May is probably the wrong month to visit Oaxaca. It rains. It’s hot. Many of the restaurants close to take a break while business is slow. But I wasn’t going to visit Mexico City, only a half day bus ride from the culinary center of Mexican cooking, and skip it again. So we took the winding desolate road through the mountains and emerged in an inviting valley with cathedrals rising above the buildings.
(Note: I have one more Mexico report on the markets in Oaxaca. However, it will have to wait a few weeks until I return from Thailand. I hoped to finish it before I left, but the map of the Mercado Central de Abastos was too complex and I need to finish it first. Sorry. For those travelling to Oaxaca between now and then, spend a lot of time at the market. It was my favorite part of the city.)
Puebla was almost an afterthought on our trip. We were travelling through it anyway, so we decided to stay a couple days. The guidebooks didn’t give much reason to visit the city and online recommendations were primarily to skip it and spend more time in Oaxaca. My wife, who planned our itinerary, was suggesting we pass it by as well. Puebla, though, is the home of mole poblano and chiles en nogada, two dishes considered integral to the Mexican culinary identity. They’re also the home of tinga, al pastor, tacos arabes, and a range of sweets including camote, rompope, and dulces de Santa Clara. So I knew I was stopping (chiles en nogada and tinga poblana are two of my favorite dishes), but I figured I could get my fill in two days.
I was wrong. I’m not sure I could ever tire of Puebla. Not only was the food terrific, but I fell in love with the town itself — the architecture, the relaxing yet vibrant Zocolo, the college town atmosphere. I could live there and be happy. I know I could eat there and be happy. I’ve done that.
Cakes at Ideal
Part of the fun in visiting an old city like La Ciudad de Mexico is being able to look up from the streets at the facades or step through a doorway and forget what year it is. Nearly 300 years old collectively, Pasteleria Ideal (1927), Dulceria de Celaya (1874), and Churreria El Moro (1935) are three required foodie stops that have changed so little since they opened that you feel transported the minute you look upon them. Unlike many places, they benefit from their immutability. They use old methods, do things the way they always have, and their confections and pastries taste just as good as they did, I’m sure, 100 years ago.
When you’re walking around the Centro Historico, looking at buildings 500 years old, not a skyscraper in sight, Indian women selling goods laid out on blankets, it’s easy to forget that Mexico City is a modern and cosmopolitan metropolis. Emerge from the metro station into the heart of the Polanco district, however, and it’s like you’ve been dropped into the center of a Mexican Oz, where the yellow brick road looks more like Rodeo Drive than Broadway in East LA. Want a Ferrari? There’s a dealership. How about Prada? Step right in.
The restaurants are equally upscale, all competing for sophisticated customers who look more European than what we Americans often think of as Mexican. Business travellers, used to eating in New York, Paris, and Tokyo, populate the tables. The chefs are out to prove they have the talent to be considered world-class.
Mexican food here isn’t your standard tacos and enchiladas. This is alta cocina — haute cuisine. Chefs incorporate international techniques and ingredients to create new dishes. They’re experimenting, inventing new flavor combinations. And from my experience, they’re largely succeeding. Many of these dishes would be among the best I’d have on the trip and the best I’d ever had. Mexico City should be a destination for every food lover. Not only are many of the restaurants at the same level as you’d find in San Francisco or Chicago, but the prices are bargains by those city’s standards.
Cuatro Cositas from Cafe de Tacuba
A couple years ago, I went on a fishing trip with friends into the high Uintas of Utah and on the way back we camped outside of Bend, Oregon. One of my friend’s first loves lived there. He called her up and decided to go say hi.
A first love. His restrained excitement was obvious, though I’m sure he thinks he hid it well. He talked about her — about how clever she was, about the first time they had sex, about how pissed off her brother was when he found out. The memories were still in front of his eyes and when he described their escapades he looked off into the distance, like he was watching scenes on a movie screen invisible to everyone but him. His stories were filled with joy and longing. His expectations were understandably unrealistic. How can a first love ever live up to the memory of a first love?
When he returned, the illusion had been shattered. The single mom with multiple kids looked tired, he said. She didn’t have the exuberance — the youth — that she did. She had no strong ambitions, no excitement for the future. She was, and would forever be to my friend, just another person he knew.
I’m sure I’ve had many Mexican food crushes, but perhaps my first love was the chile en nogada from Hosteria Santo Domingo. It was like nothing I had ever had: a poblano pepper the size of a large sweet potato stuffed with a mixture of seasoned ground pork, green olives, dried fruit, and nuts, all covered with a creamy walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried it again — stuck with new places and keep my memory of the dish intact. Luckily, some dishes age better than others.
This report covers the restaurants in Mexico City we visited that serve more traditional cocina mexicana. I’d eaten at every one previously. They were the places that took my flirtations with Mexican food and turned them into a passion, awakening me to how complex and interesting the cuisine truly is.
Gorditas de la Virgen de Guadalupe
Street-corner food vendors, perhaps the most resilient of all cooks, have likewise survived in a changing Mexican society. Descended from the tamaleras of Tlatelolco, by way of the pulque shop cooks of New Spain, they now are likely to be found selling food on the steps of Metro stations or from the beds of pickup trucks. But however they operate, they will always have customers, for even the wealthiest Mexicans enjoy their enchiladas and tamales. These anonymous street vendors, not famous gourmet chefs, were the true authors of the national cuisine, demonstrating that at least in Mexico, the hungrier the cook, the tastier the food.
