A town founded by the Spaniards for the Spaniards is today a proud Mexican city for the entire world. The influence from European, Asian and indigenous cultures is captured in its mix of colors and flavors, as witnessed in the variety of its architecture, ceramics and gastronomy. It’s a city that welcomes strolls and discovery, thanks to its safety and hundreds of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. However, it hasn’t been frozen in time, and it has opened itself up to modernity.
There are several things that captured my attention during my stay in the city and others that impressed me. Among them were the pride Poblanos have in their state and their city, the safety and tranquility with which one can stroll around the streets at such a relaxed pace and the city’s new official name, established last year: Cuatro Veces Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza (Four Times Heroic Puebla of Zaragoza). The city has gone through different names, including Puebla de Zaragoza, Puebla de Los Angeles and, when it was founded, City of Los Angeles. What impressed me most was the extreme contrast between the Historic Old Town of the city and the modern part, known as Angelópolis — super modern with highways, shopping malls, apartment and office towers, and high-end residential developments. I learned that the growth in this zone has occurred in the last five years. It’s like going from the 16th century to the 21st just by crossing the street.
Puebla was founded in April 16, 1531, with the intention to erect the perfect city on the banks of the San Francisco River. It’s laid out in the form of a grid, where all blocks are the same length. Diverse populations of indigenous workers settled on the opposite side of the river and coexisted there without any military impositions. The influence from the Catholic Church was profound, and several religious orders founded their convents and seminaries here; proof of this lies in the 63 churches that exist in the Old Town today, of which 55 are still in use. The Old Town occupies an area of 4.3 square miles, with 2,619 registered monuments in 391 blocks. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1987.
Currently, the state of Puebla is in the eastern center of Mexico without access to the sea, but before 1849, the territory went from coast to coast, including the Veracruz port on the Gulf of Mexico and Acapulco on the Pacific Ocean. The city of Puebla took care of customs duties for both ports and controlled all the merchandise that was headed for Mexico City, currently 84 miles away by road. Consequently, the interchange brought together European and Asian influences threaded with indigenous customs to create the rich culture observed today.
On the Streets
Due to the gridded layout, it’s very easy to orient oneself along the city’s streets, so with a good pair of walking shoes I set out to explore on foot. For longer distances, a taxi is the best option, and believe me there are plenty, and they’re very affordable too. There’s also Turibús, which covers the main tourists sites; you can hop on and hop off at various stops for a fixed rate. Either way, the first thing is to visit the city center, the Zócalo. The Municipal Palace is there, and just a few steps away is the Office of Tourist Information, where all types of tips and maps are generously provided. In front, find a pretty park and the majestic cathedral. The plaza, lined with cafés that offer outdoor seating, is bustling with people. Without a defined plan, but with a map in hand, I walked the streets in search of hidden gems. I set out to visit the cathedral dedicated to the Immaculate Conception (1649); its towers can be seen from anywhere in the city, it’s no wonder, since they are the tallest on the continent. On one side of the cathedral is Palafoxiana Library (1647), preserved as it was since its origins and recognized by UNESCO as a “Memory of the World” on June 2005 for being the first public library in America. A block south is the Amparo Museum, with a collection of pre-Hispanic art second only to that of the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. A few blocks from the Zócalo, competing with the cathedral for attention, is the impressive Chapel of the Rosario. Due to its lavish architecture and design, it has been known as the “eighth wonder of the world” since its opening in 1690.
It’s worth a walk along the authentic 6 Oriente Street, also known as La Calle de los Dulces, which is lined with establishments that offer hundreds of exquisite candies made from recipes credited to the nuns from the surrounding convents. There are shops that are quite hard to come by nowadays, such as one with a tailor who does custom-made shirts, or Don Carlos Quesada’s store that makes toy soldiers from lead. On the same street, the Museo de la Revolucion Mexicana is housed in what used to be the residence of the Serdán brothers, leaders of the Mexican Revolution who were killed by police two days before the conflict erupted on Nov. 20, 1910. The façade of the building still exhibits the bullet holes.
