It's no secret I like to eat. I'm on a self-imposed never-ending search to find the most interesting, delicious and unique culinary proposals in Mexico City. (Pobrecita, I know.)
I recently sat down with restauranteur friends to talk about the current state of CDMX dining and why you're better off not even looking at the menu.
Last I googled there are over 50,000 restaurants in Mexico City: this is a culinary Mecca where I'm rarely disappointed. The X Factor, in my opinion, is running into restaurants that leave me thinking, overthinking, analyzing, trying to figure out the details, the philosophy: a restaurant that provokes an emotional reaction. Here's a restaurant group with three different destinations that are currently doing that for me, and the people behind them.
Calle Colima 124, Colonia Roma.
Ensenada, Baja California is an important exporter of fish and seafood throughout Mexico. If you've eaten seafood at any serious restaurant in Mexico City, chances are its from Ensenada and it was personally delivered by the one and only Ezequiel.
I first met him years ago when I worked at Pujol: he would come in every morning with huge coolers full of flamboyant tuna, sea bass, octopus and oysters like a seafood Santa Claus of sorts, delivering Christmas gifts. The cooks at Pujol would get restless and giddy when they would see Ezequiel pull up: he brought the goods.
Ezequiel represents the youngest generation in his family of fish purveyors and exporters, not only in Mexico but now also sending Ensenada fish to restaurants in Europe.
The first time I ate at Campobaja I had dinner with friends: we enjoyed fabulous ceviches, fish machaca, fresh tuna and seafood tacos. The second time Ezequiel asked a rhetorical question: "How hungry are you?". Even if I'm not that hungry chances are I'll eat anything you give me. He brought in oysters, tostadas and tacos that were off-menu. He said "it's always better if you just let the kitchen send whatever they want."
He was right, and it left me thinking: I already knew that... Why have I forgotten to just let cooks cook? I had four courses then told him I was satisfied, he would have kept going otherwise. I had dinner in a few hours, otherwise you bet your butt I would have kept going. Unsurprisingly, that lunch at Campobaja was substantially better than the first dinner.
I realized how conceptually genius it is to have a purveyor, a profound expert in product and it’s origin, become a chef. I also felt like in a perfect world, menus wouldn't exist. You would just sit down and let the feast begin, allowing yourself the pleasure of being surprised.
Alejandro Zárate (Chef de Cuisine at Campobaja) and I had similar childhoods: he was a sort of "gringo" Mexican kid growing up in Mexico, but still being, well... sorta gringo. (Did any of that make sense? It does to us.) Kids like us celebrated Thanksgiving and were familiar with soul food and didn't discover the beautiful complexity of Mexican moles and cumbias until we were adults. We were both raised in tourist beach towns, Puerto Vallarta is my hometown, Ensenada is his. Alex was classically trained in French techniques and has been friends with Ezequiel for many years.
He wonders why people with serious food restrictions insist on going to restaurants. Truth is, we all wonder. Its unfortunate that people suffer painful physical allergies to certain foods, but those of us in the industry also question how much of that is the cook's responsibility to look out for? Aren't cooks just supposed to... cook? When did restaurants become ERs and chefs become physicians?
Even at Pujol, one of the most important restaurants in the world, the mentality is pretty much the same: the customer isn't always right. Now more than ever, as a professional diner, I'm convinced that's a great thing. Let's leave the experts to their expertise, no?
Calle Durango 181, Colonia Roma.
"You'll love it, trust me", said my friend Juan Carlos. "They're doing things nobody's doing." That's all I need to hear. I was invited to try their new menu at an ultra-chic chef's table inside Bar Oriente's kitchen, where Chef Bruno personally served and explained.
Bruno is also from Ensenada but happens to be Japanese-Mexican, which is the general concept of Oriente's menu. It had been a long time since I met such a passionate, knowledgeable young chef. And I spend a lot of time around great chefs, but Bruno still made a lasting impression on me.
He's out to revolutionize the marriage of both cultures in the form of food. I joked with him that if Japan and Mexico became one nation, they could take over the world. Japan with its perfect aesthetic, its discipline, its sobriety and Mexico with its passion, its humor, its vibrant colors.
Here's what excites me so much about Bar Oriente: they have a chef's table in the kitchen. If you know me, you know that's the key to my heart. There are only 2 restaurants in Mexico City (that I know of) that have this intimate environment where you can see all the action, ask all the questions, and take your culinary appreciation up a whole notha' level.
They currently offer an 8-course Omakase that's not 100% traditionally Japanese, as there are plenty of Mexican ingredients in it, but is so unique you'll never see sushi or nigiris. In fact, I'd say its a bit risqué: its not Japanese bizarre food by any means, but its certainly meant to take you out of your comfort zone at times. And I love the challenge: especially when its executed beautifully, the quality is impecable, the flavors are divine and you leave there feeling like you actually learned a thing or two.
Calle Durango 175, Colonia Roma.
The Little Bar That Could. This place is the definition of understated, yet its soon to become one of the most serious food destinations in the city. It's a bar, yes. It serves bar food, correct. But its the level of bar food you'd find in Berlin or London's greatest gastropubs. Their treatment of produce is insane: the pickled vegetables, the ferments, the homemade Tabasco and ketchup. What am I saying? The homemade prosciutto! I mean who buys an entire pig to make prosciutto from scratch? Felipe does.
I met Felipe at Bar Oriente, he came into the kitchen the first night I ate there. I asked where he was from as he spoke flawless English, he said Portugal. I lived in Brazil for some time, so we spoke Portuguese, which he kindly complimented me on. Then he told me he was part of the group as Chef de Cuisine at Can Can, just next door.
Can Can is a casual neighborhood bar where you can come in for great European wines and spirits, beautiful bar food in plates meant for sharing, and some nights enjoy live music or a stand up comedy routine. The crowd is great: a bit punk rock, a bit techy-Godínez (Mexican term for 9-to-5'ers), very hipster and naturally-drawing of an international crowd. It's a place where anyone feels comfortable. The decor is New Orleans meets Austin, TX meets Brooklyn.
Its no surprise some of their regular diners include famous Mexico City Chefs you and I have read about in the NYT. This place is the real deal.
And then there's the guy that makes sure everything runs smoothly at all three places, the Group's general manager Bernardo. Originally from Mexico City, Berns (as I call him) is an architect who's hair might be longer than mine and who might be sporting a new tattoo every week.
The first time I ate at Campobaja I made a reservation and didn't let anyone know I was coming. I knew him through social media but we had never met. He DM'd me on Instagram and asked: "I saw a reservation for Morenita Experience on Thursday. Are you coming in for dinner?". That simple question made a difference. Regardless of the Morenita brand, he was giving me hella customer service. Everything about the FOH at all three restaurants has been, well... perfect. And that's a very bold statement coming from me, someone whose foodie feelings get hurt when waiters or hostesses show a lack of attention to detail or customer service.
I had to tell him, as someone who had also managed Front of The House for many restaurants, that he was doing an amazing job at training his staff and making sure every single patron felt welcome, special, and taken care of. There are famous restaurants within the 50 Best LatAm list in Mexico City that I've unfortunately never felt that way about. But that's ok, because I have these guys.
Make sure you visit Campobaja, Bar Oriente and Can Can next time you're in Mexico City. Please tell them Morenita sent you and know you can expect world-class meals and service at these three destinations.