24 Hours in Mexico City's Most Charming Neighborhood
by Lydia Carey
Every neighborhood in sprawling Mexico City has its own schedule of chaos and calm, its own operating rhythm. From street sweeping to school bells to street corner stands, writer Lydia Carey tells you just what makes her neighborhood, La Roma, tick.
MEXICO CITY – At around 8 a.m., the comida corrida restaurant downstairs starts to prepare the day's menu. Some mornings, the scent of garlic and chile wafts up the interior shaft of our apartment building; on other days, it smells like roasting coffee or Thanksgiving dinner. By this time, the street sweepers have already made their first and second pass through the streets of La Roma neighborhood with their tree-branch brooms, and the newspaper sellers that hawk La Jornada, Universal, and El Grafico to commuters at traffic intersections are almost out of papers.
At 8:30 a.m., the juice stands are chopping fruit on street corners, filling the air with citrus and melon. The portable stands creak open and the juicers prepare the rows of plastic cups in which they will pour orange, carrot, grapefruit, and alfalfa juices for twelve pesos apiece. Mothers and fathers drag their sleepy, uniformed children to the Benito Juarez grade school down the street, and the taco stand that sells any part of the pig doused in spicy sauces and toppings is stirring what looks like a giant witch's caldron filled with pig skin and melted grease.
At 9 a.m., the gas man sings out his “gaaaaasssss” song, letting us know that we've slept past the alarm and it’s time to greet the world.
Sometime before 10 a.m., Centro Medico Park is filled with two kinds of exercisers: the kind that uses the low-impact equipment and jogs slowly around the park's cobblestone paths, and the kind that do pull-ups on the swing-set bars and play basketball on the beaten-up court. Both listen to tinny cell phone radios that play reggaeton and norteña music. Through the streets of La Roma, quesadilla, tamale, and tlayuda stands get their mid-morning rush, which will become a full-on deluge of customers when the office workers start to wander into the streets for lunch. On the menu: cochinita pibil, tacos pastor, and beef tacos served with limp french fries on top.
By 11 a.m., the restaurants on Orizaba, Alvaro Obregon, and Colima are shaking out their tablecloths, setting chairs out on the sidewalks and scrubbing the front stoop — an unwritten obligation in Mexico — with a particular soap that has become part of the morning perfume. Artists, students, and writers sit in La Lisboa, La Procedencia, and Panaderia Rosetta, typing away on laptops while their dogs wait patiently on the sidewalk for a fallen crumb of concha — a type of Mexican sweet roll.
Around noon, the screams of school kids reverberate through the streets as classes let out for the younger grades. Mothers shuffle their children past the myriad of stands set up outside school selling candies and trinkets and hustle them home for the afternoon's comida, Mexicans' big meal of the day.
At 1:30 p.m., the clanging bell of the trash men can be heard as they drive slowly down the street, waiting for neighbors to pour out from the surrounding buildings in all stages of dress — from pajamas to housecoats to Oscar de la Renta.
Comida happens between 2 and 4 p.m. Small mom-and-pop places tucked into the bottom of apartment buildings or the entryway of someone's house are overflowing with water delivery guys, taxi drivers, mechanics, beauticians, and shop owners, all devouring milanesa, chilaquiles, or menudo. At Maximo Bistro on Tonala, Cabrera on Luis Cabrera Plaza, and all along Alvero Obregon, professionals and executives lunch with clients and schmooze with business associates. Graphic designers, students, publishers with a band on the side or band members with a gig in publishing on the side gather around food carts like El Local and Chef Guevara near Rio de Jainero plaza. Lunch is a leisurely affair, which almost always includes a trip to the La Moachana ice cream shop on Tonala and Jalapa streets.
When the streets start to clear out, people walk their dogs in plazas Rio de Jainero and Luis Cabrera and kids ride bikes in circles around the fountains and play soccer on abandoned basketball courts. The junkmen that started to roam the streets in the mornings announcing “We buy mattresses, refrigerators, stoves...” over loudspeakers jimmy-rigged to the top of trucks make another pass through the city, hoping to catch a last pick-up before the end of their day.
Around 4 or 5 p.m. during rainy season, the sky opens up and engulfs the city in a downpour that can last five minutes or five hours. People rush under umbrellas to the metro and the bus, deftly avoiding puddles and dripping overhangs.
Between 6 and 7 p.m. in the dry season, the outdoor patios of Nonsolo, Volver, and Francia begin to fill with workers as they linger over a beer or glass of wine before deciding whether to stay for dinner or take the crowded metro home. Riders of the ubiquitous Ecobici speed by, and the evening set of taco stands settle in until 2 a.m., when they will finally shutter their sidewalk kitchens.
Just after sunset, you will hear the familiar whistle of the sweet potato seller whose cart rolls by, leaving the smell of woodsmoke in its wake. He serves up camote with thick sweet cream, competing with the Oaxacan tamale cart for the most attention-getting noise in the evenings. Kids play soccer on quiet side streets until midnight or 1 a.m., even on school nights, and second shifters trickle off the metro, stopping to talk to parking lot attendants and police leaning against squad cars in groups of three.
As the night goes on, cafes and taco stands fill with patrons that then move on to La Botica for a mescal, Jacalito for a beer, or to their front stoop for a tequila with cousins and neighbors. Late nights end at Los Parados, famous for its taco with cactus, beef, sausage, jerky, steak, and Oaxacan cheese. The smell of the grill and the sting of pepper floats down the sidewalk for blocks, ignoring Baja California's never-ending ribbon of cars.
Around 4 a.m., the street sweepers drag themselves from bed and begin to collect what is left over from the past 24 hours, scooping it up into metal barrels that roll down the street in the half-dawn.
And the day begins again in La Roma.