Any Port In A Storm. Ramos Pinto In San Miguel.

I’d had a thirst for Ramos Pinto Porto ever since I was about fourteen. A taste for Port at the age of fourteen you’re probably saying? As Desi said to Lucy, “I think you have some explainin’ to do.” No my palate for fortified wine wasn’t sophisticated at an unusually early age. Alcohol had actually yet to kiss my lips.

image

But I had been moved by art. Particularly commercial art. And particularly one poster by a Frenchman called Rene Vincent for something you drink called Ramos Pinto Porto. In those days, only originals of the poster were available. For about $800 if I remember right. So Ramos Pinto Porto never touched my tongue or graced my walls.

Though I never drank Ramos Pinto, I did grow to like Port. Because necessity (not Frank Zappa) is the mother of invention. And because at one time, if you wanted an after dinner drink, Port was about the only choice. Well if you lived in the little dictatorship called Toronto, Canada it was. In those days, it was de rigueur to follow every good meal with a good liqueur…that’s, of course, accepting the fact that things like cherry brandy, creme de menthe and anisette were actually good. But only if you were at home. Or perhaps in a restaurant that was part of a hotel. You see Toronto The Good only allowed most restaurants to serve beer or wine. And the best wine to drink after dinner was fortified wine. The best wine to drink after dinner was Port.

I have fond memories of drinking Port almost every Monday night. My friend Eddie and I would gather shortly after seven to have impure thoughts about Vanna White and then play that evening’s game of Jeopardy, even replicating the sound of the buzzer and, of course, always wording each answer as a question and, almost always, discussing whether Alex looked better with or without glasses.

Loser bought dinner and that took place at the Cafe de Bercy. Where we would drive the server crazy by continuing to communicate only in Jeopardy-speak. For example. Eddie would say, “Port”. And I would say, “What is the after dinner drink you would like with your creme brulee?”

Our Port of choice with that creme brulee was 10 year old Taylor Fladgate. Because Taylor was Eddie’s last name and he could then tell the server tall tales about running through the family vineyards barefoot or being forced into sexual slavery by the Romanian pickers. And our port of choice because Taylor Fladgate was a tawny, our favorite Port, though drinking it always led to a discussion as to why you would call it tawny when it was much more purply brown than orangy brown. And, most importantly, we drank it because Taylor Fladgate was the cheapest of the two Ports on the menu.

image

The other one on the menu? The more expensive one? Ramos Pinto. The one I always wanted to try. But I didn’t. Until April 2015.  The occasion was a dinner at Zumo in San Miguel de Allende. And there on the tasting menu, right after the Trufa Chocolate de Mezcal, were those two words: Ramos Pinto followed by two more words White Port.

No, it wasn’t a tawny but it was still a Ramos Pinto. And I remembered that when I once made an ill-fated attempt to write the good American novel (everyone else was writing the great), in the south of Portugal, the locals drank only white port. Very cold. And almost always with almonds.  And when I asked about tawny, they told me, “We make that for the eeengleth.”

image

The taste of the Ramos Pinto White Port was surprising. Maybe it’s because something like Sauvignon Blanc tastes so much different than Cabernet Sauvignon, but white Port doesn’t taste all that much different from tawny Port. And that’s good. The glass I savored at Zumo reminded me of humbugs and I have very fond reminiscences of humbugs. And not just because Alistair Sim was one of my favorite actors.

ramos pinto one

About two weeks after that Zumo dinner, I was invited to an event heralding The Wines Of Portugal (one of the few privileges gained from endless hours of blogging). There’s only one word to describe these trade events…no, make that two words. Bloody Bewildering. So many wines. So little time. There were 200+ wines at the Portugal event. Many of them stratospherically beyond the normal Don Day budget. And all of them for free.

