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Mexico: I80 Matamoros to Vera Cruz

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This was the first Mexican segment of my trip on the road to Guatemala

I don’t currently have much internet access. I wanted to clarify town names and some other items. I hope Chowhounds who have driven this route will correct any mistakes and also tell me what I missed.

The closest restaurant to the border at Los Indios was Dolores where we changed dollars to pesos but didn’t eat. They did have signs advertising carne asada (grilled beef) and, on Saturday and Sunday, barbacoa a dish usually of beef or lamb, but they didn’t say which meat. Next to an oil drum bbq there were piles of wood for the cooking.

Our first food was at a Pemex Oxxo gas station/store where we stopped to use the rest rooms (bring your own toilet paper and pay the custodian a few pesos to use the toilet)

My fried bought some little pies from a lady with basket. The first was pineapple custard with a crust on top which was good. The star though was the cheese pie which tasted like a sweet ricotta cheese cake. This is a serious contender for my top ten list of 2010.

The majority of this trip passed by fields of corn. There were small patches of sugar cane which looks like marsh grass. This time of year, some pretty trees were in blossom with pink flowers. I’m not sure if they were fruit trees.

There were a few banana farms … too small to be called plantations … where the bunches of bananas on the plants were covered with blue plastic bags. My friend wasn’t clear on the reason, guessing it had to do with bugs. He did know how they are harvested. Small trucks take the bananas to a large facility where they are boxed and exported.

However, this area was about corn. Except for the occasional donkey grazing at the side of the road, you could be in the Mid West. There were also a lot of cattle in this part of Mexico … in fact more than I saw driving through Texas.

All the homes had chickens and many had goats.

There were tiny markets along the way that were little larger than a mid-size travel trailers. Then there are the hundreds of fresh fruit stands that line the roads. For the most part in this stretch of the trip they mainly sold oranges and bananas. The oranges were bagged or hung from string like cloves of garlic.

The towns were not clearly marked along I80. In a town 237 miles south of Vera Cruz according to our gps system stands were also selling coco fria, coconut juice. They were also selling lots of honey. Wooden bee boxes are frequently in the grass beside the roadside.

There was one town that was all about cheese … all those cows, you know. At least half a dozen small stores advertised cheese and one shop was open 24 hours. These were all little tiny shacks.

One area sold “rico cameron seco” bags of dried shrimp. Foods were special to an area. There was only one dried shrimp area but about 10 stands were selling it.

Similarly, the tiny open-air restaurants all specialized in a certain area. Tbere was one area that sold carne asada and driving by the delicious smell of grilling beef filled the car.

One area sold shrimp tamales. A few areas sold tacos de canistas, which mean baskets. I’m not clear on this one. My friend said the name came from the taco fixings being made at home, put in a basket and then sold by the roadside. He said they had a little of everything and were delicious.

There were lots of places along the road with signs for taco buffets

One and only one stand on the road had large plastic bags hung from a line holding whole, uncut sides of fried pork skin … you could see the leg part .

The town with this stand also had lots of restaurants selling pollo a lleno, but I’m not sure what that was. It was a larger town and even had an American-style café.

Most towns, sometimes for no apparent reason, have these awful, usually unmarked speed bumps (topos). The vehicle must come to a stop and slowly drive over them. They act as stop signs that can’t be ignored.

The good part of this is that usually there are vendors next to each bump. It is better than a drive-thru, because you don’t have to leave the road. Imagine if you could buy snacks and fresh-squeezed juice at a stop sign by just opening the window and handing out cash We kept a pile of easily to get to 10 peso coins since that was the usual price

Our purchases on this segment of the trip included about a quart of cold fresh squeezed pineapple juice and some excellent chilli-covered peanuts

Not too far from the border we came to the first big town. At the entrance of the town was a long banner for a place selling nieves, ice cream. Unfortunately it was somewhere in town and not on the road that we were driving. This town had the first modern, large supermarket that I saw, Super Che.

The town in the US where I lived for the past six years was San Pablo, CA. So I was amused to pass through San Pablo, MX which had a larger restaurant that had a lovely view of some valley

I’m totally blanking on what we ate on this section of the road, probably grilled chicken with tortillas and salsa. We ate a lot of delicious Mexican pollo asada on this trip.

We stopped for the night in the large city of Tampico. It was late and my initial impression was I didn’t like this city much. There were lots of oil facilities. However, we were only on the outskirts of town and didn’t go into the city proper. I had an excellent pineapple paleta (popsicle) at a paleteria. They also sold tortas which were sub par. The roll was ok, but the filling was very sparse.

We hit the road at 5am and like in the US, only 7-11 type of stores were open so we just had some 7-11 type of cappuccino in the morning while my friend asked for directions out of town. A lot of our food stops were based on asking directions.

Our next stop was the lovely city of Tuxpan which has a river running through it. On the bank of the river, while my friend asked directions from a food vendor, we got fresh orange juice and atole. The OJ was only ok and unchilled. The atole was smooth, creamy and perfectly spiced with cinnamon. It is one of the few atoles that I have ever really like

Outside of town there was a group of stands selling orange juice, one with a sign about orange juice and vanilla. I insisted my friend stop. Unfortunately he is not into food and bypassed the vanilla stand, stopping at one that only sold OJ. This OJ was better though and nicely chilled.

Just south of Vera Cruz are the beach towns of Tecoloca, Tecolutla and Nautlus. These are your typical beach towns similar to Santa Cruz in California, Jones Beach, Coney Island, Old Orchard beach on the East coast.

