Food Fiesta: A Culinary A-Z of Mexico

Mexico is the land of flavours—eclectic and explosive. From jaliscos to pueblos, here’s a list of the country’s favourite recipes.| By Nicholas Gilman, Liz Dodd & Kate Armstrong  
Food Fiesta: A Culinary A-Z of Mexico 1
Due to the vibrancy of local ingredients, Mexican food often comes alive with all the colours of the sun and the sea. Rob Hamme/Aurora Open/Getty images

With its snowy peaks, seafood-rich ocean waters and cactus plains, Mexico’s landscape is as colourful and varied as the cuisine it produces. We’ve compiled a guide to some of the country’s best-loved recipes, dishes and street food snacks, so you can be confident you know tequila from raicilla and tamales from nopales.

 

Agave

Q&A: Kieran Waite, co-founder of Masa + Mezcal, Bristol

What is it you love about agave spirits?

The rise in popularity of agave cactus spirits like mezcal and tequila is opening doors to an incredible tradition. When you meet the producers, it’s impossible not to fall in love with mezcal. We took our restaurant teams to Mexico, planning the first trip on the back of a napkin. We knew we wanted to fly into Mexico City because it’s so frenetic and colourful; it’s the perfect inspiration. We trialled tequilas around the city, going from upmarket cocktail bars to humble drinking dens with swinging doors and sawdust on the floor. On our most recent trip to Mexico, we stayed at a mezcal palenque (distillery). It was a magnificent experience: we were up at 5 a.m. to help with the day’s work, hand-cutting pina (agave heart) and learning what a labour of love mezcal production is.

 

What’s a good region to visit for mezcal?

In Oaxaca, there are plenty of mezcalerias (bars specialising in mezcal) and passionate people wanting to share mezcal with you. On our first visit, we drove out to Mezcal Amores’ distillery in Mitla. It felt like cowboy country, with the dusty roads and rolling mountains covered in wild agave.

 

What’s your favourite agave spirit?

Raicilla. It comes from Jalisco, a region famous for tequila; it isn’t, however, made from Blue Weber agave, which tequila must be. Often made from Maximiliana, one of the varieties of agave used to produce mezcal, raicilla is unique in the way it marries tequila and mezcal. It’s smooth and less smoky, with fruity notes. masaandmezcal.co.uk LD

 

 

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Jimadors (harvesters) in Jalisco (top left); Tamarind margarita, Masa + Mezcal (top right); Locals (bottom left) gear up for Guadalajara’s Charreada Parade, Jalisco; Chef Martha Ortiz (bottom right) outside Dulce Patria, Mexico City. Photos By: Adam Wiseman/Mexico: A Culinary Quest published by Thames & Hudson (men); Hossein Amirsadeghi/Mexico: A Culinary Quest
Hemis/awl images (horses); Hossein Amirsadeghi/Mexico: A Culinary Quest Published By Thames & Hudson (drink); Maza + Mezcal (woman)

 

Bugs

Mexico’s edible insects extend beyond the usual gusano (worm) in a mezcal bottle. Favoured for their nutritional properties, insects can be found in markets and restaurants. Try snacks including jumiles (stink bugs), chicatanas (winged ants), escamoles (ant larvae), and alacranes (scorpions), also used as garnishes or—in the case of chapulines (grasshoppers)—to flavour moles (sauces). KA

 

Chef

Q&A: Martha Ortiz, chef-owner of Ella Canta at InterContinental London Park Lane, and Dulce Patria at Mexico City’s Las Alcobas hotel

You’ve said you think Mexican food is the most interesting in the world. Why is that?

It’s so varied, thanks to the abundance of some of the most delicious and extraordinary ingredients on our planet, like cacao tomatoes and avocados. Not only are the flavours powerful, but we have the ability to create colour contrasts that hypnotise the eyes before you even taste the dish. We also have some unique methods in the kitchen, such as the use of a molinillo (a kind of whisk) to create a foamy texture on the top of cacao drinks. There’s also the molcajete and tejolote (the traditional Mexican version of a mortar and pestle), carved from basalt, which we use to make salsas and guacamoles. The rough surface creates unusual textures, resulting in sauces that caress the palate.

