Mexico City's Centro Histórico: The Gastro Obscura Guide - Atlas Obscura

The Gastro Obscura Guide to
Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

Helu's peddles Lebanese goods in the heart of Mexico City. Dacia Pierson
Lebanese Libations

1. Fusion Fuel at Helu's

Your journey begins with requisite fuel: coffee. Sandwiched between a textile store and a fabric shop on República del Salvador is Helu’s, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop and purveyor of Middle Eastern sweets, snacks, and dried foods that has been tucked here for 60 years. Within the city center, this cafe is one of the last visible traces of Lebanese immigration, which peaked in the 1920s—though the beloved taco al pastor also harkens back to Lebanon, evoking shawarma meat. Helu's is only big enough to hold a few tables and chairs, so it may be cozy or standing room only. But poke around the well-stocked, low-standing counter and take in the sweet and savory treats. There are empanadas and cookies, as well as nut or pistachio burmas, confections made from shredded phyllo dough and honey. Order a café árabe, thick and sweet. It'll be piping hot and wonderful.

República del Salvador 157, Centro, 06090 Ciudad de México

The churros are served hot, with a smattering of warm chocolate sauces. Dacia Pierson
Deep-Fried Delights

2. Churrería With a View

Keep going down República de El Salvador, then hang a right when you get to Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas. One block down, you'll encounter Churrería El Moro. The 24-hour joint with floral-tiled walls and pastoral stained-glass scenes has been here since 1935. This is the original El Moro (other locations have since cropped up across the city), and it’s always bustling. Before you even set foot inside, you’ll understand why. Peer in the window and watch the culinary artisans whose craft is constructing a perfect churro. First, they twist coils of dough and swirl them through bubbling oil. Then they snip the long, fried coils into individual churros and generously coat them with sugar. Once you’ve enjoyed this feast for the eyes, step inside for a taste.

There are two ways you can go about achieving churro heaven: Ask to be seated at a table, or grab a number and get a bunch to go from the counter on the right. Whichever you choose, don't forget hot chocolate or thick, warm sauces, perfect for dipping. The most popular varieties are the Francés (with a touch of vanilla) and the especial (semi-bitter and flecked with cinnamon).

Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas 42, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México

The market is the place to buy everything from fruit to dried insects. Dacia Pierson
Marvelous Market

3. Grazing on the Go

Take a left as you walk outside of El Moro, then make a right on Ayuntamiento. Stroll through the Plaza de San Juan until you see the Mercado de San Juan on your right. Inside, you'll be greeted by a sensory overload of sights, sounds, and smells. Let yourself get lost and weave between the aisles in whatever pattern you choose, sampling fruits and vegetables along the way.

As you stroll, keep an eye out for some of Mexico’s most delectable fruits, from the pitted, orange-hued mamey to the gelatinous granadilla. Along with its reputation for exceptional produce, which attracts many local chefs, the market is known to sell products that aren't typical supermarket fare—think dried tarantulas and crocodile meat, offered raw or cooked into burgers at the Los Coyotes stand. If that's not your taste, opt for comida casera, home-cooked fare that changes daily. At Comida Sandy, husband-and-wife duo Juan and Sandra have been serving up the likes of pozole and chiles rellenos for 23 years. If you're hankering for a snack, sit down at the counter and ask them what they have today.

2ᵃ Calle de Ernesto Pugibet 21, Colonia Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México

If you're going to drink up, do it on the early side. Dacia Pierson
In-Demand Drink

4. A Bubbly Resurgence at Pulquería Las Duelistas

Exit the market on the Ernesto Pugibet side, then walk down the block until you hit Aranda. Take a left, and you'll reach the saloon doors greeting you into the no-frills Pulquería Las Duelistas. Pulque is a drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, and in the 19th century, Mexico City was dotted with places to try it. This spot, which has been serving up pulque since 1912, is one of the last holdouts from an earlier time; the slightly alcoholic drink, also said to be a kind of natural digestif, was fading into obscurity until recent years. Its renaissance has been propelled by a surge of young people taking it up and opening new pulquerías.

