Forbes Magazine says Mexico City is the hottest place for food. They are not talking temperature. Mexico City has it all — from gourmet cheeses and meats found in pricey restaurants to humble street food like tacos and tlacoyos. Today, I focus on eating on the street where people consume complete meals or snacks, sitting on stools or standing at the curb. This is Mexico’s version of fast food and is something I have shied away from. But my secret yearning to sample was finally realized because I want to eat like a Mexican, too! Thanks goes to Lesley Tellez who started an off-the-beaten-path, non-touristy culinary walking tour called Eat Mexico (see below for contact information).
This is real food, homemade by women and men who work at portable cook stoves at street corners or at little stationery stands who continue home-style family traditions. We discover, however, that humble is a misnomer and what we taste rivals any high-end restaurant for quality if not for presentation. Lesley has done her research well. All the food is delicious, and the preparation is safe and clean.
Our guide Natalia and guide-in-training Arturo, meet us at the designated spot, then lead us down a side street to a corner seafood taco stand that has been in business for over forty years. We belly up to the outdoor bar, gaze at the selection of fresh crab, shrimp, lobster, fish, and octopus through the protective clean glass that separated us from the cooks. We choose either the blue crab tostada or a deep fried mixed seafood quesadilla. Luckily, Debbie and I can share so we choose one of each, drizzled with lots fresh lime and Valentina sauce. YUMMY and AMAZING after first bites.
After a block or two, we turn the corner near the San Juan artisans market and come upon a stall that is operated by a third generation cook. Right on this corner, whole turkeys are cut up on the seat of a plastic chair, then deep-fried in a giant cauldron filled with oil until done. The meat is then sliced, layered on a toasted roll (torta), slathered with homemade chipotle chili salsa (another OOOH, AAAAH here), and topped with avocado. We are invited to add a papalo leaf to the ingredients before closing up the sandwich to eat. This is a minty herb with a sharp, flavorful taste unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. We each get a half-sandwich to sample. What I notice while I inhale this treat is how the plastic plates are wiped with a cloth only used for this purpose. The plate is covered with a clean piece of paper before the sandwich finds its resting place. I have no concerns about sanitation here.
It’s the middle of July and the rainy season in Mexico. As we enter San Juan market, boxes are filled with just-delivered mushrooms, varieties of which I have not seen before. This market offers a gourmet food experience and many top chefs shop here for exotic meats (like ostrich, lion, and kangaroo), fruit and vegetables. We sample fresh rambutan, chico zapote, mango, jackfruit, figs, nectarines. The mamey tastes like a creamy sweet potato and I love it. Eat it solo for dessert or try it as an ice cream.
Coffee, anyone? The barista grinds beans from Veracruz and brews me a cup of Americano from the espresso machine. MMMMM, good.
Next, is a tasting of fruit jams and jellies, tapenades, and honey. I walk away with a jar of jalapeno jelly and rose petal jam. Next door is the cheese purveyor who puts out a sampling plate of world-class varieties like smoked gouda, pistachio infused manchego cheese, brie, and a mozzarella, all made in Mexico. He offers us cups of red wine to sip along with the tasting. Baguettes of fresh, crusty French bread hang from the overhead rack above his stall, ready to take home.
By now, I am full, but we press on. Our guide Natalia explains the history of the market dating from pre-Hispanic Aztec times. Mexico, she says, gave the world three gifts: chocolate, chiles, and vanilla. At the next intersection is the chile vendor where some of us buy mole rojo and vanilla beans at 20 pesos each (that’s about $1.50). Natalia recommends we put a vanilla bean in the sugar jar for a great taste.
At the Oaxaca specialty food stand, we pop chapulines (grasshoppers) into our mouths. No one is reticent. The big ones are the females. The little ones are males. They are roasted with salt and chiles, crunchy and tasty. I say no to another taste of Oaxaca quesillo. No more space in my stomach. Debbie buys a bag of peanuts roasted with chile, salt and lime juice. I watch her pop a few!
We move out onto the street in the direction of the common people’s market Arcos de Belen. On the way, we stop at a molina to see how the corn is ground. Next door is the tortilleria where the masa dough is formed and cooked by machine. (In Teotitlan del Valle, we can still get handmade tortillas!) Natalia gives us a history of corn as part of the cultural identity of Mexico, where it was first hybridized eight thousand years ago in the Oaxaca valley close to where I live.
