My Trip to Mexico City Took an Unexpected Turn—But Resulted in 6 Delicious Twists on Traditional Recipes
Eating around this vibrant city inspired a new collection of recipes that are all bursting with flavor and easy enough to make on a weeknight. We call them: Modern Mexican.
Think you know Mexican food? Sure, tacos and burritos hit the spot every time. But there is more comforting and flavorful Mexican food to be had than the staples we crave and rely on—and they’re just as simple to make at home. I came to this appetizing epiphany on a recent trip to Mexico City—one that started as a weekend and unforeseeably turned into a two week trip.
On a rainy first night, I discovered what might now be one of my favorite dishes and ultimate comfort foods at an unassuming restaurant in the upscale neighborhood of Polanco. At first bite, I couldn’t believe I’ve never had fideo seco before—it was incredible. It was exactly what one would want on a rainy evening (and any other kind of day, really). On the plate, was a mound of thin, short noodles with a mild tomato-and-chili pepper-based sauce clinging on to each thread, drizzled with crema and hit with a dusting of Cotija cheese. Some unadorned guacamole was served on the side for freshness. If there weren’t nopales, a cactus that adorns menus as a vegetarian option, and about four other plates on the table, I would have ordered a second helping of the fideo seco. Rest assured, this wouldn’t be the only time I’d order—or make—this new hot find. Top reason why you should: it’s a one-pot wonder.
I went to bed thinking about the magic of those simple noodles, yet mentally prepping myself for the big food day that was to follow: a packed schedule including a food tour, two of the world’s top restaurants, and at least one churro. The too-cute-to-be-real modern bed and breakfast I stayed in made sure my days started off well-fed. A tray strolled into the room with a baked good still warm from the oven with a crispy exterior you can actually hear when biting into it and a tender inside. All bread and pastry at Ignacia Guest House are made in-house, and you can tell. Its savory sidekick: a traditional dish of fresh tortillas bathed in a black bean sauce infused with avocado leaf, known as enfrijoladas.
And the big food day was off to a great start with a traditional breakfast. I walked out of the guest house, embellished with plants and cacti, and its calming soft hues of pink, green, and gray, and into the colorful and trendy Colonia Roma neighborhood ready to explore. I zig-zagged through the colorful streets with uneven sidewalks and arrived at a coffee shop that felt like an open garage door. I was there to meet a lovely guide from Eat Like a Local that would provide me with the city’s intel I was craving.
On one of the first stops, we stepped into a shop where corn was soaking and doughs (aka masa) of various colors were being made, I quickly learned the immense respect and current effort to protect and highlight the varieties of corn across the country and the push for the ancient technique of nixtamalization. In this process, corn soaks in an alkaline solution to release nutritional properties and its unique flavor before it turns into masa. Which, simply put, makes corn tortillas and other goods otherworldly. Places like Cintil, Expandio de Maiz, and Molino El Pujol are very focused on these efforts with passionate people behind it committing to the process.
For a change of scenery, we hopped on the subway to get to one of the bustling markets where everything catches the eye. The exotic fruit! The Jicama popsicles with flavored powders for dipping! The piñatas! One stall in the massive market had large simmering pots of brothy corn—the esquite was served with a spoon right on a fresh corn husk with some broth and a sprinkle of chili. On another side, there were little mountains of mole paste lining the passageways. Moles of all kinds and colors. Traditionally, mole is made from 20, 30, and so on ingredients. Each region and person behind it makes it slightly different. I sampled an assortment, each one better and with more depth than the last.
Then, in a completely different experience, I sat down at Quintonil, ranked as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, to a shallow bowl of silky mole and a batch of freshly made tortillas. I’m still unclear if I was supposed to eat it with a fork and knife, but I dived in with tortilla in hand, swiping the mole from the bottom of the ceramic bowl and relishing in the depth of flavor of this magical sauce. But is it a sauce? Regardless of the answer, months after the trip I took a stab at simplifying it, while still honoring its essence, and it was not easy. What developed was a 12-ingredient mole made from pantry staples that will satisfy a mole and an enchilada craving in a snap.
The big food day was rounded out with a crispy, golden tortilla topped with a crab salad. These tostadas are also commonly seen topped with raw slivers of tuna and a dollop of spicy mayo for a kick, the most commonly known is from the classic restaurant Contramar. The humble tostada is the epitome of casual sophistication, one that is so easy to replicate at home and makes a stellar starter.
It felt like every opportunity to try something new was a discovered treasure chest of flavor and culture. And what really shined consistently, was the incredible warmth of the people, which unarguably radiates through to their food and ingredients. As the weekend came to an end, and I was enjoying what I thought were my last round of chilaquiles and conchas, an airy bread roll resembling a shell…I fell. I thought a line outside a ramen restaurant in the middle of the afternoon was so interesting, that I slipped on the sidewalk and broke my leg. My trip took an unexpected turn and what came then were more conchas, bags of churros showing up at the hospital, and a lot of tortillas (plain, or large, crispy, and topped like a pizza).
During this time of recovery (and much introspection) in a foreign city, my go-to became a simple beloved staple: A split open and toasted roll, schmeared with creamy refried beans and a golden blanket of cheese. The best part, the molletes would always arrive with a smile, well wishes, and personal tales of suffered injuries.
A couple of months later, the flavors, experiences, and kindness I experienced in Mexico City lingered, and although I wasn’t quite walking just yet, I stepped into the kitchen eager to create recipes that celebrate those flavors and the essence of what I ate in Mexico City (with a little twist). Here are my takes.
Black Bean and Sausage Mexican Pizzas
What do you get when you cross a taco with a pizza? Answer: this crazy-delicious recipe. Inspired by the popular Oaxacan tlayuda from Mexico this version is made with a quick chorizo and bean mixture that nestles into cheese-topped crispy tortillas and to finish it off, it gets a bright and spicy cabbage slaw.
Get the recipe: Black Bean and Sausage Mexican Pizzas
Refried Bean and Cheese Melts
Meet the humble mollete. Your follow-up question to “What is a mollete?” is likely going to be “Where have you been my entire life?” Molletes are Mexico's ultra-comforting and cheesy open-faced sandwiches.
Get the recipe: Refried Bean and Cheese Melts
Skillet Mexican Pasta
This is a simple one-pot pasta recipe reminiscent of risotto due to the technique of toasting the thin noodles first with onions in a skillet. In Mexico, it's known as fideo seco. This is the most simple version of that.
Get the recipe: Skillet Mexican Pasta
Spicy Crab Tostadas
Delicious, packed with flavor, and easy: that’s the name of the game with this elegant recipe, which takes its flavorful cues from Mexico.
Get the recipe: Spicy Crab Tostadas
Roasted Mushroom Mole Enchiladas
What is an enmolada, you ask? They’re a type of enchilada that’s smothered in rich, cocoa-spiked mole sauce. Often made with chicken, this vegetarian rendition substitutes roasted mushrooms, which add a deep savory note to balance out the slightly sweet sauce.
Get the recipe: Roasted Mushroom Mole Enchiladas
Zesty Corn Soup With Chicken
You may be familiar with the so-called “Mexican street corn,” and if so, then you probably know how delicious it is. Here, those flavors combine in a medley of savory cotija, spicy cayenne, tart lime, and toasted sweet corn.
Get the recipe: Zesty Corn Soup With Chicken