I’ve been accused of being as food-centered as a Labrador retriever. In an effort to show some depth, we signed onto a trip out to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, more than an hour north of the city. After an interminable drive on crowded roads through Tijuana-style slums, we were suddenly in another Mexico: green fields, black-and-white cows tended by charros on horseback, little haciendas rolling off to the distant mountains.
Our driver Jorge, who is no dummy, dropped us at gate one and went off to nap in the shade for several hours while we made the 3-kilometer walk in the hot sun up the Avenue of the Dead. There is no signage inside to tell you what anything is, just a lot of touts selling crummy silver instead of water, which is what you really need after a few minutes stumbling up the ceremonial way. Fortunately, one cannot miss the great pyramids themselves, the Sun and the Moon.
I climbed both. Steep as hell going up and down. At the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I stood on the very spot where the living hearts were cut out of the human sacrifices and their bodies thrown down the steep sides until blood ran down the steps.
This, of course, made us starving hungry. After we returned from the pyramids (we also tucked a 30-minute visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe into the drive), we were famished, so it was great to see that local Condesa favorite Taco Gus was open for business. Taco Gus, sibling to another fave, Tacos Hola, is best described as a taco stand in an alleyway, because that’s what it is – about 8 feet wide, most of which is cooking equipment, and 50 feet long. It is open only four hours a day but like all the great ones, it is packed the whole time. Gus’s young, hip staff sells a dozen of the favorite "guisados," along with tacos al pastor and my downfall, "tripa" (tripe) deep-fried in pork fat until chewy-tender. We elbowed our way in and ate three generous tacos – huge, delicious, served with no waiting and incredibly cheap – for about $6. I will have pictures later this week of Gus’s in action.
Then, for some inexplicable reason, despite being tired to the bone, we decided it was the Night to Drink Mezcal, and off we went to Charro, also in Condesa on Vicente Suarez. I apologize for the pictures – I was trying to be secretive about taking photos. I should have realized that the beverage makes you bulletproof and invisible.
Besides its sexy location and weekend scenester cred, Charro’s main claim to fame is its careful selection of mezcal, currently the hottest drink in the city. The drink – all artisanal, all small batch – is poured at the table into a round-bottomed cup made of dried gourd, which is held upright by a woven ring and sits on a little woven grass mat. We ordered "Tobalo" and "Verde Silvestre." Both are Oaxacan, but taste distinct from one another, though they share a big, very smooth character full of the taste of the agave. Unlike many second-rate mezcals, there was not a trace of smoke. The mezcals come with a plate of quartered orange slices and a little pile of bright red "sal de gusano" made of dried ground maguey worms, salt and ascorbic acid. It’s tart, salty and crunchy, like a dry sangrita, and enhances the flavor of mezcal. The protocol: Lick a pinch of the salt off your hand, sip the mezcal and bite into the orange. And we were off!
Though we were the only people there on a Monday night, apparently Charro is one big, hot scene on the weekends. I was pleased to see that Chef Daniel Olvieda’s food is Baja inspired, and features Baja-sourced ingredients such as oysters and smoked marlin.
First thing to hit the table were two miniature earthenware "cazuelas" of salsa with wooden spoons: a thick, intense salsa verde and a spicy-hot salsa "quemada," probably made with green habanero. No tostadas. What! No chips and dip! Apparently the salsas are there to enhance the food. What a concept.
My travel companion, Carole, had read about chicken empanadas, Oaxacan style – fried and dusted with sugar, served with a martini glass that's layered with something clear on the bottom, probably mezcal, and dark chocolate mole on top. Our waiter stirred them together. The sauce was rich, spicy and chocolatey – a bit cloying.
A tropical ceviche was too sweet, sticky and heavy. And there was way too much of it. The "totopo" basket was very stylish, but the totopos – made from very thin white corn tortillas – were too fragile to carry the ceviche. It was the only clunker of the evening.
"Crepas de camaron" brought three fat crepes filled with small, sweet shrimp and sautéed diced onion. The pale green sauce was thick, yet almost fluffy, intensely flavored with roasted poblano and a little "epazote," finished under the broiler with only a little melted "quesillo" on top and a ripple of pureed black beans.
The hit of the evening was Carole's "pescado in hoja santa" – a filet of "robalo," similar to a huachinango, wrapped in fresh "hoja santa" leaves, wrapped in a plantain leaf, poached and served in a light broth of tomatillo. The fish was moist and firm, with a few fried plantain chips scattered over.
Dessert, a lovely and completely gratuitous afterthought, was the chef’s take on "bunuelos": three tiny flour tortillas deep-fried, thickly coated in cinnamon sugar and stacked with layers of "cajeta," or sweetened goat milk caramel. Cloyingly sweet (I could never have gotten it down without the ice cream) and not that interesting. Total bill, service included, was about $75 for 2 people, with alcohol.
We finished the mezcal and realized that we were not only exhausted, but drunk as well, and I couldn’t feel my legs. The logic of mezcal dictated that we either keep drinking (and wind up being pushed out of a taxi at dawn) or go to bed. Carole is smart. We crashed – but it was a darned close call.
If we’d kept going we never would have made it to Xochomilco and Coyoacan – which is tomorrow’s tale.