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- Puebla Mexicans consider Puebla the capital of food in Mexico. Has a very colonial feel, an abundance of churches, the experience is very authentic.
- Cinco de Mayo: Originated with the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Celebration of the holiday in Puebla is especially incredible.
- Chowhounds: Chowhounds.com is a site for foodies looking for where other foodies have been.
- Comita: The classic Puebla sandwich which is about twice the size of a "Big Mac". Find it in the Mercado El Carmen.
- Other Places: Also try Mexico City, Tepoztlán and Oaxaca.
- Be Adventurous: Branch away from the tourist restaurants, try the corner taco stands for more authentic food.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi. Welcome to the Frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides, and I'll be your host.
Today's topic is Mexico through a foodie's eyes. My guest is my colleague Gypsy Levitt, who is an avid world traveler, an equally adventurous eater and a culinary expert. She is just back from Mexico which, as listeners may know, is one of my favorite places in the world. She's here to talk about some of the delicious and unusual things that she ate while she was there.
So, Gypsy, welcome! Thanks for being here today.
Gypsy Levitt: Hi.
Gypsy: Thanks for having me.
Kelly: To start out, why don't you tell us where you went on your trip?
Gypsy: Sure. I started out, I flew into Mexico City and then we hopped on a bus and headed off to Puebla. I was in Puebla for about five or six days, and afterwards we went to Tepoztlán.
Gypsy: And that was about it.
Kelly: You and I were talking earlier about Puebla and how, as a tourist destination, Puebla isn't as famous for its food as a place like Oaxaca, but that actually in Mexico, it's considered by Mexicans to be possibly the gastronomic capital in Mexico.
We have a lot of time to talk about food, but before we do, I wanted you to give me some of your impressions about Puebla. The city has a very colonial feel with its architecture, and one of the things it's known for is having an astonishing number of churches.
Gypsy: It does, indeed. I had read about it, but nothing can really prepare you for it when you're there. There are churches literally everywhere. And they're quite, quite stunning. I think one thing that people might be surprised about is that Puebla is the fourth largest city in Mexico and an important place to the Mexican people. The Cinco de Mayo battle was fought there, and it's quite a monied city, which is nice when you're a tourist being around middle class Mexicans. You're eating restaurants with Mexicans. You're having a much more authentic experience, and the churches are just stunning. They're incredibly well-preserved and really, it's got an almost Roman quality to it.
Kelly: Oh, interesting!
Gypsy: There are these huge ceilings, wide boulevards in the streets. The main church, the Puebla de los Ãngeles--of Angels--I could have been in a cathedral in Rome. I was blown away.
Gypsy: It was stunning. I certainly hadn't expected that.
Kelly: And as you mentioned, the Battle of Puebla in 1862 is the first victory that Mexico had as a nation against a foreign attack, and that's where the Cinco de Mayo celebration comes from. So the next time people are out celebrating, they can realize they're celebrating something that happened in Puebla.
Gypsy: If you're ever looking for a place to go for an incredible celebration, and a lot of people celebrate Cinco de Mayo, there is no wilder place to go on that day than Puebla.
Kelly: Than Puebla, exactly.
Gypsy: Everybody likes a festival.
Kelly: [laughs] Exactly.
Let's jump into our food conversation. I know you ate several of your meals in the markets when you were traveling. Can you describe the market scene a bit? I know that you had stumbled upon place to eat in the market that only the taxi drivers know about, which I think is very interesting.
Gypsy: I did. Before I go onto a trip I often go on chowhounds.com and try to find where foodies have gone, the more intrepid foodies. I find that's a great starting place. You have this one place. It's actually two different markets or Mercado's as they're called.
One of them is Mercado de Gastronomica. That is just the place to go for lunch. They're all sit-down places, small stands that have little stalls attached to them.
Where we actually went was the Mercado El Carmen, which is a functioning produce market. They have meats and poultry and produce for miles and miles. There's this one place that is renowned among all the taxi drivers called Poblantias at the Mercado El Carmen.
What you go there for is one thing only, it's called the Comitia which is the classic sandwich all throughout Puebla and I think all throughout Mexico. Lunch is the big meal of the day, and so people really want to pay good money and get a nice, big meal. This particular one is maybe the size of two Big Macs.
It's huge. You've never seen anything like it.
Kelly: What's in that?
Woman: It's a huge production line. They have about eighty sandwiches set up. They're frying massive sheets of chicharron, which are fried pork skins.
Kelly: Pork skin, yeah.
Woman: With slabs of, ugh, it's just incredible. It has slices of this cool avocado, onions, and another slice of pork on top. And then Oaxacan string cheese, which is like regular string cheese. And then it's topped with pickled cauliflower. It is out of this world.
