In Mexico City everyone is trying to sell you something. People walk up and down the Metro cars touting whatever they have on offer, ranging from chewing gum to milk frothers. Young men modify their backpacks, building speakers into them to play you a selection from a compilation that they've put together, for 10 pesos. The streets are lined with people selling crafts, stalls laden with fruit to chop up and sell to you. Taco carts entice you with the smell of tortillas steaming and frying, to be piled on with meat and topped with salsa. After a long day of being sold at, a calming beer with a sipped shot of tequila and a sangrita was a perfect rest.
On our first day in Mexico City, overwhelmed by the sheer size of it, we headed south for Coyoacán to have a mooch around Frida Kahlo's house. That there was a market nearby had a lot to do with it, for we know that best street food is often found at markets.
If we expected the hustle and bustle of a loud and busy weekend market, we weren't to find it here. We moved around Mercado Coyoacán with ease. Many shops sold brightly coloured ornaments, what I can only describe as tat, but others sold hessian sackfuls of dried chillis and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables.
As we passed through one corner, particularly smoky and thick with the smell of pork, a man walked past carrying huge discs of pork scratchings. Chillies bubbled merrily unattended in fat, and we were led to an area with bench seating set up.
A man approached us excitedly brandishing a strand of silky pork. Alarm bells rang in my head of accepting such a thing - for all I knew, that man could have wiped his bum with that hand previously, but I didn't want to seem rude so I gobbled it down. It was intensely porky, glistening with fat. Another hand appeared from another stall with a similar tasty morsel. They'd enticed us.
The counter that had a good crowd around it got our vote, and a couple of tacos each with carnitas (pork cooked in lard, basically) were ordered. Each of these came with two tortillas, the idea being that whatever falls out of the first few mouthfuls can then be used to make a secondary taco. Alongside, pork scratchings puffed to crispness. I piled on the salsas. The innocent-looking one, far left of the above photo was so spicy it almost made me cry. My cheeks flushed. I wolfed down some of the cucumber and radish salsa before realising that that too was spiked with habenero chillis. I sucked air through my teeth until the flames subsided.
These are not the 'tacos' I'm used to; none of that Old El Paso crispy shell filled with minced beef nonsense. No, these are floppy steamed corn tortillas piled with succulent pork. A touch of onion and coriander, a few slimy nopales (cactus) slices and a squeeze of lime, perhaps a drop of fiery salsa and these were perfect. For me, they turned out to be the best of the trip.
Afterwards, we wandered around the leafy streets of Coyoacán and had a beer in the main square. Mariachi bands serenaded lunchers and it was quite idyllic. My preconceptions of Mexico City, what few I had, were blown. A further wander around the district where we were staying, Condesa, blew me away further. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting; I suppose something akin to Bangkok in hustle, bustle and sensory overload but what I found was clean streets and calm.
Bags of potato chips were sold everywhere - street corners, in Metro stations etc. When you order them they squirt the crisps with chilli sauce.
We went to Mercado Lagunilla, near the historical centre on the Sunday. Inside the covered area is quite disconcerting as we came across rows and rows of huge prom-style dresses, and tiny while lace dresses for little girls. There must have been hundreds of them. Baffled, we stopped for some sustenance and found it in the way of quesadillas. These aren't as the quesadillas you might expect as they don't all have cheese in them. My quesadilla with flor de calabaza (squash blossom) was made in front of me. A tortilla is slapped on the hot plate, stuffed as requested, flipped and then served.
Mexican corn is said to be the tastiest of them all. It may well have been but I was too busy sneezing to find out after having inadvertently snorted the chilli powder it was dusted in.
Speaking of which, they cover everything in salt, lime and chilli. Including my watermelon and mango.
Gorditas are sort of like pasties. Split open and stuffed with various fillings, I went for refried beans. They're deep fried and then stuffed again with onions, coriander and salsa - "verde? rojo?". These were a greasy delight.
I was less enamoured with sopes, a fried corn cake topped with refried beans, lettuce and queso (a crumbly fresh cheese). It was rather bland.
