Saturday, June 10, 2017

Eating in Mexico City

Always lines outside the taquerias
My question is, does anyone in Mexico City cook?
 I remember thinking when I was living in the French Quarter a few years ago, that there must be enough restaurants in the neighborhood to eat in a different one every day for a year. In Mexico City, it feels like you could go for 2 or 3 years without repeating. 

There seems to be at least 3 restaurants on every block, including the street-front quick serve
joints. They are rarely empty, and the patrons seem to include few tourists. 

Although, I do have to qualify here that Mexico City tourists include a lot of people from other parts of Mexico. That's different from other world capitals I've visited, where tourists all seem to come from other countries. In any case, the patrons of these eateries seem to be mostly from Mexico, if not actually from Mexico City.

Like many big cities, the food from little hole in the wall restaurants is every bit as good - if not better - than many of the actual restaurants. Yet cheaper.

Well, except for my first dining experience in this city. I was so traumatized at having my hopes dashed that it was over a week before I tried again. A heap of dried up beef with one strip of onion, one of pepper and the ugliest, palest, most tasteless pile of French fries it's ever been my misfortune to encounter really destroyed my dreams of drowning in all the cheap Mexican food I could eat.

Thank goodness I finally got the nerve to try again. Of course, now I had the impression that restaurants must have the better food, but thankfully I got that straightened out, as well.

For instance, the only reason I went to Cafe El Popular was because it was the only place I
came across that served Enchiladas Suizas. You got a huge platter holding 3 enormous enchiladas for 95 pesos - about $5.25. But it came with no sides. So next time I went, I ordered a side of beans, and got a chintzy little portion decorated with a few really good chips for 48 pesos - $2.50.

That made absolutely no sense to me. So I decided to only eat half the enchiladas and pick up a can of beans at the grocery store to eat with the other half - which I did, and thoroughly enjoyed. Then I found out that the little place I went to for my takeout tacos also had the Enchiladas Suizas, and they were half as much as the "real" restaurant. In fact, they were less than the stingy little portion of beans! 45 pesos.

That little hole in the wall is also exactly 2 blocks from my lodging, whereas the restaurant is twice as far and twice as expensive. I am lazy enough, and cheap enough, that this is sufficient reason for me never to go to a restaurant again unless it offers something I can't get elsewhere.

Big delicious chicken torta $2.50
And that means I am eating almost exclusively at my little neighborhood hole in the wall, and enjoying every bite. The guy there greets me as a friend now, and knows that all my orders are to go. Depending on my mood, I will either have 5 tacos al pastor for 38 pesos, the Enchiladas Suizas for 45 pesos or the chicken tortas for 45 pesos.

There are places like this simply everywhere. You will see a lot of these guys just carving slices off this huge slab of pork to make tacos al pastor.

There are two types of non-Mexican meals I will have, one because it is such a great value and the other because it is just so good.

Strangely enough, there are a number of Chinese buffets in this city. Although maybe it shouldn't be so surprising, there is a big enough Chinese population to warrant a Chinatown section in the city. 

The buffet next to me is less than $5 for an adult, although
they charge you another $1.50 for a big bottle of water, but that is still not bad for a very decent all you can eat buffet. I've been there 3 times, and consider it an excellent value.

Not quite as good a value, but still plenty cheap enough, was the club sandwich and fries in the cafe across the street. Yes, I know most people would think it unnecessary to eat a club sandwich with so much good Mexican food available, but I happen to love club sandwiches and that was one of the best I've ever had. It came with a small handful of fries and, together with a bottle of water, it was still only about $8. I doubt you could do better at Denny's, where you get more fries, but the bacon is always stale.

5 Tacos al pastor

Obviously, eating well in Mexico is not a problem, and all the cheap Mexican food I could eat was one of the main reasons I came to this country. I have not regretted it for a minute, either. 

However, I do have one mild complaint. After many, many personal experiences, I can state with absolute authority that a vast majority of pastries in this city suck. With the exception of churros, unless there is some sort of cream filling, pastries are as dry as the desert. 

For instance, San Diego is a very expensive city. Yet a 7-11 right near the beach has fresh donuts at 2 for a dollar. I have had donuts all over this city and, though they cost more than 50 cents at the 7-11 near here and 30 cents at Walmart, they have all been dry as dust. There is a great bakery right across from the little hole in the wall where I get my takeouts, and so much in there looks like a work of art. 

