My Birthday Wish: Eating My Way Through Mexico

Guadalajara and Mexico City, we decided. This was a few months ago, and my boyfriend and I were choosing a destination for a vacation that we knew we'd desperately need come snowy February in Montana. The trip would coincide with my 30th birthday, and non-beach Mexico seemed to check all the boxes: warm, vibrant, adventurous, not terribly difficult to reach. (When your closest airports are Missoula, Bozeman, and Spokane, traveling abroad becomes a more time-intensive and expensive prospect.) The food was a draw, too, of course: I felt like we hadn't eaten a decent tortilla since moving from Phoenix.

I'll save you any suspense: The food exceeded my already high expectations with notably few exceptions. (You can skip the 7-Eleven brand hot dog flavored potato chips they have down there, I learned.) Both high-end and street food were invariably tasty, along with all the casual restaurants in between. Same for the liquids: mezcal, pulque, atole, agua fresca, coffee, and craft beer.

We only made one reservation for the entire weeklong trip: A birthday dinner at Pujol, chef Enrique Olvera's renowned fine-dining restaurant in Mexico City. Several friends who'd previously been to Pujol told me I had to go; my friend Cristina used the phrase "one of the best meals of all time." The meal, a six-course tasting menu, surprised me not with its execution—see previously stated high expectations—but with how thoroughly unstuffy it was presented. Other restaurants of that caliber can be, frankly, uncomfortable, leaving me feeling like I'm part of some fussy theater production that happens to involve tiny, edible moments rather than an actual dinner out. Pujol's portions were normal-sized (for high-end food); the service was friendly; there wasn't any whispering or wine carts. Our server happily suggested mezcals to pair with the signature molé dish, and during the dessert course offered us a few recommendations for must-try posole stops. Dinner was fancy, yes, but also fun.

The other most-memorable meal hits the entirely opposite end of the spectrum: It was a home-cooked lunch of chiles rellenos, rice, and beans, prepared entirely on a wood-fired stove by a woman named Doña Lola. We'd traveled three hours west of Mexico City to the state of Michoacán, where we spent a day experiencing the monarch migration at the Sierra Chincua butterfly preserve. (If you ever have the chance to see this, don't hesitate. It's one of the most profoundly beautiful natural events I've witnessed.) There are a few small stalls at the base of the refuge's hills where individual families operate restaurants, sort of like an open-air food court.

Doña Lola was the wife of our butterfly guide, Francisco, and she was preparing blue corn tortillas when we arrived back from our hike around 1 p.m. Despite the language gap between us, she taught us to shape the blue corn masa into small spheres, then squish them on her wooden tortilla press before laying them on the grill top. I was gently teased for my lack of estilo; one does not merely thwap the tortilla down on the grill. Doña Lola continued to demonstrate a flourished motion I never quite picked up. After the lesson, we feasted on the blue corn tortillas—wonderfully springy but not chewy or flimsy—which wrapped up the juicy chile relleno and earthy beans and rice. We ate outside the kitchen at a wooden picnic table overlooking the sanctuary where horses lazily munched grass and children whooshed by chasing soccer balls. For scenery and the personal touch, this meal had no parallel.

Then there were five others days' worth of delicious morsels, justified by my pedometer's revelation that we'd walked 66 miles that week. Certainly that deserves another round of tacos al pastor? The best tacos I had, though, were the ones I made with the platter of birria I ordered from Birrieria Las 9 Esquinas in Guadalajara. Birria is a braised goat stew, an impossibly tender preparation with a flavor reminding me of somewhere between beef and lamb. Topped with the housemade cilantro salsa, chopped white onions, and pickled onions, each tortilla-cradled birria bite offered a bright crunchiness and umami depth. Take me back, my stomach rumbles still.

Usually these meals were washed down with the country's ubiquitous cervezas—Victoria, Pacifico, Bohemia, Modelo—most of which, especially Modelo Negra, play wonderfully with food. But the craft beer is certainly not to be missed. You can find examples from across the country at bars like Mexico City's Tasting Room; Guadalajara's Gavilan Cantina; and the beer bar mini-chain El Depósito in both cities. I especially liked the Colimita lager from Cervecería de Colima; Juan Cordero pale ale from Cervecería Insurgente; and the Guava Dabba Doo guava gose from Cerveceria Paracaidista.

But really, the mezcal is where it's at, booze-wise. Mezcal is so far from the gnarly bottle with the worm in the bottom: Varying degrees of smoke and spice and earth and sweetness make each bottle an entirely different reflection of not just its producer but also the terroir from which the agave comes. Almost all the sit-down restaurants we visited in Mexico City had some mezcal selections, and bars specializing in agave spirits are plentiful in the city. I learned so much—again, despite the language barrier—from drinking through the selections at La Botica, Clandestina, and retail shop MisMezcales. Scotch fans like my boyfriend will find this stuff especially alluring.

There was also a sea of wonderful street food: off-the-cob roasted corn with cheese and chili powder in Guadalajara's El Jardin Hildalgo; chorizo tacos from a market stall; aguas frescas and fresh-cut fruit from carts. My mind spun with new flavor combinations or entirely new-to-me dishes, like atole—a milkshake-consistency corn-based drink served warm and sometimes flavored with berries. 

Desperate to preserve the trip a bit longer, we loaded our luggage with goodies to bring home: mezcal, molé powder, seasonings, cigars... Armed with a few different types of molé powder and Enrique Olvera's Mexico From The Inside Out, perhaps I can inch within even a few hundred miles of recreating these memories.