In through the out door

I’m not a big fan of that Led Zeppelin record, to tell the truth. But it does provide an ideal title for this post as I leave Mexico with so many good memories. You folks wouldn’t read this if you thought I had recorded my experiences less than honestly, and all roses have thorns, don’t they.

A good ninety-nine percent of my unpleasant or inconvenient moments in Mexico stemmed from poor preparation of one sort of another. I could have forestalled most of the awkward moments I encountered (like the futile taxi ride to buy camera film), had I banked up a number of useful and frequently used phrases in Spanish. I figured my Italian would help (it did in Spain back in 2005). Better yet, had I not forgotten the film I already own at home…

Another annoyance resulted from my choice to go with economy shipping for a lonely planet book. Had I sprung for expedited I’d have saved myself a lot of pain, aggravation. Not to mention, stupid questions.

Finally there was my phone. I had multiple opportunities to replace the battery at an Apple store over the last few months, but because I put it off, the damn thing would die while I was walking miles from my hotel and far from any subway stop. I carried two or three portable chargers at any time, but they were finite in efficacy because the electric leads on the bottom of the phone have worn down over two years. Another problem I could have solved at home.

Anyway, live and learn. I’ve sprinkled this post with amusing or appealing photos I took hither and yon, with the thought of leavening a somewhat negative tone in the text.


Involuntary butt wiggle

In the first couple months of a wonderful 28+ year conversation about food that I’ve been carrying on with my best friend, we discussed the concept or phenomenon of “involuntary butt wiggles.” This phenomenon occurs when folks whose lives pivot on the creation and consumption of food chance upon something that tastes so exceptionally good that they squirm with un-self conscious and nearly orgasmic delight. It’s not planned, it’s not deliberate, and it can’t be faked, not really.

I give you this expository overview so you grasp how I spent more than an hour of my last night in Mexico. The adverbs “happily,” gleefully,” and “blissfully” do not suffice, but they act as signposts for that indescribable state I occupied. Holy mother of Mole, this was incredible, and the fact I saved it for last constituted a happy accident. I’d previously made a reservation to eat at Nudo Negro several nights ago, but changed it due to post-ambulatory fatigue. I don’t even know if if could have appreciated it adequately that night. At least yesterday, I enjoyed a two hour rest from my peregrinations.

Let’s stop for a minute and examine what I’ve told you. Essentially, I situated pure bliss in the conditional context of having rested before I ate. As an unconditional and ecstatic (if not Dionysian) lover of food, you might expect me to argue that if the food is that good, if it’s intrinsic brilliance shines that brightly, however I’m feeling in that moment should not matter — the food will triumph!

My answer is muddied (or nuanced) by my practical experience. Yes, the food will be that good. Great even. Unequivocally. But this post — and this entire travelogue — chronicles my personal experience of food, of journeys, of art, and history. So, lamentably, I must admit that my contextual State in the moment affects my ability to succumb to involuntary butt wiggles. And that brings me to last night.

Nudo Negro, a Mexican/Asian fusion in Roma Norte, plays excellent blues and old fashioned rock (think Neil Young, Stones, and Santana, but don’t insult them by calling them ‘classic’) in a subdued, but not too-dim-to-read lighting. They have a fine a la carte menu, but I opted for the tasting menu, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did. It was the perfect coda for this fantastic voyage of a birthday celebration.

I do not exaggerate when I State that Nudo Negro numbers among the 3 best restaurants I have ever dined at in my entire life. I will not list or describe everything I ate, but I will touch on a few highlights that floored me.

To begin with, I was asked by my server to step up to the kitchen where, after a very Japanese style rousing exhortation by the line staff, a thirty something woman took a small wooden bowl and a pestle in hand. In the bowl, she mixed a pinch of queso fresco; a spoonful of beef bone marrow; ground achecuade (sp?) Chili pepper, and one or two flavors I couldn’t identify. She gently pounded these into a paste and handed the wooden bowl to me. Neither very spicy nor strong, it nevertheless made my head swim because it was so fucking perfect. Not a little okay.

It was just so fucking perfect.

As she stood there watching me eat her gustatory concerto, I had the funny feeling I had been asked to take my clothes off on stage at the Met while an audience came ready to see La Traviata or Aida. It should say something about this amuse-bouche that I didn’t mind. I could see she was as happy to watch me enjoy her work as I would have been, had the roles been reversed.

