Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Mexico City | street food essentials

Mexico City. It's not what you think. 

DF as it's commonly known to everyone here, Distrito Federal, is a sprawling, high altitude (7300 feet) metropolis with a booming culinary scene and a flourishing cultural spirit. Where historical grandeur and pre-hispanic fare meet hip neighborhoods with urban cantinas and chic mezcal bars; it's an intriguing, vibrant, one of a kind destination.

The nations capital is largely distanced from the drug war and dangers you might associate with any Mexican City that's not a trendy beach resort. If you didn't know any better, I wouldn't blame you. This off the beaten path vacation, especially our Street Food Essentials Tour with Club Tengo Hambre had me feeling something like Anthony Bourdain, if not a true local. It was an inspired, food-filled adventure through El Centro (Centro Historico neighborhood) that took us from side street taquerias to the cramped stalls of renowned public markets, to quesadilla stands that have been in families for generations. We devoured dishes on this roving supper club tour that are quintessential to the region, ingredients and preparations you can not experience outside of DF. 

I had booked a private tour well in advance. The club reaches out with a comprehensive email once you paypal them, ($125 each for a private tour) letting you know the meeting spot, and warning you not to eat breakfast because this 6+ stop walking tour will begin at 11am and last for about 3 1/2 hours. We became fast friends with our guide Mariana and could not have asked for a better time. The price is worth it and includes a bottle of mezcal as a parting gift.

We started at the cities original, best, hidden, tacos al pastor stand and helped ourselves to two bite size - melt in your mouth tacos each, washed down with a cold, milky-sweet horchata. These tacos are extraordinary, served with onion, guacamole and lime wedges. Then we ventured to Mercado San Juan - the gourmet and exotic food market - "where the chefs shop", Mariana, a chef herself explained as she led us through a cricket, yes cricket, tasting. We washed down these salty, spicy, crispy, zesty and sometimes lime soaked Mexican delicacies with sips of smokey mezcal and squeezes of oranges dusted in worm salt. Back outside we briskly made our way to a sidewalk stall for hot, fresh off the griddle quesadillas. Shredded spicy chicken, earthy mushroom and cheese (a very special squeaky cheese you can only get at the local market) and even one loaded with leafy green vegetables. These were, hands down, the best quesadillas I'll ever have in my life. We sat among locals getting their lunch on, cramped in front of a beautiful subway tiled wall and a stairwell lined with bowls and plates. 

Yo Estoy Feliz! we all started exclaiming - I am Happy. 

The next stop was a heartwarming experience. On a sidewalk corner in front of a liquor store window, a deeply rooted, family owned business sets up shop. Two sweet and humble women pat and press blue corn dough, their hands caked in the pretty, chalky blue color. We pull up stools around their charcoal fired tortilla griddle and are treated to incredible tlacoyo - the blue corn tortilla is filled with chicharón (pork), requesón (fresh ricotta like cheese), and beans and served with nopales (cactus), piquant salsa, cilantro, and more cheese on top.

We casually wander to the next market, described as where the everyday person shops and eats (the photos with the fruit and vegetable murals). Colorful Day of the Dead decorations line the bustling food stalls along with yellow Marigolds which are for sale everywhere you look. We make our way to a quiet corner in the back for agua frescas. My watermelon is candy sweet and filled with fresh, juicy pulp. Others opt for the tangy sweet tamarind and the less sweet and floral-y hibiscus. 

Still going strong with two more stops to go! Both happen to be taquerias that cook with these crazy big cauldrons, very common in Mexican street food preparation. At the second to last one, Taqueria Gonzalez, we stuff ourselves with campechano - a melange of chopped meats with rice, potatoes, cheese and nopales aka the kitchen sink taco. I'm loving the sauteed potato element and never knew this was a traditional taco ingredient until now. The last stop is the famous Taqueria Los Cucuyos where I can hardly stomach another bite, but I do in the form of cachete (beef cheek), topping it with a sneaky spicy avocado and roasted green chili sauce and crisp radishes. Whole grilled spring onions are a common side offered and so I go back in for a few of those as well.

Jason, CTH's founder meets us after his group tour wraps up and the six of us head to a local haunt for cervezas - through an unlabeled entrance way that sprawls back into a large, very worn in, old school cantina. We shared a lot of laughs and received a solid list of recommendations for where to eat and drink next. If you are traveling to Mexico City, I'd highly recommend booking this tour on your first day in town. It's a nice intro to the Central Historic District and an incredible overview of the famed street cuisine.