These chefs throw out the playbook – with delicious results.
The first thing I ate after landing in Mexico City wasn’t a taco. It wasn’t a churro or a tamale or guisado or a hunk of poultry cloaked in velvety mole or any of the other immediately recognizable treasures from the country’s vibrant and bottomless culinary canon. The first thing I ate after landing in Mexico City was … salad. Not just a salad, but the salad. The salad to end all salads.
The setting: Botánico, which opened two years ago and unfurls through the courtyard of a celadon art deco building in Condesa. Tables sheltered under a slatted wooden arbor, axolotls circled an inky pond, and, in a wild garden, 40-year-old cacti, strappy palms, and monsteras reached toward the sky. Stylish chilangos and their adorable dogs mingled with food-savvy tourists from the coasts, all here for the eats as much as the irresistible scene.
Navarro and Hernández have been collaborating for years, and Hernández came up with the dressing on the fly during an event they were catering. “I checked in the fridge and saw there was a lot of sage,” said Hernández, whom I found stationed at Botánico’s pass in a bright-blue apron, calling out orders for mango-basil meringues and tuna tostadas ignited with yuzu kosho. “When we tasted it, we loved it. We both thought we had to use the dressing to make a salad at Botánico.” It shouldn’t work. But it works inexplicably well.
Navarro, 29, and Hernández, 31, are rising stars of the young, locally conscious, but globally connected culinary community propelling CDMX dining forward. “I think that to get to know a place well, it’s essential to eat in its markets, try the street and traditional food,” Hernández said. “It’s like going to the United States and not eating a burger.” (Incidentally, at Botánico he serves an epic ground rib-eye burger, smothered in raclette.) “On the other hand, one of the things that distinguishes Mexico City is its cultural diversity and the many cooks who combine Mexican ingredients with ideas and techniques from other places.”
“After dinner at Mari Gold, head to Nevería Roxy, one of the most famous ice cream spots in the world, established in 1946. With a retro concept and flavors rooted in tradition, their ice creams will transport you to bygone decades. My tip: Order the Mamey ice cream.”
– Fernanda Suárez
Masala y Maiz owners Norma Listman and Saqib Keval.
The city’s culinary movement is now catching its second wave, with the first stirrings occurring back in 2017, when Norma Listman and Saqib Keval opened Masala y Maiz on a sleepy San Miguel Chapultepec street with leafy trees and sidewalks cracked like Kit Kats. It laced together the chefs’ Mexican, Indian American, and East African backgrounds – a conversation on migration and colonization expressed through corn, coconut, and other intersectional ingredients.
“We were received very warmly, but as we were sharing a new type of food and a new restaurant culture, it’s taken a few years for people to understand our food and our approach,” explains Keval, who grew up in California. “We used to write on the menus #nosomosfusion [“we aren’t fusion”] so we could talk with diners about the difference between fusion and mestizaje,” the term he and Listman use to describe their sociopolitically layered cooking. Now a certified hit, Masala y Maiz has moved to a larger location; in its original space, Mari Gold – their neighborhood-focused restaurant with a relaxed approach to South Asian-Mexican food – has blossomed.
Mari Gold’s wings.
Mari Gold was less a dining room than a dining hallway, with lemonade terrazzo tables down the middle, a cinderblock backyard garden, and the narcotic perfume of fresh-baked scones and piney copal incense inviting you to linger. Three lovely hours slipped away here on my visit, late lunch melting into early dinner like the passion-fruit butter on my plantain-topped pancakes, good and sticky with house-made cajeta. Wings came tossed in fearsome vindaloo, with dabs of raita greened with hoja santa, the sarsaparilla-scented tropical herb. Rolled up like a newspaper, the fermented rice and lentil dosa cocooned candy-sweet cherry tomatoes and pineapple-potato chaat, and the incredible Mari Gold spin on grilled cheese featured pickled chilies and quesillo tinted green with pungent epazote chutney.
