Cent’Anni or Chiquita for wood oven, thin crust pizza? Decisions. Decisions.

Don Day and Don Day’s Wife were in Cent’Anni‘s wine bar early on Thursday night. It was 7:30 pm and there were a grand total of two of us in a San Miguel restaurant that probably holds well over a hundred. The decor dangerously uses white and beige as their primary colors so it was especially cold and lonely…no, make that icy and bleak.

Despite Cent’Anni‘s superb pizza accompanied by superb service, right then and there I decided to take the advice of superb food blogger Susan York (you’ll find her at cupcakesandcrablegs.com but don’t you dare go there until you’ve finished reading this) and check out her recommendation for another thin crust pizza in San Miguel.

It took less than 24 hours to make it happen.

“Ready to try out a new pizza joint for lunch?”, I said to Don Day’s Wife.

“Is the Pope Italian?”, said Don Day’s Wife.

chiquita sign

I liked the place as soon as I got there. It was in Socialite‘s old home, a good Italian restaurant that didn’t quite understand how to be great.

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There was nothing Don Day remembered from the old days. But Don Day liked everything that he saw. A well-designed logo. A classic wood-fired brick oven. Primitive, handmade furniture. A mural, in soft pastels, that I wanted on my own kitchen wall. Creative postcards on the counter that showed they understood you’ve got to build it if you want them to come. The place is also a small hotel. And I especially liked their line “bed and pizza”.

chiquitamural

With apologies for the fact that Don Day often still lives in the seventies, the place was very funky, and Don Day liked where we were. The place is called Casa Chiquita Pizza and it’s the very antithesis of Cent’Anni. Cent’Anni is big. Chiquita is small. Cent’Anni is cold. Chiquita is warm. Cent’Anni‘s decor looks like the work of an interior designer. Chiquita‘s decor looks like the work of an artist.

Christian, our server, suggested we sit at one of the four seats in the front window and watch the world go by on Calle Correo. Don Day’s Wife, who recognized how close we’d be to the wood-fired oven and who knows what to do when you can’t stand the heat, suggested otherwise. Don Day who remembered that Socialite had a pleasant roof deck asked if it still existed. After 36 steps and a few stepping stones added to Don Day’s Wife’s daily FitBit count we were there.

chiquitasteps

It was like the previous night at Cent’Anni. There were just the two of us. We were the only folks on the roof. But it was very different. We weren’t alone, we were together. In a setting like this, we didn’t need anyone else around to create that buzz, that bustle, that is almost essential in a restaurant.

chiquitaview

The roof of Chiquita is an oasis. Where Cent’Anni‘s roof is one of the best in town, it only has 90 degree views, Chiquita has almost 360 degree views. I could count a dozen different domes and steeples. Where Cent’Anni has a roof that’s slick and stylish, Chiquita has a roof that’s homey and…oops, here comes that word again…funky. There’s a succulent garden, a gravel path, a little pool, dining seating for twelve and almost impossible dining seating for four on distressed, handmade Adirondack or Muskoka chairs (Adirondacks just nip rocking chairs for their degree of dining difficulty).

chiquitaoasis

But what about the food? Chiquita wasn’t going to try and sell us a banana pizza were they? And sooner or later for Don Day it’s pretty much all about the food.

At Chiquita, there’s a choice of pizza or pizza. Don Day likes that he doesn’t have to make a lot of decisions. Because Don Day is not very good at making decisions. But the choices here were still difficult at first.

chiquitamenu

There’s one pizza that’s got four different meats and Don Day loves any number of different meats. There’s another with five different cheeses and Don Day loves every number of different cheeses. But man cannot live on meat or cheese alone…or, then again, maybe he could. If the meat was on one side of the scales and the cheese on the other, wouldn’t that be a balanced diet?

From the eleven different choices we settled on two (with a Robinson Crusoe promise to share and share alike). The Cipriani had pomodoro sauce, mozzarella, something called aderezo Harris (which neither Don Day nor Google have a clue about), beef carpaccio, parmesan, black olives and sundried tomatoes. The Napolitana had pomodoro sauce, a selection of cheeses, salami, spinach and raw onions.

chiquitaotherpizza

The pizzas arrived in handmade wooden boxes with jars of melted cheese dressing and olive oil and chili flakes. The serving plates were also wooden boxes. The bare wood is everywhere in Chiquita and it makes a nice visual theme. Having often tried to get red sauce out of white shirts, I couldn’t imagine how you get it out of unfinished wood boxes.

chiquitacarpacciopizza

The pizzas were very generously piled with toppings and Chiquita is smart enough to know that certain ingredients like carpaccio and arugula go on after the pizza comes out of the oven.

Don Day’s Wife took one bite and looked at Don Day. When Don Day’s Wife gives Don Day a look he rarely knows what she’s thinking. But this time he did.

“It’s the sauce isn’t it?”, I said to her.

“It’s the sauce,” Don Day’s Wife said.

In days of old (when Don Day was a teenager), chefs would put a couple of cans of tomato paste in their pomodoro sauce. In the middle ages (when Don Day was in his forties), chefs cut back to one can of tomato paste. These days, many chefs have done away with the bitter tasting paste altogether.

Not only did the salsa pomodoro have too much tomato paste, there was too much of the pomodoro sauce on the pie.

Don Day’s Wife liked the crust a lot. Don Day didn’t like it enough. Don Day likes his thin crust to be almost charred, very thin, very crispy, like a cracker with air pockets which Chiquita‘s wasn’t.

Don Day was also a little puzzled by the choice of two sizes that Chiquita offers, medium and large. Despite how good we thought the pizzas were, from the original 16 slices that we’d started with, there were five left on the plate. Despite how much Don Day likes cold pizza for breakfast, that’s at least three too many. If we’d ordered only one medium, there wouldn’t, of course, have been enough for lunch. The large on the other hand is big enough for about three people but probably not quite enough for four. A slight alteration might make customers happier and, perhaps, make the restaurant more money. Though all of those wooden serving boxes might be obsolete.

It was time to check the scoreboard. Cent’Anni was the reigning champion as our favorite wood-fired, thin crust pizza. Had it been dethroned by Chiquita?

We hummed and we hawed (despite Don Day being unsure about how to haw). Don Day preferred the crust at Cent’Anni. Don Day and Don Day’s Wife both preferred the toppings at Chiquita. There are some imaginative toppings at both places but we also gave that vote to Chiquita (looking forward to trying the roast beef with gruyere and the marinara with mussels, shrimp and octopus). The pomodoro sauce that’s on almost every Chiquita pizza needs work so Cent’Anni got that checkmark. And despite the fact that we liked the coziness of Chiquita there are only 12 practical seats on the roof; we wondered what might happen if eight of us showed up on a Friday or Saturday night which has never been a problem at Cent’Anni.

There was only one thing we could do. We would settle it the same way we settle all life-altering decisions in our life. We would toss a coin.

It bounced once, bounced twice, went for a little roll and ended up heads.

Casa Chiquita Pizza is located at Correo #45 at the corner of Chiquitos in San Miguel de Allende. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.

Tannat, the wine. Tannat, the restaurant. Tasty stuff.

Don Day only lived in France for a short time. But it was enough time for a long romance. The object of Don Day’s deep affection was called Madiran.

Every Sunday, Don Day and the rest of the escapees from the asylum (what the locals called the expats) would host a picnic and every Sunday we would have Madiran over for the feast. Unlike the rest of the guests, though, Madiran would never make it home.

Madiran was one of the local red wines, the cheapest of all the local red wines. And the taste? That was of little importance. All that we wanted from the wine was an alcohol delivery system that would be acceptable to the sophisticated belles femmes we would invite and who, occasionally, would actually show up.

In the last few years, Don Day and Don Day’s Wife spent a little holiday time in the Dordogne, not too many kilometres from the place in southwest France where Madiran is made. It was there, 40 years after his original dalliance, that Don Day tried to rekindle his romance with Madiran. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out.

Don Day had changed. Forty years of washing wine over his palate had adjusted it substantially. Don Day found Madiran to be a little too sharp, a touch rough, what Don Day’s Wife appropriately called puckery.

The reason was obvious. Madiran is made from a grape called Tannat, traditionally the wine is about 70% Tannat blended with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. Tannat, as the name suggests, has a very tannic taste that, despite a number of bold attempts, Don Day has never been able to become accustomed to.

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The last time we tried a Madiran was about three weeks ago, in Toronto. It had a lot of fruit but it wasn’t sweet fruit. The blackcurrant was a little tart. The cherry was a little sour. Those tannins still needed softening even though this Madiran had over three years in the bottle.

So what has this got to do with San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, you’re probably asking. Well a few weeks ago a new restaurant opened in San Miguel. And for it’s name, they chose the word Tannat. Don Day, the wannabe investigative reporter had to find out why.

tannatsign

There is one other part of the world that Tannat is popular. In that country, it is considered the “national grape”. That country is Uruguay. In the late 1800s, a guy named Pascual Harriague and a number of other Basque settlers brought the grape from the southwest of France to the south of Uruguay and, slowly but very surely, it became the country’s most consumed wine.

Jose Manuel Garcia, the owner of the restaurant Tannat, is not from Uruguay but he has a passion for things Uruguayan. His wife and partner Monica is from Uruguay and, in his opinion, “Monica is the world’s best woman and Tannat is the world’s best wine”.

We went to Tannat on Saturday night and were welcomed at the door like long lost friends by Jose and Monica. Using the when in Rome philosophy, we of course ordered Tannat, wondering all the while if we could get over our anti-Madiran influences. There are two Tannats available by the glass, both from winemaker Juan Carrau, one of them a reserva.

tannatmonicapouring

“The reserva spends about seven months in oak and had an extra year in the bottle’, Jose told us and, when Monica suggested a glass of each so we could more easily experience the differences, it was an easy answer. Two wines are always better than one to Don Day.

There was no difference in the nose and there wasn’t a lot of difference in taste, not as much as you might get between a Rioja crianza and a Rioja reserva. The entry level Tannat and the reserva both had a deep, dark color but the reserva was a little more of a warm brick red if you held it up to the light. It was also slightly more mellow but, without sampling one right after the other, with my eyes closed, Don Day wasn’t able to pass Don Day’s Wife’s taste test (she of course predicted I wouldn’t) by drinking just one and identifying which one it was.

There was another difference, a difference with both Tannat wines. With Don Day of course finding it unavoidable to make reference to a certain Uruguayan soccer player, the Uruguayan Tannat had less bite than Madiran. Though still robust, it was smoother than Madiran. The fruit was more of a blackberry than blackcurrant. And the cherry was more sweet than sour.