Since the thick, sweet sap spoils quickly, it's best to go early, and Las Duelistas can get busy long before nightfall. Post up at the counter to see the staff pull long spoonfuls of pulque from the vats behind the bar, or snag a seat at one of the shared tables and commune with new friends as you gaze at the colorful murals and the neon-lit altar to the Virgin Mary. (The jukebox nestled in the back keeps things lively, too.) Pulque is usually imbibed plain or as a curado, blended with fruit or other flavors such as oatmeal or peanut.

Eat like a local: "Try the celery or guava curados. The flavors are different every day and each season, but these are often available because we have celery all year long, and guava is grown in different regions of the country."—Paco de Santiago, lead guide at Culinary Backstreets, Mexico City

Aranda 28, Colonia Centro, 06400 Ciudad de México

These days, it's pretty uncommon to find a turkey torta in Mexico City. Dacia Pierson
Stuffed With Lore

5. History-Filled Tortas at La Casa del Pavo

Hopefully you've worked up an appetite for a pick-me-up and are ready for a short walk to the next destination. When you leave Las Duelistas, keep going down Aranda and make a slight right on Ayuntamiento. Walk down a few blocks, then hang a left on Calle de Bolívar, then a right on Avenida 16 de Septiembre. On the side street Calle de Motolinia, take a left to reach La Casa del Pavo. Outfitted with banquettes and bright lights, the spot looks like it’s hardly changed since it opened in 1901. Nestle into one of the booths along the mirrored wall and order the classic turkey torta. The tortas are oven-baked and doused in a sauce the cooks call "la vinagreta," made with pepper, mustard, and oregano. The turkey comes with melted manchego cheese, avocado, and a plate of pickled vegetables that you can add to taste.

You're biting into history here. The restaurant is said to have been the first in the city to serve up turkey as a sandwich fixing instead of pork loin, beef, or the breaded chicken known as milanesa. This poultry has been a staple of Mexican cuisine since it was domesticated by the Aztecs, but these days it’s fairly rare to find turkey tortas in Mexico City. La Casa del Pavo also holds the dubious distinction of being a former haunt of Fidel Castro. The story goes that one day, Fidel, displeased by the torta he’d been served, went behind the counter himself to make the torta cubana, instead. Whether or not that's true is lost to history. Luckily, you can taste either of the sandwiches for yourself.

Calle de Motolinia 40, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México

The store stocks seasonal treats, including goodies for the Day of the Dead. Dacia Pierson
Sweet Spot

6. Decadent Desserts at Dulcería de Celaya

If you continue up Motolinia then take a right on Av. 5 de Mayo, you'll walk right into one of the oldest and most beloved candy shops in Mexico City. Dulcería de Celaya has been around since 1874 and still sells handcrafted candies from the same recipes. Its name nods to the town of Celaya, which, during the Spanish colonial era, became a go-to for cajeta, a type of dulce de leche made with goat’s milk. The cozy shop seems bigger than it is, thanks to large mirrors near the counterand, of course, it stocks a mesmerizing array of sweets, including cajeta. Near the front, you might see seasonal confections, such as miniature ofrendas or skulls ahead of Día de Los Muertos. Turn around to see different varieties of turrón, or nougat, plus coconut-laden cocadas, and aleluyas, traditional candies made with nuts or milk. We dare you to attempt to leave with only one piece.

Eat like a local: "Try suspiros, which are meringues, made from egg whites and sugar. It's a European technique, but you can find them all over the streets of Mexico City. Mexican cuisine has many appropriations from Asia, France, and more."—Paco de Santiago

Av. 5 de Mayo 39, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México

The courtyard is a pretty place to guzzle and gawk. Dacia Pierson
Astounding Architecture

7. Ornate Tiled Murals in a Courtyard Cafe

Sanborns, a department store chain with outposts throughout Mexico City, isn't high on anyone's must-see list. But this locale, in particular, is worth a stop. Make a left out of Celaya and this stunning variety store and restaurant will be about three blocks down. This building is nicknamed the "House of Tiles," so be sure to peer up at the brilliantly hued azulejos (or glazed tiles) with intricate geometric patterns. Then, walk in past the U-shaped lunch counters and make a left across from the perfume section. There, you'll find yourself in a former residential courtyard that now houses one of the most gorgeous lunch spots in town. Sit down near the fountain with a cup of coffee, or head upstairs for an even better view. As you climb, you’ll come across a mural called Omnisciencia, painted by José Clemente Orozco in 1925. Francisco Iturbe, a patron of the arts and former resident of this house, commissioned the mural, which depicts women breaking free from religion and repression during a moment of cultural reckoning.

