Mexico City has changed more in the last ten years than it has in the previous fifty. Unless you’re happy to see a Starbucks on every corner, this is a mixed blessing.
It had been years since I’d last been in Mexico’s capitol. Flying in at night was something of a surreal experience. The massive city stretches even farther now into the distance. As the plane passed silently over the sleeping city, countless police car lights flashed red and blue down the amber lit streets. There are over 100,000 police in Mexico City, and from our vantage point in the sky, all of them appeared to have taken their cars out at once. Either crime was endemic, or the police were unaware their lightbars could be turned off.
I checked into the Mexico City W just across from Polanco’s Bentley dealership, and listened to the hotel’s acid jazz soundtrack as I snuck past the city’s rich and trendy youth who hung out at the hotel’s bar. The last time I’d been in Mexico City there hadn’t been a W hotel or Bentley dealership. There’s hadn’t even been sugar. The country had simply run out. Sugar needed hard currency, and like sugar, there wasn’t any. For today’s wealthy classes, those days are long gone. Now if they want a Frappuccino with a dash of cinnamon, there’s a cafe on each corner with a hipster barista who’ll make one exactly to order. Polanco is the epicenter of that new class. It is a posh neighbourhood of trendy restaurants, valet parking, and armed guards. My room at the W was red and white, and my bathroom had a hammock stretched across the shower. Placed right beneath the massive shower head I’m not entirely sure how the hammock was meant to work. Likely it required a snorkel and goggles.
The next morning I went for a long walk and marveled at the City’s changes. What struck me the most were the new bike lanes running down Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s major boulevard. You have to understand, riding a bike in Mexico City is a bit like strapping on one of those lead lined dental lab coats while standing near an atomic bomb blast. Despite the protection, likely you aren’t going to be pro-creating. Best intentions, and all that. If you want to see a Mexico City ambulance up close, riding a bike is likely the quickest way to have one come find you. Based on how they drive, it might even be the vehicle that hits you. Incidentally, Reforma’s wide medians now serve as a vast open air sculpture gallery funded by the city. It’s well worth a stroll.
The Zona Rosa has forever been the heart of the city’s tourist trade and remains a great place to pick up tourist trinkets, Mexican silver, and now even a rent boy if you’re so inclined. Surprisingly for this staunchly Catholic country, there are now entire blocks of the Zona Rosa full of gay bars packed with men who spend far too much time on their hair. Small steps to be sure, but tolerance moves ever so slowly forward.
One of my goals on this trip was to sample a selection of more traditional dishes, especially those that pre-dated the Spanish conquest of the Americas. After a bit of searching I found a nice little place that offered a special side menu of just such dishes. I ordered everything on it.
I started with a salad of nopales, the sliced pads of the prickly pear cactus. They have a somewhat sour green flavour that is a welcomed change from more traditional greens. Next I moved to huitlacoche, better known in the English speaking world as corn smut. It’s a fungus that infects young corn plants and turns them into something from the Walking Dead. Instead of orderly lines of bright yellow kernels, the cob ends up a bulbous purple-black fungal monstrosity. It’s quite horrific, actually. In the rest of North America we’d torch the field and try growing cabbage instead, but not in Mexico. This, after all, is the country whose people drown worms in their national drink. Here the fungus is fried with oil and garlic and simply amazing. It is one of the great culinary treats.
From there the menu dipped into the more exotic. The next item translated as deep fried larva. It was never really clear to me just what sort of larva these actually were, but they had little heads, lots of little legs, and came in unfortunately vast numbers. I tried one on its own, expecting something chewy and snail like. It wasn’t. They had been deep fried to a crisp and instead it tasted a bit like a piece of popcorn with too many legs. Not good, but not horrible either. This opinion would change the more I ate. Having survived my first encounter with the larva, and remembering that the really brave ate these things alive, I decided to jump in for a proper serving. I tucked a good handful into a tortilla, added a healthy serving of salsa, and took a bite. I nearly forgot what I was eating…well, no, that’s not true at all. I never forgot that I was eating larva. With each bite I became more aware of those little legs on my tongue. I did not clean my plate.
The last item on the menu was Escamole. They call them Mexican caviar. This should have been a warning. Of all the things Mexico is known for, caviar is not one of them. Escamole are eggs, just not from fish. They’re harvest from the Liometopum ants that swarm about the roots of the Agave tequilana plant. This is the very same plant that gives the world Tequila, and likely the over consumption of tequila is the only reason anyone would have thought to collect up those eggs and eat them with a spoon. All in all, however, they’re actually not that bad. A bit nutty, with a bit of a crunch. Passable, but I’ll still stick to the real stuff.
This oddly satisfying dinner finished late and was washed down with a large ice-water before I headed back to the hotel for the night.
Food poisoning is a miserable thing. Bent over in a foetal position I felt as though I’d eaten a brick fireplace. I’ve had food poisoning three times in my life. Once in Yugoslavia, long ago during the cold war, the result of bad caviar. Once in Paris after eating an unpasteurized goat cheese that spread like butter and then tried to kill me while Euro Disney’s Minnie Mouse kept trying to take a picture with me. And now this time after eating ant eggs and fried larva. Hunched over, I vowed to stick to restaurant bread sticks from then on. In defence of Mexico City’s finest cuisine, I suspect it was the water the came with the table, not the dead little critters from the country’s Aztec past.
I did not eat again for days. On the third evening, recovered slightly, I walked by a Starbucks and nearly went in for a safe bite to eat, but was distracted by a very attractive woman in a tight black dress who was handing out flyers. I took a flyer. It was for a Zona Rosa gay bar. I think she was missing the point.
Yes. Mexico City is changing.