 

You describe your cooking style as ‘feminine’. What do you mean by that?

Femininity is at the core of a lot of Mexican cooking, as women have played an integral part in developing the cuisine. The history of some of the greatest dishes takes us back to the convents. Mole is said to have been created in a convent in Puebla by a nun who I think of as a skilled magician; given the exquisiteness of this Mexican sauce, she must have been.

 

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A colourful street in the centre of Guanajuato. Photo By: Adam Wiseman/Mexico: A Culinary Quest published by Thames & Hudson

If you had to cook one dish to introduce someone to Mexican food, what would it be?

A sophisticated black mole accompanied by a simple tortilla.

This way, in a single bite, they can taste both the lightness of ‘day’ through the tortilla and the intensity of ‘night’ through the complex mole. We serve this in Ella Canta and guests find it inspiring. It’s an entry point into the depth and intricacies of great Mexican cuisine. LD

 

Drink of the Gods

Hipsters have laid claim to Mexico’s oldest drink: pulque, a viscous, low-alcohol drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant and traditionally flavoured with tropical fruit juices like guava. A sacred drink for the Aztecs, it was historically drunk during religious rituals; today, in the pavement bars of Querétaro and Cuernavaca, near Mexico City, students drink it by the litre, often accompanied by tacos. In its natural state, it’s a little sour and yeasty, but modern pulquerías (taverns specialising in pulque) flavour the drink with everything from pine nuts to red wine. ne of Mexico City’s oldest, La Antigua Roma, comes with saloon-style swing doors and a retro sign above the entrance reading ‘men only’. Inside, barmen use a hollow gourd to ladle pulque into a traditional, litre-sized glass known as a canon. Sit at a plastic table beside the hatch, where women used to collect takeaway pulque for their husbands, and watch life bustle past on the street outside. LD

 

Empanada

One of the country’s most versatile snacks, this dough pocket is filled with savoury (or occasionally sweet) ingredients and baked or fried. empanada fillings vary regionally, with options including spicy pork, chicken, prawns and plantain.

 

Ffrijoles

Beans—or frijoles—are used in the majority of Mexican dishes, whether accompanying meat dishes or used as a filling in molletes (open-faced sandwiches) or gorditas (stuffed pastries). speckled pinto beans form the base of frijoles refritos (a dish of cooked and mashed beans), while black beans are used in sauces, soups and fillings for enchiladas and burritos.

 

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Tostada (top right) of chicatana, mezcal worm and chapulines, Casa Oaxaca; Cornelio Hernández Rojas (top left), a specialist in Mexico’s maize varieties, at work in Ixtenco, Tlaxcala; Chicken leg with mole poblano and rice (bottom right); Nopales (bottom left) being prepared for sale. Photos By: Hossein Amirsadeghi/Mexico: A Culinary Quest published by Thames & Hudson (leaves); Alamy (field), Avalos Flores/Maricruz/stockfod (chicken)

 

Guanajuato

It’s worth making the trip to this central Mexican city for one restaurant alone: family-owned Casa Mercedes, where chefs painstakingly recreate historic recipes. Moles are made by hand, with a molcajete used for grinding spices. Try the signature slow-cooked pork shank or seasonal escamoles (ant larvae) with grasshoppers and guacamole. casamercedes.com.mx

 

Huaraches

A base of fried masa (corn dough) is shaped to take the form of a Mexican huarache sandal, then topped with ingredients like salsa, onion, potato, minced beef and cheese. It’s a popular choice in Mexico City.

