D.H. Lawrence hated Mexico, but loved the light in Ajijic--so much so that he incorporated it into his novel The Plumed Serpent. Nearly 100 years after D.H. Lawrence immortalized Ajijic and the surrounding Lake Chapala area, swarms and hordes of American and Canadian ex-pats have made it home. I arrived this past Tuesday at the Guadalajara aeropuerto and was met by Chowhound buddy Cristina, who whisked me the half hour South to her home in Ajijic. After settling in I was given my choice of where to go for cena -- tacos or posole. I love posole, but I can make a pretty good version at home in San Diego. Really good, Mexican style tacos are not readily available at all in San Diego, so tacos were the choice.
We hopped in her van, drove up to the carretera to a well lit stand with a couple of rickety old card tables for seating. There were 4 choices for tacos - labios (lips), bistec, carnaza or chorizo. Cristina opted for 4 of bisteca and I chose 1 bistec, 1 chorizo and 1 carnaza. We each had a bottled refresco (Pepsi & 7-Up). The tacos arrived on double (stacked) corn tortillas with a quite generous heap of meat, lots of cilantro and white onion. There was a thin table salsa that was very flavorful, but there were also 3 other salsas and some drained, cooked, room-temp beans on the front of the taco stand to add as desired. We each chose to adorn the tacos with both beans and the other assorted salsas. Pure heaven. The tortillas were small (about 4" in diameter), warm and very plushy with a soft velvety texture when bitten into. Each meat played off of the corn base to provide a different flavor profile. The bistec was tender, and full of smokey, grilled beef flavor. The chorizo, like nothing we see on our side of the border. Carnaza is pork from the rib section of the pig and altogether a wonderful taco filling. 7 tacos and 2 sodas set us back $39 pesos, or about $3.50.
Wednesday is tianguis day in Ajijic, so about 9:30 AM we headed the few blocks over from Cristina's house to explore and make some purchases. Everything under the sun, and then some, is available at ridiculously low prices. You can get underwear, CDs or DVDs, bootleg computer programs, T-shirts, jewelry, and of course all kind of food. We worked our way up the hill checking out each booth (and, BTW, Cristina really does know most of the vendors by name) deciding what to buy on the way back down. We also opted for a breakfast of gorditas. I had one of chicken and one of chorizo and Cristina had one chicken and one with cheese and rajas (chile strips). A gordita is a moderately thick (a little bit thicker than 1/4") round of masa that is deep fried, slit and filled. If not made well, they are bascially flat, leaden grease bombs. These were not poorly made. Yes, they were a bit heavy, but not objectionably so and still crunchy on the outside and soft and pliable inside. Large tupperware containers of various salsas and shredded cabbage were on the counter in front of the stand to be added as desired. 4 gorditas, plus 2 large aguas frescas (jamaica) were around $25 pesos, or about $2.75.
We purchased fresh cotija cheese that was crumbly, salty and totally addicting, crema that would panic any U.S. health department since it was sold in plastic cups with plastic wrap over the top held on by a rubber band. We also picked up some blackberry yogurt, which is indescribably good, almost like eating ice cream base, but without the noticeable tang of U.S. yogurt. We moved on to purchase ingredients to make a salsa verde, bulk breakfast cereal, chicken, lard and an assortment of fruits and vegetables including 2 I had not seen before. One was a small, oblong type of plum that has an impossibly huge seed and exquisitly sweet fruit that makes the best agua fresca. We also picked up some small white chayotes. They are part of the chayote family, but used more as a potato substitute.
After stowing the groceries Cristina toured me around Ajijic, including a stop at the Super Lake grocery store. The owner is quite the entrepeneur. He discovered early on that the ex-pats wanted the American or Canadian brands with which they were familiar, and that they'd pay for them. And pay they do. The guy imports a semi trailer full of Amer. and Can. goods each month and justifies his prices by saying he has to cover the duty and import fees, plus additional employees on the US side of the border who add Spanish-language labels to the products. So how bad are the prices? Here are a few examples: 1 box (28 tea bags) of Twinings Early Gray tea = $5.50 US. A box of double stuff Oreo cookies = $8.50US. A large box of Cream of Wheat instant cereal = $9.00+ US. Most US cereals are in the $7-$9US range. A flat can of Chicken of the Sea albacore tuna = $4.75US, a vacuum sealed package of Chicken of the Sea albacore tuna = $5.50US. A 12oz. can of Del Monte Peas = $3.00US. Just under 1/2 gallon of Vanilla Haagen-Daaz ice cream = $12.00US. Nabisco, Kelloggs, and all the other multi-nationals produce identical items in Mexico that are 1/3 the price, or less, of the imported product. Many of the ex-pats claim they can taste the difference between the Mexican and American or Canadian products. Cristina thinks that's bunk.
