In Mexico City, we love our quick doses of Vitamin T: tacos, tortas and tamales. But what to do when we are itching to sit down for a hearty lunch (the most important meal of the day for many Mexicans), and don’t have the time or energy to rush to and from home in the ever-increasing traffic? The answer lives within the city’s 300 markets, where you can have comida corrida, a home-style meal “on the run,” no matter how far you are. These multi-course meals can be had at fondas or cocina económica, low-cost counters with set menus. But it’s not just the affordable price-tags that keep people coming, it’s the flavors of home.
“Comida corrida is a family style meal. It is not about fancy restaurant plates,” says Elizabeth Martínez Hernández who works as the main chef at Cocina Margarita, a classic in this genre located within the main market of the Pro Hogar colonia (neighborhood). The area dates back to the 1930s and was one of the first residential developments promoted by workers’ unions. Today, the Pro Hagar market is one of the biggest in Mexico City. And within it at Cocina Margartia, for 60 pesos, Elizabeth says you can get soup, rice, guisado (main course), tortillas, frijolitos (beans) and agüita (fruit-flavored water).
Elizabeth and her siblings Laura and Jesús took over the cocina from their mother when she passed away more than a decade ago. They believe only a family-owned and run business can offer the kind of home-cooked meals that makes fondas like theirs stand out. It was their mother who was determined to open the cocina, and it is their mother’s food that lives on through them. “One day our mother told us: ‘We are going to open a small business at the Pro Hogar market, and I want you to put all your effort into it’,” recounts Jesús.
A part of the tradition of comida corrida is that the set meal changes daily. During a recent visit to Cocina Margarita, the day’s menu is a starter of lentil soup, a second course of pasta and a guisado (main dish) of Caldo Tlalpeño (chicken and vegetable stew with chipotles). The agua fresca beverage is made from cantaloupe, and is all you can drink. Peak hours for comida corrida in Mexico City is from 2-4pm, but at Cocina Margarita diners in-the-know swarm the counter between 1-3pm. If they arrive too much later, only slim pickings remain. One day it’ll be the soup or rice that run out, but the worst is when everyone’s favorite guisado is long gone. Elizabeth, who learned the secrets of comida corrida from her mother, says her best dishes are a chicken with cream and mushrooms and pork ribs, made three types of chile: ancho, chipotle and guajillo.
Jesús, who does a “little bit of everything” around the eatery, underscores just how important the market where they operate is for their business. “One-hundred percent of our supplies comes from this same market,” he says. “Here at Pro Hogar, we all work under a self-consumption system.” This particular market is a busy one. Located in a popular neighborhood full of offices, hospitals, garages and drugstores, the regulars at Cocina Margarita run the gamut: engineers, stonemasons, housewives, doctors, mechanics, even other vendors at the market. Jesús, who studied sociology and human rights diplomacy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and received a master’s in town planning, is emphatic that even with all his degrees, he loves to work at the fonda, within the hustle and bustle of the market. “I get to work with my sisters, and have the chance to be around people and serve them. I like that we are providing a good-quality service,” he says. “And I love to use my sociology knowledge on family and clients!”
Elizabeth lets out a sigh when speaking of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the fonda. “It has been a very difficult time,” she says, “but we never closed the cocina.” She concludes with some optimism: “The economy is still suffering, but here we are! First, we have to have faith in God. And then, we have to believe we are going to be loaded with work.” Looking around the market and the packed counter, they are.
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