Thursday, May 3, 2012

Week Seventeen: A Journey to Mexico

This week’s journey to Mexico proved to be quite an experience.  Normally, I research a country’s cuisine and cook its dishes at home to better understand it, but I decided to change the platform this week and write about my food discoveries while actually visiting Mexico City over the weekend.

Chatting it up with the locals
Despite the fact that I am a consummate planner, one of my favorite aspects of travel is discovering the unknown.  Give me a few minutes with a stranger, and I will find a way to steer the conversation to food.  It’s an easy topic, too, because people love to share information about their favorite tacquerias, drinks, or interesting food facts.  Here is a random list of what I learned through conversation about Mexican cuisine:
  • Ant Eggs are the caviar of Mexico…a delicacy.  At least that’s what the driver from the airport to the hotel told me.  Of course, when I asked if he had tried them, he told me he hadn’t.
  • Always begin your dinner with a shot of tequila.  Never order a margarita.  Words of wisdom from the driver taking us to dinner at Izote on our first night.
  • Never ask for extra parmesan cheese on a pizza in Mexico.  Do eat your pizza with ketchup and hot sauce.  We traveled to the pyramids with a couple and their teenage daughter who moved to Mexico City three years ago.  They told us that every time they have asked for extra parmesan cheese on pizza, the waiters look at them oddly and state that the pizza already has cheese on it.  After several tries, they have given up on ever having extra parmesan, but they have not succumbed to the lure of ketchup on pizza.
  • When eating potato chips, douse them in a sauce.  I learned from the teenage daughter that a typical school snack is potato chips smothered in hot sauce and/or Maggi sauce.  (I didn’t know what that was, but I have since learned that Maggi is a brand of seasonings and bouillons popular in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.)  She told me that her favorite is plain Lays potato chips with Maggi Sauce, which tastes like a cross between soy and Worcestershire sauces.
  • Pulque is the Viagra of Mexican farmers.  Chavez was our driver for dinner on Sunday night, and he also drove us to the airport on Monday morning.  When he picked us up from dinner on Sunday night, he asked what we had eaten, if we liked the country, and all of the usual conversation.  Then, he asked if we tried pulque when we visited the pyramids.  We hadn’t, and he proceeded to explain that it was similar to tequila, but it is made from maguay, instead of agave.  He went on to tell us that it has a milky consistency, instead of being clear like tequila.  Finally, he arrived at his favorite aspect of pulque, which is its natural “Viagra-like” affect on men, and he praised it with great fervor.  No joke….when he drove us to the airport the next morning, we were only in the car for about five minutes before he turned the conversation back to pulque.  Only a man with first-hand success would speak so highly of a drink.  Clearly, it works for him.
Vendor/Street Food
When I envisioned this long weekend, I planned to try more street food, but sometimes all of the planning in the world does not work out.  We did manage to fit in some time on Sunday afternoon in Chapultepec Park.

I have never seen so many different types of potato chips in my life. We saw cart after cart filled with full arrays of chips, chitos, chicharron, and sauces. We opted for the papas mos adobos with fresh lime juice squeezed over them, and they were just as rich, salty, messy, and delicious as they look. 

We stopped to try a Torta from a vendor with a long menu of options.  I selected the Torta Oaxaquena, which included chorizo, bologna, cheese, lettuce, and tomato.  What made this sandwich so delicious was the fact that the vendor made it fresh for us. 

Xochimilco is a small town located just south of Mexico City.  Its major attraction is its canal system traveled by a fleet of gondolas that seat up to twenty people and may be rented for one to four hours.  Vendors travel the canals in smaller boats selling their food, drinks, and wares.  There are even gondolas with marimba players and mariachi bands that you can hire to play at your gondola for a certain amount of time.  Interestingly, I expected this to be a tourist attraction, but I only saw one other boat with tourists.  For the most part, this is an activity for locals that need to get away.  It’s like a family picnic on a boat!  We ate lunch before arriving in Xochimilco, but I could not resist the esquites vendor.  (If you haven’t tried esquites and you live in Miami, I highly recommend a brunch stop at Jaguar in Coconut Grove to try them.)  It’s a simple dish:  corn, mayonnaise, fresh lime juice, cojita cheese, and a dash of chili powder.  This vendor sold it by the cup, or you could order the full cob of corn with toppings. I opted for the less messy version of the cup.

Friday Night Dinner at Izote de Patricia Quintana
Patricia Quintana is considered a culinary trailblazer of Mexican cuisine.  She trained in Europe with renowned chefs, such as Paul Bocuse, and she applied her studies to elevating traditional Mexican cuisine.  After reading of her accomplishments, I felt like this would be a great introduction to the city for our first night’s dinner.

Our waiter met us with a tequila menu and a limited understanding of English.  With our limited Spanish, we managed to begin our meal with a Herradura Reposado.  To my surprise, it arrived with an accompanying glass of something that reminded me of Bloody Mary mix.  I immediately started googling “tequila service in Mexico” and discovered that tequila is served with sangrita, a mixture of tomato juice, orange juice, lime juice, onions, salt, and chili peppers.  The concept here is to sip some tequila and then sip some sangrita.  Never mix them together.  Just drink them intermittently.  I must say that I would drink more tequila in the US if this was the customary way of serving it.

We began our dinner with an order of four tamales:  cheese with epazote, cheese with squash blossoms, cheese with forest mushrooms, and finally masa with shredded chicken in spicy tomato sauce.  I was surprised that only the chicken tamale had the traditional masa in it.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a tamale not made with masa, but I must say that I welcome the opportunity.