 

Ice

Raspado (shaved ice) is a popular street treat, served in a cup with flavoured syrups and fruity-salty toppings, such as lime, tamarind and mango. Paletas, the ice lolly version, also come in savoury flavours like cucumber and chili powder. The most indulgent options are rolled in chocolate, nuts, salt or herbs. KA

 

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Michelada with shrimp, cucumber and celery. Photo By: Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock

Jalisco

From El Arenal in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, chef Martha Ortiz shares her lamb birria recipe

SERVES: 4

TAKES: 4 hrs 30 mins plus at least 5 hrs marinating

Ingredients:

1kg lamb leg

masa dough (combine 300g corn flour, 200ml water and 8g salt) fresh tortillas

For the marinade:

4g peppercorns 4g cloves

10g ground cinnamon 20g dried orange flowers 20g dried bay leaves 20g dried thyme 10g fresh marjoram 10g fresh ginger 300g sesame seeds

large onion, cut into quarters 500g ancho chillies

garlic cloves, peeled 500g tomatoes

80ml white wine vinegar

To garnish:

limes, cut into wedges 200g onion, roughly chopped

fresh serrano chillies, chopped

50g coriander, chopped

Method:

Start by making the marinade. Toast the peppercorns in a pan over a medium heat, then tip into a big bowl. Repeat with each of the remaining herbs, spices, flowers and seeds, then combine in the bowl.

Put the onion in a medium saucepan with the chillies, garlic and tomatoes. Cover with water and boil for 10 minutes until the chillies are soft and the onions cooked, then drain away the liquid. Tip into a blender and add the vinegar, toasted spice mixture and salt to taste.

Blend until smooth, then pass through a strainer and set aside.

Season the lamb with salt, then brush with the salsa. Leave in the fridge to marinate for at least 5 hours, or overnight.

Set a rack in a large saucepan. pour in a few centimetres of water, making sure it doesn’t reach the top of the rack. place the leg of lamb on the rack, then cover with a lid. Seal the rim of the saucepan with the masa to prevent steam escaping.

Bring to a boil, then lower to a gentle simmer for 3 hrs 30 mins, or until the meat is fully cooked.

Remove the lamb from the pot and reserve the broth (skim the top to remove the fat). Serve the lamb and broth with the tortillas and garnishes.

 

Kid

A culinary tour of Monterrey reveals there’s far more to this mountain-fringed Mexican city than its speciality, baby goat meat

On an extended visit to Monterrey 20 years ago, there was nothing to eat but meat: I had machaca (dried, salted shredded beef) with eggs for breakfast, cabrito (baby goat, Monterrey’s most iconic dish) for lunch and a steak for dinner. Finally, having pleaded desperately for a salad, I was told, “Well, we do have guacamole…”

But culinary times have changed in Mexico’s third-largest city. Industry brought money, which in turn bought culture. New museums arose and fine dining establishments followed. There’s far more to the place now, so I set off for a weekend visit, staying at the uber-cool Hotel Habita MTY and fashioning a self-guided tour that combined refined chef-driven restaurants with bustling local taquerías (eateries specialising in tacos).

The city feels chilly at first, surrounded by imposing, craggy mountains that can embrace or seem ominous depending on one’s mood. A recent crop of modernist high-rises looks to the future; the past seems less important here than it does in other parts of the country.

I begin at the best-known taco joint, Taqueria Orinoco, which has a red-and-white-tiled interior that pays nostalgic homage to the typical locale of yore. Only three exquisite meat tacos are on offer: trompo (condimented pork roasted on a revolving spit); res (tender, sauteed beef); and my favourite, chicharrón (crisp confit of pork belly), which melts in my mouth and crunches at the same time.

It feels weird to follow up such a heavenly taco experience with the fanciest place in town, and I wonder if I’m dressed up enough to enter the glitzy, award-winning Pangea. Here, chefs Guillermo

González Berristáin and Eduardo Morali offer a menu of beautifully executed dishes that refer to local, as well as foreign, traditions. Most produce and meats are locally sourced; seafood is brought in from the Pacific. Cabrito is on the menu, as is magret of duck with an orange mole, a Mexican play on that French bistro classic; pretentiousness is happily absent from the food.

