Guadalajara is giving Mexico City a run for its money in the food department. With a buzzing restaurant scene that ranges from modern and minimal to hearty Mexican comfort food, I’m set for a few days of exploring the culinary world of Mexico’s second-largest city. First up, one of Guadalajara’s oldest bars and a not-so-pretty but delicious sandwich.
Visiting the La Fuente Cantina bar in the heart of Guadalajara is like passing through a curtain and stepping back in time. It used to be a bar for gentlemen only and still carries that feeling. The air is thick and hot, the light is dim and there’s a faint smell of cigars mixed with stale beer. Three men hunched over the dark wood bar, sipping on cervezas, lift a brow when people come in, but not much more. I can’t think of a better place to crack open a cold Mexican beer and begin a Mexican eating adventure. And I’m ready to start with a Guadalajara favourite, the torta ahogada. It’s a typical post-party, hangover food, but I’m diving into it midday.
A picture of a torta ahogada does not do it justice. If I were to say it’s a chewy baguette crammed full of meat and cheese, topped with slivered onions, sitting in a bowl poured over with a rich tomato sauce, your first thought might be about how you would actually eat it. Well, you grab the biggest pile of napkins you can find, roll up your sleeves and pick up the dripping sandwich with your hands. Messy, soupy, too big to fit your mouth … it’s the kind of meal that can easily end up being a disaster for your clothing, but it’s also proof that not all incredible food is pretty. A few bites in, I wash it down with a cold beer, leaving a sticky handprint on my bottle.
I definitely need to walk that off, so a visit to the San Juan de Dios Market is up next. It’s not just a market for cheap finds (leather goods, baskets, crafts and the like), the entire upper level is dedicated to food. Taco stands galore, products stalls, rows and rows of cured meats. If I wasn’t still full from my torta ahogada and hadn’t already had my taco fix with two soft-shell crab tacos at my hotel, there would be a taco in my hand. Instead I opt for a sweet and tart papaya-lemon juice to tide me over for a few more hours of exploring before the next meal.
That next meal would be dinner. The dinner scene in Guadalajara is surprisingly modern. Case in point: Hueso restaurant. The establishment, whose name translates to “bone,” could easily be in the East Village of New York or London’s Shoreditch. Tucked into an old mansion just off bustling Chapultepec Avenue, it’s easy to see why this is one of the hippest places in the area. The walls are stark white and lined with animal bones, skulls and horns. The menu of locally sourced dishes changes daily and comes out family-style. Plates of thick-sliced beef and grilled chicken, a mountain of salad greens and a platter of grilled local vegetables will easily feed five or six people. Fancy cocktails are whipped up in the semi-outdoor bar that looks to be in the old guest house.
Not far from Hueso is I Latina, considered one of Guadalajara’s best since it opened in 1999. Offering a modern mix of seafood, vegetarian and meat dishes with an Asian spin, I Latina focuses on local ingredients and is a stark contrast to Hueso in terms of interior design (bright curtains, bold aquamarine, violet and funky prints on the walls). The food is on the lighter side: Think fresh shrimp tacos topped with pineapple salsa, green curries, vegetarian wontons, barbecued baby back ribs and Thai ox with peanut sauce. It’s a satisfying, belly-rubbing kind of place to end your night.
After a day of eating and exploring the downtown core of Guadalajara, it’s time to get on board the Tequila Express … literally and figuratively. Much like champagne, tequila comes from a town by the same name, in the Jalisco region of Mexico. To get there I take a two-hour, booze-filled train ride from Guadalajara to Tequila, supplied with an excess of mixed tequila drinks plus a lesson on tequila tasting that teaches me how to tell the difference between a silver, a reposado and an anejo tequila. (I was grateful I had eaten more than one should eat at breakfast.) In the town of Tequila I woozily wander – with a frosty margarita in hand, of course – to the Jose Cuervo distillery to see how tequila goes from agave plant to popular libation. By this point I’m tequila-ed up enough to start singing Mexican mariachi tunes that I don’t really know and share cheers with locals while drinking a golden anejo.
Back in Guadalajara I bypass the tequila cocktail at dinner, ready to fill my stomach with hearty dishes at Magno Brasserie. Meat is the name of the game for Aussie chef Paul Bentley, who now calls Guadalajara home, but his veggies and pasta are also tops. His dishes’ rustic French flair and depth of flavour put him on the cuisine map in the city. Dig into pork and veal pâté, grilled octopus, poached eggs with asparagus and truffle polenta, corn agnolotti and a whole roasted fish in a mushroom stew. After a long day of train rides, tours and booze, I’d say it’s worth it.
A foodie trip, like any meal, is not complete without something sweet. It’s the land of dulce de leche and sugar-coated deep-fried goodies, but I’m ready to go beyond the typical churro in Guadalajara. I sign up for a pastry lesson with Fernanda Covarrubias at La Postreria. She’s famous in the city for her delectable treats, and learning to make homemade ice cream with her is fun (and tasty). Stopping at La Postreria is a must to indulge in her creations (some whimsical, some traditional, some simple) and a strong Mexican coffee.
Covarrubias happens to be married to one of the city’s top chefs, Darren Walsh, who’s an Irish transplant, a former chef for celebrities, and the owner of Lula Bistro. Walsh recently signed up with the boutique Love It Hotel as its executive chef. Enjoying at least breakfast here won’t be hard on taste buds or Instagram account. You might not expect to find your eggs and refried beans topped with the tiniest flowers and micro greens, but Walsh likes to up the modern factor on every dish he makes. It’s the best way I can think to wrap up a few days in the city before jumping onto a plane back home.
Where to stay: Love It Hotel offers a boutique hotel experience with 43 rooms in the trendy Americana neighbourhood and not far from Chapultepec Avenue. Stylishly decorated rooms start at approximately $100.
For something more contemporary, the Hyatt Regency Andares in the shopping and entertainment district of Zapopan is all kinds of luxe. Rooms start at approximately $280.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Guadalajara tourism board. It did not review or approve this article.