The writer eating donkey jerky. // © 2018 Lawrence Ferber
Feature image (above): Mexico is home to the world’s largest variety of edible bugs. // © 2018 Lawrence Ferber
Order a margarita in Mexico City, and chances are, the rim will be lined with an amber-toned salt. It’s called sal de gusano in Spanish, which translates to “worm salt.”
Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: salt with ground-up caterpillars found in agave plants. “Earthy” and “nutty” may be too cliche as descriptions, but worm salt certainly has a smoky, distinctive flavor, and its texture is not unlike crushed popcorn kernel husks.
Just about every upscale bar and restaurant in Mexico City uses worm salt today, including Pujol, a fixture on world’s best restaurants lists. Although this is a recent trend, insects have been a popular protein in Mexico since the Aztec days (the country is home to the world’s largest variety of edible insects). It’s not surprising to find ants or small chapulines (grasshoppers) as garnishes in guacamole and tacos — and these are just a few examples of the many exotic foods and beverages that adventurous gringo tourists can sample in the cosmopolitan, culture-packed metropolis.
Ready for bragging rights and social media posts? Here are a handful of local specialties and where to find them.
This street food can be spotted at Chapultepec Park’s lively weekend market. Bright-red hunks of meat, donkey jerky is chewy, surprisingly moist and incredibly gamey in flavor. The vendor will douse them in a semi-spicy sauce if you like. Remember to ask for napkins.
Escamoles are ant egg sacs. These tender white capsules, which look like plump, shiny risotto, are mild and pleasant. At Restaurante El Cardenal, a local family favorite for weekend breakfast, you can try a tasty Spanish omelet with escamoles. Yes: It’s eggs times two. Don’t miss out on some hand-churned hot chocolate, too.
At streetside taco stands in many parts of Mexico City, keep an — ahem — eye out for tacos de ojo (eye tacos), which typically feature cow eyeballs. When I ordered one, the vendor chopped the plum-sized eye with a cleaver, using mostly its beefy stem. It had the texture and flavor of tongue. With enough salsa, onion and other condiments laid on, though, it’s just another tasty taco.
Downtown’s San Juan Market is a mecca for exotic ingredients (think: jars of worm salt, Oaxacan ant salsa and lion or tiger meat) and prepared food, some of which will raise even locals’ eyebrows. At the stall Mexico en el Paladar, you can try Madagascar cockroaches, scorpions and a degustation plate of creepy critters, or you can take a real plunge with a fried tarantula (a financial splurge at $27, to boot). A more-daring-than-I friend tried it, testifying that while the legs were crispy and palatable, the bulbous body was akin to a “gooey, exploding quail egg.”
Gusanos de Maguey
You’ll truly get a grasp on the hard-to-pinpoint flavor of worm salt when you get a mouthful of these hearty caterpillars, which are found on agave plants and their leaves. (That’s what they get for messing with the source of mezcal and tequila.) Try gusanos in a tortilla with guacamole and salsa at Restaurante Bar Chon, which specializes in pre-Hispanic dishes. While it has a tacky interior and prices run high — about $20 for a small plate of plump, red gusanos or $16 for white ones — you can be assured that everything is clean and safe. It also serves a mean (and bug-free) horchata (a cinnamon rice drink).
Mosquito eggs are known as Mexican caviar. Resembling chia seeds, yet tinier and lighter in color, this expensive delicacy is the star ingredient of another Restaurante Bar Chon house specialty: vegetable-based patties smothered in green salsa or dark, rich mole sauce (my server recommended the latter). Reportedly typical of South Central Mexico’s Santa Isabel Ixtapan community, the eggs impart a crackly texture to the cake-like discs, as if they were stray grit you would find in a salad, but they disintegrate after some chewing. Consider this vengeance on the bloodsuckers.
This drink is made from fermented agave sap, and it could be Mexico City’s most acquired taste. Thick, slimy, stringy and available in different flavors (oat topped with cinnamon is a local favorite), pulque tastes a bit like kombucha — and the more fermented it is, the more it hits you. Pulquerias, bars dedicated to this boozy beverage, include the Roma neighborhood’s hip, creative Pulqueria Insurgentes.