef duo Jared Reardon and Sonia Arias of Mexico City’s Jaso Restaurant to help give context to what we were looking at and negotiate with vendors.
[bctt tweet=”Love Mexican cuisine? Check out these amazing #food & drink experiences in #Mexico City. ” username=”jessonajourney”]
Still, it was up to Iuzzini to craft a dessert that provides guests with a traditional taste of Mexico that’s also atypical. Explained Iuzzini on the way to the market, “Picture a traveler that comes to the Le Meridien and wants to experience all the flavors and textures of Mexico without leaving the hotel. I also want to get away from the typical ingredients like avocado. Maybe we can’t get every Mexican state in the eclair, but maybe five very special ingredients, including vegetables and spices.”
As we wandered through the market’s 16 kilometers of walking areas, we smelled, touched and tasted an array of ingredients. These ranged from tangy Oaxaca cheese to produce I’d never heard of before, like zapote negro and mamey sapote. There were also giant barrels of mole powders from various regions, which Chef Iuzzini thought would work well on the shell, the spice tamed by a cooling fruit filling. Each time our senses interacted with a new local ingredient, Iuzzini scribbled into his notebook like a hungry mad scientist.
A Traditional Mexican Meal
After four hours exploring the market, I couldn’t wait to see what Iuzzini had come up with, though the final recipe wouldn’t be unveiled for a few days. In the meantime, we had hungry stomachs to fill. And so we headed to a late lunch/early dinner at Restaurante Nicos. Sonia described the Claverai neighborhood venue as “casual, but the food is extraordinary,” while Jared commented that “it’s all in the sauce, and Nicos has great sauce”.
As soon as our waiter came over to prepare our table-side guacamole — okay, so there’s a few avocados in this travelogue —I was immediately hooked. And my palate’s happiness only continued with dishes like river fish steamed in a corn husk followed by tender barbecue rabbit. There was also delectable plates of organic pork and organic turkey — each topped with different mole sauces. I’ve had mole before, though never realized you could travel Mexico through the palate sampling all the regional moles.
Desserts ranged from the traditional Mexican Buñuelos to a quirkier bowl of popcorn gowned in pumpkin gelato and zapote negro sauce, spiced with anise, mandarin and cinnamon. Table-side Mexican coffee was the perfect ending, and watching our server use his entire body to stir the natural cane sugar-laced java in a clay pot was like seeing a Broadway show. Like mole, the spices added depend on the Mexican region you’re in, ranging from sugar and cinnamon to cacao.
I went to bed fat and happy.
Exploring Mexico City Culture and Coffee
The next day, while Iuzzini was holed up in the kitchen to experiment, I met up with the lovely Esther Maasdam, Le Méridien’s coffee connoisseur extraordinaire visiting from the Netherlands. Together we spent the day partaking in Le Meridien’s Destination Unlocked program. In each city they operate in, Le Méridien partners with a local cultural institution to provide free entry to their guests.
In Mexico City that partner is Museo Tamayo, located within the expansive Chapultepec Park. The leafy green attraction is home to picnicking, paddle boating, splash pads, cycle paths, a free botanical garden, outdoor movies and really interesting al fresco cultural performances. I mean, check out this Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) performance below, which includes grown men falling from a 30-meter pole and flying through the air attached to bungee cords. A fifth man stays at the top playing the flute and drum.
The park is also home to 17 museums and galleries, including the Museo Tamayo contemporary art museum. Here art ranges from Oaxaca-born Rufino Tamayo’s well-known painting of watermelons (an ode to his childhood selling fruit) to multi-media works and even a peaceful vacant pink room with bird sounds playing.
While I loved perusing the pieces, my favorite experience was playing on the modern outdoor playground.
Gringo Tip: Adults are apparently not supposed to climb the jungle gym below, as was shouted to me in Spanish by a security guard.
Actually, my favorite museum experience may have been lunch at their eatery, Restaurante Tamayo. While the previous day introduced me to traditional Mexican cuisine, this exquisite venue provided a modern take. A few playful dishes on the menu included hibiscus flower and cream cheese tacos, chicken stuffed with cuitlacoche and goat cheese over pinto beans, and a ribeye with a four chilies crust.
