Photographs by Javier Sirvent
Eating in Mexico City liberates you. The sheer force of food, in its dizzying ubiquity and variety, frees visitors from the tyranny of “the best” that afflicts smaller, more provincial cities—you know, like Copenhagen, Paris, and New York. To locate, say, the top taco, you’d first have to decide which taco you mean—al pastor? barbacoa? cabeza? campechano? canasta? Carnitas?—and then eat about a thousand versions from every last guy with a folding table and a griddle. Even if you were to pinpoint some marginally superior quesadilla, you’d be mad to traverse the vast city to eat it. There’s never not traffic. And there’s surely a quesadilla that’s almost as great nearby. The question, then, isn’t where to eat so much as where to start.
For me, that’s in the mercados located in nearly every major neighborhood. These markets offer more than just a memorable lunch. By combining in one place all manner of vendors, they provide a sweeping look at the country’s remarkable culinary culture.
I owe my affection for the city to native Roberto Santibañez, whom I’ve helped write two cookbooks and who has taken me on several whirlwind tours of D.F. (the local acronym for the city’s official designation: Ciudad de Mexico, Distrito Federal). He has a theory, borne out by decades of eating here, that finding “properly seasoned” (read: spicy) food is harder than it has ever been. To blame is the culinary homogenization that besets any cosmopolitan city, and the persistent notion that spicy food is low class. His grandfather, a third-generation Mexican, always wore a suit and died without ever having eaten a chili. “Markets are one place where heat and pungency are alive and well,” Roberto says. “They each tell their own story about the city.”
They also tell a story about the people who favor them. I highlight here just three of dozens of brick-and-mortar markets (not to mention tianguis, the open-air culinary bazaars that pop up one day a week in nearly all of the city’s scores of neighborhoods). They’re the three I return to most often, because they represent three aspects of the city I particularly love: its connection to the past, its pockets of idyllic beauty, and its gritty urban reality.
The past is still present at the mercado in Xochimilco (so-chee-MEEL-koh). I went for the first time with Ruth Alegria, who leads Mexico Soul and Essence tours to the city’s markets and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the country’s foods. As we reached the makeshift outdoor stalls encircling the market’s two main structures, we caught snatches of a language I didn’t recognize. “Nahuatl,” she said, the language of the Aztecs.Before the Spanish came in the 16th century, most of what is now the sprawling landmass of the city was underneath Lake Texcoco. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was on an island city-state cut through by canals. Xochimilco was a separate town. The people there grew food on chinampas (floating gardens) built in the lagoons and took them by boat along the waterways to the markets of Tenochtitlán. The Spanish ultimately sacked the capital and drained the massive lake, but even today Xochimilco reflects the old culture. The chinampas still operate in the remaining lagoons, some supplying D.F.’s fine-dining establishments. Tourists flock to Xochimilco to ride colorful boats called trajineras on the canals, but the market is even more compelling.
Inside, narrow aisles hold foodstuffs reflecting the former lake cuisine—acociles, crayfish the size of Good & Plenty candies, seasoned with lime and chili; charred corn-husk parcels that resemble typical tamales but contain many dozens of tiny fish packed together; and fish roe cakes that look like otherworldly wheels of cheese.
As you navigate the distinct sections common to most markets, a swath of produce yields to stalls devoted to dried ingredients—chilies, piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar), and just-add-water mole pastes. There is nonedible stuff like colorful plasticware, live birds, kids’ costumes, and piñatas. Revelations strike even hard-bitten travelers to Mexico. At the southeastern edge of the main building, a woman ladles a vivid pea-green liquid, spicy from fresh chili and pungent from the herb epazote, into Styrofoam cups. This is chileatole, a savory version of atole, the hot pre-Colombian drink made from masa (dough made from dried corn that’s been soaked in a slaked lime solution) and fresh corn. Nowadays, it is usually found in sweet versions and made from powdered mixes. On the opposite edge, people crowd around a folding-table operation selling exceptional banana leaf-wrapped tamales. Rather than the typical coarse texture, these are ethereal, almost pudding-like, thanks to plenty of whipped lard. Arrive before10 a.m. for the best chance of getting one.
There are familiar pleasures, too. As at every market, the aisles give way to an open space crowded with prepared-food vendors. You join the families who line benches for bowls of pozole (hearty soup full of hominy) and sopes (thick, bean-slathered discs of masa). The din of conversation is occasionally punctuated by trumpet blasts and crooning from roving mariachi musicians. I always start my gorging with a quesadilla from the women at Puesto No. 200, who splash lard on a cast-iron griddle to cook rustic, freshly pressed corn tortillas folded over stretchy cheese. Then I choose between two rival taco makers, each hawking tender pig’s head and hacking up cheek, tongue, or snout to pile onto pint-size tortillas. After sampling both many times, I now pick one at random because they’re both so good—yet another small liberation.
Quesadillas & chileatole—our guide to what to eat in Xochimilco.
MERCADO DE LA MERCED
Entering Mercado de la Merced, the city’s first wholesale market, feels a bit like walking into a Sam’s Club in terms of scale. To guide me through what was once called the “stomach of the city,” I enlist my cookbook coauthor Roberto Santibañez.
