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October 01, 2010

Mexico City - Day III

Finally! Dominic Armato

Day three didn't start precisely how I planned. A little bit of oversleeping combined with a little bit of a transportation snafu scrapped my plan to hit the Mercado de la Merced, which is regularly touted as the largest food market in the Latin world. Given time constraints, this may have been a good thing. So with little more than an hour left until our departure, I got desperate. I started asking the hotel staff if there was anyplace nearby where I could find a bunch of street food stands. Once they confirmed that I was, in fact, trying to get my breakfast out on the street on purpose and that we weren't having communication issues (is it so rare that American travelers go looking for street food?), they were kind enough to point out a street corner that they thought would be particularly fruitful, just six or seven blocks away. Off I went.

After arriving at the suggested location, in the middle of a residential neighborhood a couple blocks off one of the main drags, I was dismayed to discover an entire two stands, neither of which looked like they had much potential, and both of which were still getting set up. Crestfallen, I started back for the hotel, resigning myself to a hotel breakfast and the knowledge that I'd be going two straight trips without any street food. As I meandered back, on the next corner, I saw a couple more stands. The next corner, another. The next corner, a couple more. And it quickly became evident that almost every single corner throughout this neighborhood had a stand or two. Passing by one, you wouldn't think much. But collectively, there was a lot to be found. So I doubled back and started hitting a different stand on every corner.

Mystery TacosDominic Armato

Back at the first corner, they were just getting up to speed -- much faster than I would have thought (I could have just sat around for a few minutes). By the time I returned, the surly-looking fellow running the stand was warming tortillas and eggs on a flattop. He'd set out six or seven metal trays teeming with fillings, and he was already pulling out a massive cut of pork that he was hacking apart and preparing, I think, for lunchtime. My menu Spanish isn't bad, but it certainly isn't conversational. Mercifully, the pointing method is pretty universal, so that's what I did. I pointed to a couple of the fillings and asked for tacos. Within 30 seconds, the fellow set a plate in front of me with my first honest to god shot at Mexican street food. And it was *fantastic*. One of them I identified, on first glance, as papas con chorizo -- potatoes with sausage. But the first bite revealed that it certainly wasn't chorizo. What was it? No idea. But it was meaty and greasy and fabulous. The other, unexpectedly, involved an egg, which was slapped on the griddle before the fillings, so that when the entire mess was topped with tortillas and inverted, voila, a taco with an egg griddled to a crisped brown on the top. This filling was diced and sautéed onions and jalapenos, along with thin slices of a salty meat that I'm pretty sure was porcine, but the exact provenance of which I couldn't say. All I know is that they were both amazing and the only thing that kept me from trying all six or seven fillings was that I knew there were a dozen more stands between me and the hotel.

Quesadilla Flor de CalabazaDominic Armato

A block or two further along was a two-woman team offering a number of items including quesadillas with squash blossoms, which was high on my wish list. Grandma had a dark wooden tortilla press the size of a large briefcase, and as she leaned on the two foot long handle to press out little hunks of masa and slapped them on the griddle, a middle-aged woman who I'm betting was her daughter would work the fillings. Just observing from driving around town, quesadillas are everywhere in Mexico City. Though it was by no means a scientific survey, I might've guessed they were the most prevalent form of street food. Here, though, we're talking corn tortillas, seemingly always formed into an oval shape and folded over the long way. This was no exception, generously stuffed with an enormous amount of chopped and sautéed squash blossoms and a healthy dose of molten, chewy cheese. This wasn't the most refined squash blossom concoction I've encountered, and the mixture was awfully wet, but the flavors were still big and delicious, and I can't remember ever getting that many squash blossoms all on one plate. There's something to be said for having a massive pile of them.

Chicharrón GorditasDominic Armato

I was already starting to stagger, regretting that the previous night's waste of a meal was still hanging around, threatening to limit my capacity out on the street where these little stands were putting that upscale kitchen to shame. I figured I had one, maybe two more stops left in me, and for the last one, I happened to make a great call. I was drawn in by a massive pile of potatoes and chorizo, kept warm on a griddle while the folks manning it were mixing chicharrón -- fried pork rinds -- into fresh masa and griddling up thick gorditas that were pretty big, perhaps eight inches in diameter. Once the gorditas had turned a beautiful, blistered golden color, glistening with what I've no doubt was lard, they'd split them down the middle and stuff in a measure of the potatoes and chorizo and a light sprinkle of crumbled queso fresco, offering a little fresh green or red salsa as dressing. I selected green, spooned a little into the pocket, and dug in.

