In her last dispatch from Mexico City, Pavia checks out Polanco and San Ángel Bazaar and eats really, really well.
MEXICO CITY – The best part of any trip is sitting at a meal with the locals. There's no better way to get to know a culture and its people. And while you can't do much more than scratch the surface in a weekend, with the right guides, you can go deeper.
My best friend Julie and I spent a lot of time with two Mexicans, Samuel Leizorek and Gaston Pavlovich. I know: Not exactly the most Latin-sounding names, but that's typical around here. Polish, French, Croatian: Mexico City is full of Europeans, and you can see the difference clearly. Half the population is small, dark, and indigenous; the other half is tall, fair, and Euro. No one seemed judgmental about it, and "indigenous" is considered a label of pride.
Samuel owns Las Alcobas, the gorgeous and cozy hotel where we stayed in Polanco, the most bourgeois neighborhood in the D.F. Open-air restaurants, manicured parks, museums like Carlos Slim's Museo Soumaya, boutiques from Burberry to Zegna. It's very walkable and very hang out-able. Las Alcobas has that slightly infuriating quality great hotels have: I didn't want to leave. The pillows were so fluffy, the bed was so comfy, the breakfast eggs were so delicious, the cocktail cookies were so tasty.
But we did tear ourselves away for an altogether different living environment: the Luis Barragán House. A godfather of Mexican architecture, Barragán's house and studio have been preserved as he left them, in all their dramatic and monastic mid-century cool. You need an appointment to go, and it's worth it.
Afterwards, we met Samuel for lunch at Contramar in Condesa. It's a bustling joint, a casual mix of multi-generational families and couples on their third dates. Two bites into the tuna tostada, Julie declared it, "oh my god, the best restaurant in the world." What followed — fish carnitas, guacamole, tequila, roasted fish with cilantro and red pepper, and fig tart — only confirmed her verdict.
Lunch was a linger (I travel for the four-hour lunches), and we were sure we had missed the amazing Saturday flea market, not that we could figure out which one to go to. Everyone I had talked to had recommended a different Saturday wonderland. Which begs the question: How many antiques can one town cram into its weekends? But Samuel — who is so charming, so gracious, so up for an adventure — took action, and off we dashed across the city (driving, driving, driving — the D.F. is huge) to the San Ángel Bazaar. My friend Bertha Gonzalez, the brains behind Casa Dragones tequila, told me to look out for José Cruz Guillén, the master engraver behind their pretty tequila bottles. Right, I thought, in the big market, sure I'll find him, no problemo. But San Ángel was much smaller than other city markets like San Telmo in Buenos Aires or the Puces de Clignancourt in Paris. And, sure enough, I found him, and took home one of his beautiful engraved glass pitchers.
Back in Polanco, I checked out Common People, the Colette-like boutique in a Belle Epoque mansion where everything is arranged and merchandised to the hilt. An overeager shop clerk followed me around and told me not to take photos. I ignored her. I spotted an embroidered folk art bedspread selling for ten times what Julie had paid for its twin at San Ángel, and totally cracked up when I saw a cellulite-reduction machine for sale in the bikini boutique. Gorgeous, overpriced stuff in a magnificent setting tended to by people with no sense of humor: What's not to love?
Our final meal held great promise. Pujol is considered one of the world's best restaurants, at least by the critics who compile the San Pellegrino list. The dining room was dark and understated and reminded me of that other molecular gastronomy favorite, The Fat Duck outside London. The decor has its purpose though: It focuses your attentions on chef Enrique Olvera's inventive cuisine. For the next few months, I'll be dreaming about my seafood wrapped in delicate avocado slivers and the potent but nuanced chichilo negro mole sauce I kept stealing from Gaston's plate.
Gaston and Julie are college pals, and I met him for the first time on this trip. He's working on the presidential campaign of Josefina Vázquez Mota. He's also a screenwriter whose first movie, El Estudiante, won a million film awards. (He's a philosopher politician, not a salesman politician.) An overtone of tragedy surrounded our visit: Mexican interior minister Francisco Blake Mora and seven other government officials died in a freak helicopter crash while we were there, and Gaston hung out with us in between government meetings and the funeral. It was surreal. And it was crazy to read the New York Times reports and then get his insider take on the same events. Sam and Gaston debated whether the crash was an accident or not and had conflicting reactions. I left the conversation convinced it wasn't.
But I'm still new here. There's so much to come back for.