East Meets West: Asian Food in Mexico City
Updated 2017; originally published in The News Mexico
When people ask me what I miss about my former life in the Big Apple, my usual answer is “family, friends, and good Chinese food.” To make authentic foreign food, you need authentic foreigners, and Mexico City, unlike other great world metropolises, is not culturally diverse for its size– almost everyone here is Mexican. So if, like me, you’ve slogged through gloppy, celery and corn-starch laden meals in our so-called ‘Chinatown’ (Calle Dolores in the Centro Histórico), eaten pseudo-Thai food in Colonia Condesa that tasted like mole, or paid through the nose for phony Franco-Szechuan in Polanco, you’ll be happy to know that there is good, genuine Asian food in this city—you just have to know where to find it.
Asians landed in Mexico in the 19th century when Porfirio Diaz, looking to modernize the country, opened Mexico’s doors to foreign immigrants. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans arrived in significant numbers. After much inter-marriage with Mexicans, a fresh wave of Asians is arriving, bringing with it some long-awaited, authentic Asian food.
Chinese Early Chinese settlers built railroads and irrigation systems in the north, and worked on farms in the south. Utilizing their skills for fast cooking, some established “Café de Chinos”, the Mexican equivalent of an American coffee shop, serving up breakfast any time of day, and cooking up nominally Chinese dishes, like chow mein and chop suey. Nowadays About 3,000 Chinese nationals and 20,000 Mexicans of Chinese descent live in the country, mainly in Tijuana, Mexicali and the state of Chiapas. According to the website of the Chinese Embassy, Mexico City has about 800 Chinese residents and 5,000 “Chinos-mexicanos,” Mexicans of Chinese ancestry.
Chilango explorer and author, David Lida first led me to Ka Won Seng, which he’d learned about from a taxi driver whose sister-in-law is Chinese. The hand-scrawled note on the front door raised my hopes: “No hay comida mexicana, café, ni pan dulce” (we don’t serve Mexican food, coffee nor sweet rolls). The menu is extensive, with many dishes not found elsewhere in Mexico. Cold beef, flavored with star anise is an aromatic and refreshing appetizer, as is the gallina fina (cold steamed chicken served with dipping sauces). Many soups are offered, including an unusual hot-and-sour seafood--my favorite. Main courses include the usual meat categories, and a superb pato arrostizado estilo Guangdong (duck braised in a gingery brown sauce showered with scallions). Whole steamed fish with ginger and scallions is a specialty here, fresh and perfectly done. Berenjena con jarabe de pescado (eggplant with fish sauce) sounded odd, but was a perfect combination of sweet eggplant strips and a mild seafood sauce, served in a bubbling clay cazuela. There are many choices for vegetarians, such as tofu frio, bathed in chili sauce, then smothered with sesame seeds and scallions. Verdura china (bok choy) appears in many guises here, perfect with chorizo chino (chinese sausage), as do mustard greens and other seasonal vegetables --best to ask what’s fresh. Go with a group so you can share the ample dishes. A wide array of dim sum is offered Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon.
Asian Bay is a recent addition to the Condesa; (January 2012). Housed in an old mansion, the chef, Mexican of Chinese descent, studied cooking in Canton and Shanghai and prepares the most refined Chinese food in the city. His new venue for dim sum, Buns & Dumplings, is located inside Mercado del Carmen, Amargura 5, San Angel
Japan is Mexico’s seventh largest investor. At the end of the 19th century, adventurous emigrants arrived in Chiapas to grow coffee and later become cattle ranchers. A little known fact is that during WWII Japanese- Mexicans were sent (by request of the US government) to internment camps in Mexico City, but apparently were treated well and even sponsored through private school. Nowadays, 4,000 Japanese live in Mexico, and there are over 15,000 of Japanese descent, the majority in the capital, principally involved in import and export of manufactured goods.
