Montezuma’s sweet revenge

I am standing in the living room of the house I have rented in the heart of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and my son has just informed me that he has to go “potty.” As I help him take down his pants, I flash back to the last four days. Me hunched over the toilet. Me waking up in a pool of sweat every hour on the hour. Me with stomach cramps so severe that I am confined to bed for two full days while my son forages hot dogs and juice boxes out of the lowest shelf in the refrigerator. It had taken me two-and-a-half weeks of eating at every street cart and food booth I could get my pesos near before I succumbed to that most horrible of Mexican travel clichés, la turista.

As I am undoing the button on his size 4 toddler cargo shorts, I thank God that somehow he escaped it. That the Virgin de Guadalupe herself must have shined down on me in pity and spared the boy. Being neither religious nor Catholic, I contemplate how many Hail Marys it will take to get us right with God, and it is in this moment that I notice the sea of black ooze making its way down my son’s backside. I watch, paralyzed, as it glimmers in the afternoon sun like a melting Almond Joy bar, and I say to no one in particular, “Oh shit.”

I guess you could say it all started with a bowl of goat soup.

Looking back now, I really don’t know what I was thinking. A few months previous, I’d taken a writing workshop with a woman who owns a rent house in San Miguel, and having always wanted to visit, I thought, what the hell. I’ll travel down with my husband for the first week, then he’ll head back home to San Antonio, and my son and I will stay for the remainder of the month and become locals, at least for a short time. We’d blend in with the gringo contingency. I’d sharpen my Mexican cooking skills. My son would get his first dose of international living. It would be perfect.

All the American guidebooks listed “clean” restaurants with fare like Italian and Asian fusion, so we knew from the start that we’d be largely on our own when it came to food. After all, this was Mexico, right? The motherland of our family’s favorite cuisine, and hell if I was gonna waste even one moment twisting strands of angel hair on a fork or fumbling with chopsticks. Those sorts of eateries were for the lightweights. The losers. The people with more money than sense.

When my husband and I first started dating, we spent eight months munching our way around the world — feeding ourselves almost entirely off street carts from Hanoi to Cairo, and the only place we got sick was in New Delhi. We’d convinced ourselves then that it wasn’t the food that did it, but rather the overabundance of fecal matter floating in the air. We aren’t timid when it comes to international dining, and felt pretty confident that between making our own meals culled from treats found at the mercado and eating with the working man, we’d be able to weather any bacteria that came our way. After all, as long as it’s cooked, we are in the clear, no?

So after a 15-hour drive from San Antonio, with an overnight in Piedra Negras, we pulled into San Miguel at almost midnight that first Saturday with empty stomachs and full hearts — welcomed by a rain of fireworks and sea of chicas bonitas flooding from the city’s bars and restaurants.

That first week with my husband was magical. San Miguel is a spectacular, colonial town — founded in 1542 and located just north of Mexico City in the mountainous Bajío region. It is
absolutely brimming with life and culture, gorgeous architecture, and, most importantly, fabulous food. You almost can’t picture a more idyllic (and comparatively inexpensive) place, which is why American tourists and retirees have been flocking here for decades. Every night, it seems, the town residents are celebrating something, with bands in the Jardin or parades down lonely side streets. People hugging and dancing and laughing. We might not have been the first gringo family to arrive and attempt to call this fantastical place our own, but you can’t blame us for trying. Many in the expat community put up stinks now and then about how San Miguel is changing for the worse … too many people and (egad!) a Starbucks, but the locals are quick to shoot them down. Starbucks is an American institution after all. Why shouldn’t they have the same convenience and mocha skinny lattes that we in the States enjoy? Touché.

We weren’t attempting to blaze a trail of discovery in San Miguel. All its hidden treasures have already been discovered by the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who came before us. (Come on … Neal Cassady met his untimely demise here in 1968. If that doesn’t scream college-kid-Mecca, I don’t know what does.) We were just looking to get to know the country a little better. One that holds the ancestry of so many of our friends and the origins of my most coveted flavor, hot. Our rent house was only a few blocks from the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, one of the city’s largest covered markets, so a wealth of ripe avocados (at 20 cents a pound!) and fresh fruits and vegetables were at our fingertips. Plus, it seems on every block there are little storefronts — tortillerias and panaderias— selling some impossibly delicious necessity. Not to mention the Mega grocery store offering everything you can get in an American supermarket and more.

