Markets in Mexico City are as integral a part of the culture as mariachi music and tacos, providing a place for neighbors to come together for shopping, gossip and family outings and playing a key role in keeping the social fabric tightly woven. While most neighborhoods have their own brick-and-mortar locations, their street markets are far more colorful. These crowded, boisterous shopping areas – some so large that their colorful tarp roofs can been seen on satellite photographs, stretching for miles – are also an essential component of the city’s culinary scene.
Best known by their Nahuatl name, tianguis, street markets are usually held in a given neighborhood on a certain day of the week. At the edge of Colonia Cuauhtémoc along Avenida James Sullivan, the parking lot of the local government-run health center turns into a bustling market on Saturdays and Sundays. The Saturday market is reserved for home goods, clothing and sundries, while Sunday’s market is largely taken up by fruit and vegetables. However, both days offer stellar food stands with various types of tacos, quesadillas and other traditional treats, making Sullivan market a worthy culinary destination in its own right.
Saturday’s market gets going gradually. Vendors are usually at the site before sunrise, and the sound of stands going up, the clang of metal poles being snapped together and people laughing and talking in the dark is reminiscent of an old-time circus setting up in a dusty field. Customers trickle in with the sun and by afternoon, the market’s aisles are teeming with shoppers. While food stands are scattered throughout, on Saturday the majority are located on the market’s eastern end, where the most popular food is tacos with pork or barbacoa, lamb cooked in underground pits.
An older gentleman who goes by “Don Cuco” sets up shop in the middle aisle of the market’s eastern every Saturday, chopping meat and flinging it into small tortillas brushed with a bit of the cooking fat. Don Cuco has been at the Sullivan tianguis for more than 20 years and clearly enjoys his work. With a wink and a smile, he is known to fill an adventurous traveler’s plate with a few free samples of pork brain tacos. There are no signs for Don Cuco, but look for the big glass box with carnitas inside and a pot of bubbling oil where chorizo is being cooked.
The Sunday market is a bit more low-key but no less impressive. Clothing vendors are replaced with long rows of fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, meats and homemade breads; much of this produce is grown by the vendors themselves and then transported directly to the market. Dozens of fruit stands offer everything from apples, oranges, strawberries and bananas to star fruit, kiwi and pomegranates. Countless chili peppers, tomatoes, squashes and potatoes are carefully arranged in neat rows on tables, while other vendors peddle dried or freshly picked spices like rosemary, sage, dill and oregano. The raw materials for an entire feast can easily be gathered in a short stroll down the main aisle of the market.
We never miss a visit to our favorite tortilla stand, whose owners grow their own varieties of corn and hand-grind the kernels to make the masa for their delicious tortillas and tlacoyos, which are masa patties filled with a layer of beans or cheese. They also make wonderful cookies and cakes made from nata, the fatty crust formed when milk is boiled. This stand, which has no sign, is the largest in the Sunday market and is always located at about the midpoint of the north aisle. The woman who runs can it be identified by her many piles of tortillas, tlacoyos, sopes (masa patties with toppings) and different types of breads – by far the more extensive selection offered by any of the vendors.
Many of the vendors are more than happy to offer a bite of their goods, just to convince customers they’ve made the right choice. It’s a kind, but unnecessary, gesture. When it comes to food in the vibrant Sullivan market, it’s almost impossible to make a wrong decision.
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