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Journal of No. 118


April 11th, 2016

Mexico City @ 04:51 pm


First off, hard drive went kaput, taking most of my photos with it. Veratrine has hers up, and there's still a slim chance I'll be able to recover mine.

We arrived in Mexico City Sunday afternoon. My first attempt to get money from an ATM was declined, but Becca's bank was less fussy. We taxied to the hotel, the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, which is right on the main square, the Zócalo. The hotel is an Art Nouveau treasure with an enormous Tiffany glass ceiling, and ironwork elevators. Originally it was a department store, the Centro Mercado, but the initials worked well for Ciudad de Mexico when it was converted to a hotel in preparation for the 68 Olympics. Much of this we learned from Freddy the porter, who led us to our room. We had a gorgeous room with windows overlooking the square itself opposite the National Palace. Although the President no longer lives there, he dropped by for a visit -- On Monday, they hung red swags from the balcony, there was twice as much security as usual (which is usually a lot) and a couple dozen black SUVs arrived. Apparently, he and the president of South Korea had a summit meeting there.

But to get back to Sunday evening, we took a stroll to see some of the area, walking by the Palace of Fine Arts, reputed to be the most beautiful building in Mexico City (with our hotel modestly claiming to be number 2), and thence along the Alameda, with couples strolling or smooching among the jacarandas, statues, and fountains. Sunday evening is a big time for the Alameda, and lots of people were about. In contrast and consequence, most everything was already closed. Fortunately, the restaurant we were aiming for was not among them. We had a great meal at Azul Historico. I had venison tenderloin with a crazy not-quite-a-mole sauce made from the ashes of a chilhuacle chile. It was black as ink, but had a very delicate taste. It was here also that we learned the locals really like sour drinks. I like my margaritas tangier than you find them at most restaurants here in LA, but not quite as tart as this one. This trend was the same from sangria to mojito - very sour. Dr. Pookie had a blackberry margarita that was very good, though we didn't know exactly what it was at the time... she just liked the sound of zarzamora.

Monday, we started with an expensive taxi ride to Teotihuacan. On the way there, Rebecca remarked on the colorfully painted homes in the hillsides. Our driver told us that the houses are painted in the colors of the political parties. At one time, Teotihuacan was "the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more", and also home to the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest in Mexico. (The Pyramid in Cholula has a larger base, and indeed has a greater volume than the Great Pyramid of Giza.)
But the Pyramid of the Sun is quite big enough. As is the Pyramid of the Moon. The whole site is really impressive when you're embedded in it, surrounded by it. When I was last here, it was a Sunday, and it was quite crowded. On a Monday, it wasn't quite like being there all by ourselves, but close. We wisely climbed both pyramids right away, as the heat continued to climb through the morning. But it's still quite an effort and needs to be taken in stages. Although the monuments are huge and eye-catching, there are also a lot of interesting frescoes and painted walls that have survived the centuries as well that you can see. After a fair amount of clambering about the site, we visited the nearby restaurant La Gruta, situated in a nice dry cave. As much of a tourist trap as it is, they actually serve very fine food there. We had some appetizers; my favorite were the panuchos with Yucatan-style pork on beans on tortillas, but the tlacoyitos had an interesting green sauce that tasted of anise -- epazote, maybe? I had tortilla soup as well, which was pretty good, while Dr. Pookie had a nopales-based salad. Sticking to the cactus theme, we each had their sour prickly pear margarita which tasted great, but the tough little seeds were a little off-putting.

After lunch, we returned to the site, and visited the site museum, which had a few nice things, and a lovely model of the site, situated right in front of a huge window looking out at the Pyramid of the Sun. After that, we strolled south toward the last remaining major site, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Less of this pyramid remains than the others, and reconstruction efforts are still ongoing. However, the façade is still quite striking, as it is quite ornate, with carved panels and sculptured heads of the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent (Quetzalcoatl). It is set within a rectangular courtyard, surrounded by platforms. There is also a curious, steep platform right in front of the Temple, but at least it provides great views of the Temple (and one more thing to climb).

We'd absorbed as much as we could stand, and then flipped from the most expensive travel option to the cheapest. We caught the bus back to the outermost Metro station [and what a ride that was -- standing room much of the way, though the driver was very solicitous] and then making our way through the crowds to ride the Metro (5 pesos - about 30 cents a ride) back to the Zocalo station, which has exits directly onto the square, within sight of our hotel.

We cleaned as much of the dust of Teotihuacan off us as we could, because our next stop was Pujol, "ranked as number 16 on the 2015 S.Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant list," run by chef Enrique Olvera.

