"Build tacos not walls." That’s one of the first things I see after touching down in Mexico City, scrawled in huge blue letters on the side of a building. Understandably, there’s a lot of anti-Trump sentiment in a country relentlessly threatened, ridiculed and blamed by the current president of the United States. However, as I’m soon to find out, it’s typically Mexican to respond by playing for laughs and mentioning tacos. Because this is a country truly obsessed with food.
Mexico City’s dining culture is famously rich and diverse, from high end restaurants that hold their own against the best in the world to Forbes naming it one of the world’s best cities for street food. For my 10-day visit it’s vital I find a way to squeeze in more eating so I can try as much as possible – which means Olympic-level snacking.
Antojitos – which translates as ‘little cravings’ – can mean anything from a handful of nachos to a plate full of roast suckling pig. Near Balderas metro station on the edge of a sun-dappled park there’s a huge group of vendors selling different antojitos, from familiar tacos and burritos to less well-known treats such as tamales (meat or fish in soft corn casing cooked in a banana leaf) or chimichangas (tempura fried filled tortillas).
Nearby Mercado San Juan, a 60-year-old food market, has hundreds of stalls selling fresh produce and a huge variety of hot food. I ordered a plate of steak tacos and ate the way locals do – using my hands and with lots of different salsas piled on. I went back for a Mexican spicy sausage version, and before long I was using 'taco' as a verb.
Across the road from the Mercado is Centro de Artesanias, where independent artisans sell a bright kaleidoscope of ceramics, embroidered dresses, rugs, painted skulls and literally skull-emblazoned everything. Communing with the dead is a cornerstone of Mexican culture, climaxing with November's annual Day of the Dead festival.
Mexico City is a sprawling metropolis, home to over nine million people, but the museums and cultural highlights are easily walkable, and if you’re feeling lazy a metro ride costs just five pesos (20p). A must-see is Palacio Nacional, home to 11 giant murals by Mexico’s bad boy artist (and Frida Kahlo’s one-time husband) Diego Rivera. It’s free to visit, but you’ll need to take your passport.
Coyoacán is an area to the south which was once home to Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. The buildings are all primary and pastel colours, and musicians and craft markets give it a real counter-culture vibe. Head to Museo Frida Kahlo, the bright blue house she shared with Rivera until their divorce. Book online to beat the queues and learn about the tortured artist’s life and works.
Perhaps the biggest revelation about Mexico City is how relaxed and cool it is. For the past two centuries, the city has been known as “DF” from its official name of México Distrito Federal, or Federal District. But now the city has been rebranded as Ciudad de México, or CDMX. Climbing to the top of Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper gives you a feel for just how vast the city is, but it’s the distinct neighbourhoods within the capital that create such a vibrant mix.
La Condesa, in the city’s east, might as well be twinned with Dalston. It’s full of beautiful brunch spots, dog-walking hipsters, and Instagrammable bars. Coffee is fantastic all over the city, but make sure you try the flat white at Chiquitito Café.
Roma Norte, La Condesa’s neighbouring borough, has an almost overwhelming amount of affordable, fun and chic dinner and drinks options. The super cool Downtown Hotel, part of the Grupo Habita design hotels group, is in the heart of the historic centre. It has a rooftop pool, outdoor bar and fashionable crowd to rival Shoreditch House, only without the membership, and serves up cocktails for a dangerous £3.
English sailors coined the term ‘cocktail’ in a Mexican port after their drinks were stirred with thin dried roots of a plant called cola de gallo, which translates as ‘cock’s tail’. So it seems right to tank up on them in their birth country. Try something fruity with a base of mezcal, the Mexican spirit that’s beloved by bartenders the world over for its depth and smokiness.
At the weekend, Chilangos (people from Mexico City) go big on going out. In Polanco, an upmarket area with great boutique shopping and nightlife, secret underground bar Jules Basement is accessed through a tortilla restaurant and serves some of the best cocktails in the city.
Nearby, Dulcie Patria serves up a restaurant experience that your memory will constantly revisit. Inimitable female chef Martha Ortiz’s creative, modern Mexican food has been voted some of the best in Latin America.
Start with Dulcie Patria’s take on the humble guacamole and nachos, which comes with three salsas of varying heats (go easy on the habanero one). The incredible flavour of the local avocados makes you wonder if the ‘green gold’ that makes it to Britain are the less tasty rejects.
The tuna ceviche is a contender for a last supper, and the seared duck main served with a pouch of soft, warm blue corn tacos is an almost religious experience. For dessert there are classic Mexican sweets, such as sesame seed-covered chocolate bites and tamarind jelly, which come served on a cute, brightly painted model aeroplane that Kahlo would definitely approve of.
It’s worth pointing out that Mexico City is a very easy place to eat vegan or wheat-free, due to the fact that almost everything is made with corn rather than wheat, and plentiful supplies of great fresh avocados, tomatoes and chillies. It’s also no exaggeration to say it’s cheaper to eat out than it would be to cook back home, with world-class tacos costing under £1 each.
Before I left for Mexico City, my concerned mum gave me a flesh-coloured money belt and a doorstop to use on the inside of my hotel room. For older generations, Mexico will always be synonymous with crime. It’s their loss. Mexico City has incredible street food, endless fiestas, warmth, generosity and £3 margaritas. From this gringa’s perspective, if you’re street smart and careful, you will be fine. The huge majority of Mexicans are thrilled to have you in the country they’re so proud of, especially following 2017’s terrible earthquake, which hit the tourist industry hard.
The majority of British tourists only ever visit Mexico’s Caribbean coast, saturating social media with pictures of them on the beaches of Cancún or Tulum. But while Mexico City can’t offer white sand and sea, there’s no better way to experience the real Mexico, in all its diverse, colourful, greedy glory.