Wake Up Call: Breakfast, Mexican Style
Mexicans love a big breakfast. The most common way to ‘romper el ayuno’ is to stop at the corner for a tamal and a glass of steaming atole (which is also corn based and heavy). A more old fashioned, continental style breakfast consists of coffee or hot chocolate accompanied by one of a huge variety of the beloved sweet rolls found in every panadería. But just as common is an elaborate sit-down American-style egg-fest. The concept undoubtedly came from England via the good ‘ole USA. No other culture that I know of puts out such a large spread: juice, sweet rolls, fruit, café con leche and hot chocolate (both will be offered in a formal breakfast), eggs, meat such as machaca or bacon, tamales, chilaquiles, enchiladas etc.
And a formal, sit down family or restaurant breakfast is a recognized way to socialize. Definitely not a custom inherited from the Spanish for whom a simple piece of toast drizzled with olive oil is about as elaborate as it gets. Here in the capital, Saturdays and Sundays see big families out on the town doing what we ‘80’s veterans would call brunch – although that distinctly bi-coastal USA phenomena per-se is unknown – no Bloody Mary’s in sight.
A few places, listed below, are famous for their big desayunos. At the practical work-a-day level are fondas and holes-in-the-wall who offer ‘paquetes’ or breakfast specials of fruit, eggs (a su gusto – the way you like them, and nobody likes them just plain) and a very milky café con leche. All for 30 pesos or less. The common egg options are huevos a la Mexicana (scrambled eggs with chile, tomato and onion), huevos rancheros (fried egg on a tortilla with salsa roja) or, in the North, huevos con machaca, a dried flaked beef. Oaxaqueños are beaten with chile-tomatoe sauce. Divorciados divide the ex-couple into separate dishes and bath them in different salsas. From the Yucatan come my favorite, huevos motuleños which are fried eggs stacked on a crisped tortilla slathered with black bean paste, blanketed with ham, dotted with green peas then bathed in a spicy tomato broth. For those who don’t want eggs there are chilaquiles, which make use of yesterday’s tortillas by frying them up with salsa, then adding crema (Mexico’s version of crème fraiche) is also a common option; they can be accompanied by eggs or chicken. And hot cakes are popular as well - my friend Veronica remembers that 'Tía Jemima' was a familiar figure in her house.
In preparation for this piece, I asked a few well-known Mexican foodies what they like for breakfast; here’s what they said:
Miss Regina Orozco - http://www.reginaorozco.com.mx/ - one of Mexico's top divas, is an operatically trained singer, actress and cabaret star extraordinaire. She once did a musical show called ‘La Mega-Bizcocho’ (the big cookie) featuring sketches about losing weight, during which she sat on my lap (I was in the audience, not on stage) and sang ‘Besame Mucho’. I was mortified. And it was fabulous. She is very specific as to her morning feed :
“I’d have some tacos of cochinita pibil from the market near my house, with a juice of mandarina, with a separate glass of red pomagranate juice. Or maybe some classic quesadillas and tlacoyos with nopales.” Or maybe all of the above...
The gregarious Sra. Zarela Martinez - http://www.zarela.com/ - is the Mexican ‘Elaine Kaufman’ of Manhattan - She’s a cookbook author and longtime owner of the recently closed Zarela, where she used to greet customers from her perch at the bar. She’s picky about how she starts the day, as a good chef should be:
“I like huevos con chorizo. Of course the chorizo has to be homemade!” Julia Child would agree.
Chef and cookbook author Roberto Santibañez -http://www.fondarestaurant.com/ - has always been on the Mexi-food cutting edge; he worked the kitchen of El Olivo, possibly Mexico City’s first venue for ‘nueva cocina’ back in the '80's. I sampled my first spaghetti with mole there. Now he’s heading Brooklyn’s Fonda, for which they cross the bridges from Manhattan to line up. He goes for a nice balance of ‘lite’ and ton-of-bricks:
"A plate of papaya with a few drops of lime and enfrijoladas con tasajo (bean dipped tortillas with beef)." Pass the Alka-Seltzer...
