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You need to know that this country's eats are not the taco "shell", ground beef-and-baked-beans fare that Tex-Mex has made it out to be. In fact, the Mexican cuisine genre contains more variety than any other type of cooking, except for French and Chinese. In that same vein, many describe Mexican cuisine as one of only three "cuisines" in the world, the other two being the ones just mentioned.
The distinction is important, given that, for example, Italian cooking, with it's relatively limited variety and "borrowed ingredients" (tomato from Mexico, pasta from China, etc.), has "dishes", but is not a full cuisine. Whatever one may think of such assertions, Mexico gave the world chocolate, tomato, avocado, chile peppers, and vanilla. Its huge variety (and quality) of ingredients make exploring its culinary wealth a must even for the recent arrival, but one must put aside all the cheap stereotypes created by "Taco Bell."
Tipping, Valet Parking and Credit Cards
Service in Mexico is generally excellent. You’ll find that most waiters are eager to please, even if they have not always received the best training.
Tipping 10% is recommended, although many waiters deserve more. The American influence is now pushing people towards 15%, but waiters should still be thankful for a little extra.
Parking is often difficult in Mexico City, but Valet Parking is the norm at almost all established restaurants. Despite having heard anecdotal evidence to the contrary, Sam’s experience with valets has been care-free after almost 14 years of leaving cars with them. Valets currently have an excellent habit of asking you to list your valuables so that both parties are sure what was left in the car. It is wise to be thorough with that and with any imperfections that may be on the car itself.
Every establishment will be very thorough with your credit card to avoid credit card fraud. Today, in most higher-end places they will probably bring you a card reader to your table and run the bill in front of you. This is, of course, the safest way to charge your credit card and you should use it as often as it is available.
The Mexican Restaurants you need to know
As a foreigner, you're going to want to have quick and easy access to "safe" Mexican restaurants, both for personal purposes and the perennial business lunch/visitor's tour. The quintessential corporate Mexican restaurant is La Valentina, which has three locations, Polanco (5282-2297/2514), Insurgentes Sur (5662-0872, 5661-8401), and Interlomas (5290-3848, ext. 226). The Polanco location is in an upscale boutiquey mall along fashionable Masarik Avenue. It is pretty large and has a happening (read: noisy, but fun) bar. You'll find all sorts of expatriate business dining going on there every day of the week and the Bar Fly downstairs can be a riot, if you're in the mood for some Latin dancing with an older crowd. The Interlomas location is the newest.
Mexico City Restaurants
A cousin of the Valentinas is the Girasoles, or "sunflowers". It is on Tolsa Plaza (5510-0630), one of the most beautiful squares in the Americas, in the Historical Center. While the food is not quite as good as the previously mentioned restaurants, the setting is fantastic and visitors will love being surrounded by some of the most impressive palaces this side of the Atlantic. The Patio Colonial del Hotel de Cortes (5518-2181 through 85), situated in the historic Hotel de Cortes just off Reforma in the center of town, offers an informal setting for a meal in a 17th Century courtyard.
The ambience is somewhat touristy, but the setting is charming and might be nice for a late lunch. Before you've spent more than 48 hours in the Big City you'll have heard of the Hacienda de los Morales (5096-3054/55, 5096-3070), if your friends are in the North, or the San Angel Inn (5616-0973/1402), if they are southern types. These are two Haciendas from the 1600-1700s. The Hacienda de los Morales is in Polanco and it is a fantastic agglomeration of buildings and a large garden. It is decidedly the better of the two, and also the more formal. You actually eat very good traditional Mexican food like the "crepas de huitlacoche" and the "mole chicken" - if you're such a newcomer that you don't know these dishes, try them, they're funky without being scary. Los Morales, as it's known, has several banquet halls (impressive places, all), which you can rent, and "El Estribo", literally, "The Stirrup" bar, with one of the largest selections of tequilas anywhere (over 300).
No visit to Mexico City is complete without a trip to La Opera (5512-8959), arguably the capital's best-known cantina. It is located in the historical center. This little gem has live Mexican music, a naive French 19th century gilded baroque style and a bullet hole in the ceiling, which was supposedly introduced by Pancho Villa's gun when he stopped there for a drink when he triumphantly entered the City in the 1910's.
Finally, perhaps the most innovative Mexican restaurant in the City is the Águila y Sol (5281-8354) on Moliere Street in Polanco. Chef/owner Marta Ortíz Chapa mixes traditional ingredients in surprising and titillating ways. The atmosphere is sophisticated and contemporary, but the ingredients are timeless. It is Sam’s favorite.
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