Mole in the Mountains

Mole in the Mountains

A gastronomic adventure in Xalapa, Mexico / Xalapa

RESTAURANTS

restaurants

Breakfast (desayuno) is served from 8 to 11 a.m., and like in the States, it’s any or all of the following: pastries, egg dishes, coffee, espresso.

The biggest meal of the day is lunch, comida or almuerzo, eaten between 2 and 5 p.m. Comidas corridas (places that serve something along the lines of a daily blue-plate lunch special) and cocinas económicas (joints that spoon food out of a large pot) are popular for inexpensive but substantial tortilla-based dishes, stews, soups, and grills, which can be eaten generally between 1 and 5, or until the food runs out. Look for them in market areas where working folks congregate.

Seafood is usually served only from 1 to 5; seafood restaurants close by 7 p.m. Restaurants that cater to tourists, or comidas internacionales (“international restaurants,” i.e., American, Italian, etc.), will offer some seafood until late into the night, but they are the exception.

Dinner, or cena, is typically a light snack of appetizers like stuffed tortillas, possibly combined with drinks, usually in the company of friends over the course of several hours. Quaffs include beer, cucaracha (coffee, coffee liqueur, and tequila), atole (a warm drink made from masa, cinnamon, sugar, and milk or water), micheladas, sangría, and wine.

Many restaurants are closed on Sunday. Most smaller towns in the area have regular Sunday markets on the edges of their public squares (zócalos), always a good place to find local specialty foods, including produce and food products of outlying villages and farms. The zócalo will also be lined with cafés, among other businesses. It’s best to pay with cash. For the most part, servers are fairly professional and efficient, and a 10 percent tip (propina) is sufficient and customary for good service.

The listings below are based on the quality and freshness of the food, efficiency of service, and value. Most cabbies in town will be familiar with these places. All prices are in U.S. dollars.

∗Indicates that it’s a big favorite of both this author and the locals.

Breakfast

Scattered throughout the neighborhoods are many panaderías (bakeries) that offer fresh, hot, sweet breads, and small corner cafés that offer coffee and fresh-squeezed jugos as an alternative to a sit-down meal. The restaurants listed below serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but are known for their excellent desayunos.

El Itacafe

Altamarino No. 60
228-847-0358

A big place famous for its huge breakfasts, with excellent handmade tortillas used for its tacos and enchiladas, as well as sweet breads and freshly squeezed orange juice. $3–$6.

La Estancia de los Tecajetes

Av. Camacho No. 90, Suite 12
228-818-0732

Beautiful views of the adjacent heavily wooded park; serves fresh, high-quality local dishes all day long. Fresh tortillas are made in the corner over a huge comal (cast iron grill). It can get crowded. Also, Panificadora de Hojaldres Don Carlos, a few doors down, is considered one of the best bakeries in Xalapa. $5–$7.

Villa La Gavia

Av. Maestros Veracruzanos No. 124
228-817-4325

Set in a large room with a wooden beamed ceiling, blue tablecloths, and subdued lighting, this place has a touch of sophistication. Dependable and fresh local specialties include picaditas, garnachas (cornmeal appetizers topped with meats, beans, and cheese), and enmoladas (corn tortillas dipped in mole sauce); impeccable service. $5–$15.

Grilled Meats

These meats are served singly or in combination, and are eaten with black beans and rice, pico de gallo (a relish of onion, tomato, chiles, cilantro, and lime), a squeeze or two of lime juice, assorted salsas, occasionally some grated cheese or some mashed avocado, sometimes a serving of nopales (cactus pad strips), and a stack of homemade tortillas.

