In Search of Lost Time: Treasures of the Centro - part 1
Mexico City, to me, was a mysterious place beloved by my parents, who had spent several summers here beginning in 1948. I visited for the first time in 1978 and unfortunately harbor only vague visual memories and few photos. I ate my first comida at Danubio, which, if memory serves, featured timeworn wooden furniture and floors sprinkled with sawdust, much like an old Italian trattoria. I ate a whole fish al mojo de ajo which for an 18-year-old seemed a daring and continental choice.
The city then was of the third world. The journey from the airport was lined with shacks. Buses and taxis were ancient and broken down. The Reforma was pitted with construction sites, its first transformation from residential mansions to office towers well under way but not complete. I walked to the corner of the Alameda to check out the Hotel del Prado and the Rivera mural therein. Although I had seen Frida Kahlo’s work in New York, “Fridamania” was yet to take hold, and absolutely no one knew where her house/museum was; I didn’t get there until much later.
Years would go by before I would return, in 1987. This time I was lured by downtown’s sordid, thrilling cauldron of mysterious activity. The past lingered over a decrepit, crumbling centro histórico, which had been brought to its knees by the recent earthquake. Huge buildings sat derelict, The Prado and its neighbor the Regis were sad piles of rubble waiting to be scraped up and remade. The area south of the Alameda, once a busy haven for shoppers, had become a ravaged obstacle course of brick and mortar spilling into the street. Chain linked government encampments housed poor souls who had lost their homes.
But the centro intrigued me: I observed dusty alleys and hallways into which scurried enigmatic characters that disappeared into their anachronistic places of business. Photographers, hidden under a cloth, with a huge camera like those in silent movies, took oval sepia portraits. Quack doctors cured ailments you didn’t know existed. Stores offered statues of the Virgin, artificial limbs, and electric appliances whose designs hadn’t been updated in decades. Brightly lit nightclubs featured old-fashioned cabaret performers, showgirls in feathered chapeaux, lightly racy drag queen shows and knockabout comedians.
I boldly entered these places as if I belonged, like Alice in some low-rent Latin/urban wonderland. I embraced this world of the living past with open arms, exploring, using only a guidebook filled with decades-old tourist clichés. The imminent danger of a midnight stroll up the busy Eje Central never occurred to me nor to anyone else.
Of course my passion for food was already formed if not highly refined. I sat at lunch counters to eat, my favorite being the long-gone Café Cinco de Mayo on the south side of that eponymous historic street, none of whose bow-tied waiters, décor or classic Mexican food had been updated since its 1920’s inauguration. Disappeared classics such as Taquería Beatriz on Motolinia, Tampico Club or Bar León were my favorites. Others, known to, and beloved by me since that golden era have survived.
Here, I recall some of these old treasures, which are still with us:
La Casa del Pavo
Motolinia 40A, between Madero y 16 de Septiembre, Centro
Open daily 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Every day is Thanksgiving at the ancient house of turkey, which opened its doors at this spot in 1901. The décor, most of the personnel and, of course, the menu remain little changed since the last remodelization, which, from the look of things, took place sometime shortly after the revolution. I remember well the Señora, daughter of the founders, who as recently as 10 years ago vigilantly manned the cash register. The Casa, obviously, specializes in turkey: tortas, tacos, breast on a plate, in soup, and with mole. Tacos and tortas are moistened with a generous shmeer of mild guacamole and accompanied by some of the best verduras en escabeche to be found anywhere. I stop by for a couple of tacos now and then, sit at the counter and think of days gone by.
Café La Blanca
5 de Mayo 40, between Isabel la Católica and Montolinía, Centro Open daily, 7 a.m. - 11 p.m.
This venerable cafeteria was founded by a Spanish immigrant in 1915, an urban fast food restaurant of a sort long vanished north of the border. It has been serving a wide range of classic Mexican dishes to a mix of workers, shoppers and visitors ever since. While décor, once decidedly 1940’s, has sadly been stripped to the bare minimum, the format remains the same. Uniformed waitresses serve at tables and booths while bow tied waiters, some veterans, attend the counters. I’ve downed innumerable breakfasts lunches and dinners here; the sopa de ajo brings back fond memories. While food, with a few exceptions such as eggs and soups, is admittedly mediocre, Veracruz-style café con leche is textbook perfect, and half-orders are wallet friendly. If walls could talk…
La Torta Brava
5 de Mayo 63 (3 doors from the Zócalo), Centro
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Considering its age, which is 75 this year, this little shop should certainly know how to do tortas right. It was recommended to me by the late Josefina Howard, founder of Rosa Mexicano, New York’s first high class Mexican restaurant. Josefina was gracious to sit down with me, back in 1987 and make a list of her favorite D.F. spots, many of which I cherish to this day. This was at a time when guides to eating here were non-existent; perhaps a seed was planted in my brain then to write the first one. I do remember that I had never heard of tortas and that she insisted I try them. I’ve been a fan ever since.
The southern part of the city doesn't house many 'high end' establishments I find recommendable. An exception is Sud 777. Chef Edgar Nuñez' pretty venue features his creative cooking based on but not faithful to, Mexican and Spanish traditions. Blvd. de la Luz 777, Alvaro Obregon, Jardines del Pedregal. Tel. 5568 4777
Páprika (Marsella 61, Colonia Juarez) is chef and provocateur Josefina Santacruz' new venue for tastes from North Africa and beyond. DIshes are small and wallet-friendly, meant to be shared.
Warung Makan, Mexico City's first and only Indonesian restaurant offers a reasonable comida in Roma Nte.: Puebla 341 between Cozumel & Guadalajar; Open Monday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.
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