Tired of the tourist menu, so why not eat like a Mexican?

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2010

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SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Located in the rugged sierra four hours north of Mexico City, this prosperous colonial city is awash with boutique shops, restaurants, and enough arts and crafts emporiums to keep its many American and Canadian expats and tourists busy.

In a town geared toward playing it safe, I wasn’t surprised when well-intentioned people began offering advice on what not to eat.

“Only eat ice cream in the main square. The rest is made with bad water.’’ “Never eat any street food.’’ “Only eat salads from a ‘good’ restaurant.’’ “Only eat corn if it’s grilled, not boiled.’’ “Don’t go to that bakery; they use lard.’’

It made me wonder: If the food is so dangerous, why aren’t the Mexicans getting sick? (“Their stomachs are used to the germs,’’ was one response.)

I didn’t take the advice, though I do admit to some initial caution on what could be called my “Rebellious Eating Tour.’’ I wasn’t eating lizards or gizzards — not my style — but I was breaking those eating-in-Mexico rules. It felt bold.

I started with ice cream. On an unexpectedly warm day after a week of rain and cold, I was overdressed, sweating, and a good walk from my rented apartment. The vendor outside the Temple of the Immaculate Conception was doing a brisk business under his striped umbrella, scooping cups and cones for schoolchildren from a small, wheeled cart. It looked good. Real good. And the flavors were enticing: zapote, chamoy, limon, cajeta, café, chocolate, vanilla, queso, coco. I chose café, which was slightly icy — possibly made with that questionable water, not milk — and utterly delicious.

I walked home. Did not get sick. Wanted more.

I realize it’s silly to say I felt empowered by eating ice cream from a street vendor, but I did. So I moved on to something riskier: vegetables.

Every day at 5 p.m., a man’s voice sang through our cozy neighborhood of Guadalupe. “Elotes! Ejotes!’’

The notes were elongated at the end of each word, reverberating like a bell. Two plastic buckets dangled from a yoke across his shoulders as he strolled the cobblestone streets. One bucket held corn, which he slathered with mayonnaise before handing it to customers for what I assumed was a pre-dinner snack. The other bucket held mysterious bright green things. From my rooftop terrace, I observed a woman put one in her mouth and then spit something out. Olives! I grabbed my wallet, raced to the street, looked in the bucket. Not olives!

Here’s where I confess I speak only five words of Spanish. The vendor spoke about the same in English but our enthusiasm — his to sell, mine to taste — was all we needed to communicate. “Qué?’’ “Garbanzos!’’ “With salt?’’ “Sí.’’ “With a squeeze of lime?’’ “Sí.’’ Ten pesos, about 80 cents, bought a small baggie-full. Steamed to perfection, they were sweet, salty, tangy, marvelous. I ate a dozen. Did not get sick. Wanted more.

I might have maintained this try-one-thing-at-a-time approach if I hadn’t met Dr. Laura Elias, a dentist and a reliable guide to food in San Miguel that the ordinary tourist might not discover.

Elias laughed at the cautions of my acquaintances while waxing lyrical about Mexican cuisine. I filled my notebooks with her suggestions, and reported back about the joys of sampling “gorditas’’ (corn pouches stuffed with meats, beans, and sometimes potatoes) at the Tuesday Market outside of town; the “huaraches’’ (a flat, shoe-shaped tortilla that’s deep fried and topped with sausage, ground beef, chicken with chipotle peppers, cheese, or even prickly pear cactus) at the stand in the San Juan de Dios market; and the “chiles rellenos’’ and chicken “mole poblano’’ at a small restaurant in the same market.

The only thing Elias advised avoiding on the street were vendors selling cut fruit. (“In Mexico City, I saw someone sharpening a knife on the sidewalk,’’ she said, clearly appalled.)

I led friends on culinary explorations. We ventured into La Camaroncita, a hole-in-the-wall joint where we scarfed down chilled “camarones’’ (shrimp) served in enormous parfait glasses with a tangy red cocktail sauce, cilantro, vinegar, and habanero chiles, and plopped on top like whipped cream on a sundae: an avocado. At a 30-year-old seafood restaurant, we supped magnificently on ceviche-topped tostadas and grilled fish with green sauce.

And I learned to trust my intuition. If it looked fresh and well cooked, I tried it. Gorditas cooked on a three-legged stove outside the church in Atotonilco? Yum. Tostados with ceviche in the old train station in Guanajuato? Sublime. Lemon-iced cookies made with lard? I’ll take a dozen. My all-time favorite was pineapple ice sprinkled with chili powder that I’ll be dreaming about when I’m 90.

Did not get sick. Most definitely want more.

Necee Regis can be reached at