Three Amigos, Some Mezcal, and Mexico City (Part 1)
We are on approach into Mexico City and the view outside my window gives me pause. Mexico City is massive. At 22 million people this behemoth is the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere, and the largest Spanish speaking city in the world.
That Mexico City is many times overlooked by travelers is not surprising. When the subject of traveling to Mexico comes up, inevitably names like Cancun, Cabo, Cozumel, and others dominate the conversation. The rest of Mexico is perceived as less attractive – no beaches, no pretty sunsets, and more dangerous for tourists.
Having traveled to Cancun and Cozumel previously, I found Mexico City refreshingly, well, Mexican. In addition to being the capital of Mexico, it is also it’s cultural hub and it holds fast to Mexico’s traditions. It is in many ways contemporary and modern but is largely uninfluenced by American commercialization like other more touristy parts of Mexico. So yes, you will see a Starbucks here and there but you will also easily find old Mexico right around every corner.
For this excursion I was traveling with my colleague and friend Tim Taylor, a food blogger with CookSavorCelebrate. My lifelong friend Charley Daniel (of the Dallas kind not the Devil Went Down to Georgia kind) would join us the next day. We have scheduled a whirlwind tour of food and culture over 4 days that will take us to dine with the hottest chefs in Mexico City, including 2 restaurants in the top 25 in the world. We will dive deep into an authentic Mexican market. And pyramids…yes there will be pyramids.
Check In at the St. Regis Mexico City
We arrive mid-afternoon and make our way to our home for the next 4 days, the St. Regis Mexico City. The hotel is in a high-rise cylindrical shaped building. It has a very modern feel and look. We are warmly welcomed into the lobby and the front desk staff could not have been more helpful and courteous.
A Walk Down Reforma Avenue
We decide to venture out and walk down what may be the most well-known street in Mexico City, Paseo de la Reforma or Reforma Avenue. Outside the St. Regis, and sitting on a roundabout in the middle of Reforma, is the eye-catching Diana the Huntress statue/fountain. Diana is perched on the top in hunter gear complete with a bow and phantom arrow which she has notched and ready to fire. I use the term “gear” loosely as she is also quite naked. The whole scene, especially when the fountain is running, is impressive. Diana clearly was a workout queen.
We wander down Reforma to another roundabout, this time centered by a huge monument containing several statues of figures from Mexican history. It is topped by the golden Angel of Independence, commemorating those responsible for Mexico’s independence. (We will see this area of Reforma again from a completely different vantage point before we leave town. The view was spectacular. To be discussed in a later entry.) We would see and hear much about Mexico’s turbulent history throughout our visit.
But Wait, We Should Be Drinking By Now
Early evening we meet with Melissa Aladro, Public Relations Manager for the St. Regis. We meet her in the beautiful King Cole Bar on the lobby level of the hotel. It is rated as one of the top bars in Mexico City. Contemporary art backs the dark wood bar and provides an excellent setting for those sitting in the interior. Large sliding glass doors open onto the terrace with panoramic views of the city as you sit outside. Even if you are not staying at the St. Regis I highly recommend this spot for a cocktail and lunch or dinner.
Mezcal is King
It is at this time we learn that tequila is NOT the #1 spirit in Mexico. “Mezcal” Melissa tells us. That is all we needed to hear to add mezcal to pretty much every beverage we had for the rest of the trip. But before we left her she wanted us to have a true taste of Mexico. She ordered us the “bandera” which is Spanish for “flag”. It is three shot glasses, one with lime juice, one with tequila, and one with sofrito (think of it as a type of homemade Bloody Mary mix). The arrangement (seen below) represents the colors of the Mexican flag. You sip it from left to right. Was it good? Let’s just say that was not the last bandera we had on the trip.
Eduardo Garcia and Maximo Bistrot
After our meeting we head to our dinner reservation at Maximo Bistrot, the restaurant of Eduardo Garcia. We targeted this place after seeing Eduardo on Tony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown (S3Ep4). It is a quaint cafe on a neighborhood corner and as I glance out the window my first thought is how much it looks like a corner cafe in Chelsea or SOHO, complete with tables on the sidewalk. After an incredible dinner we let our waiter know that we had previously reached out about meeting the chef and interviewing him. Eduardo’s wife Gabriela came over to the table and told us Eduardo was across the street teaching a cooking class to raise money for education of children. She walked us across the street to meet him.
(Keep an eye out on www.cooksavorcelebrate.com for Tim Taylor’s more detailed account of our food experience at Maximo Bistrot. You will want to check it out!)
During a break in his cooking class Eduardo came over to talk to us. He is a welcoming man and was very open about his story. He immigrated illegally to the U.S. at 8 years old. He worked in the fields in various states in the south growing up. He was eventually deported but made his way back to the U.S. when he got a little older. This stint would not end well. He admits that he regrettably fell in with the wrong crowd and began using and selling drugs. He was caught and spent 3 years in the federal pen, then deported. This time for the last time as he is now permanently banned from the U.S. If he has regrets in his life you can tell that this is one. “I love the United States,” he says. “But I am now a convicted felon…I can not go back.”
The Prodigal Son Returns
Starting over from scratch in Mexico was hard. Eduardo and his wife worked different jobs in the industry, including at a small hotel in the jungle – she as a maid and he as pretty much everything. They eventually took the plunge to return to Mexico City and open Maximo.
Maximo’s star began to ascend and people were taking notice. Then a fateful event occurred. Eduardo is not one to see his staff abused or mistreated by patrons. On this particular day a female patron was doing just that, this time the victim being his wife Gabriela. The patron wanted a table despite the fact that she did not have a reservation and there were no tables available. She began to make a scene and make threats about shutting the restaurant down. This was caught on camera by some patrons and began to make the internet rounds. She left.
Later that day government officials came to the restaurant and began to trump up “violations” that the restaurant was committing and shut them down. As it turns out that patron’s daddy was a big shot in the Mexican government. No bueno.
An immediate firestorm of social media activity began, largely in favor of Eduardo’s stance on what happened and the protection of Mexican workers. The firestorm continued beyond Mexico’s borders and soon people of international import began to contact Mexico’s President about the outrage. This culminated with said high ranking government official being removed from office and I assume (hope) one very pouty daughter. Maximo promptly reopened to wide fanfare. This event caught the attention of Tony Bourdain and was instrumental in his visit to Maximo. The culture for restaurant workers in Mexico City was transformed, with the “snap-your-finger” attitude from the patrons towards the staff being a thing of the past. Respect had received a long-needed stitch in the Mexico City apron.
I think part of what makes Eduardo so engaging is his total acceptance of his past. He has come to peace with the fact that he made mistakes in his life, but in a strange way they led him to where he is today – one of the premier chefs and personalities in Mexico. He is humble, even when he tells us that Silicon Valley CEOs regularly ask him to speak at events and tell of his rags-to-riches story. The odds of a two-time deportee and felon climbing out of such a deep hole to the heights of where he is today are astronomical. He is fully aware of that and he is grateful for his journey.
I sense that he knows he is right where he needs to be right now. But staying put is not in this man’s cards as the discussion turns to his plans for the future. An infectious smile emerges as he tells us of his new restaurant project that will be like “no one here has ever seen before.” We will wait and watch…and very likely return one day to check it out…(to be continued)