A Movable Fiesta

It's 8:45 p.m., although it feels like 10, and we're careering through the streets of the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City on a Saturday night. Five of us are packed into a shiny passenger van, and Patricia Quintana, the most famous chef in Mexico, is driving. Peering over the steering wheel, she's searching for a restaurant that specializes in tortas. We're also on a one-way street crammed between buildings, and there is a pair of headlights coming at us.


It's 8:45 p.m., although it feels like 10, and we're careering through the streets of the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City on a Saturday night. Five of us are packed into a shiny passenger van, and Patricia Quintana, the most famous chef in Mexico, is driving. Peering over the steering wheel, she's searching for a restaurant that specializes in tortas. We're on a one-way street crammed between buildings, and there is a pair of headlights coming at us.

She exchanges a few words in Spanish with her friend in the passenger seat, makes a quick right turn, and we're in the clear. She outraces a bus, hops a curb, and there it is. And impossibly, everyone is eating again. I can't. After nineteen meals in three days, I'm full.

The folks from Cantina 1511, a Charlotte Mexican restaurant, on the other hand, eagerly dig into a steaming torta, just off the line from La Castellana, a fast-food joint that's been selling, Patricia says, "thousands" of the Mexican sandwiches a week since 1946. Patricia brought us here as part of her whirlwind quest to show these gringos real Mexican cuisine. It's been a dizzying three-day, God-knows-how-many-course tasting menu, and it's not over — we don't know it yet, but the mezcal tasting is still to come.

Three days earlier, I had arrived in Mexico City and met up with Frank Scibelli, owner of Cantina 1511 and Mama Ricotta's, as well as his general manager, Patrick Denetre, and chef, Jamie Swofford. They had just spent three days in Guadalajara, um, researching.

Jamie, thirty, grew up on a farm outside Shelby and is the grandson of one of the most prominent poultry farmers in the state. Earnest, bright, and passionate about food, he worked kitchens in the Harper's Restaurant Group before coming to Cantina a little more than a year ago. Patrick grew up in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, and is a restaurant industry lifer. He spent almost a decade helping run Sullivan's in Charlotte before Frank hired him to manage his three places last year. And Frank, well, most people in town know Frank. He runs his wildly popular restaurants with aplomb. Mama Ricotta's, which opened in 1992, is the most popular Italian restaurant in the city. Three years ago, he opened Cantina 1511 in Dilworth, and it became a hit. A second location at Stonecrest followed. Frank brought his guys to Mexico to study the foundation of the cuisine. I tagged along.

Over the next three days, we hit three markets, gorged on street food, and ate at twenty-three restaurants. Between courses, the Cantina crew worked their cell phones, checking the sales numbers and putting out fires at home. And I experienced a Mexico I never knew existed.

Thursday morning


Like clowns at the circus, we pile out of a tiny unauthorized taxi promptly at 9 a.m. in front of Pujol, one of the city's hottest restaurants. After exchanging greetings in the sleek dining room, chef/owner Enrique Olvera escorts us next door to his taller, or teaching and test kitchen.

Only thirty-one, Olvera has a slight paunch, wispy goatee, and thinning hair. His khakis are barely frayed, just above stylish sneakers. He doesn't quite look it, but he's the hottest young chef in Mexico. He moves naturally in his kitchen, framing his excellent English with a sly grin. And he takes his native cuisine seriously.

Along one wall of his taller, ideas for dishes and lists of ingredients (including one cryptic entry: "yogurt + tequila") are scribbled all over a fourteen-foot-long blackboard. At one end, neat lettering details Olvera's food philosophy 

Sentidos como puata de partida x crear
(Roughly: The senses as a new way of creation)

  • vista
  • olfato
  • tacto
  • oído
  • gusto
  • razón 

When he was eighteen, Olvera ate at Le Bernardin while visiting New York City. "It changed my life," he says. "That's why I went into fine dining." He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He graduated with honors in 1999. A year later, he opened Pujol.

Much of Pujol's fine-dining menu is inspired by street food, but that doesn't mean you'll recognize it. Take, for example, the squash blossom cappuccino with coconut and nutmeg, which he whips up for us to get the morning started. The nutmeg-dusted coconut milk froth is so delicious, I could spoon it all day. Then the rich, salty, buttery squash blossom soup comes pouring through, and I realize that it's the combination of these traditional flavors that make this little dish special.

