My favorite ofrenda from the whole trip near the Bazaar Sábado in San Ángel.
Chicharrones, or chicharrón, can be a variety of different things throughout the Spanish-speaking world, though the type that I know best is the crispy, crackly, oh so bad for you kind that come in a plastic bag and can be found in the chip aisle of the local 7-11.
I always thought of chicharrones as being crazily, excessively bad for you and never really gave them the time of day. If potato chips were terrible, awful things to put in your body, how much worse would it be if you replaced the potato part of the chip with pig skin!? I recently learned, however, that the only reason I was able to resist these horribly wonderful treats my entire life was because I never actually tried them.
A couple weeks before venturing south of the border, I tried chicharrones for the first time. I had mixed emotions at first; they start out very chiplike, but once they’ve been in your mouth for a second, they melt into what they truly are: deep fried pieces of pig skin.
The chicharrones that I tried were about as gourmet as you can get. They are produced by 4504 Meats locally in San Francisco and they are awesssommmmeeeeeee. I know that seems to contradict the fact that I just said I had mixed feelings about them, but they grew on me really, really fast. They are salty and sweet, but more than that, they absolutely melt when you eat them. If you don’t like unctuous, porky tastes and textures, this is never going to be your thing, but if you do–oh man. You should try these.
Anyways, that is not the point of this post. The point is that by the time I went to Mexico City, I had had my first chicharrón experience, and it was positive. I was ready to try the real deal.
On the Saturday that I was in the city, I went down to San Ángel to go to the Bazar Sábado (which deserves a post all of its own). There were a number of food stalls set up all around the premises, and after enjoying a huitlacoche quesadilla (I knew it was fungus but I JUST found out it translates to English as “corn smut?!”) and an ice cream cone, which was much less fungal and way more delicious, I spotted this guy:
Oh hell yes. That is my ice cream resting on the corner of the cart, and those, my friends, are pieces of chicharrón the size of a man’s chest. The first picture in this post provides a close-up of this remarkable delicacy. I had only ever seen it chopped up into pieces so I was thrilled by the prospect of getting one giant piece that I could munch on, cartoon style. Alas, my porcine fantasy did not last. We ordered some (I forget how much it cost but it was very, very little), and this is how they were presented to us:
In a plastic bag, slathered in Valentina. I got over the fact that I didn’t get one big piece fast enough and snatched a piece out of the bag. After only having tried the 4505 version which is basically liquid pig in a very temporary fried state, these were a little dry to me at first, but still so, so good. The fungus quesadilla, double scoop ice cream, and pork rinds were a little much for me and my buddy, so we didn’t end up finishing these, but I’m sure if I had had an ice cold Victoria at the time I could have put them all away.
Picking up a bag of these on the street is a great way for a less adventurous eater to get a little authentic Mexico City excitement into their diet without encountering too many..ahem…problems. I would highly recommend taking the pork rind plunge if you find yourself in the DF anytime soon!
We stopped at this stall near the Zócalo because there were tons of people buzzing around it so we knew it must be something good. My non-Spanish speaking friend ran across the street and pantomimed to the vendor that he wanted one of whatever he was selling. The man behind the cart pulled a little bready thing out from a basket and sliced it open around the edges to reveal a bunch of cooked shrimp and melted cheese inside. Unexpectedly it was then slathered in avocado (ok) and ketchup (what?!?!) and then handed over to us so we could add our own dose of hot sauce to complete the dish. The total was about $1.50USD. We took our little frisbee-like plate over to a nearby table and tentatively took a bit of the ketchupy, shrimpy mess. And it was so good! Honestly, one of the best things I ate in Mexico City, and I ate a lot. I went back to the vendor to ask what this delicious morsel was, and he told me it was an empanada! It was a lot different than the empanadas I had been used to in Spain and Portugal, but this was just as good, if not better than the flaky pastries I had learned to love across the Atlantic. And cheaper, too!
I’d be lying if I said that part of the excitement that I felt about visiting Mexico City didn’t stem from a secret hope that it would be like a new Spain that happened to be on the same continent that I inhabited. Obviously I was also excited for many things that were very much Mexican and not Spanish at all; tacos al pastor, Día de los Muertos, lucha libre, etc. etc. etc. But I had also heard about a lot of Mexico City features that I hoped would transport me back to Spain in some small way.
