A Tisket, A Tasket: Tacos de Canasta

They’re Mexico City’s original fast food and I, eater of all things, refused to go near them. Starchy little grease bombs, I thought. But it was David Lida, (www.davidlida.com) chronicler of Mexico City’s underbelly, who showed me the light – he loves them. “They’re NOT oily”, he insisted, “It’s just the juice that seeps out”. Well, I recently did some in-depth research into this most low-rent of el D.F.’s street snacks. Result? Greasy. But some less than others. And it’s good, red, chile-infused, soul-warming grease. Vale la pena. Tacos de canasta, named for the basket in which they are traditionally presented and out of which they are hawked, are sometimes called ‘tacos sudados’ or sweaty tacos. None of the vendors I interviewed seemed to know the origin of this simple and ubiquitous curbside taco phenomena, but most agreed that they are native to Mexico City and/or Hidalgo. They are simply tortillas filled with either frijoles refritos, adobo (a mole-like paste), potatoes, chicharrón (pork skin) or meat-less mole verde, folded over and quickly heated. They’re then packed sardine-like in a basket lined with cloth and brought to market on foot in a little cart, or sometimes by bicyle. Snuggled together, they keep warm, continuing to steam, sweat and ooze for hours. Eaten as they come out of the basket with salsa and escabeche (pickled chiles and vegetables) they’re sold cheap - often for 3 or 4 pesos – and are every chilango’s favorite street food.

While tacos de canasta are usually sold by ambulantes whose locations can’t be pinned down, there are a few recommendable and well-known fixed locations where these filling antojitos, can be found. They make good party food and can be ordered by the thousand for your next cocktail party, quinceañera, wedding or bembé.

La Abuela
-Río Lerma corner of Río Rhin, Col. Cuauhtemoc (2 blocks north of Reforma, across from the Pemex)

Tacos de Canasta Uruguay

On c/ Rep. de Uruguay, near the Pastelería La Ideal, between Isabel la Católica and 5 de Febrero, Centro

Tacos de Canasta
Av. Coyoacán 512, (1 ½ blocks south of Division del Norte), Col. Del Valle

Tacos de Canasta El Salvador
Rep. el Salvador 73
This micro-business, in operation for decades, spills out of a non-descript doorway, but even provides a couple of tables and chairs inside. Their tacos are justifiably famous.

Pepe’s del Zócalo
This busy stand sold out of a window at the northwest corner of the Zócalo, but its venue is under restoration and it has has been shooed onto the street around the corner, near the Museo del Templo Mayor.

Los Especiales
Is on the newly pedestrianized Av. Madero, near the Zócalo

Maria Consuelo Yerena will deliver all the tacos you want for your next event. And you get to keep the basket!
Tel. 58 45 44 17
Cel. 044 55 15 01 17 35

Photos and Text © Nicholas Gilman 2010


Turkey Day: Doing Thanksgiving in Mexico City

Mexico City, November 27th: “A Thanksgiving ball was given tonight by the American Colony
of this city and was largely attended, President Díaz being among the invited guests. The affair was a great social success, many representatives of the highest society of Mexico being present.”
-from The New York Times, 1902

