Choosing where to eat in Mexico City’s historic center can be a daunting task. There is an enormous range of options, though only a handful in the fine dining category. Below are GFMC’s favorites.
El Balcón del Zócalo
Situated atop a colonial edifice El Balcón offers a breath-taking panorama of the Zócalo.The ambitious but approachable menu is realised by chef José Antonio Salinas. The chef offers tweaked Mexican classics and more elaborate dishes that explore the gastronomic vanguard but don’t stray too far from tradition. A showy guacamole, whose ingredients are rolled table-side and assembled by a server, is well balanced – the show is old hat for residents but fun for visitors. Gussied up antojitos–corn-based snacks—can be pleasantly amusing: little blue corn ‘peneques de lengua’ appear like sharks swimming in a sea of green salsa. Jewel-like, paper-thin slices of octopus carpaccio make for a refreshing starter.
A seasonal ‘tlayuda de escamoles’, the ant eggs known as Mexican caviar, is also lovely to look at. Classic seafood tostadas and tacos of, respectively, tuna and shrimp are simple and light.
Filete de res en mole negro is heartwarming – smoky black Oaxacan mole complements the tender juicy beef. This one’s a winner. And from August through September text-book chiles en nogada are featured. El Balcón del Zócalo is a highly recommendable spot for a well prepared, upscale Mexican lunch or dinner with a view.
5 de Mayo 61, Centro Histórico, on the 6th floor of the Zócalo Central Hotel
Tel. 51 30 51 30 Ext. 6775 y 6776
Open daily, 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.
See Google map
Cafe de Tacuba: Tradition tradition
This traditional breakfast or after-theatre spot is a must-see; you don’t know Mexico City if you haven’t been to Cafe Tacuba. In business since 1912 and in the hands of the same family (that also runs Limosneros) the beautiful space is decorated in Talavera tiles and Colonial style paintings and furniture. The festive atmosphere might include strolling Estudiantina musicians who serenade diners while they gorge on tacos, enchiladas, chilaquiles or mole. The menu, a veritable encyclopedia of Mexican classics, is more than satisfying and the Veracruz-style coﬀee, poured hot from a pitcher, is particularly good. Tacuba is particularly recommendable for breakfast.
Tel. 5518 4950
Open daily 10a.m.-10p.m.
See Google Map
El Cardenal : an old stalwart
The original restaurant on Palma a block from the Zócalo, was for many years a rather stuﬀy, forgotten veteran. But the grandchildren of the founder have spiffed up the dining rooms and revamped the extensive menu and it has become a good place to sample both traditional and “nueva cocina Mexicana.” A larger branch is in the Hilton Alameda (built on the site of the Hotel del Prado which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1985.) Both offer the same changing menu featuring many interesting dishes such as tortas de huautzontles, tortilla de huevo con escamoles (ant eggs), esquites (fresh corn with chile and cream), and seasonal ingredients such as huitlacoche (corn mushroom) and bacalao (salt cod). Cardenal is particularly recommendable for a traditional Mexican breakfast: sweet rolls are house-baked. The original Palma restaurant is more old-fashioned and homey, while the newer branch offers contemporary glamour.
Palma 23, (between Cinco de Mayo and Madero)
Tel: 5521-8815 / 8816 / 8817 $$-$$$
See Google Map
Don Toribio: Glamour on a budget
Don Toribio is located in the grand sala of a Porfiriato period building that recalls Paris in its day. The ambience is old world grace but the simple, wisely limited menu is Argentine – Mexican. Don Toribio bills itself as a parrilla (grill) and grilled meat such as arrachera (skirt steak) is excellent. An order of nicely appointed mixed sopes or empanadas will make good starters to share. Main dishes –hearty salads or grilled meats are accompanied by soup of the day – the sopa de tortilla is exemplary. Avoid the complicated “a las finas hierbas”) and stick to the basic (“a las brasas”). The best news of all is that the prices are more than reasonable. A comida can be had for under $100. When has a nice glass of Argentine wine cost $40 in recent years? Breakfast is offered daily, and there is night-time service Thursday and Friday.
Calle Bolivar 31 (Upstairs)
Tel. 5510 9198
Open daily 8 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
See Google map
Ah-Un: A taste of old Japan
This unlikely Japanese restaurant, unassuming at first glance, delivers some very fine, bona fide Nippon noshes. Ah-Un is set in a sensibly decorated colonial space – light wood and exposed stonework predominate – tables spill out onto pedestrianised Motolinia, while a spacious bar surrounds the kitchen. Neighbors include an old cantina, a convivial comida corrida joint, the hidden-gem jazz bar Zinco and hip Mezcalería Talismán, which is under the same management. But none offer a kitchen of such refinement.