Av Francisco I. Madero 4, Centro Histórico, 06500 Ciudad de México

La Opera is fancy, but not too fussy. Dacia Pierson
Opulent Interior

8. Baroque Bites at La Opera

Cross the street to enter the theatrical world of La Opera. The cantina has been around since 1876, and once catered to a theater crowd—and it has the ornate interior to match, with mirrored ceilings, baroque finishes, and red velvet seats. Order a beer or a tequila and nibble on some botanas, or snacks that come with the drink. If you see people pointing at the ceiling, it's for a reason: Local legend holds that Pancho Villa shot a hole through it when the city was swept up in the Revolution.

Eat like a local: "Order a chamorro (pork shank). It's very well prepared, and is one of the traditional dishes in Mexico City cantinas."—Paco de Santiago

5 de Mayo 10, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México

Grab a taco (or two, or three) for a fast snack. Dacia Pierson
Quick Eats

9. Tacos to Go

Did you think we’d forget about tacos? Take a right out of La Opera, and then another right on Calle de Bolívar. Four blocks away, you'll reach a stand called Taquería Los Cocuyos. This haunt has been around for 45 years and is ideal for lovers of all kinds of meats, from suadero and tripe to sesos (cow or goat brains). The tacos are small, so order one if you're just a bit peckish or several if you're hungrier. Go for the suadero taco, and ask for it with everything (“con todo”), which will get you a pile of onions and cilantro. The tacos are best eaten immediately—don’t bother waiting for one of the few seats to open up—and loaded with radishes, extra lime, and hot sauce.

Calle de Bolívar 57, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México

Can you scale "taco mountain"? Dacia Pierson
Quick Eats

10. Tacos, Fast or Slow

The only thing better than a first taco dinner is a second taco dinner. Next door to Cocuyos, you'll find El Huequito ("the little hole"), a stand and retro-looking sit-down restaurant where you can enjoy your next round. (The original El Huequito is a few blocks away, but this one is right along your route.) One popular order is the especial, which one staffer described as a "taco mountain." You can't go wrong with anything, but the classic al pastor is the best bet—and served rolled up and without pineapple, it’s a bit different than others you might encounter. Whatever you order, dip into the impressive array of homemade hot sauces, including chile de arbol, habanero, and chile seco.

Eat like a local: "This is my favorite pastor taco in the world. I first went to [the original El Huequito] when I was 16 years old. The only thing they served was taco al pastor. That’s one of the clues to identify a very good place on Mexico City streets: The good places are the places that offer only one thing, like the barbacoa place, the pastor taco. One good thing they sell, and no other."—Paco de Santiago

Calle de Bolívar 58, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México

Help yourself to pastries, or head upstairs to see stunning cakes. Dacia Pierson
Dazzling Desserts

11. Dreamy Confections at Pastelería Ideal

Your final stop is a sugary dream. Linger near the glass cases to see cakes and seasonal pastries shimmering like jewels. Farther inside the bakery, you’ll glimpse a well-oiled operation: People take long trays and load them up with the desserts of their choice, from every kind of concha to pan danés (Danish pastries) filled with fruit. While you pay, sure-fingered staff artfully wrap your selections in the bakery's lovely paper so the treats don't get jostled on your journey. Before you go, check out the feats of cake-making upstairs. The cake room, where towering, multi-layered confections line a sample floor, is a marvel of pastry physics that's open for all to see. The “cakes” on display are actually inedible cardboard boxes, carefully shaped and covered with real icing and finishes—but that doesn't mean they're any less spectacular.

República de Uruguay 74, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México

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