“I know there’s a market in Oaxaca that has a ton of food stalls,” I said disconsolately. We’d traversed the cavernous Mercado Juarez in search of fondas, and we were still hungry. “I remember it being right downtown too…” I said, eying a couple of nearby booths. Was it possible that I had missed an aisle?
“Let’s just go find a taqueria,” Rich said hastily, no doubt anticipating another interminable death march as I scoured the market for food.
Unfortunately, in the next few days I’d get distracted by trips to Mitla, Hierve de Agua, and Monte Alban, and I wouldn’t remember to resume my search for food Valhalla until our last afternoon in the city. It was the grasshoppers that put me back on track.
“This is good,” I say, with some suprise, as I crunch on a tangy garlic flavored bug. The vendor of grasshopers, or chapulines, grins at me. “El sabor de Oaxaca!,” she says. Ah yes, the flavor of Oaxaca…Which reminds me…
“Hey, is there a market around here with fondas?” I ask, giving her a sideways glance. As it turns out, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre is practically under our noses. In fact, if I’d been about 20 feet closer I would have been able to smell the intoxicating smoke from the grills.
Fortuitously, we first enter the meat section, a long passageway lined with booths draped in skeins of chorizo and maroon swathes of raw carne asada. Smoke coils from banks of sparkling hot coals, where tripe curls and sausages blister. Vendors holler the superiority of their prices and the sublime attributes of their carne. To round out the scene, the menacing refrain from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” issues from a tripe booth.
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven,” I mutter to Gina, scanning the selections. Amidst the bustle and flow, I can’t quite tell what the procedure is, but I’m willing to give it a shot.
“What’ll it be, guerra?” A fat man in a yellow ball cap asks. He describes his wares in machine-gunfire Spanish as he thrusts a piece of raw beef in my face.
“Um, carne asada?”
“How much?” he asks, holding up a piece of meat the size and thickness of a bed sheet and muttering a litany of measurements that mean nothing to me.
I hold up my hands in a foot span, and in seconds the meat is hissing on the grill. For good measure, I order a string of chorizo to go with the beef, and he drops the sausage directly into the coals. The smell is overwhelmingly great. I breathe deeply and reverently, like a little old Catholic lady who has finally reached the end of her pilgrimage and arrived in the cathedral of her dreams.
“Thirty-five pesos,” the guys says two minutes later, as he hands me a Styrofoam plate piled with gloriously greasy meat.
“I feel bad eating without Rich, so I’m just getting us a little snack,” I say over my shoulder to Gina and Laci. I buy 10 pesos worth of tortillas from a tiny Indian woman and we navigate the hoards and squeeze into a narrow metal picnic table, where a woman and her daughter are already sharing a giant basket of grilled delicacies. Laci spots a nearby booth specializing in condiments: a molcajete the size of a dog brims with salsa verde, and the counter top is piled high with snow-white radish slices, shaved cabbage, and wheels of lime.
Wrapped in a wedge of homemade tortilla and topped with lime juice, radishes, and red salsa, the carne asada is smoky, succulent, and meltingly tender. And the chorizo is the best I have ever eaten: blistered and popped from the coals, with a pungent, complex flavor that speaks of a slow cure. As I eat, I tackle a mental math problem: How many meals at the market can I possibly manage to eat during my remaining 18 hours in Oaxaca?