Guessing At Restaurant Menus Doesn’t Always Work

When smiling and nodding goes wrong

Time To Read: 2 mins | October 28, 2016

Eventually, I had to eat. That probably sounds obvious to you, but my teensy tiny obstacle with this basic tenant of sustaining life is the language barrier. I arrived in Mexico City 36 hours previous without having used Spanish since the Bush administration, and my complete inability to communicate was hindering me from buying, really, anything.

I suppose that’s not entirely true. Yesterday I did manage to converse well enough with the liquor store clerk to obtain a bottle of rum. But this was mostly achieved through pointing and overpaying, so it barely counts.

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And liquor can only sustain someone for so long, so today I was determined to eat food. My goals are not high.

I poured some rum in a half-full Coke bottle and wandered around Mexico City. I got pleasantly lost for a bit, took some photos, exploded said drink all over my white button down, took half an hour to find my way home to change, left again with a reloaded cocktail, and eventually came across a street lined with food stalls. In the words of this people, ‘perfecto’.

Except that I had no idea how to order. There were no menus to point at and, after creepily standing near multiple street chefs for several minutes, I confirmed not a one of them spoke English. And Mexican food is, when you think about it, confusing: every single dish is simply a combination of tortillas, meat, cheese, and vegetables.

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The only difference between quesadillas and tacos and enchiladas and the rest is shape, and on Avenue de Cubasomethingruther during the lunch rush, the chefs aren’t being particular about their dish’s appearances.

So I was irrationally gun shy about ordering from anyone, until I came across a man with a single hot plate and a basic sign: ‘Tacos de Cabeza’. Now, I do know ‘cabeza’ means ‘head’, but I was too hungry to really think through the translation. I assumed he was claiming his tacos were mind-blowing.

And they were. After bravely annunciating ‘dos, por favor’, the smiling gent handed me two little delicious tacos, which I promptly sent down my gullet with strict orders to slow the rum’s progress towards ruining my afternoon.

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I walked around the stall to pay. As I did, I reconsidered the two ornaments on his stall: skulls, which I’d initially assumed were dia de los muertas decorations.

It took a few more moments to connect the dots. Admittedly this was just my reading his sign out loud, but I spoke my longest Spanish sentence yet when I pointed at the skulls and asked, “Tacos de cabeza?”

“Si, y lengua.”

I looked up ‘lengua’ when I got home. Turns out it means ‘tongue’.

My first proper street meal abroad was lamb tongue meat. Perfecto.

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photo: painted skulls on display pre-dia de muertos

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Malcolm Freberg
Malcolm Freberg
American writer living permanently on the road. Believes rye whiskey is superior to bourbon, Belle is the best Disney princess, and that selfie sticks should be snapped in half on sight. Hosted a travel documentary for AOL & played Survivor a few times.

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