My husband and I shared one, and it was three dollars for just one. We were so full we could barely walk.
Kelly: So the chicarron, the fried pork skin is on the sandwich?
Woman: Yes. I mean, they're frying these huge slabs in vats of hot oil and they're using scissors to cut them up into bite-sized, maybe three-inch slabs.
But the sandwich is about five inches wide and maybe six inches tall. A lot of food.
Kelly: Right, hard to wrap your mouth around.
Woman: It's great. You walk around the market; we bought some fresh fruits to eat as we were walking around Puebla. There were no tourists when we were there. I think that's one thing that I loved about being in Puebla; you're really immersed in the city.
Kelly: In the city and the culture, yeah. Some people may be a little intimidated by eating food at a market. They might be concerned about the cleanliness factor, about eating street food. What kind of advice do you have for people who might be curious but perhaps a little intimidated about eating food that wasn't specifically prepared in a restaurant?
Woman: I will say, I have been very fortunate. I have only ever had a mildly upset stomach at worst. My husband, on the other hand--I can really relate to this question--likes to joke that he's been to five continents and had poisoning in four.
Kelly: Oh no!
Woman: I swear. We eat the same meal. So, I can really appreciate being anxious about it. I would just say use common logic. A crowded stand is a good sign, because the food is not sitting still. It's turning over so you know it's fresh, so just look for a place that's popular and crowded.
Also, if you're eating in a market. Look for a place that has a big container of bottled water. It's a good sign that they're using purified water.
Kelly: To wash things.
Woman: Above all, just use common logic. Anything you are looking out for should be washed in purified water. If you are buying fresh fruits and vegetables, either buy ones that have been peeled--just so that you're not eating unpurified water by accident.
Kelly: And if at all possible, I think you want it to be something that's been washed or peeled while you're watching.
We ate with wild abandon in Puebla probably more adventurously than we did on any other vacation. And I've been through Southeast Asia. We've been through some places where you [audio cuts out] through Turkey, through all parts of Mexico. We had no problems at all. I think you just have to relax and try to enjoy yourself, because if you only eat in the touristy restaurants you really miss out on what is true Mexican cooking. You miss out on the best of it all. And you can do what I do: just pack some Cipro, just in case.
Kelly: Right, right, Cipro. Cipro, the antibiotic.
Gypsy: I'm a bit of a walking pharmacy, but that's mainly for my husband.
Kelly: One thing that was unexpected that you had mentioned before is that there is a significant Arabic or Lebanese influence in Puebla. Obviously in the architecture with a lot of the tile work that you see, the Puebla tiles have a lot of Moorish influence to them. But also in the food, which I was very surprised about. What kinds of culinary influence did you notice?
Gypsy: I was really surprised about that. I expected it in the architecture, but they have these taco stands all over the city serving these tacos called tacos ï¿½rabes which are like a Mexican cousin of the shawarma.
Kelly: Oh, interesting!
Gypsy: You have this meat on a stick with a flame behind it and they slice the meat off as it's getting cooked, just like a shawarma. They're serving it on a thicker tortilla, almost like a pita. Then it's covered with a white sauce, which again is like a tahini; essentially, it was a tahini. And then of course you're in Mexico, so you've got the hot sauce on top.
Kelly: Of course.
Gypsy: And it's on almost every single block. They're totally delicious. The one that's in a lot of the guide books, called Tacos Tony, has had its claim to fame. Unfortunately, since it's made it into some of the guide books, I wouldn't recommend that place.
Gypsy: Just use your nose. If you see a place that looks particularly delicious, it probably is.
Kelly: OK, that's really good to know. As we said at the beginning of our conversation, Puebla is considered the culinary heart of Mexico, and it is the birthplace of some of the most famous dishes in authentic Mexico cooking. One of them, which I've had, is chiles en nogada, which is really incredible.
Kelly: For people who might not know, chiles en nogada is a poblano pepper that's been stuffed with spiced ground pork. Sometimes it's fried, I don't think it's always fried.
Gypsy: I think sometimes it's baked.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. It's served with a white sauce that's made with nuts, which is really delicious and savory. On top of it, they put pomegranate seeds. The idea is that it's the three colors of the Mexican flag; it's red, white and green. It's really fantastic.
Kelly: I had it in Mexico City when I was there several years ago, and it was really wonderful. It's not anything that you'd expect Mexican cooking to be. It's mildly spiced, but the flavors are very deep. You have the sweetness of the pomegranate, the savory pork and the nuts, which give a lot of depth to it. It's very interesting.
