I spent a couple weeks in Puebla, learning Spanish with the great teachers at livitspanish. I also managed to fit in a few excursions. But mostly I just tried a ton of delicious food. Everything in Puebla is tasty. It’s immediately obvious this is a town that takes food very seriously. I compare it to the way Kansas Citians feel about BBQ. Everyone seems to have favorite restaurants, favorite recipes, even particular about how you eat the food. IE – why would you order two large tacos if one is just going to get cold? Order one, then order the next so they’re both served fresh.
On Sunday my first night in town, after getting my parking for the week sorted out, I wandered across the street into a big market that was closing down for the day. A bunch of food places were still open, serving all the other people who were packing up their stalls. I almost got a couple tacos from a place with no line. But then I noticed a long line out the door for one place which also had about 20 employees buzzing around in a very efficient and fast moving assembly line. I figured I better try this place to see what the fuss is about. When traveling I always look for the line (except LA where people like to wait in line when there’s a 95% as good option a block away).
Note, this is not a torta – it’s a cemita – the locals I talked to were very adamant about that. Apparently it’s about the bread used. Cemita bread is more like a french roll, whereas torta bread is more like a soft bun (I think). All I know for sure is holy cow was it good.
They chastised me for taking pics and pointed me to a sign that says no fotos. But I snuck a bunch more anyway. I think they just don’t want people holding up the line.
I somehow managed to order the one with pork milanese and jamon. Oh yeah it’s 35 pesos (about $1.75 – WTF). I don’t go on and on about prices here because yeah, it’s Mexico, things are cheap. But that’s insane for a huge sandwich with avocado, cheese and multiple kinds of meat.
For the next two weeks I had Spanish class from 9-1, then lunch with everyone at the school (either out or at the school), then either hanging out with a guide talking Spanish, or going on an excursion on Thursday.
That night some of the other students at the school (there were several classes) wanted to go see Mexican wrestling – Lucha Libre. I went along for the experience, and wound up having way more fun than I expected. We sat down on the floor where the guys were flying all over the place. Booing the bad guys and getting into the act a bit was a blast. Also the sheer spectacle of the way these guys throw their bodies around was pretty impressive. You could feel them hit the wooden floor – which can’t have felt very good.
The next day for lunch we went out and had something called a taco placero – a thin strip of beef, with potatoes, onions and avocado. The meat was so tender – you could barely even tell you were biting through it. And fresh cooked hand-made tortillas of course.
After class, I had the owner of the school – Scott as my guide. Which was great because I learned a ton about the history of Puebla – and life in Mexico in general. Fun tidbit: apparently notaries in Mexico make more than doctors on average. Nothing gets done without a notary. Scott and I also managed to sneak in a few alcoholic beverages – in the interests of learning Spanish of course.
That night I had to try mole poblano – the signature dish of the region. I wanted until 6pm but I will still the only one in the restaurant. I was too hungry to wait any longer so I took the plunge.
Unlike Oaxaca-style mole negro, mole poblano comes with sesame seeds. Also the sauce is made with roasted ancho chiles. I found the flavor to be more subtle and less heady than my Oaxaca-style mole negro experiences. Both are delicious though imo.
On Thursday we went for an excursion to the Chautla Hacienda a short drive from Puebla. The grounds consist of a very old colonial building, and a newer chalet (the square building below) that the governor of Puebla used for entertaining esteemed political or business guests.
Another unique cuisine to Puebla is something called “Tacos Arabes”. A while back – Lebanese Christians moved here and naturally started selling versions of their home cuisine – sometimes modified and adapted for local customs. Some may be aware al pastor is Middle Eastern in origin. This is prepared the same way (also as gyros) – layers of meat on a spit – slow cooked then shaved off as they become done. The twist here is because these are Lebanese Christians – pork is allowed. So this meat is a mix of pork, beef and lamb apparently. Also the wrapper is something of a cross between a tortilla and a pita – they call it grande pan – at least at this place.
Maybe it’s just because I’d eaten so much Mexican food now that a change of cuisine really hit the spot, but this was one of my favorite meals so far in Mexico. So perfect and delicious. I love the unique bread. I ate 4 and could easily have done more. Also the proprietor was so sweet and nice to me. I felt like I had a new Lebanese-Mexican mama by the end.
About 2am Saturday morning I got the terrible news about Brian Johnson – one of the motorcycle riders who were supposed to meet up with my in Puebla. I was crushed thinking about what they must be going through. I’ve been somewhat out of sorts and disoriented since then, as I didn’t expect my trip to go on alone.
