33 Things I Now Know About Mexico

Image(This isn’t even the half of it, or the quarter of it)

Ed. note: We recently returned from a short vacay to Mexico. We went to escape the craziness that is America, and because it is the only country on earth that is accepting American tourists these days. As usual, when we have a great time in a foreign land, we like to share.

Mexico City is so big it makes Vegas look like Boulder City.

They used to call Mexico City D.F. (Distrito Federale), but that’s now as dated as the Frito Bandito.

Trying to see Mexico City in a week is like trying to tour the Louvre in an hour.

If all you know of Mexico are its border and beach towns, then you’re missing the real deal.  Diving in to where it all started is a cultural eye-opener.

Mexicans eat better and cheaper than we do.

They are more vigilant than Americans about Covid protocols as well.

CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, aka City of Mexico) is a walk-able city, but the distances are vast.

As with Tokyo (and most huge, international capitals), it is best to pick a neighborhood (Centro, Reforma, Polanco, Roma, etc.) and spend a day getting to know it.

Roma is tree-lined, peaceful, and filled with places eat — a nice antidote to the crazy cacophony of the city surrounding it.

There are more museums in one park (Bosque de Chapultepec) than in the entire state of Nevada.

Image(The Polanco at 2:00 am)

The air there is so lousy you can’t see the stars at night, none of them. (That little dot in the picture above is a helicopter.)

The air may be terrible, but I didn’t notice. The Food Gal®, however, was starting to complain of an irritated nose and throat by Day 4.

Uber is über-cheap – there is no reason to take any other form of transportation.

Speaking of cheap, food and drink are a serious bargain: from superb street tacos to modernist cuisine meccas, prices are laughably low.

Service with a smile is also the universal rule. The language barrier is also no big deal. To figure out the price in dollars, divide everything by 20.

Image(Pujol)

Modernist cuisine — as exemplified by hyper-local, multi-course, fixed priced menus — is alive and well. We hit the two biggest names (Pujol and Quintonil) and both were jammed with Rico Suaves and their lovely ladies. As I’ve said many times, the whole tasting menu thing has run its course, but as long as the World’s 50 Best nonsense is around, there will always be gastro-tourists (with more money than taste) keeping these things afloat. For this reason, the next time we’re here, I expect to be at the Taco Omakase at Pujol, or ordering a la carte from Quintonil.

You don’t see/hear many American accents (we counted three); this is a good thing.

You don’t see many fat people either (even among the mobs at Mercado de Merced).

People have asked me if it’s “clean.” Yes, cleaner than the human toilet that is downtown Los Angeles; more pristine than San Francisco. In many ways, CDMX reminded us of an Hispanic Chicago: spotless streets, wide boulevards, nice people and a remarkable lack of trash.

Image(Roma)

It is also safe. There is, literally, a cop car on every corner.

Crossing the street can be take-your-life-in-your-own-hands endeavor, however.

Beggars are a nuisance, but not an issue. Sit or stand anywhere for more than ten seconds and someone will approach either asking for a handout or to sell you some junk. You learn the words “no, gracias” very quickly, and will say them about fifty times a day.

Image(Anyone for an Orthopteran?)

They take their insects seriously here, at lunch and dinner.

As impressive as Pujol and Quintonil were, the first meal I’d revisit would be Guzina Oaxaca — a chic, casual spot in the Polanco specializing in Oaxacan cuisine in all its glories.

Image(Holy mole!)

Mexican wines were also a nice surprise. They use a lot of European varietals, to varying degrees of success. Pro tip: this is uncharted territory for even serious oenophiles, so let your sommelier guide you. No matter what you buy, it will probably be under $50. Pro tip #2: They’re doing better with their reds than their whites, but this is only based on a very limited sample.

