Mexico Eats

Ex-Texan explores authentic Mexico City street food in new cookbook and cooking class

Ex-Texan explores authentic Mexico City street food in new cookbook

Lesley Tellez
Author Lesley Tellez learned about Mexican food first-hand. Photo courtesy of Lesley Tellez

If you're going to talk about a cuisine with authority, there's one surefire way to get it: Go to the source and eat it there. Author and former Texan Lesley Tellez did that one better: She lived in Mexico for four years, giving her a fluency with the cuisine and culture that she shares in a new cookbook, Eat Mexico: Recipes From Mexico City's Streets, Markets and Fondas (Kyle Books).

Tellez, who previously wrote for the Dallas Morning News, grew up in California and moved to Mexico when her husband was transferred there. The move connected her with her own roots, a journey she documented on her food blog, The Mija Chronicles. In 2010, she formed a company called Eat Mexico, in which she offers private tours of Mexico's markets, tacos and street food.

"A year and a half into living in Mexico, I felt like I wanted to write a memoir about my time living there," she says. "But I was too happy for a memoir. I was happily married, I loved living in Mexico and I didn't have any conflict."

 Eat Mexico includes recipes from markets and Mexican home-style restaurants, but the centerpiece is the chapter on street food.

That led to the idea for a cookbook. "My whole experience in Mexico City revolved around the food and sharing with other people," she says.

She'll do some sharing at a cooking class she will teach at Central Market on Saturday (July 18) at 6:30 pm.

Eat Mexico includes recipes from markets and Mexican home-style restaurants, but the centerpiece is the chapter on street food.

"Street food was my original entryway into traditional Mexican food," she says. "When I first got there, I would go around trying to find an apartment, and I was so hungry. Previously, I would've gone into a convenience store and bought a snack. But there you have another option. You smell these grilled meats, and that's what you want."

The reason street food thrives in Mexico City is that the population demands it, she says.

"There are people living in densely populated neighborhoods, using public transportation to get to work," she says. "Or they're walking to work and want somewhere to eat. A lot of people have long commutes. They're hungry by the time they get to work."

Mexico City has a liberal attitude toward street vendors.

"There are rules, but not everybody follows them," she says. "Cheap food is tolerated. It's not legal, but city officials aren't trying to shut everybody down. It's a culture that has existed since the early days of Mexico City, after it gained its independence in 1821, of people wandering the streets selling stuff."

She also explored traditional restaurants where you sit down for multiple courses.

"It's easy to be seduced by street food because it is so vibrant and interesting," she says. "But there are 'fondas' where you get more composed plates. You get a three-course meal, with soup, rice and your main plate. It could be a mole or a chile relleno or liver and onions; it changes every day."

One of her favorite causes is better tortillas, made from nixtamal — corn kernels — rather than from pre-packaged corn flour.

"I wish we had more of an appreciation in the United States for fresh nixtamal," she says. "We have artisan bakers and food movements and access to great ingredients. Why don’t we have more of an appreciation for fresh nixtamal?

"A fresh corn tortilla is an incredible experience. There's no reason we should continue to eat the awful kind where you open a plastic bag. That's not a real corn tortilla. If we're spending so much time creating these wonderful fillings, why is the tortilla pushed to the side?"

Now a resident of New York, Tellez has become an evangelist for Mexico City and Mexican cuisine.

"There's a growing awareness that what people are eating further down in Mexico and Mexico City, and the interior states is different from what we've been consuming," she says. "There's so much to explore."