When opportunities present themselves, especially when they’re travel related, I usually jump without second thought. It’s because of this, that I’m in a cab crawling through traffic in Mexico City on my way to have a meal with Chef Rodolfo Castellanos.
It’s my 3rd time in Mexico in 4 months, and this stop in CDMX is just a detour on my way to Oaxaca for a few days. My original plan was to spend 4 nights in Oaxaca, but when Rodolfo informed me that he’d be in CDMX during the duration of my dates, I asked if he’d be ok with me visiting him there so I could check out his just-opened Poleo. A “sure, please do”, was all I needed to adjust my plans.
Poleo is located in the Hipodromo-Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, or CDMX as it’s now referred to (and not DF). It’s the same neighbourhood that I stayed in a few months back, which was comforting since I was heading into the city solo.
I booked a hotel at the hip Flowsuites Condesa, a hop skip and a jump away from the restaurant, and hop, skip and jump I did over to Poleo in anticipation for some awesome food. As I walked into Poleo, I was feeling kind of shy in the foreign space, but I was quickly greeted with Chef Rodolfo’s welcoming smile and I felt immediately at ease. I looked around and took in the restaurant, elegant, yet still warm and inviting, which is so in line with the Chef and his food.
We said our hellos and went outside to have a refreshing poleo limonata. As we sat down, we were quickly joined by 2 others carrying mezcal bottles who turned out to be reps. Before I even knew what was going on, I was in the midst of a tasting.
It was still a bit early for dinner, but I needed food, and asked if we could go somewhere to have a snack. Rodolfo wanted to check out a place he’d heard about, opened by some people from New York City. He said it was “kind of a take on Korean food, was that ok”? Hmmmm, Korean in Mexico City? Why not?*
I stressed to Rodolfo that this was a pre-meal snack but of course we over-ordered to get a good sampling of their concise menu. Chef Allen Noveck at Fat Boy Moves has impressive NYC roots, including Momofuku and his pastry chef wife (who was serving us on that day)’s background included Eleven Madison Park (yes the current #1 restaurant in the world).
I had eaten more than I should have for a snack, but I have a hard time resisting white rice and anything fried. I was happy that we walked the long route on our way back to Poleo.
Once we were back at the restaurant, I took a seat in front of the kitchen and was served some mezcal as Rodolfo jumped into the kitchen to finish off some moles the staff were preparing. I watched as ingredients were roasted, toasted, sautéed and puréed. I realized that I was wrong in my assumption that making mole was a many day process but in fact it’s something that comes together rather quickly once all of the individual ingredients have been prepared.
I was fascinated watching Rodolfo take his team through the process of flavor building to get each of the moles to “just right”. Since Rodolfo is only planning to be at Poleo a week here and there, it’s important that the staff understands Rodolfo’s palate and that the food and flavours being served properly represent him. Chef Rodolfo has brought over some of his kitchen team from Origen in Oaxaca, so he’s confident that they understand what he’s trying to achieve. Nevertheless, as the team watched and tasted through the process, they were also furiously taking notes and photos.
I was actually getting hungry again when Rodolfo came out to sit with me for dinner. I was taken aback by this unique experience because of all the dinners I’ve had at Origen in Oaxaca, Rodolfo has always been in the kitchen making the meal. I was happy to have the company and realized that he probably doesn’t get much opportunity to check out what was going on in his kitchen when he’s not in it. I was also happy because as it turned out, I needed his help to get me through the meal.
I started with guacamole with chepiche and chapulines(grasshoppers). Funny chepiche is not something I’ve been crazy about in the past, but it’s a taste that’s totally Oaxaca in my mind. The chepiche elevated the guacamole to a flavor that took it out of the pub realm and automatically made me feel as if I was eating “good food”.
The tuna tostada was my favorite taste of the night. Bluefin tuna in Mexico? Yes in fact from Ensenada. The sauce for this dish made me swoon. So much in fact that Rodolfo brought me out a bowl of it to try on its own. The chilhuacle chile vinaigrette reduction was so good and I came up with so many combinations that it would taste amazing over.
Next up was arroz meloso (risotto) with escamoles (ant eggs). The first bites of the dish were amazing but I have to admit that as Rodolfo was talking about how the escamoles added “creaminess” to the dish and then I started to dig around to taste the escamoles individually, my mind started challenging my palate. But I pushed through because the flavours, especially from the intense reduced bone broth and textures from the fried chicken skin and fresh squash, were incredible. I’m glad I wasn’t choosing for myself this dinner because I never would have picked this dish, but it’s one I’m happy to have tasted.
I asked if I could taste the moles that I watched being made and 2 were brought out for me to try . I could not believe how complex and different each of the moles were. Moles, as most people who haven’t been to Oaxaca know them, land on the sweet “chocolate-y” side. True Oaxaca moles have much more depth than that, and the ones Rodolfo served me played on my palate like a harmonious melody. There are so many notes, which I witnessed as I watched them prepare these, but the way they all came together were just delectable.
The uniqueness of mole chichilo (on the left) comes from the use of the extra smoky chilhuacle chile, along with tortilla, and avocado leaves. Rodolfo explains that you “burn the sh%t out of the chiles and tortillas”. You have to get it just right in order for “burnt” to still taste delicious.
