The Road to Puebla – Day 4, Mexico City to Puebla
After the craziness of a day at the market, we decided to lay low and stay close to the hotel. Right down the street we had seen a restaurant that looked really busy the previous two nights, so we thought we would give it a try.
We had no idea what to expect—until we sat down. Sushi and ramen? Not on the agenda, but we decided to take a night off of exploring Mexican cuisine and recharge the batteries. It was fantastic! A simple preparation of hamachi sashimi and a big bowl of miso ramen. There’s nothing like this to really reset the system and close out a hectic day. The cocktail alongside was a great mezcal concoction with pineapple, orange and grapefruit, with a smoked salt rim. Delightful.
Japanese food was not the reason I was here, but I feel as though you need to step back and reflect on things sometimes, and this allowed my palate to get ready for phase two: Puebla.
Puebla is known for a few classic dishes, and we were getting amped to try them all: Mole Poblano, Chiles en Nogada, Chalupas and Cemitas.
The Mexico City bus station was easy to navigate, and we were on our way. The bus was clean and the ride smooth. As we drove I was reminded of the rather crazy phenomenon called unfinished potential. Outside of the major cities and tourist areas, you see nothing but half built buildings, whether it’s the shell of a 10 story, incomplete apartment building, or houses with walled frames, but only half a roof. Realizing that this is how a lot of the world lives, while others have such comforts, is hard to accept. But this story is not about how I feel on those subjects.
Arriving in Puebla, we really had no idea what to expect. We knew we had loved Mexico City so much, and we knew there would be good food, but the plan was less clear. Everyone was wearing dust masks like you might see in parts of China. The city appeared to be covered in a layer of gray dust, which we soon found out was due to the local volcano erupting the night before. I found this exciting as I have never been near an active volcano.
Our hotel—which I had chosen mostly because of its location—is so rad. Hotel Adante sits a block away from the center square, and it has a classical music theme. Every room is named after a famous composer and is accompanied by a photo of the composer in your room and a record player playing that music. The staff is incredibly helpful and friendly. They have already guided us to some great spots.
Famished and wandering the ash covered streets of Puebla, it felt like we were missing something. Are the shops closed because of the dust? We had heard of some holiday they may be celebrating, but half the town felt closed, and we were starving. I am often reluctant to eat at places near Town Center as it is often the cheesy or uncreative tourists traps, but we went back to the Zocalo (center square) and picked the first spot that looked good. They greeted us with mole poblano sauce and chips, which was simple and different than your standard chips & salsa. Our mission was still to try the local treasures, so we ordered chiles en nogada and arrachera with chalupas. I had also been craving the classic michelada, so that would be our paired beverage. The michelada is different down here than in the States, where we seem to think it is a tomato-based beverage. In most Mexican cities, it is classically served with lime juice, worcestershire and maybe a little hot sauce. Delicious. I highly recommend trying one as soon as you get off the plane next time you come down. It really sets the mood.
Now back to the food. Chiles en Nogada is a dish consisting of a stuffed poblano with either a picadillo filling or some other meat, topped with a walnut sauce and pomegranates. It is visually so satisfying with the white sauce and the bright pink seeds, and parsley to garnish. Here they served the chile stuffed with a chicken and apple mixture. The blend of sweet and savory complimented each other so well. Personally, I wanted a little more spice (heat), but overall it was a very well balanced dish that I cannot wait to recreate. The arrachera (grilled steak) with chalupas was also satisfying. Here the chalupas were soft fried corn tortillas with three different sauces and cheese: mole poblano, verde, and another one that blew us away, though I could not place what it was. Once again, my lack of Spanish was very frustrating.
The city appeared very easy to navigate so we started walking. We had asked our hotel concierge for directions to a food market, which was a little confusing on our map. After a few wrong turns (we will call it a nice scenic tour), we made it.
Instantly upon walking in we both smiled. We had found a market worth spending some time in. These are the markets that are fun and enjoyable, clean, relatively quiet, with stands packed full of local produce. Meat and fish butchers lined the front entrance, and we were hit right away with that distinctly harsh but somewhat enjoyable smell of walking into a fish market. The smell quickly faded as we got deeper into the market and were surrounded by fruits and veggies. Bananas, plantains, tomatoes, avocados, limes, herbs, and nopales were everywhere. The entire time I knew what I was looking for—my stomach and mind had an agenda.
Cemita is the classic Pueblan sandwich, and the foundation lies with a perfect sesame seed bun. They scrape out the innards of the bun, allowing for more filling to be packed inside. Starting with thin shavings of avocado, we watched in marvel as he then layered copious amounts of shredded queso oaxaca, thinly shaved ham, escabeche (here a spicy blend of hot chiles and onions), then a final drizzle of good olive oil, shaved white onions, and an herb called pápalo. The freshness of the pápalo made the sandwich, and as I bit into, I could taste the heritage. The loads of cheese, meat and hot peppers all came together, and like any great sandwich, the bun played a star roll. Soft with the perfect amount of chew and a slight crunch. Well worth the anticipation, and I most likely will eat at least one more before leaving town.
Puebla had quickly grown on me, and I was grasping why so many people have called this the food capital of Mexico. The flavors here are spot on, from the balanced sweet and savory to the spice and coziness. I am in love with this food. The people are undeniably kind, and the culture is deep.
Eight hours in the city and we appear to be the only Americans. We have not seen a single other “gringo” and it seems like we are the only potential tourists…. What a rare feeling in this world.
As we left the market, I was drawn into a shop right outside with massive sacks packed with chiles. Varieties I had never seen—little ones, big ones, hot ones, mild ones. It was beautiful.