As we tasted those first two glasses and before we even had our first mouthfuls of food, I realized there was something special about Tannat, the grape. And Tannat, the restaurant.

tannatinterior

Tannat the restaurant is located on Salida a Celaya/Ancha de San Antonio, the street that is as close as San Miguel has to a restaurant row. There’s a classy sign and an attractive entry but the entryway isn’t quite big enough to be a bar or for anything but a little storage and to show off a few of the bottles on Tannat‘s small but interesting list of wines. The next set of doors open into a bowling alley of a back yard where, closest to the entrance, wooden tables and iron chairs seat about 20 people. There’s a bamboo roof that looks like it may need a couple of prayers to stop a rain. A wall of twigs partially hides the restrooms. But no, it’s not the location, it’s not the decor, it’s not the the washrooms that makes Tannat, the restaurant, special. It’s the hospitality. Immediately, Don Day liked Monica and Jose. The way they shared their enthusiasm for their new venture. The way they shared their knowledge about wine and food.

tannatwashrooms

Monica and Jose call Tannat, the restaurant, a cocina con caracter and have divided the creative menu into three sections, caracter inicial, caracter intermedio and caracter fuerte.

With what we picked from the second and third sections and knowing that, when there’s a Don Day, there’s inevitably going to be a caracter finale, a dessert, we decided to skip the caracter inicial.

tannatsharonsoup

We were almost successful. Monica brought tiny bowls of one of the five appetizers, a complimentary amuse bouche of cream of fresh pea soup enhanced with a little onion and white wine. It was a nice little tease for the delights to come. Don Day was liking the soup, liking Monica and liking Tannat even more.

tannatsteaktartare

On the second section of the menu, we had found a dish that we couldn’t remember ever seeing on a San Miguel restaurant before. It was a favorite dish. A foodie dish. A dish that we knew would go well with the second glasses of Tannat that we’d ordered. It was steak tartare.

Filet of beef had been hand chopped into larger than usual and very tender pieces. The raw meat was nicely seasoned with little more than salt and pepper and lay on a bed of the rarely seen (even though Don Day thinks it’s one of the world’s best greens) verdolaga. Topping the tartare was asparagus, green onions and both shavings and a wedge of parmesan.

“I would have shaved all of the parmesan”, said Don Day’s Wife, “but I still give it a five out of five. If it had a couple more pieces of that toast on the side, I’d give it a six.”

There was a good reason the food was good. Jose Manuel Garcia had spent four years at San Miguel’s The Restaurant. Monica had spent two. From the standpoint of serving imaginative, flavorful but still reasonably simple food, there’s probably no better exposure than The Restaurant. Haniel Cruz and Cecilia Alvarez, the couple manning (or should that be man and womaning) the back of the restaurant, had a similarly excellent training ground in the kitchen of San Miguel’s MiVida.

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The Italian influence from MiVida showed in our selection of main courses. Don Day’s Wife chose a pasta with cherry tomatoes, anchovies, cubes of mozzarella, torn lettuce and green olives.

Don Day chose a pasta with veal in a sage butter sauce colorfully decorated with carrot shavings. Both pastas used fresh, not dried fettucine. Both were fine but could have been spiced up a little for our tastes (but perhaps not for everyone’s tastes). The sage butter would have been helped by a little more sage in Don Day’s opinion and he also would have liked the chance to sprinkle some dried chiles and add a little heat. Don Day’s Wife thought some capers or more anchovies to add salt would have helped hers. Along with perhaps a sprinkle of dried oregano. A request for parmesan was granted instantly and a “would you like more cheese” inquiry came from Jose before we were half finished.

tannatjoseothertable

Though it deserved to be full to the brim. No, make that overflowing. Tannat, the restaurant, was not busy. Especially for a Saturday when there were a lot of Mexican tourists in town. There was only one other table for four occupied so it wasn’t difficult for Jose to take time out from hand towelling the tall stemmed glasses (he’s one of those finicky people who even sticks his nose inside the glass before any wine is allowed to enter it) and join us to talk wine in general and Tannat in particular.

tannatjosebottles

It was immediately obvious that Jose Manuel Garcia lives and breathes…no makes that breathes heavily and deeply…wine. To the table, he brought with him a selection of Tannats, most of them well aged, for our viewing pleasure. One of them, from 2000, he planned to open next week when he celebrates a fortyish birthday. Another of them, we decided to open immediately.

tannatbottleselections

We were now tasting an older, much more mellow Tannat. I was beginning to understand Jose’s passion; it was beginning to rub off. Jose told me he collects Tannats. He knew, exactly, how many different he had, 72 in total. He told me how there are only about 120,000 bottles of Tannat produced each year in Uruguay (in comparison, the annual production of Madiran in France is about 10,000,000 bottles and Madiran is far from what you’d call a popular French wine). He bought out a bottle of Bouza, a Uruguayan Tannat that includes Merlot and Tempranillo in a blend to mellow the tannins and showed me how production is so limited each number is bottled.

tannatnumberedbottle

“I can’t find another woman as good as mine…but I can find an awful lot of good Tannats,” Jose said.

Rather than order a glass of dessert wine, we decided that Tannat would be a perfect partner for the molten chocolate cake that we’d ordered.

tannatthechefs

Delivering the dessert to the table were Haniel and Cecy. Don Day thinks going to a restaurant without meeting the chef is like going to a gallery opening without meeting the artist. Seventies soul was playing in the background and Don Day couldn’t help imagining the next song being Marvin Gaye doing “Pride and Joy” to describe the glow on the chefs’ faces.

tannatdessert

Though it would never stop Don Day from ordering it and ordering it often, molten chocolate cake is a bit of a been there/done that dessert that doesn’t take much more than timing to perfect. What makes the difference is what might keep it company on the plate. There were two white slabs on the side of Tannat’s molten chocolate cake that looked a little like nougat. They had a melt-in-the-mouth creamy, cheesy, fruity taste that was a perfect partner to the chocolate. The flavor was passion fruit, Cecy told us, and the name for the two white slabs was donata panciera.

Jose had now brought two books to the table. The first one was an obvious choice. It was “Wine Grapes”, the Encyclopedia Brittanica of wine that details almost 1400 grapes in almost as many pages. It’s a book Don Day once considered buying until he realized he could buy ten bottles of wine for the same amount of money.

The other book that Jose had placed on the table was one Don Day was very surprised to see. Though written by a restaurateur, it’s a book that’s relevant to almost any business. It’s a book about the importance of hospitality in virtually every aspect of life. I think Donny Masterton, chef/owner of The Restaurant had recommended or given it to Jose.

tannatbook

The book is called “Setting The Table”. The author is Danny Meyer, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, a chain (though he wouldn’t like that word) of New York area restaurants whose chefs have won an unprecedented 25 James Beard Awards.

In “Setting The Table”, Danny Meyer says, “Within moments of being born, most babies find themselves receiving the first four gifts of life: eye contact, a smile, a hug and some food. We receive many other gifts in a lifetime, but few can ever surpass those first four.”

tannatjosetalking

During our first visit to Tannat, Jose and Monica Garcia gave us frequent eye contact, piles of smiles and fed us very well. As we left the restaurant, they gave us a hug.

When Don Day’s Wife and I are charmed by a restaurant, as we were on Saturday night by Tannat, we have a line. It’s only three words. Those three words are, “They get it.” Surprisingly, very few restaurants “get it”. Those that do are usually around for a long time. And they almost always keep getting better.

tannatwinelist

Tannat, the wine, is not easily available at retail in San Miguel de Allende. La Europea lists five Tannats or Tannat blends but doesn’t stock any of them in their San Miguel shop. Some of them may be available in one of their two Queretaro stores. Tannat, the restaurant, is obviously your best bet for finding the wine locally. They have two available by the glass (or bottle) plus a premium Tannat available only by the bottle. There’s also the possibility of enticing Juan to sell you something from his “private” stock. Tannat is located at Ancha de San Antonio #67 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is closed on Monday and Tuesday.

The very best ice cream in San Miguel de Allende.

When Don Day was still growing up…or perhaps more sideways than up…the biggest treat in the world was a trip to The Stoney Creek Dairy, the Hamilton, Ontario, Canada version of butterfat nirvana. It required a birthday, a couple of A’s on a report card, or, if Don Day was really lucky, just a sticky, sweaty July night for Don Day’s Dad to say, “OK, everybody in the Olds, we’re going for triple scoops.”

When kids are still growing up in Fraccionamiento La Luz, a residential neighborhood just outside San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the biggest treat in the world is a trip to Jimmy, their local version of ice cream nirvana. It doesn’t require a Nissan or any other wheels, for usually, it’s only a hop, skip and jump over a couple of cobblestoned blocks.

jimmymarket

On a lot of Saturdays in San Miguel de Allende, Don Day goes to the market. Not the Rosewood Organic Market but the La Luz not even close to organic Market. If you’ve ever wondered where your favorite fruit and veg stalls or that juicy carnitas stand goes when they’re not at the Tuesday market, you just might find them here. After the market, Don Day walks two blocks to see his favorite butcher, Alberto at Carniceria Nuevo Aurora which is also in La Luz. And then, perhaps because he never quite grew up, he walks two more blocks to Super Neveria y Paleteria La Luz for what Don Day considers ice cream far better than he ever remembered as a kid and as good as he’s ever remembered having in his life.

jimmyexterior

Jimmy’s, as Don Day calls it, is located just off the main square of La Luz and just steps from La Luz’ most notable and almost magnificent Parroquia of Our Lady of The Light. Don Day calls the place Jimmy’s because the Super Neveria is only half of what are two restaurants in one with the other half called Super Tortas y Hamburguesas Jimmy. Jimmy, the owner, darts and dances between the two, as chimes ring out when someone enters either of the two doors.

On the left is a somewhat typical hamburger joint serving somewhat typical fare such as sandwiches, quesadillas and chicken nuggets. On the right is a somewhat typical ice cream parlor that won’t get anyone excited about the atmosphere. Don Day spends none of his time on the savory side on the left and all of his time on the sweet side on the right trying to make one of the world’s most difficult decisions.

jimmyzarzamoras

There are four backbreaking freezers (is it impossible to make the ledges inside one foot taller?) each holding eight tubs of ice cream. For those who didn’t get an A in arithmetic and didn’t get taken out for triple decker chocolate chunk cones by their father, that’s 32 different flavors to choose from and at least 320 seconds you’ll waste before you even come close to a decision. And as you probably know, life is like ice cream. You must enjoy it before it melts.

jimmyfreshproducts

There are the old classics…vanilla, chocolate (but only white, natural chocolate), strawberry and neopolitan…but despite the fact that Don Day himself might be considered an old classic, he goes for something a little more exotic. Not as exotic as the guanabana, chongo zamorano or beso de angel, particularly when he’s not sure exactly what they are. But either capuccino, key lime pie, strawberries and cream, pistachio, mango and cream, or, best of all, blackberries and cheese or as Jimmy’s calls it zarzamora con queso. Now I know zarzamora con queso sounds a little weird but didn’t a New York style cheesecake covered with cherries in syrup once sound weird as well.

jimmyplating

How about if I describe each of the components of queso con zarzamora. You have the creamiest of all creams, overstuffed with hail-sized chunks of Philly’s finest, streaked with whole ripe berries that are oozing sweet juice. What’s not there is important as well. In none of Jimmy’s ice creams do you ever get the cloying, teeth jarring taste of too much refined sugar.

jimmyportrait

Jaime Aguila Nieves (the more formal handle for Jimmy) is not the only person in central Mexico to make ice cream but his operation is quite primitive compared to the glistening chrome machines resembling Star Wars sets that Don Day has seen. Maybe there’s some credence to those copywriters who use that “made the old fashioned way” line in their ads. Jimmy’s fabrica is located around the corner from his tienda and is about 6 feet long by 48 feet deep, exactly the size of a horseshoe pit for those who know the other meaning to the words let’s toss a few.

