Open & Shut Case
I wasn’t sure what a tinaguis meant literally (and was bothered by the McGriddles-style singular S) but they seem to be markets that set up in neighborhoods different days of the week. Condesa, where I was staying, had one on Tuesday off of Avenida Veracruz and another on Friday around Calle Campeche. I ventured out early (for me) Tuesday morning to see what I’d find.
I never ever frequent farmers’ markets in NYC (though I would if there was one less than five blocks away like this tinaguis) and it’s not like I could’ve done much with raw meat or even fresh fruit and produce since no refrigerator or stove were at my disposal. I was more interested in surveying the cooked food scene, anyway.
I didn’t even attempt capturing vendors and their wares on camera because it’s not my thing. When I was in Kuala Lumpur a few summers ago I met up with some photographically blessed bloggers (EatingAsia, Masak-Masak and others) and tagged along to a few wet markets. A lot goes into those seemingly effortless shots: time, set-up, tenacity. I’m a hands-off peripheral person, which is why I’ve never have spot-on photos and rarely include humans.
Speaking of Latin America vs. Asia, I was almost hoping that I’d get the same feeling for Mexican food and culture that I do for Malay-Singaporean stuff because there’s already such a glut of S.E. Asian boosterism, home and abroad. For no particularly valid reason, I feel like I should have some natural affinity or sense of ownership for a cuisine, and why not Mexican? Yes, it’s strange to want to be possessive of a style of food.
Regional Mexican food is insanely diverse and nuanced compared to many other Latin American countries that rely heavily on the rice+beans+meat combo. It’s a big country. I like what I know but it feels like a just good friends thing where laksa, noodles and curries are full on crushes. I’m no advocate of arranged marriages or learning to love so I’ll have to face the facts. White male hipsters and dorks all over the country are allowed to cozy up to Asian gals, so why not me with food? My… I’m getting off track.
I was surprised to see lychees and such a preponderance of melon, my most hated food (not fruit, food). I managed to avoid most of the guys handing out samples until one literally stuck a small wedge in my hand. I panicked, then wondered if maybe I was missing out on an amazing flavor experience like people who say, “I never liked green beans until I ate freshly plucked from the earth haricot vert in Brittany” or something. I nibbled a piece and yes, it tasted like melon, then I wondered if I was going to suffer fruit-induced bodily harm later in the day.
We stuck with the non-raw stuff and randomly picked a quesadilla stand from the many on hand. I do regret never getting to try a tlacoyo. For both antojitos, some were made with blue corn tortillas, others white. Initially, I wasn’t positive that the narrow oblongs on grills were quesadillas because they were so skinny. I stayed simple and had a chicken and cheese one that I dabbed with lots of deep dark chipotle salsa. I’ve always liked horchata but now get why it’s so good. There’s nothing more refreshing with hot food and weather. It’s like ultra water and serves a need like coconut water.
It was when I spied the woman with a giant metal tamale steamer and plastic cooler on the corner in front of the OXXO that I got excited. From a distance she appeared to be stuffing something in a bolillo (roll). Was this a new sandwich species? In my stilted Spanish I asked, “¿es un tamale en pan?” paired with a smiling yet confused expression. A younger woman who might’ve been a family members confirmed with a “si,” and they both laughed like they also thought it was funny.
Fun is good, especially when it comes to sandwiches. I used to think Hawaiian was a wacky torta style but in Mexico City it appeared by be as commonplace as VW bugs on the street. Much weirder were tortas Rusa and Kentuky that I saw listed on a few signs.
shut tamale sandwich
open tamale sandwich
The tamale lady then rattled off a list of tamale choices; dulce and mole are the only ones I recall now. I chose mole because a sweet tamale in a roll just didn’t seem right, though I know they eat ice cream sandwiched between bread/brioche in Singapore (I still can't get over the awesomeness of these insane colors–I'm a sucker for any edible that's unnaturally hued) and Italy. Savory starch encased in starch immediately brought chip butties to mind, but really mealy bready snack is more akin to a vada pav or panelle sandwich.
All three of those brown on brown treats are greater than the sum of their parts, so too the tamale sandwich. It’s not until you really get a few inches into the creation that all of the components make themselves known. You do spend a bit of time just chomping on corn and wheat products before getting to the meaty, moist heart of the beast. I didn’t see anyone adding condiments, thought that would’ve seemed logical. Such a multi-facted monster does exist and it’s called a mother-in-law sandwich.