Chef Josefina Santa Cruz - http://www.josefinasantacruz.com/ - is the Dinah Shore of Mexico, cooking herself into a tizzy on the tube. She knows from power kitchens, having run New York’s Pámpano where the high hats mingle with the hoi paloi. Her breakfast tastes are simple and classic:
“Los chilaquiles – I love them, but the best are at my house.” Served in bed no doubt. Poet and thinker Alberto Ruy Sánchez -http://www.artesdemexico.com/ - known familiarly as ‘Pollo’, is co- founder, with his wife Magui, of the bi-lingual hi-gloss mag Artes de México which for more than two decades has celebrated and documented everything Mexican. As intellectuals tend to do, he responded at length: “My favorite breakfast is machaca al estilo Sonora. But in Mexico City nobody makes it, not that I know. Here, the Monterrey variety is better known. Machaca de Sonora is cured with spices before drying. And it’s eaten in big, thin, flour tortillas called "sobaqueras", which aren’t found here either, only in Sonoran houses. They’re accompanied by frijoles maneados, that is to say, refried with lots of melted cheese inside- like a fondu of frijoles refritos. And for dessert, a coyota, which is a kind of layered double tortilla, also wheat, with melted brown sugar inside." Can someone help Pollo find these things?
Here are some suggestions for where to start the day in Mexico City:
On the Zócalo entrance at Madero, Centro
The rooftop restaurant of this 1930’s vintage hotel, with its spectacular view of the Zócalo, has put out a breakfast buffet since time immemorial.
Palma 23, between 5 de Mayo and Madero
Open every day from 8:30-7PM
Tel. 5521-8815 / 5521-8816
Is another old-timer known for its copious and varied breakfast. Be sure to order a plate of 'natas' or clotted cream as a side dish.
Tel. 5518 4950
Open daily 10am-11pm
This traditional breakfast or after-theatre spot is a must-see; you don’t know Mexico City if you haven’t been to Cafe Tacuba. In business since 1912, the festive space is decorated in Talavera tiles and Colonial style furniture. The Veracruz-style coffee is particularly good.
Sanborn’s (the original one)
Casa de los Azulejos, Madero 4, Centro.
The central patio in this former colonial mansion is a picturesque spot, and a traditional breakfast site for tourists and Mexicans alike. The food, although a bit institutional, really isn’t bad.
Campos Elíseos 133 corner of Lamartine, Polanco
Open every day from 7:30AM
A good option in Polanco, their baked goods are excellent.
Los Bisquet’s de Obregón
A charmless chain of restaurants with various locations, but serving good food and excellent cafe con leche. It is poured from two steaming pitchers, one for milk, and the other for a dense coffee concentrate. Most Mexicans drink it very light, but I find a 50-50 mixture best. There are Bisquet’s in the Centro at Tacuba 85 and Madero 29, and in Colonia Roma (Av. Álvaro Obregon at Merida).
Alvaro Obregón 154, between Tonalá & Jalapa, Colonia Roma
Open every day from 8 a.m.
This is a nice option in ‘La Roma’ and offers a huge variety of egg preparations. And, of course, tameles.
Ozulama 4, at Citlatépetl, on the park, Condesa
Open daily at 8 a.m.
This pretty European style café has a nice breakfast with a view of Parque México
A the corner of Celaya & Av.Amsterdam in the Condesa
An adorable bistro that offers a good, reasonably priced breakfast.
Adolfo Prieto 1364 (Colonia Del Valle, near metrobus stop ‘Parque Hundido’)
Open 5:30 to 11:30 a.m., Monday- Saturday
This rustic, bustling, morning only fonda features the usual egg options as well as bubbling cazuelas of cooked dishes and interesting daily specials. It was always a favorite with locals and has now become quite well-known internationally, due to a plug from a certain TV personality. But it’s out-of-the-way location keep it from becoming a tourist trap like some of the other places around the globe that Mr. B has visited.
Note: I apologize to the nameless photographers whose portraits I appropriated for this piece!