Overland miles: 2549 Tacocount: 48 Days without Tea: 1
Regular and more observant readers of this humble weblog may have noticed a slight time lag in the publication of our recent posts, allied with a definite go-slow on the taco count (see the daily stats above). Well, there’s a good reason: the revenge of Emperor Montezuma II (the Aztecs’ last ruler) aka ‘Travellers’ diarrhoea’ or good old food poisoning. I guess it had to happen sometime, and if it’s true that a particularly strong dose immunises you against further episodes (although this could well be an old wives’ tale) then perhaps it’s good that it happened on day 22 – rather than, say, day 222. But that the Gringos’ Curse could strike here in Mexico City, home to some of the most diverse cultures in the Americas, and still lay us low almost a week later in Oaxaca, sometimes referred to as the culinary capital of Mexico, was the cruellest of all jokes.
Our tale of taco-woe began at Tacos de Canasta Los Especialades, on Francisco I Madero, just off the Zocalo in Mexico City. Your correspondent was laughably keen to patronise the establishment, despite Clare’s protestations that we were in desperate need of some vegetables in our diets, so wouldn’t a salad be a better choice? I valiantly flew the bandera for the place: it had been commended by various shoestring travel publications I pointed out (the hook being that these tacos were five pesos each – roughy a third of the cost of ones sold on the coast), and in massive demand, as the permanent snaking queue of locals outside testified. The clincher was the beguilingly simple meal deal: all day, any day, you could get a plate of five and a refresco (a coke or sim) for $32 (a mere £1.60 in the Queen’s money). We finally agreed to try it out, and Montezuma’s die had been cast.
There was a intriguing counter system in place to monitor the tacos being ordered, like taking up to five items of clothing into the dressing room. On production of the paid-for counter, a seemingly random selection of tacos from the menu of carne asado (roasted meat), chicharones (pork scratchings), frijoles (refried beans), patatas (fried potatoes) and salsa verde (green chilli sauce) were retrieved with little delicacy from giant steel buckets:
Once through the queue, tacos in hand stacked sloppily on a plastic plate itself wrapped in a plastic bag (this seems to be a tradition in the larger establishments, saving massive amounts of washing-up time, if not the environment), we mingled through the hungry hordes of office workers towards stainless steel benches around the outside to load up on guacamole and an assortment of chillies and vegetables.
I have hazy memories of the actual experience of the dish as being somewhat underwhelming, although arguably a better value lunch option than than a Greggs sandwich deal. The meat one was quite tasty, the bean one was tepid and stodgy and the guacamole was thickly satisfying, but the details have all been wiped out, everything else descending into the vice-like grip of unimaginable pain and stomach-churning nausea. I am legally obliged to point out that the cause of our horrendous sickness may not have been the fault of any hygienic practices at Tacos de Canasta, but in fact our own grime-ridden hands, brought into the establishment after a long morning of looking at (but definitely not touching) Aztec exhibits at the fascinating National Anthropology museum. This was a salutary reminder that as a great deal of Mexican food is eaten with hands, we should be in the habit of washing ours every time we eat out. However a doctor further down the line (yes, the sickness really was that bad) informed us that the cause is often not the tacos themselves but the said guacamole and the plethora of other sauces that accompany them. As these have often been left out all day, attracting flies and other pests, they can harbour incredible levels of E-coli bacteria (which only affect tourists unused to this food of course).
I will spare you the gory details of the hours and days that followed (Clare went first, I was sympathetically smug for another night but in a torrid fever by the next afternoon), suffice to say that the rest of our time in Mexico City was mainly spent lying in the foetal position on our hostel beds, bemoaning our ruinous love of tacos and railing at the spirit of a merciless and unflinching Aztec Emperor. The torture continued for a further 36 hours, and all thoughts of further culinary experiences were brutally expunged from our minds. In fact, on our planned date departure we had to check into a second hostel to convalesce, leaving only to stagger to McDonald’s on one occasion (not a terrible experience, truth be told) and a KFC the next (just awful) because we couldn’t face the thought of any more Mexican food. I tell you these things not simply because we want this blog to be a truthful account of our travels and food experiences, but also as a timeless warning never to underestimate the true horror of the Aztec Two-step, and always to trust the instincts of your wife (sorry Clare).