arrachera
flank steak marinated in citrus and/or beer, with garlic, herbs, and chiles
barbacoa
pork marinated in allspice, chiles, cumin, pepper, bay, thyme, onion, and garlic, then wrapped in banana or hoja santa leaves before being cooked in an underground pit (or home oven)
carne asado
skirt steak marinated in oil, citrus, chiles, garlic, and spices; grilled; and sliced
carne de chango
literally means monkey meat, but is actually pork marinated in garlic, citrus, and herbs, then heavily smoked over green wood and cut into strips
cecino
a thin, wide cut of tender pork steak that is marinated and flash-grilled
costillas
pork ribs adobo-style, seasoned with garlic, oregano, cumin, and chile and slowly grilled
longaniza
a subset of Spanish chorizo—the filling is made of larger, very coarsely chopped pieces; no cooking or refrigeration necessary
pierna
thin steaks cut from the central haunch, just below the T-bone
pollo
chicken that is split and citrus- and herb-marinated before grilling; the occasional quail or dove finds its way onto the grill as well
puerco al carbón
pork that is citrus-marinated, stacked on a trompo (vertical grill), topped with a pineapple to baste as it cooks, and sliced off thinly as it rotates, much like gyro meat
Spanish chorizo
Spanish coarse-chopped, air-cured sausage flavored with smoked pimento powder; ready to eat, no refrigeration required (different from Mexican chorizo: raw, finely ground, fatty pork sausage flavored with chile and cumin, often eaten without the tough casing)

Asadero Cien

Av. Maestros Veracruzanos No. 89
228-817-8062

Several locations, all close to each other—locals believe this one is the best. Serves Hereford beef from cattle raised in the lush mountain valleys around Xalapa. Specializing in arrachera, but you’ll also find great chicken, pork, and even ostrich; queso asado, pieces of semisoft cheese baked golden brown and nutty outside, soft and creamy inside; and frijoles charros (stewed beans). $6–$15.

El Feliz Pollo

(a.k.a. The Happy Chicken)
Two locations:
20 de Noviembre Oriente No. 401-B
228-818-4984
and
Mercado Rotondo
In the center of the divided Calle Revolución, just south of the Av. de los Americas, northeast side of the market
No listed phone number
A great pollo al carbón (grilled chicken) joint; very clean, and popular with the locals. Painted bright orange with a tall smokestack—can’t miss it. $4–$8.

El Vecindad Tacos

Enríquez No. 12
228-818-3265

Specializing in tacos al pastor (marinated and grilled pork tacos with spices, pineapple, and onion), El Vecindad also offers grilled-meat plates and a buffet of tacos. The latter is, just as it sounds, a steam table with all kinds of meats and beans and tortillas, and a cold area with salsas, veggies, cheeses, and avocado. It also serves home-style cazuelas (spicy, tomato-based, chile-infused meat and poultry stews). $3–$5.

La Parilla de Diamante

Plaza Crystal 6, 7, y 8
228-815-7422

Originally on Callejón de Diamante, La Parilla recently moved out to a roomier spot in the mall (Plaza Crystal Shopping Center) to accommodate the many people who believe it’s one of the best asaderos (grilled meat restaurants) in town. Special favorites include the carne asado and the sausages. $7–10.

La Pérgola

Universidad No. 2, Colonia Lomas de Estadio
228-817-4714

A little noisy and often crowded because it’s next to the stadium, La Pérgola is famous not only for its tasty grilled meats but also for its sumptuous salads—huge, loaded, impeccably fresh, topped with grilled meats or not. Specialties include charcoal-grilled fillet and marinated flank steak. Live music on the weekends; polished service. $5–$20.

Súper Pollos Sinaloa

Murillo Vidal No. 165
228-817-4855

Fire-grilled chicken, with all the fixins, norteño-style. (In other words, it’s citrus-marinated, split, grilled, and served with grilled onions, salsa cruda, and tortillas with a side of frijoles charros.) $7–$9.

Seafood See also Side Trips, Coatepec listings.

