“Más cebollas!” bellows Batman, his faded t-shirt stretched across his torso, the logo a little wider and more fat-spattered than your average superhero. He holds court, hanging off the metal stall frame and shouting vegetable orders into the clouds of grilled meat smoke that fill the narrow space. Below him, the locals mill and the workers hustle, great trays hoisted above their heads to dodge the crowds. Some are laden with bowls, others with ice cold beers. We pull up a table and settle in. This is going to be fun.
Oaxaca City is a thrilling place, full of complex spice and wet mounds of fresh, dark chocolate. There is culture here, history. Recipes passed down over centuries. Oaxaca smells like dinner and we are hellbent on doing it justice.
We did the verging-on-Michelin-starred Pitiona, dressed up to the nines and hitting the tasting menu hard. We hung out with the hipsters at La Popular, gorging on plates of garlicky mushrooms and mezcal shots. We practically took up residence at Pilar Cabrera’s sunny-hued La Olla, working our way through the menu. And then doing it all again.
But there was one place we were determined to try. Nothing fancy. Nothing spendy. No head chef. We’d heard things about a particular part of the 20 de Noviembre market and we wanted to taste it for ourselves.
The roads around the mercado are hot and sweaty, baking under the midday sun and full of people on their daily shop. But then, between the sacks of chilies and chapulines (or grasshoppers to you and me), there’s an opening. A slender passageway leading from street to market and attracting more than its fair share of people. It’s called ‘El Pasillo de Las Carnes’, or the ‘Alleyway of the Meats’ and it offers a meal unlike any we’ve encountered before.
Ladies, gentlemen, anyone with an appetite and a few pesos going spare, your attention please. Because THIS is how you eat lunch.
First, you choose your meat. The type, yes. But also the actual cut. Both sides of the pasillo are lined with stalls, each one with a different owner, each one draped with meat. There’s tasajo, a thinly sliced and hammered out flank steak, cured in salt. There’s cecina, pork pounded thin once more and spiced with a little chilli. There’s chorizo rich in paprika and necklace-strings of something from deep inside the animals that used to serve a purpose. You’ll need to choose carefully. Look for the freshest, the reddest, the most popular. These are the street food basics. You know the drill.
Protein chosen, it’s time for the smoke. Your stall owner grills the meat over fire, the edges curling and caramelising in the heat. You grab a table at the other end of the passage, a simple white-tiled affair, with communal benches to squeeze onto. And then, it’s time to accessorise.
There are a few vegetable vendors, stalls piled high with bowls in faded pastel plastic and side orders fresh from the market. The menus are scrawled onto boards and you choose what you want. There’s guacamole. Finely diced pico de Gallo. Sharp salsa verde, spiked with tomatillos. Crisp radishes. Sweet peppers. Chilli as it comes, hot and raw and eye-watering. Nopales asados, or roasted cactus. Creamy, reassuringly bland slices of avocado. And cebollas, those fat, flash-grilled onions as advertised by Batman himself.
You grab a guy wandering past with a basket of fresh corn tortillas, still warm from the comal. Order a couple of cold beers from another. It might seem like chaos, but it’s the well-practised kind, where somehow, against all odds, everything comes together at once.
We sit in the midst of it as our meat lands, still resting and getting better by the second. Everything we need is here and it’s time to get our meal together. We grab a tortilla each, filling it by hand with meat, salsa and fresh market produce. They’re tucked and rolled and inhaled and the happy cycle starts again.
It might not be the obvious place to take your kids, but this is perfect family food. A DIY meal where every choice is down to the eater, however young. Because we’re not forcing vegetables on them, they actually give them a go. These are ingredients so cheap you won’t resent them if they don’t eat it all. And so good that you’ll hoover up their leftovers yourself. There’s entertainment, not just from the buskers belting songs out for pesos, but the frenzied activity of the place. We leave, full to the brim with food and stories, our hair full of smoke. And then we’re out on the street again, where life goes on. And we have a few hours before dinner to work up those appetites again.