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You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.
Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.
Asian fusion: From the old country to the new
Tips from Zester Daily's Nicholas Gilman
To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.
In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.
Slow and fast food
Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.
Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.
But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.
“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.
Cafe El Pópular
Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.
Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.
The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder, his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.
Nowadays, a new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.
Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman
It’s 2 p.m. on a sunny, cool, spring day in Hermosillo, Mexico. I stroll through the meat aisle of the century-old market surrounded by flaming crimson cuts of raw beef. I exit to a shady plaza behind the building. Groups of old-timers sporting Stetsons and pointy cowboy boots wile away the sultry afternoon. Shoeshiners polish, shoppers amble. Indigenous ladies in pleated skirts sell carved wooden animals. Norteña music, accordion-heavy and lilting, emanates from store radios. The mood is placid, amiable.
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The capital of Sonora, Hermosillo is quiet, untouched by border violence. The old town center conserves its frontier Old West ambiance. Sonora, in northwest Mexico, borders the U.S. states of Arizona and New Mexico, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Baja California. It’s home to mountains, coastline and desert, people of Spanish heritage as well as the once-nomadic indigenous Seri tribe. Cattle ranching is one of the main industries, and beef raised here is considered the best in the country.
The gastronomy of Hermosillo is unique to Mexico: It is in the middle of the desert but only an hour from the coast, an unusual geographic setting reflected in the food. Meat dishes, principally beef, are consumed in great quantity, but so is seafood. My mission is to investigate the regional cuisine, both high and “low.” So I start with what everybody in the country knows Sonora for: steak.
Sonora Steak House: Classic Mexican
The city is home to several steak houses. The best is the Sonora Steak House. Set up like its northern counterparts, the steak house offers familiar cuts of beef. The context that differentiates it from its north of the border counterparts is classic Mexican: handmade wheat tortillas, house-fried chips, fresh green tomatillo salsa and roasted green chilies accompany the meat.
Aged rib eye is the best cut; a whole side is wheeled out and sliced to customer specification, then grilled over hot stones. Grain-fed beef is locally raised, certified Angus and dry aged for 25 to 30 days. The meat is juicy, just tender enough, with a lingering beefy-fatty taste — umami as it should be.
José Luís is a swarthy mustachioed taxi driver of about 30. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat, white button-down shirt, black jeans and boots, he looks as if he’d just stepped off the set of “Gunsmoke.” Norteña plays as I get in his taxi — in Mexico it’s considered de riguer for guys to sit up front with the driver — it’s more macho that way. I open the conversation with the topic of food, a subject that needs no warmup small talk. Wasting no time, we speak of beef. José Luís explains that locals know their meat.
Although the breeds are the same as those raised up north, principally Angus, ranches are smaller; cows are grazed outside the pen longer and fed less grain. So they taste better. “We know when beef has been imported from the United States,” he chuckles, puffing on a Marlboro. “A place here was selling imported meat recently — we know just looking at it — they were shut down and the guy practically run out of town on a rail!” Where did he like to eat beef? “Oh, my mother makes the best; I never eat out,” he replies.
Carnes Aldecoa: On-the-road butcher shop
I enjoy a good steak, and Sonora Steak House doesn’t fail to please, but my ravenous meat cravings aren’t totally satisfied until I find the amazing Carnes Aldecoa. This on-the-road butcher shop both sells and cooks. Buy the meat you want, any kind and quantity. I choose a cut called diezmillo, which is recommended over the much more expensive rib eye. The butcher weighs, you pay, then they grill it for you over mesquite coals in huge outdoor grills. Served chopped as tacos, this is a divinely carnivorous experience. Freshly made tortillas are sold separately out back. While most customers take the grilled meat home, I eat au plein aire at the picnic tables provided.
El Pescadito: Fish tacos at any hour
Moving on to oceanic offerings, I go in search of the best seafood. Semi-outdoor fish taco stands and small restaurants abound. El Pescadito, on a corner in a quiet working-class residential neighborhood is bustling at 8:30 in the morning. Apparently locals don’t see anything strange about having fish tacos for breakfast. Pescado estilo baja is cazón, a small shark, chunks of which are battered, deep-fried and served in a light wheat tortilla with fresh pico de gallo and optional salsas to spike things up. This gold standard of fish tacos is steaming, crunchy, fishy — but not too — and augmented but not overwhelmed by its accompaniments. It’s indeed a winner.
