What the Market will Bear: The Mercado San Juan

Pescadería Alicia

The Mercado San Juan, our 'gourmand's paradise' is my favorite market in the world. I go at least once a week, always with a chef’s open mind, never knowing what to expect. Maybe it will be a fresh plump duck from Michoacán, head and all. Or a nice rack of lamb from Hidalgo. Perhaps Pescadería Alicia will have gotten in some glistening scallops on the half shell or shiny metallic looking fresh sardines. I’ve walked in thinking 'dinner in Provence' and left with fresh pea shoots, long beans and tofu from the Asian stands in back – “Ladies and Gentlemen; there will be a change of program tonight: Szechuan.” The vendors are my friends. I stop to chat with the López family and sample their latest artisanal cheeses accompanied by a plastic cup of nice Rioja. I may have a couple of oysters opened to devour on the spot. Or, if it’s lunch hour, I’ll sit down at Doña Juana’s, one of the best fondas in the city and slurp pozole.
The San Juan market (whose proper name is Mercado San Juan Ernesto Pugibet) embodies the history of Mexico itself. It is located near the site of a pre-Hispanic trading area called Moyotlán.

 (See The Washington Post for the article in which I do just that).

The Mercado San Juan as it looked during the colonial era

With the arrival of the conquistadores the humble barrio was renamed San Juan. The market continued to serve the settlers – imported products such as wine and olive oil were sold there, as were slaves. This tradition – minus the human
trafficking - continues today as just about everything edible is offered and many clients are foreign-born or descendents thereof. The overriding theme is Spanish – embutidos (cold meats), cheeses and seafood tend towards the Iberian, though stands cater to the city’s growing population of Asians. And all kinds of Mexican grown exotic meats, fruits and vegetables can be found.

Gastronomica San Juan, stall no.162, and its neighbor La Jersey offer imported Italian cheeses such as parmesan, pecorino, fontina, French - raw milk brie, Epoisse and the best of Spain: cabrales, good aged manchegos and Extremadura’s elusive torta de cazar. But don’t miss the increasingly high quality and reasonably priced artisanally made goat, cow and sheep cheeses, many from the state of Queretaro. These stands, as well as La Catalana, which reproduces the aged and smoked sausages of Catalonia, offer tempting cold cuts as well.

Pescadería Alicia and her neighbors sell piles of mussels, clams and calamares (they will clean them on request). They are often available fresh, as are unusual varieties of fish, fresh tuna and amazingly big shrimp either in or out of the shell. Hispanofiles’ eyes will pop when they see the hideous but delicious percebes at a fraction of the price of the old country. And if you’re lucky you’ll encounter a whole fresh monkfish.
In the meat section (if you can stomach the piles of sacrificed kid goat and bunny corpses) my foodie friend Stan swears by stands 44-46 who sell veal scaloppini and ossobuco ready to cook. Nearby stands stock lamb, both New Zealand and national (which is good for Indian or Moroccan stews), but it is often frozen on weekdays. You could pick up an armadillo as well if your soiree has a pre-Hispanic theme. More tempting are fresh farm turkeys (they’ll remove the head and feet for you) packaged ducks, and, occasionally, free range local ducks which will produce a knockout Peking roast or á l’orange.
The well stocked Oriental vegetable stands, the only ones in the whole country, cater to flocks of bewildered looking Asian immigrants as well as people like me who want to buy bitter melon, long beans, okra, baby bok choy or pea shoots.
A wild boar - tamed, now.
The ‘gourmet’ produce stalls, meanwhile, offer such hard to get greens as crinkly kale and Savoy cabbage, tiny haricot vertes and yellow wax beans, celeriac (outlandishly expensive, so only if you MUST have celerie remolade and can’t wait to go to France), tiny peas, shelled favas and sweet potatoes.
One lady has fresh herbs such as dill, tarragon and real Italian basil (not the Mexican variety, which won’t do for Italian cooking, although it works well as a substitute for Thai basil).
And, of course, there’s Doña Guadalupe's mushrooms, to the left as you enter, who sells an amazing variety of fresh wild mushrooms in season, including cultivated local porcini. I always see French people at this stand madly stashing chanterelles, girolles and morels, happy to be paying 100 pesos instead of 100 euros. Dried versions are available all year around and make good gifts.
And, in addition to all of these quotidian offerings, as the holiday season is upon us, a mind-blowing selection of meats, fowls and seafood will be on display until the beginning of January. Racks of lamb and veal, whole venison and jabalí (wild boars), pheasants, geese, sparkling clams and evocative oysters. Go now or forever hold your pesos.

A French lady picks her own 'crevettes'; try that in Paris and you'll get your hand slapped!

quesos & embutidos La Jersey

La Catalana makes hams, fuet and other Iberian delights - and will let you taste

A nice rack of lamb

Asian fusion

Doña Guadalupe, the famous mushroom lady with a new load of morels

Doña Juana, the San Juan's best cook. Her stand across from La Catalana 
offers great pozole on Saturdays, perfect milanesas every day.

Mini vegetables

Mercado San Juan
Calle Ernesto Pugibet, centro
Metro Salto de Agua – walk up c/Lopez and turn left at Delicias (or down Lopez if you are coming from the Alameda – you will see the enormous Telmex tower which is across the street
open daily until around 4 – there is free parking for customers next door.


Blanca Navidad - The 10 best Mexican Foodie Gifts of 2010

It’s that time again and I just hauled out my favorite Christmas LP – the cool jazz queen June Christy’s This Time of Year. I’m not a shopper and I think it's gauche to order gifts online. Food related presents are the best kind (except for diamonds, some would say) so I’ve put together a list of my favorite reasonably priced regalitos for your chowhound loved ones. All are under $40 US (some well under) And all are guaranteed to pass those capricious US or European customs agents.

