One of my favorite restaurants in Mexico City, for most of the time that I lived there, was Nicos, a neighborhood spot off a busy avenue in Azcapotzalco. Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo has presided there for seven years, and his menu of traditional-but-creative Mexican food has turned the place into a citywide destination. He sources some of his recipes from colonial-era cookbooks; others might highlight a lesser-known chile or dish from a particular region. Vásquez’s parents opened the restaurant in 1957, and the neighborhood clearly adores the place — it can be impossible to get a table during the average weekday lunch hour.
My last visit took place a few days before I left for New York. My friend and I decided to start with mezcal, and a waiter wheeled over a little cart with at least a dozen bottles.
“Do you like your mezcal smoky, aromatic, or herbaceous?” he asked. He began opening several bottles and passing them to me so I could smell them, and eventually poured the desired choice into a silver carafe. It was an elegant, thoughtful little detail that I hadn’t seen in any other restaurant.
Chef Vázquez was among the first that I could remember to use edible flowers on his menu, and among the first to plant a garden on the restaurant’s rooftop. Usually I like to get some sort of edible-flower dish when I dine there because he uses them so artfully — the tostada duo, for instance, is almost too pretty to eat.
I always, always order the sopa seca de natas, a colonial-era recipe that smashes together layers of crepes in a creamy tomato sauce. It’s like eating most comforting Mexican rice or fideo, the decadence level ratcheted up about 20 notches.
For my last meal there, we chose crabs coated in amaranth and pumpkin seeds and served with green mole, and conejo al chile piquín. The menu said the rabbit was raised in Tolimán, Querétaro, by a group of indigenous women. Both entrees were stellar — the amaranth, almost like a savory brittle, added a toasty-meaty umami to the mild crab. The rabbit fell easily off the bone and had just the right kick of heat. We scooped hunks of the meat into corn tortillas, which are made on-site.
While we ate, a band played Beatles songs and rock hits from the 1970′s. (Live music at lunchtime is one of my favorite Mexico City restaurant quirks.) Most folks in the dining room looked like business workers on a break, in dark suits and dresses. On the weekends I’ve seen mostly families.
I’ll be back in Mexico City again at the end of this week, and I know where I’ll be dining. Who wants to come with me?
Cuitlahuac 3102, near the corner of Clavería, Col. Claveria
Note: Nicos is only open for lunch, and it’s not open on Sundays. The restaurant is about 20-minute cab ride north of Polanco. If you’re skilled at using public transport in DF, you can also take a pesero from Metro Chapultepec and get off right at the corner of Cuiltlahuac and Clavería. After you eat, make sure to take a look at the restaurant’s organic food shop, La Nicolasa, across the street.