As readers of my columns know, one of my favorite places to shop is the Mercado San Juan, south of the Alameda. I haunt its inspiring aisles on a weekly basis. After innumerable trips from the nearest metro stop, Salto de Agua, I’ve sampled a number of eateries that are clustered together near the market. A stroll along Calle López, which runs north from Arcos de Belén is like leafing through one of Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks. Within four short blocks you can fill up on a variety of Mexican antojitos – snacks – but don’t let that word fool you – there’s a lot of hearty fare to be found.
Start right at the north west corner of Arcos de Belén; amidst the cacophony of DVD vendors is a quiet little juice stand where for a mere 12 pesos a half liter of fresh-squeezed orange juice is waiting for you. Across Lopéz is the entrance to the Mercado San Juan de los Arcos de Belén. This wonderful and very traditional market is not to be confused the San Juan market mentioned above, which is a few blocks away. It’s a great place for a quick comida. The choices are varied enough that your tour could end here. Birria y flautas de barbacoa, the first stand as you enter on the left specializes in lamb filled flautas, as well as tacos of birria, which also uses lamb that has been marinated and cooked in a rich chili sauce.
Walk further down this same aisle; on the left you will arrive at the aptly named La Olla de Abundancia, recognizable by its red counters. They serve just about every Mexican classic and their 35 peso comida corrida (full lunch) is indeed abundant. I like the enchiladas verdes, but you never know what will be on their extensive menu.
Across the same aisle on the right is a small but equally abundant (but nameless) Tostadas stand. There are at least half a dozen toppings to choose from, which are heaped onto a crispy fried tortilla. Wash them down with an agua fresca (fresh fruit drink) from the stand next door – they have an impressive selection.
Carnitas El Kioskito, at the corner of calle Delicias (as you exit and turn right from the market) is a branch of a beloved institution known for hardy Michoacán-style carnitas. I always order maciza – solid meat – it’s less fatty. This place is always busy with local workers—one of the sure signs of a good taco stand.
Cochinita Pibil XEW (no. 107) is another hole-in-the-wall offering the spicy chilied pork specialty of the Yucatan. It’s named after the nearby radio station XEW, where just about every famous Mexican singer of the 20th century was once heard.
La Gran Cocina Mi Fonda, (no.101) is my favorite place of all on Calle López. This simple time-warp fonda is run by a Spanish exile. A host of regular customers (who are often asked to share a table) pack the place daily to enjoy home-cooked food, Spanish-style with a Mexican touch. Although paella is the specialty of the house, I prefer the roast chicken en su jugo and the Madrid-style potaje de lentejas, a lentil soup flavored with fragrant chorizo.
For something a little lighter, El Paisa, ( number 94, across the street), serves chicken soup like your grandmother might have made – I’ll bet she didn’t make hand-made tortillas to go with it, though. Tacos de Cabeza “Los Gueros” is at no. 93 and is usually crowded. For the more adventurous, try a couple of tacos of oven roasted sheep head here. They’re better than they sound.
Taquería Gonzalez is at the corner of Vizcainas on the right. “Los mejores tacos del centro histórico” shrieks the sign, and apparently they’re indeed the best as there is always a huge crowd gathered at this corner. Try the longaniza, a sausage that’s spicy and not so fatty. You can augment your tacos with nopales, beans or various colorful salsas.
Ricos Tacos Toluca (at the corner of Puente de Paredo) is a rare taquería serving specialties associated with Toluca and Mexico state. The chorizo verde is very, very green –naturally so, they claim. It is loaded with pine nuts and tastes a little like Italian sausage. The roast tomato and chili sauce is another winner. Also worth sampling is the cecina, a pounded salted meat.
If all the carnivorous offerings have got you down, don’t despair. Around the corner on Ayuntamiento is El Caguamo, the best seafood stand in the city, previously lauded in more than one of my columns. Four types of ceviche, fried fish filets, or a hardy seafood soup should satisfy anyone’s maritime cravings. The fish is fresh as there’s always a crowd and so turnover is fast.
Finally, stop for a relaxing expresso at either Café Cordobés or Café Villarias, both traditional cafés that also sell coffee beans.
Calle López is one of the older streets in the centro – don’t forget to look up at the extraordinary architecture around you. And you’ve only trod the first four blocks…
This article was previously published in The News Mexico City – updated 2017
Michael Parker Stainback February 16, 2009
Calle López is one of the best streets in all of Mexico City, for food, architecture and just plain fabulousness! Thank you, as always, Nick, for your perspective on our beloved home town.
Michael Warshauer February 16, 2009
I enjoyed this excellent post so much that we are going to stay close by, at the Hotel Pal, on our next trip to el DF. Gracias!
Michael Dickson February 16, 2009
Señor Gilman, my wife and I have a getaway apartment in DF. We live in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. I just found this website. It´s great, and will aim us to good grub in the future. Gracias.
Tere Palm February 16, 2009
Can´t wait to go downtown! Saludos and hope we can meet sometime soon!
firstname.lastname@example.org February 21, 2009
You’re readers might like to know that once they leave Mexico, they can find the products to make their favorite dishes at Mexicoetal.com. It’s been a life saver to me. When I went on assignment to Belgium, I had them ship me a care package to my hotel ahead of time.
Raymond G Mendoza November 5, 2009
Oh man, I was just there today looking for an Artimetal juicer, which I found. But I was too focussed on my errand to really appreciate the place. Now I will go back and soak it up more.
I also noticed a coffee roaster on Calle Lopez, sorry I didn’t note the cross street. Coffee smoke and great smells were pouring out and there was a big crowd, but I didn’t have the time for the line today. Thnx.
Don Cuevas March 4, 2010
Nick, we followed in your footsteps (somewhat) last weekend, and had a great time in the Mercado San Juan area. But, it seems I should have walked more on Calle López. I also would need two stomachs or another lifetime to try all these delicacies. Mil gracias.
Anonymous February 22, 2011
Omg! I’m leaving to Mexico city match 17, now I can’t wait to get there! I’ll be there for two months visiting my Abuelita. You can be sure I’m going to try every single one of these places! Thank you!
unseenmoonJuly 27, 2011 at 7:01 AM
Although this post is over two years old, I just last week made it to La Gran Cocina Mi Fonda. For years I have been searching for decent paella in this country to no avail. This sullen Spaniard (who stands and glowers, by the way) disappointed me. It would be a kindness to call his paella mediocre. So I won’t.
Nicholas Gilman replies:
Dear Moon – No, the ornery Spaniard’s paella is not so good. You have to spend real money to get the real thing in Mexico, or else they use the wrong rice and through in hot dogs. Try D.O. – it’s the only place I’ve had as good as Spain.
Don Cuevas April 25, 2012
We finally spent some time last Saturday on Calle López. We came in from the south and strolled through Mercado San Juan Arcos de Belén. I can see, from rereading your post, that we undoubtedly overlooked some delicacies.
We had a pleasant breakfast of caldo de gallina at the very friendly El Paisa. We had no room left for ricos tacos de Toluca until the next day.
About paella: I had discovered via Googling that El Cabrito Astur (formerly Bar Sobia), Palma # 40, Centro, served paella “Cantábrica”. We went there Friday and while it was o.k., it wasn’t great. Their cabrito asado was better, although bony. I guess that’s the nature of the creature.
Now we shall have to try the paella at D.O. Lesley Tellez also suggested that to us.
This article was first published in The Mexico City News in 2009