1. Olive oil, jam and salsa from Mónica Patiño’s Delirio - Monterrey 116 (corner Av. Alvaro Obregón), Colonia Roma
Chef Patiño’s shop does marmalades and salsas that come in cute granny-like jars. For the serious chef, her fruity olive oil, from Baja California is a must and at 145 pesos a good buy.

2. Mole pastes from the Medellín Market
Mercado Medellín, entrance on Monterrey or Medellín between Coahuila & Campeche (the stand is near the La Morenita seafood fonda)
A selection of rich, dark mole pastes - very well wrapped- makes a great, economical (at around 20 pesos per 1/4 kilo) gift and it lasts forever. But you may have to include instructions (i.e. sauté some onions and tomatoes, add about a cup of paste, and breaking it up with a wooden tool, sauté lightly. Then add chicken - or vegetable stock, little by little until it reaches the consistency of heavy cream. Be carefull not to add too much liquid. Do not boil. Pour over warm chicken breasts or dip tortillas and fold).

3. Patrice’s wacky, campy aprons, covered with skulls, Fridas or Mexi-what-have-yous will bring a smile to mom’s lips. They're around $300 pesos and are on sale at the following venues:

Mumedi Café y Librería
Francisco Madero #74, 5510-8771

Tienda de Museo de Arte Popular
Independencia corner of Revillagigedo, 5510-2201

Centro Cultural de España
Guatemala 18, 5521-1926

Museo Franz Mayer, Av. Hidalgo

Caravanserai de Thé
Orizaba 101-A y Alvaro Obregon, Roma, tel. 5511 2877

Gabinete Libros y Arte
Alvaro Obregon 101-F, Roma, tel. 5511-8599

Tienda de museo de Arte Popular, Polanco
Emilio Castellar 22 y Temostocles

El Chiribitl: Bazaar Sabado-Plaza San Jacinto, Horacio Gavito & Rogelio, San Angel

4. Dried mushrooms from Mercado San Juan
Ernesto Pugibet & Delicias, Centro
Enter the market and immediatly turn left; towards the end of the front isle is the amazing mushroom stand. Porcini - about 100 pesos per 100 grams, girolles (here called duraznillos), chanterelles and morels all come dried and pre-packaged in 100g cellophane bags. They're a fraction of what they would be in, say, France, and guaranteed to blow the mind of any chef. They should go through OK at the airport, as they are dried...

5. Napkins and or Placemats from the huge Ciudadela Market (Av. Balderas, about five blocks south of the Alameda - metro Balderas). These napkins and placemats (at around 20 pesos per) are the very best gift for those who will be traveling as they weigh next to nothing and pack tight.
The napkins can be machine washed, no problem for those poor gringos who don't have anyone to do the laundry for them. You can also pick up myriad knick-knacks for stocking stuffers here.

6. Lead-free Cazuelas from Fonart (http://www.fonart.gob.mx/, Av. Patriotismo No. 691, Mixoac, and Av. Juarez 89 at the foot of the Alameda). I have a huge selection of these that I've picked up over the years. They're great on the stove or in the oven and cook just as well as Le Cruiset at a fraction of the price. Finding them is hit-or-miss. Fonart is the national crafts store outlet, but it has seemingly been run by a flock of headless chickens and the once abundant and ubiquitous stores have dwindled to three. The large one down on Patriotismo is most likely to have a good selection of ceramics.

7. A Molcajete (around 120 pesos) from the Jamaica Market (at metro Jamaica, Av. Morelos near Calz. de la Viga, south of the centro)
OK, I know they weigh a ton, but no cook I know can live without it once they have used one. I shlepped one to New York for a needy friend once (but will never do it again). I grind black pepper in mine to the exact size I want in seconds. To be fare, William Sonoma sells them for about $35 US which really isn't bad. And if you've never been to the Jamaica market, which is home to a 365 day a year 24/7 flower market you've got a treat in store. A nice selection of molcajetes is to be found at the extreme right side, as you face the market from the street.

8. Mezcal Enmascarado ($365) from La Naval (corner Insurgentes & Michoacan, Condesa,
What could be a better gift for your boozing hipster pals than a bottle of oh-so-trendy mezcal with lucha libre figures on it.

9. Chocolates from Sanborns (locations everywhere, various sizes and prices)
I know, I know you're thinking "Sanborns ?!" ....
But to my grandmother, the blue box brought back fond memories of Mexico City c.1957. And really, they're not so bad...

10. A Selection of Salsas from the super.... (too, too many locations, various prices from $20 to 45)
These cute bottles will make a picant-o-phile muy feliz and are a good last minute gift. If you're flying, just be sure to check the suitcase containing them unless you want to make the national news...

I loved this beautifully designed bi-lingual Mexican foodie calendar last year and can't wait to see what they did with it for 2011. It's $190 pesos.

You can pick one up in el DF- the office is at Tlacotalpan 37-602, Col. Roma Sur. Tel. 5584 8995. Or they can be ordered to be shipped nationally or internationally by calling or writing to: graficatododemexico@gmail.com. You can even pay with Paypal!

And last but not least, why not order a copy or two of my book, Good Food in Mexico City (Come Bien en el D.F. en español) - even armchair chowhounds enjoy it. Just click on the link above and to the right. Jim Johnston's obra maestra, Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler (for which I did the photography) also makes a good companion piece for anyone coming to visit us.

¡Feliz Navidad!

A Note to my readers:

*** Gastronomes will enjoy the extraordinary Christmas food stalls set up outside Colonia Roma’s Mercado Medellín (Calle Campeche between Medellín and Monterrey). Every savory ‘antojito’, from tamales to tostadas to piping hot pozole is on offer from midday until around midnight.Through Christmas.