Friday, June 24, 2011

Real Mexican Food in Mexico City, Mexico: Part One: Tacos

The 24-hour taqueria just outside our hostel, a few blocks from Zócalo (photo by Luis Bastardo)   

Luis and I just relocated to Seattle after spending five years in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After realizing that the total travel time between cities including flights and layovers would be about 31 hours, we decided to break up the trip with a stop in Mexico City (known locally as Distrito Federal or D.F.). Good decision; it's one of the most interesting places that we've ever visited. We booked a hostel near Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City and home to the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Templo Mayor and the National Palace. The price of a room at the hostel included breakfast and dinner, but after sampling the meal on the first night, which consisted of a buffet of bland tuna casserole, store-bought white bread and iceberg lettuce salad (the hostel manager told us that many of their guests, especially the Europeans, can't tolerate the spiciness of real Mexican food), we decided to head out to the streets. Very, very good decision.   

  A freshly made 70 cent suadero taco from the corner taqueria (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Anyone who's read this blog before knows that I am a street food addict. I almost never visit restaurants when traveling unless there are swarms of locals already inside or there is a long line outside, because I usually either get sick or am disappointed by restaurant food. With street food, it is always fresh, almost always delicious, prepared with fresh ingredients right in front of you (I've never gotten sick eating street food) and it's cheap, so even if you're disappointed, you're out a dollar at the most. To get a real taste of authentic local cuisine, your best bet in any country is almost always outdoor cooking stands and Mexico is no exception. Incidentally, the food in Mexico City bears almost no resemblance to "Mexican" food as most non-Mexicans know it. I have yet to see (outside of the tourist resorts) sour cream, fried ice-cream or Supreme Nachos anywhere within Mexico's borders.

Sim waiting at a busy taqueria in D.F. with a wide variety of fillings and toppings (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The street foods most popular with both locals and tourists are quesadillas, chalupas, huaraches, sopes, gordas (a type of sandwich) and of course, tacos. Tacos are usually made with two small soft corn tortillas, one inside the other, then filled with suadero (beef brisket), brains, pork, tripe, chicken, carne asada (marinated, grilled beef), huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on ears of corn and originally known as corn can understand the name change from a marketing perspective) or nopal (prickly pear cactus leaves) and topped with cebollas (onions) or cebolittas (scallions), fresh green or red chili sauce, cilantro and/or a fresh cheese like queso blanco or Oaxaca. The delicious Tacos de Cabeza (Head Tacos) are made with any combination of chopped sesos (brains), lengua (tongue), cachete (cheeks), trompa (lips) or ojos (eyeballs). Don't be put off by the sound of eating a tortilla filled with chopped lips, eyeballs and brains. Just take a deep breath and take the plunge; I swear they are delicious and afterwards you will be wondering how you ever got by without eyeball-flavor treats before.   

    Pork on the spit, ready to be sliced off and served to hungry taco junkies (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Tacos al Pastor (Shepard's Tacos), easily the most popular, are made by carving seasoned, marinated meat, usually pork, off a spit similar to how gyros or shawarmas are made, then topped with a slice of fresh pineapple, cilantro, onions and sometimes fresh lime juice. The pineapple usually sits atop the meat on the spit, since the dripping juices contain an enzyme that helps to tenderize the meat and also adds flavor. In coastal areas of Mexico, tacos filled with fresh grilled or marinated seafood are common, and usually include shrimp, local fish or crab or a combination thereof and are served with chili sauce, lime juice and onions. One caveat: since coastal areas are usually the locales for resorts and hotels, the tacos are generally geared more toward tourists' tastes than local traditional recipes and often include additions such as citrus-flavored mayonnaise or sour cream and guacamole, but they're still delicious.
Vegan nightmare: a variety of meats used to fill tacos (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Gym Class, Ninnaji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

(photo of Kyoto schoolgirls by Simone Cannon

I can't think of a lovlier setting for a few laps arond the track than this temple in Kyoto, Japan. As I was exploring the grounds and buildings, I repeatedly ran into groups of giggling schoolgirls stretching, running, eating lunch, listening to music or practicing martial arts. Physical fitness and competition are extremely important parts of Japanese life and physical education is taught at every level of school. The Japanese consider it crucial to the physical, mental, and social development of children and all are expected to particpate, starting in some schools as early as kindergarten.

