Coughlin’s law: Always eat from street vendors.
Ok, that’s apocryphal. But it’s one of Jack’s laws. Skittles may have a lock on Taste the Rainbow, but if you really want to taste the United Colors of Benetton, there’s no better way to get at the marrow of a city foreign to your own than to sample its street food. I ate at some fine establishments on trips to China, but for my favorite meal I needed go no further than the hotel street corner in Dalian. An array of meats and vegetables to be grilled at your request and cold, cheap Tsingtao beer.
With a prodigious coastline, the state of Veracruz is known for its seafood. The menus of most restaurants are dominated by mariscos, and you see cócteles advertised everywhere you look. Even the restaurant in the chain hotel I’m staying in has an excellent shrimp cocktail, not to mention every establishment I’ve patronized whether refined or dilapidated.
Each day around noon, as we disembark to grab lunch, there is a little cart set up on a street corner taking shelter from the sun under a yawning umbrella, selling cocktails from a series of coolers. Our hotel driver was delighted with his roadside refreshment one afternoon while waiting to pick us up, so I resolved stop by another day.
For only 25 pesos (less than $2), I got a little styrofoam cup into which the earnest proprietor ladled the tomato-based cocktail “stock” with its onions and peppers and provisions of the sea. This was a cóctel of camarones (shrimp), pulpo de jaiba (shredded crab), and caracol (periwinkle, otherwise known as sea snail). Shrimp is cooked down to make the base, however from another container she added a healthy scoop of additional shrimp, then avocado from another, and doctored the lot of it with seasonings and cilantro. Whether allowing patrons to add heat to taste, or simply because these cocktails are meant to be more refreshing than hot, as a Texan I haven’t found restaurant cocktails here to be spicy, so I was pleased that this one was. Another difference between this and the restaurant fare was the caracol, which, though assuredly available if only by request, I haven’t often seen on menus and, to be honest, found a little chewy. But the shrimp and crab were incredibly fresh, and I wished I could grab one of these from street corners in Houston.
Returning to the dock on a hot afternoon with a cool cocktail in hand, packed lovingly with a lid in a little plastic bag complete with spoon and packets of Saltines (Saladitas, actually), was like going to school knowing your mom packed a Twinkie in your lunchbox but you had to wait till noon to eat it. The cocktail was bracing both from the cool contents and just enough spice to sweat the brow.
And this one won’t get Elizabeth Shue pregnant.