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trip report from Puebla, Mexico, July 2010

This is a brief report on my one week stay in Puebla Mexico in July 2010. I read and used extremely useful posts to chowhound notably from Richard (RST), Rachel, and Anonimo. If they are the college professors, I am the second grade teacher; there is nothing I can teach them, but I may have an advantage in communicating with others who are as inexperienced as I was, and my experience now is (well) a week.

General: Puebla is a city for eating and walking. We stayed in, and rarely strayed from, the old part of the city. (low numbered streets and avenues). Once you figure out the numbering system, the city is easy to navigate, and pleasant and safe (feels safe and was safe for us) to walk in. We are not-tremendously-well-conditioned-middle-aged couple but we walked a lot and enjoyed it. Puebla is 6000 ft, so be prepared to be short of breath going up stairs. The weather (in late July) was beautiful -- high in low 70s, low in mid 60s; comfortable in shirtsleeves and sandals. Three days out of the week it rained fairly hard from 5-7:30 or so; we bought 35 peso umbrellas ($3 US) from shops along the zocalo after the first rain. The city is not really oriented to foreign tourists, though there did seem to be many tourists from other parts of Mexico. Pre-columbian art at Amparo (you shouldn’t miss this – the bean soup in the “cafeteria” is good too); El Parrian & Barrio del Artista; the zocalo; lots and lots of 16th and 17th century churches; the Palofax library is just one room, but it’s pretty fascinating; just behind the cathedral from the zocalo is a center for performing arts; we saw a great demonstration of folkloric dancing, including one where the women dance with trays of bottles on their heads.

The street music was exceptionally good and ubiquitous. The plaza at the barrio del artista has great local guitarists and 2 beers for 25 pesos at happy hour; don’t miss the little café on the pedestrian walkway on 3 oriente between 4 and 6 Sur. (Just a few blocks from the zocalo.) A hurdy-gurdy, a community concert band, an orchestra rehearsing for a concert, a counter-tenor singing a capella, a trumpet player with a very limited repertoire, a pan-flute band. (And did you know that a mayan conch sounds just like a vuvuzela – please don’t tell Mexican soccer fans.)

Especially in the downtown center, I felt like I needed to be prepared for beggars. (any other word you prefer, I'm not trying to make an argument here.) there appear to be "worthy" beggars -- women with young children, old people, blind people, people without legs, people playing accordians, or other worthy street musicians. I ended up carrying one and two peso pieces in my palm (and the occasional 50 centavo or half a peso piece) so that I could drop a small amount without having to fish around in my pockets and wallets. I'd give these away until I was empty handed. Is a peso (about 10 cents) an insult? I don't know . THis is what I did. I probably ended up handing out $1 -$2 per day. So do better than I did if you want and can. My point is: think about it in advance and decide on your plan. if you wait until you are asked, you are likely to give nothing and then feel bad about it.

Following advice from a tourbook, we tipped 10% (plus, but rarely 15%) in restaurants, not much for taxis, a little (a dollar a day or so) for hotel maid, and occasional for people who helped us (volunteer museum guide who was well informed and sought out by us).

Tour book told us the water was probably safe; we took precautions (bottled water, avoiding uncooked unpeeled vegetables (lettuce, notably)); one of us got a little travelers diarrhea anyway. (Italian Coffee Company outlets are on every other block and have clean bathrooms, and good coffee at Starbuck’s prices ($1 for a small coffee).) But if you decide to avoid lettuce, can you try cemitas? (advice requested)

It took us a couple days to figure out the daily meal schedule: the norm for locals is a big meal at 2 or 3 in the afternoon. At noon you will be nearly alone in a restaurant.

You can get food from a wide variety of outlets. Try everything: it’s all good, and even if you don’t like it it’s cheap so throw it away.

Many (almost all?) buildings have interior courtyards with an entryway leading from the street. The simplest food outlets are individuals who set up in these entryways. They have a charcoal heat source under a griddle or under a deep fryer, and they produce a single item for sale. For example, an older woman sat by her griddle and pinched out gorditas: a thick oblong tortilla (in this case) from blue corn, topped with a slathering of beans and a sprinkling of cheese and your choice of red or green sauce. She had a thin shelf along the wall of the entryway with two or three stools for customers to sit. (About 15 pesos, or $1-1.50 US).

