Chicken with adobo chile, nopal, romeritos, black radish and onion ash at Pujol , one of the world's most acclaimed restaurants. Dinner for two, including wine pairings and taxes, came to $260. The perfect taco al pastor, at El Tizoncito, the taqueria that made al pastor famous, can be had for less than a dollar. 

Chicken with adobo chile, nopal, romeritos, black radish and onion ash at Pujol , one of the world's most acclaimed restaurants. Dinner for two, including wine pairings and taxes, came to $260. The perfect taco al pastor, at El Tizoncito, the taqueria that made al pastor famous, can be had for less than a dollar. 

Araceli Paz/Pujol

By MICHALENE BUSICO, Special Contributor

Is there a better destination for food lovers right now than Mexico City? Every element of the dining scene – from street markets and casual fondas to its influential contemporary restaurants and stylish nightlife – seems to be getting a second look and new energy. Better still, it is a trip that can be made on the spur of the moment over a long weekend, with little time devoted to travel – less than three hours, flying nonstop from Dallas. And thanks to the strength of the dollar, it also allows for a little extravagance that won't break the bank.

We hit the town this spring, with an itinerary that took us through some of the city's newest hot spots as well as its classic restaurants. A dish of the best gnocchi we have ever had – prepared by a Jean-Georges Vongerichten acolyte, in one of the sceniest restaurants in town – was about $6. The tab for two for a six-course haute cuisine menu at Pujol, one of the world's most acclaimed restaurants, came to $260 -- including wine pairings and taxes. The perfect taco al pastor – at the taquería that made it famous – was less than a dollar. We are already planning a return trip. How does next weekend look?

Mercado Roma

This three-story mercado (market) is like a thrilling appetizer to the city's dining scene. Brothers Salomón and Alberto Sacal, whose family has also developed boutique hotels and other properties downtown, wanted to create a place that "captures the diversity of Mexican products and cooking," Salomón says, as well as provide an "incubator" for up-and-coming artisanal producers. Wander through the striking market, designed by architect Michel Rojkind in the city's Roma neighborhood, and you will discover Tlaxcalli Amantolli's organic corn tortillas, pressed to order and griddled with queso, fresh huitlacoche and herbs; La Macarela's intriguing display of seafood caught off the Baja and Veracruz coasts; burritos filled with savory pork from Las Carnitas de Fransua; artisanal Mexican cheeses at Villa de Patos; the crackling, creamy custard tarts and sublime pastries at Da Silva, one of the city's best bakeries; and superb coffee from Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas, by an upstart roaster called Buna. Still hungry? Head upstairs, where a rooftop beer garden awaits.

Querétaro No. 225, Roma; 55-5564-1396; mercadoroma.com.

Fonda Fina

Speaking of incubators: Chef Juan Cabrera is part of a new generation of chefs who have come out of Pujol, the groundbreaking Mexico City restaurant, and are taking the dining scene in fresh directions. Cabrera's focus is the cooking of the fondas – the simple storefront spots that serve homey comfort food. Cabrera bumps all of that up several notches, with a beautiful, laid-back dining room and a menu that coaxes deep flavor from its ingredients, particularly corn. A black bean tamale is presented cut, like a forest of little tree stumps, and garnished with crumbled queso fresco, pasilla chile and hoja santa. Peneques (stuffed and lightly fried tortillas) are filled with soft requeson cheese and bathed in a tart pumpkin seed and poblano sauce. And a dish called Black Aguachile with Shrimp and "Poison" is a beautiful presentation of white shrimp, cubes of green avocado, herbs and rings of shallot resting in a sauce tinted black by squid ink (the "poison").

Medellín No. 79, Roma Norte; 55-5208-3925 or 5533-9002; fondafina.com.mx.

Huset

Maycoll Calderón, a Venezuela-born chef who has worked with luminaries including Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adrià and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, recently opened his first restaurant in Roma, part of a larger establishment that includes a yoga studio, a bar, and six guest rooms. But the restaurant is the real draw. It is a magical space beneath a retractable roof, with pea gravel on the floor, twinkling lanterns overhead, wooden picnic tables and a beverage station that looks like a potting table. No surprise, Calderón is cooking a seasonal, vegetable-centric menu, with cloudlike gnocchi with lemon cream, wild mushrooms and parmesan, and smoked tomatoes in olive oil.

More recently, Calderón opened a speakeasy hidden behind a fonda in the Juárez neighborhood. Called Hanky Panky, it serves modern and Prohibition-era cocktails in vintage glassware. At the moment, it is invitation-only (you can contact the bar through its Facebook page, Hanky Panky Cocktail Bar). But an evening at Huset may lead to an invitation.

Colima No. 256, Roma Norte; 55- 5511-6767; husetroma.com.

Havre 77

The Juárez District is often called "the next Roma," as cool new spots like Hanky Panky, Hotel Carlota and a subterranean outpost of Rosetta bakery open shop in the neighborhood. But the most compelling evidence came when chef Eduardo García – whose Máximo Bistrot in swanky Polanco is the Chez Panisse of Mexico – opened a new brasserie here in a beautifully restored mansion. The oyster bar offers a fine selection of bivalves and cold seafood dishes, including Belon oysters and a version of a lobster roll with a slab of toasted brioche. But the stools are about the size of salad plates, and it is not a comfortable spot to linger. Book a table in the dining room, and don't miss the sensational Cochon de Lait Confit, a square of slow-roasted suckling pig whose crisp skin and spoon-tender meat may have more in common with a crème brûlée than any pork dish.