I was more excited by huarache - a boat-shaped tortilla made with blue corn. These are fried on a huge hot plate (again, at Lagunilla) and the lady there asked me a variety of unfathomable questions that I nodded along to. The corn is crisp on the outside and doughy within. I burnt my fingers trying to eat it straightaway. Again, topped with salsas, onion and cheese, these were surprisingly filling.
When I fancied some seafood, I stopped at El Caguamo, near Centro Historico. The stand has a few seats around it and I arrived at 1pm to beat the lunchtime rush. A tostada topped with ceviche - mixto - had octopus and fish soaking into the crispy base. Again, that onion and coriander salad, a little squirt of salsa (picante, por favor) and topped with creamy avocado slices. At 25 pesos (around £1.20), this was a total bargain.
I was unsure of how to tackle it without cutlery. I lifted the entire thing to my mouth and took a tentative bite and caused an almighty mess so I resorted to breaking pieces of the tostada and doing a scoopity scoop.
Soup was served in a foil bag and was packed full of prawns, mackerel, another type of white fish and herbs. The broth was slightly spicy and smoky, with a crusty baguette for soaking it all up. As I was slurping away, a group behind me were eating there, seemingly on a food tour. I had considered joining one myself, but having listened to one of the tourists wanging on for a good ten minutes about how coffee was soooooo much better in her native Brazil I was pleased we were going at it alone.
We didn't stick to street stands all the time. We found that generally street food is perfect for lunch or late afternoon, but for dinner we preferred to go somewhere more comfortable than a plastic stool. The Mexicans don't dine like the Europeans do though, with most seemingly opting for a big lunch and a light dinner and so often restaurants that we wanted to try weren't open for dinner. Imagine how pleased I was then to find that El Califa was open until the early hours, and was a 5 minute walk from our base.
Recommended to me by Tommi Miers of Wahaca, this taqueria is famed for its 'al pastor'.
The meat is on a spit, rotating slowly around the grill. On top is a chunk of pineapple and the juices baste the meat. The pork is thinly shaved off into tacos and topped with a thin slice of pineapple. I watched the cooks do this quickly and expertly. The spiced pork meat is complemented perfectly with the sweet pineapple, a harmony of sweet, spicy and savoury.
Other tacos are available, like this - thin beef steak, wrapped in grilled cheese and then wrapped in a tortilla to form the taco. Hello, delicious delicious heart attack! The grease slid around my wrists as I scoffed this up. Soft tortilla gives way to crunchy cheese, then through to gooey beef.
We also had an order of beef rib tacos. Having had pretty much only pork tacos on the trip so far, this was a welcome change and the beef was tender and juicy. Green tomatillo salsa with raw onions pepped it up.
We paid about £20 for out meal here, with tip and 2 beers each.
El Califa - Altata 22, Col. Condesa
We stayed in an awesome place - The Red Tree House. The rooms are quite small but beautifully decorated and everything about the place is comfortable and lovely. Our hosts there were super friendly, always on hand to give advice on where best to go, and in the evening they encourage you to have a glass of wine with them. Every morning we had a Mexican speciality for breakfast, such as enchiladas or chilaquiles which were delicious.
After all that, we headed for the coast to bum around on a beach.
Travel Tips I Gleaned:
- Learn some Spanish, even if rudimentary. I don't think I found anyone who spoke English in Mexico City, and generally we found that people (market stall traders especially) aren't really up for the international language of hand gestures.
- Use the Metro. It's quick, cheap (3 pesos for 1 journey anywhere) and during rush hours if you're a woman you can use the specially designated woman-only carriages at the very front. The Metro map is easy to use. Taxis are still cheap but you'll get stuck in traffic.
- Eat at the food stalls that seem busy - it ensures your food is cooked fresh and high turnover of ingredients. We didn't get sick at all and we ate a lot. Test salsas carefully. Some are mind-bogglingly hot.
- Bring wet wipes / antibacterial. They don't use any cutlery and I had to keep wiping my fingers on the inside of my trouser leg. Maybe you're a less messy eater than me.
- When ordering tacos, your order is per taco, not per serve. Also, most street food stalls want you to pay at the end as a lot of people eat one taco, then maybe another two, then maybe another one so it all gets totted up at the end.
My Flickr Set of Mexico City is HERE.