There are all sorts of beach food with seafood, seafood cocktails and oysters. You can buy your beach balls, towels and trinkets such as shell jewelry. And there … there … was the first coffee shop I saw in Mexico, some sort of chain equivalent to Starbucks, but with the word ‘Italian” in it.

I am a coffee addict. I haven’t had a good cup of coffee since I left California. And even though the streets were bumper to bumper traffic, even though it took us 15 minutes to turn around and get there, I insisted we turn around

They had no coffee.

“What, a coffee shop with no coffee?” I wailed.

My friend said the coffee machine broke and would not be fixed for an hour. They did have the equivalent of iced frappucinos …no … that wouldn’t do … that wouldn’t do at all.

We drove off with me looking sadly back, my face practically against the window like a kid taking a last look at the puppy left in the yard at home.

Beach-wise I kind of like this area better than Vera Cruz. The beaches themselves are prettier.

It turned out there was a good reason for the bumper to bumper traffic … it was spring break. Passenger trucks were loaded with the equivalent of college kids out to par-tee. There were also trucks filled with families, kids, grandparents, dogs all loaded in back. No seatbelt laws here.

This was sort of good in Vera Cruz where it was really festive … lots of platforms on the beach with various live bands. It was tragic in terms of getting a hotel for the night.

I suggested we head for the airport as airports usually have hotels. The area around the airport … at least where we drove … was really run down. Here the food was sold out of people’s houses.

There were hand-scrawled signs such as “ricos tamales” Make your way through the clothes lines hanging in front to the tiny house with a tin roof, the long faded paint on the walls only a memory.

Oddly enough, we took the same route out of town and had the best pollo asada at some little place where my friends asked for directions. Juicy with excellent grilled flavor, it came with a stack of terrific tortillas, fabulous red and green salsas, limes and cucumbers marinated in vinegar. I wasn’t thinking and those cucumbers almost did me in. Fortunately an anti-diarreal pill saved the day.

Not much in hotels near the airport. One thing to note, in Mexico and Central America a hotel and a motel are not the same thing as in the US. Auto motels are places that you pay to stay for four hours and have sex with your date … date … not prostitute. Oddly, they are modern and nicer than most Mexican hotels. There is room service but the menu is strictly booze … by the bottle.

An owner of one of the auto motels took pity on us and let us stay the entire night. You pull your car into the garage, close the garage door so no one can see whose car is there and walk upstairs to the bedroom and shower. It was actually quite nice. We didn’t order booze though.

The next morning we headed to Vera Cruz to find a bank to cash traveler’s checks. We got lost on the way and picked up some nice pastries at a local panaderia chain.

Vera Cruz Panaderia La Especial
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/700720

Vera Cruz has all sorts of restaurants with a real international flair. Though the emphasis is on seafood, I passed by places like a nice-looking Ecuadorian restaurant. All the major fast food chains are there, McDonald’s, Burger King, etc. There are the Mexican chains as well such as Feliz Pollo … or was that Pollo Feliz.

Lots of nice local restaurants and right along the beach was a major pasteleia … cake shop … that looked killer excellent. Of course, there were a zillion street vendors. There were a lot of tejuino stands, a slightly fermented corn drink to which a type of sherbet is added.

I’ve tried this everywhere near my home in the US and was saddened we couldn’t try one here. The spring break traffic was just that bad.

We ended this part of the trip on I80 at Walmart

Vera Cruz Mexico Wal-Mart sample-rama … including free shots of tequila and Jack Danielshttp://chowhound.chow.com/topics/700235

Next - I85 Vera Cruz – Zuchitan de Zaragoza

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    1. "The town with this stand also had lots of restaurants selling pollo a lleno, but I’m not sure what that was."

      "Pollo a la leña.": Chicken cooked over a wood fire.
      Those free shots of booze in the stores are another reason I love Mexico.

      " there … was the first coffee shop I saw in Mexico, some sort of chain equivalent to Starbucks, but with the word ‘Italian” in it."
      The Italian Coffee Company. I think it got its start in Puebla. THere are better plaes to have coffee, IMO.

      1. Hell rworange. The pollo lleno you speak of was probably pollo a la leña, cooked over a wood fire. The only other possibility would be pollo relleno (stuffed). Oh, I just saw that Anonimo already covered this, oh well.

        Yes, tacos de canasta are steamed in a basket, the typical fillings are beans and cheese, chicken in mole, chicharron, papa con chorizo, stewed lamb, adobo, etc. Did you try these? Seems like many of these foods you saw in passing, as this was a long drive to undertake, but damn, I brake for tacos de canasta!!

        Pollo Feliz is the chain.

        The cheese, did you stop for that? The tamales de camaron? Not easy to come by, these things. Sounds like an amazing drive.

        1 Reply
        1. re: streetgourmetla

          Unfortunately the guy driving me was NOT into food. I had to pick and choose what might be important enough to stop. The only major tiff was when I insisted we stop for tlayudas in Oaxaca. I was damned if I was going to leave Oaxaca without one ... if I had to dump him at the next Pemmex station while he used the rest room and drive back ... I would have.

          Though it was a bit unpleasant, I got my tlayuda and no one died.

          The general agreement was if we could order it at a speed bump, anything went. If I rambled on enough about something, he would eventually stop.

          So I did not get to try a lot of this stuff.

        2. The second half of the trip

          I85 Vera Cruz – Zuchitan de Zaragoza then Route 200 to Tapachula
          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/701144