Mercado Juárez isn’t a traditional Mexican municipal market. The building on the outskirts of Aguascalientes doesn’t display bluish-gray bulbs of huitlacoche on the cob. There aren’t any chile vendors or butchers calling out their specials from behind hanging chickens. There aren’t even stalls loaded with memorabilia such as marionettes, religious icons, or soccer jerseys.
There are, however, vendors of the traditional huarache sandals and birria—a lot of birria. It’s through the dish that Mercado Juárez gets its nickname—El Mercado de la Birria, or Birria Market—as I saw when I walked through it during a recent trip to Aguascalientes.
The central Mexican city, established in 1575, may not be familiar to most Americans and Texans. It’s located six hours northwest of Mexico City and about three hours from Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende. But Aguascalientes, named for area hot springs, is noteworthy for its role in the mining and rail industries, as well as a growing automotive sector due to two Nissan plants. It has been drawing a growing American and Japanese workforce, leading to a boom in Mexican sushi places.
The city is known to Mexicans for the Feria de San Marcos, one of the largest festivals in Mexico, every April. The Día de Muertos festivities are also famous, partly because Aguascalientes is the birthplace of artist José Guadalupe Posada (one of my favorites), a renowned illustrator and lithographer known for his fashionably dressed Catrina as well as a series of calavera prints satirizing the ruling class. The Templo del Señor del Encino, a massive cathedral designed in a blend of baroque and neoclassical styles, is a pilgrimage site for its Cristo Negro del Encino, a crucifix with a Black Christ. These reasons are enough to draw a student of Mexican culture such as myself to the city, but I was also there for the food.
One of my best friends, Isidro Salas, lived there before moving to the States at six years old, and he wanted me to visit Aguascalientes with him. Armed with four pages of spreadsheets on where to eat, we were off, hungry for tacos de colores, sushi, a regional torta called a bolillo con crema, and birria.
By sheer luck, Charlie Gonzalez and Gaby Hinojosa, owners of San Antonio’s San Taco, were in Gonzalez’s native Aguascalientes for a final round of planning for their upcoming spring wedding, and offered to take us on a tour of their favorite taquerias, stands, restaurants, panaderías, and market stalls. So, basically, my spreadsheets were rendered useless. No problem. I was eager to have locals’ perspectives.
Mercado Juárez wasn’t our first stop, but it was among the most educational and wonderful—so much so, I went twice. On our first visit, the group stopped at two stalls: El Lago Azul (est. 1956) and Birrieria Los Vazquez (est. 1948). The former is in its third generation of ownership with nine locations across Aguascalientes. Both specialize in the regional style of birria de borrego (lamb). The meat is wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves and steamed, and its drippings are collected at the bottom of the pot for its “salsa” or consommé.
Steaming tempers the lamb’s gaminess, and allows the ribs to show off their addictive sweetness. The lean meat is smooth. Ask for the cuts available on display in trays behind the counter, or just point at what looks good. I doubt you can go wrong. This especially so at El Lago Azul, with its numerous adjacent stalls, one of which is operated in part by Englishman Kevin Bolger, who married Lorena Serna Silva, granddaughter of the founder. You can see Bolger at the chopping station or handling payment. Netflix viewers might know Bolger from the Taco Chronicles season-two birria episode. In his scenes, Bolger is stoic and quick-working. When Isidro and I met him, the young man was chatty, laughing with us, and took time for a photo.
The most popular presentation of birria at Mercado Juárez (at El Lago Azul and others) is on a shallow porcelain plate. The meat rises from reddish-orange salsa like an archipelago with rivulets running between the strands of juicy lamb. The chopped onions garnishing the plate add a sharpness. The corn tortillas served alongside the dish are smooth and just a tad sweet from their industrial masa harina base. Finish it off with a spritz of lime and scoop the birria into a tortilla, or eat it straight from the plate, using the tortillas to sop up the salsa.
Scattered around the low dining counter are thick plastic red bowls filled with additional accompaniments, such as glistening green chiles, peppy salsas, cilantro, limes, and Mexican oregano. Unlike the corrugated cardboard taste of American supermarket oregano, the Mexican variety carries herbaceous flavor and aromatic bursts, intensified by rubbing the dried ingredient between your palms over the birria. The scent lingers on your hands for hours.
Isidro and I returned to El Lago Azul for a second visit the next day. Then we went on to El Laberinto, where the birria is roasted (tatemada in Spanish) for up to six hours at low temperatures. The preparation leaves the lamb with deeper flavor, a gaminess that might turn others off, but one that Isidro and I relished.
We ate more birria at Birrieria Pepe’s, in north Aguascalientes. It was also wonderful, but not as much as the plates of lamb we enjoyed at Mercado Juárez. The tacos at Las Planchitas, a chain specializing in what Americans would call beef quesabirria, were serviceable but nothing like the Aguascalientes-style birria at the Mercado.
We also visited taquerias serving lechon (suckling pig). Tender and at times crunchy due to the chicharron, with a dark plop of salsa verde, the tacos were worth the wait. The stands we visited had long lines that moved quickly. Alongside the cathedral of La Purísima, in the neighborhood of the same name, the puestos peddle their own variety of tacos. My favorite slings tacos estilo San Juan de los Lagos. Named for the nearby city in Jalisco, the tacos are filled with carne asada, chorizo, or both, and topped with whole beans and mashed potatoes. They’ve heavy, rich in flavor, and delightful in texture. But, to be honest, one is sufficient.
Tacos estilo San Juan de los Lagos weren’t part of my original dining plan, but bolillos con crema were first on my wish list. We did eventually stop at the panadería Mayoral to try one. Also known as tortas de resistol and tortas de albañil, bolillos con crema are not for the lactose intolerant. One end of a roll is cut off and the interior is removed. Then the cavity is filled with crema and rectangles of ham. Finally, a pickled jalapeño is shoved into the bolillo. The sandwich is messy and fantastic. I loved chomping down on a section and then taking a bite of the chile, just as much as I now love Aguascalientes, birria, bolillo, and all.