Although the paper of record found this item “fit to print” more than one hundred years ago, today much less ado is made about the oldest and most beloved American holiday south of its border. Up to one million Americanos reside in Mexico, and the festive tradition of celebrating the harvest, begun in 1621, will soon be upon us. Most gringos live far from their families and old friends, making a nostalgic Norman Rockwell-style dinner (which never existed for most of us anyway) unfeasible. Many ex-pats have changed their way of thinking about the holiday. Stan Gray and his partner Bill have lived in San Miguel de Allende since 1996. Asked about Thanksgiving in Mexico, he said, “I love the freedom….the holiday doesn’t exist here, so we can do exactly what we want. We’ve done the traditional turkey dinner, but sometimes we just hang out with Mexican friends who don’t even know what’s going on, or sometimes we just forget about it”. My own tradition, going to grandma’s house in Brooklyn, ended more than 30 years ago when grandma became an expat in some other world so I’ve been winging it ever since.
But for those who long to recreate the comforts of home, it’s not only possible, but easy as pie. Most large supermarkets sell everything you need – fat turkeys, sweet potatoes, stuffing mix etc. I shop at the extraordinary San Juan Market in the centro of Mexico City and buy my fixings there. Several stands sell beautiful, plump farm-raised gobblers, free of fat injections and nasty chemicals-- the butcher will expertly eliminate the head and feet for you. But as these birds are not artificially ‘pre-basted’ you’ll have to do it yourself. I suggest soaking a cheesecloth pad with butter and placing it over the breast - throw a little of the pan juices on every now and then to keep it from drying out. The taste of these birds is incomparable, and they can be reserved ahead of time, and Gourmet Gastronómica will deliver if you can’t make it down there (see below).
While “camotes”, the pale Mexican version of the sweet potato, are readily available, they are not as sweet and don’t have that evocative orange color. Not to worry. Señora García at stand #218 will take care of you. She sells the yams we all remember. I like to bake them, then mash with orange juice and lots of butter, spread in a baking dish, top with sliced, peeled apples, brown sugar, more butter, and brown it in a hot oven. This is my Brooklyn grandmother’s recipe. I won’t give you her turkey recipe, as, being a typical Jewish cook, she always overcooked it. You can pick up some pre-shucked oysters at the nearby seafood stands if you like them in the stuffing. And, if we’re lucky, this seasons’ chestnuts, imported from Spain for Christmas, may be in.
Moving down the aisle, a stop at #260, is Hermelinda Guillén’s puesto celebrated for its wacky wild mushrooms. Tucked a way in a corner is a bin of gorgeous fresh pearl onions, so you have no excuse not to include a few in your repast. In the same aisle you’ll pass all the Brussels sprouts, green beans, nuts, and yellow potatoes you need. But what about the cranberry sauce dilemma? Fresh ones are as rare here as good tamales are on Park Avenue. You may find the tinned jellied variety at your local Sumesa but serving that wouldn’t be fair to your other princely culinary creations. You may procure a bag of the real stuff at Sam’s Club or through a clever smuggler/visitor from the US. If not, Ruth Alegria, culinary tour operator and chef (http://mexicosoulandessence.com/) offers her version using dried cranberries (arándanos in Spanish) which are widely available here:

Mexican dried cranberry salsa Alegría:
Recipe ingredients:
2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup apples, cored and chopped
2 tbsp butter
2 cups cranberry juice
Juice and grated peel of 1 orange
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
(Optional) for a Mexican touch:
1 dried guajillo chili, rehydrated in piloncillo (brown sugar) water and finely chopped
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds, raw and crushed for garnish
To prepare the relish:
Sauté the cranberries and apples in the butter. When the cranberries have plumped up add the rest of the ingredients. Let simmer for 1/2 an hour. It should have a thick consistency, if not allow to simmer 15 minutes more. Stir to avoid sticking or burning.
When thick, cool and refrigerate. Can be served hot or cold.
Mexican version:
Add the guajillo chilies for the last 10 minutes for a subtle picante effect.
Garnish sauce with the crushed pumpkin seeds.

As for the pies, well, I just haven’t found a good American-style source here. You’ll just have to do it yourself. Pull out the old Joy of Cooking and get to work. They do sell pre-made piecrusts at the super, if you want to cheat, but I think saving time in the kitchen is best left to non-holidays, definitely not Thanksgiving. Search Youtube for piecrust instructions if you have forgotten how to do it.
And for those who prefer someone else to do the cooking, pre-roasted turkeys can be ordered from La Casa Del Pavo, an amazing little restaurant in the centro that has been in business seemingly forever. Turkey is all they serve here. I like to stop in from time to time for a turkey torta, tacos or platter, any time of year. See info below.

Enjoy this, the only holiday that the Mad Men of advertizing have been unable to co-opt. Invite your Mexican friends and share it with them. Or forget the whole thing and go out for tacos.

