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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.
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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
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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