“You like carnitas?” asked Mario-Alberto, my taxi driver. “Yes,” I lied. “You like barbacoa?”
“Yes,” I lied again. I only had a vague notion of what those dishes were. Carne means meat, socarnitas must be something meaty?
While Mario-Alberto changed the topic to how to pick up girls in English, I dwelt on my fabrications. I was in Mexico City on vacation. Why hadn’t I tried barbacoa (meat slow cooked over an open fire or more traditionally in a hole dug in the ground covered with leaves), and carnitas (a simple dish made from small bits or shreds of well browned pork)?
“Señor? Where do you like to eat carnitas and barbacoa?”
“Very good restaurant, Arroyo. In colonia Tlalpan. Is expensive, pero, is good.”
Mario-Alberto writes down the address while driving, making me wonder if I will even live to seeArroyo — or any other restaurant.
Most guidebooks offer the same restaurant advice: each stylish boîte more cleverly designed than the next. If you are lucky, you might pick something authentic off the list. But even those restaurants are full of tourists trying to discover the “real Mexico.” So I started asking Mexicans: where do they find true sabor(taste) of Mexico?
My hostess, Helen, a good friend and intrepid traveler herself, was living in Mexico City for work. We decided to rendezvous there, since I’d never been to Mexico’s capital city before and Helen is a gifted guide.
Now, Helen and I are zooming toward the southern outskirts of the city, passing what looks like a straight-from-Cleveland mall and an unkempt Alcohólicos Anónimos (Alcoholics Anonymous) bureau.
Once we turn on to Avenida Insurgentes Sur, said to be the longest avenue in Central America with a length of 18 miles (28.8 km), things begin to look up.
It’s obvious from the tree-lined streets and smooth pavement that the government has poured money into Tlalpan, the largest of the 16 boroughs into which Mexico City is divided. Revelers from a nearby rodeo cram the pyramid of steps to Arroyo restaurant, which looks like a Mexican theme park.
Nine dining rooms, some of them open air, can hold 2,200 hungry patrons. There is a play area for piñata parties, a cockfighting pit and a mechanical bull, even a bullring. No surprise that Arroyo is thought to be the world’s largest single Mexican restaurant.
Rainbow-colored papel picado banners made from perforated paper hang from the restaurant ceiling, and giant chicharrón (pork skin) fryer stations dot the tile floor. Roving mariachi bands and caricaturists go table to table, and small children take over the stage area. Helen and I are dwarfed by long rectangular tables of 12, 16, 20 people out with their families for some tequila and barbacoa-fueled revelry.
The sopes, little circles of fried maize-based dough piled with refried beans, cheese, salsa, chicken and lettuce, are freakishly good. Arroyo’s barbacoa, is served with stewed young stem segments of the prickly pear cactus, called nopales, and corn tortillas. It has a bit of a wild flavor. The meat falls off the bone.
Virginia Lopez, a manager, comes to speak with us. Spanish deficiencies lead to a surreal moment where Helen, Virginia and I are all mooing and baaing at one another. For the next two days, we think we’ve eaten goat. Finally we figure out that the word Virginia used,carnero, means ram — a male sheep with all its manhood intact.
In the famous open-air market in the central borough of Coyoacán, I spot a tiny tent filled with handmade jewelry, including leather bracelets and evil-eye protectors. The two women in the booth look as different as night and day, so it surprises me when they say they are sisters.
Eugenia López-Garza has bleached blond braided pigtails à la Pippi Longstocking and wears a pair of red-rimmed glasses that look like a giant version of talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael’s specs. Her older sister, Adriana López-Garza, has long flowing dark hair, deep almond eyes and claw-like nails that clutch a cigarette.
Eugenia says her favorite place to eat nearby is thetaquería El Tizoncito.
El Tizoncito is actually a chain, owned by the Escalante family for the past 42 years. Though they have eight taquerías and six franchises, only a few trusted people know the family recipe for the seasonings in their trademark taco al pastor (sheperd style).
These are made from a giant hunk of seasoned pork, revolving upright around a rotisserie like Greek gyros or Shawarma spit-grilled meat brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico — except here it is grilled with a chunk of pineapple atop, and an onion underneath. The meat is then sliced off along with little bits of onion and pineapple onto corn tortillas, served with cilantro and salsas.
El Tizoncito sells them in pairs, but two aren’t enough. I had about six of them (three plates!), partly because they were so tasty and partly because I lack willpower when it comes to excellent tacos.
The open-air restaurant features high, rectangular tables under a canopy, without walls or bulky window frames to obstruct the fabulous people-watching. Since it was chilly, Helen and I positioned ourselves next to the vertical rotisserie called trompo (spinning top). Its campfire-like qualities and delicious roasted aroma easily made up for the restaurant’s plainness.
A beautiful sandwich shop manager who looked like the flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes recommended El Cardenal.
There are three locations. We try the one overlooking the city’s central zócalo square in Calle de Palma 23. We admire the 70s décor: stained glass windows and dark wood spiral staircases against cream-colored walls. Two musicians are serenading the crowd. And there is a crowd.
Though the food is purposefully homey, the service seems the opposite. Staff run around with walkie-talkies and headsets, barking orders. An elevator takes diners upstairs, or to the basement. It all feels a bit Big Brotherish.
Maybe that’s why it’s so popular with Mexico’s political elite. El Cardenal is where President Felipe Calderon and his predecessor Vicente Fox have eaten breakfast. Locals say the two broke bread here at this location a few days before the July 2006 presidential election.
When the media hordes descended upon, Fox said all he knew was that he loved the restaurant’s hot chocolate, conchas (shell-shaped pastries that taste like madeleines) and nata, the creamy layer of fat that rises to the top of whole milk.
El Cardenal’s founders, Doña Oliva Garizurieta and Señor Jesus Briz, married and came to Mexico City in the late 1960s, to revive native Mexican, pre-Spanish cooking.
I tasted other excellent dishes, like huevos revueltos(scrambled eggs), served with black beans, corn tortillas and roasted tomato salsa. But the nata and the conchas are what most patrons (and Mexican presidents, evidently) come for.
Mixed with almond paste and eaten with a spoon, natatasted like English clotted cream gone bad, and looked like baby spit-up. We tried hard to like it, but our gringa taste buds prevented us.
“In Mexico, we have a special relationship with food,” said Tito Briz, son of the owners. “Our restaurant is trying to rescue the cooking of the ancients.”
If You Go
Sarah Wolff is a sub-editor at the Yemen Times newspaper in Sana’a, Yemen. She also contributes to Saveur magazine, the New York Resident and GoNomad.com.