A Michoacán Salsa Tops Off Sizzling Mexican Delight

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in: World w/recipe

Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

We’ve gathered around a rustic wooden table at Don Alfredo Pollos al Pastor, a country restaurant sitting 7,000 feet in the Nahuatzén Mountains, an hour west of Morelia, Michoacán, in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. The wait for the Mexican food is a torment. Aromas of grilling meat hit us hard and make us pant through the thinner air in anticipation of what’s to come.

I sip an amber Victoria beer and drift into memories of the restaurant in the late 1980s, when the place was nothing more than a roadside shack with a dirt floor and corrugated metal roof. Then we sat at wobbly metal tables on rusted chairs boasting Cola-Cola logos for decor.

We were there for the food. We didn’t have to think about it. The menu was simple: chicken, handmade corn tortillas, soupy pink beans and a fresh table salsa made with the local heat-packing chile manzano (Capsicum pubescens), onions and sour oranges. If we were lucky and there on a weekend, they’d have a few baby lamb legs over a fire. As time has passed, the lamb has become so popular the restaurant’s simple terracotta serving plates now boast a new hand-lettered name: Don Alfredo Pollos y Borrego al Pastor (chicken and lamb over coals).

Before entering the larger space today — now with a real concrete floor and solid roof — we gape at the main attraction, a trench 20 feet long and 4 feet wide filled with a long, center mound of glowing embers of white mesquite. On either side of the trench are a few dozen 4-foot spiked metal rods, each impaling three chickens, lined up in two neat rows. The bright yellow flesh of the birds comes from their diet of fluorescent orange marigolds. Combine this and the high temperature of the coals, and you have incomparable flavor and beautifully charred crisp, golden skin.

A flamenco twist to a Mexican surprise

The biggest surprise lies at the far end of one row — 10 additional steel rods with a few kilos of marinated pork hanging from each rod, pouring out aromas the way only pork can. The chunks of meat appear dark from the mesquite, but not a speck of blackened pork is anywhere in sight. Roasting meat is in the blood of these cooks; they rotate and swivel the rods like turns of flamenco, flourish and sizzle, flourish and sizzle.

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The popular Michoacán chile manzano is Mexico's only chile with black seeds. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

It has been a long, dry season for lovers of flesh in this part of the world. Pork is celebrated after a Lenten stretch and the Easter lambs have all been eaten. I’ve had my share, perhaps more than my share, of succulent carnitas over the years here in Michoacán, the carnitas capital of the world, but this young pork is primal perfection. These pigs are Mexicans, raised to be fat and placed upon a hot fire, not like their American cousins bred to be lean, mean and articulated muscle machines. Their flavor comes from mesquite smoke and bubbling fat-basted meat cooked lowly and slowly to achieve a moist interior and a mahogany-colored, stunningly brittle skin.

As orders fly in, the cooks select chicken or pork from the spikes and transfer it to a chopping block. A few precision hacks with a machete, a squirt of sour orange juice over the crunchy spitting skin, a sprinkle of salt and the platter is on its way to the table. The torture is over, the waiting is complete and satisfaction is imminent.

Not more than 10 minutes and a half bottle of beer have been swallowed since we passed through the doorway, but they were slow Mexican minutes and we have the patience of hungry Americans, which is to say none.

We ravenously descend on our platters. The waiter has brought pork, chicken and warm corn tortillas. There is a growling silence until, one by one, tortillas are piled with copious quantities of meat and that sweat-inducing table salsa to make perfect tacos. One bite says everything; the wait was worth it. Full grinning mouths smile at each other across the table. We are reduced to happy noises, for there are no words worth the pause.

Fresh Chile Manzano and Sour Orange Table Salsa

You may substitute one juice orange and one Mexican (aka Key) lime to achieve a similar flavor to Don Alfredo’s sour orange, a type of Seville orange primarily used in marmalade. A chile manzano, rocoto or perón (Capsicum pubescens) looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure that you have the right chile cut it open, manzano seeds are black.

Makes about 1½ cups

Ingredients

1 white onion (3 inches), peeled and finely chopped

½ chile manzano, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

2 Mexican sour oranges, juiced

Sea or kosher salt to taste

Directions

Stir all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.

Don Alfredo Pollos y Barrego Al Pastor, Tanganxuan intersection on the Periférico (aka the lower end of Libramiento, before it enters the Glorieta opposite the Bodega Aurrerá supermarket), Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Telephone: (434) 342-3151. (The original location, and still the best.) A second spot is on the autopista Morelia-Pátzcuaro, Km. 6. Telephone: (443) 132-5975.

Top photo: Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky


Zester Daily contributor Nancy Zaslavsky is an author, cooking teacher and culinary tour leader specializing in the foods of Mexico. She wrote the James Beard Award-nominated "A Cook's Tour of Mexico" and "Meatless Mexican Home Cooking." Motivated by ongoing research into the cultural and culinary history of Mexico, she is the vice president and program chair of the Culinary Historians of Southern California. Based in Los Angeles, she is also a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and International Slow Food Movement.