After we tour the market food courts, we all pass on a taste at the fresh juice bar (estoy lleno–I am full) and move on to the corner where a woman sits making blue corn tlacoyos.
The finish is at the pulque bar, where the double swinging doors look like a saloon entrance. The décor is decidedly neo-Aztec with bright figures painted on walls and ceilings. We cozy up to a side bar where the owner brings us a sampler tray of flavored pulques – pineapple, celery, coconut, oatmeal, guayaba plus au natural (a viscous, sour taste). The sweetness helps mask the milkiness. Natalia tells us the Aztec history of the drink and explains that it is fermented, not distilled, from the agave plant and must be served fresh. It is cheap, gives a nice buzz, and is favored by university students who represent most of the clientele this day. I take a liking to the celery and pineapple.
University students at the pulqueria
We say our goodbyes at the next street corner. What a great adventure, very fun, educational, and gastronomically delightful. I have a map but I’m not going to share it with you!
I recommend you sign up for Eat Mexico Culinary Tours and discover this great food experience for yourself!
P.S. The cost of $85 per person includes guide services, map, a bottle of water, and all food and drink along the way. We sign up in advance and pay online. Very easy. Eat Mexico sends lots of email communication to tell us where to meet, what to wear that would be comfortable, and a little bit about our guide so we recognize her. Be sure to check out Lesley Tellez’ The Mija Chronicles blog, too.
Oaxaca’s Monte Alban Archeological Site Key to Zapotec Civilization
The UNESCO World Heritage archeological site of Monte Alban never ceases to capture and hold my attention. I go there every time I host visitors to Oaxaca and each time there is something new that I notice or an area that is recently restored.
The Spanish conquerors named Monte Alban, or white mountain, because the hill was in bloom with white flowering trees when they arrived. This week, the sky was nearly flawless blue with outstanding big, white cloud formations. I don’t remember a more beautiful, breathtaking day here.
The best way to enter the site is to begin on the north platform, the highest place. After you go through the ticket turn-style make a right turn and continue up the hill. The path isn’t well-marked, but the trail is well-traveled, so you will figure it out. Even though it looks daunting, be sure to climb the pyramids.
Otherwise, you will miss the most stunning views. On the main level of the platform you will see carved stones depicting men captured in war. Called Los Danzantes, or dancers, these are replicas. The originals are in the museum on site and in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.
Summer in Oaxaca is very temperate and GREEN. Now, the rainy season that brings torrents of water is almost over, and so we may get a late afternoon or evening shower, which is lovely, and tends to cools things off — a perfect temperature for sleeping.
By the time we arrived at Monte Alban, it was almost ten-thirty in the morning, and the sun was already strong. Our guide extraordinaire, Rene Cabrera Arroyo, was prepared and had plenty of bottled water for us.
It took about two hours to walk the site and get a complete explanation of Zapotec history, conquests, relationships with the Aztecs and Mixtecs, and the political and religious structure at the time they were at the height of their power.
Of course, we had to stop to look at the clay replicas of the found objects in the Monte Alban tombs made by local craftsmen from Arrazola. The figures are all hand formed and the sellers — who are the artisans — are licensed by Monte Alban to create and sell their wares. Prices are reasonable and there’s room for a little bargaining to make it more fun — if you must! (Remember, the dollar to peso value is in favor of the visitor so don’t drive a hard bargain.)
It’s Guelaguetza time and Monte Alban crawling with visitors who come to Oaxaca from throughout Mexico and many foreign countries. I am hearing a cacophony of languages: German, British English, Australian English, Dutch, French, Japanese and Chinese, as well as Spanish and American English.
Oaxaca is a wonderful place to visit and bring the family for summer vacation. It’s safe, educational, fun and affordable. Entry fees are 59 pesos per person. That translates to about $4.25 each. We’d love to see you here!
After Monte Alban, we went off to Atzompa, the nearby village of potters who supplied the priests and nobles with utilitarian and ceremonial clay vessels.
My advice: wear sturdy shoes for rock climbing, use a sun hat, sun screen, and pack a water bottle — as important as your camera! And, consider hiring a licensed guide who knows the in-depth history of the place. It will enrich your visit.
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Posted in Cultural Commentary, Travel & Tourism
Tagged archeology, guide, Mexico, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, tour, Zapotec