My favorite meal in Mexico City was found in an unassuming mercado on a Sunday afternoon. I was hungry, but not starving. Mostly I was hot.
In the mercado I found a juice stall and ordered something, probably guyaba; I was very into guava in Mexico. As I paid for my juice, my eyes wandered to the next stand down, where a huge sign with a picture of a goat read “barbacoa.” As if in a trance, I drifted onto one of the metal stools, a plastic screen between me and piles of meat and lime. I asked for tacos in my terrible Spanish, and immediately the two men behind the counter began talking to me, as if their fluency would balance out all of my linguistic inadequacies.
The man in charge spoke the most. He possessed a portly demeanour and clean apron. I gathered that he wanted me to try the soup. I just nodded. I’d eat whatever this man gave me. I felt like destiny had placed me into a gastronomic dream spiral. He turned his back to prepare a bowl for me.
With a startling alacrity I have found only in Mexico, my tacos were up. I tasted a tiny piece of the barbacoa, and I knew I’d hit the jackpot. I squeezed a small, verdant lime, grabbed one of the warm tacos from below its two tortillas, the Mexican standard, and allowed myself to fall into ecstasy. The soup arrived in a plastic bowl, the broth was rich, the meat on the bone, the rice soft. Like life’s gentle melody, the end came far too quickly. I sat there reminiscing over the meal I’d just eaten and watching the men clean up, it was near the end of the day. Eventually, I paid my few hundred pesos, cleaned off my hands, and handed in my dishes. I asked the chef if I could take his picture, I was so enthralled. I felt this man should be famous, even if it was only to me and my memories. As I left the stall, I wondered if this was what it felt like to witness a miracle, albeit a miracle found in the thousands in Mexico City, where every stall worth its weight in tortillas is simultaneously spotless, delicious, cheap, and has at least three homemade salsas. As I departed the mercado, I thought of another reason this meal had been more rewarding than most: I’d found the place at random, by myself, and without the Internet.
Barbacoa has had its place at the top of my meaty heart since 2013. That’s when I went on a road trip across the United States with a rag tag crew of three others, only one of whom I knew. It was a challenging, fantastic trip, a long push west on a limited timeline. But I’d never been west of Tennessee, and this was my chance to see America. In New Mexico, at close to midnight, near a set of train tracks in the heart of El Paso, we found the Mexican equivalent of a 24-hour diner. The menu was in Spanish. Paty, who was from Mexico, ordered barbacoa tacos, so we all did. I’d never tasted anything like it. In 2017, when I knew a road trip would take me back through El Paso, I pulled the name of the diner out of my notebook and stopped there again. It was exactly as I remembered it, with its hand painted exterior in lime green with a “24 HOURS” taking up a whole side of the building, pastries in a plastic case by the register, and a telenovela on the TV hanging from the ceiling.
This place is random, authentic, delicious, and sits in my memory as “the place we found on my first road trip where I had barbacoa.” And like the place in Mexico, I attribute it with chance. But how did we find it, on that first journey west in 2013? None of us had been to El Paso. We had needed a 24-hour place, it had gotten late, we’d driven all the way from Houston that day. We hadn’t gotten to the “friend of a friend” we’d be staying with yet.
I know I didn’t look it up, as I had yet to get a smartphone so I had yet to feel the weight of its addiction, the glowing pull of the screen. In 2013 I had a blue cellphone on a prepaid plan I bought at 7-Eleven. It was as solid as a single brick and about as useful. I spent the hours of our trip journaling, or reading, or belting Outkast songs with the rest of the car. Though at least one of us had had a smartphone, cell service on the long highways of the American Southwest is spotty at best. We mostly used paper maps. Like on any good road trip, we took recommendations from friends, looked for other signs of life in small towns, pulled off on the side of the road to take pictures of old gas stations and ghost towns. I didn’t have a good camera, so I brought along a few disposable ones, and shot roll after roll of film.
Even though I didn’t yet have a smartphone, this road trip was not without the influence of the Internet. To find that 24-hour Mexican diner, someone had probably used the Internet. And without that 24-hour Mexican diner, would I have ever even tasted barbacoa?
In most places I’ve visited it would have been near impossible to miss the “must try” foods, even without guidebooks. Oaxaca is full of mezcalerías, and even if you hadn’t heard of La Merced, the giant market that sprawls across a neighborhood far from the center of Mexico City, smaller and informal mercados are easy to find throughout the city. Despite the feeling that blogs, lists, and geotags have become a security blanket for the paranoid traveler, like myself, they still left me with the uneasy sensation that I was missing something essential about traveling. I had lost a sense of uncertainty that is so rare in our regular lives, but can be found readily in travel. I missed the joyous feeling of personal discovery. Wasn’t that the point of traveling alone?