A stroll through the gardens of San Francisco is very pleasant. The design by the city is excellent in transforming an industrial area into green spaces and functional edifices. Another walk worth mentioning is through the 6 Sur Street or the Callejón del Sapo (Toad’s Alley), which ends at the Plazuela de los Sapos, where several antique shops are gathered. An even more eclectic ambiance is found in the Xannetla Neighborhood, a project finished in 2012 by Ciudad Mural, a group created by young people to improve perceptions of the area and revitalize tourism. And at night, El Barrio del Artista is a fun and bohemian place to have a drink after dinner among the artwork displayed on the streets.
Now it’s time to take a taxi or a Turibús to visit the Centro Cívico Cultural 5 de Mayo in the Loreto and Guadalupe Hill, known by that name because of the forts erected around the two sanctuaries. Several battles have been fought in this strategic location during different periods, but the most significant one was against the French invaders who were defeated on May 5, 1862. The complex includes six museums, a lookout area, a planetarium, an exhibition and convention center, an auditorium, craft stores and cafeterias; in other words, it’s a very active place for Poblanos and visitors alike.
Talavera Poblana is the name given to a style of majolica pottery with a glassy finish native to Puebla and surroundings areas, like Atlixco, Cholula and Tecali de Herrera, which arose in the 16th century. It borrowed from Chinese, Italian, Spanish and indigenous techniques. Recently, it has been possible to establish a designation of origin in order to protect the authenticity of pieces produced by traditional methods, thus attempting to preserve the complicated and laborious processes of that time. Pieces of Talavera Poblana can be seen in all corners of the city, from the façades of churches and other buildings, to the simplest plate or utensils on the table.
Uriarte Talavera, founded in 1824, is the oldest company in Puebla and eighth oldest in the entire country. It creates this type of pottery with a designation of origin. I hadn’t realized exactly how much artisanal craftwork goes into each piece until I went for a visit — clay shaped by expert hands on a potter’s wheel spun by foot, the intricate decoration from the artist’s brush and the finishing process. Undoubtedly, my experience gave me a higher level of appreciation. The majority of workshops, like Uriarte, offer guided visits where one may witness the step-by-step production process.
Mexico’s cuisine was recognized as Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010. Gastronomy from Puebla, among the most important in Mexican cuisine, is full of flavors, aromas and ingredient mixtures that are always slow-cooked with love and, at times, great effort.
Basically, there’s European, Asian and indigenous influence, and more recently Lebanese as well, creating a fusion of surprising specialties. Besides this, we can’t forget the contributions made by the women in the convents who were constantly experimenting and perfecting different recipes. Many of the dishes are complex and even “baroque” due to their complicated composition, like the mole Poblano; others are more common and simple, like chalupas and cemitas. Thanks to the Spanish and French influence, Puebla offers a great variety of breads and a wide selection of baked goods. The pan de agua (bread of water) was delicious. In terms of sweets, another specialty from Puebla, it’s said that there are close to 300 different kinds.
The mole Poblano is the most important dish in Puebla. From its indigenous origins, it kept evolving as European ingredients were added, until its authorship was attributed to the nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa. It’s a combination of chocolate, chili peppers, almonds, sesame seeds, nuts, cloves and … . Some recipes include dozens of ingredients. Preparing this sauce requires a lot of wrist strength to mix everything together, a clay pot to cook it in and plenty of patience. The sauce is served over turkey, chicken or pork, topped with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Ask any cook or chef about it, and they will probably say: “I use my grandma’s recipe.” Since we all have grandmas, there are as many recipes for it as there are grandmothers. The exact formula just doesn’t exist.
Chiles en nogada is also a gastronomical staple in Puebla. It’s prepared by stuffing a Poblano chili with a stew made with finely chopped meat (beef, pork or both) along with seasonal fruits from the region — panochera apple, milk pear, plantain, peach. Then it’s covered with the sauce known as nogada, made with nuts (nuts from Castilla), cheese and sherry, and garnished with parsley and pomegranate seeds. The Augustine nuns at the convent of Santa Monica created this dish to honor Agustin de Iturbide as he passed through Puebla on his way to Cordoba de Veracruz, where Mexico’s independence was being declared. Therefore, the dish presented the white, green and red colors of the Mexican flag. Just as with the mole Poblano, every grandmother has her own recipe; the meat and fruits tend to vary. It’s a seasonal dish, since all of the authentic ingredients are grown during summer. So don’t trust those restaurants that offer chiles en nogada out of season. I saw several of them.
