Opening a restaurant in July 2020 – in the midst of a pandemic – requires common sense, confidence and determination. In just two years, Zacatlán chef-owner Eduardo Rodriguez has garnered national attention with recognition from USA Today’s Readers Choice Awards in 2020 as “Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the Country” and, in 2021, Cónde Nast named Zacatlán “one of the hottest tickets in town.
Earlier this year, he received a prestigious honor that most chefs only dream of: a nomination for the James Beard Award. Based on these accolades, combined with the fact that Rodriguez worked for the inimitable Chef Eric DiStefano, of Geronimo and Coyote Café fame, for 20 years, I expected a sensational dining experience and was thrilled to finally visit this casita on Aztec Street.
A quaint space, you enter the house and the hostess greets you on the left while the bar is straight ahead, reminding you that beer and wine are compadres (friends) with Mexican food. An indoor dining room is to the left and a narrow patio to the right. Bright yellow walls bring sunshine into the enclosed outdoor space, and you can hear birds chirping as Spanish music beats melodically in the background. Greenery and flowers make the space cozy, while the eight tables are cozy like a bug in a rug.
Brunch is served from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and they reopen for dinner from 5 p.m. which is significantly cheaper.
Late one morning my table mate and I each ordered a bright red glass of Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus water) to quench our thirst. A lightly sweetened tea, be sure to squeeze the lime over the rim into the drink for a sour punch. We split a Caesar salad ($12) and ordered chilaquiles with Molé Negro ($12.50) and fish tacos ($20) and churros ($8) for a classic Mexican dessert. Although we enjoyed the ambience, the food left me and my partner a bit disappointed.
So I came back for dinner a few weeks later with another dining companion, and it was the exceptional dining experience I had originally hoped for. Even though we didn’t have a reservation, we were taken to a table in the main dining room. It was a Monday night and although they didn’t know we were honoring a significant occasion, the half glass of Prosecco they brought made the gathering even more special.
To set the tone for our dinner, my friend ordered a glass of Spanish Castillo de Monseran Garnachas ($13) to go with her very first (and not last) authentic Mexican meal. Not having lived in Mexico like me, she was unprepared but enthusiastic for the explosion of flavors, textures, temperatures and colors, and I was impressed by the chef’s significant success with the menu of the having dinner.
Wanting to sample surf and turf finger foods, we started with Pork Belly Carnitas ($22) and Yellowtail Ceviche ($22). The chef and a waiter delivered our two entrees to the table and the plates were so sophisticated and beautiful that we took a few seconds to take it all in before taking our first bites.
Pork Belly Carnitas is an amazing dish that’s big enough to share and so rich it should be shared. Two strips of seared pork belly are placed on a delicate strawberry and rhubarb tamale that rests on a circle of deep, dark and delicious molé. To offset the fatty pork, a vinegary mound of fennel and apple salad with pickled red onions works wonders to add a layer of acidity and crunch to this scrumptious dish.
Once we devoured the pork belly, we moved on to the cold ceviche. Served in a beautiful molcajete, fresh yellowtail snapper is cut into bite-size pieces and barely “cooked” with lime juice. A variety of diced peppers, chopped avocado, jalapeno and cilantro are added, along with some capers for a salty kick. What surprised me was the inclusion of a few neatly placed fresh orange segments. It gives ceviche a sweet dimension – and I plan to steal that idea the next time I make ceviche. Homemade blue corn tortillas are fried and seasoned with a dusting of red spices. The combination of crispy fries and tender, succulent marinated fish made me feel like I was back in Zihuatanejo for a few minutes.
Although there were eight amazing entrees to choose from, we both wanted the Whole Fried Red Snapper ($46) and our server assured us we could split the single entree since we had ordered two entrees. Once again, when the plate was laid out in front of us, the presentation blew us away.
The chef had lovingly filleted and sautéed the fish, and cleverly used the red snapper carcass he had fried for the dressing. The fish bite features a thin slice of lime, while a helping of crab and saffron risotto adds richness to the dish and elevates it to serious comfort food status. The Veracruzana salsa, made with tomatoes, onions and green olives, brings all the flavors together and half a toasted lemon allows diners to add another layer of acidity. We ate until the last bite.
We were extremely pleased with our meal and felt rejuvenated by the food as we walked to the car. And we deeply appreciated being able to linger between courses and not rush into this meal that activated all of our senses.
This exceptional dining experience is proof that Rodriguez has diligently weaved his reverence for Mexico with the culinary lessons he learned working with one of New Mexico’s most acclaimed chefs and has now added his own signature with each dish.
In a city where red and green chili compete for attention, it’s nice to be able to immerse yourself in a meal you’d have to travel to Mexico City’s La Condesa or Polanco neighborhoods to enjoy. Rather than fighting traffic and pollution in CDMX, we’re grateful that Zacatlán is here in The City Different.