We're here to learn some of Enrique's tricks and techniques. After the cappuccino, we progress through several of his menu items. Along the way, he shares his wisdom ("My grandmother used to say when you do the sauce if you put it in a blender it tastes like electricity"). Jamie gets his hands messy and Patrick, Gallic to the core, wanders around, sipping wine—we sampled some quite good Mexican wines—listening for any signs of a French influence. When Enrique whips up a delightful chipotle mayonnaise, he jokes about Patrick, "He's going to say it's French." Frank, energized, fires off questions about recipes, ingredients, and purveyors.

By noon, we have cooked and sampled a quarter of Pujol's menu, and Frank is ready for some street food. Outside, the Cantina crew can't stop talking about ideas. Jamie calls a supplier, demanding a new kind of chile in house by Monday. Then he calls one of his cooks to find out why he didn't show up for work. But he doesn't let that setback get him down. "I've got enough in my head for three weeks of work," he tells me excitedly. Patrick takes another phone call. Apparently, a Cantina patron backed into a tree last night and is blaming the restaurant. Frank strides ahead, in search of tacos. Suddenly, he stops and turns around. "That mayonnaise!"

Friday morning

We're speeding through the financial district called La Reforma, the sun glinting off the glass and steel of bank buildings, and Patricia Quintana is discussing the finer points of using onions in Mexican cuisine: "Only red, shallots, white—not the great big ones," she says, and she offers advice on choosing avocados, tomatoes, and tomatillos. If anyone should know these things, it is Patricia Quintana.

I expected her to be larger than life. A woman who's written twenty-two books about Mexican cuisine, has traveled the thirty-two regions of the country, has been called the Julia Child of Mexico, and runs one of the finest modern Mexican restaurants in the city, well, she has to be big and tall, clad in bright colors and full of life, like those Food Network stars, right? Not quite. Patricia is an old-school Mexican lady—prim, proper, and prefers to wear white. Sharp featured, she's not much over five feet tall. She's warm, though, like a grandmother, and she is passionate about her native country.

After a long first meal at the famed El Cardenal—where I gulped down the best hot chocolate I have ever had and Patricia shared the inside story of what really happened during her short stay at Pampano, Plácido Domingo's restaurant in Manhattan—Patricia takes us to the San Juan market. She's been coming here since she was two, and the vendors know her by sight.

This a boutique market, she explains, where she might come for just a few things. Back in the day, it probably glistened like a temple. Now it's sort of Mexican shabby chic. Cracked terrazzo floors and green glass tiles reflect fluorescent lights, which illuminate all manner of seafood: octopus, sea bass, prawns, langoustines, grouper, oysters, whole crabs. Merchants are butchering chickens, skinning goats, and carving pigs. After picking out fresh mahi, grouper, and sea bass, Patricia leads us to the produce.

"Here, you must try this," she says, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she looks up at me expectantly as I bite into silky-sweet manila mango. Frank and Jamie love it, and Patrick begins making plans for a new mango margarita at the restaurant.

After a quick spin through the huge Merced market—where Patricia lectures Jamie on the finer points of traditional dried chiles and Frank is particularly taken with a stand selling huaraches (an open-face tortilla spread with stew, salsa, and cheese)—we set out for Centro Histírico. We're not just here to eat. Patricia wants to show off her city.

Of course, we end up eating again, this time at Hosteria de Santa Domingo, which some claim is the oldest restaurant in the city. It opened in 1860. As Frank orders most of the menu, Patrick's cell phone rings. While Patrick gestures to the phone, I try the best mole sauce I have ever had in my life. This mole poblano (that's the dark kind; mole verde is green), ladled over a roasted chicken quarter, comes at me with layers of rich, earthy tastes. I don't even want to sip water, because I don't want the flavors to stop.

Patrick doesn't eat much. The person on the other end of the phone told him the water heater at Cantina had gone out, which causes much consternation around the table. As Patricia and I lap up the leche quemada, a traditional whipped custard made with burnt milk that she declares "delicious," Frank and Patrick argue over the status of the water heater, which reminds Frank of an order of twenty-four sangria pitchers that never arrived from a supplier. He puts Patrick on the case.