Now being a relatively normal human being and also a man, usually I totally make a fool of myself at these events. Consuming so much that I can’t even remember what I drank and inevitably ending up at the booth with the server with the largest breasts and the dress with the neckline that plunged below the equator (yes, they still employ them at trade shows), swirling my glass so that the contents dangerously approached the rim and using the words “barnyard”, “tar” and “leather” at least twice too often when describing the taste.

image

But this time was different. This time I decided to be sensible. I decided to taste the bounty from only one booth. Especially when I saw that Ramos Pinto logo over the booth. And even though they’d hired a flat chested male called Casey to serve.

ramos pinto two

There in the bottles on display were all of the Ramos Pinto Ports I’d fantasized about (almost but not quite as much as I’d fantasized about Vanna). I decided I’d restrict myself to the big four on the shelf.

“No, Casey, I won’t be needing the spitoon; tonight I’m swallowing.”

image

I started with the 10 year Quinta de Ervamoira. Tastes of raisins, coconut, butterscotch. Nice.

image

Next was the 20 year Quinta do Bom Retiro. A wine that runs close to a hundred bucks a bottle which is more than twice as much as Don Day’s ever spent on a bottle of Port. Flavors included orange peel, cedar, toast, chocolate. Very nice.

image

Third, the 30 year tawny. A wine that is almost beyond finding the price on the Internet. A wine that Casey implied he wasn’t supposed to give to everybody. Almonds, apricots, toffee, figs and brazil nuts were all there. Very, very nice.

I’d done it. 55 years it had taken. And so worth the wait.  But there was one more bottle in the row of perfectly postured soldiers. A wine that hadn’t had its label revised, revamped and destroyed by some overzealous marketing guy with a copy of Powerpoint.

image

It was called Lagrima. And it was, according to Casey, “the sweetest of all Port wines”. Orange blossoms, honey, jasmine and yes, humbugs, that taste I’d enjoyed in my very first bottle of Ramos Pinto.

OK, if you’ve read this far (and yes, I doubt that many people have) you’re probably saying why are you telling me all this? What has this got to do with “the best things to eat and drink in San Miguel de Allende” which is what your blog is supposed to be about?

Well guess what? Ramos Pinto is available in San Miguel de Allende. As well as at Zumo, you’ll find both the white and the basic tawny (which spends about two years in wood barrels) available by the glass at Aguamiel, Aperi and The Restaurant.

And if you want to experience those splurge Ramos Pinto Ports, those ten, twenty and thirty year old ports, even that is possible.

image

San Miguel sommelier Arael Gomez Tello is the local distributor of Ramos Pinto. And if you can find a way to justify an entire case (the good news is Ramos Pinto comes in cases of six not twelve), Arael will be happy to sell it to you directly.

Now of course they ain’t cheap. The 10 year old is priced at $699 pesos a bottle, the 20 year old at $1348 and the 30 year old at $1887.  But if perhaps you’re interested in purchasing a six pack of the two year old Ramos Pinto tawny from Arael (which goes for $284 pesos a bottle) and are looking for someone to share it with, put Don Day down for one…no, make that two bottles.

Arael Gomez Tello can be reached at arggotdelvino@gmail.com.

Where to get stoned in San Miguel de Allende.

Please do not read today’s blog while operating heavy machinery.

No one ever forgets their first time. Do they?

Mine was at The Ebony Knight coffee house in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. A place where I used to go to be infatuated by this bucktoothed blonde with flared nostrils and Everest height cheekbones called Joni Anderson. She’d perch a six string Martin on her swollen, unmarried belly and enchant me with The Circle Game, Both Sides Now and, the one I thought she sang just for me, Urge For Going. It was before the world had heard those songs. Before the world knew the bucktoothed blonde who became Joni Mitchell.

My first time wasn’t with Joni. But she had the same look. Long straight hair. Zero make-up. Flowing skirt almost all the way down to her buffalo sandals. An embroidered peasant blouse. A lot like some San Miguel women look today. Especially if you shop at Via Organica.

She was sat alone at the next table. There’s something very alluring about a woman sat alone at a table. Even more so when her hands are cupped around a steaming bowl of cafe au lait.