In the factory, the first thing you see are chest freezers filled with carefully measured bags of the fresh picked fruits that Jimmy uses. Then there’s a walk-in fridge with those tubs of that richest of rich cream. I asked Jimmy what the butterfat content of the cream was but he didn’t know the number. And the packaging gave no clue either. I’m guessing about 15% but it may be a very stupid guess.

jimmyfactoryone

On the shelves along the wall are bags and boxes and bottles and jugs and jars with almonds and walnuts and chunks of chocolate. And more jugs and jars with those apparently essential to the process ingredients like emusifiers and gums with great names like guar, locust bean and xanthan that apparently improve the texture and prevent ice crystals forming.

jimmyfactorychicle

Finally at the end of the fabrica are enormous tanks with electric motors and things that twisted and twirled and swum and swirled in order to make that fluorescent blue chicle flavored ice cream that was in production when Jimmy gave me my personal tour.

jimmyinfreezer

I bought three half litres of three favorite flavors to go last Saturday at Jimmy’s and arrived home around Noon. I sampled a single spoonful of pistachio before I put it in the freezer drawer. Around 2:00 pm, I was pulling out the drawer again for a couple of spoonfuls of the mango con crema. About 5:00 pm, I went back to the kitchen to crack open a bottle of wine and there was that drawer again…well, you know what happened. Jimmy’s ice cream is Don Day’s heroin.

Now Don Day made a very bold…some might say arrogant…statement when he titled this piece. He called Jimmy’s the “very best ice cream in San Miguel”. So Don Day obviously must attempt to prove his statement.

There’s a lot of very good ice cream in Mexico. There are a lot of passionate people who have their favorites. So why does Don Day have his neck stuck out so far, calling Jimmy’s “the very best”. Well, it’s back to fairly simple arithmetic again. Though it was rare that Don Day’s marks in math ever got him a trip to the dairy with his parents, he did learn enough about fractions to come up with a formula for ranking the things he likes most in this world.

On the top of the fraction, what Don Day’s math teacher called the numerator, the number represents the amount of pleasure Don Day gets from the experience. On the bottom, the denominator represents the cost of that pleasure.

Now Don Day has more than one favorite source for ice cream in San Miguel (most addicts do). In fact, Don Day has three. And he’d be quite happy to exist exclusively on the ice cream from just one of those sources. So there isn’t much difference between the numerators.

jimmyexotics

But oh the denominators! A scoop of Jimmy’s ice cream costs 12 pesos. Two scoops costs 20 pesos. A half litre of Jimmy’s ice cream costs 35 pesos. A litre costs 60. At Don Day’s other two favorite ice cream makers, the prices for each of those amounts of joy are around twice as much. Which in simple arithmetic makes Jimmy’s about twice as good. Or as Don Day said right up front, “the very best ice cream in San Miguel de Allende”.

Super Neveria y Paleteria La Luz and Super Tortas y Hamburguesas Jimmy is located at Plaza Comercial Itzquinapan Local #1, at Calle Francisco Jose de Landeta #9, in Fraccionamente La Luz, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Four patches of corn. Three enthusiastic women.

I never quite understood Julie Andrews. When the dog barks or when the bee stings…neither does a thing for Don Day. Since the days when I was knee high to a chapuline, Don Day’s favorite things have always been wine, women and song. And, even more so, if they accompanied a good meal.

To be able to experience wine, women and song all at once is rarer than Don Day stepping inside a church. To experience them all with good food is rarer than Don Day stepping inside a confessional box. But it happened this week.

Call it an accident. Don Day and Don Day’s Wife had just arrived back in San Miguel de Allende and the cupboard was as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s. We decided to walk down to La Sirena Gorda, the old cantina named after a fat mermaid, for two of the things we’d been missing for the last couple of months, smoked marlin tacos and a big, juicy pork hock. It was not to be. It was Monday and on Monday, mermaids must go swimming with the porpoises or dolphins or whoever mermaids swim with on their day off.

So we began walking down Barranca towards the middle of San Miguel when suddenly the heavens decided to rain on our parade and transform Barranca from a road to a river. Right before us, there it was. Shelter from the storm. Las Cuatro Milpas.

I’d seen the sign many a time but rarely this early in the evening. And rarely from this vantage point. Usually it was from the back seat of a car. I’d always loved the sign because it had that certain something that appealed to graphic designers and those, like Don Day, who sometimes pretended to be. It was on the route taxis usually took when taking Don Day home some time after the big numbers on the clock had become tiny again. After one or three too many beers. After two or four too many watering holes. It was right at the curve where the cab went left off Barranca and headed up that should have been a one way but was actually a two way street.

lascuatroreversesign

Las Cuatro Milpas. It was a confusing sign. After four beers it looked like it was backwards, like a mirror image of what it should be. After six beers, it just looked fuzzy, like something you find in your navel in the shower. After eight beers, it made perfect sense. The words were clear if the meaning wasn’t. Every night, when I passed the sign, I would say to myself, self, you must look up what a milpa is. Every morning, when I woke up, I would have forgotten about it.

Don Day wasn’t at all sure what Las Cuatro Milpas once was. But it was obvious what it now is. It is now a restaurant. And behind the bar were three attractive women welcoming us and offering sustenance to Don Day and Don Day’s Wife.

Note from Don Day’s Wife: If you’re male, you’re probably saying why isn’t there a photo of these attractive women. All I can say is Don Day was once in advertising and it was there that he learned that, if he’s going to get you to read all of the boring body copy, he better have a promise of something very desirable at the end.

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On the wall was a blackboard with, from the obvious erasures and rewrites, an ever-changing menu of dishes most of which were very enticing simply for their simplicity. No bullshit adjectives. Just straight-talk dishes, mostly Mexican classics plus a brief nod to Italian pastas, middle eastern vegetarian, and a couple of American grill classics.

One of the women, the tall one with the Shirley Temple ringlets, backless blouse and Converse All-Stars, came to our table and, before she had a chance to ask (it was already two hours past tipple time), the very thirsty Don Day requested a bottle of red. She returned, not with a wine list but two bottles, neither of which Don Day had ever before seen in his life (and there are not many wine bottles that Don Day is not intimately familiar with). Both of the wines were Mexican. Don Day likes places that show allegiance to the red, green and white. One was a Cabernet Sauvignon. The other was a Merlot. Don Day chose the Cab only because he’s spent more evenings with Cabs than Merlots and has never believed that familiarity breeds contempt.

The effervescent woman with the All-Stars on her feet (what a great color the footwear was, like limes you’ve left a few days too long in your fruit bowl) then proceeded to open the bottle using a double notched sommelier’s corkscrew with the finesse of someone who’d uncorked almost as many as Don Day had consumed.

But then the unthinkable.

Didn’t the ebullient woman just freely pour the wine into Don Day’s and Don Day’s Wife’s glasses. Had she not spent the requisite two years earning her certificate at the Queretaro School of Hospitality and Tourism? Did she not know that she must first take the bottle with one of her slender hands gracefully caressing the neck and the other firmly grasped on the butt then gently tinkle it into the male’s glass, twisting it as the last drop tumbled so he could swirl and sniff and nod his head in approval? Did she not know that promoting pretension is the very essence of a server’s job?

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Damn it, Don Day liked this woman. And there were still those two other women behind the bar. And didn’t all three look so happy. And weren’t they already enjoying a glass of red as well.

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We started with the carpaccio de trucha ahumada. It was the color Don Day wanted the coral to be when he signed up for the dive off the coast of Cozumel. A neon orange/pink that Don Day suspected came from farmed trout that had enjoyed a steady diet of shrimp. The taste though was more like an Atlantic herring. A little too oily, a little too salty, a little too fishy for most people. But pretty close to perfect for Don Day.

The smoked trout came with Salmas galletas, which encouraged an “I love these crackers” comment from Don Day’s Wife. The fish was also decorated exactly as Don Day’s Wife prefers it. In the style most associated with smoked salmon, with capers, finely chopped onions and a generous squirt of lime juice.

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Next up was a trio of sopes, those little Mexican tart shells of masa with pinched sides that are soaked in lime. The presentation was delightful. A white ceramic tray that Don Day is more used to seeing topped with Japanese sushi here was topped with three shuffleboard pucks, one filled with chicken, one filled with pork and one filled with beans. Bookending the sopes were two bowls, one with a cream, the other with a salsa. The trio soon became a quartet when a fourth sope arrived, this one topped with two different fungi, the very Mexican huitlacoche and the not so Mexican portabello, all flavored with the very Mexican herb, epazote. Don Day likes it when restaurants give their customers freebies. Don Day was liking Las Cuatro Milpas more and more.

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Don Day has told you about the women, mentioned the wine but what about the song. Was there live music at Las Cuatro Milpas? Live, no. Recorded, yes. And what appropriate music. Almost as functional at enhancing Don Day’s mood as the wine.

Music at restaurants is a challenge. You can’t please all of the people, all of the time, with any kind of music. There’s a restaurant in Toronto that has some of the best food that Don Day has ever tasted but he has to promise Don Day’s Wife to do things like fix dripping taps in order to get her to return. Because, even more so than Don Day, she doesn’t wish to be invaded by hiphop with a monotonous beat and unintelligible lyrics at level ten volume.

At Las Cuatro Milpas the music is at the perfect volume and the genre, a selection of mostly cool Latin jazz, is what very few people would choose as their favorite but very few people would ever find offensive. Music is an essential ingredient in the dining experience, as important for spicing the atmosphere as the herbs are for spicing the food.

While anticipating the next course, I asked the effervescent woman, the one wearing the All Stars and doing most of the out front work while the other two did the prep and cooking, if she was the owner.

She was. Along with the other two almost as effervescent women as partners. Did she not know that partnerships of more than two people only work for people like accountants and lawyers?

I asked her why they opened the restaurant. She told me it was because one of them was a great cook. Did she not know that great cooks make even worse restaurant owners than accountants and lawyers?

I asked her what restaurant experience they had. Her answer: “None.” Finally something that put them on equal footing with accountants and lawyers.

“I now know how tough this business is.” said Carolina who, by now, had obviously introduced herself. “I now know why so many restaurants fail. I don’t know how anyone could run one of those monster-sized restaurants. This business is crazy, crazy, crazy but, so far, most of the time, we’re absolutely loving it.”

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Las Cuatro Milpas has only been open a few weeks. I’m not sure what it was in its previous life (though I did finally Google Translate milpa and discovered it means cornfield). It’s a small place with seating for less than 20 on chunky but comfortable, honey-colored hardwood chairs. The restaurant is tastefully decorated in a style that’s more home than restaurant. The cutlery and dishes are a mishmash of styles that range from primitive clay pots to fine bone china but work together in the same way that pairing Arthur Miller with Marilyn Monroe somehow worked. At first, Don Day couldn’t understand why none of the three women ever left the dining room to go to the kitchen when I had the sudden realization that the area behind the bar was the kitchen. These women must have more hip bruises than a roller derby queen. Con permiso are obviously the two most spoken words. There’s a three burner stove (four when they finally get the other one fixed), about an ironing board of counter space and not much else. There’s a fridge out in the dining area taking the space where four more bums could be put on chairs. But no microwave or toaster oven. And yet these three women didn’t seem particularly perplexed even with a dish where timing is almost as important as the rhythm method of birth control, where a few seconds can cause the dish to resemble scrambled eggs.

