September 15th, 2011
One piece of advice we got in Mexico went like this: the nicer a place looks, the worse the food and prices will be. Roadside taco stands will be great, and nice-looking restaurants not so much. That seemed to be accurate. We only tried one real nice-looking restaurant and it was very good (though pricy), but it may have been sort of an exception.
But perhaps the most interesting bit about eating in Mexico wasn’t the food. It’s the adventure.
We ate one day at Guadalajara’s San Juan de Dios market. In that huge labyrinth somewhere was a set of restaurants. They’d tend to have a small cooking area, usually just open, and a few tables. We chose one.
And at this point, I have to take brief detour and explain something. There are a lot of people in Mexico that do things for tips, and quite often without being asked. Some other examples might be washing a car’s windshield at a stoplight.
So anyhow, we had ordered our food, and before long, a guy wanders down the aisle and plonks down a boombox. And turns it on. And then he pulled out a microphone, which we quite soon realized was connected to the boombox. (I guess making it more of a karaoke box.) Anyhow, he started singing a song — decently — and seemed to be enjoying it. About 45 seconds into it, a competing boombox man plonked down a competing boombox 25 feet away, turned it on, and — yes, you guessed it — pulled out a microphone and started singing a different song. Worse than the first person but louder.
Eventually the boombox people left and our lunchtime conversation could resume. But pretty soon a drum guy showed up. He had a bunch of drums on a strap so he could just walk around and play them. He apparently decided that an excellent place to play them would be directly behind my head. I did not entirely agree with his decision, but hey, it beat the competing karaoke guys.
Eventually the drum guy left, and somehow between the time I looked down to get out money to pay our bill and the time I had it counted out, a clown had shown up and made several balloon animals for our boys. I tipped him, we paid, and then headed on.
You might think from this story that this would be an annoying series of events. And honestly, if it had happened in a big mall in the USA, it would probably have been both annoying and creepy. But really I enjoyed it. The fact that dueling karaoke happened, despite sounding really awful, was pretty funny and really seeing this whole parade of people was interesting too. It made American restaurants seem a little boring. You always know what’s going to happen here (and if something surprising does happen, the place probably gets a bad review on Yelp.) Interesting things sometimes happen at mealtimes in Mexico and I like it that way.
I had a torta ahogada (drowned sandwich) at that restaurant. And at this point, another brief aside.
I’m the kind of person that can go to an average American restaurant, see items on the menu helpfully indicated as spicy, order one, and genuinely wonder if other people would find them spicy, because I either don’t notice spiciness at all, or maybe notice a tiny bit if I concentrate really hard. Others, meanwhile, might take a bite and lunge for the water. Having said that, I know people that lived in Thailand for awhile and I have nowhere near their tolerance for spiciness.
So, having been in Mexico a whole 24 hours or so, I decided not to follow Jonathan’s wise lead in ordering a torta with the spicy sauce on the side. I figured I hadn’t had anything spicy yet, so maybe this was would be nice and mild for me. Via Jonathan’s translation, I ordered it with the spicy sauce. I believe the phrase I heard him use was “con chile“. The waitress looked at me, gave me an amused “the American is ordering it con chile? Hahaha….” sort of smile, and went off.
Pretty soon our food arrived. (The food always seems to arrive pretty soon in Mexico, by the way.) Oliver was having a bit of a culture shock that day, and mostly refusing to eat (once hunger got the best of him later, he really enjoyed Mexican food.) But the rest of us dug in, including me.
I enjoyed my torta. It was spicy, but not too bad. I took some big bites (it was, after all, a thick sandwich) and was really enjoying it. For about a minute. Slowest-acting spiciness I’ve had in awhile.
Then it hit me. Spiciness, and lots of it. I took a big gulp of my horchata (a creamy sweet rice drink that I found at many restaurants). That helped. A little. I really liked the torta and ate it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the waitress noticed how extremely quickly a drank my horchata…
Another interesting experience was in Guanajuato. It was raining as we walked towards the Guanajuato market. Their market was large and similar in concept to the Guadalajara one, though a lot smaller. The restaurants were all in a row, in a side of the building that was open to the outside. Most were on the ground level but it looked like a restaurant or two were upstairs.
As we approached, all of a sudden people were yelling at us. First it was a guy on the second story, then pretty soon people at the restaurants on the first floor did so as well. They were yelling rapidly in Spanish, waving their menus around in the air. I’m imagining they were naming foods they sold or reasons to eat there, but I don’t know enough Spanish to know. As we walked down the long row of restaurants, the ones we left behind would quiet down in disgust and other hopeful restaurant owners would take up the yelling and waving cause. I imagine if we did some time-lapse videography and walked up and down that row, we could produce an effect not unlike the sound of a dot-matrix printer going back and forth on the page.
Anyhow, we selected one of the quieter restaurants pretty much random. The others then quieted down until another person chanced to walk past — at which point it would get loud again. The lunch there was good but I think I mainly will remember it for the selection process!
On our way into Guanajuato, we stopped at a wonderful roadside taco place. In typical fashion, they had a large vertical pork thing (I don’t know the proper word for it) from which they would carve off meat on the spot anytime someone ordered something with pastor. We found a table. And we ordered a few tacos and such. They were usually a few pesos each (working out to less than a dollar), small round things on a soft tortilla, with meat, cilantro, and onion on top. And typically delicious. They had very little in common with an American “taco”.
We’d often order a few, and if we wanted more, just order more. They were made quickly enough for that. Tacos were very similar from one restaurant to the next. My favorite flavors were pastor (pork), chorizo (sausage), and bistec (beef steak).
A restaurant in Guadalajara — sadly I’ve forgotten its name, since we kept calling it “the potato place” — had what I might call a Mexican version of the loaded baked potato, with a meat, queso (cheese), a delicious sauce with a flavor unlike anything I’d had before, and some garnish. But really my favorite thing from that restaurant was their amazing juices. I am not much of a juice drinker normally, but in Mexico I went for them whenever they were offered. What passes as fruit juice in the USA has about as much resemblance to a real Mexican fruit juice as Taco Bell has to a real Mexican taco stand. (Very little, in case that wasn’t crystal clear.)
That particular restaurant offered three types of juices, which were, if I’m remembering right, aguas, frescas, and jugos. I has a jugo verde (green juice) on the first visit there. It was good, but the one I can still remember was called, I think, the fresa fresca (fresh strawberry juice). And it was incredible. I’m not sure how to describe it, other than real.
One observation before I end. It seemed a common thread at some Mexican roadside taco stands to not have soap in their restrooms. Instead there would be a plastic cup holding — I kid you not — powder-form Tide laundry detergent. It was amusing anyhow. My hands left those places extremely soft and smelling like laundry.
One of the last restaurants we visited on our trip was in Ajijic, near the Chapala lake. It was actually right on the lake and served seafood. This was the only restaurant with prices as high as I’d be used to in the United States. I ordered a stew served in a stone bowl. It came out sizzling, and since the very thick stone bowl retains heat well, it kept sizzling the entire time I was eating. It was excellent as usual.
Coming up in part 6: some thoughts on returning to the United States, our decision to visit, communication, and tips for anyone else considering a first visit to Mexico.