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Mexico City's Moment

The capital is in mid-transformation as new restaurants proliferate and even Starbucks debuts. But don't worry: The culture is more potent than a hundred coffee bars.

Whatever is fueling it----the unseating of the institutional Revolutionary party, perhaps--Mexico City is having a Moment. In some respects the world's third-largest city is still chaotic and hard to penetrate, but it's not difficult to find signs of transformation. It is most readily visible, not to mention edible, in the gently proliferating restaurants, hotels and shops of two leafy, fashionable neighborhoods, or colonias: Polanco and Condesa. If these changes suggest an ominous blanding of the culture, let me reassure you. From the byzantine bloodthirsty-god networks of the Mexicas (the correct term for the Aztecs) to the national cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexicans rich or poor, religious or not, call themselves Guadalupanos), from colonization to revolution, Mexico City's culture is potent enough to overwhelm a hundred Starbucks coffee bars (the first is opening soon) and Gaps (no sign yet).

When you're about to go to Mexico City--known in Mexico simply as D.F. (dey EFF-ey), from Distrito Federal--people tend to overreact. They usually say one of two things: either "But isn't it dangerous and polluted?" or "That's my favorite city! You must go to [insert long list of obscure tacquerias]." There is very little in between. However, based on the evidence I've been collecting, I predict that the first, fearful camp is heading for extinction. Pollution is at an all-time low, and crime, well, crime is discussed much like bad weather or losing sports teams are here--with exasperation and a proprietorial air. Everyone knows someone who was a victim of a minor heist, but you, the visitor, are going to be fine. Just don't hail a taxi. The swarms of parrot green VW Bug taxis conceal some rogues, and safety dictates that you call instead for a taxi de sitio. Better still, hire a guide to drive you around during your stay. He can not only fight the traffic for you but also decode some of the city's potent culture.

Polanco and Condesa are separated by the Bosque de Chapultepec, which anchors any Mexico City experience. This 262-acre park contains lakes, an excellent zoo and seven museums. They include the essential Museo Nacional de Antropología; the Museo de Arte Moderno, an eighteenth-century castle; and the Mexican White House, Los Pinos. Like New York City's Central Park, Chapultepec is important for the mental health of the city's residents. For visitors, it has become the starting gate for the brand-new Corridores Turísticos, a government initiative, which by year's end promises to deliver double-decker hop-on, hop-off buses, verdant plantings and 700 special multilingual police down Paseo de la Reforma to the central square, the zócalo, and the freshly scrubbed centro historico. When you think Mexico City, friendly cops and blossoming jacarandas may not spring to mind, but then neither do Asian-fusion cuisine, Adam Tihany–designed restaurants, Gucci, Fendi and bistro-traiteurs, but you'd better get used to it--they're here.

Polanco, north of Chapultepec, is all about European bakeries, Spanish-style villas and the Gucci-Bulgari-Cartier-Fendi shops along avenue Presidente Masaryk. For at least three decades it has harbored big, fancy hotels--including the newly renovated Camino Real, which is where the Tihany-designed sister of New York's Le Cirque is about to open--but until now it's had nothing even slightly resembling a high-design boutique hotel. Hotel Habita is Mexico City's first. Posing in its chic shell of sandblasted glass, with Aqua, its rooftop swimming pool and bar, and Aura, its buzzing lobby restaurant, it is a honeypot for the fresas--the city's young, wealthy elite. And at Aura, chef Lula Martín del Campo, speaking perfect English, in pigtails and sexy low-rise pants by her friend Grypho (the city's hottest designer, from Condesa of course), is like an ambassador for the new hip. Luckily, del Campo's not only cute, but also passionate about her kitchen, cooking four-cheese risotto and steak au poivre (good) and shrimp tacos and sea bass in a fresh-as-grass tomatillo-cilantro salsa (great), in between meet-and-greets. The schizoid menu is typical of the culinary moment here, where fusion--a gastronomic dirty word in the United States--is not only an acceptable qualifier for cuisine, it is practically de rigueur, and every trendy menu has a pasta section. As Del Campo explained, young chefs don't want to seem mired in the old ways, and international is what the customers want. That may be true, but I still wish she'd embrace her roots, because her tinkering with indigenous dishes is her best work.

