“ Mexican Food „
VIPS (rhymes with 'whips') is a national Mexican diner chain, though I don't think that quite tells you how many of the things you'll find here. There is one on my block, another up the street. Walking to one of my classes, a 40 minute stroll away, I pass 8 of the things. There are more VIPS here than there are Starbucks, and there are a lot of the latter. You are literally never more than a few blocks from a VIPS in Mexico City.
Back in the day, according to my students at least, VIPS was the 'in' place to be seen. You could go on a date there, or meet your friends there, and it was, apparently, a sign that you were a cool, V.I.P. Times have changed, and it had never occurred to me until recently that the letters might stand for anything, since nowadays, everyone calls it VIPS. Equally, though the restaurants are clean and colourful, they don't stand out as a place that said Very Important People would go to eat. Plus, the chain is owned by WalMart, which is hardly Harrods, now is it?
All this being true, I have eaten at VIPS quite a lot. I have been there for breakfast with friends, and for breakfast classes with students who want to learn the worlds for knife / fork / spoon etc in a real life setting. I have been there when I have time to kill between classes, for cake and coke, and for full meals at other times of the day.
Perhaps in a nod to their origins, when you arrive at VIPS you have to wait to be seated. Just wandering in is frowned upon here. A host will greet you, and, depending on how busy they are, lead you to a seat or let you choose where to sit. They will offer you a menu, but then disappear, handing you over to a waitress. They're really quite good, and always give you a few minutes before coming over to see if you'd like a drink, or want a few more minutes to order.
The menu is standard "diner" fare, which means big breakfasts with pancakes, waffles, omelettes, tortillas and so on. Lunches and dinners include meat and two veg, burgers, salads, soups. They have American-style dishes, and more authentic Mexican offerings, like tacos and enchiladas. Their desert menu is available all day (even during breakfast) and includes cakes, pastries and ice creams. The menu does not change that often, but they do introduce seasonal extras, such as the delicious Valentine's Nutella crepes. The Christmas cheesecake (with Oreo and Hershey's Kisses) was also amazing, and I wish it hadn't been a temporary offering.
Many of the meals at VIPS are "deals" which are good value, and offer more food than you perhaps will want to eat. For example, though you can order a breakfast dish individually, you can also add it to a package which includes fruit juice or a fruit plate, plus toast, plus coffee, all for a few pounds (70 - 80 pesos). Later in the day they have 45 peso and 55 peso meal deals, which include a bread basket (that has tortilla chips alongside the baguette), a soup, a main meal and a drink. The meal deals are the reason VIPS is so popular - why bother cooking when you can get a full, hot meal for literally £2? These special menus change each week, so you wouldn't even get bored of having the same thing again and again. VIPS have a healthy eating menu, but do not specifically offer vegetarian dishes. It is not the norm here to mark these on the menu, but there are a few options you could try, or ask for something without chicken.
Drinks include cans of soft drinks, fresh juices, fruity waters (a local fave) and a selection of coffees among other things. If you order water, depending on the branch you can either get a bottle of purified stuff, or just a glass. Although it has a vaguely American feel to it, VIPS does not offer free refills on soft drinks, or glasses of iced water as standard. I had my first stupid-foreigner moment over a drinks order in VIPS. It was my 3rd day in the city, and my (American) roommate and I had gone for breakfast. The waitress came over and asked "¿Americano?" to which I replied that Abra was, but I was British. The waitress left and returned with a cup of coffee for Abra, and nothing for me. We puzzled over this for a while (was it only Americans who drank coffee, perhaps? Did Brits prefer tea, in which case why had she not brought me a cup?) In fact, it was days later when a friend pointed out that actually "Americano" is just the name for strong black coffee here, so she had been asking us if we wanted a drink, not caring in the slightest where we came from... this story still gets brilliant laughs when I tell it to my students, topped only by my recollection of using the phrase "Coger el autobus" which, though perfectly correct in Spanish-Spanish, has a rather R-rated meaning in the Latin American variety...
Anyway, back to the story. I like the atmosphere at VIPS because it is a relaxed place, but still has proper tables and waiter service, even if their menus are laminated, and contain pictures of half the dishes. In addition to the restaurant part, most VIPS have a small shop where you can buy coffee and cakes to take away, chocolate, gum and magazines, as well as a random selection of toys (perhaps a bribe for children to behave during a meal?). I also like their seating arrangements - they have tables and chairs, but also booths, and there's something about sitting in a booth that just makes me feel rather happy.
VIPS is a large chain, and therefore things like service can vary from place to place. Once I placed an order and they brought and poured me my drink before returning to tell me they didn't have the item in stock. There was nothing else I really wanted to eat, but felt trapped into staying because of the drink. Normally, though, I have no problems with the service, and never feel rushed, or frowned upon for taking up a big 4 person booth when I'm on my own with just some text books for company. Tipping in Mexico is expected for good (and sometimes, not so good) service in almost every place, but VIPS is a little different. You get your bill brought to your table but pay at a till on the way out, where money is passed to a designated cashier, not your waitress, so tipping is not compulsory. When I do want to leave something, I tend to leave it on my table as I leave, since they don't even have tip-boxes at the counter.
Many VIPS are open 24 hours, with a limited menu overnight. Breakfasts start at 7am and run until 1pm, meaning I can have breakfast-for-lunch at weekends if I like. They are reasonably flexible with timings (after all, they work to Mexican time here) and once we went just after 1.30pm and still managed to get the breakfasts we wanted, though this may depend on the chef or even on the attitude of your waitress that day.
Many of the teachers here, myself included, have no issues with eating street food in Mexico, but then we're here for the long haul. For tourists in town for just a week or two it can be a different story, and finding somewhere safe to eat can be daunting. For this reason, I would recommend VIPS as a cheap place to go where you can be assured of a good selection of food, well-prepared and served quickly (but not alarmingly quickly). Though they don't offer English menus like some places do, you have the advantage of being able to point to a picture of what you want, which helps enormously. I always make sure to take my visiting V.I.P.s there - Big Sis got a VIPS breakfast as her send off before her flight home, and though she doesn't know it yet, Mommy dearest will also be getting the VIPS experience when she visits next month.
It may not be fine dining, but I like it.