So, with this in mind, imagine my delight when I strolled into Mercado San Juan, Mexico City’s premier exotic foods market, and was greeted by a man who literally asked me “Would you like to try the best Jamón Serrano sandwich in all of Mexico?” Yes, man. Yes, I do want that.
My friend and I were escorted through the market by this very friendly man to a stall that looked like this, while he sang the praises of their hams, cheeses, and embuditos:
I cannot emphasize how crowded this place was, so I instantly believed that we were about to actually get the best ham sandwich in all of Mexico. We were given a menu and a rundown of the offerings by a very nice young boy, and decided to order a ham sandwich between the two of us. When we were asked if we wanted a whole or a half, well, that is where we made our mistake. The only negative detail of this outing was our decision to go for a whole sandwich instead of a half. Little did we know that meant a whole baguette and about 1-meter of carefully layered, very expensive Jamón Serrano. Mexico City was so delightfully affordable for us coming from the States that paying $20 for a sandwich was an absolute shock, even though we got our money’s worth and more.
The sandwich was indeed delicious, but even as a devoted ham lover, it was way too much! So take my advice; definitely go here and get a sandwich, but make it a half! And split that half with someone else. So here is the sandwich; basic and delicious and dripping with ham and olive oil:
Sorry for the blur and the bite marks, I guess I couldn’t control myself. The sandwiches were great, but for once it wasn’t the jamón that made this experience what it was. The service from the people at Gastronomica San Juan was literally so good that I just wanted to sit there and chat with them. They were a bit over the top with praise for their product, but it came off as genuine enthusiasm, and did I mention the free wine and dessert?! As soon as we ordered we were offered two tiny glasses of red wine to go with our sandwich which were promptly downed:
Again, no time for proper photographic evidence. Then the nice little boy who took our order asked us if we’d like to have a seat. The place was packed and there weren’t even chairs to be offered, but I said sure since he seemed to have a plan in mind. He then walked us to a completely different market stall and pulled out two stools for us to sit on right at the counter. There was such a nice, community environment in the market and even though I must have been driving these people crazy with my lousy Spanish, they were so patient and generous with us.
When we finished our sandwiches (we took half home in a bag…way too much ham!!) and our second little sipper of vino, the real treat came out. Dessert! We had no idea what this was at first, but it ended up being a slice of baguette covered in ice cold mascarpone (or a similar cheese), then topped with a walnut and drizzled with honey.
Ok, I thought. Kinda lame dessert, but cool that it’s free. Then I took a bite. Never has something so simple been so damn good. We ate these two with such voracity that the man helping us came over and gave us six more pieces to go, for free. He even wrapped up our little doggy bag in wax paper. Two of the additional pieces only made it as far as a coffee bar just down the aisle in the same market, where we had another delightful experience. We ate the others that afternoon. I have yet to recreate this simple masterpiece, partially because the memory of eating this in Mercado San Juan was so perfect.
If you like Spanish foods (hams, cheeses, and sausages in particular), I cannot recommend a visit to Gastronomica San Juan enough. If you don’t know Spanish food, even if you hate it, I still recommend it, just for the wonderful service and awesome setting. It was a great way to kick off an even greater trip to the Mexican capital, and when I go back (which I definitely will), it will be one of the first places on my list to revisit. I’ll add another post soon with some pictures of the other market stalls, because they were just incredible.
If you’d like some more information, you can check out Gastronomica’s Facebook page here. It will be helpful to speak Spanish at this spot, but if you don’t I have no doubt you will survive with a smile and some finger pointing. Just watch out for those enormous $20 sandwiches!!!
An ofrenda, erected outside the Bazar del Sábado in San Ángel, a colonia in the southern part of the city.
About six weeks ago I started to think about how it would be pretty cool to go to Mexico City for Día de los Muertos. It was something I had always wanted to do, but because of a lack of vacation days or poor timing or a shortage of friends interested in visiting a city best known for express kidnappings and smog, I had never gone. I knew there were other places that were better known for their Día de los Muertos activities, but Mexico City seemed so easy to get to, and so intriguing.
