When I want to fall in love I go to Mercado La Viga. Because there are fish guts on the floor and the sweet scent of questionable oil penetrates, infiltrates, becomes you, I fall in love. It’s not the quantity of fish that gets my heart rat tat tatting, no, I am a market veteran and I’ve seen plenty more. I’ve lived Mercado de la Venta in Madrid, Spain, where three floors-worth of fish and seafood beckons you. This can’t stand a flame next to that kind of seafood seriousness. Mercado La Viga in Mexico City is only eight or ten aisles worth at most…maybe. What gets you skipping (over the fish guts) are the ‘restaurants’ lining the outskirts of the vender’s stalls.
The ladies and gentlemen of these establishments stand vigilant, peering in and out of the aisles and beckon you:
“Empanadas empanadas empanadas de cazon, de pulpo, de pescado, los camarones camarones, sopa de marisco fresco fresco fresco vengan señores vengan!”
I hear their call and I am in a trance. I don’t even want to buy fish. I want to eat.
Husband is a willing partner-in-crime and together we pick the perfect dirty neon orange plastic chairs to sit in and be served. Mind you, there is dirt. Flies. Questionable open spicy containers on the table. I could get violently ill. There’s no joking around when it comes to seafood. But I see the lady frying my empanadas right in front of me. I see the family of four slurping their piping hot soups (‘oh my what soup is that I must have it’, I demand to Husband). And everyone looks so happy. And safe. And content. And even though I am the only blue-eyed fair-skinned guerita around, I am one of them, I know I am one of them and nothing will happen but good things, nothing but good. So the waiter senses my longing to fit in and willingly complies.
‘Sopa de mariscos,’ he proclaims, when I ask about the family dish.
‘Empanada de pulpo,’ octopus empanada, he promises me when I point at the lady frying with a smile.
‘Tostada de ceviche de pescado,’ he repeats, when I order on impulse a favorite.
Husband smiles and meekly nods his head. He is enamored by this seafood-madwoman. He digs me like this.
And together we quietly wait.
The empanada arrives first. The one stuffed with octopus. It’s like no other empanada I’ve had before. The Mexicans have managed to Mexicanize it and raise my expectations of this stuffed fried patty to a whole new level. Now I am doomed. Every other empanada I have will never live up to this one. I know it. They have just ruined me.
It is sliced. Sliced! An empanada (my first traditional thought of course being, how dare they slice an empanada)!
But no. These guys are pros. They know what they are doing. They have sliced it, allow the rich broth of octopus and tomatoes to steam and they have placed thick slices of creamy avocado, spicy pickled onion and aromatic cilantro inside. Then a hefty dollop of mayonnaise seals the deal. They have done this brilliantly and these flavors are all having a party before they’ve reached my mouth. I can splash some spicy sauce on if I care to, there are several bottles to choose from. Or a squeeze of lime- a prerequisite plastic bowl filled with eager juicy limes sits on my table. Or add more chopped raw onion. The choices are endless. The power is mine. See why this is love?
And we are quiet, Husband and I. Because these flavors require us to be so. We are dazzled with each bite. Empanada quickly goes. Tostada de ceviche wolfed down too. And then the soup arrives- exploding with the seafood we quickly visited in the stands moments before. It is sublime. We are stuffed beyond recognition and then I see a tiny, dented cardboard sign swinging in the wind… what is that it reads?
Husband looks worried and excited. There she goes again, he thinks to himself. I know that spark in her eye, he assures himself. He is falling in love with me all over again.
“Cocazo de camaron?” I question out loud, and instantly, it is mine. The waiter says it will soon be mine- shrimp doused in shredded coconut and deep fried. Just minutes away. Minutes is all we have to reboot our brains to eat more. And we wait. We are stuffed but eagerly, excitedly, we wait.
And when the cocazo de camaron arrives, it too changes us forever. It will become the highlight of the day. The essence of this seafood extraordinaire moment. These are no ordinary shrimps. These babies are on steroids- about 5 inches long and coated in freshly shredded coconut (this is no packaged coconut stuff, this is the real deal.) They are delicious on so many different levels I feel dizzy just savoring them. Fresh ocean, sweet water, crunch coconut. I am in love.
The family of four looks at us and smiles. We’ve ordered triple what they have but our grins are all the same. We share this moment on plastic chairs, dirty floor and delicious seafood. I pull off the last head of my shrimp and ram its sweet body in my mouth.
“Buen provecho,” the matriarch of the group blesses me with good appetite, making me feel like one of her own as I chomp away. “Buen provecho.”
Fresh Coconut Fried Shrimp
1 cup flour (more if needed)
1 1/2 cups finely grated fresh coconut
1 1/2 lb. jumbo shrimp, peeled & deveined
ground black pepper
4-5 tablespoons clarified butter or olive oil
Place flour in shallow bowl, place eggs in another, and place coconut in third bowl. Season shrimp with salt and pepper to taste. Heat butter in frying pan over medium flame. Dip each shrimp first in flour, shaking off excess, then in egg, then in coconut. Pan fry shrimp until firm and golden brown about 1 minute per side. Drain on paper towels.