I’m getting better at it, but dining alone still freaks me out. The uncertainty, the pitying comments, the pressure to feel comfortable in your own skin. I want to be good at it, on principle, but it takes some getting used to. When dining out solo, my meals tend to be rushed, even though I try to slow them down. I force myself to be comfortable with having myself for company, but I’m never truly at ease. I’m always fidgeting, anxious that I’m actually an imposter pretending to be independent and self-sufficient, and it’s just a matter of time before someone catches me.
My three-hour lunch at Pujol changed the narrative of solo dining for me. Although I felt awkward at first, standing in line with couples and groups all dressed up for the occasion, I relaxed soon after I was seated. My table sat directly beneath a glass ceiling, sunlight streaming in, imbuing the whole experience with optimism. Service was friendly and welcoming, and I felt comfortable chatting in both Spanish and English with the waiter. I relaxed. For the first time, I felt like I could do this on my own.
Pujol tasting menu
Eating through the tasting menu at Pujol was the best solo dining experience of my life, and easily one of the top 5 meals I’ve ever eaten.
The entrance to Pujol can be tricky to find. Located in a residential area in the upscale Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, Pujol is a bit hidden, but spotting the guard or a line of tourists starting to form might tip you off. To enter the restaurant, you first walk through a lush green courtyard with your dining companions before being ushered in to the restaurant. I did feel a little awkward checking in for my reservation for one, but it was only imagined judgment from the other diner in their jubilant groups.
The modern aesthetic at Pujol means clean angles everywhere you turn, and lots of large windows and open space that give it an indoor/outdoor feel. Some diners even get relocated to the patio to eat their dessert, which I think is a nice touch.
I started with a ginger margarita, which I highly recommend. Pujol has two tasting menus, maíz (corn) and mar (sea). Because this was my first time at Pujol, I chose the classic maíz.
1. Street snacks
The first course, street snacks, consisted of a small amuse bouche and the elote, one of chef Enrique Olvera’s famous dishes. The elote arrived in a round gourd. I took the lid off to reveal smoke wafting from the gently burning corn husks inside. Sitting on top of this bed, surrounded by smoke, was an ear of baby corn, coated in chile mayo and dusted in chicatana ants.
If you’ve seen Chef’s Table on Netflix, you’ll know that chicatana ants are one of the things Olvera is known for. In this form, ground up into little bits, they looked like black pepper. With no legs or antennae to get caught on my tongue, this is probably my preferred way to eat ants. I tasted the flavor, spicy and a little acidic from a squeeze of lime juice, but none of the awkward insect textures. Besides the famous mole, this was my favorite bite of the night.
2. Black bean tlayuda
I had been looking forward to eating tlayudas in Mexico, and not just because it’s a fun word to say. This tlayuda consisted of a black bean puree slathered on a crispy blue corn tortilla, with quelites (edible leaves) and delicate cheese shavings on top. Crunchy and deeply satisfying.
Though Pujol is a Michelin-star restaurant, this bite of a tlayuda felt just like it could have been plucked off any street in Mexico. It was refined, but not overly pretentious. It felt simply like a portrait of Mexico.
Corn smut! It’s not pretty, but it’s tasty. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn, and a delicacy in Mexico. With both corn fungus and black truffle, this dish was funky, to say the least. But it was a layered, complex funk, so that the flavor that started when I put the huitlacoche on my tongue was not the same as the flavor when I chewed and swallowed. I made myself slow down between bites, the flavor was so overpowering, but so well balanced that I kept returning for more.
I think it’s at this point that the warm blue corn tortillas started arriving in little cloth baskets that reminded me of upside-down beanies. With every course, a new basket of tortillas appeared, and they were constantly refilled. I underestimated how filling they would be, and loaded up bite after bite.
4. Papadzul with quail egg
The next course was an open papadzul, covered in wild herbs, with quail eggs and chiltomate (tomato and habanero salsa). This course was the least memorable for me. The tall stack of herbs and the runny quail eggs made it a bit cumbersome to eat.
5. Sweet potato, pine nut mole
No, this was not the mole. This was the mole that comes before the mole. The pre-mole mole. (How much mole is too much mole?)
At first look, it seemed—frankly—a bit anemic. White sauce in a white bowl. Pine nuts sound kind of boring. Sweet potato sounds a little too healthy. Overall, it looked a bit… beige.
The first bite changed my mind. The flavor was delicate, but satisfying in a way I didn’t expect from sweet potatoes or pine nuts. It was easy to polish off the entire bowl.
At this point, I had filled up on baskets of blue corn tortillas, and was starting to doubt how much mole my stomach could really hold. But I knew the best part was coming next.
6. Mole madre, mole nuevo
This is the mole. The mole that Pujol is famous for. Dark mole surrounding reddish mole, looking like a bull’s-eye.
The mole madre and mole nuevo are made from the same recipe. The mole nuevo is from a batch made that day, and it’s aged to create the mole madre. The only difference between the two is time, and that created so many drastic differences in flavor.
On the day I visited, the mole madre had been aged for 1856 days. Yep, that’s about 5 years.
I tried the mole nuevo first, then the mole madre, then both together, then started trying it with the tortillas. It’s incredible what time can do to the same ingredients. The mole nuevo had a brightness to it, which you might expect from the appearance. The mole madre was deeper, bolder in flavor, with ingredients that had matured over years. I could almost taste the earth itself in this mole of the same color.
If you think mole is overhyped, like I did, this meal will change your mind. I never knew mole could be so deeply satisfying and complex and a dish all by itself. I scooped each bite up with relish and didn’t stop until my plate was wiped clean.
7. Coffee tamal, ginger ice cream, honeycomb
Sadly, dessert was the weakest course for me. Coffee, ginger, and honeycomb are all flavors I love, but it seemed like there wasn’t enough sweetness to go around. Maybe I was too full to enjoy it properly at this point (I ate a lot of those tortillas), but I was left feeling a little underwhelmed at the close of the meal.
…Until I got the beautiful crispy churro that accompanied my bill. I had no room left, but I stuffed that churro into my mouth. I didn’t regret it.
The bill for one person came out to about $130 USD, which is unbelievably affordable for a meal of this caliber. Pujol is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you can actually have several times over in one lifetime, without breaking the bank.
Pujol tasting menu is a meal to remember
Dining at Pujol is one of those meals you remember for years to come. I want to go back and try the seafood version of the tasting menu, but I would happily eat the maíz version again any day.