Mexican food the old-fashioned way at El Bajío

Chef Carmen “Titita” Ramirez walks a straight, firm line when it comes to Mexican food traditions. She scoffs at chefs who think carnitas can be made with Coca-Cola and milk. Or any chef (even if he is American and famous) who promotes such a thing as “Mexican chimichurri.”

Mexican food has a base and that base should be followed, says the chef, who runs the El Bajío restaurants in Mexico City.

“This idea of fusion, it’s confusion,” Ramirez said in Spanish, while hosting a four-course meal at her restaurant’s Polanco location. “Yes, I’m a purist. Yes.”

Ramirez learned her recipes from her mother and her nanny, while growing up in a small town in Veracruz state. I was lucky enough to try some of the food last Sunday, as part of the Ruta Aromas y Sabores tour. The tour runs through June 10 and is specifically for food writers, chefs and photographers from all over the world. It’s sponsored by various arms of the Mexican government, and organized by Izote chef Patricia Quintana.

The idea here is to show off Mexico’s culinary history and culture, and its wide variety of regional dishes and flavors. The tour started in Mexico City on May 29; today it moves onto the state of Mexico, and then Guanajuato and Michoacán.

I was originally scheduled to attend the whole thing, but unfortunately I had to cancel. My health hasn’t been top-notch lately and I’m dealing with our recent move. But it was really neat to attend even one event. At El Bajío, our group of about 10 included writers and photographers from Mexico, Spain and Germany. Titita sat with us the whole time and answered any questions we had.

I’d eaten at El Bajío once before and thought the food was okay. Guess I ordered the wrong thing back then, because this meal was among the best I’ve had in Mexico. Everything tasted like it had been prepared carefully and lovingly, from the homemade corn tortillas in the basket (Maseca has been the downfall of tortillas, Titita says) to the sweet potato pudding with pineapple, to the agua de guayaba speckled with bits of pulp. I really wished I could follow Titita for a day, watching her prepare some of these things that she’s so passionate about.

Some photos of the meal…

Chicken with mole Xico, named after a village in Veracruz state. It has 35 ingredients.

The antojito plate, containing (clockwise from top-right): A garnacha orizabeña topped with potato; a gordita filled with black beans; a panucho yucateco topped with cochinita pibil; an empanada de plátano; and lastly, in the center, a tostadita michoacana with a mound of powdered, pulverized chicharrón.

I loved the gordita and the empanada the best. The gordita crunched just perfectly in your mouth, leaving little beads of oil on your tongue before you got this onslaught of soft, anise-scented beans. (They’d been cooked with avocado leaf, which gave them that flavor.) The empanada was a fun surprise — the wrapper had been made from plantains, not the filling. Comforting and just delicious.

Huazontles, formed into patties and stuffed with cheese, then draped with a light tomato sauce:

The huauzontles might have been my favorite of all. They have this spongey, springy texture that’s almost like eating the tops of broccoli. (Quite fun to chew.) Ramirez said the patties didn’t contain any egg or flour to keep their shape. Instead, the green buds were boiled and pressed together to release them of all water, then stuffed with cheese and shaped, and then dunked in an egg batter so light that I didn’t even know it was there.

Usually I’m not a fan of this egg battering-and-frying technique, which is called “capear” in Spanish. Along with huauzontles, chiles rellenos are often served capeado. In the few times I’ve had this, the fried shell overtakes the dish and turns it into an oily mess. But this fried shell — this one was just a whisper. The huauzontles were on center stage, just like they should’ve been. The shell gave the patties just the right amount of give, just the right touch of oily goodness. I thought: Wow. I really should learn how to capear.

Here’s a final shot of Titita herself. El Bajío has six locations all over Mexico City; the original restaurant is in Azcapotzalco.

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11 Responses to “Mexican food the old-fashioned way at El Bajío”
  1. Ruth Alegria

    An incredible day spent in the DF with Patricia Quintana guiding a hundred odd group through the cultural highlights of the city with many, many stops to eat.

    Maybe next year we can do the whole 10 day tour!

  2. Alice

    El Bajio has one of the best moles I’ve ever had. I don’t usually do it, but at El Bajio, I always wipe down all the mole from my plate.

    • Lesley

      I know. Doesn’t it look SO good? It’s just fantastic. I’m thinking right now about sopping it up with some of her tortillas…

  3. Cooking in Mexico

    I’m a purist, too, when it comes to Mexican food. Why mess with the best? Yesterday I had tortitas de calabaza at a ranch house in Jalisco. The cooking method was identical to how your huazontles were prepared. The cook told me she also used nopal paddles to prepare the same dish. Viva la comida de Mexico!

