Notes from Mexico City: Ant Larvae, Corn Smut and Truly Fine Dining

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 San Angel tacosAnt larvae is about as traditional Mexican as you can get, and more palatable with pulpy guacamole.

If you’ve never been to Mexico City, you probably have an idea of what it’s like.

You’re wrong.

Unless, that is, your notion is that it is a vibrant metropolitan city with wonderful, green city parks and lushly landscaped pedestrian boulevards; that it has rich historical sites and museums; and has world-class restaurants with creative cuisine served next to traditional fare. Some of that fare might frighten you -- ant larvae, anyone? But I'll get back to that.

Food is everywhere you walk in Mexico City, sometimes frustratingly so. Where pop-up restaurants are trendy in the U.S., they’re prevalent, everyday occurrences in Mexico. Walk down the street and you’ll see slap-dashed setups of tables, plastic stools, maybe a tarp overhead, and the all-important griddle. There’s likely to be a tortilla press where the balls of dough, pulled from a mound in a crockery bowl, are flattened to be tossed on the hot surface. If properly made with good corn, the tortillas poof up while they heat and then collapse when done. There might also be a stockpot simmering with menudo, and there will certainly be pans filled with meats and rice.

The frustrating part is that you can’t have any of this food. Not unless you live in Mexico or you’ve spent enough time in the country to inure your digestive system to the native food. “Don’t drink the water” is a cliche to be heeded, but you should also avoid street food. 

But don’t worry. There’s plenty of good food to eat in Mexico City, and some of the restaurants will have you saying, “I wish we had something like this back home.”

azul canopyThe first restaurant I visited had me saying, “This is exactly what Park Plaza Gardens should be.” On our first full day in the city, Rick and I were shown around town by a young university student named Michel whom we met through friends in Orlando. Somewhere midway through the 19 miles we walked with him, he took us to Azul Historico, a restaurant near the city cathedral.

The first thing I noticed about the dining room, an interior courtyard, was the “ceiling,” which was in fact a canopy of trees. A small grove of ficus trees had been trimmed to supply the leafy overhead. There was a retractable canvas for rainy days, but on this sunny day we could see the blue sky beyond the treetops.

The menu, from chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita, features a number of moles and pipian sauces. I selected a pipian made with pumpkin seeds that accompanied a grilled steak. The sauce was multilayered but overall rather muted. The steak was quite good, but steak is steak. Michel out ordered me with the roast duck stuffed fritters, little pockets filled with duck meat, fried, and then doused with a richly flavored dark mole that had hints of chocolate and roasted chilies.

On another day, we visited Maximo Bistrot in Colonia Roma, a comfortable walk from our guest house in Colonia Condessa. It was a beautiful evening, so we chose to sit outside at one of the sidewalk tables. Street musicians took turns working the corners, then stopping by the tables for pesos.

We were without our guide for this dinner, and the menu was not available in English. And our server’s English was on a par with our Spanish, which is to say that we were able to greet each other in his native language.

Here the food was creative and less traditionally Mexican.  Fried calamari was just like any fried calamari you can get anywhere else in the world. The grilled octopus, however, was definitely a winner, stylishly presented with slices of radishes and squash petals. The entrees of pork belly and roast duck were good, but no different than any we could get in the states. We were looking for local cuisine.

Merotoro exterior

We had a much better overall meal at Merotoro, which we had happened on while walking around our “neighborhood.” The whole front of the restaurant opens up so that it appears to be almost an open-air venue. The decor is modern and the lighting is moody.

The name translates loosely to fish and bull, so, basically surf and turf. While it is Mexican, it is of Baja California. Chef  Jair Tellez’s menu seems to do better with the seafood selections, though honestly everything I tasted was first rate. The best thing we had was a ceviche that featured big chunks of fish that had a perfect balance of citrus juices and vibrant cilantro. The octopus salad here was even better than the one the night before at Maximo, the firm cross sections of tentacles a perfect al dente and the smoky flavor dominant.

San angel courtyard

By far the best meal of the trip came on our last full day in Mexico City at San Angel Inn. That name will sound familiar to any fan of Epcot who has dined at the Mexico pavilion there. That’s also San Angel Inn, and it isn’t just coincidence -- the Epcot restaurant is an offshoot of the Mexico City entity. However, the differences are like night and day, and I mean that literally. The Disney restaurant is set in perpetual nighttime, with diners in an “outdoor” plaza under a starry sky with boats for the pavilion’s ride attraction passing in front of a pyramid.

The real San Angel Inn is nowhere near the pyramids, and there is no stream of floating tourists. It may be lovely at night, but we dined at lunch (the prominent meal of the day in Mexico) and it couldn’t have been more pleasant.

san angel tablesWe had a table outside next to the lush courtyard on what must have been the most perfect day of the year in Mexico City. The restaurant, which occupies an actual old hacienda, is certainly theme-park sized and able to handle large numbers of diners with other areas for weddings and banquets. It is first-class all the way, with several maitre d’s and captains commanding an army of well-trained servers. Tables are covered with bright blue cloths over white cloths, the napkins are crisp white linen, and margaritas are served in individual silver ice buckets. I was thoroughly taken in by the surroundings.

So when the serving captain asked if we would like to start with an appetizer of ant larvae tacos, I said, “Sure. Of course.”

Would it be better if I called it escamoles? Or insect caviar? Probably not the latter. Actually, if you want really traditional Mexican food, this is probably it. It was a delicacy of the Aztecs, and predates the Hispanic period.

And, for the record, they were quite good. They look like orzo, or maybe big pine nuts. The flavor is also slightly nutty and buttery. There is no crunch -- the texture is quite smooth. Spoon some on small, warm corn tortillas and slather with some chunky guacamole and you wouldn’t have any clue what you were eating until someone told you. And by the way, the ant larvae has a higher protein content than beef.

From ant larvae it was easy to move on to corn smut, which definitely sounds better as huitlacoche. It is a fungus that grows on the corn and it has a texture that is surprisingly similar to truffles. The flavor is earthy, and when rolled in crepes and served with a red sauce, it makes for a delicious starter.

San Angel mole

For my entree I had the chicken mole, which had the same flavor profiles as the one Michel had had a couple of days earlier. It was served over a large chicken breast and sprinkled with sesame seeds and accompanied by refried black beans on large tortilla chips and a timbale of Spanish rice. 

Michel, who joined us with his mother, Heden, had roast duckling with blackberry sauce, both poultry and sauce expertly crafted. Rick had stuffed crabs Tampico style, a creamy salad of crabmeat with a toasted topping of brushed eggs.

A trolley was brought around for dessert loaded with wonderful looking pastries. We shared some floating island (meringue is cream sauce) and some flan with fresh berries.

This was the most elegant meal we had, and the prices are sure to shock. Next to my chicken mole it read $180. Yikes! And then you realize that they use the same sign to indicate pesos. And a quick conversion reveals that the price is actually $13.61 USD.

You’ll definitely want to put San Angel House on your list when you visit Mexico City.

And for accommodations I can’t recommend the Red Tree House highly enough. It’s a small property in trendy Condessa with only a handful of rooms, though each is well appointed and clean. The staff is welcoming and engaging, and each morning a special Mexican breakfast is served along with fruit, yogurt and breads. Chicken enchiladas were served the morning we left.

The flight to Mexico City from Orlando was about the same amount of time as to New York, yet it offers a whole new world of experiences. I recommend it, even for a long-weekend getaway.

San Angel exterior

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