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The dish was spaghetti carbonara, along with pomodoro and cacciatore, one of three pastas being offered in this cozy corner on that rainy evening at Las Cuatro Milpas.

The carbonara was brought to the table by the woman in the ruby red blouse, the woman who, of the three, it was now obvious to Don Day was the “great cook”. It was the first time she had stepped out from behind the bar. It was the first time Don Day had seen that she was wearing tight blue jeans and heels. Heels! One of Don Day’s fantasies was coming true. This woman was manning a stove not wearing sensible shoes. This woman was sporting heels.

Spaghetti carbonara is one of Don Day’s Wife’s all-time favorite dishes, one she’s almost legendarily famous for preparing, and one she can be a harsh critic of. Las Cuatro Milpas version is a little different than most. It’s a simple treatment, topped by crispy bacon bits with no superfluous, extra added attractions such as porcini mushrooms or fresh peas. Don Day appreciated its simplicity and that the spaghetti was perfectly cooked but found the sauce to be a little too oily and not quite creamy enough. Don Day’s Wife scolded Don Day for his opinion, defended the sauce and said the only necessary improvement was a little more heat so that the egg was more completely cooked.

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If spaghetti carbonara is one of Don Day`s Wife`s favorites, cochinita pibil is even more of a favorite for Don Day. Traditionally it is cooked al horno, in an oven wrapped in banana leaves. As Las Cuatro Milpas is sin horno, it must be cooked on one of those three gas burners. The extraordinarily moist shredded pork shoulder was served on three corn tacos with the taste of achiote and orange enhancing but not overpowering Mexico`s best meat. On the side was the essential accompaniment for a pibil sauce, pickled onions that are always freshly homemade, never jarred, in Mexico. When Don Day’s wife makes them she adds a jalapeno for a little kick. When the “great cook” at Las Cuatro Milpas makes them she adds a habanero for a 55 yard field goal kick. Don Day let out a wine-encouraged and therefore loud hijole and the three effervescent women gave Don Day encouragement for using his (and perhaps their) favorite Mexican word.

Don Day swung his eyes over to the blackboard in search of one last thing to savor, knowing his eyes are often bigger than his belly. That`s why he passed on the tabla de quesos and moved down to the two items in the bottom right corner. Chocolate mousse or flan. No contest. Flan is one of the few things Don Day can get too much off in Mexico. Chocolate mousse is one of the things Don Day can never get too much of anywhere.

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The mousse was brought to the table accompanied by two spoons and an apology. It had just been made and there hadn’t been time to chill and set it. It made no difference to the taste. All it did was make Don Day want to pick it up and gulp it rather than slowly spooning it.

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Don Day has already mentioned how much he likes regalos. How much he likes sorpresas. Now there was another gift, another surprise coming to the table. Two tiny crystal stems containing an amber liquid that the ladies called a digestivo. I`m not sure what was in it. If it was a liqueur it was a very light liqueur. Perhaps it was just a clear tea. Whatever it was, it was free and that alone made it a very happy ending to a very pleasant episode.

And speaking of happy endings, Don Day did discover where the name Las Cuatro Milpas came from. It’s the title of a very popular song from the thirties (suggesting that’s when the building housing the restaurant first got its name). It’s a sad song, a very sad song, about a man who has lost his hacienda, his ranch, his horse and saddle and all of his livestock. But there is still some happiness in his life. For he still has four patches of corn growing. That and a beautiful, dark-skinned woman who is the reason for him to go on living.

Y par eso estoy triste morena
Por eso me pongo a llorar

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The rain had now stopped. And so had Don Day`s Wife’s enthusiasm for a walk back up the hill. As we slouched in the back of the cab, I looked up again at the restaurant’s sign and thought what was it that made this evening so special. The wine was good. The song was good. But it was those good looking women who were very good. It was Carolina, Lucia and Daniela who made the evening special. It was the way they didn’t seem to take anything too seriously. It was their joy, their spirit, their infectious enthusiasm for their new restaurant, that makes Las Quatro Milpas such a welcome addition to San Miguel de Allende`s dining scene.

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Las Cuatro Milpas is located at Barranca 42 at the corner of Montes de Oca in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They restaurant is open from 9:00 am to 10:00 pm, every day but Sunday.

Very easy, very good, very Canadian chili sauce.

Oh my God! I’d become my mother-in-law!

I should have known it was coming. Why did I use doilies when I served the guys’ sausage lunch last week? Why in hell’s name had I bought those patchwork shorts at La Pulga? Why had I suddenly started listening to the “Liza with a Z” album?

And it wasn’t just me. Don Day’s friend Pedrito was showing signs as well.

Now I can’t remember any woman ever calling us macho. But I also can’t remember any man ever calling us sissies. We were just what I’d call regular guys.

When we talked about food, we’d talk about manly food. We’d discuss…OK, maybe argue about…whether it was better to salt a ribeye before or after it gets to feel the heat of the coals. We’d talk about how much better a pickerel tasted if you’d lured it to your line. And, only this week, hadn’t we been standing in Apolo XI on Mesones playing guess the parts of the pig that Nicolas was holding up in the carnitas case. What’s more manly than that?

Oh but to what depths we had fallen! Now we were contemplating whether or not there was fenigreek in a bag of pickling spices. We were debating which San Miguel shop would be our best bet to find celery seed. And we were doing this as Pedrito diced onions and Don Day blanched tomatoes.

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We were doing something that, up until this time, I was sure only mothers-in-law did. We were making that classic Canadian dish called chili sauce.

I know what you might be saying. Chili sauce? Canadian?

Yes. Chili sauce is just as Canadian as poutine, back bacon, butter tarts and maple syrup. And I’m not talking about that Heinz Chili Sauce that Don Day’s parents poured over pork chops or meatloaf. I’m talking about a very distinctive relish that is the traditional accompaniment to another very distinctive Canadian dish, tourtiere.

Don Day and Pedrito were making chili sauce because Don Day’s Wife was making tourtiere. And tourtiere without chili sauce is like a wiener that’s not decorated with a thin yellow stripe of mustard.

Well Don Day’s Wife wasn’t exactly making tourtiere. Tourtiere is a savory meat pie but Don Day’s Wife doesn’t do crusts (or crossword puzzles) so Don Day’s Wife was making a tourtiere sausage. In fact, she was making about eight and a half pounds of it.

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How do you turn a pie into a sausage? You simply take all of the ingredients that you’d put in the pie and put them into some nice, natural casings. Or at least you’d get La Nueva Aurora, our favorite butcher in San Miguel, to put them in the nice, natural casings.

There was a very good reason to be making this sausage? Canada Day was rapidly approaching. And in case you don’t have a maple leaf tattooed there or anywhere else on your anatomy, I will tell you that Canada Day is July 1. When Don Day was still in long pants (he tends to wear mostly knee pants these days) it was called Dominion Day but as most people (including Canadians) didn’t know exactly what a Dominion was (one survey suggested supermarket was the number one answer), we changed it.

You may know that Canada’s prime minister was here earlier this year for a little get-together with Mexico’s president and you may think that the meeting was about climate change, immigration and free trade. It wasn’t. They were discussing what they were going to wear on Canada Day.

“Enrique, you Latin guys look so much better in red.”

OK, back to the sauce…something Don Day usually only says when he’s walking over to the bar to pour another Scotch.

Pedrito and Don Day were originally going to email our mothers-in-law for the chili sauce recipe and, luckily…or is that unluckily, we’ve had quite a number of mothers-in-law to choose from, but suddenly we did one of those screwed up face, what were we thinking stares at each other. We decided instead to make Don Day’s very best favorite chili sauce which comes from his friend Dawn Napier who is no one’s mother-in-law but only because her daughters keep forgetting to get married.

Dawn’s chili sauce is officially called Napier and Clark’s Chili Sauce and is so old it may be named after Meriwether Clark (or maybe it was Merriwether Lewis?). Dawn says it has been in her family for over 100 years which is about as long as Don Day would like to be in his family. And about the only change to the recipe is measuring things in pounds rather than 6.5 quart baskets. Plus you’ll not see any metric measurements in the recipe (for the same reason that most Canadians still don’t speak French).

DAWN’S CHILI SAUCE. THE INGREDIENTS.

8.5 lb. ripe tomatoes
2.5 lb. cooking onions
1/2 cup pickling salt
4 stalks celery
2 cups white sugar
2 cups brown sugar
2 small, hot red peppers (we chose habaneros)
1 green pepper
3 cups white vinegar
2 tbsp. mixed pickling spices in cheesecloth
2 tsp celery seed

When we first got the email from Dawn, Pedrito was in Toronto and Don Day was in San Miguel de Allende so it was decided Pedrito would bring the pickling spices down.

Don Day had thoughts of Arlo Guthrie singing “Coming Into Los Angeles”.

“So what do you have in the bag, Canadiense? And don’t tell me they’re for pickling, I know when herbs are for smoking.”

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But Pedrito didn’t hit red and there we were standing in Don Day’s kitchen with everything a mother-in-law has except aprons and an attitude, ready to take our rightful place as, perhaps, the only two males in the chili sauce hall of fame.

We made a couple of changes to the recipe and not just because Don Day’s Wife says we never know when to leave well enough alone.

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We changed the green bell pepper to a red bell pepper because we decided that Mrs. Clark or Mrs. Napier would also have given red the green light if riper peppers were available 100 years ago.

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And when we couldn’t find pickling salt anywhere, we bought Kosher salt in Bonanza because Don Day’s Wife, a mother-in-law to five women, said, “Henry J. Heinz wouldn’t know the difference.”

DAWN’S CHILI SAUCE. THE PREPARATION.

Peel and chop tomatoes and onions, add pickling salt and let stand overnight. Drain well in the morning. Add celery, white and brown sugars, hot peppers, green pepper, white vinegar and pickling spices in cheesecloth. Keep to a low boil until thick, about 90 minutes (it should turn a burgundy/maroon colour). Remove cheesecloth bag and stir in celery seed (easy to forget/important to remember!) Ladle into sterilized jars and process. This will make around 3.5 litres.

This was Don Day’s kind of prep. This was quick and easy prep. We plunged (Don Day’s Wife’s word) the tomatoes (we chose plum tomatoes because they were the cheapest) in boiling water for two minutes then plunged (now Don Day’s word) them again in an ice water bath to make them very easy to peel and, with Pedrito chopping the onions, we were done the first day’s task in about 20 minutes (not counting the time we took deciding which beverage would be most appropriate for congratulating ourselves).

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The second day was again about 20 minutes of work, not counting the 90 minutes we stood there watching to see the color change.

“That’s burgundy.”

“No that’s more of a claret.”