After this golden-hour spread, I wandered around the corner to Super Cope and studied the small-batch guava preserves, Oaxacan miso, and natural wines lining the shelves. Listman and Keval opened this tidy grocery as a co-op with their employees, one of several takeaway pivots to pop up during the pandemic. Jarilla is another, home to local heirloom tomatoes, scalloped tarts snowy with coconut, bottles of olive oil, and cups of iced vermouth. The Roma Norte shop and café comes from another influential Mexican and American twosome, Mercedes Bernal and Rodney Cusic.
Meroma’s fish collar with guajillo chile sauce.
When I last visited Mexico City in 2019, Bernal and Cusic had opened Meroma in the neighborhood, and I fell hard for the restaurant: the herbaceous cocktails, the vivid ceviches and smart desserts, the second-story terrace shrouded in whispering foliage like a jungle tree house. As at Masala y Maiz, you could feel something different happening there, between the concrete brise-soleil and angular moonroof of the 1980s modernist abode.
Before settling in Bernal’s hometown, the couple cooked all over (New York, Rome, London, Jackson Hole), and it showed in how they prepared impeccable Mexican ingredients. Four years later, I found Meroma as bewitching as ever. Blistered fish collar glowed with guajillo chile sauce. Bluefin chutoro resonated with a white miso marinade and charred hoja santa. Wide pappardelle, dyed black with cuttlefish ink, wove through smoked crème fraîche and beef ragù, the dairy and the meat both sourced from Rancho Cuatro Encinos, an artisanal farm halfway between Mexico City and Veracruz.
Chef Filipe Estevao das Neves’ fried chicken and radishes with salsa macha at Imbiss.
Once revolutionary, the mash-up of meticulous local sourcing and global influence that Cusic and Bernal helped establish is now standard operating procedure among many new restaurants in Mexico City. The ecosystem of young, confident chefs is extremely well connected, with ideas flowing easily among them. “It’s townie vibes in a city of 23 million people,” Cusic said while delivering smooth chocolate pot de crème illuminated with passion fruit. Everyone knows everyone, which is how I came to know Filipe Estevao das Neves, Cusic and Bernal’s pal from Imbiss in Juárez, one colonia over from Roma.
“This is my spite fried chicken shop,” the scruffily bearded, Fernet-Branca-ballcapped Neves told me the next night, after plonking down at my table at his low-lit punk bunker, whose glassless windows overlook a flamenco studio in session across the street. He elaborated over sourdough toast smeared with black-garlic butter: Before Imbiss, Neves, who’s from Portugal and went to culinary school in Cape Town, was working for a large restaurant group in Mexico City. “We started doing brunch, which is when I started developing my fried chicken,” which the group wanted to spin off into a separate concept – without Neves. They tried to bootleg his recipe. Neves took a swallow from his can of Carta Blanca lager and laughed. “I decided to show them I can do it better, at a fraction of the price, and would open my own fried chicken spot out of spite,” an idea familiar to fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
It was around this time that he met his partner, Ramses Manneck. “Ram asked me if I really wanted to only cook fried chicken for the next three years.” Neves didn’t, and instead they launched Imbiss, which went through several pop-up iterations and locations before settling in its current home on narrow Calle Oslo in Juárez. The menu is rangy, free-spirited, and vegetable-forward: a stunning endive salad (more salads!) with caramelized nuts and dates and a miso-tofu emulsion; crimson Korean-style rice cakes, like chewy gnocchi, in a gochujang-warmed puttanesca; racy salsa macha-ed radishes shingled like fish scales over earthy muhammara. But after Neves’ story, how could I not try the fried chicken?
Served on a quarter-sheet pan lined with crinkled wax paper, the poultry revenge wore a crackling brown crust. Dynamite bread-and-butter pickles were piled on top, and crème fraîche ranch and hot sauce came on the side for dipping. Even with my awareness of Mexico City’s restaurant zeitgeist, did I expect to be crushing a Portuguese chef’s American-ish, Korean-ish version of fried chicken? No, I did not, but you go where the story takes you. More than other cities, in Mexico City that can be anywhere.