Arriving in Mexico City in 1987, I was lured by the sordid, thrilling cauldron of mysterious activity. The past lingered over a decrepit, crumbling centro histórico, which had been brought to its knees by the recent earthquake. The centro intrigued me: I observed dusty alleys and hallways into which scurried enigmatic characters who disappeared into their anachronistic places of business.
Food decidedly caught my attention. Alluring aromas emanated from ancient taquerías, whose aquamarine walls were blackened by decades of greasy smoke. Bow-tie clad waiters served now extinct beverages and midnight breakfasts at the timeworn Café Cinco de Mayo. Old-timers imbibed at century-old pulquerías and cantinas, downing the free botanas and reminiscing about better times. But the centro was in a slow and sure decline. It was quiet at night. The hotels around the Alameda area, once vibrant and aglow, were gone. Agustin Lara no longer sung at the Hotel Regis, Revelers didn’t dress up for a glamorous evening out. And there certainly was no ‘nice’ place to have dinner downtown.
It took decades for the centro to come back. Deco gems sat forlornly waiting to be brought back to life by developers with good taste. Opera-lovers drove their vehicles straight into the Palacio de Bellas Artes’ parking lot and back out after the show. No one thought of the centro as a cool place to spend an evening.
Things have changed. Carlos Slim invested. Artists rented and bought. Pioneers pioneered. And now, clubs, restaurants, bars and music venues abound. It’s like the old days, when San Juan de Letrán was abuzz with show-biz and glitz. Well almost. Just stroll down groovy Calle Regina, a pedestrianized street full of nice bars with outdoor seating, just like in Madrid. Catch a set of jazz at Zinco, buried, Village Vanguard-like, in a Deco palace. Or take in the decidedly Mexican gay scene on República de Cuba. Once abandoned streets throng into the wee hours.
Until recently, however, there was still no nice place to have dinner. That has changed. A forgotten colonial building has been renovated (tastefully, I might add) by the Hábita group, who brought you the Condesa DF. And two new restaurants, branches but not clones, have installed themselves. It’s a good thing.
A Bouquet of Blues: Azul Histórico
Azul y Oro is on every Mexi-foodie’s ‘must try’ list. It serves up well-researched and expertly prepared regional Mexican fare. The baby of chef/culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and named after the eponymous college colors, it’s located in the cultural heart of the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). Muñoz deserves “national living treasure” status for his tireless work conserving and documenting our country’s rich culinary traditions. He is author of the superb Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana, an invaluable resource (hard to find, but soon to be re-published in a new edition), as well as other attractive cookbooks. Last year, a much-anticipated branch, Azul Condesa, opened to much fanfare. I was not impressed.
I like the house specialties, my favorite being the ravioles crujientes rellenos de pato, a fusion dish of deep-fried wontons filled with duck then bathed in a deep, dark chocolaty Oaxacan mole. And the cochinita is top-notch.
An unusual vegetarian option is the enchiladas de jamaica orgánica, fragrant tortillas filled with tart, fruity hibiscus flowers and augmented by a mildly picante tomato/chipotle sauce. As at the other venues, regional ‘festivals’ are presented, such as a recent celebration of Oaxacan cooking.A couple of unusual moles and pipianes I sampled (one white, the other green) were somewhat bland: intriguing conceptually but not so well realized. The food here sometimes seems toned down to a banal level; it can lack punch. Service is attentive and the wine/tequila/mezcal list is comprehensive. Expect to spend from $200-400 pp. I do not hesitate to recommend this much needed high-level and lovingly Mexican dining option. It’s a great place to take your out of town guests or stop for a relaxing lunch before shopping at the original Nouveau Palacio de Hierro.
Isabel la Católica 30
Tel.: 5521-3295 / 5510-1316
Open Monday-Saturday 9AM to 1:30AM, Sunday until 6PM
Michael Parker S. April 9, 2012
We Centro-dwellers are happy to have these options. Spendthrift yours truly is already a pampered parroquiano, much to the chagrin of my accountant. As you imply, for best results, go in the company of check-picking-up out-of-towners! After all, they’re saving oodles over their typical Manhattan nights out while enjoying four times the service.
Cheryl April 11, 2012
Chef Zurita, in my opinion, sits in the pantheon of great chefs. His restaurant was one I was planning on visiting on my next trip to Mexico City this summer but, were you saying that a dinner at Azul Condesa is $200-$400 pp in “U.S.” dollars?
