How do you sift through Mexico City’s roughly 57,000 places to eat — more than twice as many as there are in New York City — and choose the most essential dishes? “In a city like Mexico City, how do you narrow it down? It’s insane. The exercise is absurd to begin with,” says Gabriela Cámara, the chef and owner of Contramar and three other restaurants in the Mexican capital, at the outset of the video conversation I’d arranged to do just that: identify the specific meals or bites (or drinks) that best represent the metropolis’s formidable food scene right now. Nonetheless, Cámara was up for the challenge, as were the four other panelists I’d convened, all of whom live in Mexico City either year-round or part time: Ana Dolores, the chef and owner of Esquina Común restaurant in the Condesa neighborhood; Anais Martinez, who founded the Curious Mexican, a street-food tour company, and recently opened Manada, an all-Mexican cocktail and natural wine bar in Narvarte; the food writer Alonso Ruvalcaba, the author of the guide “24 Horas de Comida en la Ciudad de México” (2018); and Carla Valdivia Nakatani, T Magazine’s art director, who splits her time between Manhattan and Mexico City, where she co-owns a boutique in Roma. Before we met as a group, I’d asked each participant to nominate around 10 dishes, including a sweet and a drink, from 10 different spots, ranging from fine-dining restaurants to street carts and market stalls. Then we spent two hours and several subsequent emails and phone calls debating our choices, trying to whittle down the 50-plus nominations to 25 in order to produce a list like those in the ongoing T 25 series devoted to food in Paris and in New York.
As often happens with these types of endeavors, that initial longer list for Mexico City had just a few duplicate dishes (the green mole quesadilla from Jenni’s and the date pie from Al-Andalus), reflecting not just the panelists’ varied tastes but their individual experiences eating across the gargantuan city, home to some 22 million people in the greater metropolitan area. But the panel did share one obvious preference: They overwhelmingly favored classics, in terms of both the food and the purveyor — time-honored recipes rigorously used at taquerias, cantinas, street stands and the like — over gastronomic wizardry. Only three nontraditional restaurants ultimately made the cut (although Cámara’s Contramar received three nominations for various dishes — the famed tuna tostada among them — before I reminded the panelists that their own restaurants were excluded). When I asked the group why they collectively gravitated to informal, mostly older spots, even as the city seemed awash in fashionable new restaurants these days, the consensus was that many of the newcomers lacked originality (“They all seem the same. Or weirdly French,” says Valdivia Nakatani) and appeared designed to appeal to the recent stampede of expats. And for these locals, at least, the city owes much of its culinary greatness to the people safeguarding the dishes that have been passed down for generations, whether those rooted in pre-Hispanic traditions or those inherited from the immigrants who arrived in Mexico decades ago. Nostalgia came up a lot in our conversation, but that’s not to say that innovation was overlooked entirely.
The biggest challenge was deciding which of the seemingly infinite varieties of tacos to include. Instead of eliminating choices, more were added; any suggestion of paring down was met with good-natured groans. In the end, after several subsequent emails and phone calls, we finally reached a compromise and agreed to feature just five in the final list, which appears in unranked alphabetical order below. But no list of this nature can please everyone. Consider it an inspiration to make your own, and you’ll see just how absurd and deeply gratifying an exercise it can be. — Deborah Dunn