Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Ferran Adria says El Bajio is the best restaurant of traditional Mexican food in the world. And now, I have a higher opinion of Ferran Adria than I did before.
El Bajio is as far from the carrot-foam of El Bulli as I can imagine. It’s the kind of food I love most, traditional food prepared with love, care, and great pride. It’s the kind of food I seek most when I eat out, because I hope that the more I eat and learn from people who cook in this way, the more I will be able to make and serve this kind of food in my own home.
But I came very close to missing it completely. Erin and I were in Xochilmilco far south of the city, and we knew we could only get to El Bajio by taxi. Despite appearances, I’m quite cheap about food, and I doubted that any restaurant would be worth a $20 cab ride. But lucky for me, Erin quietly insisted.
Owned by chef Carmen “Titita” Ramirez, the restaurant now has three branches, including one in super-posh Polanco, which chowhounds have described as glassy and very-Polanco, at least in decor. But the original, the one we went to in Azcapotzalco, is decorated in warm, rich colors, with high-quality Mexican folk art. The restaurant is acclaimed by such foodie luminaries as Rick Bayless and Diane Kennedy, in addition to Ferran Adria, but it wasn’t filled with tourists, just happy Mexican families enjoying a big Sunday meal. The presence of multiple flat-screen TVs didn’t even bother me, it seemed somehow appropriate, or perhaps I was just happy I could watch the Argentina-Brazil final of the Copa America while we ate.
We ordered a hodge-podge, one platano empanada stuffed with beans; one quesdilla with huitlacoche, that prized corn fungus; a quarter of a kilo of carnitas in the Michoacan style; a clean and simple salad of jicama, nopales, tomatoes, and chayote; and a bowl of mole de Xico which we practically slurped up.
A quarter-kilo is a lot of meat—I forgot that one kilo is 2.2 pounds, and not the other way around—but we still ate almost all of it, fat, gristle, and all. It was almost too much to slather the pork with the mole, somewhat richer than Oaxacan mole negro but otherwise equally complex, but it was a meal of happy excess, and the pork was an excellent vehicle.
When faced with the prospect of dessert, Erin chose a refreshing nieve sorbet, while I, glutton that I am, chose the requeson with honey. Requeson is a ricotta-like fresh, rich wonder cheese, and when I added it to Erin’s nieve order, our waiter Raul definitely wasn’t expecting it, and so he gave an almost imperceptible but definite nod of approval and respect.
The entire restaurant seemed to be curious and pleased at the amount of food we ate and documented with Erin’s digital camera. As we left, Pablo, the manager, came forward with a smile to ask how we had heard about the restaurant. We chatted about how we had read that it was Rick Bayless’s favorite Mexican restaurant in the world, and then he gave us laminated brochures for “recuerdos” or souvenirs. When I asked if they had the cookbook for sale, Alquimias y Atmosferas del Sabor, he said I could find it at Sanborn’s, a Mexican department store, and then proudly showed me the restaurant’s own dog-eared copy. (I then spent the next day going to 4 different Sanborns looking for the damn book.)
Despite all the fuss I made about the $20 cab ride, I considered going back the next day, while Erin went to Teotihuacan. Who needs ancient Aztec pyramids when you can eat a fabulous Mexican breakfast at El Bajio? In the end, I decided to save my stomach for the dinner Erin and I had planned at Aguila y Sol, but the next time I’m in Mexico City, the first thing I’m going to do is jump in a taxi to El Bajio.