Skipped the light fandango? Of course, Don Day had done that while in his early teens. But done the strong Fritanga? No, it had somehow escaped me.
Can you believe it. A guy approaching 70 years old and he’d never ever been on a Fritanga. I thought I must be the world’s oldest virgin. But then I found out Jack Jacobs still hadn’t lost his innocence either. And Jack is even closer to 70 than Don Day.
Fritanga. It’s a way of life for Mexicans with a rite of passage that usually happens somewhere between baptism and first communion. We were obviously a little late to the party. But, as Don Day’s dad taught him, better to arrive at a party late, that way the ladies are already a little tipsy and you’ll look a lot more handsome.
The problem was, you can’t just go off on a Fritanga alone. You need a seasoned traveller. Someone who really knows the ins and outs. Someone who knows when to start and, more importantly, when to stop. Someone who’s been there, done that, at least once or twice.
Jack had an idea, a brilliant idea, and a good looking one at that. Jack’s idea was Olma. We’d ask Olma to be our guide. She was born and raised in San Miguel de Allende. She had the all important local knowledge. She must have done the Fritanga a few times growing up.
Olma is Olma McLendon. Don Day had first met Olma a few years ago when she was one of the two amazing servers (the other was her sister) at the gone but not forgotten Cafe Iberico. Jack Jacobs had also met Olma at Cafe Iberico and he’d stayed close friends with her. We arranged a tentative date and Jack called to see if she was willing to take a few foreigners into that forbidden land of Fritanga. Olma agreed.
Despite the fact that doing the Fritanga might include using the words street, meat and eat in the same sentence, Don Day smoothtalked Don Day’s Wife into joining us. And after I discovered that our friends Marshall and Sherry were also among the unitiated, we invited them to also walk on the wild side.
That walk began at the Jardin, the place where everybody meets everybody in San Miguel de Allende and the six of us started the stroll down Canal Street and under the Quebrada bridge led by Jack and Olma. We walked three or four more blocks until Olma put on her right turn signal. A couple of more blocks and she called a halt. We were there. Fritangaville. The world capital of Fritanga. El Mercado de San Juan de Dios.
Before Don Day provides you with a detailed diary of our excursion into the land of Fritanga though, perhaps I should provide a bit more of an explanation. Perhaps you don’t even know what a Fritanga is. After all, it’s not something that you can Google. Perhaps I should give you some background details. Perhaps start with some stats.
Recently, Mexico became the world’s number one country in a very weighty subject. According to the OECD, the United States is no longer the prince of portly, the potentate of paunch. Mexico has seized the crown. 69.5% of Mexicans over the age of 15 are now considered overweight compared to a mere 69.2% of Americans.
There are four reasons given for Mexico achieving the title of champions of chubby. Pastries, sweets, soda pop and, what a Fritanga pays homage to, what our tour was all about, fried foods.
“We’re going to eat things that are fried then are then stuffed into things that are fried. Everything we’ll be having will be deep fried. It’s the Mexican way,” said Olma.
We started at El Huarache Veloz, the town’s most famous fonda for huaraches. Now if you’re like Don Day was about ten years ago and you’re thinking a huarache is a sandal and why would they be eating footwear, let me explain to you that the huarache you eat is simply a similar shape to the huarache you wear.
A huarache begins life as a thick, handmade corn tortilla. It is then deep fried to create a crispy, crusty exterior and a soft, mushy interior that is then topped with anything and everything from potatoes to pork, chicken to chicharron a lot of which has, of course, already been fried. El Huarache Veloz have been making huaraches in San Miguel for over 50 years which is almost as long as huaraches have even existed. Mother and daughter team, Abigail and Gabriella, served us up three fat ones about the size of 12EEEs, one with nopales or cactus leaves, one with chicharron or pork rind and one with papas or potatoes.
“I used to come here with my Mom, when I was just a kid”, Olma told us.
Next stop on the Fritanga was just a few feet away. The next stall was Las Quesadillas. Now I’m sure you know what a traditional quesadilla is so let Don Day tell you what a non traditional quesadilla is, the kind you get at Las Quesadillas. Los Quesadillas takes a tortilla, tops it with your favorite ingredients and then, instead of simply placing it on the grill to add a little heat, they immerse it in bubbling sunflower oil.
“I remember when I was a little kid saying to my mother, ‘I don’t want to go to school, I want to go for quesadillas’,” Olma informed us. “Now you know why Mexicans are so fat, they fry everything…and not just when they’re out, when they’re at home too.”
From Angeles, the chef and server, we ordered one deep fried quesadilla with picadillo, a mix of ground pork, potatoes and carrot, another with mushrooms, and a third with rajas which are poblano peppers in Oaxaca cheese.
Sherry and Don Day’s Wife were a little hesitant about attending their first Fritanga. This wasn’t exactly fine dining.
“The way they’re sizzling in that fat”, Sherry said, “I don’t think we have to worry about anything at all being alive in there.”