Nicholas Gilman replies:
No, Cheryl, all prices mentioned here are in Mexican pesos. The “$” sign is used for pesos as well as US dollars.
Prof. Gringo April 21, 2012
Azul Historico is a welcome addition but definitely not the only or best of the numerous fine restaurants in Centro Historico. A reviewer who ignores even mentioning the others is either in the employ of Azul or misleadingly inadequate as a guide to fine dining in the Centro. Some of Azul’s food is fine, some dreadful. Caution: do not ask to have your cup of coffee warmed up unless you are willling to pay an extra 30 pesos plus tax and tip for a mandatory second cup. Management defends this cheap trick by insulting the quality of coffee in competing fine restaurants in Centro! This absurd behavior along with the hard sell on Mezcal leaves a bad taste at this attractive place.
Anonymous June 21, 2012
Esta maravilloso el Hotel, El Restaurant, la comida y todo el concepto en especial el Jardin Vertical ESPECTACULAR.
Soy amante del Centro Historico y me gusto mucho el concepto.
¡¡¡Queja!!!!….Quiten el escudo de la entrada donde ponen “DOWNTOWN” en mi opinion demerita el lugar. Somos Mexicanos.
Anonymous June 22, 2012
$190 for the hamburger at Padrinos?! I had the one at Primos the other day and it was $130, so that’s an uptick of almost 50%. Wow. (And while that was a very good burger it wasn’t flawless — meat packed too densely and overcooked.)
Anonymous July 24, 2012
Do not recommend this restaurant if you are looking for an authentic and memorable experience…that is unless your expectation is poor service to the point of being made to feel unwelcomed and treated like an intruder. If you like loud disco music and excess fatty inferior cuts of pork’s and questionable fish you might feel comfortable here.
In a party of 4 people, ordering eight different courses, the only recommendation is the guacamole with chipolini’s and the cilantro soup. Sad, but true!
Arrived for an 8: 30 pm reservation and made to wait for a table in an 80 percent empty restaurant. The hostess ignored us as 5 or 6 waiters sat at a round table eating their dinner. A Recommendation, for the management, “DO NOT take a reservation if you are not ready to receive your guest.” Other guest sat waiting patiently and we observed one couple put their menus on the table and walk out. Another table begged for attention from the overwhelmed one waiter on the floor. We couldn’t leave as we were unfamiliar with the alternatives in the area and had plans to go to jazz club around the corner.
After studying the menu for quite some time, we ordered and only then did the waiter announced they were all out of fresh fish. He might of mentioned that earlier???
On a scale of 10, 10 being the best, this was a zero! DF has too many truly great restaurants to choose from. If you insist going here it would be best to telephone in advance and find out if management will be present the time you want to go. Go with very low expectations and they might rise up from there.
filipino singles August 5, 2012 at 9:22 PM
Great Place and Awesome FOOD! I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and decors of this place! We came here for our wedding anniversary & enjoyed this fine dining place in town. Lovely food with excellent service always attentive without being intrusive. Legit!
Unknown October 19, 2012
We went to both of these restaurants after I discovered your blog and were very impressed. The white pipian at Azul came with a chile guero as a garnish which gave a definite boost to the flavor. the real discovery there was the starter of panela wrapped in hoja santa. The small dishes at Padrinos were simple but excellent; the only quibble I have is the charge for bread service.
We have been visiting Mexico City for the last 15 years the dining optins in the Centro have improve dramatically in that time. We also went to Zefiro and 1620 (have you been there?) on this visit and both were very good.
Nicholas Gilman replies:
And a spectacular new option, yet to be reviewed by me, is Limosneros , Allende3
Professor Gringo November 7, 2012 at 4:09 PM
I have no need to read his book to see that the rather eccentric Nicholas Gilman writes in his introduction here that until recently one could not find a nice restaurant in Centro Historico. Simply not true. And refills for coffee are freely offered without request at the Grand Hotel for example. Is this what he calls a “pure American coffee shop”? Eccentric?
Nicholas Gilman replies:
I hesitated to publish ‘”Professor Gringo’s” strange comments. I suppose he can be found at Grand (sic) Hotel’s coffee shop swilling free refills. And I take “eccentric” as a compliment, even though it’s apparently not put out as one.