Gordita Papas con ChorizoDominic Armato

This thing was flat-out amazing. The gordita had a crisp exterior -- it almost crunched -- but the inside was still moist and steaming. The chicharron added a salty and meaty element, as did the fat used to griddle it, and I'd get little hints of char every time I munched through one of those small blistered spots. Robust potatoes to fill your belly mixed with aggressively spiced chorizo, and a little bit of fresh salsa for a touch of brightness -- with all due respect to Pujol, which was fabulous, THIS is what I'd been seeking during both trips to Mexico. The family running this stand made nothing but chicharron gorditas stuffed with papas con chorizo, and they've probably been making nothing but chicharron gorditas with papas con chorizo on that very cart for twenty years, and by god, they know how to do it. So much flavor, so many textures, all crammed into a piece of folded paper on a random street corner in nondescript residential neighborhood in Mexico City. And my street food breakfast -- the take from all three stands combined -- was less than $5 US.

Immediately behind me was a stand that looked to be ladling out five or six different kinds of soup. Mexico knows soup, and I would have loved to cram just a little more in my gullet, but the line was at least eight people deep and I had just minutes to make my scheduled departure time for the airport. I powerwalked back, grabbed the bags, and headed off to the airport, belly full of some of the most fantastic Mexican food I've ever tasted, right there on the street outside my hotel door.

After sleeping off much of the flight (that was a big breakfast!!), we landed in Dallas and I faced off with one of the most suspicious immigration agents I've ever encountered:

"Where are you going?"
"Why Phoenix?"
"That's home."
(in a suspicious tone...) "That's home???..."
"Um... yeah?"
-- awkward pause --
"You can go."

Maybe he could sense that I didn't really believe it myself when I called Phoenix home. I'm still getting used to it. But we cleared customs, hopped on the train and after reaching a terminal that I'm pretty sure was in Houston, we went walking the concourse towards our respective gates. On the way we passed a nondescript airport food court... a grim reminder that my trips out of the country are all too short and all too infrequent these days.

*sigh* Dominic Armato

Mexico City - Day I   |   Mexico City - Day II   |   Mexico City - Day III


What? No chilito comparison?!

Sounds like a hell of a morning, Dom.

"With all due respect to Pujol, which was fabulous, THIS is what I'd been seeking during both trips to Mexico." -- YES! I just stumbled on your blog today, but I live in DF and am trying to get people to realize that exact sentiment all the time. You don't have to spend a fortune to get fantastic food here. The food on the street can completely blow your mind.

If you're ever in town again, look me up -- I do culinary tours and can show you a few of my favorite places. Saludos!

And the papas with chorizo you tried -- that chorizo was probably longaniza. It's a sausage with that same rust-color as chorizo, but it's meatier. I love it when it's paired with papas... the grease seeps into the potatoes and it's just fantastic.

That sounds fantastic -- hope it was enough to make up for Day 2.

By the way, there are pockets of decent street food in the US. Look around the edges of university campuses in college towns. That's been my most fruitful source of the stuff domestically, starting the day in high school when I randomly bought a char siu bao from a cart near UC Berkeley. My mouth still waters when I think about a sandwich I had near the University of Oregon in the 80s.

Lesley... I expect I will be, and I will *totally* drop you a line :-)

Nicely done. Makes me miss hole-in-the-wall Taco places I grew up with in SoCal.

I will say one thing on food tourism: it is rare for Americans to go out of many nice hotels. When in Rome, for instance, I once asked the staff at the Hassler for a good place to eat that was not fancified and they seemed suspicious. (When I re-asked in my bad, grandma-taught Italian a got a better answer. ) In the end we found a back alley trattoria that was great.

So this brings me to my other question (if you don't mind answering): are you fluent or at least reasonably component in Spanish? (FWIW, I'm assuming the answer is that you have at least passing ability to communicate in Spanish about food.) I find that where I speak the language I get better recommendations and more likely to get what I want.

And, lastly, don't take the immigration agent to heart. I once was in the slowest line ever at immigration. I figured the agent was a DB. Nope. " Where were you? Spain. Where did you go? Blah, blah, blah. Oh, did you see the such and such? Yes, it was great, blah, blah, blah." What then happened was a 5 minute conversation on our trip. If he had slipped in "Do you happen to have 85 kilos of blow in your luggage?" I might have answered him like a friend.* I can only assume this guy actually catches people unlike the guy you ran into.

Please go to Mexico again. Repeatedly.

*No, I did not, btw.

Anon man... actually, I speak Spanish at a Handy Manny level.

Which is to say not really at all. I can read a menu pretty well, but I don't actually have any conversational knowledge. Though I intend to at least learn some very basic food-related conversational for my next trip, whenever that may be.

Thanks for sharing this trip with us. I make a point of getting off the beaten path, whether domestically or abroad, for food. I want to taste the local flavor, not the corporate reinterpretation of it. You roll the dice. Sometimes you simply find a dive, but it's great when you find a gem.

I was on the floor with that picture of the Taco Bell stand at the airport. I think a lot of us have the feeling when returning home from a vacation.

Man, that gordita sounds good! I'm going to have to experiment with those ingredients and nice salsa verde. Thanks, Dom!

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