Mexico City’s love affair with food – from street-side tacos to warm, fluffy tamales that give off a puff of aromatic steam when released from their husks – is abiding and all-encompassing, and no trip here would be complete without a thorough exploration of the culinary riches the city has to offer.
At the beating heart of this passion is Mercado de la Merced, the city’s largest market and one of its oldest.
Dotted throughout its extensive warrens are delicacies from across Mexico – a huge variety of tastes and styles, from the straight-up delicious to dishes and ingredients not for the faint-stomached.
And who better to provide insight and insider knowledge than a trained chef? Nico García, who also works as a guide for Eat Mexico Culinary Tours, is originally from the city of Xalapa – making him, as he points out, a Jalapeño – but has been in Mexico City for nine years and knows the market inside out.
“It’s an incredible place that you have to see and experience to truly grasp how massive and varied it is,” he says.
“You can find pretty much anything you can think of and it’s the oldest part of the city. The modern market was built in the late 1950s, but Merced has been a very active commercial area since the 1300s, and because of all this, it’s one of the best places in the city to find traditional market food.”
Tours are done only in small groups, especially on the busy weekends, as it is, first and foremost, a working market, and shoppers and vendors have no time for gawking tourists getting in the way. Basic safety precautions, like keeping wallets, cameras and jewelry unobtrusive, are part of a pre-tour emailed brief.
The combo you never knew you needed
The eating begins in earnest in the banquetón, the large food hall that runs the perimeter of the market. The first stop is at – given what’s to come, the relatively prosaic – McTeo, a market-stall taqueria that, if looked at charitably, pays homage to the king of fast food, Ronald McDonald.
A less understanding interpretation might see lawyers from the burger giant descend on the market with a cease-and-desist order regarding the liberal use of the mascot to sell tacos, but this doesn’t seem to have deterred the stall’s cheery workers.
Instead, in a cloud of oily steam they relentlessly slice potato after potato directly into a vat of boiling oil to provide the papas fritas – French fries – that serve as a carb-y garnish for the delicious carne enchilada tacos with cactus and onion. It’s the combination you never knew you needed.
Nico says that on a weekend day, they’ll get through three 50-kilo (110 lb) sacks of potatoes, easy.
All in all the tour takes in as many as 11 stops, while also wandering through the market’s cavernous, multiple-football-field sized halls, so there’s little dawdling. A pit stop for fried tamales – a specialty of the city – sees Nico expound on one of the most ubiquitous of Mexican foods.
“A famous chef, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita of the Azul restaurants, once tried to catalog every variation of tamal, throughout the whole country,” he says. “He had to give up when he realized that he’d write down one recipe, and the guy next door would tell him, ‘yeah, but you can also make it like this,’” indicating just the tiniest change. Unfazed, he eventually published his unfinished research in a cookbook.
Five siblings, one taqueria
Each stop involves one or two bites, but upon reaching Cinco Hermanos, the famed family-run taqueria, it’s OK to pause a little longer.
Widely recognized as some of the best tacos in the city, Nico says that the secret comes from the synergy of owning the adjoining butcher’s shop – affording the five siblings the choicest cuts to turn into mouthwatering suadero – a cut of beef similar to brisket – longaniza (sausage) or tripe tacos.
The meat is confited in a vat of bubbling oil, along with the small, sweet onions habitually served as full stops to the meal. A bunch of pápalo leaves, which are used as palate cleansers, is on hand, self-serve, for customers.
Nico shows us market stalls where men thump down huge knives in quick drumbeat succession into huge cakes of chicharrón prensado – pressed pork – deconstructing them once again for gorditas or to be added to salsas or tacos.
Nearby, small samples of mole – encompassing a huge variety of shades from deep, rich chocolate to bright red, are offered and tasted.
A few rows over, an impassive worker methodically – and rapidly – shaves the spines off nopales, the ubiquitous prickly pear cactus pads that are sold for less than a peso each.
He strips and preps each in seconds flat. “He makes it look easy, but if I were to try to do that, each one would take at least a couple of minutes,” Nico admits.
We are in front of one of the smallest stalls, a mere table top, stacked with old plastic jars and bags, opaque with age and use. Alongside them are open, shallow baskets filled with crickets and tiny orange crustaceans called acociles. This is Señora Edith’s pre-Hispanic ingredients, a unique stop in La Merced’s vastness.
Nico points out dried mosquito eggs and larvae, alongside dried ants and worms and a bug known as cocopaches – crispy on the outside but harboring a gooey interior.
Most of these ancient ingredients, vital sources of protein in Mesoamerican diets, are handed over, and following a moment of trepidation, sampled.
Blinking in the bright Mexico City sun, the group exits the building – one of the market’s eight – through a slim passageway and walks along a narrow, bustling alley.
Stalls selling kitchen utensils line the sides, bookending a battered taco stand, next to which, on an old, worn chopping block cratered through years of use, sits a partially dismembered cow’s skull.
Wisps of hair and skin stick to it, and Nico says that while customers can usually choose their cut – from a dizzying array including cheek, tongue, eyeball and eyelid, brain, snout and sweetbreads – Sundays are too busy so everyone gets the same – surtida, a mix of all of the above. He says that on a Sunday, they’l