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Mexico City: eats, drinks and markets

Obviously, one of our main reasons for visiting Mexico was for the food. London has some good Mexican places but I was really interested to see how the real stuff compares – and what actually constitutes a real Mexican dish and which are fake exports. I’m looking at you, burritos. In general we ate really well, almost always going for Mexican food (not that there is that much foreign food around anyway – mostly Italian, Argentinian or American places) and we tried the whole gamut from 50p streetside tacos to a high-end tasting menu at supposedly the best restaurant in Mexico City. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t hard at all to find vegetarian options nearly everywhere – and honestly, they looked a heck of a lot more appealing than a lot of the meat!

Mexico City

Breakfast is a fun meal. You can go for pastries and coffee at one of the many bakeries around (Mexicans seem to love pastries and sweet breads – pan dulce) or go bigger and local with some huevos smothered in salsa, rancheros or chilaquiles style. We had a great coffee shop called Chiquitito around the corner from our Airbnb in Condesa, where we stopped for cortados, yogurt and croissants on a couple of days. We had a good Mexican style breakfast up the road at El Pendula, a cosy bookshop come cafe.

Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

Lunch is generally the main meal of the day in Mexico and they take it late – around 3pm. One of my favourite lunches was at Cate de mi Corazon, an entirely vegetarian taco place right by our Airbnb in Condesa. Some of the flavours were a bit odd to our palate (such as a sweet jamaica – hibiscus flower – filling) but my enchiladas – stuffed tortillas smothered in red salsa – were really tasty.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Probably the best meal we had of the entire trip was a decadent late lunch at Limosneros, a really beautiful restaurant just south of the Zocalo in Centro. The building dates from the 16th century and the restaurant was started 100 years ago by the current chef’s grandfather. There wasn’t much veggie choice admittedly, but my hibiscus flautas and charred chile and pineapple salad with soft goats’ cheese were absolutely stunning. Josh’s cochinita pibil looked brilliant too. And dessert was peanut butter and jam ice cream! It was a pretty fancy place but the bill was a very reasonable $750/£40.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Before we left the UK we booked dinner at Pujol after reading this New York Times article with Rene Redzepi of Noma. Supposedly the best – and definitely the most expensive – meal in the city, we could only get a booking for early on Tuesday night, the day after we flew in. Unfortunately I was quite disappointed by it overall. It’s undeniably elegant (in a friendly and laid-back kind of way) and they do put on a whole veggie tasting menu and some dishes were great, such as baby corn smoked over wood and served in a hollow pumpkin, but overall it was so rich I was feeling a bit queasy by halfway through and trying to hide how little I could eat. With a whopping £70 a head price tag it was a real shame.

Mexico City

A muuuuch cheaper lunch or dinner option is to grab some antojitos (snacks) from a street vendor, hole in the wall or cafe. They can also taste fantastic if you pick wisely. We had some filling tortas and cold beers in a cute old-school cafe in Centro, and great tacos for $17 a go at Tacos Hola/El Guerro, a tiny place with a few bar stools and pavement tables near our Airbnb on Avenida Amsterdam. He cooks up several different fillings a night, including quite a few veg options, and you can just keep ordering til you’re full.

Mexico City

For drinkin’, the national drink of mezcal is clearly the way to go. We did a mezcal tasting tour in Oaxaca which I’ll write about later (I’m quite the mezcal fact file now) but the local Alipus artisanal mezcal bar was a good place to start. Plus there’s local beer: El Deposito has a great range of local and world craft beers in its few bars dotted over the city. You can buy to take away or drink in.

Mexico City
Mexico City

On a classier note, we had a great night at Licorería Limantour in Roma, one of the world’s 50 best cocktail bars, drinking mezcal cocktails and chatting to the lovely bartender. He sent us on our way with mezcal shots for the road and some recipe cards to take home.

Mexico City
Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

When we weren’t actually eating, one of our favourite things to do was to trawl around the many food markets. One of the best and largest is San Juan, which is right in the kitchen wholesale district just south of the Zocalo and apparently where chefs go to shop. Those morels! Knobbly little squashes! And SO MUCH hot sauce…

Mexico City
Mexico City

There’s good craft and souvenir market at La Ciudadela; we bought some thick blown glass drinking tumblers, $130/£6.50 for six. Oaxaca was the real place to buy crafts though, as I’ll tell you about later.

Mexico sewing stuff

I hunted down some fabric shops, a must-do for me on any trip these days. I wrote more about them on my sewing blog. There seems to be one big fabric shop chain called Parisina are mostly grouped in the streets around Uruguay just south of the Zocalo (there’s a couple in Oaxaca too). Most of the fabrics are pretty gaudy synthetic polys – especially novelty printed fleece and, I suppose especially at this time of year, Day of the Dead and Hallowe’en themed stuff – but there were also some wools, poplins and pretty plaids. It was all dead cheap, mostly ranging from $15/80p to $60/£3 a metre, so a little bit came home with me…

Mexico City

Mexico City
Mexico City

We were woefully under-researched on our other favourite pastime, flea markets, but luckily snuck a great one in on our very last Saturday morning before catching the bus to Oaxaca. It snaked right around the Jardin Pushkin near the eastern end of Avenida Alvaro Obregon and contained a great range of goodies from vintage videogame cartridges to dead-stock stationery. It was pretty expensive, making me think it’s more of a collectors market than bargain flea. I only came home with a little tin for 100 pesos.

