So maybe I'm one of the few people on the planet who finds Mexico City enchanting. Yes, I've heard it all: bad air, worrisome water, too much traffic and too many people. Even so, I can see the beauty and the magic in a big (make that very big) city which just keeps humming along, a place where you can eat very well, visit world-class museums and get a history, art and science lesson rolled into one several times a day. Granted, all of this education and stimulation requires patience, and a healthy sense of humor doesn't hurt. On a recent foray into el mostro ("the monster" -- they really do call it that, which proves that Mexico City's residents have a sense of humor), I invite my friend Lucia from Texas, a gal whose sense of humor got us through Las Vegas in inimitable style. The purpose of my visit is to sample restaurants, and I could use a second opinion. "Hey, in a city of twenty million," I tell her, "what's two more?" Lucia must feel the same way, since she invites her husband along, making for three more people in the valley of the Aztecs. No sooner do I land at the airport than my cabbie tells me that there are twenty-two million people living in Mexico City, which makes for an instant math lesson: the locals are gaining on the tourists by an astounding percentage. I don't really do the math, since I'm on vacation. Our time in Mexico City goes something like this:
As I head out of the Aeropuerto Benito Juarez to catch a cab into the city center, a sudden downpour sends rivers of water rushing into the terminal building. Out of nowhere, a dozen workers wielding industrial-size brooms start feverishly pushing back the raging tide. I feel like I'm in a Fellini film -- this is so surreal. Thankfully, it stops raining after about five minutes and the building is saved, as are my sandals.
I rendezvous with my friends Lucia and Kent at our hotel, the Sheraton Maria Isabel. It's a big, blocky building located on the Glorieta del Angel, which might be Mexico City's prettiest traffic circle, graced at its center by a monolith topped with a golden angel. Our hotel is also next door to the American Embassy, which provides a measure of comfort, Teheran notwithstanding. One of the nicest things about the Sheraton Maria Isabel is that it's always buzzing with activity: you feel a part of something even if your not. On this particular visit, there is an IMSS convention at the hotel. IMSS is the Mexican version of the U.S. Social Security Administration, and if the IMSS folks are staying at the Sheraton, their social security system must be in much better shape than ours.
We opt to have dinner on our first night in Mexico City at Los Danzantes, a nouvelle Mexican restaurant on tree-lined Plaza Coyoacan. Frida and Diego used to live near the Plaza Coyoacan, so it's a pretty hip part of town. The chef at Los Danzantes, Gabriel O'Farrill, is a casual friend of mine, so I've called ahead to tell him we're coming. Once we're seated at a table, our waiter comes over and announces that the chef has prepared a special dish for me. "It's robalo," the waiter says. "Uh, what's that?" I ask, since my considerable Spanish vocabulary does not include this word. "It's fish," he tells me, and I look quizzically at Lucia and Kent to see if they can provide any clues. "Humm, ROW-buh-low," I repeat, which prompts the waiter to correct me. "Ro-BAAH-lo," he says firmly. At least I can now pronounce the mystery fish. I proceed to order it as well, since it has, after all, been prepared especially for me. This fish story gets my friends Lucia and Kent to chuckling. "Gee, this guy made a special dish just for you?" Lucia giggles. "What's going on here?" "Nothing," I reply, and chalk it up to a brand of Mexican hospitality that's very nice to see.
Our meal begins with yet another lesson, this one on mescal. The menu at Los Danzantes lists at least fifty different tequilas and mescals, and we don't really know the difference between these two liquors. The maitre `d, Vincenzo, clears things up for us. It turns out that true mescal comes from Oaxaca state and from a different variety of the agave cactus plant than tequila. Vincenzo even has photos to show us, pictures of some rather large, pineapple-looking fruit which possess this nectar of the Gods. Our new best friend proffers two tequilas and a mescal for our sampling pleasure. The mescal has apparently been aged the longest but it also has a strangely fishy smell. I can't stand it, and neither can Lucia. Kent laps it up, which leads us to more tales of men and fish, or at least fishy smells. Lucia and I settle for the more pedestrian tequilas as we await our meal.