“Better open a bottle of both and pour a couple of glasses to make sure we’ve got it exactly right.”

We were done. Well almost done. We still had to ladle the sauce into sterilized jars and in order to ladle it into sterilized jars, we needed sterilized jars.

Now Don Day appreciates the significance of jars because one of Don Day’s mothers-in-law, the mother of Don Day’s Wife, who possessed particular prowess at chili sauce making, had it mentioned at her eulogy. “If you didn’t return the empty jars”, the people waiting for the wake to start and the bar to open were told by the clergyman, “you would be off Priscilla’s annual chili sauce gift list. Forever.”

Now Don Day always returned his jars to his mother-in-law but he was wishing he hadn’t because Mr. Mason obviously didn’t include Mexico in his marketing distribution plans and Don Day couldn’t find any, anywhere. I started out at the Tuesday market and made my way all the way down to San Juan de Dios market (yes, there were a couple of refuelling stops) before finally deciding that all was in vain.

All Don Day could think of…well almost all Don Day could think of…I also couldn’t stop thinking why do they call it canning when it goes into jars not cans…was to head up to Mega, buy the cheapest possible thing that comes in jars, then empty and refill them. Then I noticed these little plastic containers on a dusty shelf of a dustier stall with colorful lids that were just about the right size.

There was only one problem. That sterilize word. I was terrified that if I put my plastic jars in boiling water they might end up looking like pasta water. As Don Day always does…OK, occasionally does…when he doesn’t know what to do, he asked the advice of Don Day’s Wife.

“If I just ran these plastic jars through the dishwasher, would you still eat the chili sauce?, Don Day asked.

“I would walk on hot coals to taste your chili sauce”, said Don Day’s Wife and, still to this day, I can’t tell if she was being sarcastic. Though she did suggest we tell the lucky recipients to immediately refrigerate it and eat it within a couple of weeks, or we might be poisoning all our friends.

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So in went Don Day y Pedrito’s Very Canadian Chili Sauce to the little plastic tubs and off it went to those that promised to bring them back.

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And how good was it? Well, because the glory goes to someone else’s recipe and because Don Day’s greatest achievement was finding the plastic tubs, Don Day thinks that he’s justified in saying it was damn good.

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But how about a third party? How about the first person who Don Day’s Wife handed her tortiere sausage on a bun to and who, of course, decorated it with Don Day’s chili sauce? It was fellow Canadian Niels Henriksen and even though he wasn’t within earshot, Don Day knows he must surely have said something like “Whose mother-in-law made this awesome sauce?”

Rediscovering Riojas paired with fabulous food.

Don Day first discovered Campo Viejo Rioja about 30 years ago.

I was on holiday in Spain and going through an image transition. I was trying to leave the slob behind that only I loved and metamorphose (I think it’s a word) into one of the sophisticates who seemed to be spending a lot more evenings with the women Don Day wanted to spend a lot more evenings with.

I changed my sneakers to sandals. I began wearing shirts with buttons…leaving the two at the top strategically undone. And I switched my glassware of choice from chunky brown beer bottles to delicate stemware.

Don Day quickly learned that, in Spain, when in a bar, attempts at being pretentious…sorry, being sophisticated…when it came to wine has little importance for, when one asks for a glass of red wine, that’s all one asks for. Always Don Day would be given a glass of Rioja. And, almost always, it would come out of a bottle decorated with a classic yellow Campo Viejo Rioja label.

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Though I was still a little naive when it came to my image, I was already aware that it might not just be that Campo Viejo was better than all of the other Riojas. It might be that Campo Viejo had some crackerjack salesmen peddling their image or, speaking in my new sophisticated voice, who were better at marketing their label than all of the other brands.

When I returned to Canada, Don Day began drinking a lot of Campo Viejo Rioja. Because that made Don Day feel he was drinking the wine of those sophisticated Spaniards, those people whose hair never turned grey, those people who could all dance better than Don Day, those people who didn’t eat dinner until 9:00 pm. But after a while I moved on. To other wines. From other countries.

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I was thinking of that last Wednesday, when, at 9:15 pm, the event Don Day was attending, The Streets of Spain, a very promising evening sponsored by Campo Viejo Rioja, still hadn’t opened the doors and it was four hours past the time each day that Don Day traditionally has alcohol first touch his lips.

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There were quite a few things outside the doors to the restaurant to keep Don Day amused including a sampling of the wines being featured, Campo Viejo Tempranillo and Campo Viejo Reserva, being served by olive-skinned women in well above the knees, fire engine red dresses. There was mural-sized street art being created by two Spanish artists whose names meant nothing to me but probably should have. Plus there was a delicacy; the toasted rice crust being scraped from the bottom of a paella pan, that Don Day loves and even remembered that the Spanish call soccarat.

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Inside, at the bar, we again had a choice of Campo Viejo Tempranillo or Campo Viejo Reserva and, when Don Day began talking to the man with the curly, gelled, shiny black hair that Don Day has always wanted on the top of his head, he soon realized this guy knew a lot more about Riojas than Don Day did. His name was Roberto Vicente and he knew a lot because he was Campo Viejo’s winemaker. I brought him over to our table and, probably because he was not only very knowledgeable but very handsome, Don Day’s Wife rose to her feet to welcome him.

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For a 32-year-old guy, Roberto has already had a reasonably full career in the wine industry. He studied oenology at the University of La Rioja and spent a short period with Rioja wineries before moving to Marlborough, New Zealand to work at South Pacific Cellars and expose himself to the “new world” of winemaking. The following year, he returned to Spain and Campo Viejo.

“Having worked in large wineries around the world, the opportunity to return to Campo Viejo and work with the unique character of Tempranillo again was too good to refuse,” Roberto said.

Not usually one to mince words, one of the first questions I asked Roberto was, “What makes Campo Viejo better than other Riojas?”

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After creating a little buzz for Spanish wines in general, Roberto talked geography and the three different and defined areas in Rioja. All located in north central Spain, the grapes must be grown in one of three places, Rioja Baja which means low Rioja, Rioja Alta which means high Rioja and Rioja Alavesa which Don Day has no idea what it means.

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“There are optimum times for harvesting the grapes in each area and each one adds its own individual characteristics to the wine,” Roberto continued. “We have a large number of microclimates and soils which add their own personalities and interesting complexities to each of the wines.”

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Riojas can be made only with four grapes: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano or Mazuelo or, in rare occasions, which require dispensation from someone who seems to be almost as important as the Pope in Northern Spain, Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is always the dominant grape, usually representing about 80% of the total mix.

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Roberto Vicente told me, “We make traditional wines in that we use the traditional varieties of grapes and we follow all regulations regarding aging both in the barrel and in the bottle. Inside those century-old traditions we make a modern impression of Rioja with more fruit, less oak, and everything well-balanced.”

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Campo Viejo had pulled out all the stops with the food for The Streets of Spain. Local superchef Stuart Cameron of Patria was teamed with chef Maria Jose San Roman of Michelin-starred Monastrell in Alicante, Spain. The promise was a five course dinner. When you added a tasting of olive oils (all of them about as good as Don Day has ever tasted), an amuse bouche and an extra dessert, it was more like eight courses.

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The first official course on the menu, a gazpacho that combined very sweet strawberries and tomatoes with asparagus and chicken egg was served with Campo Viejo Rose, a wine that’s not readily available in the area of Canada that Don Day lives in or the area of Mexico that Don Day calls his second home so I won’t tease you with my opinions.

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With the second course, the red Riojas arrived at the table. The dish was spot prawns, flown in from British Columbia, paired with chorizo from Iberico, sofrito, crispy squid and aioli. The wine was the 2012 Campo Viejo Tempranillo.

This low-end, everyday wine would traditionally be called a Crianza, the Rioja that Don Day has had many years of practice consuming. As far as Don Day can remember, that’s what Campo Viejo used to call their entry level Rioja as well, but now, in Canada, it simply goes by the handle Tempranillo which probably reflects the fact that it is made from 100% Tempranillo grapes. In Mexico, the last time I had it, the word Crianza was still on the label and I expect it still is (I wished I’d asked Roberto Vicente why, but I didn’t). The wine spends just under two weeks macerating with the skins, is fermented in stainless steel vats, and then spends four months aging in American and French oak casks. The result is an aroma of cherries and a taste of fresh red fruit with a hint of vanilla and chocolate.

Campo Viejo Tempranillo was used again to pair with the third course and Don Day was beginning to realize just how special this dinner was. The dish combined Australian black truffles with Atlantic lobster and chanterelles. It was Don Day’s first time for truffles that were flown in from Oz. Bet you can guess where Patria chef Stewart Cameron is from.

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The next course featured another outstanding ingredient, pork cheeks served with garbanzo beans and padrons, those peppers that show up in Spain in early June, the time Don Day always wishes he was there. Chef San Roman told Don Day that the pork cheeks came from the black hoofed pigs of Iberico whose principal diet is acorns. The nutty flavor really does come through. For the wine pairing it was time to move up the line a little to Campo Viejo Reserva.

Like most, possibly all, Rioja Reservas, it is not made exclusively from Tempranillo but combines 85% Tempranillo with 10% Graziano and 5% Mazuelo grapes. It spends almost three weeks macerating with the skins, is fermented in stainless steel vats at a slightly warmer temperature than the 100% Tempranillo that we’d started with, spends 18 months in oak and another 18 months in the bottle before it is allowed to enter a bar. The result is a wine that is not quite as bright red in color as the 100% Tempranillo and aromas that are much more complicated. I got plums and raspberries on the nose and coconut and pepper as well as vanilla on the palate.

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There were still two different desserts to follow and both, again, were paired with the Reserva.

Though, I’m sure most wine experts would favor the intricacies and elegance of the Reserva, Don Day was very happy with the added fruitiness of the Tempranillo, particularly paired with food.

That’s it for Campo Viejo reds available in Ontario through the LCBO, just the two to choose from. If you live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico though, you can double your pleasure. There are two more steps up the line you can take. Don Day was fortunate to recently be given a Gran Reserva as a gift so I can also tell you a little about what’s in the bottle and how good it is.

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Campo Viejo Gran Reserva is very much like the Reserva except it spends two years in oak and three years in the bottle. On Campo Viejo’s website, it says that the Gran Reserva “retains the ripe red-berry fruit aromas of blackberries, blueberries, and black plums extraordinarily well. Gradually it opens up to reveal smoky, toasted wood nuances, with spices and hints of minerals and tobacco.” Now that’s a bit much for Don Day possibly because I don’t have the most sophisticated of all palates and I found the taste almost identical to the Reserva. Even tasting them side by side, I had a real problem identifying which was which.

The last red in the Campo Viejo wine and the fourth one those in San Miguel de Allende are fortunate enough to have available to them is their most prestigious (that’s pricey in Don Day talk). It’s called Dominio and it combines Tempranillo with Garnacha and Mazuelo grapes. Don Day has yet to try it but it’s on his to do list for when he returns to Mexico at the end of this month when hopefully there might be 400 extra pesos (about $30) in the to drink bank.

