Plaza San Angel, Avenida México, Baja
"All that blood sacrifice stuff? I don't believe it," says Rogelio Franco. "Because guess who wrote the story? Not us Aztecs. It was the conquistadors. The Church. The Aztec culture is not well defended."
I can believe it. We don't hear the Aztec version. And he who tells the story wins, right?
We're sitting here in Plaza San Angel, just on the other side of the footbridge across the Tijuana River. It's amazing how I've walked past this place a thousand times, on the way up to Revolución, and never stopped.
This time, everything looked the same. Guys stood outside their souvenir stalls, hawking glass-bladed swords and sombreros and bracelets they swore came from the silver mines of Taxco. But this time, I stopped beside a bunch of hammocks a guy named Oscar had strung up for sale. Because, for the first time, the sign to the right of the hammocks sank in.
"Aztec Food Michelle."
Huh. Aztec food. And what food can you lay at their doorstep? Oh man. Where to begin? I read a list once that amazed me. Lessee if I can remember: squashes, corn, tortillas, tomatoes (from the Aztec language, tomatl), the potato, for crying out loud. Also, chocolate, chiles, avocados, chewing gum, peanuts, vanilla, pineapples, papaya, and hey, they invented popcorn. Just think, Hollywood would never have happened without the Aztecs! And imagine a world without French fries. Come to think of it, what da heck did the rest of us eat before Columbus sailed the ocean blue?
And then, upstairs, above Aztec Food Michelle, I saw what looked like a kind of Aztec nightclub. It was decorated with realistic figures and mythical creatures, iguanas, Kokopeli (the Hopis' prankster god), topped by a giant Aztec calendar hung between metal-sculpted words: "Mangos Tijuana."
So I ambled over through a bunch of Corona and Sol umbrella tables, past a new goldy-green copper fountain with water curling sexily over the top of a giant olla. It hits me what a perfect Old Mexico plaza this is. They have recently added little two-story traditional buildings -- empty so far -- with narrow streets, bushy green rows of ficus trees, and two fountains.
Right now, for us gringos, George Harrison's singing "My Sweet Lord." Aah. Nice.
So first I go visit the man and woman behind the counter of the open-air kitchen. But when I ask which items are, like, really Aztec, they call over this waiter Augustin.
"Here's the problem," says Augustin, when he's got me seated at a Sol beer table. "The Aztec cook? He left, along with his wife Michelle."
Great. Well, they have all the normal things, like sopes, tacos, guisados (stews), empanadas, gorditas, and tostadas. But then I start spotting words I don't know. Tlacollos, pambazo, huitlacoche.
"Can they do me a pambazo?" I ask. It has "red bread, cheese, potatoes with chorizo, lettuce, and cream." It's $1.50 on the menu. Can't lose at that price. "Of course," says Augustin. So I order that and a Sprite ($1.00).
While I'm waiting, a mariacho comes up, Dimitre. Lively guy. Says he's 77. "I'm the only mariacho in Tijuana who can play 'Tequila,' " he says, and launches in just to prove it. He's good. "That's why they call me 'Mr. Tequila,'" he says, just as Augustin brings my pambazo on a plate. "Okay, Pancho," Augustin says. They call every gringo "Pancho" around here. But then he goes Pam! The man bops me on the head. What the...?
"They call this the Veracruz sandwich. But pambazo means a 'hit.'"
He does it again -- Pam! -- and laughs. This guy's a character. "Buen provecho," he says.
One bite, and I realize my pambazo's probably not too Aztec. But it is tasty, a big broad bread with some hot sauce on top and this potatoey, cheesy, chorizo-stuffed interior.
That's when Augustin brings over Rogelio. "You're interested in Aztec?" he says. "This man knows Aztec."
"I'm 100 percent Aztec," says Rogelio. He sits down. "I was born at the Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacán. My father was a traditional Aztec chiropractor." Turns out he owns the Mangos Tijuana dance place above. He makes metal sculptures and fountains -- including this fountain. But he sculpted the whole upstairs in copper.
"Try the tlacollos," he says. "Those are original Aztec." I see on the menu that it comes with lima beans, cottage cheese, and refried beans, $2.00. Rogelio goes himself and orders me one. When Augustin brings it, he's amazed. "This is the first tlacollo I've seen this cook make," he says. "I thought he couldn't."
It's a lipped tortilla disk loaded with the lima beans and frijoles and tastes pretty much like that. Not exactly thrilling, but filling, and I hear it's often done with, like, strips of beef and other goodies on top.
But what's really classic, Rogelio says, is the huitlacoche, a kind of, uh, black mold that grows on ears of corn, along with flor de calabaza (pumpkin or squash flowers). "We make it with onions, chile, oil, and chocolate...."
The joke is that the word huitlacoche translates as "crow's poop." Love it! So the Aztecs had a sense of humor. I honestly would try this, except I'm out of bread. True! What with the food, paying Dimitre, and a bracelet I got for Carla, I'm near tapped out, runnin' on the rims.
But for that huitlacoche I will definitely be back. Mold as delicacy! Who knew? And I wanna taste more from this culture that -- let's face it -- gave us half of the food we eat today. Makes you wonder who really won that culture war.