Alameda Swap Meet and the Perfect Churro (and papusas, too!)
- Thi Nguyen
So, I think my first churro was at a roller coaster park, Great America. I was in love immediately.
A churro, in any incarnation, is a long-ish fried *thing* dusted with cinammon and sugar. Kind of a Mexican String Doughnut. Reasonably done, like at one of those theme park rolly things, it's crunchy on the outside, soft and almost melty on the inside.
For a long time, I could never find anything to compare. A lot of churros are just kind of hard everywhere. I think freshness is a key - reason the theme park ones were so good was the high turnover. Even Mexican restaurants frequently had inferior churros, that'd been sitting around for an hour.
Then (roll Also Sprach Zaratusthra theme here): Alameda Swap Meet. I think it's the largest mercado in town, and it's huge - 3 or so city blocks of marketplace, mexican stores, mexican food... truly kickin' on a weekend. (Lots of the food places close down during the week.) Lots of stalls with really fresh al pastor tacos, sopes, everything! Fresh horchata (sweet rice drink) everywhere.
And an Mexican rock band in one open plaza. And an acoustic mariachi band in another, with guys in cowboy hats and gals in dresses dancing in an open space surrounded by thousands of onlookers.
One tip: as you wander, watch what everyone is ordering. Most of the stalls specialize in one thing but offer everything. None of the signs are in English, not many of the waitstaff do (or they're just impatient with a confused looking fattie like me) and if, like me, you're Spanish-impaired, you just gotta look. I had a great sope here once. And some really fine al pastor tacos. When in doubt, swallow your pride and point.
When I come here, I come here for masa snacks. Sopes are a fine one - thick corn tortillas, like 2/3 an inch think, chewy and grainy and covered with bean sauce and meat, maybe.
Towards the churros: the central plaza is the one with the flags and the stage, where the electrified rock bands play. Let's say that the street and stage is on the north side. (Not sure about this - I get lost every time here). On the south side is a large stall that specializes in papusas - large, stuffed corn thingies. Glorious. There's this topping that looks something like cole slaw. We thought the papusas were missing something, then we noticed that everyone was heaping the cole slaw stuff on.
There's a passageway running east right below the papusa stall. A few steps down, on the south side, are the best churros I've ever had in my life. They are to the ones I had in Great America what I think the Pope is to the guy who cleans out the confessionals at the end of the day.
They were hanging in a little basket over a vat of frying oil, having their final dip. I walked over. There were a few churros from the last session, but I looked longingly at the ones still dripping and I smiled plaintatively at the woman behind the counter and she took a few up and rolled 'em in sugar. 4 for a dollar, but she gave me five.
Perfectly crispy on the outside, almost the texture of chicarronnes, but inside, actually melting! Like molten gold, I think. (Maybe the association between cinammon flavor and gold is only natural for someone who spent too many of their undergraduate days sipping Goldschlager, but I try not to remember that.)
Anyway, my companion and I wrestled for the last one and I had to buy another packet immediately. No chance for taste tests, no chance to try the other churro stalls around, cause I put down 5 of those babies on top of a sope and a papusa and I think I created a minor black hole in my colon.
Anyway, look for a stall with an actual vat of oil, none of those carts with the old churros hanging, being reheated.