On my trip to Mexico this past winter, I had wanted to make an intentional effort not to use my phone too much. I’d felt addicted to it back home. I don’t live close to my best friends, so I am constantly looking for their messages. Sometimes I feel like the technological equivalent of a lighthouse keeper looking for ships, or that I am sending out little paper scrolls in bottles into the sea. Being away from your loved ones is a melancholy thing, and I don’t know if smartphones really help. Is there really much of a difference between constantly waiting and constantly looking?
One thing that is nice about living away from your best friends in this day and age is that traveling outside of the country doesn’t make much of a difference in your communication. But I still wanted to disconnect from the Internet. Or try. And I did try, though I don’t know if I succeeded. In my quest for Mexican barbacoa, I’d used the Internet, even if it hadn’t led me to the stall in the mercado. I’d read that barbacoa is a special occasion or Sunday meal, offered in restaurants only on that day. Deciding it was too much hassle, I put barbacoa research on the backburner. I’d used the Internet to read, “How to Judge the Best Tacos in Mexico City” (a line of locals, clean, lots of salsas) and, “Street Food You Have to Try in Mexico City” (huaraches, churros, teteles) and, “The Number One Restaurant in Mexico City That Isn’t Pujol” (Restaurante Nicos).
Even when I don’t look up a de facto list, when I travel, especially when I don’t speak the language or am there for a short amount of time, I always look up and write down the names of the foods I “have to” try. Does this take something away from the experience, or is it merely trying to travel as fully as possible with all the knowledge at my disposal? When you’ve made it to a town 5,000 or so miles from your kitchen, and you’ve only got a few days, you don’t want to go home and realize you went to Oaxaca and forgot to try mezcal, or to Mexico City without trekking to La Merced.
Despite the incredible amount of delicious food that was gracing my palate in Mexico, I began wondering if I was missing something essential. Do guidebooks, or using the Internet to make our own guides, create blinders that keep us from looking, because we know that we’ll find it anyway? Does food tastes better or worse when we’re told we’re meant to like it? These thoughts plagued me every time I opened my phone and looked at Google Maps, or Eater, or Instagram, that modern day “10,000 Thing to ‘Do/Eat/Be’ Before You Die,” where the sentiment pervades that “if you ate it but didn’t upload a picture, did it really happen?” Instagram’s influence on food culture (and travel, and even its ability to overrun certain spots at National Parks) has been criticized extensively, just as early guidebooks were criticized for sending people to local secret spots that had been kept secret for a reason. A treasure hunt is always more rewarding when you’re given a map and told to go for it. When you’re just handed the treasure (or the taco), what’s the point?
Haruki Murakami said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Could the same be true for food? We are all influenced by the world around us, but we can have a certain say in what that world looks like. Many times I have felt that smug, satisfactory feeling of “discovering” a place. Eating somewhere absolutely delicious, or cheap, or ugly (preferably all three), looking around at the end of the meal, and realizing reassuredly that there are no tourists there. A place where you can’t read a word on the menu, or a place that you heard of from a friend of a friend, or one you hurriedly ran into on a starving whim. The understanding that if you told someone about this place, whose name you don’t even remember, they will have never heard of it. To me, this is the point of eating while traveling.
There was a corner food stall by one Airbnb I stayed at in Mexico City. It was consistently busy, and late at night would have a line of dozens of locals. Its sign, lit in a red glow, was handpainted and read just one word: Hamburguesa. This was an item most definitely not on any “Mexico City must eat” lists, but hamburgers (along with sushi, hot dogs, noodles, and plenty of other global foods) are popular in Mexico City. One late night, I got back to my Airbnb and realized I hadn’t eaten dinner. It was the perfect time to try the Hamburguesería. There were four items on the menu: cheese, double cheese, pineapple, and double pineapple. I ordered the pineapple. It cost about $2, and came wrapped in a piece of wax paper. I walked a few steps to the park and sat on a bench, leaning over so that as I ate the drippings could fall onto the sidewalk. It was an impossibly messy burger, and you had to sit and concentrate on it, but I was impressed the bread didn’t fall apart, the construction was solid. The meat was flavorful and spicy, the sauces, though recognizable, tasted decidedly foreign to me. It’s one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Later that night, I looked it up on Google maps. The Hamburguesería on the corner of Calle Morelia and Calle Colima? 4.5 stars, 237 reviews.
A Non-Annoying Listicle from what I've learned while Traveling:
Go on a walking tour, which are especially useful if they go through markets. Even if they don’t, it provides a chance to ask a local for restaurant recommendations in your own language.
Wander around near a university. There are always cheap, good food options.
Talk to other travelers in hostels.
Go to grocery stores. This is one of my favorite things to do while traveling, even if I don’t need anything, just to see the different brands. And to buy weird cookies.
Buy all the fruit that you don’t recognize and try it all at once, picnic style.
If you go to a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask what you should order. I’d often ask something along the lines of “what’s the most (insert country name here) thing I can order?”. In my broken Spanish it usually came out, “Food for me, what is the most Mexican recommendation?” But it worked!