Lucia's appetizer is a variation on an insalata caprese which comes with the most perfect ruby-red tomatoes we've ever seen, smelled or tasted. Everything we eat is a marvel. Finally the robalo arrives, and we are speechless at the presentation. The chef has braided the fish. There are two long, even braids of white fish on either side of my plate. In the middle is a red sauce made with chile guajillo which is dotted with fresh cheese and sprigs of broccoli. Sliced potatoes form an arc at the top of the plate, a halo of sorts on this angelic dish. In the ultimate display of tourist sentimentality, I photograph my fish. Gabriel the chef suddenly appears and asks me if I like my dish. I'm speechless, an unusual condition for me, but I finally manage to say "it's beautiful." Thinking quickly, I add "I think I have a name for this dish. How about `Robalo a la Cubanita?'" This takes my Cuban heritage into account, something I seldom get to flaunt. "That sounds great to me," Gabriel says, and I proceed to devour the tasty fish. I still don't know what I'm eating, but it no longer matters.
Our meal ends with a second mescal lesson, thanks to the owners of Los Danzantes, the brothers Gustavo and Eduardo Munoz-Castillo. There are six brothers in all, and each seems to be in a different part of the food and restaurant business -- one brother grows coffee while another is producing mescal. Eduardo proceeds to tell us that the secret of a good mescal is the ageing process, and that he has recently purchased a slew of French oak barrels in order to age his own. He also happens to have a couple of bottles of this stuff on hand and lets us sample some. Indeed, Eduardo has created the perfect mescal, a smooth sensation which rivals the finest brandies in taste and pleasure. Kent pleads for the opportunity to buy a few bottles but, alas, there isn't enough on hand. We head back to the Sheraton after extracting a promise from Eduardo to let us tour his mescal facility the next time we're in Oaxaca.
As befits an urban adventure, I get Lucia and Kent to agree to take a local cab ride with me, no small feat in Mexico City, where you need a cheat sheet to get you through the layers of taxi bureaucracy. First there are taxis autorizados, which are "authorized" taxis you can catch at the airport or at a hotel. These tend to be the nicest ride in town, and if you catch one of these at an upscale hotel, you could be cruising in a Town Car. Next is a taxi de sitio, which is a cab you call for, much like phoning Yellow Cab in your hometown. Further down the food chain is a plain ol' taxi, VW bugs which have a ranking system of their own: some of these cabs have medallions while others are simply gypsy cabs.
We flag down the first taxi we see and jump in. I do the talking, politely asking our cab driver to take us to Sanborns de los Azulejos, a breakfast spot in the historic district. As we wend our way down the Paseo de la Reforma, which is lined with majestic old buildings, I take the opportunity to point out a few of the sites to Lucia and Kent. This prompts our cab driver to bark "what do you think you are, A TOUR GUIDE?" I don't know if I'm breaking taxi rules by offering a running commentary on the city's highlights, so I decide to shut up. Lucia and Kent are mum as well, and we head the rest of the way in silence. When we finally get to our destination, I pay the cab driver. And tip him to boot.
Sanborns de los Azulejos is a centuries-old manse which is covered with beautiful blue and white tilework. Legend has it that a prodigal son built this house for his new bride on a dare from his dad, who had said to him "you good-for-nothing, you'll NEVER have a house of tiles!" In your face, dad. Nowadays, the rest of us get to eat our meals in this opulent home, a member of the Sanborns restaurant chain. Duly fortified, we head down narrow Avenida Madero on our way to the zocalo, Mexico City's main square as well as the historic heart of the city. On the way, we stop in at a small church where mass is in session. Lucia and I are quickly captivated by a large, velvet-covered board which is covered with milagros, tiny brass charms in the shape of an arm or a leg or a pair of eyes, even a heart, a house or a truck. These delicate "miracles" are offered by the faithful along with a multitude of prayers in the hopes of gaining a cure or some other good fortune. Lucia and I approach the milagros from an artistic perspective and immediately think of several good uses for these nifty charms. We try to buy some while in the church, but there don't appear to be any for sale.
By this point, Lucia is eager to learn a few words of Spanish, rather a few key words to add to her basic repertoire. She picks up on the fact that I seem to end every sentence with "muy amable," which translates to "very kind of you." "But when should I use it?" she asks. "All the time," I reply. "You get a lot of mileage out of it." "Aah, muy amable," she answers.
