We met Alberto outside our hotel at 9 AM sharp (after another amazing breakfast) and he led us to the bus station. Our first stop was to be the San Juan Market where all the top chefs of the city go to buy groceries for their restaurants. Unbeknownst to us the market doesn't open until 11, so Alberto took us on a meandering tour of the neighborhood. We stopped at little cafe that (allegedly) has the best espresso in the world so naturally, we had an espresso. It was so strong it made me want to grind my teeth but I knew it was going to be another long day so I drank up.
The local Pulqueria
Our next stop was a local Pulqueria that (allegedly) has the best pulque in the world but there is no such thing as the best pulque or even good pulque so that was a trick. Pulque is disgusting. No offense to anyone who likes the mildly alcoholic, slimy shit but it is absolutely awful. Pulque is made from the same agave as tequila, but it isn't distilled, just fermented. It tastes sort of like stale beer, has something like a 3% alcohol by volume, and is thick and slimy. Like, chew your pulque kind of thick and slimy. Then it slides down your throat and leaves an aftertaste of old beer in your mouth. It astounded me that anybody would drink the stuff, let alone at 10:30 in the morning, but alas the little bar was packed with locals (literally) drinking it by the pitcher. Alberto told us this place serves free, very spicy food to keep patrons drinking. That's just mean. Regardless, the place was cool and authentic and now I can say I've had real pulque and never need to drink it again. Ever.
¿Otro Pulkito? No graxias
By the time we drank enough pulque to last a lifetime (maybe half a cup) the San Juan Market was open our guide led the way but not before warning us: "They sell some illegal things in this market, so you can't take pictures. And if you do, be sneaky about it." Illegal things, eh? Like what?
As soon as we walked into the market we were confronted by a stall selling roasted crickets, grubs, centipedes and scorpions. My favorite. Some of the stalls sold perfectly normal things - fruits and vegetables or deli meats and cheeses - but others, like the exotic meat stalls, had rabbit, duck and some sort of lemur looking carcasses on display. Then I looked at the menu and no joke they had lion, turtle and tiger meat for sale, along with more normal meats as well. I asked Alberto if something was lost in translation, because for example pizza de perro doesn't mean dog pizza, just hot dog pizza, but he told me, sadly no. In the San Juan Market you can get a legit tiger or lion steak. Or burger. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued but I also didn't have the appetite or the chuspa to investigate further.
Chocolate con churros
We didn't spend too much time in the market although I would have been happy grabbing a tapas and vino tinto as many of the stalls offered, but we had places to go and other food to eat. Our next stop was Churreria El Moro, a 24 hour restaurant devoted exclusively to churros y chocolate. Seeing as how they are the best churros in the world (allegedly) we had to try some, in spite of the fact that I was not hungry at all and possibly slightly queasy from the market, and trying to make room in my stomach for the 2 PM lunch reservation we had. The churros were delicious and El Moro felt like a crowded New York deli that we decided would be a great place for a first date. One could spend as little as 10 minutes or as many as 10 hours in the place, people watching or chatting with good company.
Moving on, our next stop was Ideal bakery, a sprawling, famous bakery that makes everything from 100 pound wedding cakes to light as a feather, melt in your mouth cookies. They supply pan dulce and pastries to many restaurants of the city, and naturally, being the best in the world, we had to try a few pieces, never mind the fact that our next stop was to be a very nice lunch.
An interesting note on Ideal bakery: at one point it was the house of a Spanish noble family and was built with stones from the destroyed Aztec pyramids. If that isn't cool I don't know what is. Another interesting fact: remember how before it was Mexico City it was Tenochítlan? And that the city of Tenochítlan was built on a lake? Now 500 years later some of the older buildings are literally sinking back into the lake. You can see evidence of this as you walk down the sidewalk. I thought it was an architectural thing for the buildings to be lower than the street but no, they're sinking.
I digress. After eating all morning we headed to lunch at Nico's, which is apparently on the "100 best restaurants in the world" list or something like that. It wasn't stuffy or pretentious, in a rather industrial part of town well off the beaten path, with a nice dining room but nothing too fancy. I suppose the chef/owner lets the food speak for itself.
The meal started with a fresh jicama salad with piña and lime and a chia seed lemonade. Then we had guacamole (no crickets thankfully) made table side by no fewer than three servers along with fresh blue corn tortillas and three types of salsa. At some point a server pushing a cart full of different types of mezcal came by and I chose my favorite, the pechuga mezcal, feeling smug that I knew something about the trendy drink. What followed was a four or five course meal of traditional authentic Mexico City Mexican food - soft shell crab with pumpkin seed crust, egg soufflé with chiles, pork adobada, beef steak and some other things I've probably forgotten. Then came dessert: one of everything because Paul insisted we had to try them all.
Uncle Paul and the mezcal trolley
I was about ready to be rolled out of the restaurant when the chef/owner came out to introduce himself to us. I guess he heard about the crazy Americans ordering everything on the menu and wanted to meet them for himself. When he found out that Anna was the general manager of the three star Michelin restaurant Jean-Georg in New York he bowed to her and told her it was a pleasure to cook for her. He then insisted we all try his favorite mezcal, and you don't turn down the chef, so I managed to make room in my stuffed belly. Paul and Lauren, who are total foodies and eat at the best restaurants all over the world, both agreed that this was quite possibly the best meal they'd ever had in their lives. So if you're ever in Mexico City check out Nico's. Breakfast and lunch only. Make a reservation.
After a magical lunch we all piled into an Uber and went to check out Mercado Sonora, which for the most part is like any other market in a rather seedy part of town, but if you go in the far door on the north side of the building you will come across a section devoted to witchcraft. It was weird. Alberto told us something about a cross between Santeria and voodoo but I was paying more attention to the dried hummingbirds and animal skins than to him. I don't know if it was the long dark hallways and eerie quiet of an otherwise noisy market but the place gave me the heebie jeebies. There was a section of live animals for sacrifice, herbs, candles, idols, dolls and all sorts of other weird stuff, but I didn't spend too long at any one stall. Everybody I passed asked in a quiet voice, "¿Que busca amiga?" but I just shook my head and smiled. Please don't curse me.
I'm not sure if it was the market or the seedy area of town or the fact that we had been out all day, but when we left the market and Alberto asked us if we were ready to go back to our hotel, we all gave an enthusiastic yes.
Then we went out to dinner. Just kidding, no dinner. We had a quiet night and a good night of sleep so we could make the most of our few hours the next day before our flights. In the morning after one last bomb diggity breakfast at our hotel we zipped over to the Palacio de Bellas Artes to oggle a few more Rivera paintings. The Palacio is home to works by Siqueros, Orozco and "Man, Controller of the Universe" by Rivera. My high school Spanish teacher would have been proud that I vaguely remember learning about them and the impacts their works had on Mexican society, and around the world.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
As I contemplated the incredible works I thought to myself, "Why the hell am I leaving this place? I'm not ready to leave. Cuba can wait." Sasha and I discussed this as we gazed into Rivera's universe and decided we would call the airline and see if we could postpone our flight to Havana by a day or two. Or six. But on the call our kind operator informed us that we couldn't make changes to a flight that was due to leave in three hours. Oh well. Cuba will be fun.
I owe a massive thank you to my uncle Paul and aunt Lauren, who planned the trip and had the brilliant idea to invite their daughter and two nieces along. I could never recreate this experience but am already planning to catch a direct flight from Tijuana to Mexico City for a weekend sometime soon. You're welcome to join.