10/27/20 11:28pm

On Documenting or Not Documenting the Spirit of Chilango Street Food

Two years ago I celebrated my 50th birthday with a weeklong trip to Mexico City. I stayed in the very chill neighborhood of Colonia Roma Norte on Tehuantepec. I ate and documented as many tacos, tortas, and other specialties as I could, took a couple of food tours and even ran into Rick Bayless. But there’s one experience I didn’t document, maybe because I wanted to stay in the moment, or maybe because it caught me so off guard.

On my last night in Colonia Roma Norte I took a walk down to the other end of Tehuantepec to check out the street food by the Metro. There were several stands with tacos, tortas, and some sort of soup, but none of them called to me. By this time I’d eaten tacos pastor de arrachera con queso at Taqueria Dos Parados where I ran into Bayless and enjoyed stellar seafood at Contramar, so perhaps my standards were higher than they would have been at the beginning of the trip, but I like to think that the food gods were guiding me toward a more special experience.

As I walked down Tehuantepec back to the apartment I noticed five EMTs jumping out of an ambulance and running toward a small shop. Wondering what was going on I ambled over and realized that rather than a medical emergency it was a street food pit stop.

Behind a counter lined with salsas, chopped onions, and seemingly every species of green Mexican herb known to man stood an older gent that the EMTs were especially keen to see. “Que es esto?” I asked. “Tacos de cabeza,” one of them said. “Tengo miedo de la vaca loca,” I said in mock horror. “I eat it every week, it’s delicious,” my new friend said switching to English.

“Try some, this is real Chilango food my friend,” he said. After tasting a bit I ordered a plate piled high, with a bit of every part of the head chopped up. After availing myself of some herbs and salsas I dug in. It was so good that the thought of whipping my phone out didn’t even cross my mind. As I was enjoying the cabeza, the gents had just about finished their plates and the one I was talking too settled up with the grey mustachioed man behind the well-worn chopping block. He handed him some money and paying for my meal as well, turned to me and said, “Welcome to Mexico my friend.”

As I mentioned at no point did document any of this, but I was quite happy to come across the above video on La Ruta de la Garnacha, which captured the spirit of the stand. I can’t wait to go back!

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  • Pictures are wonderful and so is video, but there’s something about good writing that can help the imagination along in powerful ways. I think about various places that, say, Jonathan Gold or Craig Claiborne wrote about that I’ve never been to — and in some cases cannot ever, in any event — and there is value in the way they (and others) write about meals. I think about the experience of having pani câ meusa (maritatu) and pictures tell a good story, but then there’s thinking about it — thinking about the description of it. The taste of the hot grease that makes the mouth feel of foie gras or a shot of ghee seem light by comparison. I feel like that’s just not conveyed by the excellent pics and videos around. And that’s just food. Capturing spirit and human warmth is much harder to do digitally.