 

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Isaac Enns Wall (top left), manager of Quesería Holanda, inspecting cheeses; Traditional dish of chiles en nogada (bottom left); Gorditas for sale (top right), San Sebastián Bernal, Querétaro; Views of Mogor Badan vineyard (bottom right) at Deckman’s. Photos By: Adam Wiseman/Mexico: A Culinary Quest published by Thames & Hudson (man); Alejandro Muñoz/iStock/Getty images (chiles en nogada); W.Scott.Koenig (vineyard)

 

The next day, after a leisurely stroll through the centre, I head to the bustling Mercado Juarez market for Monterrey’s headliner, cabrito al pastor (kid seasoned with salt and spices, dry-roasted in a wood oven). I pick a table at the legendary El Pipiripau, founded 30 years ago by Don Francisco Caballero Chávez and still run by his family, and watch as cooks tend to the beasts that are roasting away, rather hellishly strung up. Locals dragging shopping carts laden with meat— and some veg—scuttle by. Uninitiated, I order the ‘Nunca he venido’ (‘I’ve never been’), which includes various parts of the animal, plus tortillas and hot sauce. The white meat of the cabrito is tender, smoky and surprisingly mild in flavour.

That evening, I head to another new classic, Koli.

The plain decor may imply simple food, but the young Rivera Río brothers have created an ingenious tasting menu that turns tradition upside-down and inside-out. They travel to remote areas of the state in search of forgotten recipes and ingredients, then reinvent them. Each dish in the multi-course menu is presented by one of the chefs, who explains its context and history while serving. I revel in my dinner here; it’s a theatrical experience. And yet I still dream of tacos.

 

Lager & Lime

In the old mining town of Zacatecas, in a sleek bar decorated with paintings by Dalí and Miró, a man pours tomato juice into my beer. To be strictly accurate, it’s Clamato, a particular kind of tomato juice that’s flavoured with clam broth and spices.

If a bartender back home in the UK tried to pour clam broth into my beer, I’d walk out. But this is Mexico, so instead I watch as he adds a dash of chilli sauce, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a little stock and a squeeze of lime. He finishes with a handful of ice cubes and a flourish of chilli powder, then passes me the result: a michelada. similar to a bloody mary without the vodka kick, it’s delicious—as I knew it would be, having become drawn to the drink while cycling across the country. But rather like the old adage about never watching a sausage being made, I hadn’t quite realised what went into the quintessential Mexican beer cocktail.

Michelada is the evolutionary pinnacle of cervezapreparada (‘prepared beer’), which is shorthand for a beer loaded with extras such as salt and lime. The tradition hails back to when Mexican beer bottles were sealed with metal caps that left traces of rust on the neck; drinkers would use a wedge of lime to wipe the rust off the mouth of the bottle and, more often then not, they’d then chuck the lime into the beer.

The first cervezapreparada I tried, in a dusty little bar in the desert in southern Baja, was a revelation. I was served a bottle of Corona, a glass with a salted rim and a generous glug of lime juice. It was a world away from the British practice of shoving an emaciated wedge of citrus down the neck of a lager bottle and hoping for the best. My second was in the tiny town of Saín Alto—but what the 10-year-old mixologist brought me then was entirely different: a giant polystyrene cup, sticky with chilli sauce and filled with a red liquid that was, rather concerningly, foaming. This was michelada, and it was a miracle. LD

So, guiltily, I head to the late-night Tacos Primo. Loyal customers are lined up outside for the only kind of taco on the menu: fragrant chopped flank steak stewed in its own juices, heaped on a tortilla and topped with chopped onion, coriander and spiky salsa. I wolf down three and go to sleep happy. hotelhabitamty.com; koli.mx; taqueriaorinoco.com NG

 

 

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A restaurant called Taqueria Orinoco. Photo By: Sebastian Manterola

Masa

Mexico’s culinary lifeblood and oldest cultivated foodstuff, masa is thought to have been grown in Mesoamerica up to 7,000 years ago and was favoured by Toltec, Aztec and Maya peoples. Through an ancient process known as nixtamalisation, corn kernels are softened to become hominy, the basis for a hearty, stew-like soup.

