Thanksgiving in Mexico City
I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend in Mexico City. I'd been in Mexico City once before, about fifteen years ago, but I only spent two days there, one of which was a taken up by a day trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The rest of the trip had been spent in Oaxaca and in the colonial cities of Queretaro and Guanajuato. This time I spent three and a half days in Mexico City.
I had my Thanksgiving lunch (the main meal of the day in Mexico) at a place that was at the top of my restaurant list, Contramar, considered by many the city's best seafood restaurant. I had spent the morning visiting the Castillo in Chapultepec Park (above), and would return to the park after lunch for the Archeological Museum (which I had missed the first time around).
I was told that Contramar, in Colonia Roma, a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the park, didn't take reservations, but when I got there they had a long list of reservations and gave me a seat at the bar (it's still not clear whether they take reservations from just anybody, or just "certain people"). I started with the waiter's recommendation, tostadas de atun. The crispy tortillas had a first layer of chipotle mayo atop which sat exquisite slices of sashimi-grade tuna loin carpaccio, garnished with avocado slices and crispy leeks. This is one of Contramar's signature dishes and it's worth signing up for. I noticed later that a number of restaurants in the neighborhood serve the dish, but I think Contramar may have invented it.
The main course they're most noted for is a grilled whole fish served with two sauces, a red chile adobo and a green parsley salsa. The size of the fish depends on the number of diners (they recommend a half kilo per diner), and all of the fish are over a kilo, so as a solo diner I had to go a different route. I was told they could prepare the filet of esmedregal the same way. Esmedregal (also known as cobia) is very popular in Mexico, and its meaty flesh reminded of a milder, less oily kind of tuna (though it's not at all related). The red sauce was excellent, but the green one was a bit too salty for me. Still saltier, unpardonably so, was the chopped spinach served with the dish.
Contramar is probably worth a visit if you're looking for an upscale afternoon meal in Mexico City, but I'm afraid my main course was a disappointment.
The Archeological Museum is overwhelming, and I really only saw the tip of the iceberg. I was exhausted by the time I got back to my hotel.
Later that evening I dragged myself out for dinner at a Mexico City institution, Fonda el Refugio, which has been around since the fifties. It's in all the guide books and is recommended by Antonio Banderas. A fonda is the Mexican equivalent of a trattoria--a simple, homey restaurant. El Refugio makes regional specialties from all over the country, and that evening I had pipian colorado, one of the Thursday specials. I've had pipians (pumpkin seed sauces) with duck and chicken in both California and New York. The ones I've had before were green, but the pipian colorado is a mix of pumpkin seeds, peanuts and red chiles. It actually reminded me of a West African peanut sauce, and it was great for dipping their wonderful homemade tortillas, but there was one fatal flaw: lukewarm meat. I was told that I had a choice of pollo or cerdo, and being a porkaholic I chose the cerdo. It was clear, however, that the meat was not cooked with the sauce, but rather some pre-cooked pork chunks were insufficiently reheated in the pipian. I suppose I could have complained and no doubt they'd have microwaved it, but I don't like to complain in a language I'm not a master of. Because when I complain I really complain.
The atmosphere at Fonda el refugio is pleasant enough, but I suspect the place is coasting on history and reputation.
Update: The grandson of the founder of the Fonda has announced on Chowhound that he has returned to Mexico to return the restaurant to its former glory. Best of luck to him.