Let’s just say it was one of my least proud moments as a foodie on the road thus far. It was in Mexico City back in May, at one of the handful of food stands set up outside the hospital where I was working, tucked under a pedestrian bridge that spanned from the Walmart parking lot across a six-lane highway and rail station. One woman had a huge basket of pastries and vats of hot chocolate as thick as rice pudding; another sat beside a pyramid of disposable plastic cups filled with multicolored jello and sweetened condensed milk; hand-sliced potato chips piled behind a greasy plexiglass screen and an umbrella-shaded table displayed candies and small toys.
The taco stand boasted a setup more complex than anything I’ve seen in the states, though nothing unusual, as I would learn, in a city where a few hundred pesos can buy you a satisfying, protein-packed meal three times a day [no, there’s no such thing as scrambled egg “breakfast tacos” here – you get the same stuff no matter the hour]. A regular flattop grill flanked a shallow steel depression with foot-long slabs of beef sizzling along the rim, their juices pooling around the center piece of meat. When the cook deemed that one ready, he removed it for chopping and shredding, re-arranged pieces to replace it, and tossed a new raw hunk on top.
After exhausting the basic pollo and carne, my last morning there I ordered the carne enchilada — marinated in a menacingly bright red sauce — with sauteed onions and hot salsa. The first bite was delicious, the browned corn tortilla heavy with oozing meat and a tang of lime . . . and then the burn hit. By the second taco my right eye was watering furiously and I had tried to angle that side away from the stand as inconspicuously as possible, shoveling taco into my flaming mouth with the left hand while casually wiping the tears on my sleeve with the right. “You think you can cut it after only three days?” the taco seemed to be saying, “Fat chance!” I hoped the other patrons were too busy enjoying their breakfasts to notice my pitiful sniffling.
In the end, this certainly won’t stop me from ordering foods of questionable spice levels in foreign countries — a similar situation occurred with Indian curry in London, though less severe and in the privacy of my hotel room — but maybe I’ll start carrying tissues and practice faking a cold to save face from now on.