Patricia Quintana, one of Mexico's best-known chefs, is doing that--revising regional Mexican dishes in Izote, her new Polanco place, as well as in her books and TV appearances. It's curious, but I was told that Quintana is harming Mexico City's culinary image by looking backward instead of being international, whereas in fact, from the North American perspective, she's enhancing it. To me, Quintana's reinvented, refined Mexican food seems to have a whole new vocabulary, and it is sublime. At Izote I had one of the most fascinating things I've eaten this year: barbecued lamb steamed in banana leaves and served with a trio of salsas. But the frightening dining room--with its Aztec murals and operating-room lighting--does brand Quintana as the old guard.

If you skirt Chapultepec going south from Polanco, you find yourself in another neighborhood of mostly narrow, tree-lined streets with cafés and shops, but one so different from Polanco you could be in another city altogether. Colonia Condesa is the land of arts and youth, the preferred quarter for correspondents from foreign newspapers, photographers, stylists and designers. A clutch of slackers with piercings in '70s vintage clothing is forever hanging out in the sidewalk cafés around Insurgentes and Michoacán avenues, but besuited career women and men in ties are down the block lunching at Ligaya, the trendy all-white nouveau-Mexican place, or the upscale Polish restaurant Specia. There is no doubt that this is the most fluid neighborhood of all and the one to watch.

That's the reason Habita's owners are opening a new hotel here next year. Hotel Condesa is sure to accelerate the evolution of the neighborhood. The owners hired scene-making American hotelier Jonathan Morr (of Townhouse Hotel in Miami and, in New York City, Bond Street and Theo restaurants and APT bar-club) and his favorite designer, India Mahdavi, to create something unique. Hotel Condesa's public spaces will be a whole complex of "rooms folding into rooms," as Morr puts it, with several intimate bars and restaurants around a central courtyard. He says it will elevate the area, and I'm sure he's right because, for all its hip quotient, Condesa is still a work in progress. In between a digital-art gallery and a juice bar, there are stores selling aquarium supplies and fishing lures. It has changed enough for the Mexicanness of Mexico City to seem remote; but places like Ligaya emanate a Mexico City-ness, a new kind of urban identity. Ligaya's uncanny resemblance to Habita is no accident. Both belong to a happening young restaurateur, Gonzalo Serrano, a good friend of Lula Mart"n del Campo, who happens to have been Habita's opening general manager. So you see, Mexico City is not daunting at all. It's just a village of 20 million.

Drive south from Condesa and soon (well, eventually--traffic is hell) you reach Coyoacán, which was literally a village till last century. It has been a magnet for artists for decades, but it has hardly changed, and it is hardly hip…now. Once, though, it was the absolute center of the universe, as next month's release of Frida, starring Salma Hayek, will illustrate. The Julie Taymor-directed Frida Kahlo biopic was shot partially in the achingly picturesque blue adobe house in Coyoacán that Kahlo shared with various permutations of Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, cats, parrots and mother, and which is still intact. Coyoacán runs on a different clock than the more central colonias. People from other parts of the city take day trips here for nieves--ices in flavors like white-chocolate-tuberose-gardenia or jicama-chile--or for crafts shopping at the Bazar Sábado in neighboring San Angel, which is similarly pretty, but sleepier and wealthier.

The lunch clock in Coyoacán, however, runs at the usual Mexico City speed, which is to say it starts around 2:30 and finishes at 5:30, after everyone's had several courses, assisted by tequila shots. The three-hour lunch is another, quite charming reason why even the stuffiest regions of Mexico City are safe from standardization, and why the city would be so conducive to a proud revival of hokey, despised folkloric styles.

In a very fancy mall between Coyoacán and San Angel, another young star D.F. chef, Mónica Patiño, seems halfway committed to that idea. Taberna del León is this 40-something Buddhist's first restaurant (her second is in Polanco; her third, still shrouded in secrecy at press time, is in the Palmas neighborhood), and it's the most serious. Waiters bow and ladies' menus lack prices, but ties are flicked over the shoulder and chatter is loud. In other words, it's half formal, half fun. And, like del Campo, Patiño cooks half international, half local, juxtaposing salmon with soy sauce and teppanyaki vegetables with her grandmother's recipe for sea bass on potatoes braised with a smoky three-chile sauce in a clay pot. Again, the Mexican dish is far superior.

What I'm hoping is that in the next culinary phase, any second now, these gifted chefs will do for Mexican food what Kahlo and Rivera did for Mexican art and, with gusto and interior-decorating skills, dump the fettuccine Alfredo and give a big hug to the national cuisine. 

Published September 2002
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