“I’d like to take Anthony Bourdain here”, said Olma but, if she’s anything like Don Day’s Wife, she’d probably like to take Anthony Bourdain almost anywhere.
The quesadillas had a super crisp batter on the outside and Don Day and Don Day’s Wife agreed that they were a step up on the huaraches.
“Then why are you crying?”, I asked her.
“Try the red sauce,” she said, “It’s made from chiles de arbol.”
The Fritanga was getting better and better. But we needed a break. We were getting rather peckish. We decided to stop for lunch. And where else but the culinary capital of San Juan de Dios market, Dona Raque. Raquel has been cooking classic Mexican cuisine for over 40 years. Giant earthenware cazuelas surround her open kitchen, each one filled with sights and smells that entice you in a different way. You want to sample every dish but you’re not allowed.
“A lot of Americans and Canadians come here,” said Raquel, “and they want to try everything I make. They want it all on one plate. They want all the different tastes to fight with each other. I just won’t allow it.”
We sadly passed on chuleto de puerco, pork chops in a green sauce with potatoes and nopales. We also had to skip the alhondigas, meatballs in a creamy brown sauce. But there was one brown sauce we couldn’t ignore, Dona Raque’s legendary chicken mole with it’s rich chocolate and nut base. I asked Raquel what regional style of mole it was. Her answer: “El stilo Dona Raque”. I asked her what kind of peppers went into it. When she got to the seventh one on the list, I decided to not ask any more questions.
We also had to try a plate of creamy rajas and one of Dona Raque’s Chiles relleno, a poblano pillow overstuffed with cheese and accompanied like everything else with the traditional rice and beans. As Don Day was eating, he kept thinking this reminds me of going to Mom’s house. Raquel even wears eye shadow to match her outfits just like Don Day’s mother did.
“This is the real deal”, said Jack. “Nothing’s prepackaged. Nothing out of a box or can.”
Cocina Economica Dona Raque is the busiest place in San Juan de Dios market, especially on Saturdays and Sundays when Raquel and her assistant Diana make their pozole and menudo. I couldn’t help but notice the cases of Coke that lined one wall but, of course, there wasn’t a single diet drink to be found in the market. I wondered if it was one of the unwritten rules of Fritanga. I remembered that Mexico is almost 50% higher in Coca Cola consumption than Chile, its nearest rival with an astounding 16 oz. of Coke consumed per capita every single day.
Fritanga isn’t just an indoor sport. There are food stands outside San Juan de Dios market that are part of any fully formed Fritanga fest. We passed on the pambazo, giant bread rolls that were stuffed and then deep fried. We passed on the deep fried pork feet as there was a line up and Don Day doesn’t like lining up. We passed on the deep fried chicken gizzards but couldn’t resist the free sample.
We couldn’t pass on Tacos de Maria though. Olma suggested one order of the bean spread tortillas that are…you guessed it, deep fried…for the six of us. I thought she was already starting to go through Fritanga withdrawal but Olma knew. One plate has a pile of five tacos. The price? 20 pesos or less than two bucks for the lot.
Next stop was a little further down Calle Indio Triste. We were to look for the Nestle umbrella for it’s under that umbrella that you’ll find a rare treat that’s traditionally only available between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
I must say I gasped when I heard what we were going for. The word “pachole” came out of Olma McLendon’s mouth. Now if you’ve ever lived in the south of France, you’ll know that’s a word that seldom if ever comes out of a woman’s mouth. Thank God that Olma went on to explain that, in her homeland, pacholes were little cinnamon cookies that are a regional specialty of Central Mexico and are made from those flat topped brown sugar cones that are molded in wood. The cookies are, of course, deep fried.
“I have been every year of my life to taste the pacholes”, said Olma. “Every woman’s recipe is a little different. I wish I could taste them all.”
“Wow,” said Sherry, “we went to places I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own.”
“I always wanted to go,” said Marshall, “but I was definitely very nervous.”
We were nearing the end of our Fritanga. We all thanked Olma profusely for taking five foreigners on an excursion that’s usually the private domain of Mexicans. It was a once in a lifetime experience that, as much as we enjoyed it, would probably be just that, a once in a lifetime experience.
It’s no wonder that Jose Antonio Alvarez Lima, a former state governor said, “We’re a country of undernourished fatsos”. It’s no wonder that Mexico leads all other large countries in the percentage of people with Type 2 diabetes. But one day, once in a lifetime, surely five ex-pats could be forgiven for getting totally fried.
What we needed now was something to wash the fat down. Something that would help us forget our overindulgence. Something that would emusify some of that oil intake. Somewhere where we could just sit around and chew the fat. Somewhere like La Sirena Gorda for Jack Daniels with beer chasers.
And while we’re at the bar, we’d of course need an afternoon snack. A Fritanga finale. How could we pass up La Sirena’s pork hock. Even if it is stewed instead of deep fried. Don Day was beginning to understand why Mexicans like living large. Fritanga almost makes fat both worth the wait and worth its weight in golden oil.