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In the past couple of years, in the fashionable neighborhoods of Mexico City, a panoply of high-class hamburger joints has opened. To delineate their distinction from anything to do with Mexico, most of them have names in English, and their menus offer burgers fashioned from ground sirloin, Kobe or Wagyu beef, with toppings as diverse as imported Stilton, caramelized onion and even foie gras. Their decoration is similarly varied, from sidewalk café to faux diner to intimate and candlelit. Perhaps predictably, at these emporiums the clients pay as much for a burger as they would in New York, Los Angeles or maybe even Tokyo.

More than 20 years ago, when we left the U.S. to live in Mexico City, we didn’t come to eat hamburgers. With so many indigenous offerings available from the menu of Mexico’s notorious “vitamin T” – the way that Mexicans refer to tacos, tamales, tostadas, tortas, tlayudas and the rest of the roster of foods that begin with that letter – why would we have wanted to bother with anything as banal as a burger?

Yet not long after we arrived, a savvy Mexico City native introduced us to the guilty pleasure of Mexican street hamburgers, sold from rickety carts on the sidewalk, cooked over charcoal and festooned with a veritable piñata party of condiments, including shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, onions, chili peppers, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Most customers ask for melted, processed cheese on top, and for those who like a little sweet with their savory, a slice of pineapple, fresh from the can, is also on offer. It is perhaps wise not to consider too deeply where the meat comes from and to think only about how satisfying its grilled flavor is, along with the sweet, tart, crunchy and hot rainbow of enhancements.

The carts are covered with orange tarpaulins to protect customers from the elements, and they tend to have primitive vacuums over the grills, which ostensibly act as detours for the smoke. (Actually, they do little to disperse it; indeed, we would argue that the burgers are even tastier while one is inhaling the fragrance of the coal and the charred meat.) Our favorite place to eat them is at the Hamburguesas a la Parrilla stand on the corner of Morelia and Colima in the Colonia Roma, where a couple of kids who look like brother and sister – but assured us on a recent visit that they are not – tend to the clients who congregate for their wares. (On Friday afternoons and on weekends, there is sometimes a crowd of several dozen people not so patiently waiting for a burger.) As at any reputable Mexican street cart, one person cooks the food while the other collects the money and pops open the soft-drink bottles.

This particular hamburger stand begins service at 9:00 in the morning and serves until midnight – on weekends, they are open until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, servicing people as they totter out of the nearby bars and clubs. On a really good day, according to the young man who collects the money, they sell as many as 1,200 burgers, and if they run out of an essential ingredient, more of it is sent for. The cost-conscious will be delighted. A plain hamburger costs 28 pesos (about $2.35), while a super-loaded article with double doses of cheese and pineapple is 37 pesos (about $2.85). We don’t have anything against fancy hamburgers. But when we’re looking for a fix, we’ll stick to the Mexican variation, thank you very much.

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David LidaDavid Lida

Published on August 26, 2014

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