Pipián is another sauce that dates before the Spanish and the mole Poblano, but it has also been fused over time. Normally, pipián is made with a pumpkin seed base that gives it its consistency, flavor and color. It’s served over chicken or pork and can be green or red.
Mixiote consists of meat, possibly sheep, chicken, rabbit, pork, beef or even fish, wrapped in a very fine leaf that’s taken from the main rib of the maguey pulquero plant and steamed. The meat is cooked with a sauce made with chilies and aromatic herbs.
Under the Poblano appetizer umbrella there’s a series of popular specialties that are considered light or fast foods, and are found throughout the city, from street stands to gourmet restaurants. The truth is that I got mixed up with so many names: chalupas, molotes, chanclas, memelas, gorditas, tostadas, tlacoyos, tamales and cemitas are the ones I remember.
The chalupas are small corn tortillas covered in butter, shredded meat, raw onion and green or red sauce. Here, the difference lies in the hand that makes the sauce.
The cemitas are made with wheat bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, cut in half and filled with avocado, thin slices of cheese, pápalo leaves, chilies and meat. The most typical is the steak Milanese, but there’s also chicken and pork leg.
Try It All
I think I would have to spend months in Puebla to be able to say for sure who is who and who is doing this better than that, in order to compile a list of my favorites. What is common everywhere, though, is the excellent service and the desire to take Puebla’s cuisine to the next level by having it recognized throughout the world. The interest for Puebla’s gastronomy is reflected in the number of schools, some established and others recently opened, which are producing a new generation of young chefs. In general, there’s an effort to rescue lost recipes, of which there’s no written record, and bring them back to life.
El Mural de los Poblanos, El Sueño, Casareyna, La Noria, Casona de la China Poblana and Casa de los Muñecos are among the top gourmet restaurants. Other excellent traditional restaurants are: el Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía, Mi Viejo Pueblito, Fonda de Santa Clara, Royalty, Cinco and La Casita Poblana. The latter is very proud of having won an international award for its mole Poblano. As far as urban food goes, for those sudden cravings, the ideal place is the Mercado de Sabores Poblanos, in an impeccably clean modern building, which hosts a handful of other stands with diverse specialties and economical prices.
The traditional drinks couldn’t be left out. One of them is Pasita, liquor created by Emilio Contreras Aicardo close to 100 years ago. Find it at La Pasita cantina run by Emilio’s son, at La Placita de los Sapos. The liquor is made from raisins and has been a constant success. It’s served in a small, short glass containing a piece of goat cheese and raisins on a toothpick. Many other types of liquor with different flavors and alcohol volumes are attributed to Contreras as well. It’s unsure whether it’s just a myth, but the story goes that La Pasita became famous in the 1950s because it served drinks based on the number of blocks patrons would be able to stay on their feet after consuming them. So, for example, they would order: “Give me a Pasita for three blocks.” This meant that only after the third block would they start to feel dizzy. Now that’s precision. Also well-known is Rompope, which is prepared with egg yolks, vanilla, cinnamon, crushed almonds, mole, sugar and liquor. It’s yellow and has a thick consistency, and it’s said to have originated among the viceroyalty in Puebla. Since craft beers have become so popular today, there are two from Puebla that are worth mentioning: Saga (blonde) and Osadía (dark).
Puebla is well prepared for tourism. There have been many efforts to beautify it by illuminating some of the main buildings at night. The people are kind and helpful. Food options are immense and exquisite, and the selection of places to stay has greatly increased in recent years. Many boutique hotels have been established in colonial homes, bringing back nostalgia and romanticism of other times. I stayed at El Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía; it’s part hotel and part antique store. Others of interest include El Sueño and Descansería, or, for something larger, Quinta Real is housed in an old convent. It’s possible to have a lovely time without burning holes in your wallet.
• Touristic Transportation
• Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía
• El Sueño
• Hotel Boutique Casareyna