A comedor is smaller than a restaurant, but more substantial than a mere stove set up along the sidewalk. Food selection is usually limited to one or two main items, and you can order coffee and soft drinks. In a corner of the Super Mercado de Carnes, dozens of comedores stand next to one another, isle after isle. I walk among them wondering how to choose between them, and how, because there are so many, any make enough money to survive.
Finally I pass one with three bouquets on the counter, a four-foot high arrangement of bright-red gladiolus and white baby's-breath, another consisting of a glass filled with roses, and the last holding a large, deep- green shock of parsley. This comedor, like all others here, is about fifteen feet wide and ten feet deep. Inside, instead of the usual one or two cooks, there are six women and one man. Of the six women, five are in their early twenties, and the other is a middle-aged woman whom at least one of the girls calls Mamá. Despite there being no customers, everyone keeps very busy, except for the young man sitting in the corner next to the money box, coolly chewing a toothpick.
The older woman possesses a handsome face reflecting strength and character; one sees that she has worked very hard in her life. Since her teeth are profoundly bucked and her upper incisors are rimmed with silver, her unreserved smile is simply dazzling. She notices my interest, waves me over, and enthusiastically summarizes the glories of her cooking:
"I choose the freshest vegetables and fry them in our secret batter, never too long, just enough to impart to them a perfect texture and flavor. A little salsa verde, or salsa roja if you prefer, on the top, and then the beans with just enough fried onion to make the flavor the way we like it. Our stew is the best, a harmonious blend of herbs... "
It's clear that the señora knows she's putting on a show, and she's loving the attention, and loving making all of us laugh. I pull up a stool and order bean soup. As I wait for my order, I try to talk with the girls, but they're so busy it's hard. Finally I ask one what it's like working in a comedor.
Obviously she has mixed feelings. She starts to answer several times, but always reconsiders. Finally she laughs and says, "Well, the good part is getting to dispense so much good food to nice people, and getting to know them, but the bad part is the hard work and long hours, and how easy it is to get fat!"
The dish I'm served isn't what I expected, but it looks great. It's a large bowl of very spicy tomato broth in which swim both a large hunk of deep-fried cauliflower, and a dollop of the lady's famous "onioned black-beans." A substantial mound of hot tortillas is served on a saucer covered with a pretty cloth.
As I'm being served, the señora asks if everything looks OK; as I'm eating she asks if it tastes good; when I'm finished, she asks if I enjoyed it. She also asks what a gringo like me is doing in the mercado, so I tell her about my writing project. When I rise to leave, she places her hand over her heart, smiles crookedly, and launches into another performance.
"Señor gringo," she says, " please write that we here in our little comedor in the heart of Mexico City's ancient historic section send our sincere greetings to your esteemed readers, and invite them to come eat with us."
The girls explode into laughter, and I promise to write her words. My meal's cost is 83¢/. I try to pay a dollar because I received so much more than I had expected, but the tip is refused...