We chatted between sets. It was one of those rare times (in my life anyway) where the woman made the first move. And before the end of the break, she said to me, “You want to go out back and do a doobie?”

A doobie? Had this woman not seen The Gene Krupa Story? Had she not seen what it did to Sal Mineo? Had she not seen Reefer Madness? And seen how sex-crazed it made Blanche.

“Absolutely,” I replied, hopefully not shivering it out and exposing my innocence.

I guess I’ve always been a follower not a leader when it comes to things that put what John Prine called an illegal smile on your face.

When most of my friends drank beer, I drank beer. But when they switched to smoking pot, I smoked pot. And, thankfully, none of my friends ever discovered the joys of heroin.

These days I don’t have too many friends who get high. Especially in San Miguel. So I can’t blame anyone else but myself for my latest adventure.

image

Though like almost all of my best adventures, there was, of course, a woman involved. My old friend who never ever looks old Therese was on her annual pilgrimage from Toronto. And I’d told her I was going to take her to lunch, for the town’s best consome.

She agreed, only slightly reluctantly, to do the long trek down Canal, a feat made much more easy since she shelved her red soled shoes. We were going all the way down to where Canal becomes Calzada de la Estacion. All the way to El Pato, that home of great barbacoa, very good mixiote and awesome consome.

But alas. El Pato was closed. Taking a short vacation I discovered later. What to do? Mumble? Tap dance? Actually this time I was fast on my feet. And quick with an answer.

“Let’s back up a block or two, there’s a place on the other side of the boulevard that serves consome.”

“It’s easy to find”, I told her. “There’s a big banner. It’s slightly tattered, a little faded, a lot like me.”

de quen chon old sign

“That one?”, Therese queried. “But what does that mean, De Quen Chon?”

“From which Chinaman”, I told her and then, realizing I wasn’t going to get away with it, I changed horses.

“I don’t know”, I embarassingly answered, but, damn it, I wished I did.

de quen chon sign

What I did know about De Quen Chon (or De Quien Chon as their other sign, the one just above the entrance says) is that it is one of the two go-to places in San Miguel de Allende for morcilla.

image

Morcilla or botifarro or mixuegao or boudin noir or Lancashire pud or blutwurst or marag dubh or, the two names I know it most by, black pudding or blood pudding is the royal highness of sausages though there are some…no make that many…who would say it is the illegitimate king, the bastard king. There are some who also say it is an acquired taste but I have tried to lure many a woman…and occasionally a man…into acquiring that taste and have decided, if that is true, the acquisition has to take place prior to the age of ten.

de quen chon morcilla

Therese was no different that day at De Quen Chon. And this from a woman who might just prefer congee to bacon before the clock strikes twelve. But, hell, we weren’t there for morcilla, we were there for consome (and yes that’s the way it’s spelled in Mexico), that incredible soup created by the drippings from a lamb being cooked in a hole in the ground.

de quen chon interior

Speaking of holes in something, De Quen Chon is a bit of a hole in the wall. A place that may have once been a garage. But I like holes in the wall. Maybe it’s because they don’t have ambience or atmosphere to fall back on so the food has to be the headline attraction.

We added a couple of barbacoa tacos to accompany the consome. What could be better to wash lamb down with than lamb. And this consome was full of flavor. I’m sure it’s not a word and Mr. Gates will underline it immediately after I hit the space bar but I can’t say it any better than simply saying it was lamby. Or maybe it’s lammie.

de quen chon spoon closeup

We gulped it down (De Quen Chon is not a place where you linger). We paid the bill (actually I paid the bill as Don Day is very fast to pick up minuscule checks at holes in the wall). We stood up. And then we almost sat down again.

“Whooooooooooo!”, said Therese. “I feel really weird. I’m not sure I can walk.”

“Whooooooooooo!”, said I. “What a buzz. What a glow. What the hell was in that consome?”