I can’t pretend to make a comprehensive list (and welcome corrections and additions) but a lot of Mexican street food is variations on the following theme: “bread” (including tortillas), “protein” (meat, fish, beans, mushrooms, corn fungus, etc.), toppings (a little cheese, red sauce, green sauce, mole). So a taco is an unfried tortilla (corn or flour) with some meat and you typically add sauce. A tostada is a torilla fried crispy (like chips) with some protein and sauce. A chalupa is like a tostada with the tortilla only lightly fried.

Street vendors have movable carts (or tables set up in church yards for example) with a limited menu and no seats (but good food). Don’t miss the orange and grapefruit juice from street vendors with nothing more than a box of fruit and a squeezer (10 or 15 pesos, $1 US).

Tiny restaurants have 3 or 4 small tables, a menu board with (say) 6 or 7 items, perhaps a person cooking out front, and perhaps a small kitchen in the back. For example, Antijitos Los Portales mentioned by RST, and across the square from the old theatre served us an order of two chanclas (soft steamed bread bearing a resemblance to dumplings with meat and sauce). (40-50 pesos $3 US with 2 bottles of water).

Medium restaurants have waiters and menus. Some have limited menus. For example, Tacos Oriental – a block through the covered walkway from the zocalo) has a spit with seasoned pork (correct me if I’m wrong) turning out front and sells tacos oriental (the pork sliced onto corn tortillas) and tacos arabes (the pork sliced onto flour tortillas), and other things like pizzas and soup.

Other medium or larger restaurants have waiters and menus and more substantial menus. There are a number of these restaurants near 2nd Norte and Polifax y Mendoza that seem to cater to local office workers (and to tourists headed to the Barrio del artistes). The middle of the afternoon these restaurants serve a “corrida comida” – 3 (or 4) courses – soup, “dry soup” (pasta, rice, or potato dish), and main course, and possibly dessert. We had a nice meal at La Gardenia on Polyfax y Mendoza near 2nd Norte for 46 pesos; I saw others for 35 or so. (Just to emphasize this is very cheap $3-4 US.) You could go to one of these and order ala carte (just a taco for example). I had the chiles en nogada (a famous regional dish) – pobano chiles stuffed with a pork filling, dipped in batter, deep fried, covered with a slightly sweet cream sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranites. I’m glad I had it, but I didn’t come home wishing I could find a local restaurant that served it.

The restaurants of this type (medium or larger) lining the zocalo are a little more upscale (outside tables, upstairs dining rooms overlooking the park). We had a very pleasant meal overlooking the zocolo in a restaurant with “terrazzo” in its name; I had very tasty pozole (a stew of pork and pozole which resembles corn hominy). (Again corrections welcome). My wife had a restorative chicken soup; I think our bill came to about 150 pesos ($10-12 for the both of us).

There are a few “fancier” restaurants; most have been mentioned in other posts to Chowhound. Those connected to hotels (Sacristia, Ekos, the restaurant in our hotel – the Colonial – seems popular with Mexicans and upscale locals, and there’s a hotel with a restaurant right on the Zocalo, there’s a fancy hotel on the 3rd Oriente we passed by frequently with a beautiful beautiful white table cloth dining room that was always empty) will have corrida comida type menus in mid afternoon, but also plan to serve tourists who expect a big meal in the evening. These places have wine lists, etc. as you would expect. Two people can have a big meal with a glass of wine for 400-500 pesos. We ate at Sacrastia and Hotel Colonial and had excellent meals at both. There are two or three independent restaurants that showed up in our tour book. We tried the vegetarian (not vegan) restaurant La Zanahoria and had a nice meal, but it was closing up at about 8 or 8:30. Our tour book mentioned El Mural de los Poblanos (tour book recommends especially for setting) and Fonda Santa Clara (tour book says has become touristy); we tried neither.

So if you wanted to, you could eat every meal in a nice restaurant and still not spend more than $50 a day for a person. But if you did that, you’d miss the charms and the food of the other smaller places.

RST’s posts urge visitors to seek out the “markets”, and I’m glad we did; it was a high point of our visit. On Sunday midday we walked up 5th Norte towards 16th Poniente. There is a big indoor market at that corner. This means aisles and aisles of small stands vegetables here, fruits here, bread here, butcher stands here, flowers, etc. Around the edges some food stands (lots of soup minimal counter seating, short menus), and some stands with prepared foods (potato and egg salad, chipotles in vinegar, etc). This is where poblanos shop for food. Along 5th Norte on Sundays others line the sidewalks (I’ve got grapes and apples; I’ve got pork and headcheese, I’ve got eggs, I’ve got herbs you’ve never see before.) “Behind” the indoor market (along 3rd Norte at about 16th-18th ) are the fish market stands. In only one or two places did I see evidence of “take out” – shrimp cocktail in a cup. But the fish did look good and fresh even though Puebla’s not exactly oceanfront. Also walking up 5th Norte, quite a few marinated grilled chicken places which we never got around to trying, but which looked wonderful. You will see why the papaya at breakfast is so good; all the papayas sold on the street are ripe. And you will ask each other, “what is that? corn fungus, charcoals in their ashes?” “do you recognize those herbs?” “I’ve read about flavoring with avocado leaves; what do they look like?”

