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Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.
The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.
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In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.
One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.
Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.
Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.
Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.
Otramanera steps up dining in Havana
Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.
But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.
While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.
Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman
My first trip to Mexico began in the Yucatán. I landed in Mérida, which as David Sterling describes in his brilliant new tome, “Yucatán,” is “a cosmopolitan grande dame standing at the crossroads, graciously welcoming home her global family.” I eventually became part of that family, moving to Mexico and becoming a citizen.
My initial encounter with the country, however, was on that trip back in 1973. My mother and I went for lunch shortly after arriving from New York. My first taste in this new world was of sopa de lima, a quintessential Yucatecan dish. The soup is a rich chicken soup perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me like Proust’s madeleines.
The Yucatán peninsula, historically isolated from much of the rest of Mexico, comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. It was populated by the descendants of the Maya, and later, by a mix of immigrants. Like all Mexican regional cooking, Yucatecan cuisine is a fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is experiencing a revival. From market stands to restaurants with culinary institute-trained chefs, the eating-out scene here has grown by leaps and bounds. But the range of what is known and available has always been limited. The region’s cooking is well represented in the rest of the country, but usually by a narrow list of “greatest hit” dishes.
The great investigator, chronicler and chef Diana Kennedy laid the groundwork for unearthing, recording and promulgating Mexican regional food outside the country. She is to Mexico what Julia Child was to France, and she was similarly undervalued within its borders. Kennedy, who is now over 90, recently put together an acclaimed volume on Oaxaca. But she never did get around to celebrating the Yucatán. So with her blessing, Sterling has taken the reins. Kennedy’s blurb, which graces the back of the book, says it best: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.”
I don’t either. Sterling has done a magnificent job in every way.
Scholarly and readable
The subtitle of “Yucatán” is “Recipes From a Culinary Expedition.” But this is no mere cookbook. It is a work both scholarly but readable, informative and entertaining. It is beautifully designed and features the colorful photos and drawings from a team of photographers and illustrators, as well as archival material.
Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.” There’s an astute mix of personal anecdotes, historical background and culinary analysis, in addition to the histories of individual dishes. The author is honest when he confesses, in a section entitled “La Cantina” that “I spent a few years in Yucatán before venturing inside a cantina. After all, aren’t these rugged, all-male enclaves dangerous dens of smoke, prostitutes and raucous drunks? … Eventually, though, my curiosity to see what was behind those seductive doors got the better of me and led me to try several cantinas.” He became a fan. Sterling is founder of Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the first and only culinary institute in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cuisine. He resides and works there in a restored turn-of-the-century mansion.
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To anyone venturing to the area, the book is an invaluable resource. A detailed history of the various migrations explains the complex recipes within. Rustic country dishes are elaborated upon. Pre-Hispanic cooking techniques — for example the “pib” method of marinating and pit roasting meats — are explained in detail. There are indeed recipes the home cook will never make — which is fine with me. This is not for the Rachael Ray “made easy” crowd.
Occasionally, substitutes for rare ingredients are suggested, but tradition is never compromised. For example, for the serious chef who wants to recreate the classic marinated suckling pig dish, cochinita pibil, a stove-top variation is suggested. Recipes for street foods include a variety of tamales, such as simple to prepare creamy colados. The recipe for Mucbilpollo, a large, baked festival tamal, offers a fascinating account of a cultural phenomenon, but it’s unlikely to inspire the average homemaker to reproduce it. No matter. There are also straightforward, elegant Spanish and Mayan influenced dishes: jurel en escabeche, a tuna-like fish cooked with tangy pickled onions, or hearty charcoal-grilled pork with achiote sauce. These are relatively easy to prepare, as is the classic, aforementioned sopa de lima or the iconic papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas bathed in pumpkin seed and tomato sauces).
Many of these recipes have been culled from local chefs, from country cooks who use wood for fuel, and even from women of social standing who harbor their grandmother’s secrets. Some see the light for the first time here. Sterling should and will be lauded, as Kennedy has been, for his service to Mexican cooking and to gastronomy in general.
“Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition” is a must for anyone with an interest in Mexican food, and in Mexico itself; bravo to the author and to the many cooks who have made it possible for him to share this wealth with us.
