Dear Mexican Food,
I’ve had a crush on you from afar all my life. As a kid, my favorite food was a cheese quesadilla from La Cocina (hold everything but the cheese, please – that’s right, just half a block of melty goodness between two toasted flour tortillas. I had an unrefined palate as a child). Sure, it was the New York version of you, kinda like falling in love with a photo of a movie star. But I was young. I didn’t know what real Mexican food would be like.
If I had known earlier. Of, if only I had known…!
I live in Kyiv now, dear Mexican food. I’m not sure if you’d heard. I think about you a lot. I miss you, and some days I can’t help but look at our old pictures and all the adventures we had.
If anyone even breathes the word, tacos, you are my first thought. I sigh and am instantly transported back to that street corner in Mexico City – was it the intersection of Repulica de Colombia? Venezuela? I curse myself for not remembering – back where I was first entranced by the makeshift taco operation set up in the nook of a wall. A taco-making man was settled back against the wall, surrounded by plastic bowls of filling, deftly whipping up orders to the steady stream of customers. My body moved of its own accord.
I know that some people have certain prejudices about what you can find on street corners, but I don’t care what they say. Time warped around me as I sat on that stool, balancing the plastic plate on my knee as I not-so-delicately shoved tacos in my mouth, verde sauce running down my fingers and snaking around my wrist. My only regret is that we didn’t have enough time together for me to take your picture and immortalize you. But have faith that you were not only my first street taco – you are the only one that has ever mattered.
While I relished my whirlwind tryst with the nameless tacos, I found a different kind of devotion with Mexican food fame. My long-time love affair with donuts could only bring me to Churreriá El Moro, a Mexico City institution that entices locals and tourists alike with heavenly scents of churros and chocolate. While there are no airs of pretention at El Moro, there is a silent pride that those who work there carry. They know that they are continuing a time-honored tradition, masters of the enormous churro coils and decadent chocolate.
Lord, have mercy on the sins committed at El Moro. They were all done out of the innocent adoration of fried dough.
Alas, Puebla, where we hit the only bump in our fairytale story. I came to Puebla specifically for a holy Mexican food icon, drawn by the tales of Puebla’s seductive chocolate poblano mole, smooth, smoky, hypnotizing in its blend of flavors.
Now, I wouldn’t want to judge any food by its appearance, but when the mole appeared, it didn’t bathe the enchiladas so much as flood them. I did my best, but the nuanced notes I expected were overpowering, choking me. I didn’t feel short of breath so much as strangled. And, I confess, I couldn’t finish what I started.
It wasn’t you, I’m sure. It was me. Perhaps I’m just a woman of more straightforward tastes. My youth is behind me, and so are the games of flirtations.
Maybe that’s why I was much more entranced by the no-nonsense style of cemitas. The sandwich-makers moved with disenchanted speed, assembling a dozen sandwiches at a time.
I was hypnotized by the efficient slicing of rolls, the unaffected but generous doling out of cheese, avocado, and chicken, the unconcerned attitude of the cemita magic makers as I stared. A simple meal, with not a whiff of pretentiousness, restored the nourishing warmth you’d been faithfully providing, dear Mexican food.
But, oh, the pastries. That was not a dangerous game I was willing to play. There are some love affairs that end in tragedy, and I just could not risk my heart. Or my waistline.
If I ever were to settle down, beloved Mexican food, and commit to just one cuisine, I would move to be with you in Oaxaca in a heartbeat. But you know my wandering feet just won’t let me do that. Instead, let’s treasure the memories we have.
El Mercado 20 de Noviembre doesn’t look like much from the outside – nor the inside, to be honest – but so little is told in appearances. For example, by wandering around the market you probably wouldn’t know that I ate there four times in my short Oaxaca stay. The tastiest of foods can ground even the most fervent traveller for a short time.
El Mercado 20 de Noviembre is where I experienced the joy of mole for the first time – mole verde, this time, a splash of freshness and tang on perfectly cooked chicken.
Oaxaca is where I fell in love with you to a deeper level. In part, because of meeting the fine gentlemen below. My guess is that their little kitchen in the back of the market doesn’t get many solo female travelers, speaking too quietly in much maligned Spanish. I think my awkwardness must have charmed them, for they took the best care of me and asked me lots of questions. We communicated through Frankensteined phrases of Spanish and English and sign language. And when they found out as I was from New York they brought the matriarch out of the kitchen.
“Do they have Mexican food in New York?” she asked me, appraising my empty plate.
“Yes, but nothing like here,” I said.
She didn’t say anything more, but she smiled and triumphantly returned to her domain. I never felt like I was being tested by you, wonderful Mexican food, but in that moment I felt like I had proven something.
Now, I’m sure the phrase ‘meat market’ will conjure many unfortunate images to people’s minds, but they just don’t understand you or Oaxaca. You are the best damn meat market I’ve ever met. Sure, it was a little chaotic at first, trying to figure out the social customs to follow. Order the meat here, talk to this woman for tortillas, flag down that woman for sides and sauces – all while being tantalized by the mouth-watering scent of grilled meat. It’s hard to focus when you’re wafting around like that.
I won’t lie to you, darling Mexican food, countries all around the world can do some pretty amazing things with meat. But you in Oaxaca, that was something special.
And of course, my faithful love chocolate made an appearance.
I couldn’t be tempted by the crunchy grasshoppers. Some people have a taste for that kind of thing, and I won’t judge, but instead give a polite pass.
Island life suits you well, lovely Mexican food, especially in this secluded hot-spot destination. What I adored about Isla Holbox is that, despite the fact that tourism is on a steady rise, it feels like locals are in complete control of what happens and where. Whether it was the simple but divine empanadas served up in a tarp-and-grass covered ‘diner’ or my first ever ceviche in the tiny fresh market (hours determined by whenever the locals feel like it), going to Isla Holbox felt like going to your aunt and uncle’s house.
Not to mention the most glorious pastries at Le Jardin. The only croissant I had in Mexico that didn’t snap in half.
By the time I got to Tulum, the end of our romance was hanging over me like flat gray clouds – not even storm clouds, which are beautiful in their power, but overcast skies with nothing to offer.
And, in truth, I was tired. Three weeks of traveling solo in Mexico had started to take its toil on me. Not the country, which was beautiful and welcoming, but the travel itself. Trying to decipher bus times, a new hostel every four nights (or fewer), the tiredness of misjudging just how far the beach is from the hostel and walking way too long in the Mexican sun.
Which was why La Chupa was just what you and I needed. I don’t remember the meal, the details, but I remember the delicate quality of the food, the relief of an easy night of dining, the pleasure of just a small indulgence. It was the perfect way to spend one of our last nights together.
I promised to return as soon as possible, but you must have known that they were, in fact, just words, no matter how badly we both wanted them to be truth. I was set to leave from New York to Ukraine within a week on a one-way ticket. I bet you felt some glee knowing that my last meal before returning to the States was a disappointing hamburger in the Belize City airport. I don’t blame you.
I found Mexican food in Kiev last week. While it was tasty and helped satisfy a craving, it was no replacement for you. You are the gold standard, you are my favorite, and you are the only thing that can fill the churro-sized hole in my heart. We have more stories in our future, I believe it.
I promise you for real, beloved Mexican food, one day I’ll be back.