When you’re travelling, especially if you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language very well, it can be difficult to find “authentic” places to eat or spots where you might actually see a local (and pay local prices). But on a recent trip to Mexico, I discovered an easy way to get a taste of cheap, local fare – check out the town square.
In the evenings, the town square in Isla Mujeres is a local gathering place. Framed by the local church, a basketball court, and the supermarket, it’s the hub of activity, especially on Saturday evenings. Once dusk falls, the vendors emerge, selling food of every variety – some made right on the spot, and some carefully transported from home kitchens. We decided we had to make a meal of their creations.
After whetting our appetites with fresh-made tacos and Mexican-style corn on the cob, we approached a cart where a couple was hard at work. The woman was working dough with her hands and cooking it in oil while her husband, in a carnival-barker voice, called patrons over to have a look. We approached, and asked the man in our limited Spanish what his wife was making.
He answered in English: “Cheese and banana.” This sounded like a decidedly un-Mexican dish, and a peculiar combination. Plus, we saw no sign of any bananas on or near the cart. I asked again, just to confirm that I’d heard correctly: “Cheese and banana?”
The man nodded vigorously: “Si, cheese and banana.” Well, we figured, we might as well give it a try. For 10 pesos (about US$1), how could we go wrong? We gave the man our coins, and he handed over one of the hot, doughy creations. I took a bite. There was cheese, yes, but definitely no banana. Puzzled, but loving whatever it was we were eating, we gobbled up our gooey treat. As I took the last bite, I finally realized what it was, and what the vendor had really been saying: Not cheese and banana, but cheese empanada!
We rounded out that night’s enormous meal with sweet Mexican bread and deep-fried bananas with cream. It wasn’t exactly a health-conscious meal, but it was local, delicious, and cheap – the grand total for two: $6. Rubbing our bellies contentedly, we walked home along the seawall. The next night, of course, we went back to the square this time for churros and homemade flan.
If you try it:
Most street food items (from tacos, to flan, to those tasty empanadas) go for 10 to 20 pesos, depending on the size of the serving and how many tourists frequent the area (more tourists = higher prices). The servings look small, but they’re filling. If you want to try more than a few items, plan to share.