Since the 1980s, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita has traveled around Mexico in search of obscure recipes, cooking techniques, and foodstuffs. His ethno-culinary research has yielded more than ten books, culminating in his renowned 600-plus-page Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mexican Gastronomy. He puts his study to good use at his three restaurants, including the atmospheric Azul Histórico, set in a seventeenth-century courtyard dotted with laurel trees.
The restaurant highlights a particular region or theme each month. You may find a menu dedicated to a single ingredient, like mangos, or a distant state, such as Tabasco. There is one constant, however: “In Mexican cooking, you always need the right chile,” says Muñoz Zurita.
At Azul, nearly every dish contains chiles, all with different flavors, ranging from fruity to smoky to chocolaty to spicy (and more) .The pepper, for instance, figures prominently in Azul’s mole, the many-spiced sauce that comes in infinite versions, the most famous being mole poblano, “the chocolate sauce most foreigners think of,” says Muñoz Zurita. But “mole is more complex than that,” he notes. “It’s at least 700 years old, and it varies so much from place to place. It’s a milestone dish, eaten at birthdays, baptisms, weddings, funerals. It’s life.”
Sometimes innovation means returning to your roots, and Muñoz Zurita’s research has done exactly that. “We have incredible restaurants – both traditional and contemporary,” he says. “It’s the best moment in history for Mexican cuisine right now.”
Word on the Street
“To appreciate how Mexican cuisine has evolved, I suggest my clients visit street-food stands in the upscale Polanco district,” says Carlos Alvarez, who divides his time between Mexico City and Texas. Every neighborhood in Mexico City has a tianguis, or street market, and in Polanco, food stalls spring up each Saturday morning in Lincoln Park.
“Seeing the food in its humblest form helps you understand the foundation upon which the city’s top chefs are building,” Alvarez adds. Some of his suggestions: blue corn quesadillas stuffed with flores de calabaza (zucchini blossoms); cochinita pibil, a spicy pork stew; and, if you’re feeling adventurous, huitlacoche, a fungus known as the Mexican truffle, which grows on organic corn.