Other highlights included oysters on the half shell with sambal sauce, beef marrow, and wasabi. That made my vision grow fuzzy, it was also perfect. But no more so than the lime soup with kaffir lime leaves, ginger, dashi, and Succulent shrimp dumplings.

On a spectacular note, a bone was brought on a grill, sage burning beneath it. In a basket was a single corn tortilla. A separate bowl had a smoky Chili salsa. The server used tongs to hold the bone above the tortilla and use a chopstick to prise loose the reduced beef jus seasoned with thyme, lemon, and Morin vinaigrette before spooning the salsa over it.

I have never had a taco this good. I mean, never. In. My. Life.

The duck dumplings with julienned spring vegetables went head to head with the jerk pork spare-rib for stronger tasting miracles, but the dessert, a green tea flan with lemon balm sorbet was perfectly quiet and light of texture after that parade of sheer gustatory brilliance. I’ve never had a meal like that in my fifty one years on this planet.

You want involuntary butt wiggles?

I had whole body tremors of unrehearsed joy.

The constant flow of limonadas refreshed without spoiling or overloading the palette.

If you’re one of those folks who can afford to get on a plane, fly to another country, just to enjoy one meal, please make it the tasting menu at Nudo Negro. You’ll thank yourself.

A prelude to brilliance

Prior to entering casa azul, I took the Turibus south tour option which stops at the Kahlo museum; Rivera’s Museum; and the UNAM rectory where Rivera, David Sequeiros, and Jose Orozco painted huge scale murals.

I didn’t get to see the latter two sites, but I did enjoy lunch in a large market. The Coyoacán market is enclosed and has several eating establishments under its roof. I enjoyed a dish of enchiladas with mole that cost little, but delighted me infinitely. It had the right blend of garlic, sesame, and chocolate.

After that was consumed, I stood in line for 3/4 of an hour but it was lovely out and I couldn’t wait to get into Casa Azul, itself. The enchiladas with mole soothed the nerves shredded by the loud pop music that Turibus blares through its PA system. At every seat!

A day of dreams

I had designated my last day in Mexico to realize a number of smaller dreams ! And to some extent, I was completely successful. In others, I failed abjectly. In one regard, I exceeded my upper limit for dreams, altogether. For that, I’ll need another post.

This will not be a very photographically rich text. My first and foremost goal for today was to see Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s house. To take photos there, one must pay an extra charge, above and beyond the ticket price.  I had no problem with that in amount or principle, but I decided I wanted to approach this museum entirely emotively, since that’s how both her work and her life affect me.

Consequently, I have no photographs of, inside, or outside her house. I don’t regret that decision one bit. I remember the special exhibition vividly — a collection of her clothes, assembled to make the points that Kahlo shaped her identity as well as, if not better than, Dietrich and Bowie. That she incorporated ethnic methods and aesthetics, as well as corrective garments like halters, corsets, and assorted corrective garments only points up her wardrobe genius.

The exhibit also pointed out how her membership in a bohemian and transgressive circle of friends allowed her to entwine items of medical necessity with sex appeal and commanding fetish value; wedded to her traditional Oaxaca garb, the daring use of medical corsets as fetish accoutrements set her apart from most victims of horrible disfiguring accidents like the bus collision with a trolley which plagued her for her life.

The rest of the house has a warmth, the heart and soul of her marriage to Diego Rivera. What we get from the letter fragments, the photos, and other artifacts is how much she and Rivera passionately loved both the house and each other. My only question — and this would probably make for a good temporary, is what foods got made In the light and airy kitchen.  I’m certainly curious about what she ate.  In one except of a letter shown in garden, Diego exhorts Frida to eat the right food so she can recover and paint more. What was the right food? What was traditional? Who cooked?

I would have liked more insight into Diego Rivera’s Frida Kahlo museum ticket entitled me to admission at the Rivera residence. However, the mode of transport I chose, the Turibus, ran from site to site so irregularly and with such lags between stops on its route that I eventually grew frustrated and walked to the Zapata STM stop and returned to my hotel. This also means i missed seeing his murals at the UNAM rectory, which was my third destination for today. I was so frustrated with the outcome of my plans, only the dinner I had could have redeemed my day.

Museo de Arte Moderno

After gleefully splashing about in the waters of Millennia gone by for three consecutive days, I dedicated today to twentieth century art. Naturally, that took me to the Museo de Arte Moderno, but I’m quite sure there are dozens more museums in this gorgeous culturally abundant city where I could have gotten my modernism itch scratched.

