If you crave mind-blowing Mexican cuisine, then leave the beaches to the spring breakers. While Mexico’s culinary pulse can be detected along the water, its gourmand heart and soul reside deep in the interior. From the world-class restaurants of Mexico City to the exquisite chilies of Oaxaca, foodies agree that central Mexico affords the most finger-licking, lip-smacking experiences south of the border. But don’t take our word for it; follow this regional guide to taste the best of Mexican gourmet.
Start and end your trip in Mexico City, the country’s sophisticated capital and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. With 16 boroughs and more than 300 neighborhoods, you could literally spend a lifetime eating your way through Mexico City. Plan to spend a minimum of three days here, and really, the more the better.
Most of the standout restaurants in Mexico City are concentrated along the cobblestone streets of Centro, its historic center, but don’t discount its colonias, or neighborhoods. Some of Mexico City’s most elegant restaurants can be found in the Polanco neighborhood, located a quick cab ride southwest of Centro. The most sought-after restaurant in Polanco is Pujol, a world-class establishment that dishes out sophisticated interpretations of traditional Mexican favorites. Expect to rub shoulders with politicians, celebrities and CEO’s, while noshing sea bass ceviche and tacos made with hoja santa tortilla and black bean purée. For an alternative to tamales, tacos de canasta and mole, head to Maximo Bistrot in Centro. This gastro-paradise serves Euro-style bistro fare, and sources every one of its ingredients fresh daily.
No culinary tour of Mexico is complete without an immersion into Mexico City’s incomparable street food scene. Since the city is so enormous, consider letting an expert lead the way. Eat Mexico hosts one of the best street food tours in Mexico City. You’ll spend four hours munching your way through the business districts of the Cuauhtémoc and Zona Rosa neighborhoods, where street food vendors flock to service hungry nine-to-fivers during the work day. Expect to indulge in everything from fresh-squeezed fruit juice to quesadillas, while learning the history of Mexican cuisine and the street food system.
Round out your Mexico City gastronomic spree with visits to some of the city’s glorious open-air markets. Meander through booths piled high with local fruits, vegetables, cheese, dried chilies, fresh meat and fish, as well as more unusual delicacies like hapulines (dried grasshoppers) and escamole (ant eggs). For a broad swath of Mexico City market culture, plan to compare and contrast the glitzy Mercado San Juan market in Centro with the more working-class Arcos de Belém market in the Cuauhtémoc neighborhood.
To the North
Get out of the city and into Mexico’s high-elevation avocado ranch country by flying or driving 150 miles to the mountainous state of Michoacán. Base yourself out of the capital city of Morelia, whose charming colonial city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to handsome architecture and grand boulevards. Don’t miss the Mercado de Dulces, a traditional sweets market that will literally make you feel like a kid in a candy shop. Set aside time to drive an hour to the town of Pátzcuaro, known for its folk art, and sample some of Mexico’s most unusual and delicious tamales, sold in specialty shops and at the street market.
Next head 150 miles northwest to the state of Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s most authentic and beautiful regions. Stay in the city of San Miguel de Allende, known as the colonial heart of Mexico for its rich history steeped in Mexican Independence. Don’t be misled by the 400-year-old cobblestone streets and churches—San Miguel is more than an artifact, with restaurants, shops and nightlife on par with much larger cities in the U.S. It’s also the best place in Mexico to try a cooking class, thanks to an artsy, Bohemian vibe and a vibrant ex-pat community full of foodies who not only speak English, but also love to share their culinary craft with visitors.
To the South
Cap off your culinary tour of Mexico with a one-hour flight south from Mexico City to the state of Oaxaca. There is perhaps no region of Mexico more lauded for its unique culinary traditions. This is the land of the world’s most rare and expensive chilies. Such chilies can collectively only be found in the markets of state’s capital: Oaxaca City. The hands-down best market to get up close and personal with these chilies is Central de Abastos. But be prepared—this market is not for the faint of heart. Expect 50 rows by 50 columns of vendors in a space the size of three football fields. The crowd can be overwhelming, as can the lack of refrigeration or sanitation we’re used to seeing at home. Tune into your “once in a lifetime” mindset, take a deep breath, and just go for it. Afterward, celebrate being a fearless foodie with a delectable mole dinner at Casa Oaxaca.