When you first enter the San Angél Inn, modern Mexico City falls away and the comfort, style and grace of an old-time Spanish colonial hacienda enfold you. The more often you visit--as you become a regular over the years--the sensation only increases. The gracious courtyard, with its soothing fountains and flowers, becomes a favored place to meet friends over its distinctive Margaritas, each presented in a small silver carafe nearly submerged in a small silver bucket filled with ice.
The handmade, oversized leather chairs at the patio tables are a perfect symbol of one of Mexico's finest restaurants: solid, comfortable and beautifully aged. The restaurant is housed in an old Carmelite monastery built in 1692--when San Angél was a cobblestoned outpost surrounded by fields--and it played a role in the 1910 Mexican Revolution when rebel leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata met here to sign a unity pact, watering their horses at the central fountain. The city grew up around the inn (world-renowned painter Diego Rivera built his studio just across the street), but the inn has retained its pleasing country proportions and tranquillity.
This is the perfect place to bury mistaken perceptions about Mexican cuisine fostered by the "Tex-Mex" boom in the United States The Mexican food here is subtle and beautifully prepared--without a tortilla chip in sight. A meal here is meant to proceed slowly and with passion. The elegant Margaritas, kept just above freezing, are a fine start. Another favorite is "Tequila and sangrita": Tequila served neat in a shot glass and accompanied by a glass of sangrita (a mix of tomato, lime and orange juices seasoned with finely chopped fresh chiles and onions).
Eventually it's time to leave the courtyard for the dining room. Menus come in Spanish or English and feature a wide variety of Mexican gourmet dishes and traditional continental favorites. A nice way to mix the two is to start with a Mexican appetizer--perhaps the huitlacoche crepes ($5.50), crepes with an unusual and delicious filling made from the mushrooms found on corn plants, or the avocado-and-shrimp cocktail ($7.50)--and finish with a European entrée. Try the tasty New Zealand lamb in mint sauce ($13.50). A garlicky brochette of quail ($12) is excellent.
For a real introduction to authentic--and not spicy--Mexican cuisine, try the chicken mole ($9.75), a dish perfected in the nearby city of Puebla. The chicken is served in a beautiful, smooth sauce of onion, garlic, chile peppers and a small amount of chocolate sprinkled with sesame seeds. The taste is unique--not sweet, not spicy--but delicious. If you're lucky enough to visit when pomegranates are in season, do not fail to order the chiles in nogada ($10) as either an appetizer or an entrée. This colorful dish, served only in Mexico, consists of roasted chiles with a filling of minced meat, raisins and peaches covered with a walnut cream sauce and garnished with festive green cilantro and red pomegranate seeds; it's meant to recreate the colors of the Mexican national flag.
The wine list, although limited by the relatively high cost of importing French wine into Mexico, has several good choices, including a Pouilly Fuissé Calvet 1990 ($80), and a Château Palmer 1986 ($265). The Burgundy selection is weak. There are, however, some fine red wines from Chile and Argentina, including a Chilean favorite, Underraga Pinot Noir 1989 ($27).
It would be a mistake to hurry. Take time to enjoy the trio of Mexican guitarists softly singing revolutionary ballads. Test a Port or Cognac or try a snifter of Gran Duque d'Alba, the slightly sweet Spanish brandy Mexicans prefer.
Now comes an important choice: Should the after-dinner cigar be enjoyed tableside or in the court yard under the stars? Ask the waiter to bring a sample of Cuban cigars from the humidor--a Romeo y Julieta Churchill is a favorite here--and then decide. Rest assured that Mexicans regard the lighting of a fine cigar as an indication of taste and style. The glances coming your way will be envious, not angry.
-- Gregory Katz is the Mexico City bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.