Published on September 6th, 2016 | by Mark Chesnut
“My Mexico City” — Jim Johnston’s Book Shares Great Travel Tips
Jim Johnston is a New York City transplant to Mexico City. He loves Mexico’s capital so much he wrote a book, Mexico City: an Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler (3rd edition, 2015), which is avaialble on Amazon, and also posts events, news and gossip about Mexico City on Facebook. In this exclusive interview with LatinFlyer.com, he shares some of his favorite Mexico City travel tips — and offers some tasty food recommendations.
What made you decide to move to Mexico?
When I met my partner Nick in 1990, he had just bought a house (more like a ruin) in San Miguel de Allende, a charming colonial town four hours north of Mexico City that attracts many foreigners. Gradually the house became habitable, and in 1994 we started spending time there, each visit getting a bit longer. In 1997, we left New York City and moved to Mexico full time. Both of us had portable careers as visual artists and we’d made many friends in Mexico by then, so it was sort of like falling off a log — an easy move.
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But you ended up in Mexico City. What attracted you there?
I have always felt welcome and comfortable in Mexico City, both as an American and as a gay man. While I know many foreigners here, I don’t consider myself part of an ex-pat community. Foreigners seem more integrated here than they did in San Miguel — a definite attraction. Having lived all of my adult life previously in New York City, I was well prepared for life in Mexico City. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” turns out to be true. Although Mexico City has more than twice the population of New York, the speed of daily life is half as fast. I just had to learn to slow down and enjoy life more.
What are the most common misconceptions people have about Mexico City?
There are so many, it’s hard to know where to begin! But I guess dirty, dangerous and impossibly overcrowded would top the list. All I can say is that these ideas are most common among people who have never been here. Once you get the hang of it, Mexico City is surprisingly user friendly.
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Your book has great insider’s tips on what to do in Mexico City. What are the first things you show people who visit, if they’ve never visited before?
I usually begin with a walk around our neighborhood, Colonia Condesa. It’s a “soft landing” for most visitors, who are always impressed with this charming, peaceful neighborhood with its Bohemian atmosphere, and trees everywhere. The Centro Histórico comes next (I like to arrive by Metro, a pleasant surprise, especially for New Yorkers used to their miserable subway system). The visible layers of Aztec and Spanish history, the amiable bustle, the great food and museums, always impress visitors in this oldest part of the city. I try to buy tickets for a concert at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, one of the world’s great theaters, and the architectural highlight of the Centro Histórico. The Anthropology Museum is also on my must see list for any visitor — the collection of pre-Hispanic art is world class, and the museum itself is a work of art. Most people want to see Frida Kahlo’s house, but I send them on their own in an Uber. Many of us who live here have overdosed on Fridamania.
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What’s your favorite foods in Mexico City? What are two or three of your favorite restaurants, and why?
My partner Nick Gilman is a well-known food writer here (www.goodfoodmexicocity.com) so I’m always hearing about the newest, hippest, most fabulous food in the city — it’s endless! The gastronomic scene here is highly energized, with new places opening daily, and with Mexican chefs winning international prizes for their creative spin on traditional cuisine.
But I find that what makes me happiest is usually found on the street in simple stalls, or in local market fondas.(I offer several tips in my book for those who might fear eating street food — much of it is perfectly healthy and safe.)
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Fresh fruit and juice stands are found all over the city. A huge coctel de frutas at my local stand, full of freshly cut papaya, melon, strawberries, guava (you pick your favorites) costs about $2. Fresh squeezed orange or tangerine juice is always there when you need it, and a hearty vampiro (beet, carrot, celery and orange mixed in a blender) can qualify as a light lunch.
Right next to the juice guy is my tamal vendor (mornings only — he usually sells out by 11am). Fresh hot tamales, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, are a common breakfast food all over the country — true Mexican comfort food! I have never eaten a tamal in a restaurant that compares to those sold on the street. (Tip: tamal is singular — the anglicized word ‘tamalEE’ does not exist in Spanish. It’s un tamal, dos tamales.)
Mole is that spicy sauce that sometimes contains chocolate. There’s a phrase “Más Mexicano que mole,” which is like saying “as American as Apple Pie.” It’s an iconic dish, with roots in Aztec cuisine, and I love it. When I’ve been travelling outside Mexico it’s the first thing I eat when I return home. There are endless variations of this complex sauce, but my favorite is made at a hole-in-the-wall in the centro. (Fonda Mi Lupita, Buentono 22, near Salto de Agua metro stop, lunch only)
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Another classic comfort food here is pozole, a hearty soup/stew made with hominy. It also has Aztec roots — one missionary reports seeing Montezuma eating a version made with human flesh. The most common type in the city is red, but the green version (made with pumpkin seeds) that is served at Pozoleria Tizka (Zacatecas 59 in Colonia Roma,) has been on my Top Ten list since I first ate it 15 years ago.
For something a little swankier, I find the food at Maximo Bistrot Local (Tonalá 133 in Colonia Roma) always satisfying and surprising. I’ve been disappointed at some of the other high-end, trendy restaurants in town, but not this one.
What’s your idea of a perfect day in Mexico City?
Riding a bike along car-free Paseo de la Reforma on a Sunday afternoon gives me the feeling that I own the city. A stroll through Parque Mexico in Condesa or a visit to the Mercado Jamaica to buy flowers always makes me happy. Exploring the crowded streets behind the cathedral in the Centro Històrico never fails to energize me — one always sees some surprising examples of human ingenuity to lift the spirits. But more than any touristic site, it’s the vibrant street life and the notably friendly demeanor of most people that made me fall in love with Mexico City. I still feel that infatuation.