Photo by Javier Sirvent
Photo by Javier Sirvent
In stalls crowded with the freshest seafood, sweetest chilies, and spiciest tacos, one writer eats his way to the heart of the metropolis.
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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.Xochimilco
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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.
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.
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.”
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.
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