Japanese restaurant chains and fast food joints have proliferated here in recent years –most of them awful. The custom of augmenting sushi with cream cheese, wildly and inexplicably popular here, is shocking to most Japanese (including my Kyoto-born stepmother, Yasuko, who recoils in horror at the idea). One restaurant that doesn’t pander to “gaijin” (foreign ) influence is Taro, located upstairs in an unassuming office building in Coyoacán. Of modest aspect and friendly service, the menu is pure Tokyo: start your meal with succulent steamed and pan-seared gyozas (dumplings), lightly scented with ginger. “Daikon sarada” is surprising and refreshing, combining thin strips of raw Japanese radish with a light miso-mayonaise dressing. There is an interesting assortment of sushi rolls; I especially like the “shake kawamake”, made with crispy salmon skin, the fish light and crunchy atop a soft blanket of rice swathed in seaweed. “Nabe mono”, iron hot-pots filled with noodles, meat or seafood are a house specialty, and I can’t resist the yosenabe, a delicate broth with seafood and vegetables, flavored with “shirin”, a sweet Japanese wine. A refreshing dipping sauce of soya and ponzu (citrus) is served alongside for a bonafide Nipponese touch. Other tempting categories are tempura - light and crisp, not greasy – and teppan yaki, or grilled meats.
True to Japanese tastes, only the freshest ingredients are used. Taro is a real find. (I’ll bring Yasuko when she comes to Mexico--but only if she tires of Mexican food).
In 1905 the first Korean immigrants arrived to work the henequen fields in the Yucatan. An estimated 30 to 40,000 descendents live in Mexico today. Recently, a new wave of immigrants has come, and Korean investment is strong in Mexico. About 3000 Korean residents work here, opening over 20 restaurants, 5 grocery stores, several nightclubs, and even an acupuncture office, all in Zona Rosa, making Koreans the most prominent ethnic community in Mexico. Biwon is among the best Korean restaurants in the city. Located upstairs, the dining rooms are pretty and old-fashioned. The seemingly steep price includes “banchan”, small plates of prepared appetizers, presented to each table, along with rice and water, so you needn’t order more than a main dish. Tables are equipped with grills for preparing your own mouth-watering marinated meats. Alternatively, you can order a casserole of seafood with kim chi (pickled, chillied vegetable with lots of garlic), which comes in many varieties.
Adding to the element of adventure, Biwon’s clientele is mostly Korean, so you’ll need to ask your waiter to explain what’s on the menu--or just point to what other people are eating.
Other places I’ve tried in the city offer less authentic fare, but the Indian/Pakistani places, and the elegent Thai venue mentioned below should satisfy you cravings for these cuisines. When applying for a visa at the Vietnamese embassy, I asked the secretary how many Vietnamese live in Mexico – “two of us”, she replied, “the consul and I”. So I cancelled my next question, which was going to be: “is there a good Vietnamese restaurant in the city”? Dream on. My search for the miraculous will continue. Meanwhile, I count my blessings, read my fortune cookies, and just say “itadaki mas” (buen provecho in Japanese!).
Asian Bay Restaurante Asian Bay is Mexico's premier Chinese venue, under the astute baton of chef Luís Chiu. See: Chinese New Year: Asian Bay
Av. Tamaulipas 95 (between Vicente Suarez & Campeche) Condesa Open Monday - Thursday: 12:00 -10:30 p.m., Friday, Saturday 12:00 -11:30 p.m., Sunday :12-9 p.m. Tel. 5553-4582
Ka Won Seng Restaurante Chino Albino Garcia 362, corner of Av. Santa Anita, Colonia Viaducto Piedad, Metro Viaducto Open daily, 12 – 11 p.m. Dim Sum 9 a.m. - 12 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
El Dragón Hamburgo 97, corner of Genova, Zona Rosa, metro Insurgentes Open Monday-Saturday 1-11 p.m., Sunday 2 - 10 p.m. Known for its duck and, on Saturday evenings, its Mongolian hot pot buffet which is patronized by many Asians. Duck is great, the rest fair, and prices are exaggerated.
Blossom San Francisco 360, Colonia Del Valle, and Paseo de las Palmas 890, Lomas de Chapultepec Open Monday – Saturday 1-11 p.m., Sunday until 6. Satisfying food, although prices are high and portions small.