About five weeks ago I found a round trip airline ticket for $350 from SFO to MEX. I don’t really know if that is an exceptionally great price, but it seemed really good to me. That same week, after much campaigning, I finally found a friend who was willing to go with me, and that week we bought the tickets.
I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, but about three weeks ago we set out on a five day trip to the Mexican capital, armed with a guide book and an arsenal of remedies for digestive distress. I had heard a number of good things from a few people who had been there, but it was mostly things like “Oh yeah, I have been to Mexico City. I mean, it was only for eight hours during a layover, but it seemed really cool.” Fortunately the bad reviews were even less credible, always involving someone’s dad’s friend’s friend who knew a guy who had been kidnapped in the late 90s.
As we began our descent into the capital, I started to get a little nervous. Mexico City is big, and you really start to understand just how big it is as you fly over it. There was a thick, yellow-gray fog hanging above the city, and I was confused by what looked to be a number of hot pink streets. They kept popping up around the city as we descended lower and lower; hot pink intersections with dots of other colors mixed in occasionally with the pink. Right before we hit the airport, I realized that what I was seeing was street markets, little tianguis filled with neon pink tents that literally filled the streets in some areas. I had known about the heavy presence of the informal economy in Mexico City, but I didn’t expect to see evidence of it from the air before we even touched down.
We got an authorized cab from the airport as our guidebook suggested, and after a predictable attempt by the guy at the counter to overcharge us (which was thwarted by me, with help from my pre-trip research, thank you Moon Guides!), we had an uneventful cab ride into the center; no kidnappings, no assaults, nothing even remotely sketchy. Our hostel was fabulous, we felt safe the whole time, we ate delicious food with abandon without getting (too) sick, and generally had a fabulous time in what I’m now convinced is an extremely under-appreciated city.
That isn’t to say that everyone should throw caution to the wind and jet down to Mexico City. While we had a great trip that completely changed the way we thought about the place, bad things still happen there. Mostly because it’s a HUGE city, and if you put 25 million people in one place, a lot of stuff, good and bad, is going to go down. Before we departed, I had concerns about the safety of the bus ride to Teotihuacan, the pre-Colombian archaeological site that sits about 30 miles northeast of the city. I had heard horror stories online about people who had been robbed at gunpoint on the busses, but after being in the city and hearing first-hand accounts of successful trips from our fellow hostel guests, we just went for it. Again, the trip was uneventful, easy, and felt completely safe, but when I took my seat on the bus, my view was obscured by what was undeniably a very large bullet hole. On the way back we made a quick stop to pick up some other passengers, and the stop walls were covered with wanted posters for men who had assaulted and robbed bus passengers and hadn’t been tracked down yet.
Overall, we felt safe because we proceeded with the same amount of caution we would in any big city in the world and didn’t put ourselves in questionable situations. Speaking Spanish was a huge plus, as was traveling with a guy. I have felt more uncomfortable in Rome or San Francisco than I did in Mexico City, but I still didn’t push my luck by going into the neighborhoods that the hostel told us to avoid or by hailing cabs on the street or wandering around in dark alleys late at night with my wallet hanging out of my pocket.
Mexico City also isn’t the most exotic of locations, but this was the first trip that I have taken since Albania that really showed me something unexpected and thoroughly changed my perception of a place, and I love when travel can do that for me. I feel like I discovered a destination, and considering that the place I “discovered” is a city of 20 million+ people about four hours away from home by plane, it’s pretty remarkable that it can still feel that way.
I’ll be posting more photos and recommendations for the city in the next couple weeks, based on my experience there, but in the meantime, here is my advice for anyone thinking about taking a trip to the DF: Go.
Ever since I discovered how low fares from SFO to Mexico City can get, I’ve been seriously wanting to visit. One of the places I stumbled upon while looking into the dining scene there was this incredible Japanese restaurant called Tori Tori. Architectism has a post on the building with some great photos. Here are a few, check out the original post for more if you get a chance!