La Merced is a zoo, a labyrinth, a maze of shops: a tangle of warren after slithering warren of alleyways and side streets selling miles and miles of junk. There’s also a food section (our real reason for going), but we never found it. Pro tip: Don’t go on a Saturday morning. Pro tip #2: Don’t let your Uber driver drop you off blocks from the main market — you’ll never find it, no matter how much you look at Google maps. Pro tip #3: Sign up for a tour, unless you enjoy being swallowed up by a sea of humanity seemingly enthralled with miles and miles of plastic junk. One of our companions remarked how ubiquitous and similar these “street markets” are around the globe — selling cheap clothes and toys to tens of thousands every day. “The one in Istanbul is even worse,” he sighed as we struggled to find an exit ramp from the human highway that enveloped us.  It was almost enough to make us miss Walmart.

Mercado Roma was as disappointing as Mercado de Merced was frustrating — it being little more than a glorified food court.

Image(Cochinita pibil tacos at Turix)

The tacos are insane, but I already knew that.

Even the bad tacos in Mexico City are good tacos. The tacos at El Turix (a hole in the wall in Polanco) are some of the best of all.

Image(Sensational seafood at Contramar)

Mexican seafood is its own thing, treating fish in ways that would have a Frenchman crying sacre bleu! Like most of the country’s cuisine, it emphasizes strong flavors over delicate technique (see above).

That said, the better restaurants know how to treat fish right. Contramar (in the Roma neighborhood) is such a restaurant (reservations essential).

There is no such thing as a bad trés leches cake.

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Muchas gracias to foodie friends Greg and Deanna, and JB and Kathy, for setting up so many fabulous meals and acting as interpreters for the trip. All of us can’t wait to return, because….

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A Moveable Feast – How to Eat and Drink in France and Italy

Good food is everywhere in Europe, at all price points these days, so there’s no excuse for not eating well when you’re over there.

The three countries I visit most (Italy, France, Germany) have serious coffee cultures, so a good cup of joe is always within reach. Those ubiquitous cafes and coffee bars also stock plenty of other juices, teas, and alcohol….so if you’d like some Jack Daniels or Amaretto in your cup at 8 am, they’ll oblige.

I’m not going to get into all the fine points of Euro coffee cups, but the  big difference between their coffee cultures and ours has to do with volume, strength, and frequency. Euros take their coffee in small, strong doses, and do shots of it throughout the day as caffeinated fuel. If you can’t handle the high octane stuff (aka espresso), ask for yours au lait (“with milk”) or café crème (France) or con crema (Italy). Crème and crema both mean “with cream”, although it’s really more like whole milk.

Confused? Don’t be. Just do what I do: either order a cappuccino or just say olé!

My routine is: find a cafe close to your hotel, adopt it as your hangout for how many days you’ll be in town. By day two or three the proprietor/barista will treat you like an old friend when you walk in. Unless you’re in Germany. In Germany, they don’t even treat old friends like old friends.

For the record, here’s my 12 Step Program for eating in France and Italy:

  1. Wake up.
  2. Shower, shave, take care of business while trying not to twist, strain, or break anything in the process (see previous article).
  3. Go to your regular cafe and get a cafe au lait with a croissant (France), or a cappuccino with a brioche (Italy). Gently caress the pastry in one hand as you dunk it into the soothing brown liquid, then eat it while sipping and holding your cup in your other hand. Perfect this art and you’ll feel like a native in no time. Perfect it whilst standing up and affecting a vague air of insouciance about world affairs, and the women will flock to you like you’re Marcello Mastroianni in 1962.
  4. Remember, in France and Italy, breakfast is good for only one thing: thinking about lunch.
  5. Start thinking about lunch
  6. Eat lunch (see below).
  7. Towards the end of lunch, start discussing your dinner plans.
  8. Rest up for dinner.
  9. Have dinner.
  10. Walk off dinner for an hour or so, promising your wife you’ll take her shopping or sightseeing in the morning (which you both know is a lie).
  11. Return to hotel.
  12. Sleep, then repeat steps 1-12 the next day.

Lunch

(Dejeuner at Le Grand Véfour)

The older I get, the more I like to eat and drink myself silly at lunch rather than dinner — it gives you more time to digest things and walk off the calories.