Thanksgiving shopping:
Mercado San Juan (calle Ernesto Pugibet, between Buen Tono and Luis Moya)
- Turkeys: Gourmet Gastronómica González, stands #95-97, tel. 5510-2094, 5521-7451, 5577-7693
- Sweet and other potatoes: Sra. García Valdez, stand #218, tel. 5521-9879, 5512-6360
- Pearl Onions: Sra. Guillén, stand #260, tel. 5521-6165; you will find all the fruits you need for your pies around the corner.

For pre-baked turkeys to go:
- La Casa Del Pavo, Motolinia 40, centro tel. 5518-4282 – If you don’t want to do it yourself this is a great alternative. Call in advance to order your bird.

Note: This article, was previouly published in The News. It has been updated. Photos are by Rodrigo Oropeza, Nicholas Gilman and Norman Rockwell


Close to home: The Mercado el 100

In Mexico, land of vendedores one could alter Shakespeare’s phrase to read “all the world’s a market”. But a new type of mercado has just been inaugurated: the Mercado el 100. This weekly outdoor tianguis recalls Paris’ wildly successful marché biologique or New York’s see-and-be-seen Union Square market. That is, it provides a venue for small local producers of presumably organic and artisanal products to strut their stuff. I visited the second manifestation of this noble project and couldn’t help being tempted by the beautiful purple lettuces, crinkly frissée, pungent arugala, emerald green peppers. Fresh cheeses called out as well but had been snapped up by the time I got there. Tastings of various baked goods were so popular I couldn’t tell what they were. People chatted, swapping recipes, ideas. (I explained what arugala is to a young woman, handing her a taste - but she didn't like it - ni modo). The local food movement has arrived in el D.F.
Locavores. Sounds like those creatures in Night of the Living Dead. But it’s actually a name given to a select group of nature lovers who insist on eating nothing that is grown more than a few miles from where they live. A bit extreme, you may think. Perhaps, but the idea is good, something to at least aspire to if not live by. (Mercado de 100 gets its name fron the hope that everything sold here will be produced within 100 miles). In this ever-globalizing world, more and more people are getting involved in practical solutions to pollution and global warming – caused by the transportation of our food from one side of the earth to the other - and just plain bad food, the result of drek-like products mass-produced and sold cheaply by ‘Wal’-type establishments. Mexico’s a place where, unlike in the USA, traditional markets still thrive and offer many foods grown or made nearby. But with the opening up of trade, the percentage of foodstuffs brought from as far away as China – and this includes such Mexican staples as chilies and corn- is sad to behold. That’s where Alan Vargas comes in. He’s a visual artist, political activist and dreamer. Working with Slow Food maven and star restauranteur Gabriela Cámara, hot chef Jair Tellez, and French foodie Nathalène Latour de Saint Viance he has brought his dream to reality. “I did it because I like good food”, remarked Vargas, proudly surveying the bustling Parque México market on a recent chilly Sunday afternoon. Shoppers were grabbing organic lettuces, honeys and cheeses like they were going out of style. The idea had been born during Slow Food meetings several years ago but took much frustrating and hard work to bring to fruition (pun intended). Thanks to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of our metropolis’ government, hair was pulled out, sleep was lost and the opening was delayed many months. But the market, small but growing, is now in place. At present it will alternate between the Foro Lindberg in the park, the Casa de Francia (Havre 15 near Reforma, Zona Rosa) and the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, (Orizaba and Durango, Colonia Roma) – see the schedule below. Prices are surprisingly reasonable. When I questioned Alan as to whether there is a public in Mexico City willing to shell out extra pesos for the kinds of things that in New York would generally cost twice as much, he replied “check out the prices per kilo in the Superama around the corner and you’ll see we are often even lower than they are”. And the quality doesn’t even compare. Support this noble cause and be there next week.

The market takes place in either Plaza Rio de Janeiro or Luís Cabrera (Calle Orizaba) on Sundays from 9-2. Check their website for exact times and locations.