It’s been weeks since I left Mexico City, but I’m finally ready to say ADIOS!
I wish I could say we explored all of Mexico City by foot in the one week we were there. I wish I could say I ate at hotspots like Pujol or Izote and visited amazing markets like this one, or went into the home of an abuela and learned to make mole. sigh.
I wish I could have attended an amazing wedding.
Oh, wait, I did. (I guess I can only wish for so much, right?)
Despite staying in a posh, hotel-ridden neighborhood, the DiploMan and I were, of course, most drawn to the least decorated strip of Polanco’s center which housed a fruit market and neighboring hole-in-the-wall taquerias. Rather “underdeveloped” in comparison to its fellow restaurants and bars in the area. And lest I forget to mention yet again, that Coffee Bean down the street.
After recovering from a flu that left me, so frustratingly, without an appetite for the first three days I was in town, I was finally feeling well enough to stomach my pre-ordained craving for tacos. Under a glowing azure overhang, as we approached the rotisserie on the sidewalk that skewered a chunk of al pastor meat, looked past the open griddle and taco counter, I knew we were in the right place when I spotted a small cluster of formica fold-out tables and flimsy plastic school chairs.
I don’t know if it’s living in China that’s changed this perception, but those formica tabletops really did set off some nerve in my brain, alerting my food memory banks for the potential of a great meal to be had. Though Polanco’s posh hotels, well-dressed women in heels and beautiful architectural gems had quite the appeal, THIS is what had enticed me about Mexico, this is what I had been waiting for since we landed.
When I spotted the takeout tacos in trays waiting to go out to hungry customers and caught a whiff of the spicy meat and fragrant onions, I knew for certain we were in the right place.
Kitchen in the front and seating in the back is a layout often seen in small hole-in-the-wall eateries abroad, where Health Inspection does not reign supreme. It’s a change of pace that is quite welcome in my book, for the displayed kitchen serves as a demo booth for the heart and soul of the menu.
Clearly, the heart and soul of this ‘restaurant’ was tacos. Tacos with chicken, tacos with al pastor, tacos with steak, with cheese, without cheese, so many options for tacos!!! Equipped with a griddle, two chopping stations and an antiquated cash register, the presumed brother and sister duo took orders (her) and cooked tacos (him) with automated frenzy. Many of their customers ate their orders perched on the narrow wooden “bar” across from the griddle, others took their tacos to go, with many a taco quickly disappearing as soon as they stepped onto the street.
A few clientele, mostly off-shift workers from neighboring restaurants and old Mexican men who seemed to be reminiscing of their youth over several bottles of beer each (and us), chose to sit in the rear of the restaurant, at the aforementioned cluster of formica tables.
Posted on the wall were large, bright cardstock that acted as menus, in addition to flimsy laminated and bound menus that were informally distributed to the table. Foregoing what was put in front of us, the DiploMan and I, along with the rest of my family, were mostly drawn to the bright orange display featuring the Orden de Tacos, five tacos of our choosing for $33 pesos (about $2.50USD). With cheese, a modest $53 ($4USD).
A revelation was had when I asked about the Campechanos, a mix of chorizo and steak. Consider my mind blown.
In total, the five of us splurged on five Orden de Tacos along with an order of Birria- all supplemented by the homemade green and red salsas, a bottomless supply of limes, and a large bowl of chopped onion and cilantro.
The tacos arrived at the table, double corn tortillas generously piled with seasoned meat and cheese, one piled atop the other barely accommodated on a regular-sized plate. Our orders of tacos con queso were topped with a griddle-melted pile of Mexican cheese, which was not unlike a less-salty version of Mozzarella. The issue of cheese on tacos, commonly referred to as Gringo style, is an area that is often left wanting in my dining experiences. These tacos certainly did not disappoint nor were they wanting, and if anything there was- dare I say it- too much cheese (!!). Then the Birria arrived, an oily, fragrant stew of mystery meat (lamb? veal?) waiting to be stuffed into their own little tortilla pockets, a lovely milder, warm, and soupy counterpart to the tacos.
What ensued was what often happens when simple, good food is placed in front of individuals- a chorus of munching and grunts of approval, the swapping of plates and exchanging of tacos (one chorizo/steak for one pollo? Deal.), some swooning and even rolling of eyes from delight, and definitely minimal conversation. If they hadn’t known it before, as I surely had, this was definitely a meal that we had all been waiting for.
Like something parked on a movie set, this little red delivery truck was such a cute sight to see parked just around the corner from Mexico City’s famous Zócalo.
I thought I knew Mexican food.
But I clearly have a lot to learn. Mexican cuisine has so much more than the my Tex-Mex, Baja California style burritos and enchiladas that I’m used to. This even goes beyond tacos al pastor, my friends.
Take molletes, for example.
I saw molletes on every menu in Mexico, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Finally the DiploMan entertained us and ordered a plate one morning, and much to our delight, something that resembled cheesy bread came out to the table accompanied with a side of salsa. But- what doesn’t come accompanied with salsas in Mexico? Just one more reason to love the country.
Molletes are probably just as much a cultural mash-up as nachos are, a European Spanish and Indigenous Local mash-up. The garlic bread of the South, if I dare to name it as such. On top of toasted baguette, is slathered a layer of black beans, cheese, and meat or vegetables of your choosing (through throughout the several plates of molletes we ended up ordering by the end of our vacation, chorizo seemed to rule supreme). And it tastes just as good as you would imagine bread and meat and cheese to taste. Why isn’t this stuff on the menus at home?!
The sheer size of Mexico City startled me- 15 million inhabitants inside the city along, and 10 million just outside. That makes 25 million (in case you were on the slow train there). The total population of the Country of Mexico is only 114 million, so that means practically a quarter of the country’s population lives in or around the capital!
Oddly enough, both the DiploMan and I commented that despite these numbers, Mexico City never seemed as crowded as Guangzhou. Particularly in the quaint area of Polanco, where we stayed for the week, I felt as if I were strolling in a suburban downtown, rather than a metropolitan hub.
Polanco is the West Village of the City. Cute, upscale, boutique-y and expensive to rent. Built around Lincoln Park, Polanco was not only home to posh hotel chains such as the W, Nikko, the Marriott and our Intercontinental, but also a small center with local stores and restaurants (and to my horror/delight, a Coffee Bean).
My favorite part of Polanco, as with Mexico City in general, were the facades of the small shops and buildings. I am not sure if the weather or the people dictate how open the restaurants and stores should be, but most storefronts greeted the public with huge open doors and windows the size of walls. Diners and products spilled out to the streets out of huge garage-like doorways. Signage and lettering was also something I couldn’t get enough of, and tossed in with the vibrant blues, yellows, pinks and greens of the rolling landscape of buildings, I was in photographic heaven.