Omar’s place: Cahuamanta
An outstanding local dish, often sold at tacos joints or by itself from pushcarts, is cahuamanta, a hearty soup of manta raya (skate), shrimp and chopped carrots and potatoes, eaten as broth or strained and served as tacos. I had passed Omar’s stand on my way in from the airport, and I just have to make my way back. At 1 in the afternoon, Omar is cleaning up but still has some steaming cahuamanta for my taxi driver and me. We eat this Mexicanized bouillabaisse out of its Styrofoam cup accompanied by tortilla chips and the sound of zooming traffic. I can practically hear the ocean’s roar even though it is nowhere near.
Taquería los Longos: Burritos, the Sonora way
It is 3 p.m., and I have been eating nonstop since sunrise. But Paco, another taxista, portly and gregarious, insists on taking me to Taquería los Longos, where a regional version of burritos is proffered. These burros (really, the diminutive “ito” is all wrong) are in fact spectacularly huge, thin handmade wheat tortillas filled with up to 3 guisados — rich, earthy chili and beef-based stews. Unlike the northern burrito bombs, no rice, beans or kitchen sinks are thrown in.
Paco joins me in a burro, teaching me how to tear off bits of tortilla to scoop up mouthfuls of picante sauce, then when down to the nub, fold it into a wrap, not unlike the experience of downing a dosa in south India.
Bermejo: Tijuana chefs’ creations
I am full to bursting. But there is much more to be eaten, just not enough time to do it. I spend the evening eating and drinking good Baja California wine at Bermejo, the city’s new venue for inventive cooking headed by renowned Tijuana chefs Javier Placencia and Adria Montaño, who take from local traditions and work alchemy — case in point, a barely grilled baja oyster topped with grilled beef and its “au jus” that really works.
Hermosillo may seem provincial, influenced by the culture of Uncle Sam, but its culinary heritage shows no signs of being subsumed into the morass of global or even national food. That’s a good thing.
Top photo: Meat grilling at Carnes Aldecoa. Credit: Nicholas Gilman.
February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.
We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.
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World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.
We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.
The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”
Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Discovering sopa de lima
The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.
Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.
Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.
Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.
And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.
David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. … in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”
Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.
One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.
Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.
Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.
As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.
And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.
Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.
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Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.
Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
A welcome message from star chefs
The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.
The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.
Eater’s haven at Mistura
A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it? There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.
I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.
In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.
In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.
Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.
A crowd magnet
I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”
Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.
I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.
Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Ensenada is a low-key fishing town just over an hour from Tijuana and the U.S. border. A jumping-off point for a tour of Mexico’s growing wine region, the food scene has exploded in recent years. Dozens of street stalls and small restaurants prepare freshly fried fish, shrimp tacos, seafood ceviches and cocktails. The central fish market tempts with a spectacular array of aquatic bounty. And upscale restaurants proudly present heretically creative variations on regional dishes, making this an ideal destination for the discerning gastronome.
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Mexicans eat a lot of meat. In most parts of the country, the concept of a fancy meal out might include a big hunk of Argentine steak. Taco stands in the central regions feature meat based fillings, almost exclusively. Although the central fish market in Mexico City, Mercado de la Nueva Viga, which provides fresh fish and seafood to all of central Mexico, may be one of the world’s largest, even beating out Tokyo’s Tsukiji, Mexico’s annual per capita consumption of fish is low relative even to the United States. But not on the Pacific coast. There, residents can’t get enough of the oceanic bounty and even make fun of capitalinos: “All they eat is chicharrón [pork skin] in Mexico City,” one local, 18-year-old Juan Carlos, scoffed as he downed a mouthful of fresh ceviche from an outdoor pushcart. Coastal residents seem to know their fish as well as their Japanese brethren on the other side.
Fish tacos are Ensenada’s ticket
Fish tacos are the specialty of Ensenada. Everybody loves them and corner puestos – stands — as well as hole-in-the-wall locales open early in the morning and are often surrounded by customers by 10 or 11 a.m. Hand-cut strips of fish, usually cazón – a type of small shark — are dipped in a flour batter, sometimes lightly spiced with garlic or cumin, and deep-fried, tempura-style.