Oh, and I can’t forget the huauzontle cakes — batter fried huazontle (like quinoa) with Chihuahua cheese in a black Oaxaca mole sauce and green tomatillo salsa. The dish was also laced with chipilin, an edible legume typically used as a spice. I saw huauzontle cakes on a few menus in Mexico City, so if you see it during your stay definitely order it.
Within the park we also visited Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), the very place where Mexico City started. If you’re into history make sure to hire a guide to really understand what you’re looking at as you tour the many 19th-century furnished rooms of Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Empress Carlota. Here you’ll also get excellent aerial views of the city from 2,325 meters (7,628 feet) above sea level.
An Elevated Coffee Break
When we finished with the park it was 3pm, and neither Esther nor I had had a coffee since 8am. For me this wasn’t ideal, but for Esther this was plain madness. I mean, the girl lived for coffee. And because I was with the queen of coffee we weren’t settling for just any java.
That day we’d learned an amazing local tip. Some of you may have heard of Pujol, a trendy restaurant in the Polanco neighborhood with a waiting list of over six months. Getting into this eatery was Esther’s #1 goal in Mexico City, though she couldn’t land a reservation; however, what we could do was head to Eno Petrarca, their attached counter culture coffee shop.
If I didn’t think Esther was a celebrity before, the fact that she was recognized from her Facebook page by the barista in Eno Petrarca — who came up to our table and eagerly asked her to do an impromptu guest barista session — proved it. We were also provided a few extra speciality coffee beverages along with our latte art-adorned orders. The most interesting drink was an iced Infusion Fria de Cafe with almond milk and lemon. They also offered everything from frozen lattes to atole with amaranto, a boiled Mexican drink featuring milk, amaranth seeds, cinnamon and sugar.
Wandering Mexico City’s Roma Neighborhood
With caffeine flowing through our veins, we happily headed to Mexico City’s hip Roma neighborhood, located next to the also trendy neighborhoods of Juárez (where the Le Méridien is located) and Condesa. In Roma, we simply wandered without a plan, making fun and delicious discoveries along the way.
A few of our favorites stops included:
- Libreria Atico: A cozy weathered store that looks like a professor’s dusty attic. A cute black cat roamed the venue as we perused everything from The History of Man in comic book form to business help books (in Spanish). Prices ranged from about 15-60 pesos (~$0.75 to $3 USD).
- Aurora: I’m obsessed with single spirit focused bars, and Aurora offers a ultimate gin experience. Pair your gin cocktail with a tasty pizza and live music.
- Folk Diseno Artesenal: This fun artisan market allowed us to practice our Spanish and learn about Mexican products from mescal and coffee to hand-woven ponchos.
- Alvaro Obregon & Insurgentes Sur Cross Streets: There’s an entire block off these cross streets (on Alvaro Obregon) showcasing numerous street vendors and locals eating at makeshift sidewalk bars. Local Tip: Esther and I were shown the proper way to eat a street stall taco. You’ll get double shells to catch any spillage, and as you bite you should stick your butt out to avoid splatter on your shirt. If you can picture a high class Brit drinking a cup of tea, you should also keep your pinky out to maneuver the taco as it gets smaller.
- Bizarro Cafe: We didn’t drink at this fun-looking dive bar, but one of the bartenders noticed us gringos and excitedly pulled us inside to show us the decor. The table tops and walls are covered in classic rock posters, while the wall behind the live music stage showcases fake skulls.
- Licoreria Limantour: After consulting with a number of Esther’s local contacts in the food and beverage industry about where to go for cocktails, it was an unanimous Limantour. Aside for upscale restaurants, Mexico City apparently doesn’t have many craft cocktail bars, though this place is a standout. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, almost every drink on the menu comes with a beautiful photo and recipe card. You can also order a custom creation. Gringo Tip: Don’t use the word “caliente” to mean “spicy” or you’ll be given something akin to a hot toddy. Lesson learned.
- La Bodega: This restaurant is actually in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, though from Limantour we walked there in 15 minutes. Along with fantastic Mexican food and superior service, the super quirky decor turned the eatery into a maze of fun exploration. What To Get: Anything with mole Poblano sauce, as well as any of the seafood. The “camarones gigantes” are not lying when they say gigantic shrimp! Afterwards, dance it off to their live music.