The zocalo proves to be the urban adventure I expected, a mishmash of trinket vendors, demonstrators and assorted folks out to see some of the oldest sights in the city. The beauty of the zocalo is its sheer size: this square seems to go on forever. The flag which stands sentinel over the square would probably cover half a city block. As you approach the zocalo from Avenida Madero, the cathedral is on your left and the Palacio Nacional is directly in front of you. We visit the National Palace first, a graceful government building which is greatly enhanced by the Diego Rivera murals along the staircase leading to the second floor. Keen observer that he was, Rivera had an uncanny ability to mythify his heroes and demonize his foes. His mammoth mural detailing the struggles of his countrymen is inspirational in a "here's mud in your eye" sort of way.
As a sobering follow-up to Fun with Diego, we visit the cathedral next door, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. The cathedral is a maze of nooks and prayer chambers which is filled with statuary in assorted colors, shapes and sizes, much of it gilded to the hilt. A lot of it is hard to see, though, since the cathedral is also filled with scaffolding. As we wend our way through, we hear what sounds like a sermon blaring through a speaker system, but we can't find the source of this monologue. Finally, we reach the front of the cathedral, where a priest is addressing a small assemblage on the intricacies of the retablo behind the altar. We listen in on this art lesson for a few minutes before claustrophobia starts to set in. On our way back through the cathedral, I notice a sign with a number of small drawings on it. The sign reads "en caso de temblor," and further below, "en caso de incendio." I motion to Kent and let him know that the cathedral offers explicit directions on what to do in case of earthquake or fire, in that order. We take another look at the scaffolding all around us and make a beeline for the door. Lucia stops to observe the cathedral's collection of milagros with no impending sense of doom.
Once safely outside, we head up Avenida Cinco de Mayo and pop into the National Pawn Shop, which is probably the biggest discount jewelry shop you'll ever see. The place is several stories high and takes up an entire city block. From busy Cinco de Mayo, you enter a series of rooms replete with Rolex watches and heavy gold chains. If you keep walking, you'll make it to the real action: cavernous rooms filled with saddened faces waiting for their turn to make a buck off their most precious possessions. Not having the heart for this, we head back to the Sheraton.
Our plans for this evening consist of a visit to Papalote, the Children's Museum, along with a progressive dinner at two restaurants, one which I know and one which I don't. Papalote is at the top of Lucia's Mexico City list, since it's said to be one of the best children's museums in the world and is housed in a structure built specifically for this purpose. Lucia's call turns out to be on the money, because Papalote (which translates to "butterfly" in Nahuatl and "kite" in Spanish) is a flight of fancy. Teenagers clad in green smocks are at virtually every exhibit, ready to both teach and play. You can climb on a bed of nails, its prickly points tickling but never really pinching. In another room you can make bubbles bigger than you, while a trick mirror around the corner nearly splits you in two. Thursday nights at Papalote are a tip o'the cap to big kids, since most of the younger enthusiasts are safely tucked in at home. Our invigorating play date makes us hungry, so we head off to dinner.
First stop on the progressive dinner is at Puras Habas, a name which translates to "pure fava beans." It rhymes in Spanish, which makes it sound much better. This restaurant is the home of my favorite dish in Mexico City, the Anacondesa, a leek and onion tart which positively melts in your mouth. We order the tart of my dreams along with a couple of other appetizers, and food critics that we are, we start to dissect the various ingredients in our midst. We're fairly sure of the presence of anise and dill, but not quite as sure about a third ingredient. Asking our waiter brings about a quizzical stare and a summons of the owner to help solve this mystery. "It's eneldo," she tells me, yet another word which is not in my Spanish vocabulary. We pick through our food in order to find a suitable example of both eneldo and dill. Still unclear on what we're eating, the owner calls a friend who is in possession of an English/Spanish dictionary. She returns to our table and proclaims "it's fennel seed!" We cheer our victory and finish our food.