Havre No. 77, Juárez; 55-5208-1070; havre77.com.

Pujol

Enrique Olvera is the most famous chef in Mexico, and Pujol, his flagship restaurant in Polanco, has influenced a generation of cooks. But Pujol is no shrine to the master: This vibrant restaurant still feels more innovative than most places that have just opened their doors. The six-course dinner (which is fixed-price only) begins with variations on street snacks, including Olvera's baby corn covered in mayonnaise, coffee and powdered chicatana ants and smoked in a gourd. It progresses through a menu – with several choices offered for each of the three middle courses – that includes his classics and newer dishes. We swooned over a suckling lamb taco with avocado leaf adobo, and delicately cooked octopus served with habanero, oregano and a squid-ink-tinted tostada. Of course there was Olvera's signature egg infladita – the egg, with its perfect creamy, just-set yolk, cradled in a puffed tortilla with chapulín (grasshopper) salsa. And just before the sweets came his Mole Madre, Mole Nuevo, two lush moles negros,one that's been going on his stove since the restaurant's beginning (881 days prior to our visit), the other freshly made. The drinks pairing ranges from Mexican craft beer, to Mundano's Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo blend from the Valle de Guadalupe, to mezcal. And it is an essential part of the meal. The jolt of tasting that wonderfully complex "mother mole" with a sip of Real Minero pechuga was electric, and unforgettable.

Petrarca No. 254, Polanco; 55- 5545-4111 or 5545-3507; pujol.com.mx.

Fifty Mils

This plush new cocktail bar, secluded off the courtyard of the Four Seasons hotel on Paseo de la Reforma,  is named for the milligram size of a standard cocktail jigger and features inventive drinks such as the Bugs Bunny, with carrot juice, Tanqueray gin and three-chile bitters. But we wanted mezcal, a request that happily resulted in an impromptu tasting. The bartender generously poured sip after sip of artisanal mezcals, discussing the flavor profiles of each and leading us to a decision: pours of La Niña del Mezcal Madrecuixe and Los Siete Misterios Mezcal Joven, both spectacular.

Paseo de la Reforma No. 500, Juárez; 55-5230-1818; fourseasons.com/mexico.

El Tizoncito

El Tizoncito is a taco pilgrimage site: The basic spot on a busy corner in La Condesa is known as the city's best for tacos al pastor. The savory tacos are made with marinated pork loin cooked on a vertical spit called a trompo, thinly sliced to order and served with grilled pineapple (the pineapple sits atop the trompo, releasing its juices as the meat cooks), diced onion and salsas. Grab a stool at an outdoor table and order at least two: They are small, they are delicious (with soft, juicy meat and the ideal ratio of meat to pineapple) and they are 14 pesos (less than a dollar) each.

Tamaulipas No. 122, Condesa; 55-5286-2117 or 5286-8671; eltizoncito.com.mx.

El Cardenal

On our last day, we headed downtown to the Centro Histórico, to walk the famed Zócalo – the public square – where preparations were already being made for Pope Francis' visit the following week. Our friend Joanne, who lives in Mexico City, insisted on breakfast at El Cardenal, a traditional Mexican restaurant in a French-style mansion decorated with tapestries and stained glass. By midmorning, the wait for a table was nearly an hour long. But it was worth it. Breakfast begins with a cup of champurrado – bittersweet Mexican hot chocolate – frothed at the table in an earthenware jug. Then came baskets of fresh, warm pan dulces; choose the conchas, cut them in half like a burger buns and fill the centers with nata, a clotted cream.

The menu offers carefully prepared home cooking, ranging far beyond breakfast fare, and it was impossible to resist barbacoa de cordero, tender lamb shoulder wrapped in a maguey leaf and slowly cooked with a rich, brick-red pasilla chile sauce. On the way out, we discovered that El Cardenal's proprietary Mexican chocolate is for sale if you ask for it, and so are the conchas – still warm from the oven. A pretty orange box of 10 bittersweet chocolate disks, enough for 10 liters of champurrado, was about $6.50. The conchas? About $1 each. Both proved to be excellent souvenirs from a delicious weekend in Mexico City.

Palma No. 23, Centro Histórico; 55-5521-8815 or 5521-3080; restauranteelcardenal.com.

Where Dallas food-lovers can stay in Mexico City

Tips

Reserve late. For us, 3 p.m. for lunch and 9 p.m. for dinner were the sweet spots. Arrive much earlier, and you risk the sad experience of sitting alone in an empty dining room.

Keep your purse off the floor. Even humble taquerías are equipped with purse trees where diners can hang their bags and wraps within reach. Putting your purse on the floor will draw a superstitious gasp.

Ask questions. Curiosity is rewarded with incredibly generous responses. A query about the wood used to smoke chicken at Pujol brought the captain to the table bearing branches along with an explanation that involved history and botany. People are generally excited about the burgeoning food scene and eager to talk.

Be prepared to tip before your credit card is taken. Both the bill and the tip will be processed at the same time. Ten to 15 percent is customary.

Take Uber. The cars are clean, reasonably prompt, and considered safer than taxis or the subway. And the price is right: Most of our fares were about $3, and no tipping.

For more stories from food and wine magazine Palate, go to guidelive.com/palate

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