It was as if my husband and I had died and gone to a place where the rivers run with hot sauce, tequila drips from the sky, and everything is squeezed with a hint of lime. Homemade salsa (in varying shades of red and green) is served with everything. Little to-go bags of smoky, deep-red heaven came with the succulent rotisserie chicken we bought almost every day out of a blackened little room off the Jardin. Tortilla chips are served with a spicy, yet smooth, salsa verde that makes you wonder how Pace can even dare to call itself picante. Restaurants offer up not one, not two, but often three or four different varieties of the only condiment that matters in this great world of ours. And the foods these luscious concoctions come with, well …

A day trip to the birthplace of the Mexican revolution, Guanajuato, found the three of us sitting at a lunch counter in the Mercado Hilgado sharing sopa de cameron and a ceviche tostada — sipping on Tecate served with two shrimps, a wedge of lime, and sea salt balanced carefully on the can’s rim. We enjoyed perfect pozole overlooking the Parroquia (the massive wedding-cake cathedral in the heart of San Miguel); and an elegant chicken consommé packed with hominy and served with garnishes like dusty paprika and perfectly fried chicharrón. The giant Tuesday Market offered hundreds of vendors selling staples like live poultry, fresh fish, and mountains of peppers and spices. The newly ground pork and beef from the Mercado became ingredients for our own picadillo and tostada feast. The link chorizo we brought home, with its tart, not-too-greasy taste and bright-red color, became queso flameado for dinner guests.

Perhaps no one at the market cared when I didn’t quite understand the meaning of a kilo and ended up with four-and-a-half pounds of Queso Oaxaca in my shopping bag. Even so, it didn’t matter.

A week-and-a-half after my husband left, I strolled into the food booth section at the mercado — swaggering and arrogant from my culinary exploits — and saddled up to the bar. I ordered myself a steaming bowl of birria (mutton soup). Served with cilantro, chopped onion, and lime, and accompanied by warm corn tortillas, it was truly the best of the best. If my memory serves me well, I think I actually drank the final spoonfuls straight, bowl upturned, juices dripping down my chin like Coyote finishing up an imaginary Road Runner stew.

Note to reader: poetic wax ends … ummm … now.

Ah yes, dysentery, that insidious infection of the digestive system that has brought many a vacationer to his/her knees. It can strike at anytime when you are away from home and at your most vulnerable. While my head throbbed and my stomach churned, I sat Googling words like amoebae … nausea … Mexico. I began to hear the echoing voices of the fellow Americans I’d met during my stay … “You ate where!?! Why the hell would you do that?” Eventually my ability to sit upright melted away. There would be no more nothing for at least 24 hours. There was only silence, with moments of wrenching wedged in between. When the maid arrived several hours later, I mimed the international sign for vomit and collapsed. My vacation was over. Montezuma, at last, had his revenge.

It is night. I am sitting at a circular table in the garden of what might possibly be the place in San Miguel that serves the best Mexican food, hands down. Christmas lights twinkle in the trees above, and my son is making a menace of himself to the waiters — dodging between tables and quacking loudly like a duck. The silver-haired retirees from the States who surround me look on. Some with smiles, others disapproving grimaces. I care not. The night is too beautiful to waste worrying. I have only two nights left in town, and since my “ordeal” I have learned that while forgoing tourist-friendly fare might be adventurous and titillating, it should not be attempted when you have a kid in tow and are visiting a country where you know no one and don’t speak the language.

The restaurant Tacos Don Felix might be the ultimate uncompromising compromise. This is my third visit here, each time ordering the combination plate with seven tacos: beef, huitlacoche, pork, shrimp, Spanish-style sausage, chicken, and beef rib with onions. Each time savoring the tortilla soup as if it is my last meal on earth. The proprietor, Felix, started his business as street food — catering to tourists in a curbside tent replete with chandeliers and white-gloved waiters. Though he has since expanded into this gorgeous restaurant space with vaulted ceilings and an open kitchen, he’s stayed true to real Mexican fare. Unlike many of the establishments touted in my guidebook as “safe,” this is a place where gringos can get real Mexican hot, without being condescended to with the likes of medium-hot or (for shame) mild.

After my son’s walk with the dysentery devil, I decided to take the road well-traveled, even getting myself an honorary frequent-eaters card at the McDonald’s of Mexico, Pollo Feliz (aka, The Happy Chicken). Though I’m pretty sure his Delhi-belly came from drinking his own bathwater rather than tainted papas fritas, Pollo Feliz — with its four-story indoor play-place, well-roasted chickens, and mascot rooster (giving the giant thumbs up; freaky huh?) — somehow made me feel at ease. Thankfully, places like Tacos Don Felix have proven to me that you can have the best of both worlds without sullying your rep or disappointing your taste buds.

Now, my son is dancing in front of a large statue of the Virgin — her hands folded in prayer. She is surrounded by roses. I am thankful. Both of our illnesses were short-lived and this moment here with him — laughing and singing like a true son of Mexico — will stay with me for a lifetime. I will be back to this amazing city. Only next time I will be armed with a better Spanish-English dictionary, a rosary, and a bottomless supply of Imodium.

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