It may come as a surprise to find black beans, the decidedly unglamorous, unsung hero of Mexican cuisine, on the table at Anatol, an upscale restaurant in the boutique Las Alcobas hotel. Justin Ermini, who designed Anatol’s farm-to-table menu along with co-executive chef Mayra Victoria, fell hard for the fruity black legumes brought by a farmer who’d traveled all the way from Chiapas to sell them door to door in Mexico City. Ermini decided to celebrate the humble frijoles with a black bean sopa reminiscent of the classic Mexican cream soup, lightened with fresh cilantro and ripe tomatoes. He serves the thick, silky soup, made with duck fat and Oaxacan chilhuade chiles, with a terrine of smoked foie gras from Guadalajara.
As an American cooking in Mexico, Ermini has a distinct perspective. “I’ve never seen a food scene change so dramatically and quickly,” he says, noting that he moved to Mexico City in December 2012 to open Anatol. “In just a few years, the emphasis has moved from molecular fine dining to traditional, organic ingredients.”
After Elena Reygadas opened Rosetta in 2010, the acclaimed chef found herself leaning more and more toward Mexican flavors, infusing her Italian menu with distinctly indigenous DMA.
“I was trained in Italian cuisine, but I also have a duty to show what makes us proud to be Mexican,” she says. Wistfully recalling different kinds of heirloom potatoes from her childhood that are now extinct, Reygadas says that supporting traditional ingredients is a form of cultural preservation. In her airy restaurant housed within an old mansion in the Roma district, she continues to serve handmade pastas, but doesn’t shy away from using native ingredients such as chaya leaf for her pesto in lieu of basil.
Reygadas has also made pulque, an alcoholic beverage created from the fermented sap of the maguey agave, a main fixture in her recipes. For instance, she marinates rabbit in the pungent liquor, which tenderizes the meat while imbuing it with a slightly tangy taste. The most impressive use of pulque might be in her simple meringue: The liquor not only lends an unmistakable tartness to the dessert, but also adds extra elasticity.
Mexico’s traditional fonda, the modest cafeteria that serves as a neighborhood meeting place, gets a touch of urban refinement at Fonda Fina (Medellin 79), which chef Jorge Vallejo opened in late 2015. Its menu, executed by hometown chef Juan Cabrera, celebrates the uncomplicated dishes that grandmothers prepare, such as freshly made tortillas topped with avocado and coarse salt. Take, for example, Cabrera’s spin on the sopa seca, a casserole as ordinary and comforting to Mexicans as Americans’ mac and cheese. Cabrera’s version tosses noodles in rich chipotle sauce, contrasts them with crunchy chilaquiles, and presents them as a tower topped with fresh cheese.
Nixtamal – corn that has been cooked and soaked in an alkaline solution (a Mesoamerican technique that goes back to around 1500 BC) – also plays a leading role at the restaurant. Here, this unassuming maize takes on new personalities as panucho, a refried tortilla stuffed with refried black beans and finished with soft beef bone marrow and spicy habanero sauce; peneque, a puffy tortilla, which takes on a texture like fried tofu skin and serves as a pedestal for a fried egg yolk and grilled poblano peppers; and memela, a fried masa cake that Cabrera tops with a medallion of salt-cured beef tenderloin.