The ground corn is then kneaded with water to make masa, the base for myriad tasty treats and staples, including tacos and tamales. KA

 

Nopales

In the mountain towns of central Mexico, where cacti grow thick in the surrounding desert, old women sit in the markets and de-spike thick leaves at a blinding speed. The resulting smooth, succulent pads are called nopales. Juicy like courgette, gummy like okra and a little bitter, they break down beautifully when pan-fried with onion and garlic. Best of all are nopales in tacos and gorditas, lightly fried or chargrilled and enveloped in gooey white cheese; the finest nopales tacos are found at stalls lining the highways in Durango and Zacatecas states.

The leaves are sold everywhere in Mexico, with tinned varieties available too. The nopal plant-otherwise known as prickly pear—also produces succulent fruits. They may look tempting on the cactus, but as any Mexican will warn you, it’s best to let the redoubtable old women pick them for you to avoid being pricked. LD

 

Oaxaca

Oaxaca city, capital of Oaxaca state, has access to some of the country’s best food produce and, as such, is a magnet for the country’s top chefs and finest street food. Your first stop should be Casa Oaxaca, where chef Alejandro Ruiz reinterprets regional dishes including tlayuda (Mexico’s answer to pizza), traditionally sold as street food. At Origen, Chef Rodolfo Castellanos (the 2016 winner of Top Chef Mexico) creates buñuelos, classic South American fritters that he fills with chocolate and a pasilla chilli truffle. Oaxaca’s gastronomic claim to fame is its moles, made from local ingredients including Oaxacan chocolate and chapulines (grasshoppers). Even the empanada is different in Oaxaca; here, it’s like an oversized tortilla filled with tasty delights. The famous empanadas of Fonda Florecita, a food stall in Mercado de la Merced, are stuffed with quesillo (stringy cheese) and courgette flowers. KA

 

Puebla

As far as Mexicans are concerned, Puebla is ground zero for mole poblano, one of the country’s many famous moles and its unofficial national dish.

Locals prepare and enjoy it on celebratory days, especially on Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862. The story goes that the dish was invented by 17th-century nuns of the Convent of Santa Rosa, who used leftovers at hand in a hasty effort to prepare a meal for the visiting viceroy (some versions say it was an archbishop). Think assorted chillies—the principle one being the poblano chilli— plus roasted spices, nuts, stale bread and bittersweet chocolate. Like all good recipes, family disputes occur around what constitutes the ‘best’. Regardless, the final result should be a rich and fragrant sauce, usually served over turkey. KA

 

 

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Thomasina Miers (top right), founder of Wahaca; Street café in Campeche (top left); Tacos (bottom left) being prepared at Taquería Los Cocuyos, Mexico City; Tamales (bottom right) wrapped in banana leaf. Photos By: Nicholas Gilman (man), Xarhini/iStock/getty images (food); tara fisher (woman), Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy Stock Photo/alamy (restaurant)

Queso

Quesochihuahua, a semi-firm, pale yellow cheese made from pasteurised cow’s milk and sold predominantly in blocks or rounds, is also known by another name: quesomenonita, a nod to the Mennonite communities of Northern Mexico, who settled here around 1920. Known for their agricultural skills, Mennonite communities produced local crops such as corn and beans, as well as foodstuffs of their origins (Germany and the Netherlands), including cheese. These days, quesochihuahua is produced across the country and used in a range of dishes, including quesofundido con chorizo (melted cheese with chorizo sausage), and as a deliciously gooey filling for quesadillas. KA

 