- Que Vivan Los Tamales, pp 164-165
Mexico’s most diverse street food is in its capital. Like New York, Mexico City is a gathering place for people from every part of the country. New and old from every region converge. Those who can’t find a job building, manufacturing, or working in an office, can always feed those who did, bringing their grandmother’s specialties to the Metropolis. I could spend months, I suspect, exploring their true national cuisine, and never grow tired of it. Mexico City is a great food city and its street food is the backbone of its culinary character.
Scents sink to the ground. That’s why dogs sniff along the earth when tracking. Walking up the stairs from the Merced Metro station, before you see the food, you smell it. Ripe fruit mixes with sizzling chile sauces and charring meats. It’s a battle for the ol’ factory.
Next are the sounds, bustling and clanging and the call of “Tacos! Quesadillas! Huaraches!” As I reach the top, from the left of the stairs I hear someone announce that mangos are only four pesos.
Finally, the spectacle. Little ladies, tias and abuelitas, with bags of this and that hurry down the narrow walkways, passing eager vendors offering tastes of their goods. Senoritas press and sling masa onto griddles, feeding hungry workers and shoppers. Stepping into a wide aisle and looking down the length of the market, the massiveness is awe-inspiring.
The main market building is literally an airplane hangar. I can barely see from one end to the next. I don’t think I could hit the ceiling with a baseball. There are at least four other buildings about half the size of the main market building that constitute the rest of the market. A Walmart Supercenter could probably fit in any one of them. La Merced takes days to explore adequately. I only had hours. A food lover who visits Mexico and skips La Merced is like an art lover who visits Paris and skips the Louvre.
This last May, I made my seventh trip to Mexico and visited my 10th city there. Shamefully, this was only my first trip to Oaxaca — the area of Mexico Diana Kennedy describes as “by far the most complex … to know and understand” with numerous sub-cultures and micro-climates that produce so many “different types of chiles, herbs, and wild edible plants” that they and their uses “could be the study of a lifetime.” (My Mexico) With only a part of my two weeks being spent there, you can safely assume that I didn’t even explore the tip of the tip of the iceberg. But what I did get to enjoy, certainly made me want to return and test Kennedy’s assertion.
It was also my first trip to Puebla, the central city of the state with the same name. In A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain declares it the place “where cooks come from.” “If there was a mandatory day of rest –” he explains, “or a public holiday for all Poblanos — a lot of restaurants in America would have to close their doors. As it is,” he continues, “the day after the fifth of May (Cinco de Mayo), half the cooks in America are hungover.” While it was a town overlooked by most foodies, I left loving the food and the people as much as Bourdain did. It’s a city I could imagine living in quite easily.
Then there’s Mexico City. Like most massive metropoli, DF can feel oppressive. The city expands as concrete buildings across the high dessert and into the hills for hours in every direction. Millions pile daily shoulder-to-shoulder in the subways. Traffic lights are treated more as a suggestion than a command. The smog and altitude leave you breathless. But so does the staggering variety of food options, from cheap and soulfull antojitos on the street to creative and refined haute cuisine. It’s been that way since before the Conquistadors.
The great island city of Tenochtitlan, on top of which was built Mexico City, had one of the largest pre-Columbian markets, Tlatelolco. “With sixty-thousand daily visitors and whole streets devoted to prepared foods, [it] provided a fertile environment for gastronomic innovation. … Many people visited markets simply for the spectacle, the delicious stews, and the latest gossip. … An innovative popular cuisine developed in Mesoamerica on the modest foundations of corn and chiles. … Tamales assumed a great variety of forms and flavors with no ingredients beyond maize, herbs, and chiles. A cook could shape corn confections into ovals, canoes, animals, or stellar constellations.” (Que Vivan Los Tamales)
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a Spanish historian who joined the likes of Cordoba and Cortes in their conquests of the New World, described one of Motecuhzoma’s banquets as consisting of over 300 dishes with ingredients ranging from “fowl, wattled fowl, pheasants, native partridges, quail, domestic and wild ducks, deer, peccary, reed birds and doves and hares and rabbits, and many other birds and things.” Of course, this meal ended with foaming liquid chocolate served in gold goblets. (America’s First Cuisines) What is now Mexico City has always been at the forefront of both food for the peasant and the powerful.
I hope you’ll look forward to my coming reports, a project that’s much overdue. I’ve filtered through over 1,000 photos. I have a filled notebook, including rough maps of Mexico’s two largest markets. Expect separate entries on the street foods and the haute cuisine of Mexico City, Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca, the restaurants and street food of Oaxaca, and the foods of Puebla.
$230 round trip tickets to Mexico seemed like as good a reason as any to take a trip. That they were to Mazatlan, the shrimping capital of Mexico, was fine by me.
I’m rather cheap, which marries quite nicely with my loathing of the typical tourist in Mexico who just wants to broil their outside during the day and ferment their insides at night. I go for culture and food (but not necessarily in that order). I also go to inflict my high school level Spanish on unsuspecting taco and regalo vendors.