Writer-restaurateur Daniel Mabanta takes us through the gritty, taqueria-lined streets of Mexico City during Grito de Dolores, arguably the busiest time of the year for this animated city
It is almost midnight and leering outside the airport taxi, I see darkness; street lights are low wattage and scarce, sidewalks are uneven, roadside architecture is derelict. Radiohead and Nirvana play on the radio, occasionally interrupted by a wailing siren. Maybe it’s the flight-induced delirium but despite my eagerness, it’s hard to distinguish the grimy third world terrain from Manila, another universe (perhaps a parallel one), my point of origin. This sentiment changes somewhat dramatically after reaching my boutique hotel in the fashionable Colonia Roma.
After checking in, I leave my stuff in my room, which is spacious, contemporary and quirky, but lacking windows. The cheerful man at the front desk, Hipolito, has indigenous features and black hair slicked back with a generous amount of product. I communicate that I am hungry. He keenly outlines directions to various late night neighboring taquerias on a cartoonish tourist map of the area.
It’s unlikely I will witness any cartel-fuelled terror tonight
Anticipation overcomes exhaustion. I try my best to disregard Mexico’s unsavory reputation, dismissing it as sensationalism. I’m from Manila after all, hardly a quaint hamlet itself. Walking around the neighborhood, I begin to realize it’s unlikely I will witness any cartel-fuelled terror tonight. Instead, there is a palpable energy, a late night buzz that is fitting of North America’s largest city. Modish bars housed in art nouveau structures are heaving with well-groomed clientele; techno reverberates to the street; boozed up Americans hail their Uber.
I reach Avenida Alvaro Obregon, Roma’s main thoroughfare. It’s tree-lined and charming and divided by a scenic park median not unlike Barcelona’s Gran Via. Colonia Roma (or Roma for short) has long been recognized as one of Mexico City’s hippest neighborhoods. Within five minutes of my hotel, there is a jazz bar, an Argentinian pizza shop, several record shops, an organic grocery, burger and sushi joints, a promising looking Tiki bar, a craft brewery, a rustic four story bookstore/café, a yoga studio and practically every other type of establishment associated with big city gentrification (or in Roma’s case, re-gentrification due to a devastating earthquake in 1985). Pastel colonial buildings and restored Beaux Art mansions are common. Roma (and nearby Condesa) is a novice’s gateway to Mexico City and its far grittier reality.
From a distance, I see a crowd revolved around a glistening red, immense turbine of meat being grilled on a spit. It is Mexico City’s most iconic taco filling, al pastor. Al pastor is pork marinated, stacked then cooked traditionally and ubiquitously on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo. The latter method of preparation brought here by Lebanese immigrants in the early 1900’s. The establishment, appropriately called Taqueria Alvaro Obregon, is busy despite the hour. Clusters of youthful Mexicans fill themselves with Moda Negra and micheladas, and fresh corn tortillas.
I order five tacos: three al pastor, suadero (thinly cut beef brisket), and cabeza (literally “head of animal;” in this case, beef cheek). They arrive collectively within a minute, all about the size of my palm. I decorate my plates with cilantro, pickled onions, lime juice and an assortment of salsas. The ensuing moments are monumental. I close my eyes, savoring the dizzying mosaic of flavors, textures. Amidst the rapture, it occurs to me that skipping the inflight pasta and bread roll was a worthy sacrifice. I order one more al pastor before leaving, this time with molten Oaxaca cheese. I fall asleep quickly that evening, probably grinning.
My father arrives the next morning. He moved from Manila to Vancouver a few years ago and now we meet once or twice annually. Mexico City is this year’s venue (both our first time) for familial reconnection and more importantly, to eat. We share an enthusiasm for spicy, flavorful indigestible things. We meet at the lobby, exchange some pleasantries and make our way. First stop, one of the country’s biggest and most prominent markets, La Merced.
In contrast to Roma, La Merced is not a gateway. It is instead Mexico City in its purest, most anarchistic form. Still in the taxi, the chaos around us is on full display: mountains of unfamiliar fruit and vegetables, regional chilies and crisp-fried insects; stalls of adult DVDs, children’s toys and kitchen tools; young loitering prostitutes; the occasional candle-laden Virgin Mary altar. A stony-faced worker effortlessly shaves the bristles off nopales, endemic cacti pads sold for less than a peso each. I am entranced.
“Con permiso!” (Colloquial Spanish for ‘excuse me’) yells an exasperated delivery man who nearly rams me with a pushcart of crated produce
Traffic is at a standstill. We decide to walk. La Merced itself is enclosed; its vastness becomes more and more apparent the deeper we go. This is no Northern Californian farmer’s market. At this commercial labyrinth, one must journey with purpose. The action, the sheer amount of human movement, is bewildering. “Con permiso!” (Colloquial Spanish for ‘excuse me’) yells an exasperated delivery man who nearly rams me with a pushcart of crated produce. I feel light-headed and unbalanced. Is this just anxiety? Or the altitude, perhaps? I momentarily seek refuge in a corner beside an antojitos vendor.
