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The Dish on Mexico City's Markets

Two Champion Eaters Pursue the Ultimate Quesadilla and Other Delights

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 2008; Page P01

A cartload of bagged white corn kernels blocked the narrow aisle. A woman in an apron danced to salsa rhythms, shimmying her hips seductively. Half a dozen guys with shopping bags stood stalled and frowning.

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I'd hit gridlock in the diffuse light of El Mercado de la Merced, Mexico City's super-size, bigger-than-life, positively steroidal central market.

"Just push," my friend Nick urged behind me.

Timidly, I jammed my hip into the small of a man's back, and presto, we all popped through the bottleneck like a cork launched from a magnum of champagne. Far from being angry, the man seemed grateful.

I'd come to La Merced in search of the perfect traditional-market quesadilla. I've been eating in Mexican markets for years, swooning over piles of cilantro-flecked shrimp at the archetypal Tostadas Coyoacan in the market near The Post's bureau in southern Mexico City and gorging on all manner of grilled pork tacos. There may be no better way to get to know this city, and my visitors and I have never had even a hint of stomach upset. But I'd never nailed the consummate quesadilla, a ubiquitous dish, a foundational Mexican treat made all the more complex by its utter simplicity.

I needed help. And that's why I called Nick Gilman.

I call Nick the "professional urban dweller." A transplanted New Yorker, he has lived most of the past 20 years in Mexico and knows this city's hidden nooks like no one I've ever met. Last year, Nick self-published a book about his obsession, "Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining," that has developed a kind of cult following in the foodie world. He's always up for the game.

I set a fast pace in La Merced, weaving past fragrant stalls piled with garlic and epazote, the pungent Mexican herb that is said to have taken its name from the Aztec words for "stinky animal." But Nick is loitering.

"Look at these!" he calls out, cupping to his nose a strange mushroom that looks a bit like a chanterelle but denser. "French people would go crazy! So inexpensive."

A few more steps and we are running our fingers through mounds of chipped wood that the proprietor promises will make a tea that cures ulcers, kidney problems, nerves, insomnia, high blood pressure and . . . low blood pressure.

"What kind of wood?" I ask.

"Secret," the man says, retreating to the back of his stall.

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