I couldn’t help myself when I saw Ant Eggs sautéed in Butter on the menu.  I had to try it!  It reminded me of a quinoa salad with lime juice, epazote, and chiles for flavor.  I would not order it again, but I can certainly appreciate the ingenuity of transforming something like an ant egg into a dish this flavorful.

For our next course, the hubs ordered ensalada de jimote, a salad of fresh tomatoes and goat cheese in Hoja Santa leaves served with caramelized onion cilantro vinaigrette.  My favorite part of this dish was the tangy goat cheese in the peppery Hoja Santa leaves. 

I opted for the crema de elote, which was a simple corn soup with a drizzle of chipotle chile oil.  The picture does not appropriately reflect the amazing flavor and aroma of this dish.  The bowl is presented with the fresh corn and chile oil in the bottom and the server pours the rich, creamy corn soup over these elements tableside.  The rich cream, sweet corn, and smoky, yet slightly spicy, chipotle chile oil presented a perfectly balanced bite.  This was my favorite dish at Izote.

For our main courses, we ordered pierna de cerdo al vapor con salsa de tomatillo y la esencia de agave (steamed pork shank with tomatillo salsa and agave essence) and enchiladas de pato al mole negro (duck enchiladas with mole).  The richness of the pork was perfectly complemented by the tomatillo salsa, and its tenderness was not like any I have tried.  As for the duck enchiladas with mole, the duck was cooked well, and the mole sauce had an amazing depth of flavor; however, the mole sauce overwhelmed the dish.  In addition to smothering the plate in mole, the duck inside the enchiladas was also cooked in the mole.  While I appreciated the flavors, the heavy hand with the sauce made it impossible to eat very much.  It was just too rich.
Overall, we enjoyed our experience at Izote.  The menu certainly offered a large variety of dishes with native ingredients and preparations, and the quality of the ingredients shone through.  I would go there again, but next time, I would not order as many plates as the portions were much larger than I expected.

Saturday Lunch at La Gruta
After climbing to the top of the third largest pyramid in the world, I was ready for lunch!  The couple who so graciously drove us to the pyramids recommended lunch at La Gruta.  I must say it was quite a show as the restaurant was literally down in a cave-like grotto.

We started the meal with a round of India beers and an order of Molcajete with guacamole, chicharron, queso fresco, and grilled baby onions.  Chicharron sure does make a great chip for guacamole dip!  The restaurant also served each person a complimentary jicama salad which added a crisp, refreshing balance to the richness of the molcajete.

Based on the recommendation of our traveling companions, I ordered the Tortilla Soup.  It was okay…I’ve tried better and worse.  One thing that did surprise me was the presentation of the soup with the dried chiles, cheese, guacamole, and chicharron chips served on the side. 

For the main course, I ordered Maguey Skin stuffed with Roasted Rabbit.  I knew it would be a heavy lunch, but I was curious to try something outside the norm.  The rabbit was perfectly tender and flavorful.  As an aside, this was actually the only meal I ate in Mexico that was served with rice and beans.

Saturday Night Dinner at Pujol
I booked the weekend around our reservation at Pujol.  It was one of the most amazing meals I have experienced anywhere in the world…not just Mexico City.  We opted for the nine-course tasting menu, and I cannot imagine a better way to experience the art of Enrique Olvera. 

 Amuse Bouche
Elotitos Tatemados
Mayonesa de cafe y polvo de chicatana

Taco de chicharrón de queso y guacamole

Ensalada de nopal curado en sal.
Romeritos y habas. Pico de gallo de apio. Vinagreta de axiote.

Tamal de tuétano y chipilín.

Salsa tatemada. Queso cotija.

Sopa de berro, papa y chayote.

Chochoyota de chicharrón prensado. Crema de rancho.

 Taco de cordero lechal.

Puré de chícharo y aguacate. Salsa de tomate y hoja santa.

 Pechuga de guajolote en salmuera.

Molote de plátano macho. Chichilo negro. Puré de zanahoria blanca.

Cerdo pelón en recado blanco.

Frijol alfayayocan. Rábanos encurtidos.

Nieve de mandarina. Eucalipto.

Sal de gusano. Mezcal flameado.

Cremoso de aguacate.

Leche de coco. Nube de macadamia salada.

Sunday Night Dinner at El Califa Tacqueria

In Mexico City, most people enjoy long Sunday lunches, sometimes stretching to 7:00 PM, which means that most opt for small dinners or snacks in the evening.  After walking Paseo de la Reforma and all over Chapultepec Park on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to chill out in a casual spot and enjoy our last night in the city.  We asked the concierge to recommend a tacqueria with a relaxed atmosphere, and he recommended El Califa in the Condessa neighborhood.  It was exactly what we needed! 
Tacos al Pastor is one of my favorite dishes to order in an authentic Mexican restaurant, but in the United States, it is rare (almost non-existent) to have them served authentically.  The dish is suspected to be the result of Lebanonese immigrants applying their process for cooking lamb used in gyros to pork for tacos with a whole fresh pineapple on top dripping its juices down over the meat.  As we walked into El Califa, I immediately spotted the rotating spit and my heart jumped for joy.  I knew we would have a great ending to a wonderful vacation. 
El Califa served a wider variety of sauces with their dishes than the other restaurants we visited.  Most restaurants served three sauces:  mild red salsa, medium smoky salsa, and hot green salsa.  At Califa, they also served a mild Tamarind sauce, which was a nice complement to the tacos al pastor, and their smoked chile salsa was the best we had anywhere in the city.

My journey to Mexico City was full of surprises and amazing experiences.  I cannot wait to go back and sample more of this city's amazing cuisine and culture.  What an incredible weekend!

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