Wednesday, June 19, 2024

How to find your way through the massive Mercado de la Merced

At Mercado de la Merced, just outside of Mexico City’s Colonia Centro, the subway exits directly into the market, just outside the booth of the Brotherhood of Veracruz Witches, where you can receive a spiritual cleansing at the foot of both Jesus Christ and Holy Death.

It’s not a bad idea to approach Merced Market’s massive, intimidating maze with a freshly cleansed soul, but it can be hellish to navigate on your own.

The neighborhood now called La Merced has been a major center of commerce for centuries. The current market was completed in 1957 and is second in size only to Central de Abasto, yet still considered the largest “retail market” in Mexico City.

Merced consists of seven buildings, with construction that covers 88,000 square meters and space for 5,525 merchants, and that isn’t even including the thousands of street vendors that veritably swallow up the buildings in the surrounding tianguis. The “roving market” tianguis tents are so thick you can’t even see the buildings from certain vantage points.

The largest building, the Nave Mayor, runs three blocks between Rosario and Cabaña streets, with the main entrance just to the right of the Parish of Saint Thomas chapel on Cabaña, but to properly get your bearings and see as much as possible, we recommend a route beginning at one of the annex buildings.

A look down the market stall at Mercado de la Merced.
A look down the market stalls at Mercado de la Merced.

La Merced’s chief complex consists of four markets – Produce, Sweets, Flowers (now mainly clothing and housewares) and Meats. The scene in front of the meat market – bicycles zipping by, huge trucks maneuvering, and mobs of individuals with fresh cuts in plastic bags – is by no means calm, but you can clearly see the entrance on San Ciprian just north of Carretones.

There’s nothing to fully prepare you for the enormity of this market experience. But diving in under the main entrance sign you can acclimate quickly to the sounds and smells of La Merced. The hanging meats, stacks of pressed pork and piles of offal blend for a locker room smell appropriate to this devotedly macho landscape.

Hollers of, “Hey güero! Hey skinny, what do you need?” will help keep you on your toes snaking through traffic as a boy with pork rinds in his hair barrels toward you with a handcart. The carts, stacked to double the height of their drivers, somehow find passage through the corridors, the drivers often shirtless under their aprons. The floor, slick with grease and blood, would be an embarrassing place to fall.

Foot traffic moves at its own organic nimble pace, so there’s not much time to ogle, but there are plenty of beautiful meats and fresh cheeses to see as you make it through the lane and eventually find yourself heading underground past the heaps of homemade moles into a quieter tableau of customized aprons and pink and blue baby bassinets.

Continuing back upstairs and you’re in the main market building – the big show – still bustling but much less intense than the meat room. Towering bundled banana leaves, huge packages of corn husks and tomatillos stacked 10 crates high. Pepper and lime specialists hawk massive stockpiles of the regular fare, as well as some of the rarer specimens that can be hard to find outside of Merced.

Here you can see the black cracked and peeling paint on the ceiling, a remnant of the 1998 fire that ravaged two-thirds of the building. Take a right through the nopal skinners, mechanically scraping the spines from cactus leaves and tossing the sale-ready product into perfect piles. The smell of fresh cactus and herbs is a welcome palate cleanser.

Tacos with french fries and a little help from Ronald McDonald at Tacos McTeo.
Tacos with french fries at Tacos McTeo.

Right outside you can peak on to Rosario Street with huge trucks inching through, barely missing toes, in the tightly packed, open-air tianguis mayhem.

Continue through nopal row and you’ll come to the northeastern corner of the building, Puerta 1 and the pre-Hispanic and, let’s say, uncommon foods: maguey worms, grasshoppers and tiny crayfish. The cleaned and cured chicken intestines are a particular specialty here. They taste, well, just like chicken, like a heavily concentrated fatty chicken bullion.

Take a left on Anaya to the other corner of the market, to the famed food stalls, for a trip through some of the best tastes of Mexico all packed together in a single 200-meter row. Seafood and chicken caldos, bright red cow’s stomach stew, huaraches and quesadillas, and the rainbow of corn prepared every way you can imagine.

Don’t sweat the choices too much — nearly everything’s good through here; it’s more a matter of what you’re in the mood for. Try some blood sausage tacos or a bowl of wonderfully porky pozole. At Puerta 16 is the legendary McTeo’s, the claimed inventor of french fry tacos. A double tortilla campechano with longaniza sausage and steak, topped with fresh fried potato sticks and grilled nopales, will fill you up quick.

Back out to Anaya Street (where you came in), take a left, and just past Cabaña Street you’ll find the Mercado de Dulces with bees swarming the chunks of sugared fruits, pumpkins and sweet potatoes on the street. Enter into the throbbing nerve of the Mexican sweet tooth with lollipops the size of probably someone’s head and bins of assorted candies to fuel an army of hyperactive child warriors. Yet somehow the simple, multicolored marshmallows appear to be the most popular.

From here you can wander for days in the labyrinth of Mercado de la Merced. It’s a city unto itself with hidden subterranean video game parlors and an enormous boxing gym that pops up out of nowhere in an otherwise abandoned part of a parking garage.

Find your bearings and meander through. Just maybe leave the pets at home, as there’s rumored to be a 50-kilo rat subsisting on dogs and cats somewhere in the bowels of the market.

• Mercado de la Merced’s main building is located between Cabaña and Rosario and Calle Gral. Anaya and Cd. Rosario in Merced Balbuena, Mexico City; open 6:00am to 7:00pm seven days a week.

This is the 13th in a series on the bazaars, flea markets and markets of Mexico City:

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