Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Walk for Your Food

Quesadilla stand in Puebla, manned by two women. Although this happened to me in Puebla, Mexico, it could've been any Latin American city. Wherever you may find yourself, I recommend you do what I did.

My friend Tim had dropped me off in downtown Puebla to walk around some, take some pictures, and just get to know the city a bit. He was going to meet me several hours later and we would decide what else to do then.

Before he took off, he had pointed me in the direction of a market where I could find a bathroom, so that's the first place I went. Like many of the toilets in Latin America, there was no toilet seat, but unlike many of the toilets in Latin America, it actually flushed. At a fair number of the baños you'll encounter in this neck of the woods, there is someone who works there who has a 50-gallon drum of water—or a hose—and a 5-gallon bucket that he uses to flush the toilets manually.

After relieving myself, I proceeded to the cathedral—which has the tallest towers in Mexico—and to a few other churches. By this time—probably an hour-and-a-half later—I was pretty hungry, so I decided to find some place to eat, which brings me to the point of this post, really nothing more than a simple travel tip.

I wanted to find a small outfit with good, cheap, authentic food. That meant getting away from the main plaza where the cathedral was. I normally just look for a hole-in-the-wall, an uber-small restaurant where locals are eating. I headed back toward the market where I hoped to find such a joint.

On a street corner in the same neighborhood as the market, I found a nice looking place. It looked like a candidate. There was a menu sitting on a table near one of the large, airy, entrances. I picked it up and gave it a quick once-over. A quick scan down the price column told me all I needed to know: 50, 70, 90 pesos. Coke: 15 pesos (probably a 355 ml glass bottle). I continued with my original plan and went a bit farther, arriving at the market. At either end of one of the aisles of the market were vendors selling food.

I approached the metal cart and stood by, as they were currently cooking for those who were already standing around and had ordered. The cart had a large, thin, circular plate mounted on top—a cooking surface—which was quite far from flat from years of hard use. This metal disc was raised several inches above the surface of the cart to make room to build a fire underneath. Red-hot coals were working on my behalf, firewood and oxygen for the cooking of my meal.

They were cooking only a few different items, not too different than loads of the food you'll find in Mexico—tortillas with stuff inside. The lady grabbed a fist full of dough, plopped it down onto a cast iron press, closed the handle forcefully, opened it back up and rotated the now-tortilla-shaped dough a bit, then pressed again. Upon opening the tortilla maker once more, she removed the thin, round, uncooked tortilla from between the two sheets of wax paper and threw it onto the steel griddle next to the other tortillas that were already cooking.

I didn't understand the names of all the ingredients that were at my disposal. She pointed at another guy's quesadilla and asked if that would work for me. It looked like what I wanted so I told her to go for it. The meat, a beef, was called chorizo, and the cheese that was used was very stringy, but nice when melted. There was some lettuce thrown in and some salsa for a bit of twang.

I paid 14 pesos for this freshly-made delight. That's about a dollar.

There was a guy standing by the stand who had just finished his food and was sipping a bottle of pop. I asked him if it was cold. "More or less," he said. I felt one of the bottles of Coke that was sitting in the plastic crate next to us and it definitely wasn't too terribly frosty. I asked him where there was a store and after some grimacing and squinting he pointed to the next corner, verified by the cook. I walked the block and bought a chilly 600 ml Coke for 8 pesos.

Moral of the story? When traveling in Latin America, get away from the tourist spots, look for the tiny joint where the locals are eating, save your money, and enjoy a treat. I've experienced the fruits of this bit of extra labor countless times during my trip and it's worth the walk.

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