Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Mexico City’s Mercado Medellín, Colonia Roma’s best old-school market

Amidst the precious, luxurifying streets of high-grade tourism in the middle of Colonia Roma resides a market to harken at least a few decades back in the history of Mexico City, even if it’s not entirely Mexican.

Officially named Mercado Melchor Ocampo, this delightfully organized, utilitarian but gourmand-applicable market is colloquially referred to as Mercado Medellín because it runs along Medellín street. Yet the name is also appropriate as it features a number of South American and Caribbean imports, most noticeably Colombian.

On an early morning, before the Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a chance to set up their kiosk at the “food court” entrance on Coahuila, you enter to the sound of chopping carrots, onions and tomatoes. A kid consolidates bottles of hand sanitizer, preparing for the contaminated hordes.

At Cocinas Juanita e Hijas – as the name suggests – the women are in charge, razzing a young coworker about his T-shirt featuring a bird in a gas mask.

“What’s with the bird on your shirt?” one of them asks. He begins to answer, but they just laugh. They’d made their point: the shirt is dumb.

Under Juanita’s clear plastic tablecloths pamphlets from the Secretary of Social Welfare are on display with information to ensure that, as the pension system moves into the digital era, seniors aren’t duped out of their rightful payments.

A grandfather, father and son walk by, each sporting a variation of Spider-Man-themed gear. It’s a warm and cordial family scene.

Into the market proper and the Colombian, Venezuelan, Brazilian and Cuban flags come into view, hung proudly from rafters or across shelves. Produce vendors shine and stack everything neatly – best product to the front.

It’s nice to enjoy the quiet market mornings, when all but a few are still setting up. At Las Delicias juicery they offer straight-up squeezed and pressed juices, as well as a number of proprietary blends designed to cure the hangover or the prostate – and morning is certainly the best time to take care of either.

At Amor Perfecto, they serve some of the neighborhood’s best espressos and lattes, all made with Colombian beans, and it’s one of the few cafés that’s (almost consistently) open by 8:00am.

As the morning advances, the butchers begin to chop and sewing machines whir. The no-nonsense, practical man running the housewares and furniture section in the back might just be the only market vendor in the whole of Mexico City that can consistently make change, right down to the peso.

The Sunday crowd at Las Tablas Roma.
The Sunday crowd at Las Tablas Roma.

The flower vendors are always the most assertive dealers: self-confident egomaniacs certain that everyone needs some “more goddamn flowers in their lives.”

Fortunately, there are a number of beautiful fruit and vegetable stands to price shop, as their prices seem to vary quite a bit from location to location.

Local Verde 63 – the hippie shop with handmade soaps and lotions, fresh herb crackers and crystal bracelets – truly has the best eggs in the market. They are tiny, perfectly oviform and crack gorgeously into the frying pan. The yolks are creamy but not cloying, salty like a mild cheese.

At Pablo García Peluquería (barber shop), I’d always assumed Nicolas Cote was the owner because he was the only one I’d ever seen at the hair chair. Yet, even though he’s been cutting hair for 72 years, he’s only been working at Medellín for eight.

Querétaro, Mérida, Álvaro Obregón, Morelia – Cote rode his scissors through a big piece of Mexico, but the shops seemed to close down wherever he went, and he finds himself, once again, back working in Mexico City.

He’s deliberate with the clippers and will make conversation if you want to, but he’s not pushing anything. Cote wears his soft wrinkles kindly and has that beautiful, full head of white hair that makes for a trustworthy barber. Even though you’re balding, you think his special brand of tonic might just work this time.

Upstairs, Restaurante Cha-Cha-Cha provides an uncommon, top-down view. Decked out with cutouts and giant photos of film stars of years gone by, Cha-Cha-Cha’s Yucatan and Central American specialties are good and cheap, with the full-coursed comida corrida running from 50 to 70 pesos.

But the view, right up in the rafters overlooking the bright green foliage of the plant vendors, is the real draw, a chance for a rare look at a market unselfconsciously just “hanging out.”

In the middle, with the prime real estate, is Las Tablas Roma – the grill. Fresh steaks, fish, and seafood – most of them coming from right inside the market – are seared to order on the hot flattop grill. They’ve been a Roma staple since 1958. They were originally just outside of Centro Médico, but the ‘85 earthquake forced them to move, and they’ve been at Medellín ever since.

A just sliced, wonderfully prepared 250-gram ribeye with fixings for 170 pesos is the real reason to come, but Las Tablas is known for their alambres (usually grilled steak, veggies and melted cheese). They have 17 alambres on the menu with ingredients ranging from standard to offbeat: chiles, mushrooms, Argentine sausages, shrimp and  even pineapple create unique combinations that can mix and match into dozens of options.

Rosa Martha Jasso has been managing Las Tablas Roma since 2001 and is one of Medellín Market’s more well-known personalities, always ready to welcome new guests. She says Sunday is without a doubt her favorite day in the market because it’s family day.

A vegetable stall at Medellín.
A vegetable stall at Medellín.

“I get to spend my time with special, friendly clientele on a daily basis,” says Jasso. “They come from all over the world, and I enjoy sharing good food and conversation. I love my job!”

At Delicatessin La Reyna, they specialize in housemade Italian and Spanish-style sausages and imports from Argentina and Uruguay. Or take home a bone of serrano ham for the perfect DIY broth. Other shops specialize in European cheeses, hard to come by Asian staples, or simple items from points north, like Heinz hamburger pickles.

But still holding strong to the market’s identity as “Little Havana,” Helados Palmeiro Cuban ice cream keeps a steady crowd throughout the afternoon. Everything is made natural, right there behind the counter. Coconut and mandarin appear to be among the favorites, but nothing beats the mantecado, a traditional Cuban vanilla custard from grandma’s secret recipe.

In the middle of the market, towards Medellín street, you dive deeper into the dedicated Latin American imports: whole cacao; famed Caribbean rums; anise-flavored Colombian aguardiente; dozens of sweets and snacks; and coffee, coffee, coffee. Depending on where you’re buying, the thick cornmeal arepas, deep-fried empanadas and sweet and salty dough ball buñuelos could be claimed by any number of flags flown throughout the market.

But the tradition is solidly Mexican – a comfortable hybrid at least, I realize as I chat with a man about his experience selling at Mercado Medellín.

Coffee is their most popular product, he tells me. “This is the largest Colombian community in the city,” he says, friendly and forthcoming until his father intervenes, asking me for identification and rebuking his son for putting their lives in danger talking to a nosy journalist.

I show them a previous article from Mexico News Daily with my name attached.

“What’s the name of your business?” I ask the son, hoping he’ll warm up after his father walks off.

“That, I can’t tell you.”

• Mercado Medellín is located at Medellín 234, Colonia Roma, Mexico City and is open 8:00am to 7:00pm Monday through Saturday and 8:00am to 6:00pm Sundays.

This is the 15th in a series on the bazaars, flea markets and markets of Mexico City:

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