I had no idea what it was. I’d had a lot of good consome but never anything quite like this. Obviously lamb doesn’t pack a wallop. So there must have been something else. But what was it? Seer’s sage, banana skins, morning glory seeds, nutmeg, or one of those other types of flora I tried back in the sixties?

Who knows. But I do know we sailed, maybe glided, perhaps soared the three or four blocks down to Walmart (yes, I refuse to call it Bodega Aurrera) and, feeling extremely peckish, I did something I’d vowed I’d never do, I bought a slice of Walmart pizza.

Now I don’t know what you did the first time you smoked grass but I know what I did, I went directly to my best friend’s bedroom window and banged on it at that exact volume that would waken him but not his parents.

“I did it”, I said, “I did pot.”

And that’s what I did fifty plus years later when I did my first intoxicating consome. I didn’t wake them up by banging on their window, but the next day, I had to tell my San Miguel de Allende buddies Rich and Peter about my high.

And not very long after, three old guys were trudging down Canal to De Quen Chon. And shortly after that I was again trying to sway two more guys towards the pleasures of morcilla (and was mildly successful with one of them). And shortly after that there were three bowls of consome in front of us.

de quen chon pouring

We put back a few spoons and looked at the bowl. We put back a few more and looked at each other.

I asked our server what was in it.

“Lamb, garbanzos, a little chipotle, epazote, and a lot of love” was the answer.

“What do you think guys?”, I queried.

de quen chon richard

“Pretty good soup”, said Richard, with a skeptical look that suggested he wasn’t feeling any buzz.

de quen chon peter

“Maybe a bit of a warm glow but the kind of warm glow you get from eating any hearty broth,” said Peter.

Me, I was sure I was a little light-headed but not enough this time to skip on down to Walmart.

But we did go on to Walmart. And discovered a statue under the libramiento that we swore wasn’t there before. And spent what seemed like an hour trying to figure out the meaning of the painted lines on the parking lot. And went inside. And Rich bought a pair of jeans. And Peter bought two pairs of jeans. And I bought three. Now would a normal human being really do something like that if he wasn’t stoned?

De Quen Chon is located at Calzada de la Estacion #59 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Zumo. Ready to zoom on to San Miguel’s restaurant scene.

I’m sure you know the old cliche. About the three most important factors when choosing real estate.

So, if I was choosing a location, location, location for a new restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, about the last place I’d consider would be the outer limits of Colonia San Antonio. Yet that’s where Zumo, San Miguel’s newest restaurant is and…surprise…it works.

image

Since Sicilia in Bocca shut their doors, there had been five contenders for the best view in town crown. La Posadita, Casa Chiquita Pizza, Cent’Anni, La Azotea, and Luna at the Rosewood. All of them are located on roofs (didn’t it used to be rooves?). All of them are in Centro.

image

There’s now a sixth contender for the crown. And it’s also on a roof. But it’s not in Centro. It’s Zumo, that newest San Miguel restaurant, the one located in San Antonio, high on a hill near the end of Orizaba. The view is from the southwest, one that’s seldom seen of San Miguel. And the view from the southwest, taking in Balcones and the hill of homes up Salida a Queretaro and Centro’s church spire skyline, is spectacular, particularly at dusk when it’s bathed in light.

Stewart Haverlack arrived from Puerto Vallarta about six months ago, after 25 years of working in the hospitality biz in the U.S., Europe and Mexico. In PV, he was the owner of Boca Bento, one of the town’s most popular restaurants and, a little further south, on Los Muertos Beach, he was a partner in the El Dorado Restaurant and Beach Club.

I’m not sure how or why he ended up in San Miguel. But I do know that, like most people who end up in San Miguel, there’s little chance he’ll ever leave. Especially when we almost got into an arm wrestling competition the first time we met so I know about his competitiveness and I know he has to prove that he can run a successful restaurant where so many others haven’t.

Stewart Haverlack’s partner in the venture is Vanessa Villegas. Vanessa is an interior designer with fifteen years of restaurant experience. The classy but casual look of Zumo is the work of Vanessa and all of the furniture and fixtures are her design.

image

For their chef at Zumo, Stewart and Vanessa have carefully chosen Gabriel Ferrant, a guy who, in about ten years, has filled about two more pages on a resume that took me fifty years.

