Mexico City: Mercado La Merced (Market Tour)

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Our day touring Mercado La Merced—one of the largest traditional markets in all of Latin America—requires a post of its own, apart from the travelogue.

Aron had discovered a culinary food tour group called “Eat Mexico” that would take our family on a private tour of the market (private because we had no idea how our kids would do and wanted some flexibility) and had made a reservation to meet someone at the Bellas Artes before a 4-hour walking tour.

We assumed we’d have to cut it shorter than that—one-year-old naps and preschooler-fatigue and whatnot—but it turned out to be a 6-hour tour! And still we just scratched the surface of all there was to see (and taste). I’m so glad we went with a guide because it’s intimidatingly large.

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Market Stall

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Arturo—born and raised in Mexico City—met us outside the Bellas Artes and then walked us into the Metro. I was a bit surprised that we met only to then travel (why didn’t we just meet at the market?), but the reason was clear as soon as we’d arrived. There are two entrances from the Metro into the market (though the one that drops you directly inside the market is currently closed for repairs) and hundreds of people heading this way and that.

Arturo explained a bit about the market’s history—it dates back to the middle of the 19th century and was for over one hundred years the largest wholesale trade market in the city. It covers the space of roughly four football fields with over 3000 vendor, and those vendors are in turn set into zones—meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, chiles, moles, flowers (all fake), housewares, candy… you name it, it’s there. On the fringes, there are food stalls selling fresh, delicious antojitos and quesadillas and sopas.

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We started at one of those stalls, pulling up plastic stools and asking for our tacos campechanos (open and filled with carne enchilada or cecina) to be prepared con todo, a side of lime and caramelized onion and a stack of freshly fried potatoes. Those were served along with fresh juice of mandarin oranges.

Atole

And then we quickly followed that up with a stop for various colors of Atole—a masa-based drink that’s a bit like porridge, and a sampling of tamales.

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sopa

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I took so many photos of food, but I wish I’d snapped some of the menus. I can’t tell you what the dishes we tried were called—I simply tried all that was handed to me. And they were all delicious! Bright, zesty lime and chili with flavorful fillings of meats and mushrooms and squash blossoms paired mingled with fresh salsa and onions and other greens. That said, one of those tacos above was filled with tripe (cow’s stomach), and while I was proud that I gave it my best shot, I confess that I couldn’t finish.

We both loved watching everything being prepared (note the how the surface is designed for the tortilla to sit atop with the fillings around) and served was so interesting. There was clearly an art to eating things with your hands. I kept trying to emulate this certain grip I observed, pinky (and sometime the ring finger) slightly raised, veggies used as tools.

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The sights and smells were overwhelming at times—particularly around the meats and cheeses where I envied the vendors their rubber boots. The floors were slick with juices and I realized at one point I was holding my breath. I worried that if we didn’t pass through fairly quickly, I’d lose my appetite—and that would have been a real shame!

That was the only place where I felt the vendors paid much attention to us—in the sense of calling out offerings as we passed by. Otherwise we were mostly doing our best to keep our strollers out of the narrow aisles as heavy dollies full of corn and nopales (cactus leaves) sailed past.

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Hudson was a champ. He asked lots of questions, tried lots of food, and seemed to enjoy the adventure.  Skyler conked out and slept through most of the morning—which was her way of being a champ for us, too.

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The thing that surprised us most, however, was his interest in eating the bugs! At one point, Arturo brought us over to a stand specializing in pre-Hispanic delicacies—basically, all manner of insects. A woman reached down into a mass of pressed, salted fish and passed us each a little wad. Again I tried it (and then immediately reached for that Mandarin juice). That was followed by gusanos (fried maguey worms), chapulines (grasshoppers), and tiny little crayfish. I was grateful she never opened the bag of ahuatle (super proteinaceous fly eggs) and finally declined a sort of caviar. Meanwhile, Hudson was asking for seconds of the worms!

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bugs

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It was really fascinating! (And really the only thing we sampled—other than perhaps tripe—that would qualify as “adventure-eating.”)

other items

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The market extends beyond the permanent buildings into hundreds of tented stalls (technically illegally set up) with all manner of housewares. These alone one could browse for hours! We ducked out and sampled some tepache de piña (fermented pineapple juice) before seeking out dessert.

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First we had freshly rolled and baked sweet bread topped with a choice of sweetened-condensed milk, jam, or dulce de leches.

Then we made our way to the candy aisle, before which Arturo asked, “are you okay with bees?”

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dulces

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We chose a few to sample later, when we ended our tour at a restaurant nearby: jewel-like dried fruits, milk candy, amaranth bars, tamarind paste, and coconut pressed into limes—my personal favorite.

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After the candy, we left the market to make our way over to Roldan 37, a beautiful restaurant set in a restored mansion just beyond a street called Niño Dios—it’s entirely devoted to the sale of costumes and accessories to to adorn a family’s baby Jesus for the dia de la Candelaria. There we had cold beers, a delicious appetizer of guacamole featuring those precious maguey worms, and our selection of desserts.

Coffee was at nearby La Casa Equis.

cafe

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The entire area is dedicated to trade; the market’s borders are fuzzy. I couldn’t believe it’s size, really. (And we didn’t even make it to the witches’ market!) I was so happy that Aron had arranged a tour. I rarely think of going on guided tours but am always so happy when we do. Arturo was just a font of knowledge about the market and about Mexican cuisine. One could of course visit on one’s own, but I would highly recommend going on a tour if you’re visiting.

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P.S. Visiting the Yucatan. Also, the full Mexico City travelogue is coming soon. I really appreciated all of your recommendations on this post! Finally, there’s a book coming out from the woman who started Eat Mexico (appropriately titled, Eat Mexico).

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