It’s a Friday morning and Karmele, a bakery-café in Guadalajara’s Acros Vallarta neighborhood, looks like something out of Sydney or Venice Beach: Patrons sip flat whites on a sun-drenched terrace, while staff inside in black tees hand out granola cookies, chocolate-dipped palmiers, and loaves of crusty sourdough bread. The countertop is laden with a mix of Mexican and French pastries, conchas and croissants. One basket is piled high with crispy guava and chocolate-filled karmelitas, a riff on the French kouign amann—and the bakery’s best seller.
“I was recently in Bretagne [where kouign amann is from], so I experimented with the same buttery and caramel flavor,” says pastry chef and co-owner Miren Navarro, a native Tapatio (colloquial for someone from Guadalajara) who worked and studied in Mexico City, Paris, and San Sebastian before opening the bakery with her older sister Edurne in late 2018. “We wanted to have a place where our customers could enjoy a great piece of bread and a cup of specialty coffee. We also bake everything onsite every day. It was hard to find a place [in Guadalajara] with both options.”
Not that Guadalajara was a foodie wasteland—far from it. The capital city of Jalisco has a long history with tequila and exceptional local produce like cheese, corn, and avocados. It also has a deep-rooted street food culture, where vendors peddle torta ahogadas, crusty pork carnita sandwiches drowned in chile sauce, which are basically a national treasure. But you might not compare it to, say, destination-restaurant cities like Mexico City in the same breath—until recently.
In the past decade, there has been a wave of local chefs and entrepreneurs—many, like Navarro, who honed their craft abroad before coming home—taking advantage of affordable rent to open new spots in the city, giving it a more cosmopolitan feel. Navarro is one of numerous chefs firing up Guadalajara’s food scene with new-to-the-city culinary concepts.
“Guadalajara used to be conservative in terms of food offerings. There was nothing risky,” says Fernanda Covarrubias, a local pastry chef with an enviable CV: She worked under molecular gastronomy icons Ferrán Adriá in Spain and Heston Blumenthal in London before moving home to open La Postreria in 2013. Now a must-visit dessert restaurant in the Providencia neighborhood, La Postreria beckons with its macarons and delicate chocolate and strawberry tarts, perfected by Covarrubias and her business partner Jesús Escalera, aka Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef in 2018 (so named by the regional edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards). “I always wanted to open something here,” Covarrubias says. “After so many years not being home, I wanted to give back to my city.”
Chef Paco Ruano felt much the same way when he opened Alcalde, a traditional-yet-elevated Mexican restaurant that helped put Guadalajara on the fine-dining map. “Back then there were so few opportunities [to work in fine dining],” says Ruano, who opened Alcalde eight years ago after he moved home from Europe, because it “felt like the right thing to do.”
The investments of some of the city’s culinary kings and queens have certainly paid off. Guadalajara’s food scene has swiftly expanded with a spate of new openings, from all-day cafés to exciting new takes on local cuisine. Here are a few trends reshaping the city.
Brunch and coffee have been on the rise since the opening of palReal in 2013. Co-owned by local chef Fabian Delgado, this all-day restaurant, which roasts its own coffee, is one of the most-loved and visited spots in the city. Behind the long coffee bar, under dangling globe lights, baristas concoct cold brews, affogatos, and more. In the leafy courtyard, the restaurant serves spins on old favorites like eggs with tortillas, as well as a restaurant-riff on the street food torta ahogada.
In palReal’s wake have come a number of offerings, like Sinónimo and Caligari Cafe, which feel like they were also born out of the Australian-café movement. Visit one of the most popular spots, Zuno, set in the courtyard of a 1920s mansion, on a Sunday morning and expect a line out the door. Beyond homemade granola and avo toast on the menu, you’ll find contemporary versions of Mexican classics like chilaquiles. “It’s a place where classic recipes merge with signature dishes,” says owner Diego Villanueva Plasencia, who moved from Mexico City and opened Zuno in 2019. “The intention behind opening Zuno was to have a place where you could come for an hour or a four-hour visit.”
For a city known for its street food, high-end restaurants are few and far between. But there are a handful of upscale offerings for a fancy night out. One of the most respected is Alcalde, set in a glass box overlooking a tree-lined avenue in the Vallarta North neighborhood, where diners experience a 10-course tasting menu with dishes like a wagyu tamale with yellow mole devised by chef Paco Ruano. The restaurant received one of the Highest Climber Awards for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019, cementing Ruano as one of the most accomplished chefs in Guadalajara. With a number of accolades in his pocket, his plan is to now expand. “I want to explore other things and go back to the kitchen where I worked when I was very young,” he says. “[Maybe] have an open-fire cooking restaurant, as I’ve never had the pleasure of working with this kind of grill.” He has a few projects in the pipeline, which should be revealed soon.
Another chef responsible for stimulating the fine-dining scene is Alfonso Cadena, whose much loved restaurant Hueso has drawn people from all over the world—if not for the exceptional food, then for the bone-white interior, which has appeared on the pages of almost every decor magazine. In 2019, he opened Veneno, a restaurant made of earthen plaster. Cadena once again impressed with both a slick interior and a menu of detail-oriented, delicate dishes like tuna with ponzu, radish, serrano, and avocado sauce, as well as cocktails made from passion fruit and chocolate.
Traditional Mexican in contemporary settings
While the city is receiving a lot of global influence, there are also chefs opening spots that feel a little closer to home. At the entrance to Guadalajara’s Central Market, Fabian Delgado (from palReal) opened Yunaites, a laid-back breakfast joint that feels like an elevated take on a market stall, earlier this year. Behind a long cement counter, classic breakfasts like chilaquiles and gorditas are prepared, sweet coffee is brewed, and oranges are hand-pressed into juice. All the while, Nirvana Unplugged plays in the background. The crowd is a mixed bag of locals: old men on their way from the market and friends and couples meeting for a quick morning meal. Go early (around 9 a.m. before it gets busy) and don’t forget to bring cash.
Also delivering a twist on all things local is Xokol, set in a simple garage-like, one-room space in the Santa Teresita neighborhood. Run by a young couple, Óscar Segundo and Xrysw Ruelas (who is only 26 and competed in the San Pellegrino Young Chef competition), the restaurant is one of the most promising spots to open in the city recently. The menu draws on local techniques and ingredients like fish wrapped in lengua de vaca (a Mexican herb) with blue-corn tortillas. The brilliant and complex dishes, which could honestly rival a Michelin meal, are served in a buzzy, unpretentious setting—a direct reflection of Guadalajara’s combination of beauty and grit.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Guadalajara
Mary Holland Mary Holland is South African writer based in New York. She has written for WSJ Magazine, the Financial Times, HTSI, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and W Magazine. She is the New York correspondent for Monocle Magazine.