We stumbled on another permanent indoor market walking east from the zocolo, beyond the church of San Francisco (across the “heroes of the 5th of May boulevard” – not to be confused with 5th of May avenue running into the zocalo) at (about) 4th -6th Oriente and 12-14 Norte. A stand there had women pinching out blue tortillas and cooking them on a griddle, for sale as tortillas, but willing to add beans and sauce for a chalupa. And on a day trip to Cholula, we found the city market a block or two beyond the zocolo. (Lots of flowers here. Throughout Puebla and Cholula, check out the amazing displays of flowers in the churches.)

(Day trip to Cholula: We took a nice ride on a big bus from the “direct to Cholula” bus station -- out near the paseo bravo at about 3 pnte and 15 sur (you could easily walk, but check with somebody about the exact address, you need to know where you are going). The driver dropped us off on a street close to the big church on top of the Mayan ruin. The altitude is high, the climb is long, buy yourself some red-skinned peanuts from the guy near the bottom and take your time. It’s worth the climb, unless you hate churches. When we were there the underground tunnels in the pyramid were closed. We walked around the outside; it was ok – informative signs, hot sun, and not too long. We ended up back near the entrance to the church and had a cool drink at the bar. Then walked along to town center and had lunch at a restaurant facing the zocolo. Found the market (see above). Went to the San Gabriel church: check out the “barber chair Jesus” over the altar and the “cell phone” Jesus near the exit. With advise from the tourist center on the zocalo, we found the corner for a bus back to Puebla and boarded a much smaller bus marked “puebla”. It was a “local” -- taking us through many back routes in poor neighborhoods, and gentrifying housing projects; it was interesting; it was much longer than our trip out. If we’d waited for a big bus and paid another 10cents we could have taken the more comfortable and direct bus back; of course we’d have missed the bumpy roads of poor suburban neighborhoods. Forewarned/forearmed.)

Back to the issue of city markets. I suppose a trip to these markets is not for the squeamish (ooouu who knew that chickens come with heads and feet?) For that matter, menu items we tried in restaurants included Machitas (intestines), Mollegas (chicken backs) and sesos (brains). Forewarned is forearmed. (corrections welcome)

While you are over on the San Francisco side of the heroes of the 5th of May boulevard, you might check out a couple restaurant groups: a single building with 8 or so open establishments (so that as you sit a table being served from one, you can see the cooking and tables of others) at (about) 12 Nte and 14 Oriente. This might be what my tour book calls Mercado el Alto. Another grouping of restaurants separated from the heroes of the 5th of May boulevard by a thin park at about 10 Nte and 14-16 Oriente. We had a pleasant meal at El Ranchito in this grouping overlooking the little park. This whole neighborhood is anchored (along the 5th of May boulevard) by the convention center; so presumably these two groupings of restaurants cater to the convention trade that is venturing a little away from the convention center hotel and restaurant avenue. (But don’t miss the beautiful park behind the convention center).

Venture in the other direction (west from the zocolo) and find the molotes stands at 5th Pte just west of the zocalo, order and eat standing under the awnings (if it’s raining) or carry the molotes back to the zocalo and find a park bench. (Molotes are tortillas, stuffed with your choice of filling, and deep fried, red or green sauce.) At 8 pnte and just off 7 Nte, there’s a little storefront that sells chileatole. RST elsewhere has a better description, but it is a thick green soup (green from poblano chiles, I suspect, and thick with corn).

Walk south from the zocalo to 15 oriente and find the Parque del Carmen and the beautiful church next to it. On the Park is the storefront selling Carnitas de Mahoacan; get a couple pork tacos. We looked for the Las Poblanitas in Carmen recommended by RST but couldn’t find it. Perhaps he’ll see this post and give us better directions (or perhaps it is closed).

