Mexico City Insider: Food Writer James Oseland

A James Beard Award-winning food and travel writer (and former judge on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters), James Oseland visited Mexico City more than 30 times over the years before moving there in 2015, and dedicated the first volume of his World Food cookbook series to the city. “The great French artist André Bréton, who lived in Mexico City in the 1930s, pronounced it the most surrealist place in the world,” says James. “I wouldn’t know how to quantify that statement, but the fact is that the city constantly surprises me with a parade of strange, elegant, rowdy, unexpected, marvelous things. I can’t think of a more stimulating place.”

Read on to learn more about why James loves Mexico City, and shares his recommendations of the activities, shops, restaurants and museums that he loves most.

Contact Indagare or your Indagare Trip Designer to plan your next visit to Mexico City.

A Formative First Visit

My first trip to Mexico City—with my dad in 1980, when I was 17—also happened to be my first trip outside of the United States. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the complexity and beauty that we encountered. It was as if everything I’d understood about, well, everything I knew before then was ripped up and tossed into the air like confetti. I was awestruck by the proper mole poblano comida we ate at the Fonda El Refugio, a glamorous destination that was back then Mexico’s most famous restaurant. I was spellbound as we toured the area surrounding the Zócalo (the city’s main square), a large portion of which in the early 1980s was given over to the excavation of the Templo Mayor, ancient Mexico City’s largest pyramid. To me, the whole city was magic.

From the 1990s to the 2000s, I traveled to Mexico City as often as I could; all told I took around 30 trips there. So, when the opportunity came along to create my new cookbook series, World Food, dedicating the first volume to Mexico City, a place that had provided me with so much inspiration, was an easy choice. As I went about attempting to capture the color and specific savor of the city’s cuisine when I began to research the book, I gradually realized that I was making a book about my new home. I settled down here five years ago and haven’t looked back since.

The Favorite Meal

Casa Virginia, the flagship restaurant of chef Mónica Patiño, offers food and ambiance that is at once stylish, homey, and deeply Mexican. The signature dish, roast lamb with a subtle and earthy pasilla chile sauce, reveals itself as a masterpiece of elevated traditional Mexican cooking—it is no wonder that Patiño is often thought of as the Alice Waters of Mexico. Rather than booking an evening reservation, I recommend going for a late lunch/early dinner (say, 4ish), a time which coincides with when Mexico City’s denizens eat their main meal and the vibe and energy of the restaurant is at its most vital.”

The Sweets Spot

“A visit to Dulcería de Celaya, a sweets shop in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico that dates back nearly 150 years, is a crash course in old-fashioned, enticing Mexican dulces—the kind that Mexican great grandmothers enjoyed but are rarely available these days. Among an impressive array of cakes, pastries, and other goodies, you will encounter what may be Mexico’s best cocoada, the country’s answer to coconut macaroons. There isn’t a place to sit, so take your treats to a bench in the nearby Parque Alameda to enjoy them.”

Cocktail Hour

“The rooftop-terrace bar of the tasteful Círculo Mexicano hotel is literally the perfect place for a margarita on the rocks. Situated directly behind Mexico City’s cathedral, it provides a memorably dramatic view, rain or shine. Every libation I’ve ever partaken of in this grand location, from cocktails to mezcal, has been exceedingly delicious—especially when timed to coincide with the sunset.”

The Clothing Store

Carla Fernández, a preeminent Mexican fashion designer, has a couple of chic clothing shops scattered around Mexico City. At the one in Juaréz, a central neighborhood, I look for shirts, including guayaberas, Fernandez’s handsome twist on the traditional Yucatecan men’s shirt. There are also many options for women, all intelligently designed and handmade with sustainably sourced fabrics.”

The Art Gallery

“Mexico City is justly celebrated for its art galleries, but those specializing in photography tend to get overlooked. Patricia Conde Galería, in the leafy neighborhood of San Miguel Chapultepec, is Mexico’s most highly regarded space devoted exclusively to photography. Stop by to see work that ranges from the anthropological photos of Graciela Iturbide to the stunning black-and-white images of Laura Cohen, a contemporary Mexican photographer who specializes in, among other things, poetically documenting modernist Mexican architecture.”

The Candle You Didn’t Know You Needed

Cerería La Purisima, a small candle concern located on a busy Centro Histórico street, is a vision of the way most Mexico City shops probably were a hundred years ago. I covet the handmade paraffin candles—they’re the variety used in churches and come in an array of sizes but only one color: a creamy shade of white. Their flames provide the loveliest illumination I’ve ever experienced in my home.”

The Museum(s)

The famed Anthropology Museum is certainly the granddaddy of Mexico City’s museums, but the Museo del Templo Mayor, located atop the partially restored ruins of the center of the ancient city, is a more manageable place to grasp the specific history of Mexico City, rather than the entirety of Mexico. The museum focuses on the story of the Aztecs, the people who called Tenochtitlán (Mexico City’s name before the Spanish conquest that began in 1517) their home. Among the items on view created by the Mexica, as the Aztecs are called in Mexico, is a remarkable and large sacrificial stone embedded with an image of the moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui. To see it along with thousands of other objects directly at their place of origin is both moving and unforgettable.”

What's one Mexico City experience you hope every visitor makes time for?

“A visit to Mercado la Merced, Mexico City’s main public market, is, simply, one of the quintessential experiences of the city. The designation La Merced refers both to a physical market (a structure comprising roughly five thousand stalls) and to the informal bazaars that surround it for a span of at least 53 city blocks. Here, you will encounter the sights and sounds of ancient Mexico City as they merge with the contemporary megalopolis: enormous piles of fresh chiles vie for space with glistening, just-picked guavas; kitchenware stalls are sandwiched between those offering hand-woven baskets. The market is a monumental temple to human appetite that has stood in various incarnations for centuries. To spend the better part of a day strolling through its maze of streets and corridors allows access to the true pulse of Mexico City better than anything else I can think of.”

Contact Indagare or your Indagare Trip Designer to plan your next visit to Mexico City.

Related: Read more from our Mexico City Insider series, with guides from:

Published onMarch 22, 2023

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