The Fall and Rise of Rome – Two new upscale dining options in Colonia Roma
Lovely Colonia Roma, once home to La Capital’s ‘hoi polloi’ and cultural community, has seen better days. Mexico’s first planned neighborhood was designed at the turn of the 20th century on a Haussmann ideal of mixed use, i.e. middle to upper class housing. Tree-lined boulevards of single family homes interspersed with over-the-top mansions were equipped with running water, city sewer, electric and even telephone lines. Until the 1940’s, La Roma was the place to live. A cultural community thrived here well into the 1950’s – William S. Burroughs famously shot his wife in a game of William Tell gone awry at a bar here. After WWII (and the revolution), American suburban style living supplanted the baronial servant-heavy Porfiriato scene and the wealthy moved west to Polanco, or auto-and-swimming pool-friendly Las Lomas. La Roma went into a long decline. The ’85 earthquake, which hit this area heavily, put another nail in the coffin; much went to rack and ruin. Now, old homes, many in poor condition, feature auto repair shops, or other less-than-glamorous businesses, on their ground floors. Some buildings were demolished to make way for those mirrored glass behemoths that leer mockingly at the populace. Many streets, especially those south of the main drag (Av. Alvaro Obregon) are unkempt – residents toss their garbage with careless abandon, recalling Dickens’ London.
But Roma has been rising from its ashes in recent years. Savvy investors bought dirt-cheap houses and renovated them, while some of the larger mansions were turned into schools or offices or gay discos. A walk around any square block is a virtual tour of 20th century architecture, from neo-classical to high art nouveau and deco (seeJim Johnston’s Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for an excellent walking tour). Recently some of the more spectacular buildings have been meticulously restored. Others sit waiting redemption. A few mansions, windows shuttered or cloaked in flocked drapes, still seem to be homes to their original Norma Desmond-like inhabitants. A renewed appreciation of the architecture and the area’s proximity to the center and to its pricier neighbor, La Condesa, has made Roma appealing to artists and yuppies alike. Their presence has created a market for more upscale dining options. Aside from the dependably mediocre but glamorous Casa Lamm, there has been little to tempt the discerning palette west of the Insurgentes dividing line. Two new upscale establishments attempt to fill this gastronomic gap.
Sobrinos is an offshoot of the ever-popular see-and-be-seen Condesa venue Primos. Their menus are similar. While the name may conger up a Greek diner or a local mafia hangout, the food is mostly Mexican –nicely presented, satisfying. The subtitle “cocina del barrio” implies informality, a menu for sharing with friends. Divided into surf and turf, the bill of fare offers light Mexican classic antojitos such as tacos, tostadas, and seafood cocktails. A few heartier international dishes such as camarones marinera or steak tartare change with the season. My favorite from the sandwich section is the dense and savory updated Jalisco classic torta ahogada de pato. A crusty hunk of baguette is filled with duck ‘carnitas’ and bathed in a spicy red salsa – you eat it with a knife and fork. I 've noticed that ‘designer hamburgers’ have arrived in Mexico with a vengeance. The burger here was excellent. The meat is generously thick and of good quality, mercifully served on good crusty bread instead of a pillowy bun. The golden, crispy papas fritas on the side were much appreciated. The wine list is varied and prices are reasonable. Sobrinos sports the newly discovered (here in Mexico) retro bistro décor – old fashioned mosaic floors, wooden café tables with mis-matched chairs, chalkboard menus, and, thank goodness, no TVs in sight. It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Update (2012): A new member of the family, Padrinos, is located in the lovely patio in the centro at Isabel la Católica 30.
Restaurante Italiano Cabiria, (Closed as of 2012) is, as my grandmother used to say, the “ritzier” of the two places. The setting is lovely but out of keeping with down-at-the-heels Plaza Luís Cabrera, a few blocks south of Alvaro Obregón. Its two story ultra-modern design features full-length glass windows overlooking the plaza, a pleasant setting for a Sunday comida. I’m not sure if Roma is ready for a Polanco-style restaurant complete with black-clad hostess and corresponding prices. The large menu is classic Italian, from the Umbria and Tuscany regions – fromantipasti to pastas made in situ, rissoti, meat and fish. There are many choices, perhaps too many. I have not yet seen enough diners to justify such a large menu - they should scale down. Nevertheless, the food is well prepared, the choices intriguing. On a recent visit, a classic tortellini in brodo, followed by a duck breast in orange sauce were both well prepared and flavorful. La clásica (ensalada) Caprese, however, was a loser: mediocre mozzarella, tasteless tomatoes, and Mexican basil, which cannot be considered a substitute for the Italian. Why put it on the menu if you can’t do it right? Likewise, a meat and tomato ragú over pasta was dull. They’re trying hard, and given the paucity of really good Italian restaurants in the city, I'll give Sobrinos another chance; I wish them well.
Both places are open for dinner, a real plus for visitors to the area.
Av. Alvaro Obregón 110 (at Orizaba)
Tel. 5264 7466 or 5264 6059
Average $200 per person
Plaza Luís Cabrera 7 (Orizaba, between Guanajuato and Zacatecas)
Tel. 5584 5051 or 5564 1146
Average $400 per person
Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved