TRAVEL : Food Moments In Mexico City


It's intermittently raining and we're walking, ducking under eaves as needed on Avenida de los Insurgentes. We turn a corner and happen upon a birria cart and Jaimie and Jeff pause to remember birria in Chicago, where they first fell in love with the dish. Cooks live and die by nostalgic sentiment and we're hungry anyhow so we pause for a late lunch.

The cart itself is beautiful. There's a painted sign advertising "Consome Gratis" in big orange letters and a line of men drinking hot soup flecked with chopped onions and cilantro. I love the pile of collapsed limes swimming in a plastic lined bowl. I love limes here in general—their constancy, the obligatory squeeze of acid that pulls everything together. 

We've designated Jeff the translator. He's good at the job and likes it too. He orders for the three of us and like we usually do, we share everything, sliding the bowl of soup around the table to take turns. The broth is heavy on cloves and I feel lucky when I catch a piece of unstrained meat, diving for the good bits with my spoon. We're adding limes as we go and changing the broth constantly, customizing between bites. We scoop up braised wet meat with corn tortillas, still warm from the grill and a little soggy from the consommé. The pickled habaneros and onions are killing us. Jaimie and I are sweating from the spice and trying to calm our tongues with broth while Jeff pretends to be unaffected. We rib him a little bit because there is no way he is not feeling those habaneros.  

While waiting for our coffees from Panadería Rosetta I spot another cart selling "Birria al Estilo Jalisco" parked on the corner in Roma, a neighborhood known as Barrio Mágico. It's before the lunch rush so the lone customer is leisurely chatting with the cook, swirling his taco in his soup while making small talk. The cook is chopping chunks of meat on his wood stump cutting board, the cleaver rocking back and forth. Every few minutes he stops to ladle broth over the meat still on the grill. A plume of steams rises up each time the liquid hits the grill and he's already on to the next task. Like a lot of kitchen work, it's like a small dance, moving around each task with rhythm and intention.  

I order 3 tacos and of course ask for the "Consome Gratis". He hands me soup first while he warms the tortillas on the grill, rubbing them in the caramelized meat juices. The broth is thinner and cleaner than the previous birria cart and it feels right for 10 in the morning, gentle and satisfying I'm watching him pinch meat with the tortillas and stacking them side-by-side onto a dish. He holds the tacos altogether as he ladles a little extra broth over them.

Meanwhile, Jaimie and Jeff bring over our take-out guava pastries and coffee from Panadería Rosetta and I love that we're eating European style bread and Jalisco-style birria all in the same breath, consommé and coffee in turns. We eat one taco each and share the soup, planning our day.  

We walk to Mercado Medellín, a large market specializing in high-end Latin American ingredients from Cuba and Colombia. There are endless rows of rainbow peppers, bright colored citrus, and glass jars full of dried hibiscus flowers. We get almost giddy about the large sheets of fried pork rinds hanging proudly at each meat stall. We lose Jeff and some point while Jaimie and I slowly peruse, taking discreet photos as we go along. Some of the vendors love this, pose a little with their meat cleavers in the air. There's the constant sound of pounding, meat being tenderized by hand, mallets doing their rhythmic work.   

Specialty stalls are offering us samples of cured meat, a Spanish-style ham or a pickled anchovy on a crostini but we politely decline. Bites on toothpicks and slivers of meat on yesterday's bread feel vaguely unsatisfying in place where bones are long-stewing in cauldron sized pots and the most airy tortillas are coming out hot. We stop to buy some limes for the bottle of cheap tequila we have at the Airbnb, laughing at our poor taste in liquor and looking forward to a late afternoon drink. 

On our way out of the market we see two women making blue corn quesadillas in the parking lot of the market. We guess that they might be sisters, one sister shaping and pressing the masa into rounds, the other assembling tlacoyitos with fresh cheese and raw onions. Without questions we need to eat one and order a chicharron. There's an entire circle of women sitting on plastic colored stools around the grill, ordering one item at a time and slowly garnishing each bite in-between conversation. To conserve our stomach space we all go around sharing the one chicharron quesadilla and I see actual joy in Jeff's face as he pulls at the cheese.  

Pulque has been on the to-do list since the beginning.  We're excited to have an early afternoon drink, feeling confident that we can handle the alcohol fermented from maguey sap. A friend recommends Pulquería Insurgentes, a massive bar specializing in house-made pulque and curados (flavored pulque). We're a trio that's generally good with challenging tastes and textures but admittedly this one is a hard one for the team. The drinks come in liter or half-liter sizes so there's no light commitment. We order the liter and watch as the server pours the viscous, almost gelatinous liquid into the mug. The flavor is mild, sweet, and warming but it's the thickness of the drink I'm struggling with. Motivated by the list of health benefits of pulque, Jeff takes one for the team and finishes of the liter by himself while Jaimie and I venture into more fruity flavors, ordering the Mamey and Pineapple curados, which are delicious.  

Later in an Uber, we brag about Jeff's facility with pulque drinking and the driver makes a suggestive gesture, reminding us of pulque's reputation as an aphrodisiac. The driver warns that Jaimie should watch out tonight and we're laughing and embarrassed all the same. With Jeff translating, the driver tells us how there is something for everyone in Mexico and that he wouldn't live anywhere else. Perhaps intuiting our backgrounds, he tells us that there are Korean and Japanese communities here too. He's tried the United States, he's been places in the world and he's concluded that here, in Mexico City he's happy. And I completely understand, the reasoning feels clear and true. I feel sold on the idea of living in Mexico City and in my mind, I respond to him, "We're happy here too."

words : Saehee
photos : Jaimie