Mexico City

We actually did pop to another flea in between our flight back from Oaxaca and the connecting flight to London the following Saturday, at Plaza del Angel. This is a little indoor mall full of antiques shops, which on the weekend spill their wares onto the walkways for a flea-style experience. There was a lot of fun stuff, from vintage film posters to tiny toy sewing machines (how did I resist?) and prices were reasonable. I bought a little ceramic owl for the collection and some paper ephemera.

Mexico City

In terms of non-market shopping, Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa has a bunch of nice boutiques (as well as restaurants and bars) and is a lovely leafy area to wander around. Avenida Alvaro Obregon and Calle Comida in Roma are good to check out foody delis and little vintage shops. We even found a hipster yard sale in full swing on Saturday, and now I’m wondering why London boot sales don’t come complete with artisanal g&t and bagel stands.

Mexico City

My favourite find was a tiny boutique off Av Alvaro Obregon called Ursa Minor, which the owner has beautifully curated with homewares and crafted items from local designers. We bought a mini skull artwork handpainted on wood, some pretty ceramics, and some other little gifts.

All these places – plus a bunch more places we didn’t get the chance to make it to – are on my Google map and Foursquare list.

A week with a veg box

veg

My cooking has had a boost lately, thanks to both a neighbour plying me with veg from her Norfolk allotment and Wholegood kindly sending me a veg box to try.

veg
It’s been nice to try some ingredients that I don’t often buy for myself, and it’s much easier to make a non-lazy carb-based dinner when you’ve got a veg drawer overflowing with this colourful loveliness.

vegbox1

Greens are some of my favourite veg, as long as they’re carefully cooked so as to keep their crunch and colour. The mix on the left is broccoli, chard and leek which I semi-steamed in a pan with a cup of hot water with the lid on. I served it simply with seasoning and lemon as a side dish (um, to macaroni cheese). On the right, a bit of a made-up tart of the same veg together with some stilton cheese in a quiche type custard nestled in filo pastry.

vegbox2

Left, a filling tea of a sot of tartiflette (oven-baked patties of grated potato and courgette with taleggio cheese – I modified this recipe) with a saucy chickpea, tomato and spinach side. Right, a surprisingly filling solo dinner of Portobello mushrooms topped with stilton, breadcrumbs and parmesan. I didn’t need anything else with them – truly the steak of the veg world.

vegbox3

I love tomatoes at this time of year, especially when roasted to concentrate their flavour. Left, using up the last of the filo with a roasted tomato, onion and mozzarella tart (with some of Josh’s chilli chutney smeared on the base). Right, a roasted tomato soup which did me for three work-at-home lunches. I also used a huge glut of spinach for more soup, which is waiting in the freezer.

veg

Of the new things I tried, two things I’ll definitely buy again are leeks and chard. They are both robust enough to last a good week or more in the fridge, which is important as I really don’t like to throw food away. Leeks give that oniony savouryness to any meal, but can also be the star of a dish when griddled or roasted. I use chard rather like spinach: chucked into anything saucy near the end of cooking to give a bit of texture and bump up the veg count. What are your veg box favourites?

Veg box supplied by Wholegood for review

Picklin’ at Rita’s

Pickling

I had fun last week at a night-time pickling workshop, put on by Sarson’s vinegar and held at Rita’s Bar & Dining in London Fields. Our hosts were food historian Peter Ginn and Rita’s chef Gabriel Pryce.

Pickling

Peter gave us a lowdown on the history of pickling as a method of preserving fresh ingredients, and talked us through all of the ingredients that can be pickled: eggs and shallots are perhaps the most well known, but any fairly firm fruit or veg is a contender.

Pickling

The brine (the vinegar liquid that does the pickling) can be flavoured with any herb or spice you like – chilli, peppercorns and mustard seeds are common, but we could also pick from lemongrass, ginger, tarragon, fennel seeds and loads more. The process is really simple: you just heat up the pickling vinegar in a pan with your chosen flavourings (Sarson’s produce big jars of vinegar especially for pickling, which are pre-seasoned and at the correct acidity of 6%), pop the ingredients in a sealable jar and pour the vinegar over the top to cover the ingredients.

Pickling
Pickling

Pickling

After we’d stuffed and labelled our jars we sat down to a delicious meal put on by Rita’s – platters of fried chicken, amazing mac and cheese, sweet potato gnocchi, slaw and their own pickled hot sauce. Must come back here soon for a full meal because it was tasting gooood.

Pickling

Here’s my rather odd concoction – quail’s eggs, plums and mooli (Japanese radish) in a brine heavily spiked with chilli and mustard seeds. The proof is in the tasting, but it needs three weeks to do its thing first… I’ll report back.

Thanks to Rita’s and Sarson’s for a fab and informative night.

