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Gorging to Excess in Mexico City 

Wednesday, May 20 2015
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Although awkwardly timed considering I've only been at this job seven weeks, my boyfriend and I spent last week in Mexico City, eating to excess and walking it off. It was the first time for each of us. The largest metropolis in North America is a magical place, and not just because it was sunny every morning and stormy every evening. At about 15 pesos to the dollar, an eat-cation (with side trips to see La Virgen of Guadalupe, the house where Leon Trotsky was murdered, and the floating gardens of Xochimilco) is basically mandatory.

However, we had a terrible guidebook, which presumed the reader was a terrified suburbanite who didn't know what piñatas are. It strongly condemned street food, which, makes it a suitable candidate for a book-burning or inclusion on a revived index of titles the Vatican deems heretical. Chucking it aside, we were a little brave, and it worked out beautifully. I won't say I made it through a week-plus without a little gastrointestinal distress, but while I didn't drink tap water once, I wasn't going to forgo margaritas for fear of reanimating bacteria in the ice, either. Nor did I avoid cilantro, another known germ vector, because, well, cilantro.

Instead, we ate everything: grasshopper tacos in Condesa, oreja (pig ear) tacos and micheladas in Polanco, pulpo tostadas at the Mercado de Coyoacán, pambazos de tinga (chicken tortas slathered with guajillo salsa) in Zona Rosa, mezcal everywhere. Late afternoon in the Distrito Federal is doughnut time, and we had plenty of those, too. I ate 24 tacos in eight days, a number that feels oddly low only because I kept getting seduced by chilaquiles.

In Mexico City, within a certain range of options, you can get whatever you want, wherever you want it: 16-ounce cups of cut-up mango in Chapultepec Park, mole in a bookstore. Even by the standards of the food-delivery-app Eden that is San Francisco, this bounty is enviable. The Metro, a contemporary of BART but superior in almost every way, is effectively a citywide bazaar with transportation between shopping nodes. Stations operate like malls, with food and underwear and toys for sale along the transfer corridors, and clustered at street level around the entrances; all of it is cheap. (To no small extent, the visible economy of Mexico City motors ahead on a near-infinite number of tiny street food transactions.) Not only can you eat, say, caramel-filled churros on trains and platforms, but because the system employs hundreds of janitorial staff, they're admirably clean in spite of it. If that weren't progressive enough, each station has its own unique pictogram to help illiterate people navigate around town.

At the upper end, we checked out Contramar because the chef, Gabriela Cámara, is set to open Cala in Hayes Valley this summer. A seafood restaurant with the best bread of the week, it had incredible, paprika-heavy pulpos a la gallega (octopus), the texture of which was nothing short of sublime. A plate of tacos salteados campechanos (with octopus and shrimp) was equally outstanding, but otherwise Contramar was strikingly conservative. Among the stiffly formal presentation, the excessive dressing on the sopes de pescado, and the shredded lettuce on the bland tuna tostadas, it felt like Pac Heights in spite of its location in hip, cosmopolitan Condesa.

I imagine Cala will feel very different, if for no other reason than because Contramar is lunch-only. People love bashing brunch as a haute-bourgeois indulgence, but really, a multicourse weekday lunch is much more decadent. (Who has the time for that? Not me, and it's ostensibly part of my job.) As such, Contramar caters to a certain type of person: affluent, leisured, and probably appreciative of the unsmiling security guard who stood motionless on the sidewalk in a jacket and tie emblazoned with the restaurant's logo, his mere presence sufficient to deter hawkers from approaching. It wasn't entirely devoid of fun, though. The check came presented with branded, ultramarine-and-white striped mints in the same colors as the beachy awning.

We spent Mother's Day dinner overlooking the Zócalo from the roof terrace at the hoity-toity Casa de Las Sirenas, but otherwise almost every other meal was at a taqueria or a cart. (As people tend to do when visiting a strange city, we developed an attachment to the first place we ate at, an unfailingly tasty El Farolito lookalike called Tacontento with five different salsa bowls at every table. They brought me the same happiness that IHOP's syrup caddies did when I was 9.)

If anything, our only grievous omission was pozole. We made the effort to hunt down a place that adds sardines and mezcal to the soup and which came recommended by SFoodie contributor Ferron Salniker, but it was closed for a private event. A frantic dash to another recommendation found a line half an hour long, and we were too hungry for that. I'm crushed, but it only means we'll have to go back.

Of course, the only thing worse than not getting what you want is not getting what you want when it's already right in front of you. Riding the Metro back from the bus station after a day-trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacán, we saw a guy balancing on his head a tray stacked with at least 200 doughnuts. I assumed he'd move through the car, selling them for 10 pesos each, but when he didn't move, I realized he was merely transporting them and we wouldn't get one. How he managed not to lose any to theft or spillage on a crowded, erratically moving train I'll never know, but it was a sight. He got off at Oceania station, the pictogram for which is a kangaroo.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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