I’m glad I chose this museum. It was perfect for so many reasons, many of which vindicate my worldview about traveling and curiosity. At first blush, nihilism and romanticism, my most natural impulses seem contradictory, almost diametrically so. But in travel, as in art, they find a complementary and comfortable home in my heart and soul. To elaborate:

In general, I aver there is no meaning to life, no higher purpose, no rhyme or reason. Ashes to ashes, and all that happy horse-crap. We are more or less happy accidents, reaping the benefit of dust from some asteroid or comet. I also believe — as a romantic — that there is much beauty in the world and we find our otherwise absence of meaning by finding and harvesting that beauty — however accidental or meaningless — through art, politics, math, medicine, physics. Or rescuing cats.

When you travel, you need to empty your mind; to vacate expectations; to let the same roaming and random chances that deposited amino acids or other stardust on this earth take you somewhere new, show you how to adapt. You didn’t ask to be born, but why not embrace color? Habaneros? Brubeck playing “Perdito”? Or the discovery of an amazing artist you’ve never heard of before?

Such an artist is Leonora Carrington, a feisty british feminist who fled Europe to escape fascism and ended up working in Mexico City for decades, as well as taking part in political and ecological movements. Carrington knew many of the important artists of early to mid twentieth century; her affair with Max Ernst clearly inspired both technique and ideation, but make no mistake — her talent, her work ethic, and her moral compass were hers alone.

Carrington painted. She drew. She made bronze sculptures. She collaborated with a weaver to emblazon textiles in ways you probably didn’t think could be done. She wrote books, plays, short stories. In a short hour and a half, I was left wondering why the hell nobody ever told me about her.

Then I remembered that annoying habit I have of thinking I discovered someone whom a friend or relative recommended years ago, but I didn’t listen. To be honest, I don’t know if I have ever come into contact with her work, but I can tell you today is the first time I really saw her. And her work reminded me of that chorus to one of my favorite flipper songs:

“Life, life, life is the only thing worth living for”

What is living, but discovery. Not having any idea before of what you were about to discover, you revel in it. You live it.

Zoologico CDMX

Free like the zoo in DC, Zoologico CDMX really looks like it’s trying. There are exhibits under renovation; staff cleaning debris and leaves from highly trafficked areas, and curatorial texts which focus on conservation and threats to the birds and animals in their care.

They still have a ways to go. I only saw one poor, forlorn penguin in an enclosure; the two pandas look listless and can not play together; and the tanks for aquatic mammals like sea lions looked murky and unhealthy.

Where the museum appears to shine is their aviaries. The birds looks healthy and well cared for. They exhibit none of the agitation I saw among birds in Philadelphia and Buenos Aires. I think this could be a better zoo than both those, and I hope it lacks the fatality rate the dc zoo has a few years ago.

Stand-outs included what looks like an albino male peacock; some plump, talkative parrots and cockatiels; and a few well-cared for cats. My one lament was that I failed to capture a lynx twisting and turning in a hammock — too many people were crowding him/her and eventually the cat jumped out and took refuge far from where the humans were rapping on the window and shooting photos with flashes.

Dinner fit for a hedonist

On my birthday, I went to Cabrera 7 in Roma Norte, Mexico City. A fusion of Mexican and Cuban cuisine, Cabrera 7 can do no wrong. The atmosphere was quiet with muted Cuban jazz, low lighting, and tables far enough apart that I couldn’t eavesdrop on the English speakers a few feet away (not that I would have wanted to do so).

I began my repast gluttony with a ceviche yucateco, featuring grouper and squid with a mango habanero ash. It was divine, as was my limonada with ginger and lemongrass.

I liked the beverage so much I immediately had a second, which came rapidly, in tandem with my entree, yecapixtla hand dried beef, served with Panela cheese and charred cambray onions. The corn tortillas, refried black beans, and guacamole were exemplars of their kinds, but I didn’t want to fill up on them because the beef was so wonderful.

Smoky and a little gamey, it melted in my mouth, which — combined with the Panela cheese — made for a complement of flavors and textures that remind you why you look forward to, travel for, pay more for exceptional food. It’s not just rocket fuel, but it will take you higher than any non-union labor assembled Space X rocket ever could.

After all that, I couldn’t even manage dessert!