Once is not enough is a phrase that can apply to many things, and I can tell you for sure that one day in Guadalajara (Guad. for short & ever after in this post)is without a doubt, not enough. I've finally come up for air after the last 10 days of power eating my way through Oaxaca, traveling and (sadly) returning to reality and work.
So what was Guad. like? Huge, intimidating, frayed around the edges, but also, electric, energetic, exciting, elegant, stately, majestic, bustling, artistic, dramatic and upbeat.
First stop for Cristina and I on our journey into Guad was the Abastos market. This reminded me quite a bit of the old produce terminals in downtown L.A., only bigger, bolder, and crazier. After getting lucky finding a parking space we headed into one of the terminals to see what we could find. I'm pretty familiar with a lot of the exotic fruits and vegetables found in Mexico, but I found several in the Abastos that I hadn't run across on previous visits to Mexico. The first one was the pitaya, aka dragon fruit in the U.S. I'd only seen pictures, now I got to hold it, smell it, but not taste it. The vendor wouldn't cut it and we didn't want to buy it. So we moved on to a stall that would give us tastes where I had my first encounter with a Lima (accent on the "a", but my computer won't do that). Lima is not a lime, and it's not a lemon, but it is a citrus fruit. The flavor was rather nondescript being neither overly sweet, nor overly sour and not entirely distinct. The vendor said it was used mainly for agua frescas, which made sense. I think the flavor would lend itself to an agua pretty readily. Then the vendor asked if we'd ever tried Lima Naranja. Nope. So another taste was proffered. Lima Naranja was a larger fruit than the Lima and I had actually mistaken it for a Valencia orange that had regreened. The flavor on the Lima Naranja was not particularly appealing, and I don't think it would make much of an agua. The vendor laught and said that the Lima Naranja was a lot like marriage - "sweet at the beginning, but bitter at the end", and that really is a good way to describe this fruit.
As we wandered further among the heady aroma of tropical fruits, we spied the most unusual looking specimen (for lack of a better descriptor). This thing was about 18-24" tall and was composed of numerous reddish/deep pinkish buds that were arranged like a pyramid. Both of us agreed that it looked like it might have come off a cactus. Turns out we were right. Thankfully, Cristina is fluent in Spanish and asked the leathery, weathered old gent with the missing front teeth what the thing actually was. He said it was a flower from the maguey cactus. He then explained with great gusto how it was peeled (similarly to a tuna) and eaten. Unfortunately, he wasn't willing to let us have a bud to try. We had to buy the whole thing or nothing, and we weren't really interested in ending up with the whole thing.
We left the fruits and strolled through the fondas, carnecerias and fish market. The first thing that surprised me were the large number of fondas offering Korean food. Clearly there are more Korean fondas in the Abastos market in Guad., than there are in the entire city of San Diego, CA. I got a kick out of the displays at the fondas specilizing in birria or cabrito. Many had the cooked skull on display, some complete with horns, but all of them had limes stuck in the eye sockets making for a very unusual, somewhat surreal presentation. Most of the fondas were fairly clean and tidy and I'd say at minimum 65% of them looked decent enough for a visitor to safely eat from.
Guad. is a landlocked city, but the fish on display was fresh, clean and odorless, having just been flown in from the Pacific and the Gulf. Gorgeous prawns (U-15s) for about $3.00, or less at many displays, a kilo. Moving down the meat aisles we began to see large wheels of a totally foreign (to us) product. It very much resembled a wheel of cheese, but clearly wasn't cheese. Once again Cristina's Spanish came in handy in helping us find out that we were looking at pressed chicharones. And no, we didn't get to try this one either.