You’ll find two styles of seafood dishes in the area: southern, or Veracruz style, and northern or Tamiahua style. There is overlap between the two but also some general differences. Southern tends to use ocean-caught seafood like snapper, grouper, pompano, snook, mojarro (sea bass), squid, shrimp, prawns, and crabs in dishes with Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences. You’ll find paella/risotta-esque dishes (arroz a la tumbada, for instance). A typical fish preparation is snapper with Veracruz sauce, which includes olives, capers, tomatoes, garlic, onion, white wine, jalapeños, pickled güero chiles, cinnamon, clove, and lime. Some dishes incorporate peanuts, sweet potatoes, plantains, and yuca. Vuelve la vida (seafood cocktail) is a popular hangover remedy.

The northern style gets its ingredients from indigenous Olmec, Totonac, and Huastecan people, and relies more on shellfish collected in protected bays and freshwater fish. You’ll find oysters, scallops, crawfish, rainbow trout, mussels, and crabs in these dishes, paired with pipian sauces (thickened and flavored with pumpkin and squash seeds) or made into enchiladas. Camarónes xanath are shrimp cooked with vanilla sauce. Steak de camarón a la naranja is shrimp pressed together to form a “steak” in orange sauce. You’ll find lots of cinnamon, peppercorns, cilantro, epazote, cloves, and cumin spices when eating northern style.

Both styles serve caldo de mariscos, a mixed seafood soup with tomatoes, herbs, and chiles; seafood tortas, patties with egg white folded in, breaded, and fried; steamed shrimp or crab claws served with chipotle aioli; jackfish meatballs in chile broth; and pompano baked in paper and stuffed with onion and tomatoes.

El Puerto de Alvarado

Azueta No. 3-B
228-815-1401

Great, fresh seafood dishes based on old family recipes; simple, basic ambiance; a bargain for the quality; and Angel is a perfect host. Closed Mondays. $4–$10.

Mariscos Bahía

Primo Verdad No. 18 (and other locations)
228-818-9497

Reliable, long-established Veracruz-style seafood offerings in the heart of the Old Quarter. $6–$12.

∗Nico’s

Dr. Eduardo R. Coronel No. 42
228-817-9985

Superb local seafood served impeccably fresh. Try the stuffed crab with chile sauce and limes on the side; shrimp-crab-octopus salad; seafood stew with crab, fish, shrimp, and sweet corn in a tomato-chile broth; torta de mariscos, seafood frittata with shredded fish, shrimp, crab, and octopus; pescado relleno, seafood-stuffed snook fillets, all bathed in a rich chipotle sauce; and bananas flamed with local orange liqueur and anise. Can you tell I like this place? Closed Sundays. $7–$15.

Nueva Tamiahua

Av. Orizaba No. 183
228-815-2020

Close to the Museum of Anthropology (on Av. Xalapa) you’ll find excellent seafood dishes based on regional cooking from the area north of Veracruz. Eat here and at Nico’s, and you’ll experience both northern and southern styles of local seafood. $9–$18.

Miscellaneous Other, all-around good joints.

El Salto de Xala

Rafaél Murillo Vidal Av. No. 238
228-818-0385

Owned by the same folks who own La Casa de Mamá (see below); similar high-quality food made with fresh ingredients; excellent service. $7–$15.

La Casa de Mago

Morellos No. 46
No listed phone number

Popular with the workingman for its excellent comida corrida lunches—full three-course meals that may include stews, soups, or casseroles, for only $3.

La Casa de Mamá

Av. Camacho No. 113
228-817-3144 or 228-817-6232

Wonderful molcajete (a mixed grill of meat and poultry, with chile and cactus strips) and great steaks are served in an elegant building that resembles a renovated farmhouse. Closed Mondays. $9–$20.

La Casona del Beaterio

Zaragoza No. 20
228-817-8009 or 228-818-2119

In an old colonial building, you’ll find live music on weekend nights and a good wine and spirits selection (including some excellent Cuban rums). Food is fresh and reliable, with everything from cazuela (stews) to parilla (grilled meats) and antojitos (fried snacks). $4–$12.

