La Esquina del Chilaquil (English)

Culinary morbidness. Gastronomy morbidness. Morbidness.

I can’t come up with a better definition, I guess. That’s what I was trying to decipher while I was waiting in the long line on the corner of Tamaulipas and Alfonso Reyes. Why the hell am I here? This line is bringing tears to my eyes and the sun seems to have chosen me to unleash its fury. I am sweating profusely, but I am not moving an inch. Why?

Let me back up a little. It was 10 in the morning and I was walking on Tamaulipas Street in the Condesa neighborhood with the conviction of catching a cab, but the mob on the corner made me stop in my tracks. The scenario? A crowd surrounding a small table with two huge plastic containers, one was red and the other one, green. I couldn’t really see what they had inside, but no one moved from their place; as soon as I saw the tired faces, it was clear to me they all had been standing for a while. “Excuse me, what are they selling here?” I asked a lady. She smiled politely and answered “Chilaquil Tortas”

I kept walking, but after a couple of blocks, I realized that I was still thinking about the line, the food and my empty stomach.  Tortas filled with chilaquiles? The carb on carb combination is nothing new here in the Distrito Federal; the well-known guajolotas are a street staple here in the city, but I had never heard or tried tortas filled with chilaquiles. My decision of taking a cab, disintegrated as quickly as my New Year resolutions. Now the only certainty was that I had to tackle that line and find out what the hell was causing all that commotion.

Have you ever been stuck in traffic and a few miles ahead there is a bad car crash, only to realize that the huge line is caused by a bunch of assholes who slow down their car morbidly searching for dead people? Well that happened to me, but in a food version. I had to try those tortas. If 70 people thought standing under the heat and throwing away one or two hours of their life was worth it, then that only could mean good news. The promise of a pot filled with gold and a giddy redheaded leprechaun waiting at the end of the rainbow, if you will.

As I walked back I could see the line from far away. Shit. 15 people had gotten in line already. The morning sun, by the way, was brutal; all the readers from Mexico City or who have visited, know well the sun I am describing: not a single fucking cloud in the sky. I got in line and gazed longingly at the table protected by an umbrella where a lady was working diligently. The last few doubts about joining the line disappeared as soon as five other people got behind me. There was no way back, we just had crossed the Rubicon. Accepting the fact that I was going to be there for at least 45 minutes, I started to reflect.

Isn’t curious to question what other people in this line could be thinking?  Exactly. It’s only curious when you happen to be in line. All this free time gave me the liberty to think about human behavior and its relationship with food. Maybe it isn’t that relevant, but perhaps some (or many) of our decisions are influenced by the masses. And our decisions on food and what we eat aren’t the exception. The simple act of walking by a bustling food stand or restaurant ignites social intrigue and invites to partake. I wondered if at least another eater joined the line just to pry.

As I waited, I remembered my years in San Francisco. To be more specific, I remembered my last meal in the city at Swan Oyster Depot; the tiny 18 seat wooden bar, celebrated for offering one of the freshest fish and oysters in the city. At Swan, the wait can fluctuate between an hour or two on Polk Street. And while delicious oysters filled with mignonette, uni and fog have nothing to do with a bolillos (crunchy French bread) filled with chilaquiles, breaded steak, sun and pollution, there is something in common; people will stand for hours in line (San Franciscans are pioneers in this fine “art”) waiting for what might be considered good food. Another conclusion was that trying to explain Mexicans without mentioning their gastronomy or culinary habits is only explaining half way. Mexicans seem to always be eating. Here, the line was twice as long as Swan’s, but what captivated me the most was the true Mexican nature of this: Tables. Bolillos. Chilaquiles. Street. There is no street spectacle close to it. Also, there is something democratic about “La Esquina del Chilaquil”: no matter who you are, or whom you might know; here you get in line, shut up and wait.

After half an hour, some started to throw in the towel. Some, fed up, had lost the mental game between patience and hunger; others nicely suited, underestimated the waiting time and had to return empty handed to their cubicles. I… I was still standing. But not everything was defeat. I also saw triumphant faces; people who were 30 places ahead of me, left the line victorious with their tortas with a classic and irritating little smile that can only be translated to: “I fucking made it!”  

As the line kept moving I knew more about the popular street stand. For instance, the ladies operating the stand had access to one of the buildings next door where they brought hundreds of bolillos and ingredients each day, or that some people in line order more than 20 tortas and that on occasions food ran out before noon. It was 11:30.

After an hour waiting, three people were between my destiny and me. I could feel my “I fucking made it” face shaping; the table that I had seen so far away, was in front of me in its entire splendor. I could see everything; the huge containers of red and green chilaquiles and other receptacles filled with breaded chicken steaks, shredded chicken and an empty one. “We just ran out of cochinita” yelled the lady who dispatched while squeezing firmly a bottle filled with crema on one of the sandwiches. “How many do you want, sir?” asked another lady. I had thought about everything but my order! Instantly, I felt my back burning with the impatient eater’s eyes. “Two please: one with red chilaquiles and shredded chicken and the other one with green ones and breaded chicken steak” I said rapidly. “Everything on it?” – “Yes, Everything on it”

While they urgently prepared my food I asked their names: “Cata and Guera” they said in unison. I insisted, “What has been the largest amount of food ordered by a pedestrian?” Cata lost her concentration for a second, looked at me and smiled “This one time, a guy ordered 200 tortas in one sitting.”

Before I could register the number in my head I had the stash in my hands. “It’ll be 50 pesos”. I thanked them and went to a nearby bench and sat down to eat. As I carefully unwrapped the first torta, I could see the bolillo slightly moist with the green salsa. I took a good bite. Since it was the first time having this monumental street dish, I paused and paid closed attention to the flavors and textures. Crunchy bread, damp tortilla, spicy green salsa, cheese, crema and breaded chicken steak. Silence.

You might be wondering, was battling the line under the sun, digressing, sweating along with strangers and wasting two hours of my life worth it?