One of our favorite markets in Mexico City, Mercado Jamaica is a fantastic destination any time of the year, offering everything from festive Christmas decorations to a large selection of fruits and vegetables. After the markets of Xochimilco, Jamaica is also one of the city’s best flower markets, with block-long aisles filled with freshly cut flowers and plants of almost every imaginable color and type. But as much as we love getting lost in the sweet scents of these green alleyways, what keeps us coming back to Jamaica is El Profe, an excellent eatery inside the market that specializes in barbacoa.
El Profe (“The Prof”) looks less like your typical market food stand and more like a mini restaurant, with small brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that provide more in the way of ambiance than actual light. Waiters and cooks in matching blue uniforms hustle and bustle around the customers, who come and go from the counter at a steady pace. A cramped open kitchen area in the center is surrounded by a stainless steel counter that wraps around it on three sides, with almost obscene-looking piles of uncooked meat stacked along the counter behind a clear glass panel.
In business for half a century, El Profe takes its name from owner and founder Sergio Blanco, who used to work at a local elementary school before leaving his job to follow his dream of opening an eatery. Today, the spry Sergio still works alongside his staff, now made up entirely of extended family members, each with their assigned task – slicing, chopping, frying or stirring – in a setup that resembles a harmonious assembly line.
Barbacoa – pit-roasted mutton – has long been the most popular dish at El Profe, and for good reason. While the dish is sometimes made with different types of meat in other parts of the country (such as beef in the northern states and goat in the coastal states), in central Mexico and Mexico City it is almost always mutton. Sergio and his family raise their own sheep in Milpa Alta, a southern borough of the Distrito Federal that is well known for its farming. One sheep is slaughtered every weekday, while as many five or six are butchered to meet the demand on busier weekends, meaning that customers can always count on the freshness of the meat.
The barbacoa is used to make El Profe’s most popular dishes: consomé, a hearty broth, and tacos de barbacoa, shredded mutton meat tacos served with diced onion and cilantro. To prepare the dish, the meat is wrapped in leaves from the maguey – one of Mexico’s iconic plants – and slow-cooked for hours in its own fat and juices in pits in the ground until it is fall-off-the-bone tender, without the gamey flavor sometimes associated with the meat. The maguey leaves give the mutton a subtle but distinctive flavor similar to pulque, a pre-Hispanic alcoholic drink made from the same plant. It is then pulled apart by hand and heaped into tortillas or soup bowls depending on the customer’s order.
For diners not in the mood for barbacoa, El Profe also offers a range of other choices, including large fried quesadillas filled with chicken, cheese or mushroom and topped with lettuce and sour cream; tacos de suadero, made with Mexico’s version of beef brisket; and chorizo, a homemade Mexican sausage made with pork, chilies and other spices that give it a red or green color. All are in the same league as the barbacoa and the portions quite ample. To wash it all down, there are sodas, horchata (rice-water) or several flavors of fresh-squeezed juice, such as orange, grapefruit and guava.
A visit to the restaurant offers more than the chance to load up on wonderful food – it’s also an opportunity to observe the pride Sergio Blanco and his family take in preparing fresh, high-quality food with ingredients that, in most cases, they themselves produced. These are timeless lessons we are more than happy to learn over and over again at El Profe’s.