Jing Teng Calle 65 sur, near Av. Sta. Anita, 2 blocks from Ka Won Seng, above. Chinese-for-Chinese; dim sum every day 10 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Gang Nam House Nicolás San Juan 442, Colonia del Valle Tel 5638 0175 Open Tuesday - Sunday 1 - 8:30 p.m. This small spot offers a choice of northern dishes such as lamb with cumin. Prices are high, but so is quality, and dishes are large, good for sharing.
Tifón Wok & Mariscos Dr Rio de la Loza 250 (colonia Doctores, near metro Cuauhtemoc) Open daily 12-10 p.m. The best choice near the centro.
Yi Pin Ju is the newest and only venue for authentic Szechuan cooking in the Zona Rosa; see review
Warung Makan Puebla 341 between Cozumel & Guadalajara, Roma Nte. Open Monday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. Mexico City's first and only Indonesian restaurant offers a reasonable comida
Kura Colima 378, Condesa Kura is an 'izakaya' i.e. a goodhouse, Japanese style. Many different genres of Nippon fare are offered.
Taro Av. Universidad 1861, Coyoacán Tel. 5661-4083 Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 1-10:30PM, Friday, Saturday 1-11 p.m., Sunday 1- 9 p.m., closed Wednesday This is one of the best and most authentic Japanese restaurants in the city. There is often a wait on weekend afternoons. The second floor dining room is unassuming but the food is superior.
Restaurante Murakami Torcuato Tasso 324 (between Presidente Masaryk & Horacio) Polanco Tel. 5203-1371 Open Monday - Friday 1 - 10 p.m., Sunday until 6, closed Saturday A good option in Polanco, this reasonably priced and casual spot is very popular with the local Japanese community.
Yoshimi Restaurant Hotel Hyatt, Campos Elíseos 204, Polanco , Tel. 5280-1111 Open Monday -Friday 7-10:30 a.m., 1-5 p.m., 7-11 p.m., Saturday 1-11 p.m. This restaurant is the most traditional in the city and the most elegant- try the bento, it's like a trip to Japan.
Mikasa San Luís Potosí 173, Colonia Roma,Tel. 5574-4859 Open Monday – Saturday 10-7 PM, Sunday until 6. An Asian supermarket (see below) that prepares excellent bento boxes which can be eaten at tables outside the store. On weekends they offer a popular outdoor BBQ.
Rokai, in Colonia Cuauhtemoc; see my review
see a knowledgeable reader's recommendation, below in comments
Fat Boy Moves Open Wednesday-Thursday 1-4, 5:30- 9 p.m., Friday, Saturday 1- 10, Sunday 12-6 Tamaulipas 147, Condesa Tel. 55 4569 3883 This is an extraordinary "creative Korean" opened in late 2016. See post: http://goodfoodmexico.com/the-fat-boy-moves-korean-comfort-at-home/
Biwon Restaurante Coreano New in 2011 is Bukhara, located on the second floor of the portales in the Zócalo. In an unlikely food court upstairs from the jewelers, is an Indian restaurant run by 'real' Indians from New Delhi. The menu is large. I advise to skip the tempting buffet and go for a la carte, where dishes will be made fresh. Prices are very reasonable.
??? A small place, whose name is only in Korean on their card, at Biarritz 3, around the corner from Hamburgo, makes interesting 'dim sum' dumplings and fried seaweed rolls, to take away or eat there at a small table.
Tandoor Copernico 156, corner of Leibniz, Anzures, Tel. 5545-6863 Open Monday-Saturday 1 - 11 p.m., Sunday to 7 p.m., all credit cards The Tandoori oven baked chicken is good. Prices are high and portions small.
Restaurante Taj Mahal Francisco Marquez 134 (between Pachuca & Tula, 1 ½ blocks from Mazatlán) Tel. 5211 8260 Open Daily for lunch and dinner http://tajmahalenmexico.com/
Bukhara Address is given as "Plaza de la Constitución 13, Mezzanine)" Just look for the sign as you walk along, under the arcade facing the Palacio Nacional. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch only.