Legend has it that visiting Japanese fishermen taught them this trick although it is a dubious theory — the Japanese themselves learned it from the Portuguese traders. Served in white corn tortillas, they are garnished to taste with an array of salsas, pico de gallo (chopped tomato/chili/onion), a sour cream-mayo mix and crispy shredded cabbage or lettuce.
I start my search for the best at Tacos Floresta, a simple white metal shack perched auspiciously at the corner of Avenida Floresta and Juarez in the residential part of town. The empty, straight, interminable, impossibly wide avenues of Ensenada remind one of a forlorn part of L.A. where a James M. Cain novel might take place. But Floresta, staffed by three gregarious ladies, breaks the ice — the atmosphere is jovial, cheery mariachi music wafts overhead, along with the aroma of fresh fish frying in clean oil. It’s immensely popular, and is one of the best venues for these fried morsels of goodness. The tacos are an exercise in harmony: The steaming hot fresh fish itself is crispy on the outside, and almost melts when you bite into it. Carefully selected spiky sauces augment but don’t overwhelm, and the crunch of cool cabbage, shredded fine, provides the perfect contrast to the oily bits. Subtle aromas of roast dry chili, the sea, lime and corn weave in and out of one another like a Bach fugue. Parroquianos (as return clients are called, referring to members of a church) banter, discuss the game, the weather, one another’s girls, their no-good husbands, all the while downing icy horchata and more tacos.
Not far from the ticky-tacky strip catering to tourists, Lily, who operates Tacos Lily around the corner from the central fish market, multitasks. Preparing for yet another day, she’s methodically chopping, stirring and testing the temperature of her oil. Lily appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s travel/food show a couple of years ago, but TV stardom and the proverbial slews of tourists eluded her and her humble locale. She continues to toil over a hot stove, preparing fresh fish to order while her son serves a few small cafe tables. Lily’s tacos are tasty, giving new meaning to the word “fresh.” Only fish and shrimp are ever prepared rebozado, i.e., deep fried in batter. Mexican street food, in its infinite variety, is not innovative, which is why, perhaps, it remains impervious to outside influence. When Lily was queried as to whether she might do, perhaps, clams or mussels, which are abundant in the area, she shrugs. “No,” she replies, no longer surprised by this foolish question. “Someone even asked if I make pulpo [octopus] tacos once; a cada quien [to each his own] … .”
Ensenada’s costero is the curvaceous seafront thoroughfare that looks to the harbor and marina. Unlike in the overly commercial southern tourist center Acapulco, development here is low key and traffic light.
Near the corner of Avenida Alvarado, at 11 a.m. on a brilliantly sunny Sunday, a crowd, with many reeling from the partying the night before, gathers around a spread-out street food complex known as Mariscos el Güero. This busy gustatory circus proffers seafood so fresh it practically dances. And the crowd knows it. “La Especial,” which almost everyone orders, is a seafood salad comprising three kinds of clams, oysters, shrimp, octopus and fish, perhaps cazón, more likely corvina, discreetly dressed with the liquid from the oysters, lime juice, salsa and garnished with avocado slices. It comes on a plate accompanied by little round tostadas, or in a cup with a spoon. The salty essence of each creature stands on its own. Cheerful employees shuck clams and oysters conversing jocularly all the while. The party’s not over until the last oyster is slurped.
A few blocks down, Don Fidel’s small pushcart rests at the corner of Miramar. Don Fidel has set up here almost every day for 27 years. He serves nothing but giant sweet pismo, sometimes called reina, clams. Each one, weighing as much as a pound, is opened to order, the meat chopped and lightly dressed with salsa mexicana, lime and a touch of Tabasco. I take a spoonful of the clam ceviche, which is served in its own shell. It’s sweet, surprisingly tender and renders not the least hint of pungency. “Do any gringos ever eat here?” I ask, as the few who pass by look curiously but move on. “Never,” he replies. “They’re afraid of fresh seafood on the street.” But Don Fidel assures me that he knows whether there’s a bad clam in the bunch and will not risk alienating a faithful customer. I have become one of those.
Top photo: A view of Ensenada’s shore. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Cuban food in Cuba? A cinch, I thought. But common wisdom was that restaurants there were poor and served only passable versions of familiar Cuban dishes done better in Miami or New York. And it was, for the most part, true.
