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El Rincón del Oso

Mercado Hidalgo, Calle Victoria #47, Baja

The grasshoppers lie in a golden pile. Their little barbed legs point every which way. Their torsos look like mini accordions stretched back on one side, their bellies greeny-pale with dark red stripes.

"You don't want to eat them?" says María.

Oh man. This is too much. The whole market is too much. I'm sitting in the restaurant part of a Oaxaqueño store in the middle of Mercado Miguel Hidalgo (named after Father Miguel Hidalgo, the Paul Revere of Mexican independence), the market that's a little piece of central Mexico right here in Tijuana. We have nothing like this in San Diego. It's like being in a 1950s movie with Ricardo Montalban. It's the tropics brought north.

I first got here in the morning, off the "Otay" bus from the border. I walked up Federico Javier Mina street from Las Tijeras -- "the Scissors," as tijuanenses jokingly call their twin-spiked Independence Monument, to Guadalupe Victoria street, and there -- wow. Sensory overload! Crowds milling in a market square. Sacks of strange seeds, beans, peas, dried fruits, medicinal woods, minerals, herbs, fruit, vegetables, all opened for customers' inspection, either in the blaring sunlight off the backs of trucks or along the deep-shaded alleyways under the perimeter buildings. Music played from speakers in the middle of the square. I got lost among the crowds, the barrows, the music, the aromas of herbs, fruits, and the occasional waft of smoke bearing the irresistible smell of carne asada.

Then I saw, rising up in the middle of the market, a blue-and-white glass dome. A market chapel! Except the speakers attached to its walls don't broadcast calls to the Christian faithful, but the ranchero music that gives the whole place its jaunty feel. Plus, right then, a light plane flew in and started circling low overhead, with a guy holding a megaphone through the window, yelling out something about a liquidación sale. How can you beat that?

Where to begin? I was hot, sweaty, and thirsty and needed something to drink. I followed the ruckus among the produce trucks angle-parked in the middle of the plaza. One well-worn green-and-cream monster had nothing but tomatoes on board. It had just made the 24-hour trip up from Sinaloa. Next to it, guys stripped down eight-foot stalks of sugar cane. Others scraped spines off cactus paddles.

"Cocos! Twenty pesos! From Colima!" called this guy, Margarito. He was standing at the back of a dusty green veteran truck, an ancient Dina 800, in the middle of a pile of green coconuts. I made a beeline. He held one by its umbilical cord, a shiny-bladed machete in his other hand. I needed that coconut. Coconuts don't short you before you have quenched your thirst.

Margarito wielded the machete like a juggler. Sweat glistened on his red forehead and up into his blue bandanna as he cut a big slice down one side, another down the second. And fast. Chop chop chop. I sweated bullets for his fingers. Finally, he held the coconut up, flicked his machete horizontally one more time. It nicked off the remaining bobble at the top. You could see the milk glistening inside.

"Dos dólares," he said as he jammed a straw down the hole.

Ah, the relief. Not chilled, but surprisingly cool. Margarito said his boss, the elderly guy chatting on the far side of the coconut pile, brings 10,000 coconuts up from Colima ("Domain of the Gods" in Náhuatl/Olmec language) every month. That's a three-day drive.

So now, for a serious meal, I headed for a goat-meat place. I'd been hearing about El Rincón del Oso from the taco-stall owners around this end of town. Problem was, by the time I navigated and sampled my way through stalls selling papayas, a dozen different kinds of bananas, zapotes (types of persimmon), tunas and pitayas (both cactus fruits), guamuchel (sweet fruit of the bread and cheese tree, also called the manila tamarind), dragonfruit, and on and on -- fruit you won't find in Vons -- I had to take a break at Comedor La Oaxaqueña, deep in the shadowy northeast alleys of the market. Oaxaca, I'd heard, has the richest cuisine in the country. Dozens of different moles. I figured this would be an interesting little food safari right here. I sat down.

* * *

Except nobody mentioned grasshoppers. Now, here I am, freeze-framed, having ordered chapulines without really thinking, and looking down at the beady little black eyes of a zillion grasshoppers, then up to the big questioning brown eyes of María.

María's dressed in traditional Oaxacan garb, wide white pants with flowery decorations down the sides, and a white top with a protective smock over it.

"Perhaps a shot of mescal would help?" she says.

Yes. Good idea. Dutch courage for Mexican food. I nod. She fills a shot glass with Oro de Oaxaca, places it on a saucer next to a little pile of brown powder under a wedge of lime, and brings it over.

"That's sal de gusano," she says about the brown stuff. "Traditional with every glass of mescal." It's a combo of salt, dried red chiles, and roasted agave worms -- the caterpillars that live in the agave plant. In Mexican food, nature, in-your-face life, always seems that much closer.

I sip a lipful of the mescal, taste its smoky agaveness, spend a moment considering how it's by far the oldest liquor anywhere in North America, then lift up my first beady-eyed grasshopper by its left back leg...

Grasshopper-eating's a very Oaxacan thing. And smart: when those locust swarms happen, you're looking at hundreds of tons of free protein on the wing. Why not stick up the net and eat them before they eat your crops?

Somehow though, that thought isn't comforting now. Ho-kay...crunch. Wow. Salty. Fried-tasting, crackly, squishy, like peanuts with soft centers. But more tasty than that sounds. I keep going. Trying to look casual. It's easier if I just grab and crunch, rather than look each victim in the eyes.

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