Mexico City was recently named number 1. destination to visit by the very distinguished New York Times. As one of the main reasons, the paper names the sheer diversity Mexico City offers – its exact words being: ‘some of the world’s best cuisine, museums and forward-thinking design’. That, and a huge (because, let’s face it, everything about this city is about scale and seeming endlessness) array of all kinds of markets. I know I have already mentioned this in previous blogposts, but Mexico City offers some of the world’s most mind-blowing and authentic markets. Also, did I mention that Carlos Slim owns a 16.8% stake in the New York Times, which makes him the No. 1 single investor in the publisher?
Back to the markets.
Arguably, one of the city’s most famous markets when it comes to all food-related things is El Mercado San Juan. Located right in the middle of the bustling historic centre, it is one of the city’s oldest markets, and hence carries a good load of historical value and relevance. That this seems to be an inherent quality to all things DF should momentarily be forgotten for the sake of coherence. Officially named Ernesto Pugibet, the market is better-known by the name Mercado San Juan, at least among commoners such as myself. Food has been delivered, stored and sold on its grounds for over 150 years, and it is notorious for offering food products that are difficult to obtain elsewhere.
‘One cannot claim to know Mexico City without knowing its markets’, goes the famed quote by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The man indeed got us a piece of ageless wisdom right there. It is where the city breathes and where its old restless soul resides. Each visit to the Mercado San Juan unveils another facet of itself, and subsequently of the capital. Another taste, another colour, and therefore also another story. It houses peculiar characters such as the bespectacled, 88-years old lady, the friendly butcher and the family whose entire gene pool is to be found in that one single market.
Also to be found: the typical short-haired and tattooed woman that looks just like the Russian Red from Orange is the New Black, the lost hipster selling exotic juice combinations, and the proud market restaurant owner. Apart from the uncanny characters that inhabit (and frequent) the mercado San Juan, the main spectacle obviously relates to the unmeasurable variety and quantity of food that is on offer. Among others, I was offered Parmesan cheese with providence from Uruguay, creamy goat cheese with maracuya flavour, roasted chapulines (crickets), and an approximately 1.5m (or was it just my imagination?) large rainbow-coloured fish that had been caught the previous day – apparently it is also possible to purchase imported crocodile flesh, although I up to this date have not been able to verify that fact. Next time.
What always astonishes me when I visit markets in – dare I say – developing countries is how well-organized everything is below the chaotic surface. The food is always fresh and above all, tasty, and the setup of the produce is always top-notch, sorted by product type, colour, and god knows what else. It is an ordered, vibrant mess, and that is exactly why I like it. The decoration is also quite striking. Jesus representations are particularly popular, in all their variations, as are vivid piñatas. Christmas decoration is popular all-year round, and plastic sunflowers abound. It is undeniably tacky, so if you are not into that, be warned.
In terms of the stands, one that particularly caught my attention was La Baguette de Manolo. They sell delicacies such as foie gras, French cheese and serrano ham that are otherwise hard or expensive to get, and, as the name says, prepare wonderful baguettes. A family-owned business, they are represented as much as three (!) times, twice with a stand and once with a market restaurant (catch that, Mercado Roma – you’re not as innovative as you pertain to be). Sergio, one of the owners, made us taste the previously-mentioned maracuya cream cheese, which was amazing, and another relative even gave me and my friend a lovely Mexican dessert to take home.
Paradoxically, La Baguette de Manolo is what one would describe as fancy. Their food offering, and red table cloth make for an upscale dining experience, all within market premises. The place is just as worth visiting for the friendliness of their owners as for the delicious food, and seems to have gained a notorious reputation. They have their very own wall of fame, with photographs from the internationally renowned actor Diego Luna to Los Hermanos Almada (legends of old-school Mexican cinema) and a chef called Benjamin, who apparently was responsible for providing the Pope with food during his visits to Mexico. After some exquisite tasting rounds and a little small talk, Sergio, who was all smiles, announced that they were now the proud owners of their own restaurant.
Fearing that we would not find the place by ourselves, one of the market restaurant employees offered to escort us to the place. As absorbed I was by my surroundings and the accompanying opportunities to take photographs, I got lost in the crowds, only to later fnd out I had unknowingly been the cause of a fair amount of panic. Thankfully, we found to each other again, only to be directed up the stairs to the restaurant. It can best be described as a funny experience: you get a 360 degrees view of the market, and while the decoration verges to kitsch, one can see that a lot of heart was put into it. Seeing the endless array of food made us want to take a last walk around the market, before we ventured back outside to the centro historico.
Going to El Mercado San Juan is a feast for the eyes and tastebuds, and every food lover or otherwise curious person who has a little penchant for tackiness should definitely set out to discover it during their stay in the city.
© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius