It’s been interesting to see what middle-class Mexicans will tell foreigners about street food here in Oaxaca. First, they start by telling you never, never to eat street food and to only eat raw fruits or vegetables if they have a good, thick removable skin. I’m not quite sure what the danger is, beyond your usual food poisoning. Although guidebooks and locals will tell foreigners that they have to be careful because their sensitive foreign stomachs aren’t used to the local bacterial blend, middle-class Oaxaquenos themselves are careful about where they buy food on the street and they also carefully disinfect lettuce and other produce by soaking them in iodine and water before eating raw salads. Every morning, you can hear a guy shouting in the street, “Agua! Agua!”, as he delivers big plastic canisters of purified water. And no one ever asks how you want your meat cooked—there’s only one option when the butchers don’t use refrigerators. Can you imagine what the raw food movement would do here?
Their exhortations not to eat street food were so strong, I did wonder at first, if there was something that made street food in Oaxaca more dangerous than in Thailand or Haiti or any of the other places I’ve eaten street food. But when I started to press them, even the American staff at my school backed down and said, “Well, I eat street food. We just don’t want anyone blaming us if they get sick.” Pretty soon, I started to get tips from my Mexican family, the cooking teacher at ICO, and my private teacher, about the fruit juice seller at Mercado Juarez that uses purified water, or Senora Angelita whose corn, on and off the cob, is “muy limpia.”
One of the biggest factors in determining the cleanliness of a vendor is how they handle money. Many of the reputedly clean people have a helper who handles all the money, while he or she handles all the food. But if their helper is absent, the favored method seems to be to put on a thin plastic glove before handling the money, and then taking it off to go back to cooking food. I like it. Any serious cook would agree that it’s hard to determine when food is done through plastic or rubber, but the NYC Department of Health would have a collective heart attack.
So now that my Spanish classes are in the afternoon, I have from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to do nothing. I spend most of my morning (and admittedly, most of the night before) thinking about where I am going to eat lunch. Wednesday was my appointed day to go eat at the recommended, “very clean” torta truck, “La Hormiga” in Conzati Park. “Hormiga” means ant, and the truck accordingly has a very happy ant smiling at its customers. The truck itself gleams with cleanliness, and it’s always crowded, particularly when school lets out.
A torta reminds me very much of a Vietnamese banh-mi. If it’s ordinary, it’s nothing more than a sandwich. (And personally, I am not big into sandwiches.) But if the bread is toasted right and the crust crackles as you bite into it, and the sharply salty filling is balanced, by creamy avocado and cheese in a torta or by tart pickled vegetables in a banh-mi, it can be so much more satisfying than a sandwich deserves to be. Or perhaps it would be fairer to compare a torta with a panini, since both get toasted and pressed on a grill, and the Platonic ideal of both sandwiches recognize that the bread is as important as the filling.
I wouldn’t say that “La Hormiga” is on the level of Saigon Banh Mi at the back of the jewelry store on Mott St. at the corner of Grand, or my favorite little ‘Ino in the West Village, but my torta with cecina, a spicy, shredded pork, and quesillo was crackly, salty, and balanced like an Olympic gymnast. ¡Qué sabrosa!