Our second stop is at Ligaya, a restaurant I know nothing about other than what I read in a small item in Spanish Vogue about a year ago and which I have been hanging on to ever since, mainly because the photos of the restaurant were so striking. As we walk into Ligaya, it's as pretty as a picture, but things get a little fuzzy when we're approached by a kid in a "Berkeley" t-shirt, jeans and Converse sneakers. This kid is the maitre `d. He escorts us to a table at the back of the dining room, near a wall draped in ivy and fronted by a series of leafy trees. Most of the sleek tables are filled with barely-twenty-something diners who must be here thanks to daddy's gold card. Lucia, Kent and I can't quite figure this place out, but we order anyway. Soon thereafter, a woman comes to greet us who says she is the owner and the chef. She is wearing a tailored brown pantsuit. I ask her if she's doing the cooking tonight. "No," she calmly replies, "I do the prep in the afternoon and let the others do the cooking at night. My role is more of menu creation." The owner/chef is named Salome Alvarez, which confuses me since when I had called for a reservation earlier that afternoon, I had spoken with a woman named Gonzalo Serrano who said she was the owner. I mention to Lucia that I vaguely recall my magazine clip as saying that the architects for the restaurant were the owners. "Everyone in Mexico is an architect," I continue. "There are far more architects here than there are projects for them." "Well, maybe the owners here are partners with the architects," Lucia astutely surmises, seizing on one of my key Mexico tenets: everyone in Mexico is either an hermano, socio or arquitecto, meaning brother, partner or architect. "Well," I say, "maybe Salome's brothers are the architects involved in this restaurant, and they are her partners. Or maybe the woman who answered the phone this afternoon is Salome's partner." "Or," Lucia adds, "the woman on the phone could be the architect." We marvel at the Six Degrees of Separation which happily coexist in Mexico and proceed to eat our meal, which is good but not memorable. Salome comes over to ask us what we thought of the food and we smile politely. She tries to rally by telling us that her sherbets are the best in town, a fresh-fruit confection which will leave us sated and elated. We order her top three choices and find them to be as good as advertised. On our way out, we say good-bye to the t-shirt-clad kid and wonder if he is a partner as well.
Today is market day in Toluca, a mini-metropolis about an hour's drive from Mexico City. We've arranged for Gabriel the chef to give us a tour of the mercado, a rambling marketplace which is a combination food hall/Meximart for the masses. Kent wakes up with a touch of Moctezuma's revenge, so he decides to hang back while Lucia and I partake of this (sub)urban adventure.
Gabriel pick us up at the Sheraton at 9:53 AM, or seven minutes before the expected time of 10 AM. This makes Gabriel one of only two people in Mexico City who can be counted on to arrive on time (the other is my friend Lucy). Lucia and I hop into his shiny red sedan and head west to Toluca. The ride gives Lucia ample time to read up on the virtues of this market as detailed by Suzy Gershman in her shop-till-you-drop tome. Lucia also decides to practice her Spanish. "If you learn twenty new words a day," I tell her, "that will be a hundred and forty new words in a week. That's real progress." "Okay, I have a question," she says. "What is the difference between "permiso" and "disculpe?" "Good question," I say. "Permiso is more like `excuse me' or `may I,' while disculpe is kind of like `I'm sorry, forgive me.' Why were you wondering?" "Well," Lucia notes, "I feel like I'm always getting them wrong." Lucia mulls this new information over and then announces what she'll say at the market: "Disculpe, pero no soy turista!" Gabriel laughs at this stroke of bravado on Lucia's part, as do I.
As we exit the freeway and pull into downtown Toluca, the maze of streets is overwhelming. We look for signs directing us to the market, but to no avail. At this point, Gabriel slows down, lowers his window, stops a pedestrian and asks directions. Lucia and I stare at each other in disbelief, knowing exactly what the other is thinking: we have never seen a man ask for directions. Gabriel is not only prompt, he is sensible. And he can cook.
We finally make it to the market, which is next to the main bus terminal and across the street from a new Wal-Mart. The market is an indoor/outdoor affair which stretches as far as the eye can see and is chockablock with people cooking, eating, laughing and selling. Tiny stalls are filled to the rafters with toys, pots, bags of chilies, barrels of beans and assorted other gadgets and gizmos. The best action, though, is in a large open space where food vendors are busy selling everything from brightly-colored fruit to golden fish and swirly sausage. Every vendor greets us with "que va a llevar?" or "what will you take?" Lucia's disclaimer of not being a tourist would fall on deaf ears here as we are easily the only non-Mexicans in sight. Even so, everyone is incredibly kind and helpful to us, including Gabriel, who patiently explains the many food items we don't recognize. "These are capulines," he tells us, describing something that looks suspiciously like a cherry. "No son cerezas?" I ask, convinced they must be cherries. "No," he insists, "son capulines." He's the chef, and Mexican at that, so I let it go. A few stalls later, Gabriel points out "nopales con charales," which are prickly-pear cactus paddles mixed in with tiny, crispy-fried river fish. I would never dream of eating this, but I love the rhyming name and whisper it as a sort of mantra as we walk through the market. Next unique food item is "moronga," which is, in a word, blood. Lucia and I don't even ask its purpose and keep walking. Throughout this food hall, people are busy chopping, frying, hawking and eating. One elderly woman sits in front of three colorful pails, each holding a different-colored powder. "That's mole, atole and atole de pinole," Gabriel tells us. Again, the names rhyme, which is making this market great fun for me. "You know, a lot of these people are really old," Gabriel continues. "Many of these people are over a hundred years old. They tend to live forever out here, and it's probably because they eat such a healthy diet." Gabriel may be right, because the creased, tanned faces on the hunched and slender bodies do look awfully old. I wonder what moronga has to do with it all.
