Modernity is something we search out when we travel — where to eat, what to see, where to wander. It’s often a barometer for the place we’re visiting, I think. Modern flavors, modern spaces, modern experiences are a way to see the undercurrent of a city — past, present and future.
We had walked around the corner from Downtown México to El Cardenal for breakfast — we ducked through the front door in the massive stone facade into a small waiting room.
“¿Cuál es tu nombre, caballero?”
We loitered around, people-watching, waiting for our table. One of the kitchens was next to the waiting area, the super-modern glass walls and stainless prep tables clashing with the ancient wood paneling and marble floors. They called out the wave of orders as they came in and sprang into action. In the waiting room, families gathered and greeted each other as they entered. As a group of older ladies passed by Mark and I, they each smiled and said “Buenos dias!” It was so cozy and warm — literally and figuratively.
My name was called and the hostess told us the floor to head to. “Piso uno, caballero,” she said, holding her index finger up with a smile. We got into the glass elevator and hit 1. The back wall had two large posters from SAGARPA, the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, proudly proclaiming that El Cardenal’s private herd of cattle was free of bovine tuberculosis.
We sat down at our table, and pored over the menus — Mark chose chilaquiles, I chose huevos a la mexicana. We chose some pan dulce, and we chose coffee, not chocolate — I instantly regretted it, but the coffee was wonderful anyway.
Over breakfast, I planned out the rest of the day and checked the traffic while we listened to the crowd in the dining room, the din echoing off of the aged glass windows. At a table next to us, a man passed Scientology brochures across the tabletop to a woman, mentioning that L. Ron Hubbard could probably fix her problems. I looked the booklet up later, and it was a translated version of “The Cause of Suppression,” a tome about how luck doesn’t exist, and how you can directly change outcomes in your life using Scientology. “…Should we say something?” Mark asked. Two Chinese girls had ordered most of the menu, and were tasting everything intently — closing their eyes and feeling out each bite, before meticulously taking photos of each dish.
After we finished eating, we wandered back through the waiting area and out to the street to our waiting car. We were headed towards San Ángel, a leafy southern neighborhood home to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s homes and studios.
What is truly striking about the place is that this exceptional complex was built in 1931 — pure, simple Functionalist architecture in an era of Art Deco and the Prairie School. However, it’s undeniably Mexican. This is not the sleek, white Modernism of Europe — this is vibrant, raw, colorful. The cactus fence, the terra-cotta ceilings, the volcanic rock walls, the blues, the oranges, the chartreuses — so completely intoxicating.
We bought the tickets in between the piloti underneath the main floor and checked my backpack — and then just wandered around, as if in a trance. I took almost 300 pictures of that place, in a feeble attempt to preserve every piece of it in my mind.
We ambled around San Ángel after departing — lots of beautiful houses, all behind walls. The traffic trickled through the neighborhood, but the leafy canopy and the sheer amount of foliage dulled its sound. As we walked, we passed a taxi driver from the city, asleep in his car underneath the green blanket of trees.
We caught our car back into the city in front of the Restaurante San Ángel Inn — and sped towards Polanco, to Pujol.
Pujol is that famous place in Mexico City that everyone has seen on the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” — Enrique Olvera’s restaurant and the story of its creation are entirely visually captivating. I have to tell you, it’s even more incredible in person.
It’s on a quiet residential street (to the consternation of some in the neighborhood), a darkened green respite behind a modern wooden screen. We walked up a bit early, and as the security guard was telling us it wasn’t quite open yet, Enrique Olvera walked out.
“Buenas tardes! Have a wonderful time!”
I was stunned and muttered “…Gracias!” in my shock.
We walked through the gate, and up the steps, into the front door — past the lush gardens and ponds alongside the restaurant. We checked in and sat down in the waiting area, and just took it all in. The olive tree in the light well, the sleek wood banquettes, the glowing wall sconces, the quiet sounds of everyone preparing for service — the textures, scents, sights, sounds. It was absolutely perfect, in every way — and those sort of spaces are few and far between.
We were there for the omakase tacos — an eight-course, three-hour journey through modern Mexican cuisine at the specially-designed bar in the middle of the restaurant. We sat on the end of the bar, next to a couple from Kansas City. Normally, I am loath to chat with strangers during a meal, especially one of this caliber — but Sharon and Michael were an absolute delight. We quickly bonded over travel and food, and it made an impeccable evening even more so.
As we sat down, our server greeted us in Spanish and we replied — setting the language for the evening. It was exhilarating to be able (in a rudimentary fashion, at least) talk about our food with her — and she was nothing if not patient. She brought out our first drink, and then the whole magical evening began.
