Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Beginning my explorations in Colonia Reforma: Ecatepec

The walk from home to Puente takes over 30 minutes each way, and not all of it is pretty, but I'd rather walk than take the bus because it's the only exercise I get, and because I can take mental notes on places to eat. The office is located in Colonia Reforma, an upper-class, semi-suburban neighborhood, a litte north and east of the historic center. This means that in addition to your usual tortas, tacos, and other street food antojitos, of which there are still plenty, there is also a spiffier Gigante grocery store and the original branch of Pan & Co., a bakery that makes the only bread I’ve really enjoyed, as its schtick is European-style artisanal bread. Seriously, their ciabatta is amazing, and even better with a bit of passion fruit-coffee jam from the organic market. Colonia Reforma is not a tourist neighborhood, so I have no guidebook to review, just my eyes and my nose. It’s intoxicating.

I left work yesterday with a mission to get to the tacos arabe place on Calzada Porfirio Diaz, strongly recommended to me by a sister of a friend, as I thought pita bread would be a nice change from tortillas, but on my way, I saw that Ecatepec, a restaurant I had assumed was too expensive for me, had a 40-peso “comida corrida” or set meal for lunch. Located on the corner of Belisario Dominguez and Colegio Militar, it has a proud, whitewashed look, very spick-and-span and middle-class. It also declares that it is both a restaurant and a “galeria,” and true enough, there were some folksy mixed-media paintings on the wall of indigenous subjects.

I chose the sopa de lentejas, or lentil soup, and the rice as my “sopa seca.” Mexican menus generally won’t describe what’s actually in a soup or on a plate, unlike the American trend of telling you not only about the provenance of the vegetables, herbs, and meat that went into the dish, but also how the salt was harvested and the how freshly the pepper was ground. So when I got it, I was pleasantly surprised to find it had been cooked in a fish broth, with small chunks of a grayish-white fish. It had the particular briny flavor of all fish broths without being fishy, which I’d never tasted with lentils before, and I liked it a lot.

Mexican rice is generally considered a “dry soup” because the rice is basically boiled in broth until the liquid evaporates, rather than steamed. It’s very smart as the stoves won’t turn down low to simmer. Also good, and simple with bits of carrot and corn kernels. I love American corn, but sometimes, I like Mexican corn even more, the way it doesn’t assault you with its sugary sweetness.

For my “guisado,” which literally means stew but also “main dish,” I had a hard time choosing between the chicken in cacahuate sauce, or peanut sauce, and the “coliflor relleno de queso,” because I was so curious about what cauliflower stuffed with cheese would look like. Well, it turned out to look just like a knish, except it didn’t sit like a brick in my stomach. It was actually really good, the simple smoothness of the steamed cauliflower with the sharp saltiness of the queso fresco, with the whole thing was just coated in a light, fried batter.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find the coliflor came with sliced avocado, sliced tomato, and a delicious salad of nopales, or cactus, in a chunky, tomato salsa. I didn’t know until I cooked nopales myself for the first time last week, but nopales when just cooked have a tart, tangy flavor of their own, separate from any salsa or lime juice you might add. The salsa was a good way to mask how slimy nopales can get. I like nopales, even when they are oozing their okra-like slime, but it’s a little disconcerting when you can see the thread of slime stretching between your fork and the plate.

But best of all, ironically enough after my quest for tacos in pita bread, were the tortillas. They were large, about the size of a dinner plate, and revealed multiple, thin layers when you tore one in half, almost like Malaysian roti. Like perfectly cooked East Asian white rice, their blandness was their banner of pride, because then you could taste how perfectly cooked and almost nutty it was.

Dessert was extra, and I was stuffed, so I walked on towards the Oaxaca Lending Library to return my books, but by the time I got there, I’d digested enough to want a pecan popsicle at Paleteria Popeye. Seriously, why don’t we have popsicles with real flavors in the U.S.? This popsicle had even the slight bitterness of real nuts. I’ve had probably 10 popsicles in the past 2 months, compared to maybe one in the previous 10 years, and will probably have 10 more before I leave. God, I'm so lucky.

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