Hot Lunch: Comida Corrida in Mexico City

Comida Corrida
. You will see these words implying ‘cheap hot lunch’ all over town in fondas, those little mom & pop eateries that cater to working class Mexicans looking for an economic home-cooked repast. The literal definition of a fonda is a “tavern, inn or small restaurant.” But like the terms bistro and trattoria, the meaning has become blurred. There can be high end fondas like the Fonda del Refugio, an elegant restaurant with white tablecloths. But here I refer to the simple kind attending to Marx’s lumpenproletariat. At around 2PM, Latin lunch time, these places fill to capacity. Some - presumably the good ones - have lines in front. It’s a Mexican custom which happily refuses to succumb to the invasion of US-style fast-food down-the-hatch-and-pay slop houses. People in a hurry stop at street stalls. Mc-chains which tend to be a lot more expensive, languish half empty.

The term comida corrida implies an economical mid-day meal served, in the civilized European manner, in three or four ‘tiempos’ or courses. The word ‘corrida’ which literally means a ‘run’, here refers to the fact that the dishes are brought out succesively; it does not, as is sometimes supposed, allude to the ‘corrida de toros’ or bullfight. Comidas corridas are often run by women, making those who don’t have access to a mother or grandma feel right at home. The show opens with a sopa aguada, which, as it sounds, is a soup. It is then followed by a sopa seca or ‘dry soup’ – rice (with or without beans) or sometimes, pasta. The curtain then rises on the plato fuerte or guisado (prepared dish) most often meat cooked in a sauce accompanied by tortillas. The variety of main dishes is infinite, ranging from plain milanesas to vegetable fritters. A dessert may be added, often an unremarkable jello or flan. Aguas preparadas, made from fresh fruit with water and sugar added, are provided (normally at no extra charge) in a pitcher or by the refillable glass.

There are thousands of comida corrida joints in the city. Many serve dull, cheap but filling food – lots of starch, a bit of chewy meat in watery salsa. But a few stand out. And there are gems waiting to be discovered. It would take several lifetimes to try them all; everyone has his or her favorite. Send me yours - here are a few of mine.

Doña Juana, Mercado San Juan
Calle Ernesto Pugibet, Centro
(Metro Salto de Agua)
Doña Juana is the San Juan market's best cook. Her stand is across from La Catalana--look for no. 283 on the green column. A sharp cookie with eyes at the back of her head, Doña Juana leaves no details unattended – your drink will be refilled and tortillas replenished. Her food is hearty, spicy, and varied. Recently on offer were huevos ahogados (literally ‘drowned eggs’) and cochinita pibil, the ruddy yucatecan classic. And at 32 pesos you can't beat the price. On Saturday she does one of the city’s best pozoles, mischievously trying to fatten you up with crema-slathered tostadas.

La Olla de Abundancia, Mercado San Juan de los Arcos de Belén
(nearby but not the same as the San Juan market above)
Corner of Izazaga and López, Centro (metro Salto de Agua)
Open daily
Recognizable by its red counters, this sprawling fast lunch counter serves just about every Mexican classic and their 35 peso comida corrida is indeed abundant. I like the enchiladas verdes, but you never know what will be on the extensive menu.

Las Costillas
Corner of Juan Escutia and Pachuca, Condesa
(metro Chapultepec)
Open Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday
This is a neighborhood taquería specializing in carnes a la parrilla or grilled meats. The fragrance of charred meat, garlic and hot tortillas that greets you on entering is maddening. A little ameuse-bouche of black beans starts things rolling here, followed by the usual soup and my favorite, tacos de costilla (rib) which sing of smoke, fat and everything porcine-good.

The Mercado Medellín ‘food court’
Entrance on Coahuila between Medellín and Monterrey, Colonia Roma
Open daily
These stalls, whose tables run into one another are always busy; signs announce the days offerings while proprietors shriek at you as you walk by, trying to pull you in to their stall. Be patient and choose the one that offers what you want.
A purveyor of juices and aguas will come by taking orders – remember to pay for this separately.

La Mony
Calle Zacatecas between Tonalá and Jalapa, Colonia Roma
Open Monday – Saturday
This reliable little spot, popular with local workers, is the favorite of longtime DF resident Jim Johnston, author of Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. They just raised the price from 28 to 30 pesos, making it one of the cheapest places to have lunch in town.

The Mercado Coyoacán
(Walk up calle Aguayo from the main plaza; the market is between Malintzin and Cuauhtemoc)
This famous market is haunted by Frida and Diego’s ghosts - they undoubtedly ate here on occasion. Several stalls in the comedor section offer giant bubbling cazuelas of good things, all chile-laden.

