With nearly 6,000 miles of coastline, it's no wonder why chefs are turning to the country's seafood for inspiration.
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the Roma location of Con Vista al Mar
Credit: Andrew Reiner

To keep his dad from discovering that he got kicked out of junior high, Irak Roaro dutifully put on his school uniform each morning but spent his days hanging out on Mazatlán's malecón with the local spearfishermen, watching them work and eat. "They would fillet the fish and just add chiltepin chile, lime, and a little bit of seawater," the chef recalls.

Roaro eventually left the Sinaloan coast for kitchens in Mexico City and has spent the past 15 years working in fine dining. Lately, he's been wanting to connect the dots between his beachside memories and his formal training. "I'm trying to take those techniques, those flavor constructions, and bring them to a taco," he says. That vision comes to life at Con Vista al Mar, which he opened in Colonia Nápoles last year, where he dresses octopus tacos with hoja santa–habanero pesto and stuffs tortillas with tuna carnitas and manta ray al pastor. "I want to cook what I like to eat," he says.

Despite its landlocked location, Mexico City has always offered plenty of casual seafood spots, the most well-known of them being Gabriela Cámara's Contramar, which cemented the jewel-toned tuna tostada as one of the city's must-eat items more than two decades ago. "Most formal restaurants that sold fish were more 'European,' and local places were very wash-and-wear and marketplace stalls," recalls Cámara from when she first opened in 1998. Her focus on domestic fisheries and cooperatives broke ground at the time, when the city's top chefs still mostly trained in Europe and returned to open fancy French or Spanish restaurants. It would take another decade before chefs started opening high-end Mexican restaurants.

Today, Mexico City's most ambitious chefs are focusing their talents on more personal, regional restaurants, and since last year, that's meant the city's hottest new spots sport beach vibes and pristine seafood flown in directly from the Pacific Coast. When the pandemic hit, everyone gravitated toward comfort food, says food tour guide Anaís Martínez, especially deep-fried stuff like chicken sandwiches. But when people started going out again, that changed. "They wanted hangover food — that is what seafood is for us," she explains.

That's why micheladas get an upgrade at Mi Compa Chava in the Roma neighborhood, where they make them with Clamato, the classic cure for a cruda. Servers weave through the chaotic line of people waiting for a table carrying trays of cheve chola: beer flipped upside down into a cup of Clamato and lime juice, filled with octopus, shrimp, and serrano chiles.

Inside, the music blares, and customers sit on metal folding chairs at beer-branded tables, dabbing housemade seafood sauce onto fresh-shucked almejas chocolatas (chocolate clams) and digging into jet-black aguachile, tart with tannins from cacao ash, blanketing plump raw shrimp. Unmolded tableside, the Señora Torres, a six-inch-tall tightly packed stack of scallops, raw and cooked shrimp, octopus, yellowfin tuna, onions, cucumbers, and avocados, drenched in morita chile sauce, teeters on the edge of absurdity, pushed safely back to pure impressiveness by the quality of the fish and precision of the flavors.

Mi Compa Chava opened in June 2021, and it was "a lifesaver for this pandemic," says owner Salvador Orozco. The Sinaloan chef always dreamed of someday opening a seafood restaurant, so when he left his job after more than a decade with Bull & Tank restaurant group, he hit fast-forward on that plan.

"I have always been very inspired by the figure of the mustachioed marisquero who cares for you, who pampers you, who hugs you, who knows what you like," Orozco says. In creating the restaurant, he intended to transport the classic beach-town seafood cart to Mexico City.

Chef Alexander Suástegui, who grew up in Sinaloa and Tijuana, knows that those carts dish up the best food, at the best prices. "You don't need to have a fancy chair or polished service," she says. A veteran of many of the city's top spots, including Pujol and Quintonil, Suástegui serves mussels in a chiltepin chile sauce under a mural of a Baja sunset with pink palm trees at her restaurant Costela, which she opened in Colonia Cuauhtémoc in November. Encouraging her guests to wear flip-flops to dinner, she is candid about her vision. "I don't want to open another restaurant to be like the others. I want to have fun; I want to share my food, my table," she says. She uses her culinary school training and technical knowledge to make what she calls "chill-out" versions of seafood dishes, including octopus tostadas with fresh and dried shrimp and Baja-style puffer fish tacos.

That same philosophy is shared by Roaro. "People are not looking for pretentious food," he says. They still want great meals and cool presentation, but more than anything, they want a good time. Fun fonts, quirky style choices, and bold colors—such as green at Con Vista al Mar, orangey-red at Costela, and yellow at Mi Compa Chava—telegraph the lively party atmosphere at each of the restaurants. "I'm obsessed with the vibe," says Suástegui. Customers are, too: Orozco is planning to open a second Mi Compa Chava, and Roaro celebrated the anniversary of Con Vista al Mar by opening a third outlet.

"Everyone wants to eat good seafood," says Cámara of the trend. But the idea of chefs at the peak of their careers choosing to open restaurants serving hangover food—and turning them into the most coveted tables—hit the Mexico City food scene like a rogue wave, surprising and invigorating it. Creative, precise, and playful, each evokes a specific corner of the Mexican coast, serving tiny vacations in the form of briny bites and spicy, seafood-stuffed beach energy.

Tour the Fish Market

For a brief period in 2018, when Tokyo's Tsukiji closed to relocate, Mexico City's La Nueva Viga was the largest fish market in the world, explains Anaís Martínez of culinary tour company Devoured on her tour through the 90,000-square-foot complex ($99–$120, devoured.com.mx). Wandering the more than 250 wholesale and retail stalls, she points out chocolate clams with red muscles that stick out like a tongue from their rich brown shells, oversized crawfish from Tampico, and a vendor salt-drying cod in the sun. To get the good stuff, chefs and shopkeepers come at four in the morning, while home cooks come a few hours later to pick up shiny bonito and long, yellow dorado. "You get fresher seafood here than on the coasts," Martínez says, because it often gets sent directly here—the country's cultural and economic capital—before being shipped back. "They hate us in the countryside."

Where to Stay

The Ritz-Carlton

For classic glamour, Mexico City's first Ritz-Carlton rises high over the iconic Paseo de la Reforma in a new 58-story tower featuring stunning views of Chapultepec Park, Latin America's second-largest park. Rooms from $529, ritzcarlton.com

Círculo Mexicano

This modern and luxurious hotel sits at the literal intersection of a pre-Hispanic archaeological site and the enormous Zócalo, center of the colonial and modern city. Designed with an eye toward simplicity, the rooms use wood and textiles to infuse a traditional feel into a fresh aesthetic. Rooms from $180, circulomexicano.com

Where to Eat

Con Vista al Mar

Mexico's favorite taco meats and street snacks get seafood-fueled makeovers, made with subtle skill and witty winks at tradition. There are three locations.

Contramar

The signature tuna tostadas, two-toned fish, and see-and-be-seen weekend lunches laid the foundation for the current influx of superlative seafood spots.

Costela

Come for the aguachiles with attitude, stay for the smoked marlin tacos at this ode to the coastal ideals of slowing down and eating tons of fresh seafood.


Mi Compa Chava

A beach fiesta on a city sidewalk, only the music is louder, the presentations are more creative, and the seafood—somehow—is even fresher.

August 2022