After two hours of wandering and now thoroughly disoriented, we reach the food stalls. It is lunch time and predictably bustling. Apart from the standard tacos and quesadillas, lesser known, just as celebrated specialties take center stage: pozole (a hearty Sonoran stew of shredded meat and vegetable, chilies and hominy); tyalocos (pre-Hispanic doughy corn tortillas filled with beans, cheese, and chicharron); pancita (a comforting tripe-based soup). Workers, couples, families and extended families, from great-grandparent to toddler, dine communally on plastic stools. There is not a gringo in sight. The pervasive aroma of grilled masa and sizzling meat is enthralling. After circling a few times, we decide that carnitas, hunks of pig roasting in a vat of blisteringly hot lard, will be our midday sustenance. It is, in every respect (other than perhaps cholesterol), an astute decision.
We take an hour to regroup in the hotel then proceed to Centro Historico, the city’s central neighborhood and a World Heritage site. At its nucleus is the Zocalo, a gargantuan main plaza, the biggest in Latin America. The surrounding buildings are baroque and opulent. As the center of the ancient Aztec Empire and the seat of power for the Spanish colony of New Spain, Centro Historico contains most of the city's historic sites from both eras.
It is Mexican Independence Day tomorrow (well as of this writing and also known here as Grito de Dolores or “Cry of Dolores’)—the official date Mexicans commenced their revolutionary war against the Spanish-born ruling class. This is not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo, when the Mexican army fended off French invaders; also a day when non-Mexicans across the globe find an excuse to eat burritos and imbibe tequila in copious amounts. Tonight, many of the city’s 9 million residents will flock to Centro Historico where government-run celebrations (fireworks, free concerts, the whole shebang) will be held.
Mexican Independence Day is not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo…a day when non-Mexicans across the globe find an excuse to eat burritos and imbibe tequila in copious amounts
“Tacos, gringas, enchiladas, tortas, tamales!” exclaim purveyors in a rehearsed monotone, motioning passersby to patronize their eateries. With the evening festivities looming, the streets are lively. A flood of people fill the horizon; a large number of them heavily armed police who casually survey the grounds. Merchants peddle merchandise from green and red flags to sombreros to lucha libre masks. A woman preacher with a personal sound system rants about Jesus Christ’s apparent second coming. Wide-eyed tourists from Monterrey to Malaysia attentively film buskers play the accordion. Well-toasted men smoke cigarettes and nurse agave-based beverages outside overflowing cantinas.
We walk with no particular destination in mind, past the Palace of Arts, Casa de Azulejos and the Torre Latinoamericana, simply absorbing the city and its high-octane environment. We end up in Chinatown a few blocks away. At Barrio Chino and the adjacent restaurants, Mexican waiters dressed in traditional Chinese garb serve orange chicken and spring rolls. The scene is amusing and slightly bizarre. A torrential downpour begins to surface. The rain drops are hostile and dense. We scamper for shelter underneath the awning of a random convenience store. Almost an hour passes, the storm does not relent. Fortunately, there is an abundance of Uber drivers in the city, even during a thundery rush hour.
The rest of our week in Mexico City is highlighted by some remarkable fish tacos, Yucatan barbeque pork and an afternoon in the Frida Kahlo Museum. On our last full day, we take a day trip to see the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan, once the grandest city of early Mesoamerica. We board a rickety commuter bus from Terminal Autobuses del Norte, a major transport hub on the outskirts of the city. Mid-journey, an itinerant musician in his early thirties plays acoustic guitar and belts out melodies about unrequited love in the aisle next to me. His voice is rich and beautifully modulated. I clap gently after each song, applause that eventually turns awkward. The other passengers look on blankly, maybe even annoyed.
The pyramids are unsurprisingly impressive
An hour and several stops later we arrive in Teotihuacan. The pyramids are unsurprisingly impressive. There are five of them, the largest one is called the Pyramid of the Sun—a vast triangular mound with staggered levels, a muddy grey facade and a steep staircase that visitors climb to the jagged top. Despite the intense heat, my relative lack of fitness and tendency to develop vertigo, I miraculously make all the way.
It’s breezy up here, making the raging sun somewhat bearable. Opportunistic tourists take group shots in various poses. A few people meditate. I gaze into the expanse, squinting. I make some pseudo-intellectual reflection on human ingenuity in ancient times. I also think: “Mexico City, I must come back.”
Words and photos Daniel Mabanta
Art Alexandra Lara