Also (not on this walking trip, but just a couple blocks from the zocalo) at 3 oriente and between 2 and 4 sur is a barbacoa de res stand that specializes in beef. (A taxi driver in Yucatan assured us that “barbacoa” referred only to roasted goat; experts opinions sought.) One morning for breakfast at Colonial hotel I had “molletes” (not “molotes”) – bread (like a good dinner or sandwich roll, not a tortilla) with black beans and melted cheese (manchego?) with a side sauce of chopped tomatoes and red peppers. It was good. Also (from somewhere) a memorable potato taco.

If you get up early and want a walk at dawn, venture down 4 Nte to 6 Oriente and turn west. You will see the beautiful Victoria market at the end of the street (beautiful from the outside, and, for me, nothing whatsoever of interest on the inside); but the street early in the morning is a pallet of the pastel houses lining 6 Oriente. (6 Oriente has lots of the shops specializing in Pueblan sweets which we didn’t make much of, and which also sell containers of moles and pipians. 6 Oriente also has the interesting museum in the homestead of the Serdan family which was shot up by police and family members and supporters killed in 1911.) Finally, 6 Oriente has a little coffee store where the woman roasts her own beans and “has a passion for coffee”. It is close to the Serdan house. Give her a little support; it will cost you a couple bucks and you’ll get a very good cup of expresso (or coffee).

OK. Finally (I think) we did take the 3-4 hour cooking class at Meson de Sacristia. It was expensive (by Puebla standards about 2000 pesos or $150+ for the two of us). I don’t regret it (but obviously I wouldn’t do it if I were pinching pennies). We learned (basically) three things. “Green sauce” is like something I’d improvised at home: tomatilloes, cilantro, and jalapenos dropped in a blender. Their version tomatilloes, serranoes, onion and garlic, browned in a pan, then dropped in a blender with the cilantro. “Red sauce” was tomato based with onions, garlics, all cooked in a pan until browned, and (in a limited amount) chipotle peppers (fried briefly), put in a blender. With these recipes, “green sauce” is a little spicier than red sauce. But in restaurants, we had red sauce that relied less on (or not at all on) chipotles and more on “chiles de arbol” peppers. So red sauce and green sauce (served everywhere) mean different things. Pipian (as I understand it) is red sauce or green sauce with toasted (fried?) pepitas ground and added (Diana Kennedy’s cookbook has a green sauce very much like this.) Mole (check out http://ezinearticles.com/?Pueblas-Mes... ) is a starting point (this is almost exactly the recipe they taught us). Notice the use of burnt-to-a-crisp tortillas as a thickening agent. If you want to change proportions, or add fried almonds or peanuts, or raisins, etc. you can make a sauce as complicated as Diane Kennedy’s. I think this explains the confusion many US people feel about the difference between red and green sauce (which is hotter? Why does this taste so different from restaurant to restaurant?) or “what is mole?”. (Possible additional confusion: what I call tomatoes, Mexicans call etomates (spelling?) and what I call (green) tomatilloes, they call tomates.) (corrections requested.

)

Finally (oh did I already say that) “limons” are thin-skinned limes; sopa de lima comes from a slightly more sour version (“lima”) that is also a thin skinned lime but is available mostly in yucatan. (this from Diane Kennedy’s appendix, so correct her, not me). Those big yellow things we call lemons? No such thing in Mexico. Finally (oh did I already say that twice?) when asked how to cook carnitas, we got the following advice in the cooking class – though it wasn’t part of the course: pork shoulder cut into big pieces, browned briefly then cooked in orange juice and sweetened condensed milk for 2-3 hours. Tried it and it came out tasting good, but with big mess in the kitchen (try smaller amounts, bigger pans so no spillage, and no browning at the end5).

Review: (1) in so many ways, I don’t know what I’m talking about; feel free to correct me, but there is no reason to be insulting or mean. (2) If you like food, go to Puebla; be courageous and explore; all the food is good, and if you do make a mistake it is cheap, so throw it away and go somewhere else. (3) if I had to do it all over again what would I do differently? Almost nothing. Maybe fly into Mexico City instead of Puebla and take the dedicated bus directly from mex city airport to puebla. Or maybe – the chowhound and more internet sold me belatedly on the idea of going to Zacatlan, but we’d already booked a full week at our Puebla hotel and Zacatlan was (most likely) an overnight stay and a two-three hour bus ride each way. So is there a way to fly to Mexico City and from there to Zacatlan for a day or two and then only 5 days or so in Puebla? Our trip was wonderful as it was, so perhaps this is gilding the lily.