Americans aren’t used to intensive care service at high noon, but it’s the best way to enjoy a big deal meal at a destination restaurant. There’s usually a “lunch special” of a few courses for a set price that’s a relative bargain, and the difference between the food at lunch and dinner is nil. In fact, to my observation, lunch is when most the local gourmets come out to play in the big cities. Dinnertime seems to be for businessmen and tourists.

Lunch takes one of three forms: either a formal affair in a restaurant (France) or ristorante (Italy), or a more casual, but still coursed-out meal in a bistro or trattoria, or a quick bite in one of those cafes where you grab your coffee (all of them usually serve some kinds of pizzas, salads, and sandwiches).

The Rick Steves of the world (and many tourists) prefer the quick casual lunch because it leaves them more time for sightseeing. In my world, the food is the sight to see, so I prefer the bistros of Paris, or a local trattoria which serves the traditional cuisine of the area. Regardless of your mood, there’s always fascinating sustenance to find.

Cafes are everywhere in Paris (I counted nine in a five block walk to my hotel, above), and Rome, Milan, Venice, Verona, Bardolino (not to mention Lyon and smaller French towns like Beaune, and the entirety of Alsace) are chock full of places to eat. You may get an indifferent meal in some of them, but even average Italian or French food over there is a lot better than what we’re subjected to over here.

Dinner

Dinner should be the opposite of lunch. If you stuff yourself silly at midday, find a cafe or casual spot and while away the evening over one or two courses while pondering where to eat the next day. Wine bars are also great for small snacks and light meals.

Know, however, that more formal restaurants have fairly strict and limited service hours. Lunch is usually served from 12:30-2:30, and dinner from 7-9. Restaurants that take reservations usually have one seating only, and the table is yours until they close up shop.

Cafes, bistros, brasseries and trattorias are much more flexible and generally have non-stop service throughout the day….although the only people you’ll see chowing down on a pizza or choucroute garni at 5:00 pm are usually jet-lagged tourists. A good rule of thumb is: the more limited a place’s hours, the more serious it is about its food. Speaking of which…

Rules of Thumb

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Get the specials. If there’s a chalk board (and in France, there’s always a chalk board), order off it. That’s where the good stuff is.

Get out of your comfort zone AKA take the stick out of your ass. You didn’t come to Europe to eat a burger anymore than you would come to America to view ancient ruins. European menus are full of wonders, but you have to bring an adventuresome spirit to the table.

Europeans are closer to their food than we are. Literally. They eat and drink products that are grown or manufactured where they live, not a thousand miles away. And you can taste the difference. Plus, all of the dishes we take for granted over here (pizza, Béarnaise sauce, oeufs Romagna avec sauce Espagnole a pigeoneaux Romanoff jubilee) had their origins over there, and tasting the real enchilada where it was invented cannot be overstated as an epicurean experience.

Don’t be intimidated. English is spoken all over Europe these days — it’s a mandatory subject for schoolchildren — and between the English language menus and helpful waiters, you’ll rarely be at a loss for words, or some tasty morsel. The spry fellow we had at Trattoria Milanese (above) spoke better English than my Greek popou, and the waiter we had at our best bistro meal in Paris (at La Bourse et la Vie) was a bi-lingual chap from New Jersey.

Forget about cocktails. With a few exceptions (e.g. The Jerry Thomas Project in Rome, gin and tonics in Spain) cocktails are not a thing in Europe. They’ll pour you a vodka soda or expensive scotch in upscale hotels and bars (and at the corner cafe), but hard booze is to grape-centric Europe what digestivos are to the new world: not indigenous to the culture and something they struggle to understand.

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If you don’t know anything about wine, get the house wine by the glass or carafe. Societies steeped in wine culture don’t wallow in cheap, disgusting wine. (They blend, bottle and bequeath their plonk to us.)   Even the worst tourist traps in Rome and Paris serve decent stuff. All you have to know are the words for red (rouge or rosso), white (blanc or bianco) or pink (rosé) to drink fairly well.

