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market mexico city tofu

The oft-heard quote from Pablo Neruda, “Mexico is in its markets,” is rarely truer than at the Mercado San Juan de Pugibet. Not only is Pugibet likely the only market on the face of the planet where you can pick up bok choy, ostrich meat, black-eyed peas and chicatana salsa (made from Oaxacan flying ants!) on any given day of the week – and, to be fair, that last one is probably hard to find anywhere – this downtown market is positively dripping in centuries of history.

The market has its origins in the pre-Hispanic open-air market, or tianguis, in the San Juan Moyotlan quarter of colonial Mexico City. Before 1548, the neighborhood was simply Moyotlan – “place of the mosquito” in Nahuatl – a nod to a common (and persisting) nuisance in the formerly marshy area bordering Lake Texcoco that surrounded ancient Tenochtitlan.

After La Conquista, the Spanish claimed the higher ground and restricted access to pureblood Spaniards only in a 13-block area termed the traza, the core of today’s tourist zone, with San Juan Moyotlan an L-shaped block, home to many thousands of indigenous and mestizo Mexicans, bordering it on the southwest. The Spanish transformed the original tianguis into a central plaza, surrounding the commercial hub with churches and convents. That main square lives on today as the Plaza San Juan, just around the corner from the market’s current location.

Over the centuries, the marketplace lived on in one form or another, becoming in 1850 the Mercado Iturbide, a bustling but utilitarian post-revolutionary construction that served the purposes of a burgeoning capital.

A seafood purveyor at Mercado Pugibet, photo by Yigal SchleiferBetween the Iturbide’s opening and the creation of the modern-day market in 1955, three transformative events took place. First, a fire in 1879 decimated the Iturbide, nearly ending the market forever. Merchants, however, stubbornly kept it alive, moving much of the activity to nearby Delicias Street.

Then in 1890, Ernesto Pugibet, a French entrepreneur and major figure in Mexico’s industrial revolution, bought the land sitting just west of the old Mercado Iturbide from the church in 1890 to expand his nearby cigarette factory. Pugibet hired famed architect Miguel Ángel de Quevedo to build his complex of warehouses and workshops on the grounds of the Convento de San Juan de la Penitencia, leaving only the temple untouched.

The third, according to historian Guadalupe Gonzalez, was the arrival in the 1930s and ’40s of a second wave of Spaniards, this time exiles fleeing the Spanish Civil War. Bringing their refined palates intact, the newcomers – many of whom settled nearby – led merchants to go out of their way to find the highly particular items the Spaniards demanded.

Pugibet eventually left his factory complex to the city, and in 1955, when the remains of the Mercado Iturbide were divided into four smaller markets, the most illustrious merchants, located in the central plaza, were allowed to move next door into Pugibet’s old warehouses, hence the final name change (for now).

Talking to many of the merchants there today, you would think their families were there selling fruit and vegetables back in Tenochtitlan, and really, there’s no way to prove there’s not some truth to that. Being a legendary stand is a point of prestige, and many merchants proudly hang pictures of themselves with mayors, presidents and celebrities. Some at least claim to be transplants from the old Iturbide. At the very center of the market, above the original La Jersey, the Castro family has erected a shrine to matriarch María Eugenia Castro, who runs the chain with husband Óscar Sergio Castro. La Jersey itself has diversified into a number of stands (161 and 147: “Salchichonería y Cremería” La Jersey, tel.: +52 55 5521 8394) with offshoots heading in different directions in style and presentation over the years. The Castros’ impact on the market has become the most prominent and indelible of any we have come across at the San Juan Pugibet.

According to family members, La Jersey’s history began 85 years ago with a stand selling basic cheeses, operated by Luis Rodríguez and Petra Romero. Over the years they added Italian and French cheeses, as well as delicacies like foie gras and jamón serrano, and about 15 years ago, they began selling focaccia and tapas to go.

Eventually, the younger generations staked out new ground. At Delicatesen La Jersey Gourmet (stand 21, tel.: +52 55 5510 9206), for example, Alexandra M. Castro, representing the youngest generation of the family, has opened a new stand with all the faves. Roberto Castro created Las Tapas de San Juan (stands 195-198, tel.: +52 55 5510 4374), looking for a more Spanish vibe and opening up a small seating area to accommodate the growing number of tourists, hipsters and well-heeled foodies that flock to the market on weekends.

If you go, bring some money, because you will want to buy from these stands, but only take as much as you are willing to spend, and don’t let the wine get to your head, or you’ll go home broke, schlepping armfuls of artery-stuffing delicacies.

It’s worth noting that Roberto is branching out from the market, bringing a new incarnation of the stand to the trendy hotel/commercial space “Downtown” (Isabel la Católica 30), just a couple blocks from the Zócalo, and he’s preparing to open a new Las Tapas de San Juan in the Roma neighborhood on Querétaro near Insurgentes.