Main photo: Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press
Mexico City is one of the largest urban areas in the world, a throbbing metropolis that gives pause to even the most seasoned city lovers. I come from New York where I grew up in Little Italy and learned to love food in all its ethnic diversity, then moved south of the border almost 20 years ago where I commenced my career as a food writer. Here in “El D.F.,” tradition lives side by side with technology: 21st-century high speed Wi-Fi flies by as men with pushcarts declaim their wares or services in singsong style unchanged since the 19th. I, the perennial urban animal, am happy to exist in both eras. Here are some reasons why:
1. Knife sharpeners come to my door. Things are never dull around my kitchen as afiladores (as knife sharpeners are called in Spanish) circulate on bicycles, their distinctive whistle, an import from Spain, resounding through the neighborhood to alert the cutting impaired. Homemakers, chefs and other dull-bladed souls emerge from their kitchens to have knives, scissors, garden shears and the like expertly ground on a round stone that is turned by wheels of the very same bike, right there on the sidewalk.
2. My butcher will bone a chicken (or do anything else I want). Like most hopeful amateurs and semiprofessionals, I have watched Julia Child bone a whole chicken with little effort, promising that it’s not as hard as it seems. I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never had to do it. Here, we buy our birds at the old-fashioned market where butchers will gladly prepare according to customer needs. Breasts are boned and pounded, thighs cubed for brochettes. Beef or pork (or a mixture of both as you wish) is ground once or twice. Pork loins are flayed. My butcher Meche may think it a bit odd, but is happy to cut a boned chicken breast into long, thin slices, as my Chinese recipe requires. This would be an impossible dream for a knife-technique-impaired chef like me. Oh, and by the way, there’s no extra charge for this service.
Tips from Zester Daily's Nicholas Gilman
3. I can eat a bowl of chicken soup on the street. Mexico City is host to an abundance of street stalls offering caldo de gallina: chicken soup. Huge pots of carcass-filled broth bubble away, proving that you don’t need a home to produce a homemade product. The soup, which can be ordered with breast, thigh, leg or nothing at all, is made rich by the addition of a spoonful of rice and garbanzos, a bit of raw onion and cilantro, a squeeze of lemon and some chile flakes to taste. Served with fresh warm corn tortillas, this heart warmer could even top that of the best Jewish grandmother.
4. Fresh squeezed orange juice is available year round. One of myriad fruit and juice stands is located right at my corner, offering round the clock fresh squeezed juices as well as cut up fruits for less than it costs to do it yourself. Fruit, while seasonal, is brought to the capital all year from the four corners of the republic. Mexico is home to jungles and mountains alike. Mangoes, best in the summer, are always available, as are succulent papayas, at least five varieties of bananas, berries and the more exotic mameys and zapotes. A full liter of orange or tangerine juice costs less than $2.
5. Handmade corn tortillas are easy to find. All neighborhoods in the city as well as provincial towns are host to a weekly tianguis (market). Vendors offer the freshest produce, meats and sundries. In the upscale and fashionable areas of the capital these street markets, in keeping with the needs of their sophisticated clients, stock items not typically used in a Mexican kitchen, such as arugula, kale, ginger, leeks and porcinis. As well, braid-sporting women from the country journey into this megalopolis, sacks on their weathered backs, to sell country bounty: wild greens known as quelites, freshly harvested and dried beans and, best of all, hand ground and fashioned corn tortillas. Aficionados know that these beat the tortilleria-bought kind by a landslide: The texture and rustic corn flavor is what it’s all about.
6. I can buy a great baguette around the corner. Some areas of the city have become the visible scene of a new immigration. Young Euro foodsters, coming from such places as the City of Light, where opening a business of any kind is cost prohibitive, or Spain where the economy is in the doldrums, are seeing opportunity knocking in the previously good-bread-starved New World. In middle-class to upscale neighborhoods, patisseries and French boulangeries are opening at, what to anyone trying to watch their weight, is an alarming rate. Beautiful artisanal bread is within arm’s reach. At the same time, friendly traditional panaderías continue to thrive — customers load aluminum trays with pan dulces for breakfast or supper and crunchy bolillos for lunch. Tradition lives side by side with the nouvelle vogue.
7. We eat bugs. OK, so this is a mixed blessing. The truth is that I hate bugs, looking at them, eating them. I know they’re good for me, that they are a great source of protein and that consuming them has a long tradition in Mexican culinary history. Top chefs at about every highfalutin restaurant in town have been including creepy crawlies in their menus. Elena Reygadas (of Rosetta) creates artistic Italianate hors d’oeuvres using pretty little beetles. Alejandro Ruiz at his Guzina Oaxaca does a traditional salsa of chicatanas (flying ants to you and me). Meanwhile, ordinary folk delight in munching fried grasshoppers with their beer or a taco of gusanos de maguey (grubs), when the season hits. I’ll try them all and support the movement wholeheartedly and maybe someday I’ll even grow to be a bug lover. Whether I eat them or not, I love the fact that it’s part of the medley of Mexican cuisine.