 

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Comments

Amelia Saltsman
on: 5/16/13
I want to build a mesquite-grilled pork taco now!
Barbara Haber
on: 5/17/13
Nancy - All I can see is that I wish I had been sitting next to you.Barbara
Rebecca Dru
on: 5/17/13
YUM!!! I closed my yes...inhaled the aroma...tasted the succulent carnitas and imagined being there...my neighbor has sour oranges in her yard....now I know for what I can use them!! I'll be visiting the butcher this weekend and trying out your salsa!!
Judy
on: 5/17/13
OMG It's just not fair! I can almost smell that far-away pork sizzling over the mesquite fire. Great article. Can't wait to try my hand at the salsa.
Jamie Ashley, Playa Vista culinary traveler
on: 5/17/13
What Nancy didn't mention--her fellow culinary travelers insisted that we return to Don Alfredo's for our last meal of the trip! I was there! The restaurant is more than just a great eating experience--it stands out as an extraordinary example of food tradition and history!Check out Nancy's trips to the area! There is a lot more to Michoacan than most of us are aware of--food,cooking schools,art, handcrafts, colonial architecture, beautiful sites, and history that add up to an experience to remember.
Kevin
on: 5/17/13
Now I'm starving. And something tells me the food here in Maryland isn't going to cut it! Great article!
Akasha
on: 5/17/13
It has always been my dream to go to Mexico with Nancy, just reading this makes me want to go even more!
Kathy solomon
on: 5/17/13
I'm salivating from your description and can't wait to revisit don Alfredo's thanks!
Donna
on: 5/17/13
Fabulous - a mouth watering read! Wish I was there right now!! Thank you --
Ann
on: 5/17/13
Yes! all of the above comments and more......I've enjoyed trying Nancy's salsa recipes and will make this one - delicious!!
Patricia
on: 5/17/13
Beautiful description -- a lovely read -- I'm salivating!
Etsu Garfias
on: 5/17/13
Wonderful to read, salivating as I read on - want to be there with you! More please! Thanks!
Fredda
on: 5/17/13
Wow Nancy - your writing is so evocative I could almost smell and taste the fabulous food. Your trip is definitely on my bucket list, and your pictures almost tell it all!
Beth
on: 5/17/13
Nancy's inspired description has left me salivating! All of Nancy's trips to Mexico are excellent. She always knows where the best food is!
Jim Newman
on: 5/17/13
Nancy at work, always a work of delicious perfection.
SUSAN
on: 5/17/13
My stomach is growling and rumbling. I have been on some of Nancy's tours and she definitely knows where to go to find the best food!!! The article brings back many memories of Mexico and beckons me back for more.
Lea
on: 5/17/13
I'm confused what is better your cooking or your writing, can't decide..............
Judy & Marvino Zeidler
on: 5/19/13
We love traveling to Mexico with Nancy Z and have many times. We went to Don Alfredos al Pastor, I still remember the site and aroma of those chickens grilling inside the restaurant, delicious!! Never saw chickens cooked like that before.If you are planning a trip to Mexico check when Nancy is taking a group. She knows everybody, and the best places to go. And always includes a cooking class!!
Staci Valentine
on: 5/19/13
What a fantastic article! So well described....I felt like I was right next to you. And oh how I wish I had been. Bravo!!
Marlies
on: 5/19/13
I was slightly hungry when I began reading and ravenous when I finished. Can't wait for teleporting to be invented!
Linda Burum
on: 5/19/13
Oy, I'm salivating. Great descriptions.! Looking forward to more.P.S, check out my article: roundup of Turkish restaurant in Los Angeles in the Saturday May 18 Los Angeles Times or on -line http://www.latimes.com/features/food/dailydish/la-dd-kebabs-turkish-restaurant-southern-california-20130514,0,7842760.story (might have to paste to browser)
Grace
on: 5/19/13
Great story Nancy. I can almost taste that fire roasted chicken and plan to prepare the Table Salsa next time I serve chicken. Thanks for sharing these titillating stories with us.
Rudy
on: 5/20/13
Fun, entertaining and informative read. Nancy's passion for Mexican food comes through clearly. It makes me wish I could close my eyes and wake up at Don Alfredo's. Keep Ms. Zaslavsky's articles coming!
Barbara Hansen
on: 5/22/13
A wonderful story, Nancy, but I would expect nothing less from you.
Chris Hightower
on: 6/4/13
Just when you think you've tasted every possible thing, you go to a place like Patzcuaro with Nancy and a "whole 'nother" universe opens up. The Mexicans have a sophisticated cuisine as anybody on the planet, and this elemental dish is one of the best examples of their perfect mastery of the less-is-more approach (they've certainly got the more-is-more covered with their molés!). The only thing more seductive than the food are the people themselves, and Nancy will ensure you get acquainted with both....
Barbara
on: 6/4/13
Don Alfredos was one of the highlights of a trip filled with good food and interesting sights and people. We did, indeed, return there for our last meal of the trip. And twice was not enough.
Nelsen
on: 7/2/13
Interesting story about a place I'd love to visit and try the food. Well written and can't wait to try the recipe.

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