While these guys are perhaps the best-known bloc of stands here, further investigation is absolutely required. Having opened only a few months ago with a recent wave of gourmet eateries, San Juan Selecto (stand 148, tel.: +52 55 2325 4803) sits just a bit back from the Jersey bloc to the right (coming in from the front). This inviting stand offers exceptional baguettes. Delicately grilled tomatoes, portabellas and eggplant are the heart of the vegetariana sandwich, backed by peperonata (grilled peppers, garlic and olive oil), ultra-fresh arugula and goat cheese (95 pesos). After licking her fingers, one patron grabbed us to rave about the suckling pig and barbecued duck, both available in baguettes for 90 pesos. The duck is surprisingly tender, dressed with a sweet tamarind sauce. No mystery ingredients: this poultry baguette is very well prepared – what you see is what you eat.

Head to the back and look for the mounted stag head to find Los Coyotes (stands 177, 179, 201, tel.: +52 55 4981 7649/+52 55 5521 8418), which has been in business for 35 years. It offers meats like deer, boar, kid (goat), crocodile, ostrich, buffalo, rabbit, kangaroo and lamb. The more unusual stuff – lion and tiger – is supposedly farm-raised for human consumption, but we should note that not only is lion wildly expensive, it may be somewhat toxic due to biomagnification (increasing concentrations of pollutants found in the body as you go higher up the food chain), so caveat emptor.

At the other end of the protein spectrum, Los Coyotes also offers insects for consumption. They’re low-impact on the environment, high-protein, low-calorie and occasionally delicious. The stand sells a variety of 50-peso tostadas topped with any combination of escamoles (ant eggs), crocodile, venison or buffalo with two sauces – salsa de hormiga (ant salsa) and salsa de gusano de maguey (maguey worm salsa).

We went for the escamole, opting for campechano-style, or half-and-half, to try both salsas. Resembling small white pellets, the escamole tasted like a cross between rice and eggs, a match made in heaven. The gusano sauce was smoky and sweet, and the ant sauce kicked butt with a black-pepper-like goodness.

In appreciation of our patronage, the merchant offered a sample of insect snacks afterward. The chicatanas, flying ants, were about half an inch long and looked a bit menacing, but they crunched nicely, offering a mocha-infused taste profile with a touch of that same ant salsa pepperiness. She also handed over some chinicuil, a preparation of the maguey worm that we found a little too smoky and earthy but were still pleased to try. After years of being a feed trough to mosquitoes here, it was satisfying to feel like we were finally getting some revenge.

The fruit and vegetable selection is impeccable at nearly every stand in the market, and we recommend picking one at random, haggling for the best deal on what looks most appealing, and moving on to see what other treasures await a stand away.

If the price seems too expensive, it probably is, so if you really want it, ask around to see if you can’t find a better deal. Case in point: we found a gorgeous head of French lettuce the other day for a measly 5 pesos, while a stand around the corner was asking 15 for an inferior head. (Full disclosure: We admit to having once spent 100 pesos on a single tiny jar of pickles. No regrets.) There are deals to be had, so be patient.

The seafood area is widely considered one of the freshest around, rivaling the capital’s La Viga market, although it’s much smaller and, again, more expensive.

The meats in general are all fresher than you would get at many supermarkets in the States – much of it farm-raised and still bleeding a bit. While most stands offer some variation of exotic stock, the focus is quality, and your basic varieties and cuts are widely available.

Just inside the westernmost entrance, look for the glass cases on one side of the main fruit aisle. At Productos Orientales (stand 262, tel.: +52 55 5521 3263/+52 55 6058 5353) you’ll find stocks of nuts, Asian sauces and spices, sushi fixins and, around the corner, a fantastic selection of mushrooms – shiitake, morel, lobster, you name it. The deal of deals here is the locally produced tofu. Priced at 8.50 pesos apiece, this beats the pants off of the internationally traded pre-packaged stuff from Asia – and it’s way better.

Just to your right a few spots further in the front aisle, head over to Productos Oaxaqueños (stands 191-192, tel.: +52 55 5512 9822/+52 55 2608 9696) for everything you need to get your mole on. Don’t miss the top-notch Oaxacan string cheese, the kind so fresh it squeaks in your teeth, at 30 pesos for a quarter-kilo package. It makes for a great picnic-size snack or for a batch of easy comfort quesadillas. This stand is also a great source for blue corn tortillas and tostadas as well as party snack mixes, including a variety of seasoned chapulines (grasshoppers) and acociles (a native species of peanut-sized crayfish).

This is just a starting point. As with most markets, the more you return, the more you’ll find, and the more you’ll be rewarded.

This article was originally published on March 19, 2014.

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