Leaving Abastos we dashed across the street to a line of specialty stores. Plastics are big in Mexico, very big, so big in fact that they have specialty stores devoted to nothing but plastics of all sizes, shapes, colors, and varieties. Who knew you could buy plastic bags by the kilo, in multiple sizes no less. The store reminded me a lot of some of the pharmacies you'd see depicted in old Western movies. Lots of wood, lots of drawers, lots of glass-top counters, lots of displays. The place was so busy we had to take a number in order to get waited on. While we waited we were offered samples of a new microwave popcorn product they were testing. Plastics and popcorn, what a combination :-)
With the plastic finally purchased we ducked into the store next door which held an unusual assortment of products - twigs, leaves, bark, wood, flowers, seeds, all from trees and plants, Euell Gibbons would have been delighted. Clearly, it would help to be a curandera or seriously into natureopathy to really understand how all this flora should be used. In addition to these rather esoteric products, this tienda also had every grain, spice, seed, herb that you could ever imagine needing for cooking, and it was sold whole, cracked, ground, dried, you name it, and it was available. I did manage to score 10 vanilla beans for $200 pesos, or about $17.75US. On top of all these items, there was a huge assortment of candy, and believe it or not, dry pet food. Great "General Store", gotta love it. Lots of clerks to wait on you, speedy service, buy only what you need, not what the manufacturer wants to sell you, I could really get used to shopping like this.
Lunch time was fast upon us so off we went to Karne Garibaldi (corner of Reforma and Garibaldi). Karne Garibaldi claims to have the "fastest service in the world". There is food on your table before your fanny is in the seat. They serve one thing, boiled beef, and it comes in 4 sizes: Extra Grande, Mediana, Chica or Infantil. We ordered the mediana con chile, and you really do have to order it with chile, or it basically will just taste like boiled beef and that's pretty boring. The usual suspects appear almost immediately on the table: a plate of chopped white onions, wedges of limon and chopped cilantro, a small gravy boat of table sauce, a basket of corn tortillas and refritos. The refritos in this case were enhanced with corn that had been roasted, cut off the cob and stirred into the beans, providing a nice variation. Close on the heels of the accompaninments were our plates of finely chopped beef in a well seasoned beef & chile broth with bits of crispy tocino (bacon). Add onion, cilantro and lime juice to taste. And while this may sound rather heavy, surprisingly, it was not. The Garibaldi Mediana plus a soft drink cost $69 pesos or about $6.
Refortified we were ready to tackle the famous (or perhaps infamous) Mercado Libertad. Libertad is a 3-story building built around a central courtyard, and it's also the place where you can buy just about anything under the sun from bras to sugar skulls, electronics to tripe, fruit to leather goods. In recent years there has been influx of contraband, knock-off products from China that have found their way into Mexico and pretty extensively in to Mercado Libertad, so buyer beware is the code to follow.
Approximately half the market is taken up by various and assorted fondas selling every conceivable type, kind and style of food. Almost all of them were neat and clean and with some judicious selection, most visitors could probably find a safe and tasty meal. Most appealing to me, and what Guad. is famous for, were the Tortas Ahogadas, or drowned tortas. Impossibly large telera rolls were split, filled with meat, cheese, tomatoes, onions, and more, then placed on a griddle to warm through. To serve they are dunked into a tomato/chile broth or it's poured over, to saturate the torta. Sublimely good, incredibly messy.
After the acres of tripe, ropes of salchicha, miles of hanging intestines, mounds of bright yellow chickens we came upon a vendor with a very large basket containing pieces about the size of a thumb that were white and appeared to be a little on the bony side. Cristina asked me if I wanted to try one. I considered, I weighed my options, I thought about my motto to eat first/ask later, but in the end there was just no way I could convince myself to eat bull penis. Instead I settled for some Dulce de Leche candy and an agua made from guanabana.
The day wound down without my being able to see any of the historical center, without a visit to Tlalquepaque, or a stop in Tonala. The quality and selection of produce was far superior in Abastos than it was in Libertad, but the depth and breadth of the fondas in Libertad surpassed anyting in Abastos. Both deserve a visit, and satisfy different needs. I left Guadalajara, having made the merest of dents in what it has to offer, knowing that I would need to return another day.