Enrique Olvera, more than any other chef, convinced the world that Mexico City is an essential pin on every global food map. Now he shares the classic places that inspire his brilliant Mexican cooking.

Enrique Olivera
Credit: © Bobby Fisher

Enrique Olvera, more than any other chef, convinced the world that Mexico City is an essential pin on every global food map. Now he shares the classic places that inspire his brilliant Mexican cooking.

Ghosts are everywhere in Mexico City, looming massively over the living. At the highest point in Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s gracefully scrubby central park, the dead are stacked up like churros in David Alfaro Siqueiros’s 1957 mural of martyrs to the Revolution. Closer to earth, in the posh apartment zone of Polanco, chef Enrique Olvera’s dead grandfather—photographed like a silver-screen star—gazes like a specter on everyone entering or leaving the city’s most famous restaurant, Pujol.

I’m in Mexico City for a ghost tour of my own: I want to find the dishes that haunt Olvera’s memory. This is the food that inspires the 39-year-old hero of modern Mexican gastronomy, both at Pujol and at his year-old New York City restaurant, Cosme.

Olvera, more than any other chef, convinced the world that Mexico City is an essential pin on every global map of food. He grew up in and around here, heading to the US to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. In 2000, he opened Pujol—a slurring of pozole, his nickname in school, a burn for being pudgy. His food was heavily influenced by The French Laundry Cookbook: New American tweaked with Mexican ingredients, as in foie gras with guava. It wasn’t until 2005 that Olvera found his own identity, and an audience.

Dinner at Pujol can invade your senses like a distillation of Mexico. You feel its sweep in a series of small, expressive gestures: the first spring escamoles (ant larvae), bursting from a single pea pod, a statement of birth. Or the contrasting moles: a two-year-old mole madre, brown as earth, perpetually fed with new mole; and a brick-red mole nuevo. Both are spread on the plate as a disk within a circle, like some reductive Aztec calendar. Olvera is a chef who thinks a lot about time.

When Cosme opened, critics pored over the dishes to divine some authentic expression of Mexico. Some found it. Others focused on Olvera’s genius as a restaurateur, his charisma, the way he studies his clientele and gives them what they want in a place thousands of miles from his source of inspiration.

Right now, kitty-corner from me at the massive table in the private dining room at Pujol, just off the burnished galley of a prep kitchen that’s animated by a dozen cooks, Olvera is trying to find his voice in the literal sense. After two months away, he got back to Mexico City with a raw throat ravaged by a cold. He’s sipping an infusion of ginger and lime, poured from a murky French press one of his cooks has just delivered.

Olvera has come from his cardiologist. “Just a few…”—he flutters a splayed hand in front of his black V-neck tee—“…chest pains.” His grizzled black beard frames his smile, spread wide in an expression of feral charm. “Don’t worry,” he says, lowering his face to sip, “I’m not dying. There’s an old saying in Spanish.” He brings his head back up to blast me with that smile again. “Hierba mala nunca muera.” A bad weed never dies.

Olvera looks slightly withered, though. This week while he’s in Mexico, his life is a tight grid of two-hour calendar blocks. He just wrapped his epic English-language book for Phaidon, Mexico from the Inside Out, which traces the life of Pujol. Now he has to approve the type of padded envelopes that review copies will be mailed in, go over blueprints for Manta—a restaurant at The Cape hotel in Mexico’s Los Cabos—and taste the tiny chia-seed tostada one of his sous-chefs has tracked him down to try. He also wants to take me to his laid-back café, Eno, just down the street, where the menu is stocked with breakfast and lunch standards like eggs with chorizo and quinoa salad.

But this morning, Olvera is most interested in taking me around Mexico City to try the classic dishes he loves best. He says, “A lot of people in Mexico are like, ‘Oh, now that you’re in New York you don’t give a shit about us anymore.’ That’s wrong: Pujol is the first, the most important restaurant.”

At Pujol, Olvera’s inspiration drips through a filter of thought and technique, but in New York City he traces a more direct line to the foods he loves, some since he was a kid. Cosme is where Olvera is freer to be himself, truer to his food memories. New York, in a weird way, brings Olvera closest to Mexico City.

On a Monday morning, just after 10, not a lot is happening at Mercado San Cosme. Olvera’s grandfather lived six blocks away, in Colonia San Rafael, and little-kid Enrique hung out here.

It’s a market off the tourist circuit—stalls sell clothes and shiny pink backpacks for kids, plastic colanders and socks, piñatas like spiky Bethlehem stars at every stage of construction. In the illusory green light of fluorescent tubes, Olvera ambles down one of the lanes toward the skylit center, and the still-quiet, not-yet-open comida corrida booths, home to Mexico City’s cheap midday meals. He points out sapotes negros—rich, chocolate-colored cousins of the persimmon—and a cardboard box of black-spotted bananas, each no bigger than a baby’s foot.

“Fruit in Mexico is always overripe,” he says, holding up a hand of decaying bananas, signaling to the girl that he wants to buy. “It’s the taste of moles, the smell of chiles that have been drying out. People will drop the peel from an orange on the ground, and it stays there to rot. It’s in the air.” The past keeps its hold on Mexico, even what you breathe.

Olvera has delivered this discourse on rotten bananas in other interviews. As a boy, he was forced to eat them by his grandmother on his mom’s side, who lived in Tabasco, in Mexico’s far south. “I always thought we were poor, so we had to eat them,” he says. “But we weren’t that poor. As I grew up I understood she liked the flavor.”