Three non-boring (non-)salads

salads

I’ve been trying to get back into some healthy wheat-light cooking lately, and have recently made several twists on that summery staple, the salad. My definition of salad is pretty loose as I don’t really like leaves: for me a salad means any combination of cooked and raw vegetables together with a carb and a protein element, all soused in a zingy, spicy dressing. Oh, and usually with cheese on top – OK, they are basically the least healthy salads ever, but they are really filling which is my usual concern with having a non-heavily-carb-based dinner.

pinnedsalads

I like to start with a recipe (I have lots pinned) and adapt it to my taste and what I have available in the fridge, freezer and cupboard: having a few basics in stock means you can make a substantial meal even when the veg drawer looks a bit sad and empty. Here are a couple I’ve put together in the last few weeks…

fattoush salad

A sort-of-not-really take on fattoush, the middle-eastern bread and tomato salad.
Veg: Raw tomatoes and courgette, roasted sweet red pepper
Protein: Canellini beans, toasted off in a frying pan
Carb: Toasted pitta bread
Dressing: Garlic, red wine vinegar, sumac, olive oil
Cheese: Feta

mexican salad

My infinitely tastier version of the sad non-carb Mexican salad bowls you get from burrito places when you’re trying to be saintly. Liquid smoke* is a salad’s best friend for a bit of umami punch – a little goes a long way.
Veg: Toasted corn (from the freezer), pink pickled onions (in the fridge from a previous day), raw tomatoes
Protein: Black beans, Quorn fillet
Carb: Mix of brown and white rice
Dressing: Wahaca habanero sauce, liquid smoke, smoked paprika, fresh coriander (from the freezer).
Cheese: Feta

lentil salad

This is a standby dinner for us: smoky lentils, charred veggies and soft cool mozzarella, marinated in the same dressing as the lentils. It’s also brilliant with pan- or oven-roasted wedges of squash.
Veg: Grilled tenderstem broccoli and spring onions, plus babaghanoush (charred aubergine puree)
Protein: Puy lentils
Carb: None
Dressing: Olive oil, red wine vinegar, liquid smoke, oak-smoked tomatoes, oregano, chilli flakes
Cheese: Mozzarella

* Liquid smoke is my favourite condiment EVER. I have no idea how they make it, but a drop or two imparts an amazing smoky flavour to anything you drop it into. Really good for giving veggie food that ‘meaty’ umami punch. Not many supermarkets have it, but you can buy online at Sous Chef.

Review: DF Mexico

DF Mexico

DF Mexico is the latest creation from the stable of London-based Mexican stalwart Wahaca. It takes the same Mexican-street-food-with-an-Anglo-American-twist concept and goes a bit hipster on it to match its location bang in the middle of Shoreditch in the Old Truman Brewery. Every aspect is ramped up in the cool factor: the branding and interior decor are boldly industrial, food is counter service, drinks are self-serve and bottomless… even the social media team is sharp and well-pitched. If you were being cheesy you could call it Wahaca’s younger, cooler brother or something. Naturally it wasn’t going to be long before I found myself there, and that day came on Monday evening.

DF Mexico

It seems to have got off to a flying start, with a short queue at the door even on a Monday and a lively buzz around the dining room. There’s a huge communal table next to the obligatory open-plan kitchen and plenty of smaller tables and booths, so the wait to be seated wasn’t long.

DF Mexico
DF Mexico

The concept is explained via a cool brochure and the menu reads very well indeed. Unlike Wahaca, the food isn’t tapas-sized but built for large appetites and/or sharing. The main offerings are burritos, large tacos, tortas, build-your-own boards, grills and salads, with a (un)healthy sprinkling of sides and sharing dishes too. The hardest part is deciding what to go for.

DF Mexico

Obviously, we massively over-ordered just to get a little taster of a few things. The Bad Boy burrito comes with white and blue corn chips and an optional side for a couple of quid extra. It packed quite the whack of flavour, with tomato and habanero running through the rice and a core of tasty feta cheese, all wrapped in a chargrilled tortilla.

DF Mexico

A side of veggie nachos was huge for just £4.95 and was similarly punchy. The topping of refried beans, cheese, pink onions and salsa wiggled into the all the gaps in the chips so you didn’t get that disappointing moment when you run out of topping before chips. Not that we got near to that point; it was too big to finish!

DF Mexico

Chilli fries were ordered just because, but they were probably my favourite thing: properly salty and hot with a chipotle dip on the side. The cup of corn, sweetly served in a teacup, sat in a creamy puddle of moreish broth and was topped with tangy Lancashire cheese.

DF Mexico

Self-serve bottomless horchata cooled it all down nicely. There’s also soft-serve ice cream for dessert, but we rolled out defeated before considering it.

The bill for this feast? Like Wahaca it’s a real bargain: just £22.50 for a large main, smaller sharing dish, two sides and two bottomless soft drinks. My only critique is I actually wish the portions were a bit smaller more like Wahaca, so you can mix/match and share easier. It’s pretty great to have this place pretty close to home for when I get peckish for big, bad Mexican flavours, and I can’t imagine it’ll be long before I’m back again to try more of the menu and soak up more of the DF vibes (also I’m working nearby and they do take-out…). Nice job, chaps.