We rouse to the glass doors of the bathroom rattling loudly. As the fog of sleep starts to fade, I begin to notice things—dogs outside barking in distress, a chandelier swaying to and fro overhead, the feeling of the floor moving beneath my feet when I stand. A short time later, the swaying subsides, the barking is silenced, the heart rate decreases, but I doubt the memory will ever fade. It’s difficult to imagine a vacation having a more memorable end to day one.
On September 7th 2017, at about 11:49 pm, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake was detected just off of the coast of Chiapas in Mexico, about 600 miles southeast of Ciudad de Mexico. That distance wasn’t sufficient enough to prevent it from reaching 86 Tennyson in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City where a beautifully restored Baroque Revival 40s mansion is situated on a serene, tree-lined street. It’s where we had just laid our heads for night one of a three-day stay.
The first thing we notice about CDMX is that cabs are cheap. Like really cheap. This will serve us well as it’s a huge city and we’ve got a lot to see. The roughly $14, 35-minute ride seems like a mistake when compared to your average NYC fare. Pug Seal Tennyson announces itself with rich, deep, royal blue tones punctuated by ornate, decorative sculptural elements. It was a mansion on a quiet neighborhood street in its former life and thus feels very much like approaching a home instead of a hotel. We drop our bags and down a cup of house-made café de olla, a coffee brewed with cinnamon and piloncillo, a type of unrefined sugar. It’s magical and my hope is no one at the hotel will judge me for how many cups I intend to drink over the next few days.
Tacos are needed. Immediately. Los Panchos, a nugget of knowledge bestowed by the Bon Appétit city guide is first up. The tacos are no-frills, served in a styrofoam container and visually unremarkable, but we’re not here for presentation. The carnitas taco is ridiculous and sets us straight to continue on.
Stuffed with food, it’s time to hydrate. Fifty Mils is located on the ground level of the Four Seasons hotel with patio seating set amidst lush greenery and flowers. I’d been researching good cocktail spots, and while many recommend Licoreria Limantour, I’d heard the drinks at Fifty Mils were adventurous and tasty. The menu is a perfect-bound book replete with glossy, well-composed photography. Ingredients include ants as well as fat-washed items. This is the place. My wife orders something that looks more like sculpture and I get a Billy the Kid, which is a bourbon-based cocktail with caramel tea, saffron, cinnamon syrup, lemon, angostura bitters and salt. It’s served in a mug with a handle on a charred plank of what I presume is a bourbon barrel stave. They take presentation seriously. The drinks are incredibly delicious and the courtyard setting is convincing, so we opt to stay for another round. Hey, we’re on vacation. We exit and wander around a few of the adjacent neighborhoods, mostly La Condesa, soaking in the sights and sounds of the city, a slight floaty-eyed buzz helping navigate the streets.
Chef’s Table found its way into our Netflix queue some time ago, and ever since, a visit to Pujol has felt imperative. Luckily, we scored a reservation on night one and began making our way over shortly after sundown.
You’d be forgiven for walking past it and not noticing. Pujol is situated on a residential street and looks like a beautiful mid-century modern home, which is a feeling that continues once inside. As you walk in, a small waiting area is to the right, reminiscent of a cozy living room setting where friends might enjoy a cocktail before a more formal dinner. There’s a bureau snug to one wall, a small mirror at eye level above. The slatted-wood ceiling looks straight out of a Frank Lloyd Wright home. Once seated, we eagerly choose our plates, making sure to confer with each other to avoid doubling up on a plate—we need to maximize what we try.
The street snacks are first, something we’d looked forward to and could barely contain our excitement when it reached our table. Enrique Olvera's take on elote—grilled corn, slathered in a spicy mayo with chilis and chicatanas—arrived in a hollowed gourd. The juxtaposition of simple street food being served in a Michelin-starred restaurant is stirring. Over the course of a few hours, we work our way through to the end of the meal and the thing we’d most looked forward to—the final course of Mole Madre. Two different color moles, arranged in concentric circles, are placed before us on a gleaming white plate. Olvera utilizes a solera method to keep his mole alive, building and layering flavor over time. The menu states that the older of the two has reached 1,377 days of age. The audacity to simply serve mole, and nothing more, on a plate still impresses me. A bucket list restaurant now ticked, we shuffle back to the mansion, not knowing we’d wake in a few hours in the most unsettling of ways.
The next couple of days are spent squeezing in all we can, even with logistics working against us. We sip cortados perched outside a service window at Casa Cardinal in Roma Norte. Further south in the Coyoácan neighborhood we visit the previous home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Museo Frida Kahlo is a fascinating step back in time. Strolling through the house and gardens, you can almost imagine the two artists’ lives just inside the tell-tale cobalt blue walls. When leaving, a tucked-away collection of food stalls under a major roadway presents itself. Of course we stop. Three tacos from Super Tacos Chupacabras later, we plot our next move. Mercado de San Juan is one of CDMX’s oldest markets. There’s a wealth of foods for sale, including displays of meat that are far too authentic and unflinching to ever fly in the States. The stall keepers are friendly and proud and each offers two things: a sample and a smile. They seem humble and happy which is quite refreshing to witness. My wife speaks Spanish fluently and I get the sense they appreciate her ability to connect with them.
Further food excursions include Pehüa in trendy Condesa as well as Contramar, which offers a fish taco prepared al pastor and it’s one of the most insanely delicious things I try on the trip. Oh and there’s a second night at Pujol, only this time it’s spent in the side yard noshing on various cheeses and washing them down with mezcal cocktails while fire pits stave off the cool evening air. On recommendation from a friend, we venture to San Ángel for El Bazaar Sábado, a large outdoor market that surrounds and meanders away from Plaza San Jacinto. Wandering through the serpentine paths created by stalls, we touch textiles and admire art. My wife stops to purchase a handwoven tassel that now hangs from her handbag.
On our final day, we taxi over to Mercado El 100, an all-organic, open-air market that sets up every Sunday. The name is not accidental—all items available at the market are sourced from within 100 miles of Mexico City. The morning is filled trying fresh, blue corn tortillas and devouring a trio of vegetarian tacos for breakfast. They’re stuffed with mushrooms, cactus and other plant-derived fillings. They’re savory, delicious and incredibly filling.
Back at the hotel, departure is imminent. I down a final cafe de olla and we wait in the front yard for our taxi. While our time was short, we packed in as much we could. We observed a city steeped in ancient culture while also embracing modernity. Our dining ranged from inexpensive, delicious street tacos to a three hour michelin-starred experience. We board our plane knowing CDMX is a city we need to return to. It’s one of those places you leave thinking “I want to do it all again.” Well, almost all of it. If we could eliminate the earthquake portion next time, I think we’d be perfectly fine with that.