“There are little neighborhoods inside the market,” he explains as we stroll through a section of the main building devoted to vendor after vendor selling only nopales, sometimes stacked five feet high. We pass through other districts, gawking at pyramids of limes, columns of banana leaves, and a man shucking corn amidst a waist-high sea of cobs. We mostly ignore the sales calls that provide the typical market sound track: “¡Pásele joven!” (Come here, young man!) “¿Qué te damos, güero?” (What can we give you, fair-haired fellow?) Occasionally, Roberto stops to chat with a cheeky vendor. He asks a woman selling heaps of dried chilies in dozens of varieties, ranging from fiery to raisiny sweet, whether her chiles de árbol are real and not the increasingly common imitator from Asia. “They’re real—try one,” she cracks. Roberto laughs. Only a true masochist would pop an árbol chili into his mouth.
Roberto narrates our journey as if he is leading a blind man, pointing out piles of greens such as clover and turnip blossoms laid out on tarps, and stalls selling increasingly rare foods from the countryside—fly and ant eggs as well as bright-red worms harvested from the maguey plant.
Finding good food in the market is easy, he says: Just use your eyes. He stops in front of Taquería 5 Hermanos. “See, his salsas look bright and lively,” he says. “He’s chopping the tripe carefully and putting it into the tortilla with some love.” After a couple exemplary tacos, we sit down at a stall called El Tacometro for what Roberto calls “a very Mexico City-style snack” of tortillas topped with spoonfuls of vibrant herbaceous mole verde or sticky chicharrón prensado (essentially, pork skins stewed in a sauce of dried chili and tomato). These are tacos de guisado, a quick, modern stand-in for the more leisurely consumed bowl of stew (guisado) with a stack of tortillas. “This gets you on the coronilla!” says Roberto of the mole, which possesses a sharp heat that indeed makes my coronilla (top of the head) tingle. “Just try to find that at a place with waiters and tablecloths.”
Tacos and (for the brave) ant eggs—tips on what to eat in Mexico City’s largest market.
MERCADO DE COYOCÁN
Compared with the wonderfully unruly quality of Xochimilco and the dense bustle of La Merced, the Mercado de Coyoacán has the orderly beauty of its namesake neighborhood and the slightly sleepy feel of a country market. Whenever I go to Mexico City, I stay in Coyoacán with a friend’s mother. While I’m there, I like to pretend I live in the neighborhood and that Mercado de Coyoacán is my local market.
Centered on an idyllic zócalo (plaza) and full of narrow, winding side streets that pass by colorful homes and flowering trees, Coyoacán looks very much like the small town it once was. When its most famous resident, Frida Kahlo, was born in 1907, it had yet to be subsumed by the ever- expanding city. Roberto, now 50 years old, grew up nearby. He tells me that, as a boy, he would ride a horse, Príncipe, along streets that today pulsate with cars.
Inside the market, the produce stands exhibit ingredients you won’t see at most restaurants: piles of mamey, which resemble oblong cantaloupes and have fire-orange flesh that tastes like a cross between sweet potato and date; its cousin zapote negro, green-skinned outside and pitch-black within; and aguacates criollos, avocados the size of jalapeños with skin so thin it’s edible. Most adventurous eaters in Mexico have found themselves noshing huitlacoche (edible corn fungus enjoyed for its mushroomy flavor), perhaps tucked inside a quesadilla, but here you’ll find full cobs with engorged, grayish kernels. Of the stalls selling prepared food, the busiest is Tostadas Coyoacán, so popular it has spawned imitators in neighboring stalls. It’s a countertop operation, red plastic stools and trays heaping with more than a dozen preparations such as octopus, crab, and tinga de pollo (chicken in tomato- chipotle salsa). When it opened 58 years ago, the meat options were limited to pickled beef foot and chicken tripe. Uniformed men working at extravagant speed spoon the toppings onto crisp fried tortillas and crown each one with shredded lettuce, queso canasta, and cream.
Toward the rear of the market, you’ll find the requisite section devoted to fondas, dining establishments that in appearance barely qualify for the term “restaurant.”
A row of open kitchens feeds customers at rickety tables with a variety of homey foods often overlooked by taco seekers: enfrijoladas (tortillas smothered in creamy bean sauce) and pork stewed with tomatillo salsa and purslane.
At the rear of this section is El Charro, where Manuel Ortiz Mendoza has spent close to six decades making especially fine carnitas, pork simmered in giant pots until the liquid is gone and the meat sizzles in its own fat. You choose from an expanse of cooked pig parts—snout, skin, shoulder, nanas (uterus), or as I like, surtida (an assortment)—purchased by the kilo to go or eaten on-site as tacos. The tortillas you get are in the Mexico City style, coarse and yellow-tinged, and the soupy avocado- spiked salsa you spoon from a huge stone mortar delivers just the right spark to offset the rich meat. As a treat, the counterperson might pass you a plate containing a few shards of chicharrón (crunchy fried pork skin), snapped off sheets as big as windowpanes and so fresh from the oil that you can still hear them crackling.
After my visit to Coyoacán, I call Ruth Alegria to discuss an eating outing we had planned to take. I mention how impressed I’ve been by La Merced and Coyoacán. She listens politely before suggesting a visit to Mercado Jamaica in the borough of Iztapalapa. I know someday I’ll go there and take advantage of Mexico City’s seemingly infinite culinary options. But for now, three favorite markets are plenty.
Crab tostadas and carnitas—our guide to what to eat in Mercado de Coyoacán.
Want a more guided experience? Try one of these five tasting tours of Mexico City.
In October, the next AFAR Experiences event will take place in Mexico City. Find more information here.
This appeared in the May 2014 issue.
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