The place smells like a wet dog. The fishmongers have long grown accustomed to it, but the uninitiated are assaulted by the full force of Mercado La Nueva Viga’s funky barnyard smell almost from Eje 6, the congested avenue were we turn into the entrance.
The trick, we find, is to walk quickly into one of the long, narrow corridors of the fish market’s three massive buildings, so that the smell of salt and sea and freshly crushed ice fills up our nostrils so completely there is room for nothing else.
Everywhere red snapper heads stare up at us with the shock of their last thought – I’ve been caught – and at each stand, the drip, drip, drip from icey displays is coating the floor in a sheen of fishy water.
For those of us who love fish markets, La Viga is a dreamscape – rows of gray slippery octopus, blue crabs tied tightly with bright green grass, and fishmongers whose razor-sharp knives fillet fish after fish with the swiftness of blade masters. La Viga is one of the world’s largest fish markets: It handles about 60 percent of the fish and seafood sales in Mexico and welcomes over 20,000 customers on an average day. In addition to the hundreds of stands selling fresh and frozen seafood, there are a few dozen restaurants with flaky fish-filled empanadas, fried fillets and sticky sweet Mexican-style shrimp cocktails.
This market was once in the heart of the capital, near where you find the Jamaica flower market today and Calzada la Viga (La Viga Avenue). The La Viga canal was once one of the city’s watery thoroughfares that led from the agricultural islands of Xochimilco to the city’s central markets. In the past the market must have sold axolotls (a type of salamander) and local trout from the southern canals, but not any more. Today you find clams (almejas) from Tabasco, tilapia (mojarra) from Tepic, shark (tiburón) from Louisiana, and hake (merluza) from Baja California.
First thing in the morning, around 3 a.m., vendors from across the city come to buy in bulk. They will resell those purchases in other, smaller stands in other markets. This is also the chef’s hour, when Mexico City’s gourmands come to buy the freshest of the fresh. Apart from being on the coast, this is the freshest fish you will find in the country, as everything is brought to Mexico’s capital first and then distributed from here. A dollar for a kilo of clams, $2.50 for a kilo of octopus – we wish we had brought a cooler.
A dollar for a kilo of clams, $2.50 for a kilo of octopus – we wish we had brought a cooler.
As the first customers enter the market, Robert’s Empanadas is already serving piping hot, deep-fried empanadas from their cart in the parking lot between the first and second building. A half dozen young men roll dough, spoon in a filling of onion, tomato and fish, and then roll over the edges to seal it into a packet. It’s a routine ritual – they do it without looking, while telling jokes, while flirting with girls that pass by. The empanadas are passed to customers, their grease staining the sheaths of brown paper they’re served in; a small puff of steam escapes them on first bite.
In the afternoons, when the buying rush has ended, it’s time to slice fillets, clean fish and prep orders for shipment. Two men sit before a large wooden trough cleaning thousands of swim bladders (buche). These will be shipped to Japan, where they are believed to have aphrodisiac powers. In fact, the swim bladders of certain species fetch thousands of dollars. Fish from this market go all over the world, and while the bulk of the sales are of Mexican species, there are a handful of specialties you can find from Spain, the United States and Japan.
Most vendors tell us to eat at La Matoza. It’s a small restaurant off to one corner of the market’s grounds. It’s probably the most respectable restaurant (around since 1955) and it is good, but wandering a bit through the halls of the market, we find even more delicious options – fishmongers who crack open a fresh oyster from Veracruz to slide slimy and salty down our throat or a blue crab tostada at Mariscos Claudia, also a parking lot stand.
Getting to La Viga isn’t as simple as just hopping on the metro. It was built in the 1990s, when the demand for seafood outstripped the old market’s ability to handle it. The owners made the market easy to reach by car, with lots of parking. But to get all that space, it was built on the edge of the city, in Itzapalapa, a neighborhood with a rough reputation.
We took public transportation, first the Insurgentes metrobus to Ciudad de los Deportivos and then a bus the length of Eje 6. For this route, a little Spanish is a must, as you will likely have to explain to the bus driver that you want to get out at the market. But if that seems daunting, an Uber may be your best bet.
The market is up and going by 3 a.m., but 5 or 6 a.m. is a more lively time for buying and selling. We prefer to get there around 8 a.m., so that we can still experience the morning rush and then sample some of the delicious La Viga fare when most of the food vendors open at 9 a.m.
Then there is the question of shoes. Wear something you don’t mind getting wet and fishy or shoes that are water resistant. We’ve apparently not learned this lesson, as every trip to the market has so far ended in soaked, fishy feet. But in our opinion, it’s worth the stinky shoes.