Paladar Doña Eutimia: Callejón del Chorro 60-C, Habana Vieja. Phone: 861-1332.
Nao: Calle Obispo 1, Habana Vieja. Phone: 867-3463.
Mamá Inéz: Calle de la Obrapia 60, Habana Vieja. Phone: 862-2669.
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As we barrel ahead into the 21st century, the exuberant citizens of Cuba struggle to come to terms with a regime that has barely budged in over 50 years of ironclad rule. Small freedoms have been won recently, cracks in the walls have appeared. People are freer to leave. Dissidents are left in relative peace. Gays are no longer jailed and even have their own beach. And the restaurant scene, from a visitor’s perspective anyway, is blossoming.
The Cuban government has allowed the private ownership of paladares (the word paladar means palate or taste), privately owned small restaurants, since the 1990s. At first, home cooks opened their dining rooms to the public, offering simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. But restrictions were placed on the number of tables as well as the menu. Seafood was strictly under the counter, for example, keeping restaurants at a basic level.
Rules have been relaxed somewhat in the last couple of years as a concession to the call for free enterprise, or perhaps better said, reality. There is more tourism now: new, sophisticated visitors who come for music, food and culture — not just cigars and the beach. So some paladares have blossomed into full-fledged professional operations: maître d’s, wine lists, reservations accepted.
Some aim for the international hipster. Le Chansonnier, for example is set in an old mansion where black-clad staff serve contemporary cuisine to the likes of visiting Spanish royalty.
More interesting are several new venues that celebrate traditional Cuban cuisine. These places see fit to rescue and restore classic cooking. Recipes that languished in books or in the memories of grandmothers who lived before the revolution are being revived. Nowadays a wider variety of raw ingredients is available, and chefs, as well as the home cooks who can, are taking advantage of this wealth while exploring the rich lexicon of criollo cooking. Lobster, fish, lamb, even venison can be procured with some effort — indeed, most materia prima is produced on the island.
The view from Havana
A case in point is Restaurante Mama Inéz, named after a famous folk song (“Ay mamá Inéz, ay mamá Inéz, todos los negros tomamos café“). It’s one of the best of this new breed.
Located in the heart of restored Habana Vieja, the décor is homey, like an old-fashioned Italian trattoria, and the menu is classic, with dishes that would make any Cuban mama proud. Chef Erasmo meticulously prepares an artisanal version of arroz con pollo, the iconic Cuban dish. It’s made to order and served in a ceramic cazuela. Like a good risotto, the rice is al dente, little chunks of boned chicken are tender and the sauce fragrant, well balanced and made more complex by the addition of tomatoes, white wine, beer, green pepper, garlic and achiote (annatto). This is home-style cooking at its best; no corners are cut.
Another popular spot near the cathedral, Doña Eutimia, serves Cuban food, traditional albeit gussied up. The menu includes many well-known classics, such as ropa vieja and picadillo. The mariscada del chef, sautéed seafood served in a lobster shell, is somewhat reminiscent of a New Orleans-style étouffée. This is Caribbean cooking at its best.
Nao, which recently opened in Habana Vieja, is yet another venue for highfalutin Cuban cuisine. Its food is unpretentious and doesn’t turn its back on tradition. According to the chef, dishes are similar to those that would have been prepared during the colonial era in which a profound mix of African, Spanish and French influence can be detected. Case in point is deep-fried whole pargo, a meaty fish, whose crust is fragrant with cumin and garlic. Or the stuffed tostones, fried mashed plantain “boats” with four different fillings, both surf and turf, which are imaginative and modern but steeped in tradition: after all, tostones accompany almost every meal in every table in Cuba.
This is not to say that everything is smooth sailing. Like everyone else on the island, a restaurateur’s life is not easy. Shortages of taken-for-granted goods as tomatoes and onions are commonplace, sudden blackouts frequent. But, in keeping with the positive spirit of the people, these handicaps are overcome. And it mustn’t be forgotten that in Cuba the majority will never enter this kind of restaurant and will barely scrape by on beans and rice. So it’s a small miracle that this gastronomic revival, supported by visitors and the privileged few nationals who can afford the price of admission, is taking place.
I will now return on one of my frequent sojourns with light-headed gustatory expectation. I know I won’t be let down.
Top photo: Stuffed plátanos (plantains) at Nao. Credit: Nicholas Gilman