We buy some fresh-squeezed orange juice on our way out and work our way through the crowded streets, which are choked with buses, people and dogs. Lucia takes the lead and weaves through this sea of humanity, at one point coming face-to-face with a jam-packed bus. She nonchalantly puts her hand up palm-first in the universal signal of "stop." Gabriel and I look at each other and start to laugh. Surprisingly, the bus stops. I walk up to Lucia and suggest that this tactic might not be such a good idea in Mexico. We manage to make it to Gabriel's car in one piece and pile in for the ride home.
On the way back to Mexico City, Lucia decides to pick Gabriel's brain. "What's the going rate for a car loan here?" she asks. "Well," he says, "you can't really get one. You have to pay for the car outright or agree to pay for it in six or twelve installments." "And how about a mortgage loan?" Lucia continues. "Well, you can't really get one of those either," Gabriel notes. "The banks don't want to lend anyone money. If they did lend you money for a house, you'd have to have plenty of other collateral. Even then, it would probably be around 30%." Lucia can't get her hands around this information and probes further. "Well is the middle-class coming back?" she asks. "There is no middle-class in Mexico," Gabriel tells us matter-of-factly. "Think of it this way," he says. "There are five classes in Mexico. The first class are les miserables, the people who really have no hope. Second are the lower class, and third are the lower-middle class. Fourth are the upper-middle class and fifth are the very rich." We proceed to engage in a spirited discussion of the plight of the "ones" versus the demands of the "fours" and "fives." By the time we arrive in Mexico City, we still haven't solved the country's economic crisis, but we feel as though we understand it better.
Lucia and I invite Gabriel into the Sheraton's Lobby Bar for a quick thank-you drink. This gives us an opportunity to fill him in on our activities of the past 48 hours, including our adventure with the socially-inept taxi driver. "Oh," Gabriel says, "I forgot to tell you about two other classes in the Mexican society. Minus-ones are taxi drivers and minus-twos are les miserables taxi drivers. You must have had a minus-two." We all share a laugh and I, for one, marvel at Gabriel's ability to laugh both at and with his countrymen.
Our evening meal is at Las Flores del Mal, a beautiful restaurant in Mexico City's elegant Roma neighborhood. I've been meaning to eat at this restaurant during my last few visits to the capital, and finally get my chance on this Friday night. The dining room's most outstanding feature is the ceiling, a marvel of woodwork which is both intricate and colorful. Lucia and I (sans Kent) are seated at a table directly in front of a makeshift stage. We notice that TV cameras are positioned at either side of the room and wonder what all the fuss is about. Midway through our meal, we get the answer: a flamenco show is on tap this evening, and Televisa is here to film it. The show begins as our entrees arrive. The frenzied stomping a mere foot from our table makes our bodies vibrate as we try to eat. Somehow, we survive and order dessert. At this point, the senorita in red steps down from the stage and extends a hand to me, inviting me up on stage. I squirm momentarily, but get up once Lucia commands me to "go!" Front and center, I do my best at baile Flamenco and even have some fun in the process. My interlude as a dancer is mercifully short, and I return to my table just in time for dessert. "You were great!" Lucia tells me, as any dear old friend would.
On the cab ride back to our hotel, we comment on the crowd at Las Flores del Mal. "Fours, I think, but there were definitely a few fives," Lucia says. I have to agree.
After a whirlwind tour of Mexico City we sneak away to Huatulco, an idyllic beach resort in southern Mexico, for a few days of sun and play. Our destination is the Hotel Quinta Real, a luxe property opened this past winter. During a tour of the property courtesy of assistant general manager German Salazar, we learn the following information:
"The architects for the property are two brothers, Ricardo and Roberto Elias Elias, who are based in Guadalajara. They are also partners in the Quinta Real hotel chain."
I did not make this up.