CALL ME SWEET POTATO PRINCESS - I was having dinner with my friend Hunter White the other day, explaining my family tree and he very seriously looked at me and said: “Oh. Yes. I know what...
Sunday, May 4, 2014
Tepito: El Barrio de La Comida Brava
Tepito, El Barrio Bravo, (fierce neighborhood) is a northern section of Mexico City less than a mile away from the Zócalo (town square) whose name instantly conjures up the sum of its notorious history, lore and mysticism. You can walk there from the historic center, but chilangos, expats, and anyone else that has heard of the place steers clear because of a reputation that no longer is valid--whenever I tell people I'm headed there to hang out they nervously chuckle, yet again, they've never been.
Since pre-hispanic times, Tepito has maintained a tianguis, or flea market for the poor, working class Tepiteños that are culturally, and economically landlocked. Today, the tianguis is Tepito's exoskeleton, an external maze of tarp covered apparel, pirated DVD's and CD's, luggage, electronics, shoes, and food stalls offering the best deals in town--this neighborhood does everything by its own rules from the products it sells, to the offal-rich cuisine, the public consumption of alcohol, the the Santa Muerte (Saint Death) religion. I was a location and food consultant for CNN's Parts Unknown Mexico, and when the Mexico bureau asked what was Mexico's best kept secret, I said the street food in Tepito. Although CNN's Parts Unknown Mexico was a terrible show for it's preoccupation with the drug war, and so many repetitive experiences, the world did get a glimpse of barrio tepito, a neighborhood I've been lovingly exploring for the past 2 years. Here's what you should have seen on the episode!
Tepito has lived by it's own code since the age of the Mexica--what we refer to as the Aztec Empire--and has shown fierce resistance through Spanish rule, the U.S. intervention at the close of the Spanish-American War, and today where the only authority are the tepiteños themselves.
Whatever the stories were that kept people away (I've had so many try to talk me from going), or whatever the reality was, today Tepito is only one of my favorite neighborhoods in Mexico City, and I've felt just as safe going during the day than as at night. What has kept me coming back each time I go to D.F. is the variety of comforting foods that are unique to Tepito, the freedom to enjoy a refreshing michelada and walking with this giant beer cocktail out in the open, and the offal rich cuisine which is both delicious and inexpensive.
In the labyrinthine stalls that cover the streets, making it virtually impossible to drive--only scooters are able to pass--and along the congested, chaotic Eje 1 Norte, you'll find cerveza Kloster served in kegs and michelada stands set up in shopping carts and stands. This also might be one of the best places in Mexico City to get high quality pulques curados, or pured pulque--I had better stuff here than in many of the popular pulquerias in the centro historico. Jicaletas (jicama on a stick) covered in lime, chile, and the neighborhood's drug of choice--chamoy, a salty, sweet, sour and spicy sauce.
One of my favorite stands, Tacos El Casco, specializes in irony, savory rellena, or blood sausage, and sauteed liver and onions tacos where you place your order and hand a ticket to the taqueros. There's always a crowd around this stand which morphs into the bustle of Eje 2 Norte--the main drag in Tepito.
Tacos Los Chaparritos serves embarrassingly large tacos with a huarache-style, large oblong corn tortilla covered in thin slices of pork chop, steak, and longaniza sausage layered with pot beans, fried potatoes, and delicious salsas. To eat one of these like a taco takes a lifetime of eating tacos to carefully arrange the mass in both of your hands before taking the first bite--even Mexicans from other parts of town can be confused on how to approach this mammoth taco. If you get it right the first time--you are a taco pro. They have great quesadillas here, too, but everyone comes for the satisfaction that can only be obtained from one of these two-fisted tacos, which still cost only around $1.50 each.
In Tepito you'll find the real elotes (street corn) made with the large kernel, whole cacahuazintle cobs, and the full array of antojitos: pambazos (chile guajillo soaked bread roll filled with potato and chorizo), quesadillas, huaraches, sopes, and gorditas filled with traditional guisados (stews and braises) like squash blossoms, huitlacoche, and tinga (spicy meat). And of course there are tlacoyos--both blue and yellow corn--the diamond-shaped pre-Hispanic, stuffed masa filled with beans, requeson (Mexican style-ricotta), and fava beans--it's all cheap, fast and delicious.
Yucatan-style cochinita pibil is not something I usually recommend outside the Yucatan region, but the always packed cochinita pibil stand on the south side of Eje 1 Norte is worth breaking the rules of regional eating that I try to stick to when traveling. You can try their mouthwatering marinated pork in tacos or even better--in a torta. Still in the mood for pork?--there are plenty of carnitas vendors of Michoacan and Mexico City technique, serving Mexican confit-style pork parts--head to tail?--you'd better believe it.
At night the special eats of the 'hood are boiled chicken feet in salsa verde served in plastic bags from street vendors or on a colorful plastic plate in one of Tepito's makeshift restaurants like Va Villa. Va Villa also prepares the rare cabezas, which are boiled then fried chicken heads served on tostadas covered in a blanket of salsa verde, Mexican cream, queso blanco, and lettuce.
There is so much amazing food--it's cheap, it's bursting with flavors, and explores head-to-tail dining for its affordability--but the real star of el barrio bravo is Migas La Güera. (a full review is coming soon)
Migas La Güera is a legend in Tepito--making the best migas in the only neighborhood in Mexico City where you can get this working class comfort stew. Whole pork leg bones are cracked, and stewed for hours until they bleed a marrow rich broth which is thickened by migas, or discarded bread tops from the torteros, or torta makers (The sandwich makers tear them out to make room for the piled on ingredients in Mexico City's hefty tortas), and served with bones protruding from your bowl if you want the full experience. The bones have strands of meat, connective tissue, and are filled with marrow that you will gnaw on like a wild dog until you've cleaned the bones. The whole dish is completed by burnt chile de arbol, onions, and oregano that you can add to your own taste, al gusto! It's a dish that doesn't always resonate with outsiders the same way as it does to tepiteños, but if you surrender to its charms--I wholeheartedly do--you'll really be here, in one of Mexico City's greatest food neighborhoods. La Güera also boasts one of the best bowls of pancita (DF-style menudo) in the capitol; get this here if you can tear yourself away from the migas--better yet--bring some friends and order them both--the pig foot tostadas, too which sell out everyday!
I'm happy, overjoyed have introduced Tepito to CNN, and Anthony Bourdain, but I wish they had focused on more on the food, as you can see here, Tepito is one of the best street food neighborhoods in Mexico, with many original dishes that are 100% tepiteño, and a free spirit that's literally intoxicating.
I dedicate this post to the amazing people of Tepito for their flavor and hospitality