Turning Food & Drink Into Art, Literally
On my final day in Mexico City, Chef Iuzzini unveiled his final Mexico City eclair recipe.
Explaining the concept, he said, “You don’t have to speak the same language to understand the food. All the flavors in the eclair will be those you understand, but the combination is what makes it different. These ingredients were all unfamiliar to me, so I experimented with different combinations and forms. I wanted to deliver something unexpected, and you may think I’m a bit loco with this recipe.”
What Iuzzini said next did sound loco, but also absolutely delicious. Picture this: A hollow Pate a Choux dough base flavored with Oaxaca mole powder, which gets injected with a filling of mamey and Veracruz vanilla, then gowned in a tamarind and lime glaze. This is garnished with sweet and crunchy crystallized huitlacoche, creamy red banana, and a Mexican-inspired peanut brittle caramelized with local piloncillo sugar and spiced with mole powder.
Not only is the unexpected flavor combination a work of art, but so is the presentation. I love a dessert that’s so beautiful you feel bad eating it (but hey, that’s what Instagram is for).
Washing down the sweet masterpiece was an equally artistic latte made by Esther. Not surprisingly, her grandfather was an artist, so she grew up drawing and painting. Since she wanted to practically apply her creative skills, she was educated in graphic design; but when she became tired of sitting behind a computer, Esther decided to apply her skills to her passion for coffee through latte art.
Not only can Esther time your espresso and craft your foam to perfection, but she can make intricate designs — sometimes even using food coloring — to bring the drink to life. While visiting the Le Méridien Mexico City, she used local inspiration to etch cactuses, wrestling masks and even the national emblem onto delicious java drinks.
Farewell For Now; But I’ll Be Back
I left for the airport with tight pants, as well as a desire to return. By hanging out with Chef Iuzzini and Esther Massdam in Mexico City, I was able to explore cuisine from the traditional to the modern, and really see how local culture can influence what we eat and drink.
If you enjoy culinary and cultural travel, Mexico City should be on your list. Sure, there are safety issues to think about (more on that below), but it’s not as dangerous as it once was. And if you use common sense you can have a really great time; on a budget, too, as even a ribeye at a nicer place like Restaurante Tamayo costs only $15 (and that’s on the high end of what you’ll pay for food!).
*This post originally appeared on Jessie on a Journey. The trip was sponsored by Le Meridien Hotels. All opinions are my own.
Le Meridien: Starting rate is $120 per night.
Currency: Mexico Peso. As of January 2017 the exchange rate was about $1 USD to $20.74 Pesos.
Airport Transfers To/From The City Center: Along with taxis, you can book a round-trip airport shuttle for $19.99 (recommended). There’s also a metro station at the airport, though this only makes sense if you’re traveling with little luggage.
- Coming in, customs lines can be very long (it took me over an hour). Just be patient and bring a book. Also, do not lose your customs card or you’ll have to pay $42. Your airline will collect this when leaving Mexico.
- Leaving was much quicker — you don’t even need to take off your shoes at security. To maximize comfort and budget, I highly recommend Priority Pass (10% off with this link). Even at the lowest tier, you’ll pay $99 per year and $29 per lounge visit (plus $29 for a guest if you have one) to have access to Wi-Fi, free food and booze, comfortable seating, showers and sometimes even spa treatments. It’s accepted at over 1,000 airports around the world, so you won’t have any issues finding a lounge that accepts your pass.
Public Transport: Public transport in Mexico City isn’t the best, and Mexico City is huge and spread out. Other than renting a car or hiring a driver guide (you can contact the tourism board for this), Mexico City has Uber (get a free ride with this link) and a bike share program called EcoBici (90 Pesos/~$4.42 USD per day; here’s a map)
Of course, you can also walk. Neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa and Juaraz, the neighborhood of Le Méridien Mexico City, are easy to explore on foot.
Safety (For Women): Along with recommended safety gear like a ROBOCOPP Personal Alarm ($6 with code “JOURNEY10”) and Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments, Mexico City has a number of women’s safety initiatives in place. There are myriad pink taxis for ladies driving the city, women-only cars on the subways and front seats on buses reserved for women, disabled and seniors. My guide also told me that men with feminist ideals wear pink to show women their support.