Minutes later, under threatening skies, we set out on foot. "When you go downtown," says Patricia, "you have to walk." We navigate the cobblestone streets to a place that serves turkey sandwiches only—in fact, it's named Casa de Pavo, or House of Turkey—and has since 1901. We visit the baroque La Nueva Opera, where Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and their buddies hung out back in the day (now it's filled with politicians and businessmen). And we drop by Dulceria de Celaya, a sweet shop in operation since 1874. Patricia's eyes light up as she points out the treats: bunelos (little bits of fried dough with raw syrup), cocalitas (small, chewy coconut sweets in various flavors), and gorgeous dulce de leche-flavored fudge. A tour bus pulls up while we taste, like we are part of the show.

Our sweet tooths satisfied, we discuss methods of preparing carnitas (slow-cooked pork), an obsession of Frank's, over various ceviches at yet another local hot spot, then high-tail it to Izote, Patricia's Polanco restaurant. Frank is determined to find more taquerias, but after eating our way through downtown, Patricia wants us to try some of her own stuff.

Seated at a table just inside the front window, we start with a mango margarita, served frozen in a martini glass with a rim of chili powder and salt. Frank's eyes light up when he tastes it. "Coming soon!" he says. Over the next hour, we sample the ceviche trio, a lobster enchilada with pumpkin-seed sauce, an avocado salmon tartar, and a venison in spicy mole.

As we eat, Patricia watches her staff work in the reflection from the window and talks about her cooking. "I worry about the flavor and a nice presentation. I want a flavor you can remember. That will bring you back." She seems genuinely concerned whether we'll like it, and happy when we do.

Saturday morning

The next morning, I'm pretty sure I'm suffering from my first-ever food hangover. (Actually, it could have been the market huaraches. But I prefer to think of it as a food hangover—more romantic.) My extremities ache, and I have to move my head slowly. So I am glad to skip breakfast in favor of a Starbucks latte (there are two Starbucks within a block of our hotel, sandwiching a Hummer dealership—not the Mexico City I expected). On the walk to Izote, where Patricia promised to teach us a few things, Frank and Patrick discuss business and Jamie tells me about his first kitchen job: "I was sixteen and it was at Denny's. I was a dishwasher. My first day, people were yelling and cursing. It was like a bunch of pirates back there! I was like, I love this!"

It's not like that at Izote. The restaurant is just waking up. The morning crew is just now beginning its daily routine: mopping the floor, cleaning the windows, prepping in the kitchen. Patricia shows Frank how to get the most out of a mango. She slices it in thirds, peels off the skin, then wrings out the juice. "You don't fight with the mango," she says as she prepares a margarita at 10:15 a.m. For sampling purposes only, of course.

Before long, a beehive of activity surrounds the tiny exhibition kitchen at the back of Izote. Patrick pores over a stack of spreadsheets, shouting out sales numbers. Frank jabbers excitedly about menu items he'd like to change. A sales rep tries to demo a $1,000 blender. Two uniformed men are in constant, fluid motion behind what my dad would call a one-butt bar, cleaning the granite top, squeezing limes, straining pulp, blending juice with ice, and wrapping lime skins around straws to form Izote's signature margarita garnish. Finally, Patricia, clad in a light-blue chef's jacket and white pants, announces, "Let's do it. Then we can talk about it." She's ready to cook.

That's when Patrick closes his cell phone. "Boys, Olivia [not her real name] is in the hospital."

It seems that one of Cantina's managers fainted the previous night. So we have a down-and-out water heater, a down-for-the-count manager, a no-show cook, a missing order of pitchers, and a patron driving into a tree. Tell me again why people want to open restaurants?

While Frank and Patrick discuss the latest news, Jamie and Patricia start chopping. Two salsas come out first, while Patricia shows Frank and Jamie how to get the most flavor out of dried chiles. Frank explains: "Before you rehydrate them, you toast them, and it brings them back to life to some degree." She uses guajillo chiles to make a sauce that she will use a few times during the morning's proceedings, perhaps none more spectacular than with the sea bass roasted in a banana leaf.

Patricia makes this one up as she goes along. As Jamie watches, she splits the sea bass fillet right on the huge banana leaf and douses it with the sauce, along with some shallots and oil and generous seasonings. She wraps it up and explains that it must be cooked slowly on the bottom rack of the oven, to properly roast the moist leaf.

It becomes the cornerstone of our feast. Also atop our groaning table: a bouillabaisse with clams, shrimp, fish, in a red sauce. Then a salad with panella cheese, fried calamari, fresh greens, and a mango chipotle dressing. Finally, mahi with an inventive poblano pesto and luscious refried beans. "Those refried beans," Frank says. "I would do those tomorrow. If you can have elegant refried beans, those are it."