We get to the stall Olvera wants to show me, a taco stand overseen by a gentleman called Memo, in a white dress shirt, face molded by deep, soft wrinkles. He orders us each a taco—chicharrón in salsa roja. Pale, semitranslucent sheets of pork skin tinted deep orange overlap one another on a tortilla laid out on a wax paper square. The chicharrón’s edges are gnarled, phantom crispness turning soft to frame a lush texture.

It glows with the transformative power chefs live for.

In front of San Cosme, waiting for our Uber, I notice Olvera’s tattoos. “This,” he says, lifting his left sleeve, “is the arm of my family.” There are symbols for his children, represented by their nicknames: Rábano (radish), Mosca (fly). A duck (Pato) for his wife, Allegra, and Mayan numbers—dots above thick horizontal bars—for the dates of his kids’ birthdays, like a small, pre-Columbian codex needled on skin.

But his right arm, Olvera says, is his alone. He lifts the sleeve: There are lashing ink flames and some crazy gyroscopic symbol above parallel lines. “This arm is my idea,” he mumbles as if reticent, like I just asked him to strip off his shirt. One by one, he points to his tattoos: “No beginning…no end…an equal sign…everything’s the same…whatever.”

I felt like I could see the opposing lobes of Olvera’s mind—history on one side, cosmic invention on the other. It’s the same dichotomy as Cosme: a nostalgic crawl through a disappearing Mexico, and a space walk into creation’s void.

Early next morning, I head for more chicharrón, this time in salsa verde, at Olvera’s beloved Fonda Margarita in Tlacoquemecatl del Valle. The place is a dream of urban Mexico, a 60-year-old fonda—the modest neighborhood restaurant equivalent of an Italian trattoria—that looks like a blown-up shed with rippled sheets of fiberglass roofing covering partially open walls. It’s on a street where a car wash faces a white church, El Señor del Buen Despacho, Saint of the Good News. A local expression of no-nonsense faith, in bureaucrat-speak, if ever there was one.

A tweed-jacketed guy singing a bolero inside Fonda Margarita glimpses me through the glass of the metal door and slides it open. Folding myself into the skinny beer-hall table with a spangled turquoise top, I can just barely see the charcoal braziers in the back kitchen.

At 7 a.m., Fonda Margarita is half-full of middle-aged chilangos (Mexico City residents) dressed for the office hunched over albóndigas (meatballs) and huevos rancheros. The chicharrón verde is a bowl of rough, browned hunks of pork skin submerged in thick tomatillo sauce. The rind turns beautifully gelatinous as it braises in the tart green sauce. Like the tacos at San Cosme market, it’s a study in transformation, turning poverty into something lush and transcendent.

That’s also true at Restaurante Nicos, a rambling family restaurant in Colonia Clavería, a couple of miles north of Polanco, full of older chilangos capping their lunches with elaborate, boozy coffees with whipped cream and aniline-red cherries. Nicos is the source of Olvera’s favorite guacamole, the one listed at the bottom of Cosme’s menu, footnote-style. Only at Nicos, the guacamole is a production—a server with a plastic name tag rolls a cart to your table and, in front of you, pounds ingredients in a black molcajete: coarse salt, olive oil from Baja, onion, chiles, tomato, cilantro, avocado—there isn’t even a faint spritz of lime to distract from the avocado’s subtle acidity. Olvera’s version at Cosme adds peas, veering further from the tangy guacamole pastes of US burrito joints, highlighting the grassy freshness of perfectly ripe avocado.

There’s that same surprising alliance of sweetness and vegetable intricacy in Cosme’s most famous dish, the husk meringue. It’s a broken meringue, slightly creamy inside like a pavlova, and it contains cornhusk ash, so it’s a tenuous shade of taupe. The filling: pureed sweet corn with a little mascarpone folded in. Carlos Salgado of Taco María in Costa Mesa, California (an F&W Best New Chef 2015), says Olvera’s dessert made him very emotional the first time he tasted it—the charred-husk scent brought him back to the tamales his mom made in Orange County when he was a kid.

“You have those deep-roasted husks at the sides of the pot,” Salgado says. They fuse with the masa so “you end up eating ash—my mom passed on to me a love of all things burnt and charred.” Even for a Mexican-American like Salgado, memory and inspiration collide, leaving a plaster-dust wrack of smoky meringue.

Olvera takes me to the source of this dessert, the Polanco outpost of Pastelería La Gran Vía, a 75-year-old pastry chain. It’s afternoon, and the shop is empty, a lone purple-and-green molded gelatina sitting under fluorescent light in the refrigerated case. Somebody from Pujol must have called to say Olvera was coming. Giggling, red-faced, the teenage counter girl with braces and a purple streak in her hair carries out a tray with a dozen meringues as big as baked potatoes, white and chalky-looking, split and filled with whipped cream.

“Usually on the weekends,” Olvera says, sitting at a tiny table, grabbing a meringue, “on a Sunday night, you would get one of these.” We bite together—it’s so big it hits my nose, the dry squeak of hardened meringue on my teeth and then a gush of sweet, vanilla–flavored cream. It’s super-sugary and irresistible. Olvera smiles as he demolishes one, meringue crumbs clinging to his beard, momentarily lost to the ghosts.

John Birdsall is a writer and ex-cook living in Oakland, California. Follow him on Twitter @John_Birdsall.