Reluctantly stirring to consciousness, the first thing I notice is my dry mouth. Then my pounding headache. My attention is drawn to the sound of a gas truck rumbling past on the cobblestoned streets below my apartment. BEEEEEEP! “Gas de Oaxaca!” the pre-recorded loop dementedly shouts. I groan and scan the floor for my pants. Another hungover Sunday morning.
In my former life as a New Yorker, I had ritualized my hangover regimen: I’d go to the nearest bodega and grab a light blue Glacier Freeze Gatorade—the colder the better—and a banana. That breakfast, plus a couple of aspirin and a mid-afternoon nap, did the trick 90 percent of the time. But since moving to Mexico at the end of the summer, I no longer fuck around with super-sugary bottled drinks. These days, my hangover cure is a bowl of hot, steamy, chewy tripe.
Across the globe, every culture has its own go-to when it comes to surviving the pernicious effects of a night on the town. The Japanese might turn to turmeric tea, Germans will dive into some pickled herring, and Russians sip bubbly kvass. Here in Mexico, hangovers are nearly always counteracted with deeply savory soups like Hidalgo’s barbacoa, Jalisco’s birria, and Monterrey’s caldo de res. But the gold standard, hailing from the central Mexican states of Michoacan and Guanajuato but procured at street stalls and markets all over the country, is pancita (“little belly”). Also known as menudo, particularly when it contains corn, the rich, nourishing tripe soup really does ease the effects of a hangover. All that broth hydrates the post-binge body, and plenty of salt restores sodium levels. But apart from its therapeutic effects, pancita is just damn delicious.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings across Mexico, street stands and market cafeterias are packed with hangover-sufferers looking to slurp down an oregano-and-lime-heavy bowl of the restorative soup. The preparation of pancita is simple: It begins with well-cleaned honeycomb tripe, which is simmered with water, onion, and garlic for at least two hours and up to four, until the tripe is nice and tender. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, the cook prepares the red chile base, simmering dried, de-seeded mild chiles such as pasilla and ancho with tomato and a hit of onion and garlic. When the chiles are soft, the mixture is blended until smooth, then poured into the pot with the bubbling tripe, where the flavors merge for another half hour.
There are many variations on the basic pancita. Some cooks add gelatinous cow foot, lending the broth a velvety viscosity; others add diced tongue for additional flavor and texture. Universally, the finished soup is served in deep bowls and garnished with finely chopped raw white onion, generous squeezes of fresh lime, and plenty of dried oregano, which the diner adds according to her tastes.
As with any beloved local dish, customer loyalty to particular vendors tends to be fierce. In Oaxaca City, where I live, some swear by the pancita served up by Rosita at her small comedor inside the La Merced market. Others won’t deign to dine anywhere other than Los Cuchos, a brick-and-mortar restaurant located at the edge of the trendy Reforma neighborhood. My allegiance, however, belongs to Los Agachados, a four-decades-strong spot that occupies stalls number 62 and 63 inside the city center’s famous covered market 20 de Noviembre. There, owner Ricardo Leyva López works alongside his mom, Bertha, who can be seen hovering over a giant, stainless steel vat of her signature dish. Los Agachados’ menu is tongue-in-cheek: an addition of heart is advertised as “for lovers,” while the cow foot variation is billed as “for athletes.” López knows his diners—and their habits—all too well: The most prominently advertised pancita option, one that heaps in cubed liver in addition to the tripe, is geared towards cheleros, or drunkards.
On some weekend mornings at least, both my friend Lindsay and I can aptly be described as cheleras. We meet up at Los Agachados around 11 a.m., picking our way through the sea of occupied stools to share a table with a bright-eyed, chatty señora and a group of rather more mute fellow cheleros sipping hair-of-the-dog Coronas. We both ask for the surtido or mixed-meat option, slurping and chewing our way through jello-soft cow’s foot, springy liver, and those honeycombs of elastic tripe, adding plenty of sinus-clearing hot sauce and lime juice along the way. Soft, creamy chickpeas—the addition that makes Los Agachados a standout pancita in my book—lurk among the organ meats, lending heartiness to the flavorful broth. A woman passes by hawking fresh, warm tortillas, and we buy a pile of those, fishing out the chunks of meat to roll up into little tacos. My head starts to clear; the vague churning in my stomach settles down. I order a beer to celebrate.