Restaurante Nicos. The true power lunch of Mexico City
When I planned my trip to Mexico City, chef Carlos Ramírez Roure, insisted that I go with him to experience Restaurante Nicos. Always wishing to be a gracious guest, I gleefully obliged.
In its 62nd year and listed 37th among Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, Nicos is one of a kind in a city with everything. A one-room, bustling restaurant in the blue collar neighborhood of Azcapotzalco, Nicos is a complete departure from the hyper-styled CDMX dining landscape. It only serves lunch, has a spartan but comfortable space, and offers no cocktails, preferring to feature Mexican spirits and wine. Mezcal is dispensed from a rolling cart and served in traditional jícama gourd cups with sliced oranges and various salts. In the true spirit of showmanship and care, you can enjoy expert tableside preparations of guacamole, Caesar salad, cafe de olla, and salsas individually-crafted to your liking.
The extensive menu designed by the impeccable chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo pays tribute to the ingredients and recipes of both modern and pre-Hispanic Mexico, diligently researched and sourced. Every detail is deliberate including corn that is nixtalimized in-house for exceptional tortillas.
We began our exploration with a tableside selection from the roving mezcal cart. Carlos recommended a Pox from Chiapas, a corn-based fermentation. Far from trendy, Pox was commonly used for ceremonial purposes among the Mayans. While we sipped the potent Mayan moonshine, Oscar arrived with the salsa cart and presented the many options. He then set to work, grinding our selection of chiles and tomatoes into a trio of sensational salsas: one jalapeño, one chipotle and a third featuring chile mixe.
The kitchen sent out a unique amuse bouche to set the tone. The chilapita (a small cupped tostada) was topped with mushroom, nopales (cactus), and fresh cheese. This was followed by an avocado roll filled with beef tartar and dressed with radish. To celebrate a solid start to the meal, we selected a mezcal arroqueño, a distillation made from a wild variety of agave that can take up to 20 years to reach maturity. The long wait results in a sweet aroma with earthy flavor.
Next, a pairing of bean soup and one of Nicos most renown dishes, sopa seca de nata, arrived together. The bean soup was deliciously seasoned with epazote and served over crisp fried tortilla strips. Yet, its platemate stole the show. The sopa seca, “dry soup”, is a colonial-era casserole that layers crepes in a creamy tomato sauce, somewhat like a lasagna. It was perfectly comforting and decadent, and deserving of its distinction as one of Mexico City’s top bites.
We moved to red wine (Gomez Cruzado) as we forged ahead into the entre courses. My favorite dish of the day was a tostada of queso de puerco, a cold, thinly sliced house-made head cheese served over red cabbage and accompanied by a light tomato sauce. It was sublime, melting in my mouth only to leave the essence of pork flavor on my tongue. Next, a plate of the day, pacholitas, arrived. This dish from Jalisco featured a grilled chopped beef steak seasoned and stained red with chile de ancho.
Between courses we noshed on Sourdough bread that was made in Carlos’ own bakery, Sucre y Cacao. It was moist and mellow inside with a tap-worthy crisp crust and required no adornment of oil nor butter. Thanks to the long-standing relationship Chef Carlos has with the owners, in part based on his extraordinary baking talent, I was fortunate to meet both Chef Gerardo and his charming mother, María Elena Lugo Zermeño, who established the restaurant in the 1950s with her own approach to home cooking. Both were warm and welcoming hosts.
Though sensible people would have stopped at this point, I saw something on the menu that begged for my attention: lengua en cuñete. Warm slices of fork-tender beef tongue were submerged in a vibrant white wine escabeche bath. The piquant flavor instigated an immediate mouth-watering deluge that taxed my already exhausted salivary glands.
Rather than dessert, we took a journey down a much more exhilarating path involving a bottle of Oaxacan Whiskey Blanco and an assortment of cheeses from San Miguel de Allende. One cheese in particular, was like nothing any cheese I have ever tried. Made with the mosto (spent red grape skins) from the wine harvest, it commanded my full attention with its pungent aroma, sharp as a knife flavor, and chalky texture. It was at once overpowering and alluring.
The parting delight in our 4.5 hour lunch was an assortment of gummies. As if I were not already certain, the joy I found in the pink rose-flavored gelatin heart will endear me to Nicos forever.
(con este texto debuta Jamie Kelly en LQCDM, la weg)
Av. Cuitláhuac 3102; Clavería, Azcapotzalco; 02080 Ciudad de México
Jamie Kelly is an American marketing professional turned gastronaut. She is eating her way through a full-spectrum exploration of food culture in Spanish-speaking lands across the globe, and staging ambitious re-enactments in her own kitchen. To follow along on the expedition, like Jamie’s Facebook page and watch for her new blog, www.gastro-curious.com, coming in summer 2019.