A good public market both embraces and reveals the essence of its community. Tijuana's Mercado Hidalgo is a wild kaleidoscope of colors everywhere you turn, from the vibrant produce to the crazy cartoon piñatas. It's charged with spicy, sweet, and earthy scents--of dried ancho, morita, and chipotle chiles mingling with chicharones and what used to be called penny candy. It's a vision of rich textures of luscious moles, sticky candied fruits, and silky smooth beans. In short, Mercado Hidalgo is utterly Tijuana. Not the violent Tijuana we've been hearing about in the news for the past several years, but a city with an appreciation of traditional foods that appeal to the eye as well as the taste buds.
I hadn't been to the Mercado in many years, but the memories of the place came back in a rush last week as we--Dan Nattrass of Catalina Offshore Products, Chef Trey Foshee of Georges at the Cove, and I--pulled into the parking lot of the U-shaped market, anchored by a chapel honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Produce stalls abundant with fresh peppers, spiny chayote squash, and vibrant orange papaya sit alongside stalls overflowing with multi-colored beans and lentils, spices, dried chiles, and barrels of tamarind pods and piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar pressed in the shape of a cone). There are vendors selling rustic pottery, granite molcajetes, and cheap but appealing kitchenware. And, cheese shops with some of the saltiest cotija, enchilado, and queso fresco around.
Trucks pull in and huge, bloody sides of beef and pork are lugged off by smiling butcher shop workers. There's a tortilleria filled with men at conveyor belts pulling off and stacking small corn tortillas while others are mixing up the masa. Another stall is crammed with spices and intriguing culinary chemicals lined up in large glass canisters on high shelves and dozens of different varieties of wood chips in bins--we're still trying to figure out what they're for.
At a produce stand in the middle of the parking lot, primed for tourists taking photos, a hefty guy wielding a machete is rapidly taking apart a coconut. In fact, unlike most markets, where managers scurry over to make me put away my camera, people were calling to me to take their picture.
And, I did. Here's just a sampling of the stunning wares I saw and the people working the stalls. For this market junkie, it was pure bliss. I intend to return soon to buy bags of dried chiles and spices, some mole, maybe even a coconut.