Back to school: An Interview with Ricardo Muñoz Zurita of Azul y Oro
If you’re looking for the best Mexican food in Mexico City you’ll have to go back to school.
In the middle of the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México) sits the unassuming but excellent Restaurante Azul y Oro. Named after the eponymous college colors, it’s the baby of chef and culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Muñoz deserves “national living treasure” status for his tireless work conserving and documenting our country’s rich culinary traditions. He is author of the superb Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana, an invaluable resource, as well as other cookbooks.
His restaurant is housed in a sunny second floor space across from the Sala Nezhualcoyatl music hall and the fabulous new University Museum of Contemporary Art, and is popular with students and university staff alike. An umbrella-covered patio area offers an appealing outdoor dining option.
The menu offers Mexican standards as well as rarely seen specialties. Start with atamalito de acelgas (a tamal stuffed with swiss chard and fresh cheese), or the soothing and savory crema de cilantro. Standard ‘international’ salads are available for those who want something light – the salad with pear and blue cheese is generous and perfectly dressed. There’s even a large plate of cooked vegetables topped with blue cheese sauce for vegetarians.
But it’s the ‘Especialidades’ – house specialties – that I go for. My favorite is the ravioles crujientes rellenos de pato, a fusion dish of deep-fried wontons filled with duck then bathed in a deep, dark chocolaty Oaxacan mole.
An unusual vegetarian option is the enchiladas de jamaica orgánica, fragrant tortillas filled with tart, fruity hibiscus flowers and augmented by a mildly picante tomato/chipotle sauce.
Desserts are worth the calories. On my ‘don’t miss’ list is the hot chocolate – made either with milk or water, the chocolate itself comes from Oaxaca and is a special blend containing 30% almonds.
On a recent balmy afternoon, I sat down with chef Muñoz during a quiet moment before comida time to investigate the investigator. He’s quiet but passionate, and very determined when it comes to the subject of Mexican cuisine.
Nicholas Gilman: What was your concept for this restaurant?
Ricardo Muñoz: I wanted to do something different – Azul y Oro is the only place of its kind in Mexico serving carefully researched and authentic traditional dishes made with very high quality ingredients. We didn’t need another expensive Polanco-type place. I wanted it to be accessible, unpretentious, but of high quality.
NG: How do you characterize “traditional” dishes”
RM: Foods prepared and presented with respect for their origins. For example, we do a duck with black mole from a carefully researched Oaxacan recipe – other than the fancy presentation, the flavors are those of Oaxaca. In fact, we import all necessary ingredients from the source. We use artisanal and organic products whenever possible. Taste a corner of this: [he produces a perfumy loaf of achiote, a ground red spice often used in Yucatecan cooking]
NG: Yes, I see what you mean! (it is amber colored, mild and aromatic, not neon red and acrid like the packaged variety)
RM: We also utilize organic produce, such as corn for tortillas, milk, coffee, salad greens and vegetables.
NG: Talk a little bit about your menu
RM: We have a base menu which offers a range of standard dishes from different regions of Mexico and, periodically offer “festival” menus featuring regional specialties. Past festivals have focused on Oaxaca, Veracruz and Yucatan.
NG: Will you be repeating these festivals?
RM: Yes – our customers demand it. We’re about to present a new one, to celebrate mango season [which has already started]. I call it “mmm….Mango!” This special menu will offer nine dishes, from appetizers to desserts, all featuring mango. (I was privileged to a preview: a succulent, tender beef filet, accompanied by pico de gallo of mango – a perfectly balanced spicy/sweet/salty concoction. It turns out the secret ingredient that ties it all together is Thai fish sauce!)
NG: What is your favorite dish, the one you recommend most?
RM: Pescado Tikin-Xic – without a doubt.
NG: Can you describe it?
RM: It comes from a town called Chuburna in the Yucatan. Fish filets are marinated in achiote, grilled and served stacked over sautéed plátano, frijoles, and avocado. It’s beautifully presented, our most popular dish. (I agree, having enjoyed it several times)
NG: Tell me about your books.
RM: I’ve done five; the latest (and the only one available at the moment) is called Salsas Mexicanas.
NG: Your Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana is an extraordinary work. How did it come about?
RM: I decided to do it because I thought it needed to be done. It began as a glossary, but evolved into a more extensive work. It took over twelve years to produce, and it’s the only one of its kind. I did all the research myself.
NG: What are your plans for the future?
RM: We’re coming out with a huge new cookbook on classic Mexican cooking…
NG: Anything in English?
RM: Not yet – hopefully in the future.
NG: Any new restaurants?
RM: Not this year, but I’m sure we will eventually open a branch somewhere else in the city.
(update: since this interview took place, 2 branches have opened, Azul Condesa and Azul Histórico in the Downtown Hotel, centro)
Azul y Oro
Centro Cultural Universitario, (near Sala Nezahualcóyotl), Ciudad Universitaria
Branch in the Torre de Ingeniería (also on the UNAM campus) see map
Open Monday-Tuesday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Wednesday-Thursday, until 8, Saturday until 9 and Sunday 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Reservations are not accepted, credit cards are.
This article was published in The News Mexico City; photos are by Rodrigo Oropeza
C.M. Mayo April 7, 2009 Thanks for this excellent post! I had heard of Azul y Oro but never could figure out where it was exactly.
Vero cook April 10, 2009 I wish he would open a restaurant in Vero Beach, Florida!
Nicholas Gilman replies: Note: C.M.Mayo, AKA Madam Mayo, edits an excellent blog, usually about Mexico: http://madammayo.blogspot.com/
Carlos Gershenson April 24, 2009 I've been there a few times and it's excellent! Try the chocolate tamales! There's another venue on the ground floor of the Torre de Ingeniería, also on Ciudad Universitaria shelora sheldan - Cooking with a Broad November 3, 2009 I will be visiting in another month. Do the two venues differ in any way? With thanks!
Nicholas Gilman replies: No, they are basically the same.