  4. Maura

    Lesley, love this post! Your photos have also come so far from when I first started following your blog a few months ago. They’re making me long for a visit! Thankfully, I won’t have to wait too long as I expect to be there in July. El Bajio is, without a doubt, my most favorite place in Mexico City for true, pure Mexican cuisine. My suegra’s family is originally from Veracruz and even after moving to Mexico City, they still always kept a home in Veracruz until just a few years ago when my husband’s abuelita passed away. I have SO many fond memories of eating at El Bajio with my family in Mexico City, and the Polanco location is my favorite (love to sit at the large circular table in the sunny windows in front to people watch!).

    I met Titita my very first time eating at El Bajio with my suegra and I’m a little embarrassed to say that at the time, I didn’t realize who she was. Titita has since become one of my cooking idols. I have spent countless hours in my kitchen trying to recreate my favorite recipes from her menu. I’m most proud that I’ve been able to recreate the empanadas de frijol that you tasted and loved so much. And Titita’s tortillas… I sometimes dream about them because there is nothing that tastes the same here in the U.S. I never make a trip to Mexico City without visiting her for a meal! I highly suggest you buy her book, “Alquimias y Atmósferas del Sabor: Alta gastronomía de doña Carmen Titita” – you can easily find it at your nearest Gandhi store (in fact, I purchased mine at the Miguel Ángel de Quevedo 121 store). I am not kidding you when I say that I searched for a copy of her book for close to a year in the U.S. with no success – on my very next trip to Mexico, I called the Gandhi to make sure they had one waiting for me. Alright, didn’t mean to write you a novel here, but you know how to reach me and that I’m happy to talk Mexico City food with you ANY time! :)

    • Lesley

      Maura: Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I’m glad this resonated with you. Yes, Titita seems like an amazing woman — I could see her becoming one of my cooking idols, too. Have you posted the recipe for the empanadas de frijol? I’d love to take a crack at it. Is it in her book? Either way, I’ll have to hit Gandhi soon to buy it. Thanks for the tip. When you’re down here in July, let me know! We’ll have to have coffee and dish about Mexican food.

  5. Jay C.

    I had the unique opportunity to spend the afternoon with Senora Ramirez when she was doing a demonstration at the Mexican Cultural Center in Washington DC a couple of years ago. Amazing to watch and inspiring. I had already eaten at El Bajio at the Del Parque mall and was undaunted in doing everything I could to attend her event.

    I was in the audience furiously scribbling notes on the recipes she was demonstrating. Simple, elegant and tasty. Sounds like you had a great time!

  6. Jenny

    Your pictures bring such great and vivid memories for me. My mother was a “purist” and her Mexican food has been the best I’ve ever tasted. From home made tortillas, uchepos, chiles rellenos en caldo, mole, YUM! She is no longer with us, but we have kept her receipes – the kids say though that our “beans don’t taste like abuelas”. Thank you for sharing. I am so happy to have found your blog.

  7. Don Cuevas

    Our first visit to El Bajío was to the Mother Restaurant in (hang on; here it comes…) Azcapotzalco. We had a very nice comida there, and I was plesed to meet the Chef in person. She greeted us warmly.

    The second visit was to the Parque Delta location, off Ave. Cuauhtémoc. Although the crisp, modern setting was not as pleasing as the Azca location, the breakfast was in the top ranks of breakfasts we’ve enjoyed in Mexico.

    Ever since, we’ve been looking for an opportunity to dine there again. I am getting an idea for our next visit to Mexico City, in a couple of weeks.

  8. Karla Oseguera

    No puedo mas que regocigarme en alegria al ver tantos logros de una mujer que siempre he admirado por su empeño y dedicación……. muchas felicidades……. recibe todo mi cariño….. KARLA OSEGUERA (Mexico, D.F.

  9. LUCHI HUERTA

    ES UN PLACER Y UNA DICHA HABER COMIDO VARIAS VECES EN EL RESTAURANTE EL BAJIO, SU RICA COMIDA Y LA GRAN HOSPITALIDAD DE SU DUEÑA, TRABAJADORA INCANSABLE, ALA QUE ME ENORGULLESE
    SEA MI TIA. FELICIDADES!! RECIBE UN FUERTE ABRAZO. LUCHI HUERTA DE ISLA. ( merida, yuc)

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