There’s no way to say this without sounding like an ass: When I signed up for a walking tour with Eat Mexico, I thought it would be a nice way to spend the morning, but not particularly educational. I mean, geez, I know what Mexican food’s about, right?
I know. I’m an ass! I already said it!
Within seconds of starting off on the walk, I was already learning that the pink tamales are the sweet ones. You’re probably thinking, well, duh. But I’ve never seen a pink tamale in the Yucatan! And it went on from there.
First of all, in the Yucatan, there’s nothing that starts with tl-, which is a Nahuatl-only sound. Here’s a fantastic array of toppings for tlacoyos, little blue-corn patties that are heated on a griddle and topped with Oaxacan string cheese and whatever your pleasure. The edges are folded over to keep everything in.
Another couple of blocks, after stopping for some chicharron that was as flaky as pie crust, I finally learned what tacos de canasta are. I’ve seen signs, and logically I know it means “basket tacos,” but hadn’t given it much thought, as, again, this isn’t something I see much in the Yucatan.
Turns out tacos de canasta are pre-made tacos filled with soft, mild things (potatoes, cochinita pibil). They’re usually stacked up in a basket and covered with a towel, to keep the steam in. People usually eat them for breakfast (Lesley warned us not to buy them in the afternoon, as they’re usually soggy by then).
And just how snazzy was our tacos de canasta vendor? This snazzy. He sold loose cigarettes too.
Near the end, we were almost maxed out, but we stopped for tacos al pastor. I eat these plenty in the Yucatan, but these were different–the pork was crispier, and more important, the pineapple was raw, which added a super-fresh contrast. (In the Yucatan, a slab of pineapple is stuck on top of the rotisserie, so it drips over the pork as it cooks, which isn’t worse…just different.)
Our last stop was at a carnitas stand, where Lesley broke down the vocab for us–words like suadero and guiche I’d never even thought to look up–and explained how carnitas is really a texture experience, and people mix and match pork parts according to how much bounce and chew and crunch they want. A-ha.
But the high point, at least in terms of personal milestones, was eating…eyeballs! This never sounds like a great idea, but I’ve been particularly squeamish about eyeballs ever since my brother dissected one from a cow in high school, then brought it home in a plastic baggie and left it in the fridge right at eye level for a week. And Peter told me how he’d had to eat a lamb eyeball in Greece once, and it popped a little and had something hard in the center.
So there we were at a stand that was advertising tacos de ojo, and Lesley pointed this out. Janneth, Lesley’s friend and a tour-guide-in-training, noticed us all shuffling around looking anxious, and she said, “I’ll get some. I’ve never tried them either.”
The guy at the stand dug into the stewed cow skull, scooped out the eye and lot of other meat around it, and threw it on his chopping block. And then, just like every other taco meat, it got hacked up into little tiny bits. A little anticlimactic, but a huge relief. Here’s Janneth and the finished product, looking surprisingly benign:
It tasted like…beef. Very mild beef. I’m not entirely sure why anyone would choose ojo over lengua, say, but I’m glad I’ve tried it, as now I won’t live in fear. And if I hadn’t gone on this tour with Eat Mexico, I never would’ve gotten there.
A few minutes before the whole eyeball-taco frenzy, a man had asked Janneth what our gang was up to, eating miniscule bites of tacos and taking photos left and right. Her answer: “Somos gastronomicos.” And the guy looked happy and congratulated her.
Ah, Mexico–where you can still proudly say, “We’re foodies.”