If you know a little or a lot about wine, grab the list and go nuts. Bottles that go for hundreds over here can be had for 50 euros over there. My budget is usually in the 80-100 euro range, and invariably, a waiter or somm will look at my selection, and then point me to something just as good for half the price. On my recent trip, this happened on five consecutive days in Milan (Trattoria Milanese), Paris (Willi’s Wine Bar, Le Grand Véfour, Les Climats), and Verona (Pane e Vino).

Plan, plan, plan or just wing it. There are two ways to eat and drink your way around France and Italy: book everything in advance, or just walk around and see what looks good. I’ve done both and rarely been disappointed.

A compromise procedure involves doing your homework and making a list of addresses that sound interesting….and then cruising by to check them out. Only at the hoity-est of the toity will turn you away without a reservation.

Youngsters like to book everything through mobile app services (Michelin, La Fourchette, etc.), but many charming, out-of-the-way joints don’t subscribe to reservation services, and you’ll miss a lot of local flavor if you keep you nose in your phone and rely on your apps for everything.

I could go on and on. It’s been said that traveling is living intensified (actually, I think Rick Steves said that), and if it’s true, then traveling is eating intensified times ten. When you’re in a strange place known for its gastronomy, the flavors come into focus, aromas are sharper, textures linger, and the sensations are more vivid. Not for nothing do people fall in love over a bottle of wine on the Amalfi Coast, or re-evaluate the world’s beauty from their perch in a Parisian cafe. To paraphrase Hemingway: Europe is a moveable feast, and if you’re lucky enough to travel there, it will stay with you for the rest of your life.

 

Euro Trip Toilet Tips (and more!)

(A head and ass-scratcher)

I’ve learned a few things.

I’m no Rick Steves, but I probably eat a lot better than he does when I travel across the pond. Sightseeing and history are secondary, even tertiary, to my gustatory pursuits in Europe, but having been there five times in the past three years, I know a thing or two about what makes a successful vacation when you’re traipsing around France, Germany and Italy. Some of the following tips will be obvious, others will be old hat to seasoned travelers, but all of them will make the ride a lot smoother, and leave you more time for whatever fun you’re seeking in a foreign country.

The Bare Necessities:

Speaking of smooth…take your own toilet paper. We’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say there isn’t a worse-designed personal product in the world than European toilet paper. Imagine a razor without a blade; Kleenex that doesn’t kleen; moisturizer that isn’t moist….that’s Euro hotel t-p. Plus it’s scratchy; plus it takes twice as much to do half the job. Plus, they give it to you in barely-there rolls designed to last maybe a day (see above), and since you have to use so much of it, you’re constantly in the position of having to ask the never-there staff for more. Needless to say, this never happens at a convenient time.
The bottom line is Euro t-p is designed to do one thing: dissolve in water as quickly as possible. This does not make for a good human/toilet paper relationship. What it makes is a mess. So wipe the slate clean, and save yourself a lot of unpleasant agitate — take a big, fat roll of Charmin, remove the center cardboard, smash it down, and stuff it somewhere. Your ass will thank you. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
Pack a pair of sturdy, heavy-soled shoes. The heavier the better — think Doc Martens — unless you enjoy having the bottoms of your feet to be turned into steak hâche on the sharp and cobbled streets you will inevitably encounter…everywhere.

Get a portable wi-fi. I always have my webspot waiting for me at my hotel when I first get to the continent. It costs about 10 euros a day and are more than worth it if you plan to be on your phone a lot. (And who isn’t on their phone a lot these days?) Portable wi-fi may be heavy (it’s about the size of a pack of cards and weighs as much as a small hand grenade), but it saves on roaming charges and makes accessing all your platforms and apps a breeze.

Don’t bother converting your currency into euros over here before you go over there. Use cash as little as possible. Get off the plane, clear customs, and find an ATM in the airport, and get a few euros for walking around money. Pay with your credit card as much as possible — that’s where you’ll get your best exchange rate.