Ninnaji Temple in Kyoto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded in the year 888, and was originally an Imperial residence. The compound houses various temples, gardens, a pagoda, a bell tower, dwarf cherry trees and tea houses. It is an important temple, as it is the head of the Omuro school of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. The temple has repeatedly been destroyed by war and fire, but has been rebuilt every time. The temple is well worth a visit, but be sure to set aside a full day; the grounds are extensive and there's a lot to see.  


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Rattlesnake Lake, King County, Washington, USA

(photo of Rattlesnake Lake by Luis Bastardo)

After five years of living in Argentina, Luis and I moved from Buenos Aires to Seattle last month. I lived here 11 years ago when I first worked for Microsoft, but it is Luis's first long-term stay here, so he has been anxious to explore the surrounding area. In truth, so am I, since the last time I lived here from 2000-2002, I spent most of my time working indoors and saw very little of the landscape. Also, we're trying to spend as much time together as possible before I start working again; we have seldom been part since we met five years ago and our new life here will be a big adjustment for both of us. We love to hike and explore, so have been checking out local trails and parks, including the incredible Rattlesnake Ledge.

The 117-acre Rattlesnake Lake in King County, Washington, lies about 30 miles west of the city of Seattle and is part of the Rattlesnake Mountain Scenic Area. The interesting thing about the lake is that it is the former site of the logging town of Moncton, whose scant remains lie under the surface of the water. The town was flooded out and destroyed in 1915 when water leaked from the nearby human-made Chester Morse Lake. The tree stumps that remain in the lake are used as nesting sites by birds. Despite the name, there are no rattlesnakes anywhere in or near the area. The name arose when a pioneer heard seed pods rustling nearby and thought he was about to be attacked by rattlesnakes.         

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Lincoln Memorial at Night, Washington, D.C., USA

(photo of the Lincoln Memorial by Luis Bastardo)

In October 2009, Luis, a Venezuelan citizen, visited the United States for the first time since he attended the opening of Disneyworld with his parents in 1971. We traveled around the country visiting different cities, but he was especially awed by Washington, D.C.: the history, the museums, the galleries, the orderliness, the cleanliness and the amazing national monuments. He could have easily spent another month there just exploring the incredible and extensive repository of national treasures. This shot of the Lincoln Memorial is one of his more impressive photos of the city; he managed to capture the drama and importance of the tribute to one of the nation's most impactful and important leaders, Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Memorial, located in the National Mall, was completed in 1922 and remains one of the most visited sites in the United States, with over 3.6 million visitors annually. The memorial has been the site of two notable civil rights precedents: a performance of African-American contralto Marian Anderson to a live audience of 70,000 and a radio audience in the millions and The March on Washington, a civil rights rally featuring Martin Luther King's famous speech "I Have a Dream". President Lincoln, a prominent abolitionist, would have been proud.      


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Dogwalkers, Buenos Aires, Argentina

(photo by Luis Bastardo)

If you think that Parisians and New Yorkers are the world's ultimate dog-doters, you haven't visited Buenos Aires. The city's citizens (known as Porteños) adore their dogs and take them everywhere: cafes, parties, parks, to work, on vacation, restaurants (usually seen at an outdoor table sharing lunch with their owners or discreetly snuck inside in a large tote bag) and everywhere in between. There are bakeries that sell dog-specific pastries, doggie spas, medical specialists such as ophthalmologists, therapists and dentists just for dogs, clothing and accessory stores and, of course, the ubiquitous dog walkers known as los paseadores de perros.        

Hiring a dog walker is de rigueur in Buenos Aires; friends and neighbors would be most concerned if owners were reduced to walking their own dogs. The dog walkers are easy to spot: they are usually leading a group of at least six dogs and often as many as 20, with leashes in both hands and several more connected to ganchas (hooks) on their belts. The dogs are remarkably well-behaved and seem to get along with each other, despite being of very different sizes and breeds (we've seen toy poodles happily trotting alongside great danes). The paseadores are more akin to babysitters; they walk the dogs twice a day, give them medicine if needed, groom them, socilize them and play with them; in other words, they provide doggie daycare.