A mariachi musician taking a lunch break at Mercado Benito Juarez in Guadalajara (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
You don’t hear much about it these days, but I just love Guadalajara. I think this is one of the most underrated cities in Mexico. Did you know that Guadalajara was the birthplace of mariachi music? (Yeah, neither did I, until recently.)
I travel to Mexico frequently, but I hadn’t thought much about Guadalajara lately. Hadn’t been there in seven or eight years. But on a recent tequila-tasting trip to Jalisco, I had a chance to spend a bit more time in Guadalajara—and now I can’t wait to go back. The dining scene here seems fantastic on both ends of the spectrum. Although I barely had time to scratch the surface, I did come away with two truly outstanding culinary experiences, one rather upscale and trendy, the other completely lowbrow and traditional.
Lopez Diaz Birrieria at Mercado Benito Juarez (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
Let’s start with the lowbrow. You’ll definitely want to visit Mercado Benito Juarez in Tlaquepaque, and you might want to make this your very first stop when you arrive into town. Tlaquepaque is often described as a suburb of Guadalajara, but it is best not to think of Tlaquepaque as a “suburb” because that makes it sound far away and inaccessible. It’s actually not far at all from the city center. Getting there is quick and simple. Tlaquepaque was actually founded as a separate town circa 1530, but it was eventually (long ago) swallowed up by Guadalajara and is now one of the city’s most beautiful and charming neighborhoods with some of the area’s best art galleries and artisan boutiques.
Taco at Lopez Diaz Birrieria at Mercado Benito Juarez (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
Just off the Jardin Hidalgo (Tlaquepaque’s main square), you’ll find the bustling Mercado Benito Juarez (at the corner of calles Obregon and Morelos). This is a classic Mexican mercado with a bustling food court tucked into the basement. This is easily one of the best traditional food courts in Mexico. Head downstairs and get ready to drool. Oh, my god, it smells so good down here. You’ll find dozens of stalls selling all sorts of Mexican food: pozole, tacos, birria, pepian, mole, enchiladas, quesadillas, tortas… Most stalls specialize in just one thing, and they tend to do it very, very well. You’ll want to dine around and sample as many stalls as possible, even though every stall owner will try to convince you to stay put and eat everything on the menu. One of my favorite kiosks is Lopez Diaz Birrieria, which sells excellent tacos filled with birria, which is one of Guadalajara’s more famous dishes. Birria is meat that’s been slow-cooked with smoked chiles and spices until the meat is fork tender and falling apart. They make the birria here with both goat and beef, so you can pick whichever you prefer. I prefer the beef.
Making fresh tortillas to order at Lopez Diaz Birrieria at Mercado Benito Juarez (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
They press and cook the tortillas on the spot using an antique wooden tortilla press. They make them as they need them and not a minute before—so they’re always incredibly fresh and soft. They also sell the birria in soup form, too, and they even stuff it into quesadillas.
The namesake dish at Pozole Ely at Mercado Benito Juarez (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
Just a few steps from the birrieria, you’ll find Pozole Ely, a stall that specializes in pozole (soup made with pork and hominy) as well as incredible fried tacos. I’ve always known pozole to be made with a red-chile broth, but here at Ely, the broth is made without chiles, so its color is almost clear, like chicken stock. Here’s how it works: They serve you a bowl of the pork-laden broth, and they hand it to you along with shredded cabbage, limes and radishes. They then point you toward a selection of freshly made salsas of varying levels of hotness and color, from mild green to nuclear orange. The soup is surprisingly tasty on its own without the salsa. But, wow, the salsas are extraordinary, especially the deep red chile arbol salsa, which really packs a wallop and gives the pozole that smoky, earthy, fiery flavor to which I am accustomed.
Mercado Benito Juarez (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
Come dinnertime, you’ll want to make your way to I Latina, a restaurant that’s been around for a while but still feels like an insider’s secret. It’s located in an old warehouse next to the train tracks near downtown. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, especially if you show up before 8pm. Nobody eats before 8 in Guadalajara. But arrive just a little later, and there will surly be a crowd of folks waiting in line for a table. The live band takes to the floor around 9pm, sometimes later, and cranks out wickedly cool instrumental covers of bands like The Killers, The Cure and Adele. I mean, you’ve never really heard Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep&rdq
uo; until you’ve heard it covered by a Mexican jazz/rock band with a stand-up bass, electric guitar and screaming saxophone. Pretty awesome stuff.
The house band at I Latina in Guadalajara (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
The decor is as kitschy as it gets, a mishmash of vintage furniture, hilarious wallpaper and an ironic art collection that includes a stuffed marlin and a few mounted ducks. The menu is just as quirky—but seriously delicious: an east-west marriage of Mexico and Southeast Asia. It is absolutely brilliant fusion.
Duck tacos, cochonita pibil style at I Latina in Guadalajara (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
There are fish tacos in which the tortillas aren’t tortillas at all but rather sheaths of daikon. Another round of tacos are filled with shredded, achiote-marinated duck that’s been seasoned and served like cochinita pibil. The fried calamari comes with red curry mayo. And lettuce wraps are stuffed with grilled shrimp, mint and spicy tomatillo salsa.
Fish tacos with daikon wrappers at I Latina in Guadalajara (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
Oh, and the cocktails are incredible, especially the Tequila Arrayán, which I’ve been trying like hell to replicate at home, except that I can’t find two of the key ingredients—arrayán juice and Jarabe Natural—in Los Angeles. The restaurant gave me the recipe: 2 oz. tequila, ½ oz. lime juice, 3 oz. arrayán juice (a myrtle tree fruit; tastes a lot like guava), ½ oz. Jarabe Natural (a supposedly natural sweetener made from who knows what, available who knows where; comes in a bottle that looks like bitters), and chile pequin powder. Combine all the ingredients except the chile powder in a blender, then add a handful of ice; blend well. Pour the frozen concoction into a glass rimmed with the chile pequin powder. Hell, for all I know, they could be pulling my leg with the arrayán juice and Jarabe Natural. But whatever is in this thing, holy cow, it’s good.
This article can also be found at MexicoToday.org, which syndicates my content about Mexico. All stories and opinions about México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today never tells me what to write or say, nor does the organization limit or restrict the scope of my stories or critiques. You can trust that I will always share my honest, unfiltered thoughts and commentary about the places I visit south of the border.