“No, thank you.” My sister looks skeptically at the uni roll on my plate, deciding she’s not quite ready to try the mustard yellow mound of tongue-like sea urchin gonads.
“Suit yourself,” I reply, mouth already full of the briny, buttery goodness.
It’s our second night in the posh and extremely affluent Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, where we’re spending a few days ahead of a family wedding in Cuernavaca. At the suggestion of an exceedingly talkative Uber driver we’re having dinner at the local outpost of El Japonez—a popular high-end Japanese concept with locations scattered throughout the city.
Mexico City is, despite American naiveté on the subject, an exceedingly international city. While its low-income neighborhoods are almost entirely Mexican, with a profoundly higher representation of indigenous people than high-income areas, its affluent residential and business districts are brimming with foreign residents, students and international businessmen and women. In addition, the Mexican populace (particularly in urban centers) is as fascinated with international cuisine as Americans are.
Among the diversity of the city’s dining options, the one cuisine (besides their own) the residents of Mexico can’t get enough of is Japanese. A Google Maps search for “Japanese” or “Sushi” in one of the city’s fashionable neighborhoods will yield dozens of results. Food and travel sites list the top sushi restaurants by neighborhood, some barely scratching the surface.
And so we found ourselves dining on uni, toro, and hamachi nigiri in an upscale enclave of Mexico City. The sushi was admirable, even great, though sadly short of superb. In fairness, the ultra-chic restaurant, with tropical plants crawling up and down its walls and a glass-bottom entrance overlooking a private dining room, seemed to cater more to hibachi. Half the tables were a recognizable u-shape around well seasoned and meticulously polished flat tops—a hauntingly familiar sight to anyone raised in American suburbia.
Later that night in Polanco, we discovered, in a frenzied attempt to quench a taco craving, a local chain called La Casa Del Pastor. While my heart dropped at the site of laminated menus and happy-hour specials, such fears were quelled after two rounds of the heavenly pork tacos followed by one greasy, cheesy, heart-stopper of a gringa. Gringas are flour tortillas grilled quesadilla-style, filled with cheese and pork al pastor. Popular taqueria items in Chilango country, the name is derived either from the flour tortilla’s white color or its ubiquity in Tejano cuisine.
The following day, while wandering aimlessly through the bohemian hipster colony that is La Condesa, I was stopped in my tracks by the words “tonkotsu ramen” stenciled on a concrete wall. The source of the promising and hunger-inducing words turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall sidewalk cafe called Ramen Box. Without a second thought, I asked for a table.
The noodles were firm and hearty and came in three varieties including a red chipotle blend. The tonkotsu pork broth was both rich and fragrant without the excessive fattiness some aficionados long for. While a bit of research later revealed that Mexico City is even more saturated with ramen shops than Houston and Austin, the meal remains the trip’s most pleasant and unexpected surprise.
Less surprising but equally pleasant was the city’s legendary street food. Pig snouts and ears greet passersby from windows labeled “carnitas.” Under tarped tents, elderly women fry gorditas and press tortas against greasy black comals while hordes of blue and white collar Mexicans wait in line for their midday meal.
From fresh-squeezed agua frescas downtown to boba tea in the small but charming Chinatown, the street vendors of Mexico City are as pervasive as the smog that lingers over the surrounding mountains.
For a city of 21 million—the most populated in North America—with its huddled masses, ever-congested city streets and skyline that never ends, food is both an essential part of its ethnic identity and reflective of an ever present sense of globalism.
Like Houston, Mexico City is a culinary melting pot. Unlike Houston, that multiculturalism takes a clear backseat to a centuries old culinary and cultural identity. Getting to know the city intimately means experiencing both sides of that equation.