Vibrant and strong, unique and growing, the Jewish community in Mexico is truly a window into Judaism’s complex history and its future. And the window into understanding this community is on its plates, especially in the booming dining scene of Mexico City.
Numbering about 50,000, the Mexican Jewish community resides mostly in Mexico City, with a few smaller populations in Guadalajara and other locales. Mexico welcomed Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe during the major waves of immigration of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Plus, the country also welcomed Sephardic populations in higher relative numbers than in the US, given cultural similarities. And this gives the community significant flavor.
While here in the States, “Jewish food” overwhelmingly connotes hearty Ashkenazi staples, there’s no such conception in Mexico. Jewish food is what grandma made, whether borscht and kugel or stuffed grape leaves and lentils. But just as Jewish food the world over also means influence of adopted homelands, chicken soup with chili would never be out of the ordinary in Mexican bowls. Just don’t put sour cream on that brisket taco.
A small community, the Jews of Mexico City are tightknit and somewhat less assimilated than American Jews. And food is as tightly wrapped into their history and culture in Mexico as husks are around tamales.
As important as food is inside the home, there are a few select spots around this city of 25 million that do cater to the culinary tastes. These restaurants are, naturally, clustered in neighborhoods where the Jewish population resides. One of these area is Polanco, a tree-lined district of streets named for famous thinkers and academics, and with a main boulevard dotted with designer shops and a dazzling array of dining options.
I was able to take a walking tour of four of the most significant restaurants for Mexico City Jews thanks to Jaime Edid, a community member and a culinary student at Le Cordon Bleu.
“As a cook,” he told me, still in his uniform as we strolled the crowded sidewalks,” I know from experience that adapting ‘typical’ dishes to the palate of a certain culture is always the hardest part, but if you hit it off right, people from every religious and cultural background will flood your restaurant.”
Our first visit is to Klein’s, perhaps because it was what would hit most closely to home for me. It is Jewish deli-style food imagined, but in the heart of Mexico City. Kibitzing couples sit at Formica tables seemingly sourced directly from the Upper West Side, vinyl-upholstered banquettes line the walls under mirrors that brighten the space. Under fluorescent lights, diners nosh on a huge, diner-style menu of options. Sandwiches (corned beef, pastrami, turkey) can come on white bread or bagels, and are served with potato salad. The sandwich meats can actually be served kosher style, or decidedly not. Tacos, tortas and enchiladas cozily share space next to spreads of lox. The restaurant is what happens when Seinfeld goes south. While it isn’t kosher, its ability to incorporate deli-style options into Mexican fare is a key to the Jewish Mexico City experience.
Next up is Gaucho Grill. One of the first kosher restaurants to land in Polanco, it’s been a favorite since its founding. Its handsome, bistro-style atmosphere would be right at home in Brooklyn (exposed-brick walls, loft-like ceiling, iron beams), but the menu is decidedly farther south. It’s an Argentine grill and, according to the owner, “brings the Argentine pampa to the city, putting together plates with Mediterranean, Jewish and Mexico origin to create a unique mixture.” The menu is very meat-heavy, with huge cuts of steak (rib eye, filet minion) and grilled seafood. But to start, there’s also kibbeh, hummus, a series of empanadas and, yes, even matzah ball soup. Upstairs, there’s a sushi bar and downstairs, a cellar with the finest selection of kosher wines. It’s most certainly a fine-dining establishment, catering to the kosher population looking for a nice night out.
Around the corner is Sammy’s Grill, the other kosher restaurant on our jaunt. Also very meat-centric, it’s a bit more relaxed and dressed-down than Gaucho. The manager greeted us warmly, proudly stating that his restaurant was one of the most popular kosher establishments, welcoming guests the world over who come to Mexico City. To his credit, in fact, the menu was much broader, encompassing not only ribs and steak, but a distinctly Sephardic influence as well. Meals could start with tabbouleh salad, for example, have hummus on the side, feature shawarma tacos and end with Turkish coffee. But, yes, they serve matzah ball soup, too—can’t seem to get away from that one. Sammy’s is cozy, with lots of shady outdoor seating and just the right blending of the breadth of Jewish culture with Mexican mainstays.
The last stop took us to Adonis. Why Adonis, I wondered. Not a kosher restaurant, and certainly not a deli, Adonis whisks diners directly to the Levant. Gorgeously adorned with brilliant colors to accent whitewashed walls, arches curve along the walls and a stuffed jaguar (presumably fake) screams out of the ceiling. It’s a vibrant call to Middle Eastern culture, and where my tour guide loves to spend many a late evening with friends and family. “It reminds me of my grandma’s cooking like no other place in the city,” he says with a nostalgic smile. It’s nominally Lebanese, where many Mexican Jews can draw their roots from, including Edid. Instead of tortillas, pitas are served with meals here, alongside shawarma, “Arab tacos,” gyros and more. Dishes also come with salsas—including hummus, tabbouleh, guacamole and pico de gallo. Edid’s favorite dish, in fact, is simple and straightforward: kibbeh with guac. “It hits everything I want in a homey dish,” he says.
Intriguingly, Adonis also has a shop next door. Not only does it sell labneh and pita, but there’s also an in-house bakery: a kosher bakery. All of the honey-sweetened, homemade baked goods are certified kosher.
“There is always, for me at least, a sense of pride when you see your background represented in a country where you are a clear minority, so having these establishments in Mexico City is amazing,” concludes my guide, as we polish off some kosher baklava as the scent of grilled meats and fresh-pressed tortillas waft through the air. It’s an experience at once Jewish and Mexican, and decidedly perfect.
Top photo: A Shabbat dinner at the Edid family’s home features lots of Sephardic staples, along with Mexican garnishes, like salsa and guacamole. Photo by Jaime Edid.