Corn silk and flower tea
Tamarindo + mezcal
Roasted corn with escamole mayo
Avocado flauta with roasted chapulines (grasshoppers) and cilantro
Raw scallop tostada with cilantro / roasted avocado / onion / habanero black sesame oil
Oaxacan black bean and sea urchin tetela with peanut-lime salsa
Eggplant confit taco on hoja santa corn tortilla with salsa verde
Lauduc bordeaux blanc
Pork cheek taco on blue corn tortilla with fried capers / radishes / carrot-apple salsa
Barbacoa taco with zucchini flower / avocado / pulque salsa
“Pies de Tierra” Mexican red from Baja California
Chile guero relleno taco with avocado and red onion
Mole madre (1,442 days old) and mole nuevo, hoja santa and blue corn tortilla
“Chica Mala” red ale / Aguafuerte mezcal
Burnt orange granita with sotol sorbet
Black sesame crisp with passion fruit sorbet and jack fruit
Cafe de olla
As we sat there, and as each dish came out, we became more and more entranced. The Spanish explanations of each course became poetry, the buzz of the restaurant calming to a dull background murmur upon each bite. It was the most modern meal I’ve ever eaten — a reinterpretation of truly Mexican flavors, remixed and crossed into something totally new and unexpected.
I caught myself about to cry, twice. The raw scallop tostada was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever eaten, and the mole madre… Well, when that much emotion and love goes into a dish, that energy tends to hit me like a stone in the face.
During the meal, our compatriot next to us asked about mezcal — what was the best one in the house? One of the servers replied:
“Well, we went on a three-day tasting trip to Oaxaca… and there was this one tiny producer. Instead of letting the maguey send up the stalk, they chop it off early — letting the natural sugars stay in the plant’s piña. They made only 52 bottles of mezcal, we bought 30 of them. There’s maybe a quarter of one bottle left. It’s the greatest mezcal I’ve ever tasted.”
Our friend then said, “…Well, maybe there’s one that’s less precious?” She laughed and poured us shots of Farolito — delicious and smoky.
We were escorted out to the courtyard garden for our dessert course, and we sat with our new friends along with two others — a wonderful couple who lived in Florida. Andrew was from Canada, and his wife Alejandra was from Mexico City — they were in town visiting family.
As we sat down, the server came out with a tray of shot glasses. “I couldn’t let you leave without tasting that mezcal,” she said. “It’s too good not to share.” She poured the precious liquor into our shot glasses and we sipped slowly. The flavor was totally unlike anything I’d tasted — it was citrusy, floral, herbaceous. The normal smokiness of mezcal was a little afternote, not the main event. Again, I almost cried.
We sat under the trellis at the bar for nearly four more hours, chatting with our new friends. We talked about travel, about Mexico, about our lives back home. We drank bottle after bottle of the Lauduc bordeaux blanc, all of us taking turns ordering the next bottle. At one point, Alejandra's brother (he lives in Mexico City) arrived, and he was thrilled when we talked about our itinerary for the rest of the trip.
“San Rafael?! Veracruz?! Our family has an orange ranch in Papantla — just a ways away! You have to go to El Sotano in San Rafael — sit on the river. They’ll know me — Manuel!”
The entire evening was a reinforcement of why it’s so important to get out of your comfort zone. Before this meal, mezcal had never been one of my favorites. I never ordered mole, and I absolutely hated scallops. I disliked chatting with strangers… Particularly other Americans. But once you let your defenses down and open your mind, truly magical things happen.
After we finished up and said our goodbyes, we wandered out into Polanco — the streets full of traffic, the lights casting a haze over the sidewalks. We ambled a few blocks to El Palacio del Hierro — like Neiman Marcus, but better. We went up and down the escalators, gawking at Prada loafers and the Chanel makeup counters. Everything was polished and shiny, and Christmas carols echoed off of the pristine marble floors. I was tipsy, and spun around in the lobby laughing as we waited for the car.
“I’m glad it worked out this way,” I told Mark as we slid into traffic towards Centro. We’d originally had a slightly different idea for the day — and I’d been really anxious about it all not resolving itself. We’d had tickets to the Casa Luis Barragán — but we ended up with the lunch reservation at Pujol instead of dinner, and we’d had to miss our appointment. We’d wanted to head to Museo Jumex as well — but we spent that time on the patio with our new friends. Before, these sort of things would make me grumpy and uncomfortable — but it ended up working out absolutely perfectly. Often I need to be reminded that not everything can be planned and that everything happens for a reason — and the night at Pujol was a superb reminder.
We had spent the day moving between Mexican modernist monuments — a palace-turned-boutique hotel, a revolutionary home and studio for a pair of ground-breaking artists, a world-renowned restaurant. We’d seen the past, present and future of Mexico — in the spaces, the flavors, the people. We fell asleep in our old-yet-new room in the ancient palace, satiated and exhausted with joy.