In 2007, my then-husband and I went down to Mexico City for our friend Janice’s show in an art gallery there. We stayed at our usual place, the Hotel Isabel in the historical center, a colonial hotel built around a balustraded staircase and three-story courtyard with a huge skylight. The Isabel has enormous, cheap rooms furnished in basic-sixties drab with floor-to-ceiling casement windows that open onto the loud, heavily trafficked, cobblestoned streets.
There’s a bar downstairs off the entryway, a long dim room with wobbly tables and a TV. We drank our tequila there without sangrita because, instead of mixing tomato juice with spices and fruit juices, they poured a premade mix out of an industrial-sized jug that looked, and tasted, like neon cough syrup. Off the Isabel’s ornate lobby, with its leather brass-studded couches, oil paintings, stained glass, and giant fish tank, was a small restaurant where we went every morning for chilaquiles – that insanely delicious dish of fried tortilla strips simmered in salsa verde with scrambled eggs, pulled chicken, queso blanco, and refried beans.
The gallery showing Janice’s work, La Refaccionaria, was on the ground floor of a 17th century building in a narrow mews. Janice was showing a series of deliberately ugly-beautiful life-sized latex heads that bristled with knobs, wens, moles with sprouting hair, squinty heavy-lidded eyes, and thick lips, all the things plastic surgeons are paid a lot of money to change or eradicate. She had created an array of these grotesque, disembodied, colorful, funny, strangely gorgeous heads on pedestals. A crowd of people, most of them old friends, since the art world of Mexico City is a tightly-knit community, stood around drinking tequila out of small plastic cups and smoking and yakking.
Afterwards, a group of about fifteen of us took taxis to Covadonga, an old traditional dominos hall in Roma where men in their shirtsleeves sit tersely around small tables and keep score for decades on end, or so it seems. The art world of Mexico City seems to like to descend there after openings, for reasons possibly having to do with the historical clack of dominoes. We ordered plates of Spanish food, their specialty — fabada asturiana, a stew of fava beans and pork; potato, onion, and egg tortilla; and pulpos a la gallega, octopus with paprika, garlic and coarse salt.
The day after the opening, we met Janice in the Zocalo, and the three of us went into the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, the biggest cathedral in the Americas. We wandered around the aisles and chapels and naves, gawping at the shadowy vastness of the place, struck through with shafts of light from faraway high-up windows. Near the front, we peered through velvet ropes at the enormous plumb bob hanging straight down from the ceiling, tracing elliptical lines in a layer of sand to show the movement of the stone floor, settling through the years, sinking and shifting with each earthquake and caving-in of the land it’s built on, a former Aztec sacred site.
We left the cathedral and bought plastic sacks of tepache, fermented pineapple juice with a chunk of ice, with straws sticking out of them, from a street vendor. Although we’d been to Mexico City several times before, it was fun being there with Janice. She’s Eastern European Jewish, born and raised in New York City, but she looks very much like a Mexican of Spanish descent – she is tiny, with hazel almond-shaped eyes and long thick wavy black hair and pale, creamy skin. She lived in Mexico City for 7 years, in the 1980s and early 90s, and she speaks Mexican Spanish fluently. Walking with her through the streets of D.F., we felt as if we were in the hands of a native guide.
She led us from the Zocalo over to the famous Bar l’Opera, with its bullet hole in the ceiling, legendarily made by Pancho Villa, galloping through on a horse. While we sat at a small wooden table in the bar area with a couple of rounds of tequila, Janice ordered caracoles en chipotle. The snails were small and garlicky and surprisingly tender. We sucked them out of their curly little shells and watched the afternoon crowd come and go and talk and smoke and drink and eat under the high, gilded, baroque ceiling, all of us reflected in the old beveled mirrors.
Back in New York, about a year later, after Jon and I had split up, Janice and I found ourselves single and lonely at the same time. We cooked for each other or went out for dinner at least once a week. She can’t eat gluten, like me, and, to make things even more complicated, she also can’t eat dairy, so our meals were of necessity limited and proscribed. When we went out together, we felt like special-needs, high-maintenance nudniks, interrogating the waiters, deliberating over menus, sometimes even sending things back, but when we cooked for each other, our meals were relaxed and luxurious-feeling.
I loved going over to her top-floor walk-up apartment in the East Village and sitting at her wooden table, drinking wine and talking, while she bustled around. She put on Mexican music and set out bowls of freshly roasted pepitas with sea salt, rice crackers with rich goat cheese, pulpo in garlic sauce, and red pepper-spiced green olives. While she cooked, we drank the wine I’d brought, and then we opened another bottle to drink with dinner.
Dinner could have been pescado en achiote, fish baked in banana leaves, or fish and scallop ceviche, or pollo pipian, chicken in pumpkin sauce with green chili. Whatever it was, it was always so perfectly cooked and savory and fresh and interesting that we were temporarily, happily unaware of our irritating dietary restrictions. We dined together like normal people, like people who could eat whatever the hell we wanted.
Fish in Banana Leaves
For 2 people, buy one pound (2 good-sized filets) of very fresh, firm ocean fish, such as red snapper or grouper.
Peel a head of garlic. Blend the cloves in the blender with enough olive oil, about ¼ cup, to make a thick paste.
Rub this olive oil/garlic mixture into the fish on both sides and then cover the fish with dried leaves of the Mexican herb hoja santa (available at Mexican specialty stores).
Wrap each filet in a banana leaf and tie into a packet with cooking twine. Bake the packets on a cookie sheet in a preheated 350 degree oven until done, about 20 minutes.
Serve with basmati rice with roasted corn, and kale cooked in olive oil with garlic.
For dessert, serve chocolate or coconut goat’s milk ice cream and glasses of a light dessert wine like vin santo.