If it’s Tuesday it must be the Condesa: Mexico City's best street market

“It’s as good as the Marché Aligre!”, exclaimed my Parisian friend Carolyn, closing her eyes enraptured. As we passed the fruit section the subtle aroma of fresh mango wafted through the clear spring air. Food maven of the New York Times, Mark Bittman, agreed, quoting this story in his blog.

The Condesa tianguis or “Mercado sobre Ruedas” appears every Tuesday morning in the streets surrounding the famous Edificio Condesa (aka “Peyton Place” due to the notorious scandals of its artsy residents). There are other attractive daily markets throughout the city, but none beat this one for its picturesque quality. The fruits and vegetables, many of them exotically tropical, are gleaming and radiant, piled high in neat displays or creatively sliced and splayed open like origami. Chilies, yellow, red and all shades of green are lovingly stacked like candies in a Belgian sweets shop.

Myriad scents perfume the air, inviting you to buy with your nose as well as your eyes. “Try some papaya!” encourages a vendor as you pass, “PAPAYA!!!” he pleads, in disbelief that anyone could possibly pass up such a treat. Another hunky purveyor of melons, his biceps as large as his products, implores me to buy: “Dulce y sabroso…” he proposes.

I took my sister-in- law Kathryn to our Tuesday market, just before her return to Florida. As we examined the fish and seafood she commented, “I live a block from the ocean and I can’t find fish that fresh at home—most of it’s frozen. And shrimps with the heads still on—impossible.” As she passed that fruit aisle, eyes half closed, taking in the sweet perfume, a defeated look came over her face. “It’s just not fair” is all she could utter.

I do my food shopping here every Tuesday. One stand on the east side of Pachuca offers a dozen varieties of lettuce, arugula and endive, all organically grown nearby in the state of Puebla. Refuting a common perception that this market is too expensive, these greens range from $10-15 pesos a bunch, cheaper than anything at the supermarket. While some items do indeed cost more than they might at a ‘popular’ market such as La Merced, the quality is generally superior –only the very best is sold here.

Several stands also proffer what here are considered ‘exotic’ vegetables. Salsify, kale, okra, Brussels sprouts and turnips can be found. Crisp green artichokes are in season now, in all sizes, tied in bunches that would make an Italian housewife squeal with delight. Tiny thin asparagus make French shoppers stop in their tracks.

You can also find what might be described as fancy convenience food. Fresh soup mixes, ready for your sopa de flor de calabaza or sopa de hongos are sold by the kilo—just sauté, add water or broth and cook. I often buy the diced peas, carrots and potatoes – perfect for anything from grandma’s chicken soup to Indian curry.

Meat, chicken and fish here is fresh and clean. Be sure to take advantage of the skills of these vendors. You can have a chicken breast sliced up for a Chinese stir-fry, fish filleted and cut up to order, or get kebabs skewered, ready for grilling. And of course more esoteric offerings, like oxtail, liver, heart and kidneys are available.

One of my favorite stalls is that of Doña Victoria down at the Juan de la Barrera end of Calle Pachuca. Her hair in traditional braids, dressed in layered aprons, she sell product from the country like quelites beans, tortillas and even chickens (sometimes tough old birds, but good for coq au vin). Her large beans called ayocotes are divine - they taste like chestnuts.

Other culinary gems to look for are a roving vendor of fresh lentils, another itinerant lady who sells crepes, ready to be filled, out of a basket. Bright green chorizo from Toluca is found down at the Juan de Barrera end, as is the best chicharrón I've ever tasted.

And you can even have your zipper fixed at 'Hospital de Ropa' see this post.

I try to plan my market visit on an empty stomach as the prepare food available is extraordinary. An obligatory stop is the tamal lady at the corner of Veracruz and Pachuca. If she’s not there (she often runs out by 11 and goes home) I head to the “food court” on Agustin Melgar that offers a veritable encyclopedia of Mexican antojitos. Stop by for some of the best carnitas in the city, or sit with regulars at the long table where tacos or flautas of succulent, slowly baked lamb barbacoa are served with a bowl of heartwarming broth.

Across the aisle you’ll find sopes, earthy blue tlacoyos, and golden quesadillas (a good lunch option for vegetarians). Carnivores shouldn't pass up a taco of mixiotes, a shredded mutton dish, spicy and fragrant with cumin, which will remind you of an Indian curry. When in a dietary mood I head for the seafood stand and order a ceviche cocktail, avoiding the mouthwatering fried fish filets, albeit with great difficulty. A hearty splurge is their sopa de mariscos (shells are removed—a nice touch). At the end of the line are more flautas, salty grilled cecina and a huge table of guisados of all sorts – I especially like the mole verde. All this can be washed down with a fresh juice prepared by two sisters at a little table nearby.

The market gets going after 9 am and winds down by 4 pm. Best time to go is before the comida rush which starts around 2 pm.
Nothing makes me want to kiss the Mexican ground I walk on more than this beautiful street market. Support this and/or your local traditional market. And bring your own bag!

The Tuesday Market
Calle Pachuca, from Juan de la Barrera to Veracruz, extending to Agustin Melgar, Condesa

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Tokyo Rose: Two New Japanese options in el D.F.

I’m a stickler for the traditional in all cuisines, usually avoiding ‘fusion’. I like food made as it is in its country of origen. Mexican for Mexicans, Chinese for Chinese. If you got something good, don't mess with it.

