The Critic knows for a fact that many of the 19 readers of his ramblings have been – probably repeatedly – to eat at the market in Santiago, so he will just post a few photos of the delicious breakfast enjoyed recently in the company of the always charming Better Half and a group of amigos.
“El chile pica” warned the waiter, pointing to the blackened chile habanero bits mushed up in the little bowl.
The gringo smiled. He had eaten chiles before. Had even watched a show by Rick Bayless once where Rick explained how to spot a particularly spicy one.
“De verdad pica; tenga cuidado” repeated the waiter.
He seemed truly concerned and hovered for another moment at the red plastic table watching the gringo, who nodded and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.
The waiter turned back to the counter to pick up another order; mondongo para la mesa cuatro, his Mom told him from behind the counter, hands slick with pork fat as she worked the lechon.
He was setting down the spicy soup at table four when he heard a loud cough and the scrape of a plastic chair being violently pushed on concrete; the gringo was standing up waving his hands in the air and his mouth opening and closing like a freshly caught pescado. Comical almost, if it wasn’t for the fact that he looked like he was going to die right there.
“Pinche gringo, que bruto; se lo dije” he thought to himself.
People at the other tables smiled bemusedly at the gringo’s predicament and those nearby held out their drinks or some tortillas, all of which the gringo ignored, not out of rudeness of course but because he simply couldn’t see them, his eyes were watering so bad.
Mom was already out from behind the counter, arms around the stumbling gringo and leading him towards the counter where Luisa had some milk in a glass. Mom was also stuffing tortillas in his mouth to soak up the picante.
Little by little, his eyes drying and the coughing subsiding, the gringo came back to this world. He opened his eyes to find himself sitting at a stool by the counter with everyone looking at him. He gave a limp wave with one hand.
“Bien, estoy bien” he said lifting one hand and looking somewhat chagrined. Everyone smiled and returned to their meals.
He walked slowly, almost carefully, to his table and sat down to finish his tacos.
The waiter stopped by at the table.
“Esta bien? Si pica el chile verdad? Se lo dije no? he asked with a not unkind smile.
“Oh, si!” said the gringo and gave a feeble laugh. The waiter patted the gringo’s shoulder and moved back to the counter.
Tacos de lechon para la dos. His Mom gave him a wink.
Today I had what may have been the best torta de lechón I can recall ever having in Merida. Maybe it was because I was hungry, although I suspect not as I don’t remember having that ravenous feeling in the pit of stomach that would make even the most sawdust-flavored of sandwiches taste good.
The torta, presented to me in the usual way – on a faded red plastic non-disposable plate -at the Chuburná public market at 10 AM on a Saturday morning showed no signs of being better or worse than any I have eaten elsewhere. The roast pork filled the bread nicely and a strip of crunchy pork skin peeked out at me.
The first bite, however, was the beginning of a bliss-filled, three minute mouthgasm that transcended belief and defies description although I will make an effort.
The bread, was soft and warm; it’s outermost layer slightly crispy so that there was a soft but noticeable “crunch” as my teeth bit into it. The meat inside was moist, extremely flavorful and upon tasting it, my eyes rolled back in my head. The next bite included a bit of the crunchy roasted pork skin alluded to earlier and the citrical (yes I made that up) tang of the onion. Unbelievable. I finished the glorious torta without noticing who or what was around me or where I was. Total oblivion.
Chuburná market, Saturday AM.