El Tandor de Ali Calle Lucerna 46, Colonia Juarez This low key spot offers excellent and reasonably priced Bengali-oriented dishes.
Galanga Thai Kitchen Guanajuato 202, Roma Open Tuesday – Sunday, 1-10 p.m., closed Monday Galanga stands up to the best restaurants in Bangkok. It is by far the best in the country. See my review
Pad Thai Sonora 49, Colonia Condesa/Roma A small, unpretentious fonda. Not bad for a quick lunch.
Sesame 183 Colima, Colonia Roma A panoply of Asian snacks such as pho, banh ni and siu mai are authentically prepared by the capable chef Josefina Santacruz.
- Mikasa Japanese dry goods, fresh produce, tofu, some Thai and Chinese sauces and cookware San Luís Potosí 173, between Medellín & Monterrey, Roma
- Super Oriental Division del Norte 2515 corner of Londres, Coyoacán , tel. 5688-2981 Open Monday - Saturday 9:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. Asian cooking supplies, kitchen utensils – the best pan-asian market in the city
- Mercado San Juan Calle Ernesto Pugibet, Centro This market has several stands selling an amazing array of fresh Asian produce as well as oriental products and fresh tofu. See post
- El Molinero Progreso Calle Aranda 26 (around the corner from Mercado San Juan), open 8-8 Monday-Saturday. This small store sells every spice under the sun, including many used in Indian cooking. Also nuts, flours moles, chiles, etc.
- Calle Hamburgo, west of Florencia, Zona Rosa There are several Korean markets in a row selling fresh tofu, kim chi and other Korean and general Asian necesities.
This article originally appeared in The News, Mexico City
Alice Liao December 1, 2008 Thanks for reprinting this because I was referred to this article but couldn't find it! My husband and I are Asian Americans and have a hard time finding authentic Asian cuisine in DF. I'll have to try some of those recommendations, but for the most part, I do my own cooking since I, too, am a little put-off by the interesting takes on Asian here-- since when did chop suey evolve into bean sprouts and a bit of minced chicken?
Mariana December 2, 2008 EXCELLENT ARTICLE AS A TRUE FOODIE BORN IN MEXICO CITY RAISED IN THE US, LA JOLLA CA AND NYC, I KNOW HOW FRUSTRATING IT CAN BE TO FIND GOOD INTL CUISINE IN MEXICO. I RECOMMEND NAGAOKA FOR EXCELLENT SUKIYAKI AND SOBA DISHES ITS NEAR THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, FOR CHINESE I RECOMMEND HUNAN IN LAS LOMAS ITS UPSCALE AND STUFFY BUT THEY HAVE EXCELLENT DIMSUM AND OTHER DISHES, ITS NOT ORIENTAL GARDEN IN NYC BUT IT WORKS!!! ILL BE SURE TO PAY A VISIST TO ALL THE PLACES YOU MENTIONED THAT I DONT KNOW!!!
Michael Wolf December 10, 2008 Another good Chinese place is La Nube Blanca, on Insurgentes in Del Valle. They do serve Mexican food, although I've never tried it—the exception being tacos chinos, stir fried meat and vegetables wrapped in tortillas. Recommended. (This is operated by the same family that used to run Chie's, also on Insurgentes, near Metro Chilpancingo. Chie's has since shut down, but since the menu at Nube Blanca is identical, it isn't such a terrible loss.) For Indian, I suggest Dawat, in Polanco on calle Séneca not far from the corner of Carlos Dickens. An actual Indian guy (rare here, alas) recommended it to me; I'm glad he did. (But note: the last time I was in the area, it was closed. That day was a puente, though, so hopefully it hasn't gone out of business or anything like that. Look them up on queremoscomer and call before going to avoid disappointment. Their reviews on q.c. are mostly negative, but in my experience their food beats Tandoor's, although I enjoy both.)