It's a pretty intimate space, decked out in black, with room for maybe 30. Staff was naturally splendid, but of course the star was the food. And the drinks! I had sort of a chartreuse margarita, which was really splendid, and Rebecca had a genevre and Campari concoction. The menu started with Street Snacks, and it has ruined street snacks forever. They will never live up to these:

Bocol Huasteco (corn dough with cheese)
White asparagus chileatole (soup) with a tiny piece of chicharron and a mulato chile, smashed flat and crispy.
A chia tostada, which was so delicate and thin, topped with little blobs of yum.
But the showstopper was the centerpiece of a little pumpkin full of smoke, just as a container for some baby corn, coated in costeño chile mayo, and dusted with coffee and.... Powdered chicatana ant! I can't say that it tasted anty at all to me, but it was delicious.

I had mentioned my distaste for seafood, which was a good thing, because the final street snack was a scallop. The chef substituted a fried little flower frond that I can't recall the name of... It was something fairly long in Nahuatl. I discovered too late that the main stem was quite tough, so the strategy was to nibble the delicate outermost foliage. It was both tasty and an interesting finger food.

The next course, Dr. Pookie had cuitlacoche with molleja and topped with perfectly done (she tells me) chicken liver. I had the steak tartar with jerky spices, preserved lemon, radish, watercress, and creole avocado. While good, this was the one course that I didn't entirely consume, in part because it was not as special as the antojitos, and in part because I knew there were more courses coming. The preserved lemon was my favorite addition to the lovely raw cow.

Somewhere in here, we finished our drinks and inspired by the street food theme, decided that beer was next. They had a page worth of artisanal beers that we've never heard of. I had Amuleto, and she had Apocalipso.

Back to the street food: tacos. Mine was suckling pig, with green sauce, mint chickpea purée, coriander and red jalapeño. The pseudo hummus was a neat addition to the taco, and the meat was wonderful, mostly soft and shredded, with a few little crunchy bits of crackling skin. Dr. Pookie had suckling lamb tacos with avocado leaf adobo and avocado purée.

Next up the main course. Although I almost opted for the rabbit, we both chose the Chicken adobo, resting on a bed of nopal, beans, and romeritos, with thin slices of black radish piled on top. The plate was dusted with fine black onion ash. Quite delicious.

Next a mole course! It was a mixture of old black mole and fresh chile mole. It came with tortillas, a couple of which had a thinnnn leaf applied to it. It probably wasn't, but it reminded me of shiso leaf. I love mole, so it tasted good on the leaf tortillas, it tasted good on the plain tortillas, it tasted good on the spoon. Yum.

And finally dessert. I think Dr. Pookie's favorite was the avocado ice cream. Smooth and tasty, and dusted in Cocoa. Also a thin little cookie covered in a puff of cream with macadamia nuts. And Mexican chocolate, either for drinking or for dunking the giant spiral churro.

All in all quite a fantastic experience, definitely comparing with our other high culinary experiences at Michelin starred restaurants. They sent us off with a chocolate and a taxi.

Tuesday morning, we started out with a Metro ride out to Chapultepec. The Metro stations all have icons, and Chapultepec is associated with a grasshopper, and the connection between Chapul- and chapulines occurred to me. Chapultepec "at the grasshopper hill" forest is a huge park in the city, and home to many sights. First, we took an uphill walk to the Castle, "the only royal castle in North America that was actually used as the residence of a sovereign: the Mexican Emperor Maximilian I, and his consort Empress Carlota". We didn't pay the pittance to go inside, but we knew we wanted to spend more time in the nearby anthropology museum. But at least we were able to enjoy the views for a bit, before heading back down the hill and to the museum. It's a fantastic place, and huge. There are galleries all around the periphery and the giant central atrium is dominated by an enchanting inverted fountain. A huge pillar topped by a giant canopy, with water falling down near the column.

The galleries are organized by General culture. Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Olmec, Mexica, and other cultures of the area. There are a lot of commonalities among them, but they each have their unique flair. The museum has a huge collection of amazing pieces. There's just no way to summarize usefully. Suffice to say. They have some amazing masterpieces in every room, and a number of, I dunno, ultra masterpieces. There's a lovely reconstruction of Pacal's burial chamber, with the sarcophagus cover, which is not only a masterpiece, but also notable (to me) for the misrepresentation of the image as Pacal as an archaeoastronaut in the Chariots of the Gods era. And then, of course, there is the Aztec sun disk. It's much bigger than I anticipated, and forms a beautiful centerpoint of its gallery, visible from across the space, and also you can walk right up under it to look at it closely. We had a little lunch at the museum. Mine was particularly disappointing - a roast beef sandwich. I should have stuck to Mexican food, certainly, for Dr. Pookie's chilaquiles looked and (so I heard) tasted quite good.

