Up From the Streets

Anne McBride - July/August 2014

Mexico City—High-end restaurants are thriving throughout Mexico, enjoying the popularity that comes with a new phase in the country’s gastronomy. But Mexico is perhaps first and foremost defined by a public eating culture that happens on the streets and in the markets, in fondas and cantinas. It was thus no stretch for the organizers of Mesamérica, which took place in Mexico City in May, to tackle the theme of “Street Food, Urban Expressions” for their third annual conference.

Presenters came mostly from Mexico, with a few guests from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, the United States, Spain, France, and Thailand. David Thompson, whose Bangkok restaurant, Nahm, was recently named number one in the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list, spoke about street food culture there, in a conversation with surprise guest Andy Ricker of Pok Pok (Portland, OR and NYC). There are two sides to Thai food, Thompson explained: the foods at home, which are dishes that people share, with a plate of rice and several dishes on a table at once; and street food, which is eaten on one plate, and not shared. “Streets are the barometer of the nation,” he said. “It’s the first way foods enter the culinary canon.”

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo explained how the burgeoning street food culture of Los Angeles inspired the menu of their highly acclaimed Animal. Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food SF and currently a pop-up while in the process of relocating in NYC and Mission Cantina NYC, who shared the stage with Mario Batali in a conversation that was mostly about being a chef, explained how he fell in love with Mexican food when he first visited Mexico City, ate at 35 taquerias in four days, and decided to open a Mexican restaurant in New York City.

Mexican journalist Juan Villoro explained that residents of Mexico City don’t eat when they’re hungry but rather when they get a chance, because of traffic and subway congestion. He spoke of the memories evoked by the whistle of the sweet potato carts, as the steam cooking the camotes loudly escapes, and of hygiene concerns that serve as a way to sort out the “Other.” “If the food is not good for you, you’re not from here,” he explained.

“Montezuma’s Revenge means you’re not Mexican. To get sick is not patriotic.”

Author David Lida, an American journalist who has lived on and off in Mexico City since the 1990s, gave a passionate ode to the city’s cantinas, the old-school, cafeteria-like bars where food—dishes called botanas—is typically given away for free as long as patrons keep drinking. What makes cantinas unique is the quality of the food provided: “I’ve traveled in more than 20 countries and no city is more generous with its drinkers than Mexico City,” Lida said, comparing the offerings of his adopted city to the miserly peanuts of New York City, anchovies or ham of Madrid, and olives of Athens.

“Cantinas are the most demographic establishments in Mexico because anybody who can buy a drink is welcome,” he said, with the caveat that women were not allowed in until 1983. Today, they still often arrive with men rather than on their own.

Cantinas are for daytime drinking: Lida recommended arriving at the traditional lunch time (2 to 5 p.m.). Asking him for a favorite is like asking a mother for her favorite child, he said, but nonetheless shared that Tío Pepe, near Mexico City’s Chinese neighborhood, has his heart. He’s slowed down his visits to cantinas in general, though, not liking to wake up from a siesta at 8 p.m. with a hungover, he joked. While old cantinas are closing throughout the city, particularly in areas where real estate value has increased in recent years, their popularity with hipsters and young people made Lida optimistic as to their overall future.

Daniel Hernández of the online magazine Vice and its food-centric Munchies, spoke of another type of old-fashioned Mexican establishment: the fonda, which he said has no equivalent in the US—but perhaps comes closest to a diner. He shared the world premiere of a short documentary that saw him visit three fondas around the clock, giving a taste for their dishes just as much as for their personalities.

Josefina Santacruz, who owns the food shop Dumas Gourmet in Mexico City and worked with Richard Sandoval in New York for a number of years, stated that between tacos, we are all equal. Her fascination with street food begins with the fact that usually it is prepared by someone with no formal training, she explained.

Tacos had its moment in the spotlight, of course. Alejandro Escalante, an artist and author, shared the stage with three taqueros. These taco makers had all been at their job for two to three decades and explained that making good tacos is about touch and time, so that the meat isn’t dry. “You don’t regret being a taquero” was the common message, as they spoke of hard work, honesty, and doing one’s best day in and day out.

Enrique Olvera, who is one of the lead organizers of Mesamérica and chef-owner of the world-renowned Pujol, decided to share how much music is part of his influence. He was joined on stage by the very popular Mexican band Café Tacvba, which is named after Café de Tacuba, a restaurant that opened its doors in the capital in 1912. Olvera and his team cooked in silence while the band played, as they would in their kitchen when prepping for service. There was no demonstration; only the band members who were periodically fed during the mini concert knew what Olvera made. The point was to enjoy a communal moment, simply and happily, it seemed—a perfect, and too rare, ending to a full day of presentations.

The third day of the conference focused on pastry. Xano Saguer of ESPAISUCRE, a pastry school/restaurant in Barcelona and Mexico City, expressed out loud a question whispered by many: how does pastry relate to street food? “We are both necessary and we incorporate a lot of influences,” he concluded. Because culinary school students represent a large percentage of Mesamérica’s audience, it also made sense to offer programming that appealed to their sweet-side training. Sonia Arias of Jaso in Mexico City shared the evolution of her professional trajectory and relation to the pastry world and stated that the conference marked a turning point for Mexico, as pastry shops would be perceived differently from then on, while cautioning future chefs of the importance of enjoying what they do because it is so hard. Alejandra Hurtado of Chile dazzled as she explained how her complex creations take shape in collaborations with artists and photographers and showed a new cake line she is launching as she starts a new stage in her life as a shop owner rather than a restaurant pastry chef.

Guest of honor Pierre Hermé, who brought the crowd to their feet for a standing ovation, explained that if one believes in one’s product, it is key to stick with it and not succumb to trends. It took 10 years for his combination of rose and raspberry, first taking shape in the gâteau Paradis in 1987, to become popular with the public but he felt that it was important and kept it on his menu. The variation that came to be in the late 1990s with the addition of lychee, the Ispahan, is today still the most sold family of desserts in the Pierre Hermé shops. “I don’t make cakes for a specific group of people,” Hermé said. “If I did, I would be called Nestlé or some other international group. My job as a pastry chef is to suggest things and share a universe of tastes, sensations, and pleasure.”

“Street food is one of the ways in which a city expresses itself; and the ways anyone has to express oneself are what make it oneself. A city is also itself through its street food, then,” stated the program. Through Mesamérica, street foods became a common language that expressed generosity, curiosity, tradition, movement—and deliciousness.