Damián is something of a Renaissance man. Multitalented, multilingual, well read and traveled, a calm demeanor, and full of surprises. Walking through the streets of Mexico City, he knew the history of the buildings and who they belonged to, why this kind of tree is found in this neighborhood and how it got here, the stories behind the peoples and foods of Mexico. Our walk to the the corner stand for gorditas was a walk through time and culture. Classically trained in the Mexican culinary tradition, Damián is well acquainted with fine dining and the "alta cocina."And yet the self titled "Ta-Connoisseur" loves to eat on the street. Tacos, tlacoyos, empanadas, tamales, quesadillas, birria, aguas frescas, the variety of food found on Mexico City streets is exciting and essentially limitless. He stretches his arms out towards the bountiful streets as we pass by cart after cart of food, "Éste es México, amigo!" This is Mexico.
"Eating on the street is one of the greatest pleasures we have in this life," he comments as we walk past dozens of street venders selling everything from fresh fried potato chips with chile and hot sauce, to tacos, huaraches, gorditas, hot cakes, esquites and everything you can imagine. The sheer amount of food available at any given time, wherever you may be, is one of the most striking things about the city. Stuck in traffic? Venders wade through the cars carrying trays of neatly packed clear plastic containers filled with fruit or cakes and other snacks. Taking the metro? Cooks and venders occupy the spaces between connecting lines, filling the hallways with the smell of baking bread and pop corn. Bus stops and street corners are teaming with complex systems of tents and carts, large comals and hot plates. The sharp sizzle of meat on the grill and the gentle thud of the tortilla press surround you as cooks call out specials in the form of the ubiquitous question "¿Qué le damos?" "What can we give you?" In a city that has some 28 million inhabitants, having access to food everywhere at all hours just works. "You have everything here," I say in awe as we pass el Palacio de Bellas Artes in between taco stops. "I know, dude," he laughs. "That's why I'm not leaving."
Here in Texas, what passes for Mexican food is often unrecognizable to Mexicans. Tex-Mex has it's place in the culinary world, don't get me wrong, but please take the word "authentic" out of your neon sign. As Damián showed me the different types of food found throughout the city he explained that even in Mexico a lot of what is thought of as traditional Mexican cuisine has it's roots in other countries. "Mexico is the best country to live in," he says convincingly. "But we don't even know what we have here, or where it comes from. We think that chorizo is Mexican, but it's Spanish. Real Mexican cuisine is indigenous, everything else is fusion." And there's nothing wrong with fusion, fusion is delicious, but we should know what we're eating and why. When you appreciate the history, you appreciate the food more. That's one of the beautiful things about Damián's view of Mexico City. He talks about the city as one in love. He knows its past, is aware of its many flaws, and yet he loves it anyway. The city can be difficult and frustrating, but he sees it as beautiful and fascinating, a never ending maze meant to be explored and cherished. When Damián eats on the street, it's not haphazardly. It's not because he couldn't find a decent restaurante to eat at, or due to poor planning or timing, it's because he really loves it. He sees the time and effort and tradition in street food, the elegance of the flavors that are nearly impossible to replicate indoors, and the dignity and transcendent delight of eating with your hands while sitting on a crowded street corner.
I asked Damián to sum up Mexican food in a single paragraph, and he did so beautifully. It's best heard in Spanish, but I will do my best to translate.
"Es como una fiesta en la boca, llena de sabores, colores, texturas; pasas de lo sublime a lo emocionante y de lo triste a lo feliz en un solo bocado."
Translated: "It's like a party in your mouth, packed with flavors and colors and textures; you go from the sublime to the exciting and from sad to happy in a single bite." I couldn't agree with you more, buddy.
Keep your eye out for more from Damián on the blog in the near future, as well as more posts from Mexico City.