Nary a dollop of cream cheese is shmeered onto chef Masa-sensei’s jewel-like nigiri sushi or rolls. His sashimi platters are arranged with an artist’s eye. Rice bowls, eclectic prepared dishes such as pickled unagi, deep-fried fish heads and a couple of non-Japanese favorites such as ma-po tofu and Thai som tum are concocted by partner Aida-sensei.
Ah-Un Restaurante Japonés
Motolinia 31, between Madero & 16 de Septiembre, Centro
Open: Thursday – Saturday 1 p.m. – 1 a.m., Sunday – Wednesday 1 – 11 p.m.
See Google map
Coox Hanal: Yucatecan cooking since 1955
This Yucatan classic, in business for over 60 years, is one of the city’s best place for the peninsula’s piquant cuisine. Stick to the classics: panuchos (tortillas with black beans and cochinita pibil, spicy shredded pork in achiote chile sauce), papadzules (tortillas rolled up with chopped eggs and a green pumpkin seed sauce—a good choice for vegetarians), pan de cazón (tortillas layered with black beans, ﬁsh and tomato sauce), sopa de lima (chicken soup perfumed with special limes and fried tortilla strips), and horchata or a León or Montejo beer, direct from the Yucatán, to wash it all down. Be careful with the salsa of chile habanero: it is the world’s hottest!
Isabel la Católica 83, near Mesones, upstairs
Open daily 10:30 a.m.- 6 p.m.
See Google Map
Café El Popular: The Chinese legacy
Cafés de chinos are to Mexico what the archetypal coffee shop or diner once was to cities north of the border: open long hours, they offer Americanised Chinese food as well as Mexican standards. Few are left, having succumbed to chain restaurants. Café El Popular was established in 1948 by Luis Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant, and his Mexican wife Felicitas. It has opened its doors in the same spot, steps from the Zócalo ever since. The restaurant carries on, albeit in a newer guise; Chinese food is no longer on the menu, but Mexican dishes are eminently eatable and prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local (vegetables are sourced from the organic farms in Xochimilco, for example). The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics”. Soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here.
Avenida 5 de Mayo 52, near the Zócalo
See Google map
Limosneros: post modern elegance
Limosneros is set in a beautifully restored and updated 18th-century edifice around the corner from Café de Tacuba. The story goes that the building was home to the local artisan’s guild, whose members collected funds (limosnas i.e. donations) to build public buildings. Fast-forward to the 21st century, where post-modern style is in evidence. Chefs Marcos Fulcheri and Carlo Melendez work together to present a creative, constantly changing menu. They utilize seasonal ingredients, most sourced close to home, preparing both tweaked classics such as tacos of the finest pork belly or rib eye, as well as creative plates based on traditional ingredients, even insects. Beautiful seasonal beetles called cocopaches, eaten since time immemorial in rural Mexico, are presented here with “ravioli” of squash blossom flower and fresh cheese. They are deep-fried, delicately crunchy and taste faintly of cinnamon. Escamoles, or ant eggs dubbed by some as “Mexican caviar,” are presented sautéed over a bed of pureed mung beans in a closed jar in which smoke has been injected: tradition meets the 21st century. Less challenging but excellent is the taco tasting menu that offers six artfully prepared tacos—no bugs—paired with fine Mexican wines, beers and the artisan mezcals featured at the elegant bar.
Salón Corona : A stein of beer
This unpretentious cervecería (beer hall) has been in business since 1928. There are two bars in front that can provide a quick refueling station during a sojourn through the Centro: one for tacos, oﬀering a nice variety of seafood options such as bacalao and pulpo as well as mole verde and picadillo; the other bar for seafood cocktails. Beer is cold and on tap, unusual in Mexico: order it “de barríl”. There is also a large dining room with waiter service, hosting a mixed crowd of revelers. This is one of the few surviving cervecerías in the city.
Bólivar 24 (between 5 de Mayo and Madero)
Open daily 8 a.m.-1 a.m.
See google map
Testal: A hidden gem
This unassuming, simply decorated spot on a side street south of the Alameda, houses one of the better Mexican kitchens in the area. The name refers to the little ball of corn masa that is formed into a tortilla. Regional standards, prepared with care, celebrate the diversity of Mexican gastronomy. Tacos of cochinita served snuggled in a banana leaf from the Yucatan, borrego tatemado (charred mutton) for tacos from Jalisco, grilled pulpo from the gulf or mole poblano from nearby Puebla are only a few of the dishes that stand out.
Dolores 16, corner of Independencia
Open 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday, 9 – 7, Sunday, 8 – 7 Monday, Tuesday
See Google map