Sunday, August 5, 2007

Happy small finds in Mexico City

Sometimes, it feels like there’s nothing left to discover in New York. I know it’s not true, but given the number of people who care and the number of people nosing around, the odds are nothing really wonderful can stay a secret for very long. So it was a quiet relief to spend my last day in Mexico City just wandering around, relying on some tips, but mainly just eating what I found. Despite or perhaps because of memories of “Introduction to Art History” with Vincent Scully, I’d decided I didn’t need to go with Erin to Teotihuacan to see the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Erin had the camera, but even that was a relief, too, just to eat.

I decided to go back to Coyoacan, the artsy neighborhood and former home of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, and Octavio Paz (the photos are from our trip there 3 days earlier). Acting on a chowhound tip, I started at the Pasteleria Esperanza right outside the General Anaya metro stop, planning to walk and eat my way west to the Miguel de Aquevedo stop on the other side of Coyoacan.

I ate a sugary dona, or donut, that wasn’t as light as I’d hoped, but it kind of grew on me. It was a Monday morning, around 9:30, but nothing was open and the streets were quiet with people walking their dogs. Coyoacan is what makes Mexico City seem so much like LA to me—a city that is completely oblivious to pedestrian needs (I almost had a car run over my toes at a busy intersection with no pedestrian traffic lights) but with quiet, well-off neighborhoods filled with sidewalk cafes and pink and orange bougainvillea flowing over the walls.

I found a branch of the popular coffee shop, Cafe El Jarocho, and sat on a bench with my café de olla reading Carlos Fuentes’s “The Death of Artemio Cruz” while watching people drive up, just like in LA, for their morning coffee. Coffee isn’t a religion in Mexico, certainly not in Oaxaca, but El Jarocho has good, cheap, strong espressos and cappuchinos.

I wandered on to Plaza Hidalgo with its adjoining smaller plaza and the fountain I love so much, two dogs playing in a spray of water. I saw a man and his grandson buying roast chickens on the northwest corner of the plaza, at a big grocery store called “America,” from a nice young man with a goatee. The sign in the window advertised empanadas de atun, empanadas de bacalao. I don’t know why, but whenever I see the word “bacalao” for salt cod, I have to eat it. This empanada turned out to be a flaky turnover filled with salt cod and onions. Yum.

Then I wended my way back to the Mercado to eat cebiche de jaipa or crab at El Jardin del Pulpo, “The Garden of the Octopus,” in a sundae glass with saltines and fresh wedges of lime. Nothing particularly memorable to report, but I love that name, the Garden of the Octopus.

I had eaten so much, it was clearly time to walk some more. I took the subway back to the center of town to the Mercado Artesanias and bought more souvenirs that I’ll struggle to carry home. As I walked back to our hotel near the Zocalo, through the part of town dedicated to selling bathroom fixtures, I saw a little plaza with some crowded food stalls. All weekend, I’d been seeing street food that I hadn’t seen in Oaxaca, antojitos typical of Verucruz or Michoacan or the Yucatan.

I walked back and forth dragging my tin mirrors behind me, and finally decided to eat a huarache, because the man already standing there looked so happy with his. Besides, they were advertised as “Rico Rico Rico Rico.” I have to take precise note of where it was, on Ayuntamiento near the corner of Aranda, a block from the major street of Lopez, next to the bank on the south side of the street, because the huarache was so good! I’d had huaraches before in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and knew them as long, flat tortilla-like things with taco-like fillings, but this oblong huarache was different, crispier, chewier, with a texture of masa ground more coarsely. The huarache got good and toasty because the cook repeatedly brushed both sides with oil. I ordered one with bisteck, a thin slice of beef he cooked separately on the grill, then added to the huarache already bubbling with red salsa. Topped with crumbled queso fresco, it was heaven. My fingertips burned as I tried to eat the unwieldy thing without getting it all over my face, but it was worth it.

And we still had dinner ahead of us at Aguila y Sol.

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