So what did Don Day get from spending a night on The Streets of Spain? Well first I had what I consider a world-class meal with ingredients and preparation of once-in-a-lifetime quality. I feel bad that I haven’t shouted from the rooftops how good the food was in this blog but I decided to write mostly about the wine and, as Campo Viejo was picking up a lot of the cost (the price tag was only $50 Canadian a person), they deserve it.

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I learned that I had not been giving Riojas in general the acclaim they deserve. We all have habits…Don Day’s revolve around New World Cabernet Sauvignons and French Rhones when it comes to reds…and it was time to break those habits a little and fit a few more Riojas into my eating and drinking schedule. I learned that Bodegas Campo Viejo is an enormous winery (Roberto Vicente told me they produce about 80 million bottles each year) not just because they’re so good at marketing but because their wines taste very good. And, when I got home and did a little research, I learned one more thing.

Campo Viejo wines are a bargain. For the last few years, mostly out of habit, Don Day has always chosen one of three different Rioja Reservas. My choices have always been Beronia, Cosme Palacio or Muga. I went to the LCBO website to see how the prices compared and here’s what I found:

Beronia: $19.95. Cosme Palacio: $23.95. Muga: $23.95. Campo Viejo: $17.95.

Campo Viejo not only throws absolutely wonderful parties. They produce wines that are much cheaper than Don Day’s old favorites. And, if you regularly read Don Day, you’ll know that cheap is almost always Don Day’s favorite wine.

Campo Viejo Tempranillo and Reserva are available at the LCBO in Ontario, Canada. Campo Viejo Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva and Dominio are available at La Europea in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Learning to love avocados.

I didn’t have my first avocado until I was about 12. I think it was the fruit and veg supplier to my mother’s restaurant who gave her a couple of samples to bring home. I liked their mysterious black skin; I loved their nickname, alligator pear; and I was pretty excited about any new fruit in my life until I realized that avocados weren’t exactly oozing sweetness. The Greatest Show On Earth was my all-time favorite movie back then (today, I have no idea why) so, after my mother told me that Hollywood movie stars like Cornel Wilde ate avocados, I finished it.

I have only two other recollections of avocados early in my life. The first is the seeds stabbed with toothpicks and mounted on a glass of water in the kitchen window; I liked the little plant it produced much more than the fruit. The second was the Frigidaire that wouldn’t die, years after the trend to avocado green and harvest gold appliance colors did.

I was in my late twenties before I thought much about avocados again. I was living in Toronto and there was a Mexican restaurant that stayed open later than the bars. They specialized in an after hours drink known as Mexican tea, draft beer presented in a teapot at the table that was then poured into teacups. It was there that I discovered guacamole for the first time and also discovered that when it was placed on a table I tended to not stop eating it until the bowl was empty.

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In Mexico, avocados are called aguacates which I always thought had something to do with water. It doesn’t. The word aguacates and the word avocado come from the Aztec language Nahuatl and, because of an avocado’s shape, they refer to what Don Day’s Wife calls “the two friends that hang around with Willy”. This becomes even more confusing when you learn French and discover that avocat is the word for an avocado and a lawyer…no, I better not go further with that comparison.

The fruit is believed to have originated in the state of Puebla in Mexico and seeds were found in a cave in Coxcatlan in that state that date to about 10,000 BC. The native variety is much smaller than the fruit we’re familiar with and the flesh is dominated by a large seed. Mexico remains as the number one producer of the most popular cultivar, the Hass variety, with over one million tons produced annually.

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One of the strangest things about the avocado is that it is climacteric, a fancy-dan word meaning that it will only fully ripen when it is off the tree (the banana is the only other fruit Don Day knows that is climacteric). You can actually leave an avocado on the tree for months, choosing when to pick it and let it ripen. 

In Mexico, we are usually able to buy avocados at the exact ripeness for eating today or three days from now or for a week from now. All I do when I’m at the Ignacio Ramirez market is tell the fruit and veg seller the day I plan to eat them; if they’re good at their job, they’ll get it exactly right. Outside of Mexico, that borders on the impossible.

Supermarkets almost always sell avocados rock hard so, like James Taylor, “you need timing, ticka ticka ticka timing”, planning meals a week or two in advance, a task that is far beyond Don Day’s abilities. I will share one little trick if you need to speed the ripening. Most people know to put the avocados in a brown paper bag but not many people know that if you then place it in the oven close to the oven light with only the oven light on, you can speed it up even more. Adding an apple or banana to the bag will also accelerate ripening as these fruits release ethylene that speeds up the process.

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When it comes to eating avocados, you cannot go without mentioning guacamole. On Super Bowl Sunday, more than eight million pounds are consumed. On Cinco de Mayo, that number grows to 14 million.

When you live in San Miguel de Allende, escaping guacamole is even more of a task. There’s hardly ever a cocktail party to which it’s not invited. Many Mexican restaurants place it on the table as a free appetizer. And everyone’s guacamole is praised as, absolutely, the very best guacamole to ever grace a table or a tongue. So I could only present Don Day’s Wife’s recipe as potentially the world’s second best which would be dangerous to Don Day’s future existence. Instead, I’ll share with you the recipe of the person who, deservedly, is more famous than any one anywhere for Mexican food, star chef Rick Bayless who Don Day met for the first time when he cooked in San Miguel earlier this year. I will say that the most important part of Rick’s recipe is the garlic which, unfortunately, is left out of many other recipes.

GUACAMOLE (recipe from season three of “Mexico – One Plate at a Time”)

INGREDIENTS
2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled
Hot fresh green chiles to taste (Don Day would choose 2 serranos), stems removed
3 ripe avocados, preferably the black-skinned Hass
A couple of tablespoons chopped fresh Mexican herbs such as cilantro, pipisa or papalo (Don Day would simply use cilantro because the others are too hard to find)
1 small white onion (fresh knob onion — green tops still on — is best), finely chopped
Salt
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
A little crumbled Mexican fresh cheese (queso fresco) for garnish
A sliced radish or two for garnish

DIRECTIONS
Finely chop the garlic and green chiles, and scoop them into a bowl.
One at a time, run a knife down through each avocado, starting at the top, until you reach the pit; continue cutting around the pit until you reach the point you started.
Twist the two halves of the avocado apart (yes, Rick Bayless has mastered the technique that Don Day can’t but read on and you’ll learn how Don Day does it). Remove the pit and discard. Scoop the flesh into the bowl with the chiles. Mash coarsely with the back of a spoon or an old-fashioned potato masher.
Add the herbs and onion, stir to combine, then taste. Season with salt (usually about a teaspoon) and lime juice. Scoop into a serving dish and garnish with cheese and radishes.
Because guacamole is such a cliche in central Mexico, we have another favorite way to enjoy avocado in Don Day’s home. It originates from our time in San Francisco and a restaurant in the West Portal neighborhood called Cafe for All Seasons. It is a relatively simple sandwich consisting of five of the world’s most complicated and complimentary flavors…bacon, shrimp, tomato, avocado and garlic aioli…served most appropriately on a crispy French baguette. It is best enjoyed on a morning after the night before.

avocadoscafeiberico

The best avocado Don Day ever ate was at Cafe Iberico, a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Alas, Cafe Iberico is now serving Spanish tapas to the angels and the space is now occupied by the mostly empty La Bugambilia but that memory still lives on in Don Day’s golden oldies file. The dish was simply called fried avocado on the menu and it disproved the fallacy that avocados cannot be improved by cooking. With its chipotle mustard vinaigrette and side of pickled onions it was one of the most delightful of all culinary experiences in this entire town.

When Cafe Iberico went the way of so many good restaurants, Don Day had to use innovation to satisfy his cooked avocado craving. The first thing I did was one of those romantic things that only the most sensitive of men do. I went out and bought Don Day’s Wife a deep fryer for Christmas. Talk about a smile a mile wide…or perhaps I was practicing my headstand at the time.

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To fry avocados at home, you simply peel, pit and slice an avocado or three. Or perhaps I shouldn’t say simply because Don Day was once taught the best way to cut and remove a seed from an avocado but never was able to master the technique. So I went to the California Avocado Commission to see if there was a better way because, as I’m sure you’re aware, any organization with the word commission in it always knows all. Sure enough, the commission were experts and even mentioned that Don Day’s seed extraction method of striking the seed with a knife and twisting “requires some skill and is not recommended”.

So that, like Don Day, you also know the most efficient way, I will paste in, the commission’s recommendation below.

How to Cut Avocados

Use this simple process when cutting avocados:
Start with a ripe avocado on a cutting board and cut it lengthwise around the seed. We recommend cutting into the avocado until the knife hits the seed, then rotating the avocado with one hand while holding the knife horizontally in the other hand.
Turn the avocado by a quarter, and cut it in half lengthwise again.
Rotate the avocado halves in your hands and separate the quarters.
Remove the seed by pulling it out gently with your fingertips.
Peel the fruit by sliding your thumb under the skin and peeling the skin back.

OK, back to those fried avocados. You then dip the quarters in beaten eggs and dredge (a word used in canals and cooking) them in panko crumbs (available at Supermercado Bonanza in San Miguel de Allende) and throw them in hot fat for a couple of minutes. If your spouse has never shown their deep devotion to you by gifting you with a plug-in deep fryer, you can simply use a dutch oven or deep frying pan with an inch or two of vegetable oil instead.

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One chipotle pepper and a little adobo sauce from a La Costena can mixed with a half cup of mayo is a simple way to make a good dip.

As an old advertising guy, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite facts about avocados. Dating all the way back to the Aztecs, avocados have had a reputation for improving sexual prowess. Research determined that women (these were American women not Azteca women) were embarrassed to put the fruit into their shopping carts for fear of damaging their reputations. A public relations campaign was mounted by the growers to suggest that the avocado was, in fact, not an aphrodisiac and couples would not necessarily end up on top of the dining room table after consuming them. The result: There was little change with the buying habits of women but men suddenly started putting avocados into their carts in great quantity.

Have to run now. I can smell the fried avocados and Don Day’s Wife is calling me.

The best Chinese food in San Miguel de Allende

Have you ever noticed that, no matter how small the North American town is that you’re passing through, no matter how far away it is from anything else even remotely Asian, there’s always a Chinese restaurant.

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With that in mind, Don Day wasn’t surprised when, on that very first visit to San Miguel de Allende, there was El Palacio Chino. The restaurant, located on the southwest corner of Mesones and Relox, wasn’t shy when it came to advertising. The line I remember was “The Best Chinese Food in Mexico”. Hmmmmm!

The first time Don Day went to El Palacio Chino (or China Palace) was the last time. You could either sit in a dark and dingy dining room or a bleak courtyard and neither area even measured up to the fluorescent-lit formica and plastic tablecloth decor I was used to in small town Canada. Boy, was that word palace a misnomer.

It wasn’t the last time Don Day ate El Palacio Chino‘s food, though. One Chinese meal a week had been on my must do schedule for most of my life and there was no way I was going to give that up. El Palacio offered a typical, something for everybody menu of Cantonese dishes with a few Szechuan and Hunan specialities thrown in to add a little spice. With some extra attention to narrowing the selection down (avoiding the beef is still a good idea) and by switching from eat-in to pickup or delivery, I was happy. Don Day didn’t have to put up with the dim decor and I continued to get my chopsticks on some of my favorite dishes. Though Don Day wasn’t about to shout out accolades, Don Day was much more sweet than sour on El Palacio Chino.