Despite my food hangover, I power on, trying everything. It's all too good to miss.

Saturday night

"You're going to like this place," Patricia tells Frank during our cross-city van ride. "It's very exciting. It does a tremendous business, like you like to do. Three, four thousand people."

"A night?"


"That is a tremendous business."

She's talking about Arroyo, a restaurant that might as well be a village. Enormous and bright and loud, it is the opposite of Izote. There's a stage with a twelve-piece mariachi band. There's a bullring (sadly, no bullfight tonight). Bright tablecloths. Corrugated plastic roof. Serenading bands. Tables with a dozen or more people. Roving photographers. It's a grand spectacle.

Patricia and her friend Rondi order a tequila and beer. Still nursing my food hangover, I opt for Sprite. Over tacos and quesadillas and sopes and huaraches, a chocolaty chicken mole, and barbacoa de borrego, an impossibly smoky lamb shank slow-cooked over flame inside a banana leaf, Rondi and I discuss American politics and immigration. Patricia relaxes, pleased with the day. Frank tastes everything. Patrick and Jamie hoist beers. Around us, tablefuls of young people polish off bottles of tequila and families fill to-go bags.

Our bellies full and our senses overloaded, we pile back into the van. There are a few more stops yet on this night, and one of them is La Castellana, the hard-to-find tortas place. After we survive our perilous encounter on the one-way street and the Cantina crew eats again, we are back on the road. Surely, I think, this must be it. Even Frank looks peaked. But Patricia and Rondi have one more place that we must try.

To get there, we must journey deep into the heart of Coyocoán, the ancient bohemian neighborhood once home to Frida and Diego and their chums. Traffic thickens: Tonight, there is a festival. This is a surprise. And for Jamie, an opportunity. He owes his girlfriend a gift. As the rest of us sample ice cream made with rice and guava and burnt milk, he wanders off into the market, and I wonder if we'll ever see him again.

When we all emerge an hour later, Jamie has a bracelet for his girlfriend and Frank is clutching wrestling masks for his sons and photographic prints of downtown for who knows where. It's 10:30 and we've arrived at Los Danzantes, a wonderful restaurant that would be equally at home in Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood and the Village in Manhattan. It has a rustic feel—part of it is open air with a cactus fence—but is designed to the hilt. Bamboo lashed together makes the roof; the long, wavy bar features intricate carvings by a local artisan. Wicker chairs are tucked underneath well-worn wooden tables, which hold weathered stone chargers. Frank is taken with the place, and promises to bring his interior designer next time he comes. Patricia points out the Slow Food label on the menu, which features Mexican fusion food. Truth be told, though, we're here for the mezcal.

Mezcal is a liquor made from the maguey plant. It's similar to tequila, but tequila is specific to the Jalisco region. Las Danzantes owner Gustavo Castillo had a mezcal distillery before he opened his restaurants here and in Oaxaca. And since he and his twirly mustache and designer jeans are here tonight, we must try the mezcal. A mezcal flight, in fact. A pink T-shirt-clad Penelope Cruz look-alike appears at our table with a tray full of glasses and three small pitchers of mezcal. She pours out a blanco (unaged), reposado (aged), and anejo (aged longer, it takes on a caramel tint). She sets out bowls of orange slices dusted with chili powder. Then, she demonstrates: you suck the orange, then sip the mezcal. Then smile.

Or at least she does. We grimace—but only the first time. After that, each glass goes down smoothly, like a good Scotch. The grimacing over, smiles and laughter come freely—and not just because of the mezcal.

If you’re planning a trip to Mexico City and want to eat well, here are the top places I went with Frank Scibelli and his crew from Cantina 1511:


Izote, Presidente Masaryk 513 (Polanco); Tel: 52 55 5280 1671
As far as I can tell, Izote does not have a website, but here’s a link:
Patricia Quintana’s home base offers a menu rooted in Mexican tradition but with modern twists.


Pujol, Francisco Petrarca 254 (Polanco), 52 55 5545 4111
Enrique Olvera’s hot spot is the most cutting-edge restaurant in the city.


Los Danzantes, Plaza Jardin Centenario 12 (Coyoacan), 52 55 5658 6054
The bar offers plenty of wine, tequilas, and mescals, but be sure to eat something, too. A delightful setting looks out on a public garden.

Richard Thurmond is editor of this magazine. He has been writing about the Charlotte restaurant scene since 1995.