Nicos and El Cardenal: Tradition, Tradition
People often ask me where to find high level but traditional Mexican food in town. A few places come to mind; El Bajío, Café de Tacuba--but the pickings are slim. It seems that these days everyone is trying hop on the Modern Mexican bandwagon. With the recent demise of the Fonda del Refugio, a decades-old bastion of old-fashioned dining it's time to celebrate the few that not only remain but thrive.
EL CARDENAL : A SLEEPER IN THE CENTRO
The original, pretty restaurant, founded in 1969 and is still owned by the same family. It is set in a colonial edifice on the pedestrianized Palma only a block from the Zócalo. It was for many years a rather stuffy, forgotten place. But about 10 years ago it was revamped it’s become a good venue for refined traditional Mexican cooking. So good that Culinaria Mexicana, in which this writer is a voter, chose El Cardenal as the best restaurant in Mexico in 2016. Two larger branches have opened, one in the Hotel Hilton on the Alameda (built on the site of the Hotel del Prado, destroyed in the earthquake of 1985), the other in Lomas, west of the center. All three locations serve the same large, changing menu offering many interesting dishes such as tortas de huautzontles, tortilla de huevo con escamoles ( an egg omelet with ant eggs), esquites (fresh corn with chile, ussualy a street food), and many seasonal ingredients such as huitlacoche and bacalao. The original Palma restaurant is more old-fashioned and homey, while the new branches exhibit contemporary glamour: take your pick. All offer an excellent traditional Mexican breakfast; not to be missed is natas, something like an English clotted cream.
Palma 23, (between Cinco de Mayo and Madero), Centro; view map
Juárez 70 (inside the Hotel Hilton), Centro Tel: 5518-6632 , 6633
Palmas 215, Colonia Lomas de Chapaultepec Tel: 2623 0401 Google
Open daily: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. (breakfast and lunch only)
NICOS BRINGS BACK YESTERYEAR
This out-of-the-way sleeper was inaugurated in 1957 and is still in the hands of the same family. It is near Musart’s legendary recording studios and so used to feed such famous musical stars as Pedro Infante and Lola Beltran. A few years ago now-star Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, chef and son of the founders, took over and is presenting a fascinating and unique assortment of rescued 19th-century recipes that don’t appear elsewhere.
The sopa seca de natas, a rich chillied cream soup is legendary. Also recommended is the cerdo en adobo de antaño, (whose poetic title roughly translates as pork in a sauce of yesteryear) is tender marinated chunks of meat in a mild chile sauce. Other traditional but seldom-seen dishes are artfully made - chicken in a caper sauce, a dish served in 19th century homes for example, taking advantage of local, organic produce. An ample wine list features many good and reasonably priced Mexican wines. Décor is dowdy but accommodating – but who cares! There’s no pretention here. And S. Pellegrino doesn’t seem to think so either as last year Nicos appeared on it’s 50 Best Latinamerican Restaurants list.
Av. Cuitláhuac 3102, Col. Claveria (Azcapotzalco) view map
Tel. 5396-7090 / 5396-6510
Open Monday-Saturday 1 p.m.-7 p.m., Closed Sunday