We strolled for a while out of Chapultepec park to get a sight of the monument to Independence, an iconic golden angel on a column. From there, we took the Metro back to the hotel. That evening, we dined at El Balcon de Zocalo, on the top terrace of another hotel on the square. It offered great views of the square, and they offered some pretty good food and drink as well. Their Mojito Mexicano was a really good drink, with cilantro taking the place of mint, and tequila for rum, natch. But the crazy part that sold me was the tiny achiote seeds (or something like that) that provided some spicy crunch. I had a kinda tough filet with a very nice mole sauce, with asparagus and blobs of potato. For an after dinner drink we had some tequila and mezcal. I still approve of the Mexico City tradition of the sangrita of spicy tomato juice that comes with tequila shots. But there was also a green sangrita that came with the mezcal. Both provide great contrasts to the spirits.

It was also nice to watch the light change over the square after sunset, as the lights came on. Oh, speaking of the square reminds me that we got a little stage show every morning and evening -- the raising and lowering of the gigantic Mexican flag in the middle of the square, accompanied by full military pomp and circumstance, drum and bugle, and squads of soldiers. Anyway, after dinner it was a short walk to the hotel for our last night.

Wednesday morning, we took a short walk down a busy pedestrian/shopping street to the Torre Latinoamericana ("the tallest building ever exposed to a huge seismic force"). Once the tallest building in Mexico, and still a pretty easy landmark to find. There is a restaurant on the 41st floor, so we started with breakfast there. Quesadilla sincronizada (with ham) for me, and waff-less for Dr. Pookie. The food took quite a while, but at least the views of the city are impressive, even if, unfortunately, the pervasive smog prevented us from really getting the most of our elevation. Dr. Pookie (and I) had hoped to have a view of Popocatepetl (which had actually had a tiny eruption on Sunday night) but I get the impression that it is a rare sight in the city, despite the protestations of the locals that cater to tourists who practically assure you that it was visible just a minute or two ago.

From there we walked past an Art Deco building that had previously been a fire station. It wasn't quite as wonderful as I'd hoped, but just down the street was a more amazing theater of the same period. A little further away at the far end of the Alameda was the Museo de Diego Rivera, which has one main claim to fame of having a large mural depicting a snapshot of Mexican history in the Alameda just a few steps away. We also learned that the nearby convent was the scene of the Inquisition's auto da fe.

We passed back through the Alameda, right past the fountain also depicted in the mural, and thence to the Palace of Fine Arts, which is certainly a beautiful building. Primarily a music venue, there are also quite a few Rivera murals and other artworks to appreciate. I confess that I don't really find Rivera all that interesting as an artist, but I think we were both favorably intrigued by Man at the crossroads, for its odd themes, and its focus on science. The original, intended for Rockefeller Center, was destroyed by the Rockefellers, and Rivera recreated it here.

A short walk away brought a nice surprise, as we headed toward lunch. The original post office in Mexico City is really a beautiful building, and it houses a number of museums. As our time ticked away, we didn't explore them all, but we did at least get to see the truly enormous iron meteorites in the courtyard of the Palacia de Mineria.

Lunch at the Cafe de Tacuba was quite good. Just some appetizers and beer. The building is lovely, with white and blue tile, dating to 1912.

There were many things that we missed and would like to see, if there is ever a next time. But our biggest regret is not getting to the Templo Mayor earlier. It was not far from the hotel, but because of this and that, we didn't visit it until this last day, and our scheduled taxi to the airport was not far away. The site has a number of individual buildings current at the time of the Spanish conquest. The largest temple, like many such, was actually built in successive layers, each temple expanding on the one beneath it. Because of the general destruction of the site, many of these separate layers were visible so you could get a little sense of the expansion of the Temple and the site.

But the real revelation was the associated museum. I had no idea how extensive it was, and it had plenty of really magnificent artifacts. A huge Tlaloc carving, and some creepy statues of Mictlantecutli, and I was personally charmed to see the large stone plaque commemorating the story of the tongue twisting Coyolxauhqui. There is a replica of this piece in Los Angeles, and it was one of the locations in my puzzle rally. It was very special to see the original. They also had a great way of displaying it. The raw stone is bare, but originally it had been colored, and projected lights sequentially added the different colors to the stone to give a better sense of what it had looked like back in the day.

But alas we had to rush through the museum, and then to the hotel to pick up luggage, pack into the taxi, and then to the airport, and home.
 
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Journal of No. 118