Mexico City’s unusual Mercado San Juan is my favorite market in the world. And I’ve seen many — the exquisite Marché d’Aligre in Paris’ 11th with its roasting geese and fresh oysters, the bustling über-Mediterranean Bocarías in Barcelona and Bangkok’s eye-popping Or Tor Kor with its fragrant vats of curries. The shellfish in Santiago de Compostela’s modernized 17th century venue jump out at you as you pass by. But our beloved Mercado San Juan, 20 minutes from where I live, feeds me. I go at least once a week.
To misquote Mark Twain, I’ve never met a market I didn’t like and Mexican markets are great: aromas are heady; the feast is visual and visceral. Along with a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, they offer meat, poultry and fish sold the old-fashioned way, cut and prepared to order. A stand or two invariably deal in chilies, spices and moles. There are flowers, pottery and baskets. And some of the best food can be eaten in the comedores, food stalls.
Premium goods draw international shoppers
This tradition of providing the highly demanding with premium products continues today. The San Juan is known as a place where the finest quality meat, fish and produce can be procured along with imported, locally grown and hard-to-find ingredients. Amateur and professional chefs frequent the aisles along with a few guidebook-toting tourists. Many shoppers are of Spanish origin, descendants of the Franco-era exiles. French, Italians, Americans and Asians also make the pilgrimage to this beacon of fine food.
As an amateur chef, I never know what I’ll bring home from San Juan. Maybe a plump yellow duck from Michoacán, or an exemplary rack of lamb from Hidalgo. Perhaps Pescadería Alicia will have some glistening scallops on the half shell or shiny metallic-colored sardines. I usually go with a plan: Tonight will be mussels a la Provençal followed by a scaloppini with fresh porcini. But I might end up with a guinea hen and a bunch of tiny artichokes.
Oyster, cheese and tortilla soup
The vendors are my friends. I stop to chat with the López boys at Gastronómica San Juan and sample their latest artisanal goat, cow and sheep cheeses from the state of Querétaro, accompanied by a complimentary glass of Rioja — nobody cares about liquor licenses here. I might down a couple of oysters at El Puerto de Santander. Or, if it’s lunch hour, I’ll join other vendors and shoppers at Doña Juana’s lunch stall, one of the best fondas in the city. She’ll serve up a garlicky tortilla soup, creamy black beans over rice, pork in a brick-red guajillo salsa and an agua de piña — all for 35 pesos (about $2.70 U.S.).
In addition to the standard Mexican market goods — chilies, standard vegetables, chickens, pork, etc., all kinds of locally grown, exotic meats, fruits and vegetables can be found here.
Gastronómica San Juan and its neighbor La Jersey stock the best Epoisses, Torta de Casar and Pecorino along with local cheeses. La Catalana reproduces the aged and smoked sausages of Catalonia, and very well.
From shrimp to barnacles
Pescadería Alicia sells piles of mussels, clams and squid that are usually not available at other markets. There are unusual varieties of fish, like the scaly fresh water pejelagarto from Chiapas, huge, brilliant silvery whole tunas from the Pacific and amazingly big shrimp either in or out of the shell. I’ve seen Spaniard’s eyes pop when they see the hideous but delicious percebes (barnacles) from the Pacific Coast at a fraction of the price of the old country. They are Spain’s and consequently Mexico’s gustatory secret, tasting like the offspring of an oyster and a scallop.
In the meat section (if you can stomach the piles of sacrificed cabritos – kid goats — and bunnies) shoppers can pick up an armadillo for a soirée with a pre-Hispanic theme. Sometimes venison and jabalí (wild boar) hang from the rafters. Perhaps more tempting are fresh farm turkeys, tiny quail and the aforementioned ducks, whose limp heads hang over the counter — you know they’re fresh, at least. Around holidays, Christmas and Easter in particular, the selection increases to include geese, pheasants (with the feathers on, just like in France) and other game.
Hard to find Asian produce available
Well-stocked Asian vegetable stands, the only ones in the whole country, cater to flocks of immigrants as well as people like me who want bitter melon, long beans, okra, baby bok choy and pea shoots. Many of these vegetables are grown in Mexico for export to Asian communities abroad.
San Juan’s “gourmet” produce stalls, meanwhile, offer such hard-to-get greens as crinkly kale and Savoy cabbage, tiny haricots verts and yellow wax beans, celeriac (outlandishly expensive, so only if you must have celerie remolade), tiny peas, shelled favas and sweet potatoes.
At the renowned Doña Guadalupe’s mushrooms stand, a variety of fresh wild mushrooms are sold during the rainy season, June to October. I always see French customers madly stashing chanterelles and morels, happy to pay 100 pesos instead of 100 euros. Dried versions are available all year around.
As many middle class Mexicans head to the supermarket and club-type chains, traditional markets continue to lose customers — don’t get me going. But the San Juan shows no signs of slowing down. It’s the jewel of Mexico’s markets.
Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of “Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining” and served as editor and photographer for the book “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.” He has a website, goodfoodmexicocity.com and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.
Top photo: La Jersey stall at Mercado San Juan.
Photo and slide show credit: Nicholas Gilman