“Do you want fat on those?” At Quesadillas La Chaparrita in Mercado Jamaica, the correct answer is always yes. At the nod of our heads, the young woman manning the grill splashes a little melted lard onto each of our quesadillas with her spatula and slides them over into the hot center of the concave grill top.
Somehow she keeps each bunch of quesadillas or gorditas separate from the next as three other women buzz around her – one prepping fillings, one making tortillas on a hand press, and one to her right making change and wrapping up to-go orders. It’s a perfectly timed culinary dance.
As the place where we first tried Mexico City-style quesadillas, many years ago, this stand holds a special place in our hearts – from the weekend lines it’s obvious that plenty others feel the same way. In contrast to other parts of the country, quesadillas in CDMX have stew-like fillings and don’t include cheese unless you ask for it (in which case they add stringy, melt-in-your-mouth quesillo). The two top sellers at La Chaparrita are squash blossom and corn fungus (huitlacoche) quesadillas, but there are a myriad of other options, including ground beef and potatoes, chicken tinga (chicken cooked in a tomato-based sauce), beef tinga, grilled onions and mushrooms, and their signature rajas, a fiery combo of grilled chile peppers.
Today the stand is a hive of activity, but it was a one-woman show when Juana Hernandez opened it in 1980. When she and her husband first came to the city from Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state, the couple had seven kids and few resources, so they started out selling grilled corn on the cob in the street. They frequented the Jamaica Market to purchase what they needed for their streetside stand and slowly got to know the vendors there. When an opportunity arose to open a small food stall, Juanita jumped at it.
“She started from the very bottom, with just a tiny grill,” says Rosa, Doña Juanita’s goddaughter, who’s been working at the stand since she was only 15, getting started in 1986, just a few months after the massive 1985 earthquake struck Mexico City. (Twelve years into her tenure at La Chaparrita, she officially joined the family when she married Juana’s son Pedro.)
“We used to come in at 7:30 in the morning, and we would already have a line of people waiting,” says Rosa. “Customers would come and say, ‘My flight leaves at 8 or 9 a.m., can you make me an order for 7 a.m.?’ I would always say yes.”
Rosa’s husband Pedro helped the two women expand their kitchen repertoire, teaching them the culinary tricks he had learned cooking in a few Chinese restaurants and other diners in the city. The stand went from selling a handful of items to shutting down their competition a few aisles down. In a decade or so, Juanita’s stand expanded into other nearby commercial spaces, and they opened a huarache stand as well. The familia now has several businesses lining one row at the market. You can buy a bag of avocados, a few delicious quesadillas, some chorizo tacos and, on the weekends, a spicy whole tilapia (mojarra) wrapped in parchment paper – all within the same 50 feet.
Rosa, like Doña Juanita, has now spent a majority of her life in the market.
“There’s no Mother’s Day,” she says good-naturedly, “because we are here. There is no Christmas Eve because we are here. There’s no New Year’s because we are here… we spend most of our lives here, you know? We go home just to shower, sleep, get dressed again, and then we are back here.”
The Jamaica Market isn’t lauded for its food in the same way that Mexico City’s Mercado San Juan or the Mercado Merced are. In this market the focus is on flowers – aisles and aisles of glowing sunflowers, roses of every shade of pink, and ethereal calla lilies. The market’s few culinary gems have been feeding vendors and workers in the surrounding area for decades, long before the tourists found them.
The stand went from selling a handful of items to shutting down their competition a few aisles down.
“My husband told me he remembers when they used to have to cross La Viga by boat,” says Rosa about the four-lane avenue alongside the market. It was once an open canal used by farmers to row produce from the city’s rural outskirts into the heart of the capital. This market is one of the oldest in the city, with each generation of vendors adding a layer of their own to its history.
When Doña Juanita, called abuelita by family and clients alike, died eight years ago, the business passed on to her daughter Isabel. But Rosa was still working the grill every day.
“I love the work, what I’ve learned. I trained the person cooking now,” she says pointing to one of her many nieces, currently manning the grill. The stand is still serving abuelita’s recipes 40 years later – having survived fires, earthquakes and now a global pandemic. No one in the family fell seriously ill with Covid-19, but Rosa can see the scars of the pandemic all around her.
“There were compañeros all around us that died. Now clients are coming back and telling us that someone we know died,” she says shaking her head. “We just have to keep taking care of ourselves.”
While Rosa says this year has seen a drastic drop in business, on a recent Friday we can already see signs of life slowly creeping back, not only at Quesadillas La Chaparrita but also in the Jamacia Market itself. Masked shoppers are out buying produce, and regulars are stopping by for quesadillas or to order a mojarra for the weekend. For this 40-year-old business, the pandemic is just another obstacle they are eager to overcome so that they can get back to feeding the market as they have for decades.