Rellenos 

Some recipes for chiles rellenos, (stuffed chillies) call for fillings of cheese, pork or beef before the chillies are battered, fried and served with salsa roja (red sauce). The best-known version, however, is chiles en nogada, a stuffed poblano pepper as important for its patriotic significance as its flavour. Filled with minced meat, fruit, spices and nuts and topped with walnut sauce and pomegranates, it was the creation of Augustinian nuns in Puebla, who whipped it up in celebratory style for Mexican General Augustin de Iturbide in 1821 to honour Mexico’s independence from Spain. And, given the introduction of the tricolour Mexican flag in the same year, what could be more appropriate than a dish of green (the chilli), white (the sauce) and red (the pomegranates)? August and September are when ingredients are freshest; they’re best sampled at El Mural de los Poblanos in Puebla. elmuraldelospoblanos.com KA

 

Street Food

Tacos

A do-it-yourself taco tour of Mexico City’s historic centre reveals flavours from across the nation

Tacos are part of Mexicanidad—the hallowed state of being Mexican. Tortillas have been around for centuries, having been made by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica in pre-Hispanic times, and the idea of packing them with ingredients, to create taco snacks, is older than the hills. Acting simultaneously as plate, fork and spoon, tacos are not only a logical dish, but an integral part of quotidian life.

Mexico City is home to people from all over the country and its taco options encompass every region.

I’ve devised a taco walking tour in the city’s historic centre, a route I still follow after 25 years. Begin with a stand-up taco de guisado (a stewy, slow-cooked dish) at Salon Corona, a lively beer hall that first opened in 1928. Mole verde (green sauce), bacalao (salt cod) andpulpo (octopus) are among the recommended dishes, and the beer here is cold and on tap.

Next, head down Calle de Bolivar to Los Cocuyos, a tiny locale that’s always packed; you’ll be able to tell which it is from afar by the small crowd that always seems to be gathered outside. While I enjoy a taco of tender suadero (flank steak), I usually opt for the melt-in- the-mouth lengua (tongue) here, with crispy fried tripe thrown on top.

Continue walking until you reach Calle Republica del Salvador, then turn right. Head along Ayuntamiento to El Huequito, a hole in the wall that’s the best place to sample tacos alpastor (pork marinated in chilli and

spices, cooked on a vertical spit). The meat is juicy and succulent, with a smoky aroma that lingers.

Across the street is Tacos de Canasta Las Especiales, located in the same building as the old XEW radio studios, where many famous musicians got their start; perhaps ranchera singer Lola Beltran downed a few tacos while she was waiting for her big break. Make sure to try the delicious mole verde or carnero en adobo (marinated mutton) options.

‘Los mejores tacos del centrohistorico’ (‘the best tacos in the historic centre) shrieks the sign at Taquerla Gonzalez on the corner of Lopez and Vizcainas—and, judging by the huge crowd gathered at the corner, they might just be right. My top pick here is longaniza (spicy sausage), but the tacos filled with cabeza (oven-roasted cow head) are also delicious—although I must admit I try to put the key ingredient out of my mind while eating them. For more cabeza options, head to Taquerla los Gueros; with lengua (tongue), buche (lips) and oreja (ear) on the menu, nothing is wasted.

Originating from central Mexico, barbacoa refers to a specific form of cooking that involves wrapping meat (usually mutton) in maguey leaves before roasting the parcel in an outdoor pit. A good place to try this succulent, smoky style of meat is Cocina Vianey, located near the Mercado San Juan market; the latter is also well worth a visit for its exotic array of produce and meats on display.

