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food / travel

Mezcal Worms, Snails And Chili Sauce: Mexico's Hot, Haute Cuisine

Huaxmole, a traditional dish with beef or pork meat in a thick sauce of chili and guaje beans
Huaxmole, a traditional dish with beef or pork meat in a thick sauce of chili and guaje beans
Hildegard Stausberg

MEXICO CITY - There are a lot of good restaurants in Ciudad de México – Mexico’s capital city (its name sounds a lot more dashing in Spanish than the English Mexico City used by most).

Authentic Mexican cuisine is excellent, and Mexicans like to eat well - with little room to spare. So forget everything you ever ate at all those cantinas mexicanas that are becoming ever more popular around the world, claiming to serve “Mexican cuisine.”

The real thing is not only a lot more diverse, it’s also much more refined.

A visit to "La Opera" offers a great introduction to Mexican cookery. Located in the Alameda Central area – near the historic square of the old city – the renowned eatery is the perfect way to become attuned to what Mexico has to offer culinary-wise.

La Opera was opened in 1876 by two Frenchmen – the Boulangeot brothers. In its first years in business, it was only a pasteleria, a café that served pastries. The best hot chocolate in the country was served there.

Of course it was already too late to pay in cocoa beans, as had been the custom in ancient Mexico under the Aztecs – whose capital Tenochtitlán was located on the site of present-day Ciudad de México. But using precious cocoa beans as currency continued through the first decades of the Spanish colonial era.

We know that a turkey – a bird that originated in Mexico – cost 20 cocoa beans, while a very large tomato only cost one. Both the words for chocolate and for tomato – xocólatle and xitomatl – come from Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s a shame that there isn’t more general awareness of facts like these.

In 1895 "La Opera" moved to the premises that it still occupies today on Calle 5 de Mayo (May 5 Street). Its interior decoration has remained the same, all in a genuine Fin de Siècle style: stucco on the walls and ceiling, comfortable red-velvet-upholstered wooden banquettes, a heavy dark mahogany Baroque-style bar ordered from New Orleans.

Nearly all the greats of Mexican history have eaten at La Opera, the most famous of them perhaps being revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa. He came from the northern part of the country, and visited the capital twice after the start of the revolution in 1910.

On one of his visits to La Opera, he was involved in a brawl, where guns were fired – and one of the bullets from Pancho Villa’s gun hit the ceiling, leaving a hole that can still be seen to this day. Every time the paint has been freshened over the past 100 years, the workmen have been told not to touch up the bullet hole, which remains a big attraction.

The music is admirably suited to the Belle Époque vibe. The musicians not only play the traditional instruments of Mexican mariachis – the violin and the guitar – but also the marimba, a Latin American xylophone which has wooden bars instead of metal ones so the sound is much softer and warmer.

Worms and snails

Like the waiters, the musicians wear white shirts with black bow ties (the dress code is still formal in good Mexican restaurants) and happily too, as it is a long-standing Mexican tradition to serve guests properly, the motto being Para servirle – at your service.

What to order at La Opera? Under no circumstances tequila – you can get that all over the world. You’re better off with a good mezcal from Oaxaca – preferably a mature one, i.e. reposado.

By the way, no need to fear the agave worm (gusano de maguey) floating about at the bottom of the bottle: the worm mostly stays there, and if it should end up in your glass, just drink it down. After years spent in the bottle it has no other taste than that of mezcal.

One of the dishes La Opera is particularly known for is caracoles en salsa de chipotle – snails in a very hot chili sauce. Or try the huachinango à la veracruzana, red snapper with tomato sauce, olives and capers.

A particular delicacy, which may however not always be on the menu, is turkey, which Mexicans call guajalote. It’s best eaten with mole poblano, a slightly bitter chocolate-based sauce that you can sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

But whether you opt for sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), or a plato fuerte (main course) of chamorro a la gallega (leg of pork) or lengua veracruzana (tongue Veracruz-style), you are sampling genuine Mexican flavors.

La Opera also makes some concessions to foreign taste buds: pico de gallo, a sauce made of chopped tomato, onions, small green chili peppers and coriander, is also available in a slightly less hot version.

End your meal with a postre that cools your mouth down a little and reflects the Mexican love of flans and puddings – perhaps milk-curd based chongos zamoranos, natilla (custard) or arroz con leche (rice pudding).

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