∗La Churrería de Recuerdos

Victoria No. 158
228-841-4961 or 228-818-1678

Right across the street from the Hotel Xalapa Finca Real (see Lodging below), this decades-old favorite specializes in regional dishes. Excellent mole enchiladas (listed as enmoladas); any specials of the day should not be missed. $3–$10.

∗La Fonda

Callejón de Diamante No. 1
228-818-7282

On an artsy and popular strolling alley, this family-run business is a good bet for breakfast, coffee, and lunch. $4–$8.

La Sopa

Callejón de Diamante No. 3-A
228-817-8069

On the same well-traveled promenade as La Fonda, you can hear live music Friday through Sunday and hang with a mixed bohemian crowd. There’s danzón (dancing) Thursday nights; great comida corrida lunches and evening antojitos; and don’t forget to try the specialty, tostados de pescados (crisp tortillas topped with seafood), before they run out. $3–$10.

“The place with no name”

Southwest corner of Hernan Cortés and Privada
Tell cabdrivers: “La cocina económica a la esquina de calles Cortés y Privada” (“The cocina económica at the intersection or corner of Cortes and Privada streets”)
No listed phone number

This tiny neighborhood joint opens around 6 or 7 a.m. and closes around 10 p.m.; it’s been there forever and is known citywide for its wonderful antojitos, tamales, and atole drinks. Most customers grab-and-go or eat standing up on the sidewalk. $1–$3.

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NIGHTLIFE

nightlife

Whether it’s a solo singer-guitarist doing the standard tearjerker ballads or a full-on band complete with violins, steel drums, and a horn section, live music is a mainstay of the city. Xalapa is a town that appreciates its artists, so there’s a glut of highly skilled musicians. If there is a floor large enough, it will be covered with couples dancing waltzes, cumbias, sambas, trovas, and son jarochos. You’re welcome to give it a try without being made to feel stupid—most of the time. Cover charges are usually cheap, if they are in force at all.

You’ll find students in the discos, but for a laid-back, all-ages scene, we suggest the publike atmosphere of most of the bars and cafés below.

Bars and Cafés

Balconcito de Agora

Parque Juárez
228-818-5730

Sits at the edge of Parque Juárez, the main park in El Centro, the central historical district—every cabbie knows it; middle-aged/professional crowd; has consistently high-quality music.

Barlovento

Av. 20 de Noviembre No. 641
228-817-8334

Here you can not only listen to music over a great drink, but also dance, which is highly encouraged; for Xalapa’s traditional couples dancers, this is the promised land.

Boulevard 93

Av. Camacho No. 93
No listed phone number

This is the place to dance until dawn to DJ music; the crowd is young, beautiful, well dressed, and energetic.

Café Chiquito

Nicolás Bravo No. 3
228-812-1122

Regional Latino music on weekend nights; young to middle-aged crowd. Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Café Lindo

Primo Verdad No. 21
228-841-9166

In an old building with warm ambiance; hosts live music and occasionally dance performances; young to middle-aged crowd. Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Chiriño Santo

Aldama No. 75
228-817-3288

A new spot, with Chilean owners, that’s dark and subdued, with good coffee and alcoholic drinks, antojitos, and music that changes nightly.

La Corte de los Milagros

(a.k.a. El Bembe)
Calzada del Tajar No. 3
228-812-1433 or 228-853-5329

Popular as a great place to listen (and dance) to Cuban music; the house band, Son Residentes, is world class and known all over the Caribbean Basin. There is a branch of the grilled meat chain Asadero Cien in the front if you’re hungry (see Restaurants above).

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MARKETS

markets

There are three major markets in Xalapa, and Mercado Rotondo is the best. Compact but surrounded by the city’s best fish markets, bakeries, and butcher shops, it’s filled with comida corrida lunch counters for a delicious bite. Mercado Jáureguí is older and more labyrinthine—a place to look, wander, and nibble for hours. The Sundays-only Mercado Ocelote is one of only 12 organic markets in all of Mexico. Besides produce, you can find cheeses, cured sausages, baked goods, mezcal and other liquors, olive oil, honey, soaps, and handwoven clothes colored with organic dyes. Your hotel desk or cabbie should be able to help you find these markets.