One of those electric current converters is also essential. Pack two of them if you use a lot of electronic devices, but know that electrical outlets in European hotels are scarcer than washcloths, bar soap, and fluffy pillows.

(The dreaded 3-S bathroom)

Speaking of which — if you like to use a real bar of soap and a wash cloth when you bathe, pack those too. How an entire continent can clean itself in shoulder-width showers with minuscule water applied at awkward angles without much suds is a mystery that may never be solved. European bathrooms are marvels of reverse-engineering — designed with the opposite of comfort,  convenience and efficiency mind.

They’re also allergic to shower curtains – see above. The contortions you will employ to get yourself clean from head to butt cheeks would impress a yoga instructor. On the plus side, you can shave, shower and s____ without moving an inch.

Go online and arrange for Global Entry — it makes clearing customs a breeze, unless you enjoy waiting behind a thousand people to get your passport stamped after a 9 hour flight.

Sign up for Uber and Lyft, but know that in some cities they are ubiquitous (Paris), and  in others, it’s easier (and almost as cheap) to take taxis (Milan). Also know that in many small towns, rideshare companies have yet to make any inroads. In Venice, for example, because there are no roads in Venice.

Optional Observations:

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Consider taking the train between cities rather than flying. Flying around Europe is as much a pain in the ass there as it is here. The airports are huge and located far away from most Euro cities. (The Milan to Malpensa ride can easily take 90 minutes.) And nothing gets better when you arrive. The airports are a slog from the moment you hit the curb until you find your plane. Then, it’s an easy 1+ hour hike to or from your gate, and then to a car or taxi that will charge you an arm and a leg to get to your destination city. (We’re talking $100-200 cab rides here, folks, with Uber being cheaper….but not by much.)

Between the traffic, and the cab expense, and the hour-long airport walks, inspections, etc., a train is often the better option. We took a 6 hour train ride from Paris to Milan and it was fabulous. When you calculate all the to and fro time a flight would cost, we probably spent an extra hour or two on the train, but the comfort, relaxation and spectacular views made it more than worth it.

(My buddy Bruce is a first-class train station navigator)

I won’t deny it: there’s something vaguely scary about European train stations, They’re always mobbed (except in the early morning hours), and the foreign language and pandemonium can be intimidating. But if you book your tickets on-line (which everyone does these days), the only real issue is fighting the crowds and finding which platform your train leaves from. Once you’re on board, it’s smooth sailing in comfortable seats that allow you to arrive refreshed….not worn out by the fourteen different steps it takes before you can board a fucking airplane.

The only real downside to train travel is lugging your suitcase up and down those steps. Soooo….pack light. And by “pack light” I mean a single suitcase you can sling up a flight of stairs without breaking your back. No one helps you with your luggage on a train. The schlepping is all you, so consider how many times you’ll be lifting your bag about four feet off the ground when you pack it.

How to Dress:

(On fleek, Italian-style)

Jackets and ties are optional. Yes, even in stuffy old Europe, men are going to dinner in fine restaurants in nothing but a shirt and slacks. (Shorts and t-shirts, however, might get you turned away at the door in some establishments.) Even an old suit/sports coat guy like me has gotten with the program. I no longer constrain my throat with the inhibiting lashings of formal neck wear. Instead, I’ve decided to wear nothing but ascots.

Seriously, it is a major sartorial faux pas to enter certain restaurants in London or Paris without a jacket on, but unless we’re talking about a haute cuisine palace, you can get away with a nice shirt these days.

Unless you’re headed to the beach, leave your shorts at home. (I’m talking to the men here.) Ditto your open-toed sandals. You might enjoy looking like shit in your hometown, where, no doubt, all the men look like shit, but shorts on a man in Europe peg you as an ugly American, or, even worse, a German.

This is the first part of a two-part article about my recent trip to Europe. Part 2 – How to Eat in France and Italy – will appear later this week.

(One thing I’ll never figure out is why do they put their drinking fountains so close to the floor?)