Stewart Haverlack told me, “So much more could be said about his experience, but each position has been a stepping-stone towards becoming a better chef. Today, I’m convinced that his varied experience, his creativeness and his willingness to please will truly tantalize your palate.”

image

Gabriel Ferrant was born in Paris (he could have probably ended the resume there). He lived in New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Morocco, Madagascar, Colombia and back in France before finally putting some roots in Mexico City.

He then worked at Le Pied de Cochon in Montreal, at Hotel Condesa back in Mexico City and, tired of the city, he moved to Huatulco and spent time at the Camino Real as Gourmet Chef of Azul Profundo, specialized in Spanish cuisine at Don Quijote In the Barceló Premium Hotel, and then served as Executive Chef at the Quinta Real.

Gabriel later moved to the capital of Oaxaca and partnered with Hotel La Casona del Sótano to make the restaurant De Todos Los Santos one of the best in the city.

Knowing that chefs put their travelling shoes on almost as often as they get a new tattoo, I thought that still might be about one page too many on a resume. Until, back in April, I was invited to Zumo for a soft opening of the restaurant.

Now I’m not exactly sure where the words soft opening come from, a term used for businesses that are still in the figuring out what really works stage. Perhaps it’s because you’re expected to be really soft on them if they really screw up. Well let’s just say that, on that first night, that soft opening night, there were no screw-ups, Zumo nailed it.

image

Don Day’s Wife and I arrived at the same time as Susan York, the creator of Cupcakes and Crablegs, the San Miguel food blog that sets a standard that constantly has me spending more time on a Don Day post than I ever intend.

image

It was almost dark at the courtyard entrance, but when we got to the roof, there was that kind of light that made the French impressionists move to Aix and Arles and Avignon. And the kind of big round ball in the sky that made Bob Dylan rhyme moon with spoon.

image

Lime green and white were the theme colors of the night and place cards were imaginatively placed in real limes. Garlic scapes became string to enhance the citrus color theme.

image

At the Hotel Condesa, Gabriel Ferrant was exposed to the Asian master chef, Keisuke Harada and it showed in the first of the seven courses, a China meets Mexico appetizer of Shumai Relleno. Spinach, pine nuts, goat cheese, ancho chile and nuts were combined in the stuffing.

image

I’ve seen barra de leon in a restaurant before. But only in a pot. Never on a plate. Chef Gabriel had placed shavings of the flowering plant on two tostadas and covered them with an aioli of sundried tomatoes and bacon, then topped them with slivers of crispy leeks. Below them were streams of cilantro oil.

image

Dinner continued with a rich creamed corn and verdolaga soup, a refreshing orange sorbet with cardamom and then a fish course that featured robalo in a quinoa crust.

image

image

As all good solids in a good restaurant should be, each of the courses were paired with a good liquid and I was very impressed that Stewart Haverlack had brought in Arael Gomez Tello to be guest sommelier for the evening. I know of no one in San Miguel de Allende as knowledgable and as passionate about wine as Arael.

image

For the fish course, Arael chose a red, a Pinot Noir. A good move but in these days of reds often replacing whites for seafood, not really a bold move. But I thought the next one was. The next course was a filet of beef. And the tried and trusted match is a Cabernet Sauvignon or, perhaps, a Malbec.

image

Instead, it was a big spicy red much more in the style of France’s Southern Rhone than from Bordeaux to the West of France. It’s a Spanish wine called Blau and combines Carinena, Syrah and Garnacha grapes to produce ripe plum and black cherry aromas and coffee, chocolate and vanilla nuances from the 18 months it spends in oak barrels. I’ve enjoyed Blau at another San Antonio restaurant, Aguamiel, and I can’t get enough of it.

image

We went on to two desserts, a creme brulee with assorted fruits and a chocolate and almond truffle.

image

Accompanying the last course was a white port from Ramos Pinto, a port I’ve wanted to try ever since I fell in love with a French poster with those two words about fifty years ago.