Other Attractions

La Fama Vinos y Licores

Alfaro No. 153
228-817-9005

Since 1925, these folks have been making all kinds of artisanal liqueurs and cream liqueurs, as well as aged rums and unaged cane liquors. The selection is amazing, and the staff is very friendly. If you’re nice, they will probably give you a quick tour and tastes. The owner’s wife also does incredible embroidered copies of Frida Kahlo paintings. Unfortunately they are not for sale.

Museo de Antropología de Xalapa

(The Xalapa Museum of Anthropology)
Corner of Av. Xalapa and Acueducto
228-815-0920

website
At the second-best museum in Mexico (after the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City), you’ll find artifacts representing the three primary civilizations of the region: Olmec, Totonac, and Huastec. More than 3,000 items are displayed dramatically, including the famous colossal Olmec stone heads. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (strict!).

Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa

Teatro del Estado, corner of Av. Camacho and Ignacio de Llave
228-817-3110

website
Known as one of the best symphony orchestras in Mexico. Forty-five percent of the musicians are non-Mexicans who come to play here simply because of the orchestra’s world-class reputation. It plays all musical genres (including avant-garde and modern), most Fridays. The programs change frequently, the admission charge is inexpensive (about $2 to $3 for the cheap seats), and the theater has outstanding acoustics. The program starts at 8 or 8:30 p.m., so you get out with plenty of time to grab a late bite or hit the bars for more music.

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LODGING

lodging

The most compelling digs in Xalapa are smaller, boutique-style inns called posadas—converted old colonial houses or a compound of old houses linked by a common courtyard. You can also find plenty of even cheaper places ($15 a night), offering clean basic accommodations with a shared bath. Your best bet is to stay in the central historical district, El Centro, for easy access to music, food, and entertainment. Check to see if the 17 percent bed tax is included in the advertised rate. (If it’s not, you’ll have to figure it in.)

In the hotels listed below, meals are generally not included with the price of the room unless otherwise noted. They all have phones, most have TVs with cable, some have Internet service, and a few have room service and pools, though it’s too cool to want to swim most of the time. Prices listed are the rate for a double.

Hotels

Hotel Xalapa Finca Real

Corner of Victoria and Bustamante
228-818-2222

website
Modern, with a marble entryway and good amenities (breakfast buffet, swimming pool, room service). The staff is friendly and helpful, and a fabulous restaurant, La Churrería de Recuerdos (see Restaurants, Miscellaneous, above), is across the street; 202 rooms; $100.

Mesón del Alférez

Corner of Zaragoza and Sebastián Camacho No. 2
228-818-6351

website
Rooms are bright and colorful in this low-slung, 200-year-old colonial mansion. There’s also a restaurant in-house; 21 rooms; $75.

Posada Coatepec

Corner of Hidalgo No. 9 and Aldama, Coatepec
228-816-0544

website
Located in the nearby town of Coatepec, this luxurious hotel is worth commuting for. It’s located in the original hacienda of the town’s founder, and has been lovingly restored. Amenities include a pool, room service, excellent food, and a bar; 24 suites; $125 and up.

Posada del Cafeto

Canovas No. 8 y 12
228-817-0023

website
Three stories surrounding a grassy lawn with little outdoor tables. Centrally located, cable TV, Internet, and an attached coffee shop with colorful wooden chairs and tables; 29 rooms; $47 to $56.

Posada la Mariquinta

Alfaro No. 12
228-818-1158

website
Situated around a tropical, lush garden, with secure, comfortable, private rooms. WiFi, cable TV, coffee, and a friendly staff that speaks English and French; 12 rooms; $35–$50.

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Photograph of Xalapa skyline by Richard Collins