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  1. Thanks so much for all the time you put into this great report!
    It made for wonderful reading. I'm more anxious than ever to go to the interior of Mexico.

    1. Busy day today. Could not read (or reply) in detail, but some quick responses. Las Poblanitas in the Carmen market (fairly small market with no more than 20 stalls) is the most prominent single business. It's bustling most hours of the day. You can't possibly miss it. It's on a corner, with seating both on the inside and on the outside. Yes: that's the way I like to get to Puebla: on the express airport bus literally steps (okay, not steps: three minutes walk at most) after exiting baggages/passport control. It's extremely convenient: saves one a trip to TAPO. Departures every 15-20 minutes even at 4:00 a.m. If you are still in Pubela (that's the impression I get), DO cancel a couple of days and to make it up to Zacatlan. It's one gorgeous gorgeous city. Absolutely unspoiled. Or better still, make a loop up to Zacatlan, then to Zacapoaxtla for the Wed market and then Cuetzalan for the Thurs market (also on Sun which is bigger). It will be the trip of a lifetime!!!!

      Will read carefully later.
      Richard

      1 Reply
      1. re: RST

        I haven't been there, but "zacate" is what Mexicans call grass so it must be quite grassy in green in those cities.

      2. Another nice report. When I lived in DF, Puebla was an occasional and welcome weekend respite. I loved the drive. I had a view toward Popo from home but could only see it 1 day in 10 for the smog. The drive to Puebla provides crystal clear views of the smouldering volcano from many angles, and makes the road trip.
        I'm sorry your chile en nogada experience was not more memorable. They generally are not battered and fried, but are served "naked" at room temperature. Part of the concept is to display the colors of the Mexican flag, and the poblano provides the green. In their season, it seems that every restaurant in Puebla competes to serve the best.
        The regional art and black pottery at the open air market on weekends is the last of the real thing, along with the distinctive Talavera. Your post here and about Puerto Morelos make me homesick!

        2 Replies
        1. re: Veggo

          Thanks to Veggo and RST for informative comments and corrections. In retrospect, I would have been better off if I'd read the chowhound info months before left (as we were planning itinerary, for example, and figuring out whether we should rent a car in Cancun) rather than just the night before we left. (Oakland Barb seems to have already learned this lesson.) Richard especially I hope you can tell how helpful and inspiring your Puebla posts were for me. My reports are an attempt to give a little back, and already, these replies should be helpful to others planning Mexican trips.

          1. re: howardl

            I'm in your age bracket and my best pleasure from Chowhound is the "give back" you describe, to youngsters and others who should have similar experiences with perhaps fewer dead ends and "topes" (speed bumps) in the process. I feel partially responsible for having steered 3 weddings to PDC through C'hound, and I attended them. I sure hope the marriages flourish.

        2. Enjoyed your informative report! We visited Puebla a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. In Cholula, we loved the unusual church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla - very colorful! In front was a fellow selling confections - sorry I don't know what they are called - the wafer or cookie-like sweets filled with seeds. Our driver was buying some so we also did. Yummy. I wish I'd gotten more to bring home though they are fragile so perhaps would've broken enroute.

          1. Thanks for the great trip report on Puebla. I have spent quite a bit of time there while operating bicycle tours and always eventually end up on Avenida Juarez, the so-called Zona Esmeralda. There are a lot of higher end restaurants along the upper end of the avenue and yes they can be kind of commercial but in Mexico this so well done. There is the Cantina de los Remedios which is almost like a TGIF in a US city but with great tequila and botanas. Across the street is Mi Ciudad with white table clothes and fancy service and all the great Poblano dishes on the menu. The spot I have enjoyed the most is a couple blocks further up and then just off Juarez on Tlaxco but unfortunately I can't recall the name (darn!). Anyway the specialty is spit roasted cabrito (kid goat) ....best I have ever had. The place is not so over the top fancy, just great service, good people, lots of choices and reasonable prices. All the roasted cabrito you can eat comes with excellent tortillas hecho a mano plus grilled cebollas and costs maybe $10. Gotta get back there soon!

            Downtown I have had a couple of outstanding meals in the hotel La Purificadora, a little too much Euro style but the Mexican fusion food was fabulous. Favourite spot though has to be the Hotel Royalty on the Zocalo. Very good food but just amazing people watching. I ate there alone on Dia de Los Muertos last year and was completely amused and mesmerized by the human stream for hours whilst sipping a fine anejo with sangrito.

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            La Purificadora
            Callejon de la 10 Norte 802, Puebla, PUE 72000, MX