But one bite is enough to tell you that any kind of moisture is a vain hope. Fortunately, I happen to like cream fillings, so there are a couple of items that I get now and again that - just barely - satisfy a pastry craving.

Even better - and cheaper - are the ice cream cones. You see these soft serve machines all over the place, and lots of people eating them on the street. But though the cones aren't gigantic, they are a perfect size for a snack or after-dinner dessert.

I had been getting them for a few weeks, then I found out
that they all close really early. Since my favorite time to walk is around dusk, I often don't get out until after dinner, and they are all closed. But I don't mind, because there is a McDonalds on the big square, which is where I prefer to walk in the evenings anyway. It even has an outside counter, just to serve the ice cream cones.

The McDonald's cones are 10 pesos instead of 7, but they are possibly a little bigger, and maybe even a little tastier. And it gives me a reason to walk to the square, which I love. Since that is the only thing I ever get at McD's, I don't really feel bad. I met a guy from Georgia who says he got a hamburger at one and the patty didn't seem to have any actual meat in it. He said the taste and consistency appeared to be all filler.

There are plenty of American chains for anyone who
absolutely craves a familiar meal. Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, Domino's, Pizza Hut, Subway and more. But when you are walking down the streets, there are so many Mexican quick-serve places open to the sidewalk, that you can't escape the fabulous smells of meat, onions, peppers, cilantro and other mouth-watering temptations. And they're every bit as cheap, probably cheaper, than the fast food places. Still, I eat Chinese and club sandwiches, so I'm not one to judge.

But I can't help being severely disappointed in the pastries. I think it wouldn't be so bad if they looked all dried up, and you could tell that they'd be lacking in taste. But the people here are artists, skilled in gorgeous presentation. It makes the disappointment worse.

In any case, I really like that the American chains are simply included - and surrounded by - a lot of local places. Even at the movies, the little food court had a variety of cuisines, plus there were both American chains and Mexican restaurants scattered around the cinema building.

While the movie concession junk food is much pricier, comparatively, than the actual movie ticket - it was still quite inexpensive. The movie ticket was about $2.50, then popcorn, a Nathan's hot dog, a bag of M&Ms and a soda totaled almost $9. So I got to see Wonder Woman at the same time it came out in the States and stuff my face with junk food for less than $12. 

In fact, that was actually my dinner, because I didn't have time to eat before the movie. So I considered it an excellent bargain - even though I could certainly have gotten better food for the same price. 

I also like that there is a decent variety of cuisines available. While I haven't gotten around to it yet, I was happy to see a sushi place. Because that is definitely one of the major fails at the Chinese buffet - which probably shouldn't come as a shock. But I was still surprised it is even possible to mess up a California roll that badly, and I can't even begin to describe the disappointment of finding out that the pinkish-reddish stuff in my other roll was not tuna, but actually strawberry. 

I like the combination of strawberries and cream cheese very much - on a croissant, or a bagel. Surrounded by rice and wrapped in something that was decidedly NOT seaweed was not my favorite way to enjoy it.

I feel it's a bit churlish to complain, however. There is so much really tasty food in this city and it is so ridiculously cheap. Even the Chinese buffet can be forgiven for a few misses, since there are more than enough hits. The failures cost so little that it is easy to just mark them up to experience and try to make wiser decisions in the future.

Especially since an amazingly hearty breakfast is included in the price of my room. Scrambled eggs, yogurt, fresh fruit, toast and jam, coffee. It is so filling that I only eat one other meal besides it. 

I do get my own groceries and try to cook at least 4 dinners a week. Mostly because none of my favorite Mexican dishes contain any vegetables. I don't even know of any Mexican vegetable dishes. So I eat big portions of steamed chicken and vegetables a few times a week in order to try and stay at least remotely healthy. Plus lots of fruit.

As I've mentioned previously, pathetic as it may seem, I do
Those prices are pesos.
my grocery shopping at Walmart. Judge me all you like, but it's convenient and cheap, plus it has everything I need. But look at what this little Cajun woman spotted the last time I was there. Zatarain's Jambalaya and Red Beans and Rice. For about $2.75, which can't be all that different from home, I'd think. I didn't get it, but I'm kind of starting to get a maybe soon.

Anyway, those are some of my culinary adventures in Mexico City thus far. But here are some more photos of places and menus, in case you'd like to see more. Pesos are displayed with the same dollar sign we use for USD.

Just click on any photo to make it bigger.

Menu at my favorite taco joint
Menu for a "real" restaurant

I believe this is an independent coffee shop.

Chinese buffets are easy to find

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