Gypsy: It sounds amazing. I was sad I didn't get to try it. I understand it's only generally served much through October. If I'm correct, I think it was the dish that they served after winning the battle. Is that correct?
Kelly: I think so. Yeah, I think so. Hence the wanting to integrate the colors of the flag into the dish. But what most people probably know about Puebla is that it's the birthplace of mole poblano, the deep, chocolate sauce that is served usually with chicken. Did you have mole when you were there? Because I know Oaxaca is also known for its mole. In Puebla, though it's the birthplace, you might not necessarily get the best mole while you were there.
Woman: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting. There are seven moles. There's the one that everybody knows, the mole poblano. And there's also one using pipian, which is delicious and one of the lesser-known. You know, we thought we were going to Puebla for mole, because a lot of people do. Having been to Oaxaca before, I was surprised that, I would say, actually no. We had amazing dishes in Puebla, but having now asked a number of people after my trip, my experience was--as I guess everyone's is--mole is fine in Puebla but it's actually better in Oaxaca.
Kelly: That's interesting. I mean, that's the place most associated with mole, but it's probably not where you're going to get the best mole in the country.
Woman: If you're there, when you're looking for a good one, there's a place called Meson Sacrista, which is a great hotel. They have a thriving cooking school and they do a great mole there. We found it was better in Oaxaca.
Kelly: I can't end our conversation without asking about the ice cream that you had, which is also one of my favorite things to talk about.
Woman: Oh my God and I am an ice cream girl.
Kelly: That kind of market fresh ethos comes through in the ice cream as well, doesn't it?
Woman: True. And it's so beautiful. It's almost like the original frozen fruit; they have ice cream bars in every variety of fruit you can imagine, every combination. It's just fruit, its puree. And they have a few slices of the actual fruit so you can identify whether it's kiwi and strawberry, or strawberry and blueberry. It's just so pretty to look at. It's beautiful to eat. It's basically just pureed fruit with just a little bit of sugar.
There's the fruit or sorbet-based ones, but they have regular ice cream as well. I know you and I have talked about it, but hundreds and hundreds of flavors, from avocado to rose petals to chili, and then all the regular things like chocolate.
Kelly: They also do little things like a mango with chili powder.
Woman: Which I love.
Kelly: Yeah, which is a variation on the actual street snack that you can get, where they cut up mango and put it on a stick and sprinkle it with lime juice and chili powder. They'll do that with the bars as well. What's interesting for people who are going to Mexico, not just to Puebla but other places in Mexico, these frozen fruit-type bars are called faletas.
They originally hail all from the state of Michoacan, which is kind of in the center of the country. When you're going around through Mexico, especially if you're in a bigger city like Mexico City, you'll see a lot of stores that are called La Michoacana. Those are the place you can get the paletas. It's considered the style. The Michoacana style of doing ice cream is to do these bars that are both, as you said, kind of sorbet like with just pureed fruit, but also they can do creamy ones as well.
Surprisingly, the phenomenon has translated into the U.S. as well. In a lot of the border states, California and Texas, you'll find La Michoacana-type stores as well selling the popsicles. So, hunt around because you'll certainly find them.
Woman: And they taste amazing. Again, not to draw a likeness to Rome, but everyone knows Italians love their ice cream but Mexicans do to. I really think it rivals Italian ice cream. The quality is there. The cream is fresh and makes an amazing creamy, delicious, thick, delicate but robust in flavor, ice cream. Dolores Hidalgo near San Miguel de Allende is known for having amazing ice cream, as well.
Kelly Regan: Oh, that's right.
Gypsy: This really rivals it. I mean, just amazing. It could definitely go head to head with an Italian ice cream, I think.
Kelly: Before we go, I wanted to touch on another town you visited toward the end of your trip, which is not far from Mexico City. It's a town called Tepoztlán, which I've also been to and is one of my favorite places in Mexico. Tepoztlán also has a really wonderful market, but you also did this really ambitious thing and you climbed to the top of the pyramid that's right at the edge of town. It's called the Tepozteco pyramid. You're a bigger person than I, because I couldn't make it to the top. Can you tell us a little about it?
Gypsy: Firstly, let me just say that Tepoztlán...I had heard it was beautiful, but nothing prepared me for it. It's just ridiculously beautiful. I kept waiting for the movie set to be pulled away and to see the real city. Just the fact that it's in this valley surrounded by mountains, it's just so lush and stunning. But let me say that as I did this hike, I kept saying, "Now, Kelly said that she did it."
Gypsy: And I'm struggling, and I can't do it. It's definitely an ambitious climb, and I think the sheer fact that I knew you had done it made me keep going.