Saturday I found a gym and got some exercise in, but mostly just sat around. My friend Nicholas randomly happened to be in Mexico City and wanted me to come up – about a 2.5 hour drive from Puebla. But I didn’t really have nice pants or shoes, and wasn’t in much mood to hit the town – especially walking around on my heel in dress shoes. Also there’s some weird requirement about license plate numbers and you can get a pretty hefty ticket – which is effect on weekdays and Saturdays. So I passed.
On Saturday night, I heard from Bruno – the angel traveler who still had my front plate that he retrieved from San Miguel de Allende. Turns out they were having car problems and weren’t sure when they could get to Puebla. So I decided to drive up Sunday, when I wouldn’t have to worry about the plate issue, Mexico City traffic, or dressing up too much. I could see Nicholas and get my plate.
So I drove up Sunday and met up with Nicholas at a house in a very nice neighborhood of Mexico City. Nicholas was staying there with his girlfriend Camila – who lives in NYC, but was born and raised in this house. Nicholas had earlier described the house as “like a museum”, which I kind of laughed off at the time. But holy cow – that was a good description. As Camila graciously gave me a tour of her beautiful home, and described the history of some of the furniture and paintings, I felt like I should be behind a velvet rope.
Nicholas had to play bad guy and cut the house tour short because we were due to meet up with Bruno and his partner Moira nearby. We went to a local place which had a bunch of food options, where I got another take on tacos arabe.
Bruno and Moira turned out to be extremely down to earth and a lot of fun (which I pretty much expected seeing how amazingly cool they were to retrieve my plate). Everyone seemed to hit it off very well, so after lunch, we went to a cool market that I had actually been to a few years earlier on a trip to Mexico City, Copper Canyon and Cabo. We got to watch some hilarious gender-role reversal as Camila tried to restrain Nicholas’ shopaholic tendencies. Nicholas is a world class knick-knack shopper and gift giver – probably a big reason he has so many friends around the world.
After Nicholas’ shopping fix – we went to a very nice area of Mexico city and saw some pretty cool art.
Finally the night wound up at a beer bar that had hot wings. And mezcal. Bruno and Moira are from Argentina and share a mutual interest in art and anthropology with Camila. So every now and then they’d slip into Spanish and me and Nicholas would catch up.
And thus concludes one of the more random get togethers I’ve ever had. Needless to say I got a hotel room in Mexico City and did not try to drive back to Puebla at night after that. Bruno and Moira – thank you again from the bottom of my heart. I hope you get as lucky as I did with random kindness when you need it. Nicholas it was great seeing you buddy. Camila it was wonderful to meet you and thank you for being such a gracious host to show me your house and home town.
The second week of school was kind of a last minute decision by me. So apparently there were no extra guides to show me around, which left me free to run errands and wander Puebla in my afternoons.
On Thursday we had our second class excursion – this time to a real farmers’ market (real as in – for farmers, by farmers – not like LA farmers’ markets).
Then we went to an old church and convent from the something ridiculous like 1570 – El ExConvento de San Andrés Calpan.
After we got back I decided to wear my fancy new jeans to a fancy restaurant that my proffey, Maru had suggested earlier. She particularly liked the mole tamal (not “tamale” – I’m not sure if there’s a difference). It was incredible.
Then I got a mole verde (which at least rounds out my moles in Puebla – Poblano, rojo, verde). It was quite tasty with some kind of fish which I didn’t realize I was ordering.
After dinner, I walked by a bar and heard some English. In my first instinct and natural introvertedness I passed it up and headed back to my room. But I said nope, and turned around. And whaddyaknow – I made some new friends – serious hardcore Mezcal experts.
You know it’s good by the blurry picture. I learned about all the variables and processes that go in the giving mezcal such incredible dynamic range of flavor. Absolutely fascinating. Mezcal has been my favorite liquor for a while. The guy on the left runs a non-profit that buys super small-batch agave and repatriates all the profits back to the local distillers. http://sacredagave.org Very cool.
The next day I had my last day of class and bid a sad farewell to everyone at the school. It was kinda nice to have my little family there for a couple weeks – especially with the devastating tragedy and nightmare my friends were going through weighing on my mind. But with a heavy heart my journey continues – on to Oaxaca.
Holy Cow, Matt–what a great blog, albeit clouded by the tragedy of Brian’s death. Such an amazing life he lead though–so chock full of thrilling adventure and vivid experience. He died instantly, doing what he most loved. There are worse ways to go.
All the food photos and descriptions are almost literally out of this world. Eating my $2.50 TV dinner the night before reading your blog really snapped things into perspective. We currently inhabit two different universes. Please beam me up into yours!
I love what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and the way your sharing it all through your terrific blog. Rock on!
As usual, Matt, you are an artist! ??. The pictures you put in our minds with your words ands photos are so real to us. . But, that said, the loss of your traveling friend is tragic and our prayers are going up for you and his family.
Love your blog, Matt.