The mole coloradito (right) was a flavour shock as I tasted the familiar flavours of an Indian curry. But when you break down the ingredients, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, etc., then I understand where my mind pulled towards the similarities. But the favours of the chiles used in this mole pulled me back to Oaxaca.
The various products, the different flavours of the chiles all add different notes to the complexity of the moles. The knowledge of these flavors is something I’d like to gain, but I guess that’s part of my motivation in continuing to return to not only Oaxaca but other parts of Mexico as well.
The last dish was a roasted duck with parsnip puree and a sweet-ish date mole. I loved how everything on this plate worked so well together.
Just when I thought I couldn’t eat any more, there was one more dish.
Dessert was a version of biscocho served with leche de pixtle (mamey pit). I enjoyed the lightness and not too sweetness of this dish. The play not only on textures but temperatures as well left me with a smile on my face.
After dinner, we made our way a block away to check out the very cool Baltra bar, which was packed, but we were lucky enough to snag a seat. There were so many delicious looking cocktails on the menu, but I was having a hard time deciding. There was a guest bartender from Norway who was mixing drinks featuring Altos tequila. I figured I’d go for “bartenders choice” with the adjectives cítricos (citrus) and refrescante (refreshing). Funny enough, I think I was served a simple but delicious margarita, which I guess hits both my adjectives…
The next morning, Rodolfo and I met for breakfast where I asked him to choose something fun for us to do. We hopped in an Uber and were on our way to an unknown destination. We snarled through traffic and got out in the midst of a huge crowd forming and then waded our way through the people to get to our destination.
I saw the zocalo in the distance as we walked and was excited to finally get a glimpse of the “heart” of the city. While I’ve been to Mexico City twice before, I’ve felt I’ve never done it properly. But now that I’ve seen the core of Mexico City (and its craziness), it’s made me appreciate more in hindsight the neighbourhoods I’ve stayed in.
Our destination for breakfast was El Cardenal, one of the city’s oldest restaurants. There were quite a few people waiting when we got there, so we took a seat to wait. We were both a bit hangry when our table was ready more than 30 minutes later. I couldn’t believe the size of the restaurant and the operations behind it.
The great thing about breakfast in Mexico is you don’t have to wait long before food is sitting in front of you.
Chocolate and a piece of bread would normally be more than I would have for breakfast but of course there’d be more to follow. The menu was extensive, so I let Rodolfo pick and I’m glad I did because one of the first thing that hit the table was something I NEVER would have ordered.
Nata, is the cream that rises from boiling unpasteurized milk. When it was described to me before it was served, I was thinking of that slimy skin that develops on top of hot chocolate or warm milk if you let it sit too long. But nata was not that. It was cold and creamy and insanely delicious when spread over bread. Top that with a drizzle of honey or sugar and it was a bite that made me forget all about hipster avocado toast.
I will admit that I ate too much natas and ruined myself for the rest of the meal, but I was happy with the few bites I had of each.
After breakfast, we decided we’d take the subway back since traffic would be a nightmare because of whatever was going on in the Zocalo. I was happy not only to get to check out the subway system, but also because I really needed a walk to work off some of breakfast, because I had it in my head that I wanted to try some things off of Poleo’s brunch menu.
Back at Poleo, we sat and talked a bit about the brunch menu and I chose a couple items that I wanted to try.
Chilaquiles are one of my favourite things for breakfast, but these, with salsa frijol (black bean), queso, crema and chorizo was a new flavour sensation and will probably ruin me on any other chilaquile moving forward.
The taquito was an excellent and crunchy vehicle for the amazing mole coloradito. I’ll admit I only had a tiny sliver of the corn bread/cake. While I like the “corn-y” flavor, my attention kept being diverted by the amazing chilaquiles sitting in front of me.
Rodolfo had some ideas in his head of things he wanted to add or change to the brunch menu so he quickly started scribbling them down.
I’ve said it before, probably in every post I do about Chef Rodolfo, but I feel very fortunate in the time he spends with me and his patience in answering all of the hundreds of questions I’m always asking him. Thoughts of tastes, techniques and even the business of food always swarm my mind and it’s nice to be able to spend time with someone who’s can answer my questions.
CDMX has always felt like a big and daunting city to me, but on this visit, I got more of an understanding of its awesomeness. While I usually have no problem exploring on my own, being with a “local” put me at ease to be able to slow my mind down enough to enjoy my time more. The colours, smells and tastes were so vibrant to me on this trip.
After dining at Poleo, I am more excited for Rodolfo than I was when I heard about the opening. While I love Origen in Oaxaca, I understand the opportunities that Poleo gives the Chef. Rodolfo says that he’s bringing recipes from Oaxaca, but in CDMX he has the ability to push a bit further away from traditional.
New city, new atmosphere, new clients and new ingredients, all of these things, I
hope know Chef Rodolfo will do his best with. Through all the challenges that Origen in Oaxaca has faced, the restaurant has persevered because Rodolfo has the winning combination of extreme talent and hard work. Couple that with my belief that good things happen to good people, and I can’t wait to see what comes of Poleo in the future.
Thank you again Rodolfo for sharing! My day in CDMX was an amazing experience!
Poleo: Amsterdam 225 Condesa, CDMX
*I will acknowledge the fact that Rodolfo is one of only one that gets a free pass in choosing where to eat and what to eat without second-guessing from me. While “some” may not think this is fair, sorry. Maybe if you win Top Chef, you’d get a free pass too.