Craving something other than carnivorous offerings? Don’t despair. I always followed the rule that seafood was never to be eaten on the street until I discovered El Caguamo, the best seafood stand in the city. It serves up four types of ceviche, fried fish filets and a hearty seafood soup that should satisfy anyone’s maritime cravings. NG

You’ll know when there’s a festival taking place in Santa Maria del Rio, a village south of San Luis Potosi, thanks to the Mariachi music shaking the windows of the brightly coloured houses. Head to the main square, where food carts are tightly packed along the pavement outside the church. This is proper Mexican street food—and there’s not a burrito in sight. Begin with a taco or two, piled high with slow-cooked meat, salsa and a squeeze of lime, then move on to gorditas (‘chubby girls’): flaky stuffed pastries, often oozing with cheese. Next, try esquites, barbecued sweetcorn kernels swirled with mayonnaise, cheese, salsa, chilli and lime. Leave room for a gooey fried banana, drenched in condensed milk and chocolate sauce, before setting off in search of a mezcaleria for a digestif. LD

 

Unwrap

Derived from the Nahuatl word tamalli, meaning ‘wrapped’ or ‘encased’, tamales are believed to be one of Mexico’s oldest food traditions. Hunks of masa are filled with anything from meats and cheese to salsas, before being wrapped in a leaf and then steamed or baked. Versatile and portable, you’ll find them throughout Mexico, from high-class eateries to street carts. KA

 

 

Food Fiesta: A Culinary A-Z of Mexico 3

Mayan ruins in Tulum (left); The Hartwood (top right); Jicama salad, The Hartwood (bottom right). Photos By: Nicholas Gill/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy (restaurant); Justin Foulkes/4Corners (food); Nicholas Gill/Alamy Stock Photo/alamy (beach)

Valle de Guadalupe & Ensenada

Mexico’s Baja California wine country rejoices in rustic restaurants, where unpretentious menus let local produce shine.

The valleys where much of Mexico’s finest wine is produced are very much their own thing. The region isn’t spectacular in that verdant Loire Valley kind of way, and there’s nothing colonial nor Aztec. But this is Mexico, with all its lovable, funky imperfection. There’s beauty in the craggy mountains dotted with spiky cacti.

Most of the country’s grapes are grown in Valle de San Vincente and Valle de Ojos Negro, but the Valle de Guadalupe region—a patchwork of vineyards, orchards and organic gardens—is also home to a number of major wineries, such as Bodegas de Santo Tomas, founded in 1888. The industry has exploded since the 1990s and today there are more than 75 bodegas (wine cellars) in the valley; superb vintages can be sampled at wineries designed by cutting-edge architecture firms.

I visit Ensenada, a low-key fishing town just over an hour’s drive from the US border. It’s the jumping-off point for an eating and drinking tour encompassing everything from street food stands to the valley’s fine dining restaurants. At the bustling Mercado Negro in downtown Ensenada, I soak up the market’s atmosphere. Just up the street, Don Fidel has set up his little cart almost every day for more than 30 years. He serves nothing but giant pismo clams, opened to order, chopped and lightly dressed with lime and hot sauce.

Fish tacos are Ensenada’s specialty. Hand-cut strips of cazon (a type of small shark) are dipped in a lightly spiced flour batter and deep-fried, then garnished with salsas, pico de gallo (chopped tomato, chilli and onion), a sour cream-mayo mix and shredded cabbage. Tacos Fenix, on the corner of Juarez and Espinosa, claims to have invented fish tacos, although I’d take that with a grain of salt. La Guerrerense, meanwhile, is a busy stand that’s been offering the freshest seafood since 1960.

Half an hour’s drive from Ensenada, chef Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano is one of the region’s most popular restaurants. I sit under the thatched roof, surveying the burgeoning vines as I feast on chef Plascencia’s signature dishes: grilled octopus with citrus, soy, peanuts, chile de arbol and coriander, and roast wild quail with candied garlic, olive oil and chard.

Deckman’s, where I while away several hours at lunch the next day, is set in an open-air dining room topped by a corrugated tin roof. Chef Drew Deckman immerses himself in smoke, grilling everything to perfection.