It was my step-mother, Yasuko (my dad’s third and final wife) who said it. I had inquired as to whether they ever put cream cheese in sushi in Japan. “What’s cream cheese?”, she asked, perplexed. When I explained that it’s the stuff they shmeer on bagels in New York, she recoiled in horror. “Never in Japan, NEVER!” she exclaimed. “The very IDEA!” Well, we’ll avoid most Japanese restaurants when she visits us here in the capital of inauthentic Philadelphia-stuffed sushis. I don’t like them either. You just can't taste the other ingredients. Doesn't work for me. As I’ve written before, there are several good and traditional cheese-less Nipponese nosheries around town. Recently two new venues have opened their doors, both presenting versions of Japanese cooking by Japanese chefs from opposite sides of the fusion spectrum.

Home Cookin’

C.O.M.E. Comida Casera Japonesa is a small place run by a transplanted group of cool young people from Japan. It’s a hip hole-in-the-wall that serves a quick, complete lunch. Small restaurants like this abound in Japan: like our ‘comida corrida’ joints, they cater to folks on the go who want lunch like mama made it. Such as a big bowl of noodles. Or a ‘setu’, a complete meal: miso soup, rice, a prepared dish and a couple of accompaniments like a salad or pickles. C.O.M.E. does a nice one. Catering to Latin custom, the soup is brought out first, although I like to ask for everything ‘de una vez’, Japanese style – courses in Asia are reserved for momentous occasions. A recent choice of sautéed calamari was done to perfection, lightly seared, augmented by a little garlic and ginger. Likewise the pork with eggplant was spicy, rather Chinese in style. Rice is of the sushi variety, sticky and filling. And the nice little salad is dressed with a sesame-miso sauce. For $75 pesos, including cool jasmine tea, this is a satisfying and healthful repast. Décor is cheap and cheerful: polished cement floors, varnished plywood tables and mis-matched handmade bowls give warmth to the plain rectangular space. As they say in Japan; “Itadakimas”: ¡buen provecho!

C.O.M.E. (Cocina Original Muy Enternacional) (sic)

Coahuila 169 (across from the Mercado Medellín)

Open Monday-Saturday, 11-7 p.m.

Down in the Valley

In the safe, but culinarily sparce neighborhood of Del Valle, an unusual home has opened its doors to the public. Restaurante Bi & Shizo Lounge, situated in the former home of 20th century artist Federico Cantú is now a venue for a restaurant/bar lounge serving so-called Japanese fusion food.

I usually take the word ‘fusion’ as a warning sign. The prefix ‘con’ can easily be read into it. But in this case I’ll allow for some cultural mixing. The owners of Bi are a fusion themselves: Mario, the host, is Mexican, and chef Eri Kato is Japanese. The tranquil, airy, modernist patio is sunny by day, atmospherically lit at night, and features a large grisaille painting by Cantú himself. It’s a pleasant, adult place. Music is soft – the owners like jazz. The menu offerings remind me of odd little dishes I've sampled in Tokyo bars. Small plates, usually based in Japanese tradition, have been given a creative tweak from the chef. An ensalada de hongos shitake con aderezo de yusu y ginger presents the sliced mushrooms in a fragrant dressing of ginger and yusu, an aromatic citrus juice--light and lovely. Or atún marinado al sake en salsa roja y fritura de verduras, seared sake-marinated fresh tuna augmented by a Mexican chili infusion and accompanied by crispy tempura-style vegetables. Odd was a sopa agedashi mozzarella. Uh oh, here comes the cheese. I was loath to order it but with much encouragement from the chef, I dared and it worked. This warm, velvety unassuming cheese soaks up the flavor of the very Nipponese broth - “Oi shi, deska”. What a surpise. Of course there are traditional, beautifully presented sushi rolls and tempura plates. Another oddity is a whole page of Spanish tapas: cheeses and hams. The owners explained that they want their place to attract a wide range of ages, not to be just another Condesa-style yuppie joint. “The older folks from the neighborhood just won't touch the Japanese stuff, so this is for them”. Prices are reasonable, service friendly. If you find yourself around the Trade Center area and long for a respite from la locura, go.

Restaurant BI & Shizo Lounge

C/San Francisco 325 (3 blocks east of the Av. Insurgentes & the World Trade Center)

Colonia Del Valle

Tel. 5523-3282
Open Tuesday-Thursday 10 a.m. – 11 p.m., Friday, Saturday until 10, Sunday until 9.

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The Big Apple goes to Mexico

It's nice when your hometown recognizes and seemingly appreciates you. Especially when your place of birth happens to be full of the most competitive, cutthroat sell-your-own-grandmother-for-a-crumb-of-the-pie kind of folk. Yes, I'm referring to the Big Apple.

A native New Yorker, I spent my early years in Greenwich Village, then still a mythical place inhabited by Bohemians and Italian immigrants. Later we moved up to the Upper West Side, the world of Zabar’s, the Thalia cinema, and suffering Jewish intellectuals like Woody Allen and my father (critic Richard Gilman). My twenties wizzed by in Brooklyn. I then made the big leap over psychological and physical borders to another world, Mexico, where I’m now a citizen. I’m here to stay. I no longer have even a thumb planted in what my Russian grandparents alluded to as 'ze old country'. And I've become an authority, of sorts, on eating in my adopted hometown, Mexico City. So when New York Magazine chose to honor our sprawling metropolis with a feature spread it was with pride that two dedicated food aficionados and I named our favorite hangouts. It's because we all know how cool it is here, and we want the world to know it as well.
In addition to me dishing the fish, read the opinions of:

Market-tour queen Miss Lesley Téllez, themijachronicles.com, a transplanted Angelina with Mexican roots as deep as a Yucatecan cenote. She's come back to the homeland and wants to stay. She also spends more time in the markets than anyone I know, vendors included. So wherever she says to eat mole is where to eat it.

And Sr. Guillermo Ysusi - elpurogusto.tumblr.com - born and raised here and knows the city inside and out. A 'salaryman' by day, he's a bloguista by night. He also happens to know where best to knock a few back. They should have also asked him about cantinas...

So take a little trip to New York this week: