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Grasshoppers and Goats

El Rincón del Oso

Mercado Hidalgo, Calle Victoria #47, Baja




The grasshoppers lie in a golden pile. Their little barbed legs point every which way. Their torsos look like mini accordions stretched back on one side, their bellies greeny-pale with dark red stripes.

"You don't want to eat them?" says María.

Oh man. This is too much. The whole market is too much. I'm sitting in the restaurant part of a Oaxaqueño store in the middle of Mercado Miguel Hidalgo (named after Father Miguel Hidalgo, the Paul Revere of Mexican independence), the market that's a little piece of central Mexico right here in Tijuana. We have nothing like this in San Diego. It's like being in a 1950s movie with Ricardo Montalban. It's the tropics brought north.

I first got here in the morning, off the "Otay" bus from the border. I walked up Federico Javier Mina street from Las Tijeras -- "the Scissors," as tijuanenses jokingly call their twin-spiked Independence Monument, to Guadalupe Victoria street, and there -- wow. Sensory overload! Crowds milling in a market square. Sacks of strange seeds, beans, peas, dried fruits, medicinal woods, minerals, herbs, fruit, vegetables, all opened for customers' inspection, either in the blaring sunlight off the backs of trucks or along the deep-shaded alleyways under the perimeter buildings. Music played from speakers in the middle of the square. I got lost among the crowds, the barrows, the music, the aromas of herbs, fruits, and the occasional waft of smoke bearing the irresistible smell of carne asada.

Then I saw, rising up in the middle of the market, a blue-and-white glass dome. A market chapel! Except the speakers attached to its walls don't broadcast calls to the Christian faithful, but the ranchero music that gives the whole place its jaunty feel. Plus, right then, a light plane flew in and started circling low overhead, with a guy holding a megaphone through the window, yelling out something about a liquidación sale. How can you beat that?

Where to begin? I was hot, sweaty, and thirsty and needed something to drink. I followed the ruckus among the produce trucks angle-parked in the middle of the plaza. One well-worn green-and-cream monster had nothing but tomatoes on board. It had just made the 24-hour trip up from Sinaloa. Next to it, guys stripped down eight-foot stalks of sugar cane. Others scraped spines off cactus paddles.

"Cocos! Twenty pesos! From Colima!" called this guy, Margarito. He was standing at the back of a dusty green veteran truck, an ancient Dina 800, in the middle of a pile of green coconuts. I made a beeline. He held one by its umbilical cord, a shiny-bladed machete in his other hand. I needed that coconut. Coconuts don't short you before you have quenched your thirst.

Margarito wielded the machete like a juggler. Sweat glistened on his red forehead and up into his blue bandanna as he cut a big slice down one side, another down the second. And fast. Chop chop chop. I sweated bullets for his fingers. Finally, he held the coconut up, flicked his machete horizontally one more time. It nicked off the remaining bobble at the top. You could see the milk glistening inside.

"Dos dólares," he said as he jammed a straw down the hole.

Ah, the relief. Not chilled, but surprisingly cool. Margarito said his boss, the elderly guy chatting on the far side of the coconut pile, brings 10,000 coconuts up from Colima ("Domain of the Gods" in Náhuatl/Olmec language) every month. That's a three-day drive.

So now, for a serious meal, I headed for a goat-meat place. I'd been hearing about El Rincón del Oso from the taco-stall owners around this end of town. Problem was, by the time I navigated and sampled my way through stalls selling papayas, a dozen different kinds of bananas, zapotes (types of persimmon), tunas and pitayas (both cactus fruits), guamuchel (sweet fruit of the bread and cheese tree, also called the manila tamarind), dragonfruit, and on and on -- fruit you won't find in Vons -- I had to take a break at Comedor La Oaxaqueña, deep in the shadowy northeast alleys of the market. Oaxaca, I'd heard, has the richest cuisine in the country. Dozens of different moles. I figured this would be an interesting little food safari right here. I sat down.

* * *

Except nobody mentioned grasshoppers. Now, here I am, freeze-framed, having ordered chapulines without really thinking, and looking down at the beady little black eyes of a zillion grasshoppers, then up to the big questioning brown eyes of María.

María's dressed in traditional Oaxacan garb, wide white pants with flowery decorations down the sides, and a white top with a protective smock over it.

"Perhaps a shot of mescal would help?" she says.

Yes. Good idea. Dutch courage for Mexican food. I nod. She fills a shot glass with Oro de Oaxaca, places it on a saucer next to a little pile of brown powder under a wedge of lime, and brings it over.

"That's sal de gusano," she says about the brown stuff. "Traditional with every glass of mescal." It's a combo of salt, dried red chiles, and roasted agave worms -- the caterpillars that live in the agave plant. In Mexican food, nature, in-your-face life, always seems that much closer.

I sip a lipful of the mescal, taste its smoky agaveness, spend a moment considering how it's by far the oldest liquor anywhere in North America, then lift up my first beady-eyed grasshopper by its left back leg...

Grasshopper-eating's a very Oaxacan thing. And smart: when those locust swarms happen, you're looking at hundreds of tons of free protein on the wing. Why not stick up the net and eat them before they eat your crops?

Somehow though, that thought isn't comforting now. Ho-kay...crunch. Wow. Salty. Fried-tasting, crackly, squishy, like peanuts with soft centers. But more tasty than that sounds. I keep going. Trying to look casual. It's easier if I just grab and crunch, rather than look each victim in the eyes.

I worry for a moment about reports that some grasshoppers caught in Oaxaca have been found to have excessive lead in them and that others can pass on parasites if they're not washed properly and cooked thoroughly. But María says they wash and cook theirs meticulously, so I put those worries away. Once I get going, and as the mescal effect rises, the pile goes down pretty easily. I start to admire the French-blue rafters, the mustard-colored ceiling, the huge woven baskets from Oaxaca selling for about $12, and the poster for the annual Guelaguetza down in Oaxaca, a sort of "passion play" of the Zapatec people.

Now I've passed that test of manhood, I'm feeling bold, wondering what other dishes to try. Something with Oaxaca's famous moles. (That's mol-ay, not the garden-destroying burrowers.) María suggests the mole negro con pollo. It's around six dollars, and, when it comes, that mole is thick, warm, and black and covers the chicken thigh like a chocolatey but not really sweet lava. The pile of rice and green peas tempers the richness, and a cinnamon-enhanced Oaxacan coffee helps.

But the Oaxacan dish I enjoy the most comes a few days later, when I'm down again and drawn back to the Oaxaqueña store by the prospect of a tlayuda, or clayuda. This is about as Oaxacan a dish as you'll find, they say. So this time, along with a Coke, I ask the waitress Esther (she's from Chiapas, Oaxaca's southern neighbor) for a clayuda with tasajo, which is a kind of sun-dried beef. It takes about 15 minutes to cook and involves a foot-wide baked-till-it's-crispy flour tortilla loaded with asiento (unrefined pork lard), black mole, beans, avocado, cabbage, a big clump of tasajo in the middle (I could have had cecina, thin strips of chili powder--encrusted pork, or chorizo or chicken instead), and all over it, quesillo, the Oaxacan signature cheese. This is a sweet, soft, white, unripened cow's-milk cheese that's so stringy they wind it into balls. It's mild like a mozzarella, though a shade more tangy, hard to find outside Oaxaca, and it's what turns tlayuda or clayuda into a virtual "Mexican pizza." Down in Oaxaca, they have street vendors cooking it on every corner. It's the thing to do, when you're wending your way home after a night out, to stop for a midnight tlayuda snack.

For me, a few splots of salsa, and this baby is crunchy delicious. The tasajo is deeply marinated and not too tough, but really, the pleasure is in all the other bits and pieces you clack off with each break. And for sure, the wicked pork lard is what makes it all happen, sets up the richness. I just wish they had cerveza to go with it.

I finish up with a dessert of tejocote, the fruit -- who knew? -- of the Mexican hawthorn, golden in their syrup, slightly larger than cherries. They're what goes into the Mexican ponche, the hot fruit punch they make at Christmas and New Year's.

I'll have to come back, if only to try the other moles, yellow ones, red ones, and dishes like memelitas -- Oaxacan sopes, corn patties fried with black-bean frijoles and salty cheeses and salad and meat -- and chapulines, those grasshoppers again, but a la Mexicana, meaning in a sauce. And Oaxaca's eggy breads, with names like yema, resobado, and amarillo.

But my next time down, I get hijacked by the first food cart at the entrance, Tacos Fitos, mainly because I've noticed there always seems to be a crowd around it. "Birria," it says. "Tripa de res," I look around. What everybody's buying is a birria -- stew -- of "buche," stomach lining cooked in lard. Rich gravy flavors waft through the crowd of truck drivers, barrow boys, school kids, so that's what I order.

It's squishy, but the flavors are rico suave, with juices running onto the ground as I walk along chewing.

This time, I'm determined to get goat. I head up the passage filled with herb and mineral rocks, medicinal-wood vendors and shops. Bins filled with herbs like gordolobo, which the Aztecs used for curing ulcers, rocks of tequesquite -- a mineral salt, a kind of natural baking soda used since ancient times as leavening for, say, tamales -- unheard of herbs like timbiriches, cocohistles...the only one I recognize is diente de león -- dandelion.

But I'm looking for goat horns, and two doors up, near the northeastern corner, there it is: a trophy head of a black goat with twirling long horns is nailed to the wall right over the entrance. Beside it a sign says "El Rincón del Oso." "Jalisco style," says another sign.

Peculiar, to call a goat restaurant "the Corner of the Bear," but it turns out the original owner, back when this was a fruit shop, was a bear of a man. The name honors him. Of course they have carne asada, and other dishes, but goat's their claim to fame, and birria -- goat stew -- is their main goat dish, though they also do goat ribs.

You sit down at a red trestle table set against salmon pink walls hung with photos of showbiz stars, from Marilyn Monroe to Germán "Tin Tan" Valdéz, a late, lamented Mexican comic. "Yes, we are a little expensive," says Verónica the waitress. "Chivo -- goat -- costs twice as much to buy as beef, but it is a stronger meat. Makes a stronger man."