Over the years, there had been other San Miguel restaurants to offer Chinese food but Don Day can’t remember any having much of an impact. Then, about four years ago, a serious contender appeared to have arrived in town. Entering the scene was Dragon Chino. This new Chinese restaurant on Salida a Celaya was running 1/3 page ads in Atencion. People were talking about their food. People were saying that El Palacio Chino had a very serious challenger.

As a guy who spent most of his life in the ad biz, a restaurant’s advertising can have a huge impact on me. I thought Dragon Chino‘s newspaper ad was rather stupid. Most of it had a lot of Chinese characters that were meaningless to me; surely they weren’t attempting to directly target San Miguel’s huge Chinese population (around 14, I’m guessing, at last count). The newspaper ad actually worked in reverse for me; for the longest while I ignored the restaurant.

But curiosity got to me. And, one day, while walking over to El Maple bakery, Don Day took a look inside. The restaurant that I last remembered as an ornamental iron shop was certainly cozier than El Palacio Chino but that wasn’t saying much. I asked for the takeout/delivery menu and was told there wasn’t a printed copy but I’d find one on their website. Strange but OK, this is the electronic age; I could live with that. When I checked out the website. I was hooked. Up came a quote from a guy Don Day had jogged with a couple of times, saying, “Now I have no reason to go back to New York.” Those words were good enough for me. This was effective enough advertising; it was time to sample the Dragon.

I could have sampled in isolation. I could have sampled alone. But no. Why waste an opportunity for a dinner party. Don Day and Don Day’s Wife invited seven friends over and we placed an order at Dragon Chino. But to make it interesting, we ordered the identical dishes at El Palacio Chino. The results astounded Don Day.

Don Day knows this isn’t politically correct and I know I should try harder with my Spanish but I was relieved to find out that, at both restaurants, the person who answered spoke English. It’s hard enough to translate mu shu into English; I couldn’t imagine translating it into Spanish.

china palace opening bags

We chose five items (plus the obligatory steamed rice) that we thought would give us a good representative sample (note that since the tasting the prices have increased at both restaurants and some of the items are no longer available).

china palace serving

From El Palacio Chino, the dishes and prices:
Fried Steamed Dumplings $60
Moo Hsu Pork $95
Crispy Walnut Shrimp $145
Orange-flavored Chicken $115
Szechuan Beef $95

From Dragon Chino, we tried to order identical dishes:
Chinese Dumplings $52
Moo Shu Pork $80
Crispy Walnut Shrimp $113
Orange Flavor Chicken $98
Changsha Beef $75

china palace delivery

We telephoned El Palacio Chino first because it’s slightly further from the house, then immediately called Dragon Chino. They both took 37 minutes to arrive. So far it was a tie. With tip, El Palacio Chino came in at exactly 600 pesos while Dragon Chino was exactly 500. Advantage and a reasonably big one to Dragon Chino.

But you won’t believe what happened next. We tasted the food and one restaurant absolutely dominated the contest. Course by course, here’s how each person voted with one comment about each.”

Dumplings:
El Palacio: 9 Dragon Chino: 0
“Twice the size and twice as good.”

Moo Shu Pork
El Palacio: 6 Dragon Chino: 3
“The pancakes from the Palace are abysmal; you can’t even open them up. Thank goodness the filling makes up for it.”

Walnut Shrimp
El Palacio: 9 Dragon Chino: 0
“The breading’s too heavy; they’re too sweet; there’s too much vinegar.” (referring to the Dragon’s shrimp)

Schezuan/Changsha Beef
El Palacio: 6 Dragon Chino: 3
“It’s the pepper spicing that makes the difference.” (to the Palace’s beef)

Orange Chicken
El Palacio: 9 Dragon Chino: 0
“It’s so much better. The orange zest just jumps out at you.”

china palace the table after

Adding it up. China Palace absolutely slayed the Dragon, 5-0 in dishes and 39-6 in total score. It was really no contest. El Palacio Chino may not have “the best Chinese food in Mexico” like it still says on their menu but it definitely has the best Chinese food in San Miguel. Then again, on Dragon Chino‘s website it said it is “the only Chinese food restaurant in San Miguel de Allende with authentic Chinese cuisine”. If that’s true, give Don Day the inauthentic every time.

china palace fortune cookies

El Palacio Chino is located at Mesones 57 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Hecho en Mexico. With pride.

Don Day always wanted to see the Hot Club of France. But the Hot Club of France disappeared from this world about the same time Don Day appeared in this world. So Don Day had to be content to listen to recorded forms of gypsy jazz instead.

hecho en mexico the band

The closest Don Day ever came to seeing the Hot Club live was not in Paris. Or Lyon. Or Nice. Or anywhere else in France. It was, in all places, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Because when Don Day closes his eyes, local musicians Pedro Cartas and Severo Barrera become Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, the heart and soul of the Hot Club.

Now I don’t know what the cover charge was to see the Quintet de Hot Club de France at La Grosse Pomme in Montmartre back in the thirties. But I do know what the cover is at Hecho en Mexico these days to see San Miguel’s reincarnation. The cover is ridiculous. It’s nada. A price that makes Hecho en Mexico on a Friday or Saturday night the best musical bargain anywhere in this town. Yes there’s a minimum. But it’s so small I can’t even remember what it is. And I know it’s quickly gone after Don Day has a couple of drinks.

After those couple of drinks is when Don Day closes his eyes, opens his ears to Pedro Cartas and Severo Barrera as they play Gabriel’s Oboe or Cinema Paradiso, and thinks there’s nowhere in this world I’d rather be. And Don Day really believes that the senses associated with food are enhanced when the ears are receiving similar pleasures.

Now, from Don Day’s experience, places that serve up good music are, traditionally, not places that serve up good food. But that’s not the case at Hecho en Mexico. And Don Day was reminded of that at the recent SMART Awards that recognize the best restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. In the competition, Hecho en Mexico finished fifth. Which is a superb score when you consider that San Miguel has more that 200 restaurants.

Now Don Day would never consider Hecho en Mexico to be the best restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Because Don Day does not judge restaurants the way normal people judge restaurants. Don Day is a foodie and foodies are strange beasts. I’ve just spent about ten minutes trying to come up with something original and witty to define a foodie but I couldn’t. The best I could do is to tell you that whenever they’re eating, they’re already dreaming about their next meal. And they’ll put up with some butt ugly surroundings and a wheelbarrow of crap from servers in search of imaginative, well prepared food.

Hecho en Mexico‘s menu is not particularly imaginative. It’s a north of the border influenced Mexican menu with dishes like fajitas, arrachera, enchiladas, ribeyes, chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, reubens and fish tacos. You won’t find more inspired Mexican dishes like barbacoa, carnitas, mixiote, or mole.

What you will find though is well prepared and I was reminded of that the last time I went to Hecho en Mexico to watch Pedro Cartas work musical magic on the violin strings.

Another part of the SMART Awards was voting for the single best dish in any restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Hecho en Mexico had a dish that received a lot of attention. It was their yellowfin tuna. And Don Day had never had the tuna until his most recent visit to the restaurant.

First though we had to warm up. Our friends Richard and Lorain had joined Don Day and Don Day’s Wife and, knowing about the portions at Hecho en Mexico, we decided we’d start with just one appetizer for the table, particularly since we’d already been nibbling…or make that devouring…the complimentary chips and salsa.

hecho en mexico pedro tuning

While Pedro Cartas was tuning his violin, we tuned up with deep fried calamari. The squid looked a little lost on the plate (plenty of calamari but too much plate) but found pleasure on the tongue. The batter was light and the texture of the calamari had just the right amount of give. Hecho en Mexico serves it with a marinara sauce which didn’t work for anybody at the table. Don Day would rather have his calamari with tzatziki or aioli or tartar or cocktail sauce but there’s an easy solution at Hecho en Mexico. The red salsa that comes with the chips makes an excellent calamari dip.

hecho en mexico calamari

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” It was now just after 7:30 and the band had kicked things off with one of Don Day’s favorite Beatles songs. Don Day likes that the music at Hecho en Mexico starts, not in the dead of night, but in the early evening which is when Don Day likes his music to start.

Don Day had stayed away from the tuna entree because tuna is a fish that he underappreciates when it’s overcooked. And, though he’s embarassed to write this, Don Day admits it. He didn’t trust the restaurant to prepare it correctly. In fact, it wasn’t even Don Day that ordered it. It was Don Day’s Wife, who is much more trusting than Don Day. But of course there was a promise that we would share if it arrived as requested. The request was for it to be seared very quickly on each side and barely warm in the middle.

hecho en mexico tuna

Much to doubting Don’s amazement, Hecho en Mexico did it suitably rare with a crispy crust. And then served it in Japanese fashion. With wasabi and pickled ginger and soy. Which is absolutely Don Day’s favorite way to eat sushi grade tuna.

It was definitely one of the very best dishes anywhere in San Miguel de Allende. And I haven’t even told you the best part yet. The yellowfin tuna portion is enormous. I’d guess about 200 grams or 8 ounces. And the cost? 155 pesos! Now Don Day pays his fish retailer in Toronto $88 a kilo for yellowfin. Which is almost twice as much as Hecho en Mexico sells it for. My Toronto fish market throws in a lemon with my order. At Hecho en Mexico, you get your choice of two sides and the rajas con crema and jicama salad were perfect partners to the tuna.

hecho en mexico guitar

Don Day’s Wife, who thinks Don Day looks like Hecho en Mexico‘s guitarist Severo Barrera but Don Day doesn’t know if it’s a slur or a compliment (“because he doesn’t have hair or socks either”) called it, “a crazy amount”. And said, “I would cut it in half.” But I’m not sure the people from the neighboring table going home with the styrofoam boxes would agree.

hecho en mexico cobb salad

Lorain ordered the Cobb salad which in addition to the mnemonic EAT COBB (egg, avocado, tomato, chicken, onion, bacon, blue cheese) included slivers of jicama for a slightly Mexican crunch.

hecho en mexico lorain pinot

“It’s the best Cobb I’ve ever had”, said Lorain, “and probably the biggest as well. There’s no way I’m going to finish it.”

Lorain, who is not exactly big on greens, with an assist to the official stats for Richard, did clean her plate.

Richard had no problem finishing his dish either, clearing his plate of charcoal grilled tilapia with mango salsa and neither did Don Day have trouble finishing one of his favorite dishes, pescado Veracruzana. The fish was a little soggy but it’s tough to keep tilapia firm when you’re baking it in a sauce that includes tomatoes. The french fries on the side were, on the other hand, nice and crispy.

hecho en mexico pedro playing

Pedro Cartas was now soloing on Almendra and Don Day was dreaming of having hair and socks like him instead of Severo. Almendra is a song that makes Don Day want to dance, a song that makes Don Day very happy.

Don Day doesn’t like to be serious and solemn. Don Day likes to be humorous and happy. And he likes to dine with people who are happy. And he likes his servers to be happy. Because happy servers are almost always very good servers.