Part of our travels took us out to the Western end of Lake Chapala and the little town of Jocotepec. We were actually in search of raspberries since Driscoll grows a great many in the area, but alas we found none. But on our trip back through Jocotepec, Cristina spied a street vendor on the corner of the zocalo and we found something way better than raspberries. She asked me if I'd ever had tejuino. Of course, I hadn't, so what choice was there but to stop and investigate. Tejuino is one of those Mexican items that kind of defies American interpretation. The vendor started off by putting a small amount of fresh squeezed lemon juice (somewhere between 1-2 oz) in an 8-oz plastic cup. He then took a ladle and scooped up some rusty/brown icy liquid that had been made from corn masa. With great ceremony he passed the liquid back and forth between the cup and the ladle until it was mixed to his satisfaction. With a paddle he then scraped what amounted to lemon sorbet around the rim of half the glass. Add a straw and you've got tejuino. The drink has body, a slight grittiness from the corn, undertones from the lemon juice, but not to the point where it was bitter, sour or overpowering. It was very refreshing and reminescent (sort of) of a margarita without the tequila.
After totally wearing our selves out touring we returned to Cristina's house for cena. We prepared a salsa verde from the tomatillos purchased that morning and some chile peron, which resembles the habanero in shape--only larger and yellow--but it packs a similar kick. The salsa and crema were poured over corundas that Cristina had brought back from Patzcuaro in Michaocan on a trip a few weeks earlier. More masa; a corunda is sort of a Michoacan version of a tamal, in that it's stuffed cornmeal, only wrapped in fresh corn leaves (not dried husks) in a triangular shape. The ones we ate were very large and had been stuffed with the doble crema that Michoacan is so famous for and rajas. I was surprised to find that they will freeze well (for about 2 months) and are easily nuked. Refried beans made with some of the lard and a chile serrano was our accompaniment along with the plum agua fresca. Que sabroso!!
On Thursday we met up with a friend of Cristina's and headed back towards Guadalajara and Restaurante El Chololo where the specialty is birria. El Chololo is huge, seating nearly 1,000, and is full or nearly so every weekend. We asked to be seated outside on an immense covered patio and placed our order. And it's pretty easy to order at El Chololo because there is only 1 thing on the menu, birria, or goat in English.
While waiting for the Birria to arrive we had some baked totopos (think tortilla chips only thicker and not as salty) and a salsa cruda that was brought to the table in a very large molcajete along with a small side dish of salt to be added as needed. The salsa was okay, but not great and the chips tough, but they weren't the objective of the meal (and they had to be ordered, they didn't automatically come with the meal). The birria arrived soon enough. The waitress has a plastic pitcher of consume, the juices that accumulate as the goat roast, that she pours into wide, shallow soup plates. The goat here is boned and then glazed before being placed on the platter, which ends up in the middle of the table along with the ubiqitous plate of diced white onion and limon wedges, refritos and a styro basket of fresh, hot and soft corn tortillas made on the premises. Eating birria is a lot like eating many other Mexican dishes, squirt in the limon, spoon in the chopped onion, add a healthy dash of whatever table sauce is there (in this case a thin, very spicy house-made salsa in a plastic squeeze bottle), toss in some slices of meat so they can flavor the consume and soften up. Grab a tortilla, smear on some beans, top with the meat and and chow down. Eat the consomme as you would any soup. They will refill the consomme whenever you want. Birria for 3, 3 Coca Lights, totopos and 2 postres cost all of $225 pesos, or about $21 for the 3 of us. El Chololo rocks on the weekends when families, extended families come to spend leisure time together. There is a playground for the kids and full mariachi (i.e. the kind with 10-12 musicians) can be hired very reasonably for a song or as long as you want. Of course Cristina, who's lived here a long time, is also a friend of the leader of the mariachis!
In 2 days in the Lake Chapala area I've eaten mostly street food, shopped the markets and haven't even scratched the surface. It helps to have Cristina as a guide since she knows the vendors and where to go for the "best of".
Today we ventured in to Guadalajara and the Abasto market, Mercado Libertad and Karne Garibaldi. I will post about this later. Tomorrow I leave here for 8 days in Oaxaca cooking with Roberto Santibanez and Ricardo Munoz, who is one of only 7 Master Chefs in Mexico. Eating one's way through Mexico is a great adventure for the mouth.