Established in 1957, Nicos is one of the oldest restaurants in Mexico. It is an amazing restaurant nestled between the once working class neighborhoods of San Bernabe, Naval, San Alvaro and Cobre de Mexico. By Mexican standards it is an expensive place and the presentations are certainly of fine dining level but the atmosphere is cozy and very family-style, so none of the uptight pretentiousness that usually come with fine dining experiences.
It is also a family run operation: the mom (Maria Elena Lugo Zermeño) is still around chatting with patrons and greeting guests and the son (Gerardo Vazquez Lugo) is the Chef and took over for his dad, the founder and Chef who died a few years ago. The best time to eat there is lunch (in fact it closes at 7pm every day). According to Google Maps it opens at 1.30 but at 1pm 2-3 tables were already taken and by 2pm it was completely full. So get there early or reserve ahead of time.
Among other distinguishing factors, the Nicos’ family pride themselves on employing and supporting local farmers and families. For example, their Mole is specifically made for them by a family who does just that and when the Chef says that something is “from” a certain region he actually means that he gets that ingredient from that particular region and not that it is originally from there but then produced somewhere else.
I don’t know if anyone who goes there gets the whole “spiel” and gets the attention we received from the Chef. I was in very good company on this day as we went there with the founder of “Gastromotiva” David Hertz and his Mexico City team. If you don’t know Gastromotiva you should check them out online at gastromotiva.org: they are a great non-profit based in Brazil and Mexico who give scholarships to kids from poor families and teaches them to cook and then assists them with job placements in the best restaurants of these cities. …Changing the lives of people through food… We were also joined by David’s friend and professional food journalist Gabriela Renteria (who writes about food for “National Geographic”, “Food and Wine” and other publications) who is incredibly passionate about food in a way that is inspiring to me and who’s been writing about food in a professional way for 20 years, way before food blogs and “schmucks” like me did so 😉 Gabriela was a friend of the Chef and knows all the best restaurants and is very involved in sustainability projects so we definitely got special attention and treatment I must admit.
The first thing you are greeted with is the most amazing salsa making operation. Having guacamole made for you by the side of the table is no novelty, but having salsa made by hand for you is a new level of customization and experience. Our waiter explained all the ingredients and asked us whether we wanted certain ingredients (like onions) and how spicy we wanted it. We had two salsas made, a green and a red one.
Another one of the side dishes is the “Cecina” which looks like chicharron (roasted pig skin) but isn’t. It’s actually salted and air dried beef cut super thin, so it becomes crispy like a paper bag.
And of course there is guacamole also made by the side of the table with the freshest avocados.
To start the meal and cleanse the palate there is a jicama lollipop with spices (jicama is a starchy Mexican root vegetable). It’s like eating a type of radish and it’s refreshing and crunchy.
The first appetizer consisted of these huge blue corn husks that were covered by a fungus that only grows during the rainy season. These husks are grilled and cooked over fire and then cut into small pieces and served with blue corn tortillas so you can make your own little tacos with the ingredients you like.
We proceeded to receive a white fish roll (dorado I believe). The presentation is like a Japanese maki roll but instead of rice there were slices of avocado.
The next dish consisted in a tortilla and a ball of paste made of mole and other ingredients. It is slightly spicy and has the consistency of peanut butter or squashed chestnut pâté. You spread it on your tortilla with the butter knife and eat it with those molasses-like drops you see on the side.
The next dish consisted in an off the menu item that the Chef tested on us. It was sustainably caught shrimp that was specifically trapped with the old school fishing cages, rather than by scraping the bottom of the ocean. It was grilled and served with a green vegetable leaf and a slice of a radish-type vegetable. It was good but nothing to write home about. What’s nice is that the head of the shrimp was also cooked to crispy perfection and served on the side with some habanero mayonese, which means that no part of the shrimp is discarded, something I appreciated very much.
The next course consisted of a sunny side egg served on top of a bed of vegetables and mole.
Since we had asked for a tasting of moles, the next dish consisted of the green mole made out of pumpkin seeds and served with an avocado slice, several other nuts and some greens. It was nice and delicate but not the best mole I’ve ever had.
When we got to the chocolate mole things got elevated! This is the experience I had been waiting for. I’m no mole expert but I would say that along with the one from Casa Merlos this is one of the best I’ve had. It was served with a ring of onion, some queso fresco and some greens. Very good!
At this point we were all very very full and asked for mercy… so we didn’t even look at the dessert menu (something I now regret 😉
The Chef however brought out some palate sweetening treats under a glass bell: one kind that was like a coconut meringue and the other that was like a soft jelly of the same kind that is sold on the street by many ladies.
Being Italian and being an Italian espresso lover, connoisseur and snob, it has been strangely very hard (in fact impossible) to get a good espresso in Mexico but I thought I’d give it a try here and hope for the best. I could tell you it was the best I had in Mexico but it failed the test regardless. The texture was more like Turkish coffee (very grainy) and somewhat bitter in spite of the splash of milk.
I should mention that we’ve been eating for over 3 hours and this whole time the mezcal had been coming and flowing at the table in same or larger quantities than the water. I don’t drink but people seem to really appreciate the quality of the mezcal and allegedly this restaurant is known for their excellent selection of Mezcal.
After lunch the waiter brought out some hot tea with lime and added a splash of rum. He explained that this is called “teporocho” (also the word used to describe a drunk) and that in the old days people would order tea for 8 pesos and ask for a splash of this alcohol for an extra 2 pesos and that this is where the name comes from.
Pictured is the Chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo himself standing to the right of the food journalist Gabriela Renteria.
This was definitely a remarkable meal, and one that lasted 4 hours!!! It’s no wonder the Chef is a keen supporter of the Slow Food movement. So keep that in mind if you plan to visit 🙂
One thing I should mention is that when you walk out of the restaurant, to the right, across the street is the food store “La Nicolasa” which is owned and operated by the restaurant and offers some of the foods and ingredients used to make the dishes for sale. Think of it as a fair trade store with locally sourced ingredients.
On a side note, the fanciest part of the whole restaurant are the bathrooms and this slightly S/M leather and fur chair suspended by chains guarding their entrance corridor seemed so out of context. Not that it matters, we all found it amusing 😉
Check out and book at nicosmexico.mx