What the Market will Bear: The Mercado San Juan
The Mercado San Juan, our 'gourmand's paradise' is my favorite market in the world. I go at least once a week, always with a chef’s open mind, never knowing what to expect. Maybe it will be a fresh plump duck from Michoacán, head and all. Or a nice rack of lamb from Hidalgo. Perhaps Pescadería Alicia will have gotten in some glistening scallops on the half shell or shiny metallic looking fresh sardines. I’ve walked in thinking 'dinner in Provence' and left with fresh pea shoots, long beans and tofu from the Asian stands in back – “Ladies and Gentlemen; there will be a change of program tonight: Szechuan.” The vendors are my friends. I stop to chat with the López family and sample their latest artisanal cheeses accompanied by a plastic cup of nice Rioja. I may have a couple of oysters opened to devour on the spot. Or, if it’s lunch hour, I’ll sit down at Doña Juana’s, one of the best fondas in the city and slurp pozole. (See The Washington Post for the article in which I do just that).
The San Juan market (whose proper name is Mercado San Juan Ernesto Pugibet) embodies the history of Mexico itself. It is located near the site of a pre-Hispanic trading area called Moyotlán.
With the arrival of the conquistadores the humble barrio was renamed San Juan. The market continued to serve the settlers – imported products such as wine and olive oil were sold there, as were slaves. This tradition – minus the human trafficking - continues today as just about everything edible is offered and many clients are foreign-born or descendents thereof. The overriding theme is Spanish – embutidos (cold meats), cheeses and seafood tend towards the Iberian, though stands cater to the city’s growing population of Asians. And all kinds of Mexican grown exotic meats, fruits and vegetables can be found.
Gastronomica San Juan, stall no.162, and its neighbor La Jersey offer imported Italian cheeses such as parmesan, pecorino, fontina, French - raw milk brie, Epoisse and the best of Spain: cabrales, good aged manchegos and Extremadura’s elusive torta de cazar. But don’t miss the increasingly high quality and reasonably priced artisanally made goat, cow and sheep cheeses, many from the state of Queretaro. These stands, as well as La Catalana, which reproduces the aged and smoked sausages of Catalonia, offer tempting cold cuts as well.
Pescadería Alicia and her neighbors sell piles of mussels, clams and calamares (they will clean them on request). They are often available fresh, as are unusual varieties of fish, fresh tuna and amazingly big shrimp either in or out of the shell. Hispanofiles’ eyes will pop when they see the hideous but delicious percebes at a fraction of the price of the old country. And if you’re lucky you’ll encounter a whole fresh monkfish.
In the meat section (if you can stomach the piles of sacrificed kid goat and bunny corpses) my foodie friend Stan swears by stands 44-46 who sell veal scaloppini and ossobuco ready to cook. Nearby stands stock lamb, both New Zealand and national (which is good for Indian or Moroccan stews), but it is often frozen on weekdays. You could pick up an armadillo as well if your soiree has a pre-Hispanic theme. More tempting are fresh farm turkeys (they’ll remove the head and feet for you) packaged ducks, and, occasionally, free range local ducks which will produce a knockout Peking roast or á l’orange.
The well stocked Oriental vegetable stands, the only ones in the whole country, cater to flocks of bewildered looking Asian immigrants as well as people like me who want to buy bitter melon, long beans, okra, baby bok choy or pea shoots.
The ‘gourmet’ produce stalls, meanwhile, offer such hard to get greens as crinkly kale and Savoy cabbage, tiny haricot vertes and yellow wax beans, celeriac (outlandishly expensive, so only if you MUST have celerie remolade and can’t wait to go to France), tiny peas, shelled favas and sweet potatoes.
One lady has fresh herbs such as dill, tarragon and real Italian basil (not the Mexican variety, which won’t do for Italian cooking, although it works well as a substitute for Thai basil).
And, of course, there’s Doña Guadalupe's mushrooms, to the left as you enter, who sells an amazing variety of fresh wild mushrooms in season, including cultivated local porcini. I always see French people at this stand madly stashing chanterelles, girolles and morels, happy to be paying 100 pesos instead of 100 euros. Dried versions are available all year around and make good gifts.
And, in addition to all of these quotidian offerings, as the holiday season is upon us, a mind-blowing selection of meats, fowls and seafood will be on display until the beginning of January. Racks of lamb and veal, whole venison and jabalí (wild boars), pheasants, geese, sparkling clams and evocative oysters. Go now or forever hold your pesos.
Mercado San Juan
Calle Ernesto Pugibet, between Luis Moya & Buen Tono, Centro
Metro Salto de Agua
– walk up c/Lopez and turn left at Delicias (or down Lopez if you are coming from the Alameda – you will see the enormous Telmex tower which is across the street open daily until around 4 – there is free parking for customers next door.