A Room With a View: El Balcón del Zócalo
Why is the combination of a beautiful view and great food so hard to find? Too often I’ve suffered through dishes that were ‘meh’ at best while enjoying some of the world’s most spectacular vistas, from the rooftops of Paris to the docks of Singapore. Owners seem to think that pretty scenery will replace a careful kitchen. Mexico City is no exception. We live in a metropolis lousy with jaw dropping views, but only a few eating or drinking establishments have attempted to utilize them over the years. And none have served even near decent fare. That is, until El Balcón del Zócalo came along.
Situated atop a colonial edifice in the heart of Mexico City’s centro histórico, El Balcón offers a breath-taking panorama of our capital’s Plaza de la Constitución, popularly known as the Zócalo. The view is spectacular and the Metropolitan Cathedral sits proudly at center stage.
The good news is the ambitious but approachable menu realized by chef José Antonio Salinas. The chef offers tweaked Mexican classics and more elaborate dishes that explore the gastronomic vanguard but don’t stray too far from tradition. A classic guacamole, whose ingredients are rolled tableside and assembled by a server, is well balanced – the show is old hat for residents but fun for visitors.
Gussied up antojitos can be pleasantly amusing: little blue corn ‘peneques de lengua’ appear like sharks swimming in a sea of green salsa. Jewel-like, paper-thin slices of octopus make for a refreshing starter.
A seasonal ‘tlayuda de escamoles’, the ant eggs known as Mexican caviar, is also lovely to look at though, on a recent visit, unbalanced flavor-acidity wise. Classic seafood tostadas and tacos of, respectively, tuna and shrimp are simple and light.
Filete de res en mole negro is heartwarming – smoky black Oaxacan mole complements the tender juicy beef. This one’s a winner. As September approaches, everyone is proffering chiles en nogada, our fiestas patrias standard; El Balcón is no exception. While chefs all want to put their stamp on the dish, they also must not stray too far from tradition. Here, an extra large poblano (big enough for sharing) is stuffed with a picadillo perfumed with smoky chorizo – an aberration from the usual beef/pork filling. The ‘nogada’ – walnut cream sauce – is not cloyingly sweet as it can be and velvety. As nogadas go, it does the trick but leans towards the one-dimensional, flavor-wise. The perennial dialectic of “to capear or not to capear” (fry in light batter) is left up to the individual. I lean towards the plain, as I try to avoid gilded lilies.
All in all, El Balcón del Zócalo is a highly recommendable spot for a well prepared, upscale Mexican lunch or dinner with a view. Dishes could use a bit of refining – the chef reaches for rings he doesn’t always catch – balance is at times off – but more often than not he hits the marks right on. An experienced sommelier handles a well chosen wine list. It’s a perfect place to take out of town guests and to remind us residents of the stunning panorama and grace our glorious city provides. We can almost bring back the “Paris of the new world” moniker that our capital once bore from this eagle’s perch.
El Balcón del Zócalo
6th floor of the Zócalo Central Hotel 5 de Mayo 61, Centro Histórico
Tel. 51 30 51 30 Ext. 6775 y 6776
Open daily, 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Food (1-10): 7; good if at times rough around the edges
Ambience: 9; what is there to say with that buena vista surrounding you
Service: 8; attentive and friendly Prices: $300 -500 pp; a tasting menu is offered for $650 + $580 more with pairing.