There is really only one reason we went to Puebla: tacos al pastor. Given that we already sampled many, many tacos al pastor in DF, it may seem crazy to come 2 hours south to Puebla just to eat more. But this is the supposed home of al pastor. And let’s face it, we’re fanatics.
So it was with great anticipation and hunger in our bellies that we found ourselves in the zócolo (main square) of Puebla. A city of 1.5 million seems positively tiny after DF (which holds about 21 million). The zócolo had a relaxed atmosphere with families and friends collecting in clusters and balloon sellers meandering around. The centuries old cathedral towers over the south side of the square flanked by arcades full of cafes to watch the world go by.
Just a few blocks away was our al pastor mecca, Las Ranas. Al pastor (literally shepard’s style) was brought to the country by Lebanese immigrants. Like donner, thin sliced marinated meat (in this case pork) rotates on a spigot slowly becoming carmelized and juicy. The meat slicers at Las Ranas were pros and we watched them cut the meat into ever so thin slices to be placed on tortillas, queso fundido (melted cheese), bolillos (bread rolls) or pan árabe (literally arab bread; pita). The pita is what really brought home the origins of this specialty – it was soft and a little chewy, perfect with the seasoned meat and spicy salsas. Las Ranas will forever stay in my memory as a place that 1) has some of the best al pastor in the world and 2) made me fuller than I’ve ever been in my life.
The next morning we discovered more of Puebla beyond its culinary treasures. An important colonial town, the city is full of lavishly decorated churches and religious sites. My favorite was the Capilla del Rosario. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful chapels I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The bright white stucco was shaped into intricate, weaved geometric patterns and then strategically covered in gold to accentuate the design. It was over the top baroque but instead of being tacky it felt fun, as if it were a puzzle to try and decipher the underlying geometries.
Near the church, a group of girls cornered us to ask us questions about America for a school project. They were adorable and very enthusiastic to practice English. One of the cutest moments was when the best English-speaker asked us if we really called calabacitas “zucchinis.” She thought it was such a strange word that she had doubted her teacher’s translation. We asked the schoolgirls what their favorite comida poblana (Pueblan food) was and they responded “chalupas!” We specifically sought these out and discovered that these are comprised of fresh tortillas dragged through rich tomato or tomatillo based sauces and then fried on a griddle. Thanks for the tip, chicas.
Another Pueblan specialty is cemita. What makes these small sandwiches special is the buttery, flakey, spiral shaped bread it sits on. We chose the most hopping cemita joint we could find and ordered two. This place only did one type of cemita – pig face. I like it when an eatery is bold enough to just do one thing well and, in this case, it paid off. Pig face is not for everyone but if you can learn to enjoy the jiggly factor, you’re in for a treat.
Puebla continued to charm me with a museum dedicated to Mexico’s basically extinct passenger rail system. El Museo del Ferrocarril (Train Museum) had a collection of old rail cars, some of which you can climb inside. The information signs provide details on the origins of the various cars, how and when they were used and background on the lives of the people who worked them. Inside Puebla’s former rail station, a photography exhibit displayed photos of the many migrants who boarded these trains in the mid-1900s to work in the US. My grandfather was one of these men, traveling from Guadalajara to Chicago, which made the exhibit particularly personal for me. I searched the faces in each photograph to get a sense of both the fear and the bittersweet excitement the men must have felt as they boarded the trains to a such a foreign place and culture.
Heading back to the town center, we couldn’t resist the sizzle of quesadillas on the grill. Ours contained squash blossoms, mushrooms and fresh gooey cheese on a purple corn tortilla.
Directly in the center, we were once again surrounded by colonial splendor. An elegant example of this splendor was the 17th century biblioteca (library). I love libraries. I’ve always been intrigued by becoming a librarian. I think it was the scenes from Beauty and the Beast in which Belle waltzes through the castle library stacked high with leather bound books that influenced me as a child. In short, I was very happy here.
Our final meal in Puebla diverged from all the previous ones we had had in Mexico. Thus far, we had focused on street food and hole-in-the wall eateries to get the most authentic food we could. In general, Nathan and I are weary of white tablecloth restaurants that only the local elite and tourists can afford. But we heard good things about El Mural and we decided to give it a try for breakfast on our last morning in town. They totally had me with their homemade miniature pan dulce. And their café de olla (coffee with spices). And their fresh juices. And pretty much everything else.
I’m so glad we stopped in Puebla on our trip. It was a charming and calm counterpoint to the frenetic energy of DF yet still had an urban feel. Next up was through the gorgeous four-hour drive through the mountains to Oaxaca.