A note to my readers:
See my piece in the New York Times on Santa Maria la Ribera: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/03/06/travel/20110306-SURFACING.html?ref=travel

And, DFers, don't forget to visit our budding organic market, The Mercado el 100 now entrenched in the Plaza Rio De Janeiro, colonia Roma, Sundays from 9-2


I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues: Azul Condesa

The long anticipated opening of the Condesa branch of one of the city’s finest Mexican restaurants, Azul y Oro has happened at last. The original, on every Mexi-foodie’s ‘must try’ list, serves up well-researched and expertly prepared regional Mexican fare. The baby of chef/culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and named after the eponymous college colors, it’s located in the cultural heart of the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México). Muñoz deserves “national living treasure” status for his tireless work conserving and documenting our country’s rich culinary traditions. He is author of the superb Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana, an invaluable resource (hard to find, but soon to be re-published in a new edition), as well as other attractive cookbooks. So it was with edacious anticipation that I trotted over to the Condesa hot spot to try it out. Unfortunately, after two visits, I left singing the blues. Azul retains the same mouth-watering menu as the campus original. Added is a touch of uptown pretention. Perhaps the new hoity-toity context leads to harsher judgment, but too much of what I ate missed the marks. Beautifully presented, but under-seasoned and lackluster food was the order of the day.
The menu, the same or similar to that of the UNAM restaurant, offers Mexican standards redux as well as lesser-known regional specialties. Seasonal menus are offered: right now Veracruz is being feted with ‘Alma Jarocha’.

The new venue gets an A plus for ambience. Set in Ligaya’s old multi-level space it’s clean and slick, white with touches of blue and warm wood, and a jungle-covered wall in back. Sunny by day, warmly lit by night, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Ambient music is adult and mercifully set at low volume.

Before ordering, comfortingly warmed but forgettable bread is served – and nothing else. No salsa, no butter, nada. Missing are those lovely crisp tostadas and interesting salsas I remember from the venue down under. So we ordered in a hurry.

The tamalito de acelgas (a tamal stuffed with swiss chard and fresh cheese) is comforting, but the savory crema de cilantro soup, one of my favorites at the other establishment, was served tepid and overly thickened. From the special menu came the mellifluous mogo mogo, or stuffed plantain. A pasty mashed plátano macho housing a one-dimentional picadillo and cloaked in a light tomato sauce disappoints –more thought went into arty presentation than flavor. Likewise, tostadas de bacalao betrayed a reticence in seasoning. Much better was a simple, traditional ceviche de pescado; it was well balanced and fresh as a daisy.

Standard ‘international’ salads are good, for those who want something light – the pear and blue cheese is generous and perfectly dressed.

Another ‘greatest hit’ from downtown, the ravioles crujientes rellenos de pato, (here morphed into buñuelos) is a fusion dish of deep-fried wontons filled with duck then bathed in a deep, dark smoky black Oaxacan mole. It’s still good, if a bit decadent.

Moving on, the only standout I sampled from the main menu was the pipian blanco: a tender chunk of pork is expertly seared and grilled, bathed in a light, ground toasted almond ‘pipian’ sauce and sparked by jazzy capers and green olives. It’s pretty, and it works - the subtle flavors and textures smoothly blend like Sinatra with strings. But the gustatory peaks stopped here. An ‘arroz a la tumbada’, from the Veracruz menu, was misconceived. “Where’s the rice?” my dining companion queried, recalling that old burger ad. A deep brick-red broth (to which more fire could be added), drowns a mini dose of seafood, while the elusive rice hides at the bottom. And it’s the wrong kind of rice--a more absorbent variety like Arborio would have given the dish the body it lacked. Jim’s enpipianadas were better, the creamy, nutty, jade-colored sauce a nice complement to the little chunks of sweet shrimp wrapped in house-made tortillas. But the shrimp were barely perceptible, the sauce trumps everything else. And the fish tikin-xic, borrowed from the Yucatecan school of heady red sauce shmeering and grilling, lacked bite and (again) was barely warm.

Desserts are good and worth the calories. A tiramisu was rich and sweet but not cloyingly so . On my ‘don’t miss’ list is still the hot chocolate –made either with milk or water, the chocolate itself comes from Oaxaca and is a special blend containing 30% almonds.

There is a decent but pricy wine list – most options are well over $400, and some ordinary vintages are priced at a whopping $95 per glass, seemingly out of proportion with food prices, which remain reasonable.

The Condesa is sorely in need of a good Mexican restaurant and Azul tries to fill the gap. It seems however, that the populist and accessible aspect of the original venue have been dropped in favor of the usual ‘uptown’ swank and trendy aspirations of this part of the metropolis. Cushy ambience and lovely presentation are no substitute for subtle and smart preparation. I sincerely hope that laurels are not being rested upon and that the staff will put more focus on its fare. I felicitate chef Muñoz et al, and recommend Azul Condesa, but with reservations – and you will need them.

Azul Condesa

Nuevo León 68
Tels. 5286-6268, 5286-6380

Open Monday-Saturday 1-12PM, sunday until 6

Azul Histórico, the new venue, is set in a lovely colonial patio at Isabel la Católica 30

*A note to my readers: See my recent post, a love letter to Egypt: www.planetgoodfood.blogspot.com

and, take a look at my recent article on http://www.zesterdaily.com/, a paean to Mexican street food