Anonymous December 29, 2008 Dear Nick, I have to tell you that Biwon is the least favorite among the Koreans in Mexico City. FYI, I'm Korean. No offense.. but as a fan of your book, and as one of the many beneficiaries of your invaluable advices on enjoying Mexico City, I felt the urge to tell you what the Koreans in Mexico City think about Biwon. When it first opened, we had high expectations, since the ambience of Biwon looked promising. While the other existing Korean restaurants in Mexico City have this ambience which takes away your appetite - seriously -, the decoration of Biwon looked normal and even smart. HOWEVER, the food of Biwon is simply too bad. Unforgivably bad. Instead, I'd like to recommend you Changwon or Youngbinkwan, just across the street on Florencia. Their ambience sucks, but at least the food doesn't. My personal favorite between the two is Changwon, since its food is more home-style. If you want to try popular Korean barbecue - not elegant one, but blue collar style -, there is a really hot spot, called Nadaepo on Liverpool 183. Full of Koreans, no empty table. These days Nadaepo is THE place to go for Koreans in Mexico City. NG replies:
Thanks for the advice, Anonymous (vis a vis Korean restaurants)...I admit that Korean is the Asian cuisine I know least about. I will try ALL of your suggestions.
Marcela July 5, 2009 Unfortunately saw the comments regarding BIWON too late. It is terrible!! I'm Mexican and tried Korean food in Seoul which was extroardinary, lots of delicious soups that none where on the Menu. My last opportunity in trying Korean in Mexico will be the Nadaepo. Hope its good! Regarding the best indian in Mexico I agree with Michael that Dawat takes the honors
Gonzalez LewiAugust 20, 2009 WOW (impressed look). Your version looks so yummy. Here I bought a sauce pack for mapo tofu so as to skip all the seasonings! and I will try this Friday after work.
Salvador December 30, 2009 Never having been to Taro, I have to recommend Deigo, in Del Valle, on Pestalozzi and Universidad. My palate for Japanese food has only been trained on several fantastic eaties in Chicago (recommended by Japanese friends there), I can at least say that it's just as good if not better. And please, please, avoid Nagaoka like the plague.
Niamh April 5, 2011 We went to Bukhara on Saturday. The prices are so reasonable compared to Dawat and the like! Very tasty naan bread (we tried Kashmiri and garlic naan) for 18-20 pesos. The goat curry was very good. Watch out for pieces of bone and skin in the chicken curries. We'll definitely be going back and are happy to find Indian food here that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Apparently it's open till about 7.30 because the plaza closes at 8. The buffet ends at 6.
Thetravellingchopsticks June 16, 2011 I absolutely love this post. Having grown up in Asia (Singapore and Malaysia) I have been exposed to some of the best asian food in (my opinon) the world, and since moving here last year, I have had a hard time satisfying my craving - and have had some disasterous experiences! This list will be my bible going forward! Thanks for a great post!
Leigh Thelmadatter September 4, 2011 Just got back from Rico Food. The food is good but a bit pricey and the service was really, really, really slow. Ka Won Seng Restaurante Chino is a better bet IMHO for satisfying a Chinese food craving
Anonymous July 15, 2012 I'm craving some Singaporean black pepper crab and chilli crab... Does anyone kow where I can find it?
Nicholas Gilman replies: I'm afraid you'll have to make the Singaporean black pepper crab and chilli crab yourself. The ingredients are here (San Juan market) although crabs are not for sale live as they should be, here in Mexico, so not ideal.
Rebeccajtravels October 4, 2012 Thank you! I am from Toronto and am used to leaving my door and seeing a wide array of Asian food (good, bad, cheap, expensive) almost right outside my door and (in the area I last lived in) all the food in the chain grocery stores - to make my own "Asian" food. But it is hard to make this food without the right ingredients. Thanks!
Anonymous December 5, 2012 Thank you! We were able to find the Korean markets along Hamburgo today. I was specifically looking for spring roll and potsticker wrappers, both of which I found in the freezer section! We also went to Pad Thai, on your recommendation, and thought it was very good. Our first Thai food since arriving in Mexico City in July. The Pad Thai was great. We also had the only red coconut curry on the menu, substituted chicken for the beef and really enjoyed it. The Tom Yum, soup with coconut milk, was fantastic. We walked from Zona Rosa to Condessa for Thai. Only about 3/4 of a mile or so! Great day exploring a new part of the city for us.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]