Though it's Mexico's fourth-largest city, Puebla doesn't feel like a metropolis. The Moorish/Spanish flair of its colonial architecture has remained wonderfully intact, and the local lifestyle is gracious, relaxed, and welcoming to visitors. But Puebla's real ace in the hole -- the thing you've probably come for -- is the food: Among Mexicans, it's revered as the cradle of Mexican cuisine, the original source of such iconic spicy dishes as mole poblano sauce (a complex mix of ingredients including cinnamon and chocolate), pipián (a similar sauce based on ground toasted squash seeds), mixiotes (beef, pork, or lamb baked in red sauce), and chiles en nogada (sweet meat-stuffed poblano chilies in walnut cream sauce, a summer-only treat).
Culinary skills seem genetically imprinted here; as Anthony Bourdain revealed in Kitchen Confidential, thousands of Pueblans have moved north of the border (often undocumented) to cook at fine-dining restaurants all over the United States. Despite that exodus, however, the city's pool of skilled cooks shows no signs of depletion. One of the classic places to sample Pueblan regional cuisine is at Fonda de Santa Clara (Calle 3 Poniente 307; tel. 52/222/242-2659; www.fondadesantaclara.com), just 1½ blocks west of the zócalo, or central square. With its fiesta-like red-and-blue furnishings and fluttering ceiling flags, it's a bit touristy, but there's no arguing with the excellence of its robust mole dishes and chiles en nogada. Priding themselves on preserving the old ways, they also offer a number of intriguing seasonal specialties -- where else in the world can you try ant eggs or maguey fried worms?
A somewhat more refined place is the restaurant at Mesónes Sacristía de la Compañía (6 Sur 304, Callejón de los Sapos; tel. 52/222/232-4513; www.mesones-sacristia.com), a converted 18th-century mansion that's also a hotel and antiques shop (and part-time cooking school). The flagstone patio here is an especially inviting place to dine on mole dishes or the excellent chalupas, deep-fried tostadas topped with shredded chicken, meat, peppers, and salsa. Travel out to the nightlife strip along Avenida Juárez to find Mi Ciudad (Av. Juárez 2507; tel. 52/222/231-5326), a vibrant big dining room with lively wall murals, featuring excellent mole and pipián sauces (in either green or red varieties), as well as deeply soothing cream soups like chile atole and sopa poblana.
In the hip Hotel Purificadora, a snazzy conversion of an old ice warehouse, the Purificadora Restaurant (Callejón de la 10 Norte 802; tel. 52/222/309-1920; www.lapurificadora.com) showcases a nuevo-Mexicano twist, courtesy of Mexico City star chef Enrique Olvera. His recipes break the box, creatively mingling European techniques with Mexican flavors in dishes like slow-braised chicken with green pipián, or jumbo shrimp with chipotle hollandaise. Similar creative fusion goes on at intimate, low-ceilinged La Conjura (Calle 9 Oriente 201; tel. 52/222/232-9693), where the tapas and entrees throw local Mexican ingredients into what is essentially Spanish cooking -- things like arroz negro con calamares (rice with squid cooked in squid ink) or huachinango en alberino (snapper in wine sauce topped with mussels, clams, and shrimp).
Pueblan cuisine is very much based on fresh-from-the-farm ingredients; to understand that connection, stroll through the Mercado el Carmen food market (21 Oriente between Dos Sur and Cuatro Sur). While you're here, stop by the Cemitas Poblanos stand to pick up a tortalike cemita sandwich, pillowy rolls traditionally stuffed with meat, poblano peppers, white cheese, lush avocado slices, and a kick of chipotles. There's an even livelier market in the small neighboring town of Cholula (site of an immense pre-Columbian ruin, the Great Pyramid), a 10-minute drive out of Puebla. The Mercado de Cholula (Camino Real a Cholula and Calle 20 Norte) has not only loads of butchers, fishmongers, vegetable farmers, and spice sellers, it also has a few fabulous quesadilla counters toward the back, where the corn tortillas come packed with fresh cheese, earthy mushrooms, zucchini blossoms, and nuggets of fried pork skin.
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