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On the back of Hecho en Mexico‘s servers’ shirts are three words. Comida. Diversion. Espiritu. Those words…food, fun, spirit…are very appropriate for the restaurant and perfect for the servers because they appear to be devoid of attitude and seem to genuinely want to make Don Day and everyone else happy. Your water glass is almost empty? Here comes the maitre d’ who has spotted it from across the room.

hecho en mexico maitre d serving

Don Day goes to restaurants to be treated special. To be treated better or differently than he treats himself at home. Special comes in three forms. Food. Service. And ambience. Don Day can get great food and good service at home but he can’t get the ambience that live music brings. At Hecho en Mexico you get ambience plus. Not just the music but the surroundings as well. The restaurant is built around a courtyard with rugged stonework balanced against delicate greenery. If you remember to reserve, as Don Day sometimes does, you can sit front and center by the stage. If you want somewhere a little more secluded there are warm and cozy side rooms.

hecho en mexico peanut pie

The last tune of the set was En Mi Corazon which might be the most passionate tune the band plays. We were now reviewing the desserts menu and, in Don Day’s and Lorain’s hearts, the sweet tooths at the table, the passion was for the poy de cacahuates and the creme brulee. The creme brulee was good, very good. The poy de cacahuates or peanut pie was even better. Now sometimes a peanut pie can taste like you stuck your finger in a peanut butter jar which is far too nutty for Don Day. This peanut pie was subtle. A nice hint of peanuts decorated with heavy cream and chocolate syrup. It fell just behind the yellowfin tuna as the best moment of the evening.

If Don Day could forget for a few minutes that he’s a foodie, he’d probably vote Hecho en Mexico one of his top five San Miguel restaurants like the voters at the SMART Awards did. But what if Don Day was an entrepreneur instead of a foodie, what would he do with Hecho en Mexico.

hecho en mexico the room

In that case Don Day would wrap Hecho en Mexico in a big box, put a bright red bow around it, and take it to Cleveland and Wichita and Sacramento and Utica and Saskatoon, perhaps even Paris, France. Because Don Day thinks Hecho en Mexico is the best restaurant concept in San Miguel. A formula that would work almost anywhere in the world. That’s why it’s always the busiest. At lunchtime, in the early evening and later at night. That’s why it attracts residents and tourists. That’s why it’s frequented by young and by old. It has a menu with something for everyone (even a foodie). It has people who seem to love what they’re doing. It has gypsy jazz that’s no one I know’s favorite music but it’s music that no one I know doesn’t appreciate. And it has those prices that border on the ridiculous.

Eating out used to be either about fast food or fine dining. But fine dining has faded from the food scene. And might have totally burnt out if it wasn’t for special occasions. Casual dining meanwhile continues to rise in popularity. Hecho en Mexico is the ultimate in casual dining.

Now Don Day can’t remember ever taking a picture of the bill when he left a restaurant. But when he left Hecho en Mexico, he had to. Because Don Day felt it might just have been the best bargain he’d ever experienced.

hecho en mexico the bill

Dinner for four with three bottles of wine (my only excuse was it was a long evening) cost 1305 pesos or about a hundred U.S. dollars. I don’t think it would be possible to have such an enjoyable evening at that price in a restaurant anywhere.

No, Hecho en Mexico is not a foodie restaurant. But it’s still a great restaurant for a foodie. Because it has that secret ingredient that very few restaurants have. It has fabulous music.

In addition to those three words that appear on the back of the server’s shirts…Comida. Diversion. Espiritu.…there’s another word that Hecho en Mexico uses in its promotion. That word is orgullasamente. To say the same thing in English, takes only two syllables, proudly or with pride.

Now I’ve never met the owners of Hecho en Mexico but, whoever they are, all Don Day can say to them is you should be proud. Very proud.

Hecho en Mexico is located at Ancha de San Antonio in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant and bar is open from Noon to 10:00 pm, Sunday to Thursday and Noon to 11:00 pm, Friday and Saturday.

I wish I may. I wish I might. Feast on nigiri just one night.

If Don Day tipped too much tequila one evening and ran into a genie on the way home, right after wishing her name was Barbara Eden and then wishing she respond to every request with “Yes, Master”, I would use my third wish to patch a great big hole in San Miguel de Allende. Don Day would wish for a good Japanese restaurant.

Now I know what you might be saying. San Miguel already has a pretty good Japanese restaurant. And Don Day would even argue that Delica Mitsu is not just a pretty good restaurant but a very good restaurant. But Delica Mitsu isn’t a very typical and traditional Japanese restaurant. Delica Mitsu doesn’t serve ramen, it doesn’t serve sashimi and it doesn’t serve sushi made with raw fish. And a Japanese restaurant that doesn’t serve Don Day traditional sushi just isn’t the Japanese restaurant that Don Day’s always been wishing and hoping for.

So Don Day was excited, very excited, when someone told him that there was a new Japanese restaurant in town (but disappointed it didn’t require an evening with Barbara Eden). In fact, Don Day was so excited that he went to lunch there the very next day.

cafe  california logo

The new restaurant is called Cafe California. Nice logo. But strange name. To Don Day, Cafe says French. And a place for lunch. But not for dinner. And California. I’m not sure what that means. Unless it’s that cuisine eaten by people with slim waists and slim chances of ever understanding Don Day’s daily diet.

cafe california exterior

Cafe California is located in that plaza near the top of Salida a Queretaro, the one on the south side between where the street levels out and the glorieta. That plaza that no one knows the name of because it’s a plaza no one ever goes to.

Plazas become successful because they have a strong anchor and all of the other tenants can play off the success of that anchor. But Plaza Primavera (Don Day only knows the name because he lives just down the street) has never ever had a strong anchor and Don Day has seen a lot of restaurants already come and go.

I was the only person at Cafe California. The only one except the owner and his server. My first question, well two questions. Why here and why Cafe California? Why there, I instantly understood. The owner, who introduced himself as Hahn Cheo, had been the owner of the Japanese restaurant in Plaza Luciernaga, and because the restaurant was on the walk between Liverpool and Soriana, it did get some of that valuable anchor effect but not enough apparently to justify the big rent that usually comes with a big mall.

cafe california jahn

Hahn explained that now he was not interested in “just feeding shoppers” but giving San Miguel the “best Japanese food they’ve ever tasted”. I liked Hahn right from the start and I really wanted the Japanese food to be the best I’d ever tasted.

There was also a reason, though not a very good one in Don Day’s opinion, for calling the place Cafe California. It was a bit of a tribute. Hahn Cheo had come to California from Japan with his family when he was 12. He’d lived in San Francisco for a few years and then a lot more years in Palo Alto, the home of Stanford and a lot of people willing to spend big bucks on food, before ending up in San Miguel de Allende.

Hahn gave me a menu and I looked around.

cafe california interior

I’m not sure how many restaurants that were started on a tight budget haven’t had their furniture provided by the brewery Cerveceria Modelo but Don Day would have trouble naming them. A low end…even a mid range…restaurant in San Miguel without a Corona logo on the back of the chairs seems darn right un-Mexican. I’d love to know how the brewery decides who gets what level of quality but Cafe California somehow rated the top of the line wood and chrome tables and chairs. There’s seating for about 20 inside and four out on the little patio. Though the wood versions of the furniture are a lot better looking than the plastic, and they go very well with Cafe California’s striped hardwood floor, the chairs are not very comfortable unless you have perfect posture which Don Day lost, if he ever had it at all, a couple of decades ago.

Tchaikovsky was playing in the background. Which also isn’t exactly Japanese but did add a little class to the joint. It was the kind of music that makes you want to start a revolution. It made Don Day very hungry.

The Japanese love minimalism but Cafe California is a little too stark. A little too cold. There is a decorative fan on the wall. A vase of dried flowers. But not much else. As cliched as they may be, I would have liked to have seen some of those Japanese prints of Mount Fuji on the walls.

cafe california sushi menu

Don Day was probably paying more attention to the room than the menu for a reason. I couldn’t find anything that was making My mouth water. Nothing was tempting. Nothing tantalizing. And I knew why. There was no ramen on the menu. And though there was sushi, it wasn’t traditional sushi, it was what Don Day calls Mexican sushi. It was what the Japanese call maki and Don Day calls rolls. The same kind of rolls that you find in two or three other so called sushi restaurants in San Miguel. Rolls with cooked fish or no fish at all. And extra added but not welcome attractions like mayo and cream cheese.

What was missing was what I really was wishing for from that genie. I wanted what the Japanese call nigiri and what Don Day calls those delectable little cubes of vinegared rice with a titch of wasabi and the freshest of fish on top.

But no. There was a list of maki on the menu but no nigiri. And no raw fish at all.

I wondered why. It’s certainly not availability. Don Day regularly purchases and Don Day’s Wife regularly prepares fresh maguro, saki, hamachi, even toro. What Don Day calls yellowfin, salmon, yellowtail, sometimes even bluefin are all regularly available from San Miguel seafood retailer, La Isla. And if more than 90% of the sushi restaurants in Toronto are selling previously frozen fish why don’t San Miguel restaurants sell it.

I was stumped trying to choose something from the menu and when Don Day’s stumped he turns to other people for the answers. I asked Hahn to choose the two things on the menu that he was most proud of.

cafe california wonton soup

From an interesting list of soups, I was surprised at his choice. He chose a dish that was not even Japanese but Chinese. Hahn chose the hot and sour wonton soup. It was not very hot and not very sour (light on the chilis and the vinegar) but it was still very good. The base was a hearty broth that tasted like it had come, not from a jar or box, but directly from a chicken. The pork inside the noodles was finely ground and well-spiced. The noodles were, as best as Don Day could tell, fresh not dried. And zucchini slices and shaved carrots were an original and nice finishing touch.

cafe california jap rice

For the second choice, Hahn chose a Japanese classic based on the staple of almost all Japanese cuisine, white rice. CafeCalifornia‘s chicken teriyaki had moist and flaky rice and juicy and tender chicken. The teriyaki had a hint of ginger and garlic and, thankfully, not too much sugar. It was attractively and appetizingly decorated with toasted seaweed and sesame seeds. I liked it but wished that Hahn had chosen something a little more out of the ordinary for me.

One thing that came through in Hahn Cheo’s cooking was the pride, the confidence and the desire to please. I could see him sneaking glances to see if I was enjoying his creations.

“I make everything or I show my people exactly how to make it”, Hahn said. ”I want people to like my food and I’m going to do everything to make sure that happens.”

cafe california josefina

Cafe California had only been open for one week when I went for lunch but it didn’t seem to have any start-up jitters. Josefina, Cafe California‘s server was as pleasant and efficient as you could ever want a server to be.

cafe california sushi bar

But there was still that hole. That big gaping hole. No fresh fish. Cafe California has an opening in the wall into a typical sushi bar. Don Day sat as his table wishing there were stools at that sushi bar. Wishing he was sitting at that sushi bar. Wishing he was watching Hahn and Josefina make his wish come true. But until there’s fresh fish I don’t think Don Day ever will be sat there.

I just hope I haven’t run out of wishes.

Café California is located in Plaza Primavera, Salida a Queretaro in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.