7½. I can buy half a cauliflower in the market. In Mexico, miniscule amounts of almost everything are routinely sold. Aside from cauliflower, you can get a quarter of a cabbage, a pair of chicken feet, a single stalk of celery, or dos pesos of parsley — you can even buy a single cigarette. In a poor country, this makes great economic sense. My own reasoning is not so much economic as prudent — I have far fewer rotting vegetables in my frig these days.
Main photo: Mexico City’s chicken soup. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Chef Josefina Santacruz loves more than anything to eat. With an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, what she likes best is “street” or common, casual food. “I love garnachas, sopes, tacos — above all I like anything as long as it’s good, clean and high quality,” she says.
While she cooks for a living, she considers herself a professional eater. A capitalina — born in Mexico City — Santacruz studied at the prestigious CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked kitchens at home and abroad, notably as executive chef at New York’s Pámpano. She also has hosted Spanish-language television cooking programs.
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Maintaining an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, she is a vocal proponent and aficionado of street food. Currently she runs the kitchen at Sesame, located in Mexico City’s fashionable Roma neighborhood. Sesame’s eclectic menu features simple street food-style items from Asia. Classic dishes such as pho and siu mai are neither toyed with nor deconstructed, just artfully and lovingly reproduced. It is a kitchen without precedent in previously Asian-food-starved Mexico. We sat for a chat out on the sidewalk terrace one quiet, breezy afternoon, surrounded by turn-of-the-century mansions and passers-by walking their dogs or returning from a yoga class at the nearby Buddhist center. A far cry from the urban chaos people associate with the world’s fourth-largest metropolis. Santacruz doesn’t see Mexican and Asian cuisines as all that different as our conversation reflected.
With a background in Mexican and classic European cooking, and a strong political interest in our traditions, how and why did you get into Asian cooking?
Well, I went to CIA and studied classic European techniques and traditions. But I always loved my national cuisine and missed it when I lived in New York. Being in New York and London, I discovered Asian food — I was especially taken with Thai and Indian. And I took a class at CIA in Asian techniques. Then after traveling to Asia, I realized that its food has many similarities to Mexican cooking, most importantly that the best food is found on the street and is cheap. That’s something I really believe about our cuisine!
How is what you cook related to traditional Mexican cuisine?
So many ingredients used are in common, like cilantro, chilies, ginger, many spices, fruits. It’s the way of combining them that makes things taste different.
What are your favorite dishes at Sesame?
Ay, ay, ay! That’s like asking which is your favorite child! I do love the dumplings, the lettuce “tacos” of beef, and a dish I invented that’s kale with tofu. Mostly I try to reproduce typical street food that we don’t have here in Mexico as “authentically” as possible, that is, true to how they are done in their countries.
People here are only just learning about Asian food that isn’t sushi or American/Chinese. And they’re open to it. I’ve been to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and China and am planning to go to Thailand this year, but I’ve had amazing Thai food in London and New York.
What is your latest ingredient obsession?
I think it must be kaffir lime. It’s the queen of herbs, so unique and perfumy! And something we don’t know here. Once again, in Mexico we use many unique varieties of citrus including lime and orange leaves, so the idea of using leaves to flavor sauces is similar to our traditions.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not working?
On the street! Without a doubt, it’s street food. I don’t eat Asian, nor, for the most part, in fancy places. I love Mexican street food — it’s the best.
What’s your ideal meal?
You mean like your ideal last meal? Well, it wouldn’t be caviar or foie gras or any of that. Maybe some amazing quesadillas. Definitely a bunch of small plates to share. I like the idea of tasting many unusual flavors.
What’s the most memorable meal of your life?
I would say the first time in my life I walked out of a restaurant and thought “Oh, my God, if I die now I will go happy!” was at Daniel in New York. I had eaten an amazing risotto with saffron and lobster. That was definitely it.
Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?
It’s getting much better. When I was a kid, it was mediocre Italian, French or Spanish food. There were hardly even any nice Mexican places! Now, there is much more variety, and more important, the chefs are finally recognizing the incredible riches we have as far as local ingredients, and taking advantage of them. Also, although a few more pretentious restaurants are more concerned with the “look” than with taste, we’re returning to the idea that eating is to enjoy, it’s about pleasure. There are so many new places opening up that there’s fierce competition amongst them, which is a good thing.