That soft opening of Zumo was over three months ago. The usual hindrances prevented the doors to be opened earlier. “Construction and permitting…surprise!”, Stewart Haverlack told me.

Now, even though I had no idea what it meant until Chef Gabriel told me, I liked the word Zumo. Maybe because I like Z words. I did, after all, name my first-born Zane. And I did have a zebra (his name was Spot) on my floor for most of my life. I found out from Gabriel that Zumo is actually Spanish for another Z word, zest. And I do know that zest is what Don Day’s Wife gets when she pulls out that strange utensil next to the melon baller from the cutlery drawer and scrapes it across orange, lemon or lime peels (and I also know, because she has told me at least twice, you don’t use the zester to grate Parmesan).

Stewart Haverlack, an exuberant, passionate guy who seems to have a real zest for living, told me he’s using the term “Chef Action Experience” to describe dinner at the restaurant. The words “Chef Action Experience” I’m not sure of. It sounds like something Don Day’s Wife might have to wear sensible shoes to. And Don Day’s Wife doesn’t wear sensible shoes to dinner.

image

Stewart and Vanessa do have reason to use the word “action”. Five of the seats in Zumo will be front and center in Gabriel Ferrant’s demonstration kitchen. I love sitting in a chef’s kitchen watching them spin their magic in pots and on plates but, then again, I love watching anyone other than me work.

In addition to the five front row seats in the kitchen, there are eighteen more with a fine view of what’s happening. And since I visited Zumo in April, they’ve added a bar and lounge area as well.

Now Zumo ain’t cheap. The seven course prix fixe dinner is priced at 850 pesos. Which puts it up in the San Miguel stratosphere with restaurants like 1826, Aperi, Moxi and Andanza. And all of those are attached to hotels. Which means all you have to do is hit G on an elevator and march your expense account down the hall. Not put it in a cab to Colonia San Antonio.

“We contend that a select group of people…will pay this amount in exchange for an outstanding experience comprised of incredible view, cutting edge and innovative cuisine and seamless, world class service”, said Stewart Haverlack. “Hopefully, a five minute cab ride for the experience will be justified.”

Look at it a different way though and Zumo is cheap. When you divide 850 pesos by seven…wait, let me get the calculator…you get eight dot something U.S dollars per course. Which, in just about any other world class city, would be ridiculously cheap for fine dining. In addition, Zumo is also offering vegetarian options and special wine pairings to accompany each night’s dinner and the venue will be available for special functions (ZestFests?).

image

The hard opening, the ready-for-business opening, will take place at Zumo on July 31. It’s too early to know if the restaurant will be known more for having the town’s best views or the town’s best reviews. I’m betting on both.

Zumo is located at Orizaba 87-9 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Telephone 415.152.0489. The restaurant is open Tuesday to Saturday from 7:00 to 11:00 pm.

An opportunity to take a private chef for a test drive.

Now I’m not a big fan of Facebook. But it does have its advantages. Like finding out what certain people are doing without having to do it with them. Or finding out which of the high school hotties are still sizzling. Or finding out which of the perfect couples are now imperfect singles. Or finding out who’s hosting a wine pairing dinner next week.

Well it isn’t usually me who discovers these fine food events. You see, Don Day’s Wife is a bit of a social networking junkie. And spends almost as much time on Facebook hitting LIKE as I spend at poker tables trying to hit inside straights.

This week, just after I’d posted a blog about the benefits of hiring a private chef for a dinner party, she told me that, according to his Facebook page, private chef Julian Garcia was teaming up with Allen Williams, chef/owner of Food Factory, to host a very special dinner.

“I’ll have to check that out”, I said.

“No you won’t”, said Don Day’s Wife. “You’ll have absolutely no idea how. Why don’t I just airdrop it to you?”