All right. I accept the challenge. I get the stew. It costs around $8. As Verónica said, not cheap, but understandable. And strong -- tasting, that is.

The added benefit is that in the liquidy stew, you'd swear you can taste not just goat, but wild goat. The ones who have been free to roam and nibble everything. Tree bark and leaves and grass. This doesn't taste like food-pellet, farm-fed chivatos. There's a richness you associate with venison, bison, wild boar. You are what you eat, even when you're a goat. My street-stall taco guys tell me Tijuana has about four restaurants serving goat meat. This, they say, has the tastiest.

The birria comes in a white china bowl with blue stripes that make the reddish soup and dark chunks of meat look serious. For me, that stronger taste, which also has a slightly woolly thing to it too, like mutton, is saved by the extras in the bowls that Verónica places in front of you: the onions, cilantro, rich red salsa, and juice from the limes. With a hot pile of tortillas, which the ladies in the open kitchen keep rolling and cooking, you could go on forever, stuffing them with chunks of meat that almost fall apart when you pick them up. The rich, tart, burgundy-red birria liquids sluice it down and sharpen your mouth so it's ready for the next wave. I chose a tamarindo drink to go with it, but next time, no question: it'll be a Negra Modelo cerveza, or a glass of vino tinto.

And music can be part of the deal. I'm just leaving when these two elderly gents come up. They have guitars. The music from the chapel is far enough away that it won't interfere. I ask if they'd sing "La Malagueña." They do, and even though age has shot their voices to ragged, cardboardy remnants of what they once were, they put such feeling into it, I can almost feel ye old tear ducts starting to spout. A dangerous sign. Must be getting attached to this place.

How much more food is there to try in Mercado Hidalgo? I walk across the plaza, past the chapel (and up close you see that the chapel is built upstairs, above spotlessly clean public restrooms) toward that endless line of coconut customers watching Margarito's machete mastery. And guess what? Near the back of the line is Dr. Solorio, my Tijuana dentist. "You want the best food in the market?" he says. "It's El Jerezano. They're from Jerez, in Zacatecas. They've been open 33 years. What buches, my friend, what buches."

Sigh. I get up to El Jerezano. It faces Carnitas Kiko's Jr. Café, which claims it's "100 percent Estilo Veracruzano. Pruébalo!" Veracruz style. And they want the chance to "Prove it!" Hmm. Veracruz. That's Caribbean, right? African influences? If I had the stomach space, I'd go take them on right now. Instead I call in on El Jerezano and order up a buche taco from the manager, Samuel -- to go.

Veracruz will have to wait.

GETTING THERE AND BACK

First off, driving down and back can be difficult. I say don't. Not unless you're happy to sit in fumes, fuming as you wait an hour or so while heading home. By the time you get to the actual customs guy, you'll be loaded down with giant crucifixes, rubber jigsaw maps of California, and blankets with Arnold's or Pancho Villa's face on them, which you bought from the window-knockers just to relieve the boredom. Then there's the special insurance you need, the parking, dealing with local cops who may see you and your Volvo as an easy mark. Hundreds do drive down and back every day, of course, and have no problems. But even then, you've got that wait. This is the world's -- maybe even the galaxy's -- busiest border crossing, and post-9/11 it's usually just not worth it, especially when you have adequate taxi (and communal taxi) service, and buses to get you there and back. California DOT's 2005 figures put the average northbound wait at 45 minutes. But yours will be longer, because you're not coming through at four in the morning.

Certainly, you don't escape the problem as a pedestrian. That can also take an hour, if, say, you're crossing back north at five on a Friday evening. But overall, it's easier, and a more pleasant interaction with the people of Tijuana, if you park the car in San Ysidro and hoof it. (The Gateway Inn, 701 East San Ysidro Boulevard, by the trolley's final stop, 619-428-2251, has good all-day parking for around $5.)

So here's my advice for getting there and back: Take trolley, car, or bus to San Ysidro crossing; climb torturous ramped pedestrian bridge that crosses the final inches of I-5 alongside the customs building. Pass through border to Tijuana taxis (Taxi Libres are best deal, $4--$5); for return, ask them to come pick you up at the market at an agreed time and place. To catch bus (60 cents), walk down Avenida de la Amistad, past Plaza Viva Tijuana to roundabout. Turn right up Avenida Frontera. Ask for "Otay" bus. Tell the driver you want "Mercado Hidalgo," near "Las Tijeras" (Independence Monument). Get off at Avenida Mina, one block before monument (just keep your eyes skinned for soaring "scissors" Independence Monument in the middle of a roundabout on Paseo de los Héroes); turn right up Avenida Mina, walk two short blocks to Calle Guadalupe Victoria, which lines one side of the red-and-yellow market. To return to border, leave market by opposite end, turn left onto Avenida Independencia; walk two blocks to Independence Monument, cross over Paseo de los Héroes; at continuation of Avenida Independencia, wait for bus (or flag down regular cab or $1.00-per-person communal taxis). Ask for "la línea" ("the border"). Ride is 5--10 minutes.

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