Kelly: Actually, I didn't finish it.
Gypsy: Which I found that out after the fact.
Kelly: [laughs] Which you found out after the fact. I was doing it early in the morning and I was taking some classes, so I had to get back to the class. But perhaps the most embarrassing part of it was getting lapped by these old women in dresses and huaraches. It's a very rocky climb; you're clamoring over boulders at certain points of the hike and it's pretty straight uphill.
Gypsy: It's pretty straight up hill; that's certainly true. [laughs]
Kelly: I was trudging along and these older women in these huaraches were just skipping along and really making me look quite foolish.
Gypsy: In the morning I had thought, people act conservatively when they say it takes an hour to two hours, and generally we're closer to an hour. I know you have to get there before 5:00, because otherwise you can't make it to the pyramid. So we thought, "Let's leave at 3:30 or 4:00."
Gypsy: And let me tell you, we were booking it by the end. But flying by us were the locals, literally running. I guess that that's what they do everyday at 5:00. They go for a little bit of a jog straight up the mountain, and I was sweating bullets and going at a snail's pace. It was deeply humbling.
Kelly: No it's true. You're at a higher altitude, so you need to get used to that, but there's also something very mystical about the pyramid. The pyramid is at the top of this mountain, so it has this mysticism to it, and Tepoztlán itself has a new agey vibe to it, as well. And as I said, the market is gorgeous. It's definitely a place to check out.
Gypsy: I would definitely recommend taking the hike. If you can get to the top, the view is just stunning. It's really, really is wonderful, and you can see all the way to Mexico City practically. We went to Tepoztlán on a Wednesday, which is when the farmers market is. The market which is there everyday literally, I think, quintuples in size.
Kelly: It is.
Gypsy: And all the local farmers bring in produce and you get a chance to see some of the produce you generally wouldn't see any other day of the week.
Kelly: It's enormous. Yeah, the market is enormous.
Gypsy: You were there on a Saturday, I think, right? Which is when the big farmers market is?
Kelly: Yeah, but this food market is there as well on Saturdays. It's really big. It took us several hours to see the market in a comprehensive way.
Gypsy: I think for me, the thing I loved about Tepoztlán is that it's such an easy side trip from Mexico City.
Kelly: It's very easy.
Gypsy: It's so [cross talk] and you're there and there are so many great side trips that I think I definitely want to go back and [audio cuts out] there and do a bunch of little side trips.
Kelly: While we were in Tepoztlán we were able to go to Cuernavaca, which is only about 20 minutes from Tepoztlán. Cuernavaca is a much more developed city. Tepoztlán is a lot smaller, but there's a lot to see in Cuernavaca, as well.
There are some Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio, the palace that's downtown. There are a lot of great museums, and there's a beautiful old cathedral there as well. So, that area definitely has a lot to offer for people who might be going to Mexico City. I would really recommend spending some time getting out of the city and seeing some of the places nearby.
Gypsy: I think that it's quite remarkable to be 45 minutes away from Mexico City and literally transported to a completely different environment. You cannot believe it's so close.
Kelly: Especially given how hyper-urban Mexico City is. It's a very drastic change.
Gypsy: We spent some time in Mexico City this trip. It was really lovely. I think a lot of people bypass Mexico City altogether en route to wherever else they're going.
Gypsy: I love it. I love it. I try to spend a few days there each time and try to get to know a different area.
Kelly: Yeah, I'm a big fan of Mexico City. I think it's one of the great underrated cities in the world. That's a topic for a whole other podcast.
Kelly: But before I go, I wanted to mention a few practical details. For people who might want to go to Puebla directly from the U.S., you can fly directly from Houston on Continental. But Puebla is also only about 80 miles from Mexico City. So if you are flying into the capital and you want to spend some time there before going to Puebla, it's very, very easy to take a bus from Mexico City. The buses in Mexico can be quite nice and posh, so don't be put off by that.
One of the most interesting developments in the last few years has been the rise of some low budget Southwest Airlines-type carriers in Mexico that fly to a lot of the smaller markets. One of those, called Volaris, does fly to Puebla from Cancun. So, if you're going to Cancun for a beach vacation and you want to spend a little bit of time seeing something besides just the beach, then it's certainly possible to hop on a plan and go to Puebla. It's a very fast trip. I didn't want to end without saying a couple of things about that.
So Gypsy, this is all the time we have for today. I have been talking with my colleague and culinary expert Gypsy Lovett, and fellow lover of all things Mexican.
Kelly: Gypsy, thank you so much for being here today. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Gypsy: Thank you so much for having me. It's been wonderful.
Kelly: So join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan and we will talk again soon.
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