And in Mexico in general?
Although the best restaurants were always in Mexico City — we are, after all, the center of everything commercial, economic, cultural — it’s great to see all these great “chef” places happening in the provinces. Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla, Mérida, Oaxaca, Tijuana — they all have very good restaurants, often celebrating their local regional cuisines. This is a great thing; it makes me happy.
And what are your life plans?
Ha, to keep cooking! I’m involved in a new place nearby called Barra Criolla. And I’d love to have a place that serves small plates of interesting things. I don’t know, couscous, dumplings, like “Around the World in 80 Days” kind of cooking. I don’t do fusion: To “fuse” two or more cuisines well you have to master all of them. I don’t pretend to do that. What I do do is interpret. Of course, no matter how traditional the recipe for a dish I make is, it’s going to be my interpretation of it that I end up with. I want people here in Mexico to be able to taste foods from other countries and have the experience you would have if you were there. That’s my dream.
Main photo: Josefina Santacruz cooks Asian food in Mexico City. Credit: Peter Norman
We had arrived at Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, the destination for thousands of religious pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, and I was ready to crawl on my hands and knees. “Please,” I begged, “can’t we go before we check into the apartment?” Like so many believers since the early Middle Ages, I was finding it hard to control my fervor. Yet the cathedral, however lovely, held little interest for me. It was the central de abastos, the food market, one of the finest I’ve seen in Spain, of which I’d been dreaming since my first visit, many years before, to this whitewashed Galician mecca. Spain’s culinary culture has become trendy: Regional Spanish cooking is all the rage in chefs’ circles. The hype has sent many travelers to marquee gastronomic areas such as Catalunya and the Basque country, elevated by Ferrán Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak, but few visit the northwest: Asturias, Cantabria and Galicia. Pity, because there are great things to eat everywhere on the Iberian continent.
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The market at Santiago is housed in four attractive stone naves built in 1941. Open at both ends, they are modern but reminiscent of the gothic buildings that surround them. They go well with the surrounding cobblestoned streets and whitewashed houses. The long halls, lined with permanent stalls, are divided into the local food categories: fish, meat, vegetables and sundries. Outside, elderly vendors trek in from surrounding country towns to sell fresh cheeses, grelos (a green similar to kale), potatoes or flowers. The market area is also home to food stalls where anything purchased will be cooked for a small fee. Vendors proffer local delicacies such as pulpo a la gallega (octopus), and there are a few upscale dining and shopping options too. The meat nave features rows of carnicerías selling vibrant crimson slabs of pork, beef and lamb. One vendor offers preformed “gourmet” hamburgers, shrink-wrapped to go. Inside the seafood building, which smells as fresh as a day at the beach, fish glisten and gleam like the baubles at Tiffany. Spotted red mero compete with maragota; silvery merluza and shiny metallic sardines shimmer. The hideous monkfish, in Gallego, the regional language, is known as peixe sapo (toad fish); it’s common and goes for a third of its price at Paris markets. Navajas (razor clams) emerge from their shells, peering this way and that, and then retreat, seemingly frightened by the thought of the olive oil and garlic in which they will soon be bathed. Large centollo crabs stretch their legs lazily. A heavyset, ruddy-cheeked fishmonger named Rosa, her hands rough from decades of saltwater and scales, doles out a kilo of precious percebes (barnacles), whose sweet, oyster-like meat, quickly boiled and pried out of its shaft, is a much-appreciated delicacy.
The market is a perfect blend of old and new, both practical and luxurious. But little by little it loses customers. In the market’s central plaza, Miguel Otero runs O Viñateca do Mercado, a small bar and shop specializing in local wines. “We get a lot of tourists nowadays,” Otero says as he pours glasses of crisp, fruity Albariño to accompany the plate of pulpo a Dutch couple has purchased. “But locals tend to be older — young people are gravitating toward the supermarket down the street. We’re hoping my type of business, catering to a more sophisticated crowd, will bring them back.” All of Santiago’s vendors sell the best in their categories. The market is an inspiration to anyone who loves to cook and eat. I leave with a half kilo of odiferous clam-like berberechos, a quarter of those pricey percebes, some fillets of monkfish, a bag of deep green Padrón peppers, a couple of sundry chorizos, a gorgeous rustic bread made with cornmeal, a tetilla cheese, a generic bottle of Albariño and a bag of potatoes with the earth of Galicia still on them. A magnificent supper soon follows, a great memory to fill my dreams of this nearly perfect market until I return. Main photo: Santiago de Compostela food market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
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