No foodie tour is complete without a visit to La Cocina de Dona Esthela, whose namesake prepares hearty Mexican breakfasts from scratch. I’m somewhat surprised to find this legendary spot in a featureless brick building at the end of a dirt road, but Esthela’s eggs with machaca (dried, salted beef) is truly the stuff of daydreams. santo-tomas.com; laguerrerense.com; fincaltozano.com; deckmans.com  NG

 

Wahaca

Q&A: Thomasina Miers, founder of the Wahaca restaurant group

What parts of Mexico inspired you to launch your restaurant?

When I was living and working in Mexico City, I made a series of trips to inspirational places. Veracruz, for example, is a long, thin state on the eastern side of the country; it’s rich in seafood, crabs and chillies, and its smoky red chilli pastes are used liberally over food—with intoxicating results.

Oaxaca, running down Mexico’s central valley, is famous for its seven moles and wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The wholesale market in Oaxaca city is a wonderful place to visit if you think Mexican food is simple or unhealthy—its extraordinary array of fruits, wild herbs, chillies, leaves and greens are a beautiful sight for any food-lover. Finally, Campeche, with its tropical climate and Caribbean coastline has given me ideas for recipes using seafood, coconut, mango, plantain, chillies and beans.

 

Is there a state that’s particularly inspiring you at the moment?

I love the innovative and energetic food culture that has emerged from Baja California. Their small vineyards, biodynamic farms, food trucks and restaurants are incredibly exciting, especially with that backdrop of sea and valley. It feels like a state that’s up for experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for food.

 

How do Mexican inspirations translate onto the menu?

Whenever I visit, I spend time thinking through the flavours I’ve loved and make a list of things I’d like to try cooking. I always go with members of our food team, so over the years we’ve built up a memory bank of dishes. It’s a fun, creative process and we’re always giving thanks to Mexico for providing us with so much ground for discovery. wahaca.co.uk LD

 

X-Rated

There are more than 100 varieties of chilli available across

Mexico—and thousands of ways to prepare them. Be sure to try these four essential chillies, some of which may just blow your mind:

ANCHO Shrivelled in appearance, this ripened, sun- dried poblano adds a sweet, raisin-like flavour to dishes. It’s a popular ingredient in moles.

JALAPENO One of the country’s favourites, this chilli is commonly used as a garnish on tacos. It’s often chargrilled or fried, too.

POBLANO Originally from the Puebla region. Proceed with caution—heat levels can be unpredictable.

HABANERO A common ingredient in sauces, this chilli brings hefty levels of heat. It’s named after the Cuban capital, Havana. KA

 

Yucatan

Rich in Mayan ruins, thick jungles and deep cenotes, this state is home to some of the country’s oldest recipes, such as pibil (marinated meat wrapped in banana leaves, then slow-cooked in a barbecue pit). It also has a modern side: Tulum, on the Caribbean coast, is a celebrity magnet and yoga haven with a cool food culture to match. Queue for a table at celebrated chef Diego Hernandez Baquedano’s jungle restaurant Mur Mur for dishes that put a modern spin on Yucatan ingredients, or try Hartwood, famed for its zingy ceviche. murmurtulum.com; hartwoodtulum.com LD

 

Zacatecas

When Surrealist artists Andre Breton, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst came to Mexico, they settled in its cool, central mountain towns. One of these, Zacatecas, has preserved its reputation as a boho-cool hub for artists, with galleries and boutiques on every corner. So it somehow makes sense that Zacatecas is at the heart of Mexico’s craft beer scene—although maybe it’s a rebellious middle finger to the giant Grupo Modelo brewery just outside town, which churns out bottles of Corona and Pacifico. The city is home to one of Mexico’s best beer festivals, the annual Expo Cerveza Zacatecana, as well as excellent craft beer bars. La Artesana, a punky little bar with plenty of attitude, is located in the historic centre and is one of the best; Coyote Escondido, a little further out, is also brilliant. Look for beers from local brewery Chacuaco Cervecera. LD

 

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