Having only heard of the term airdrop when Junkers and Messerschmidts flew over London in 1944, I gave her my very frequently heard, “Thank you, Honey” and a few seconds later I was being asked to accept an airdropped visual that left me in wonderment again of how tolerant technophiles can be of technofailures.

image

The announcement said seven courses with seven wines for 750 pesos. I said that’s less than half of what we pay in Toronto for events that aren’t half as good.

Chef Julian and Chef Allen are a little secretive about what they’ll be serving (or, if they’re like most chefs, they haven’t got it nailed down yet and probably won’t until that afternoon…it’s because we’re “market driven” is the delightful excuse that most chefs use) but Julian Garcia told me “of course” there’ll be a ceviche. He also told me a shrimp pozole will be on the menu, which is an excellent opportunity to taste a seldom seen variation of what should be Mexico’s national dish.

I couldn’t find out much more from Julian about what the dishes were being paired with except that “there are six French wines plus a Port for dessert”. French? Not the usual Chilean or Argentinean? And I’m here in Canada for the next two months!

The Cena Maridaje at Food Factory is an excellent chance to get a better idea of whether you’d want to hire Julian Garcia for a dinner party in your home. Or simply an excellent chance to taste the specialties of two of San Miguel’s best chefs.

It’s in the category that Don Day’s Wife calls a splurge. But if we were in San Miguel I’ll bet we’d be there. And I’ll bet Don Day’s Wife would be hitting another LIKE on Facebook.

The pairing dinner will be held at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, July 22 at Food Factory at Fabrica de la Aurora in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You can purchase tickets by calling the restaurant at 152 3982.

The best restaurant in San Miguel might just be your house.

I don’t know why more people don’t do it. Or maybe I do.

I’m talking about hiring a personal chef for a dinner party in your home. And then charging your guests to attend.

Yes it’s a big hurdle. Asking friends or family to pay for a meal in your home. What nerve! What cheek!

So you have to use a little strategy. You have to use a little salesmanship. Like almost everything in life.

First you have to sell the chef. Make sure your guests know there’s something very special about them. And make sure there’s something very special about what the chef will be serving. And then you have to sell the savings. Especially if you and your friends drink as much as Don Day’s Wife and Don Day drink.

The savings come in glass containers. Because instead of spending 500 pesos for a bottle of restaurant wine, you’re spending 200 pesos for a bottle of liquor store wine. Or, if you’re like Don Day’s Wife and Don Day, and find yourself ordering a second bottle of wine during a long social dinner, you’re saving twice as much.

With 300 pesos saved on the first bottle of wine…and 300 pesos saved on a second…and with the chef charging 600 pesos per person for dinner…it’s like getting one dinner free…or two people getting a gourmet dinner for about 20 bucks a person.

julian garcia guapo shot

It was Don Day’s Wife who discovered San Miguel chef Julian Garcia. It was at a dinner where some of San Miguel’s best chefs were strutting their stuff by each doing a course. I’m sure Don Day’s Wife must have won every musical chairs game as a kid. Because she always finds a way to end up seated beside one of those guys she affectionately refers to as “hunks”. And before Don Day’s Wife’s dessert was served (a salted caramel chocolate nut torte), and, yes, after I’d checked his creds a little, Julian the hunk was being booked for a personal dinner at our home.

Julian told me, “I’m from Mexico City and started cooking professionally in 2002 in the Mayan Riviera as a private chef; from there I went back to Mexico City and then to San Miguel. I’ve also cooked in Querétaro, Acapulco, Cuernavaca, Puerto Vallarta, San Luis Potosí and in Paris, France.”

“And”, Julian continued, “I also do consulting and menu creation for restaurants.”

Julian emailed a suggested menu for our dinner party, gave me a price per person, and came and checked out our kitchen.

I emailed my list of San Miguel foodies, gave them the date, shared the details of the menu, told them it was 600 pesos per person and to BYOB. By the next day, 15 people were coming for dinner, enough for us to have to put seven in the dining room and eight on the patio.

julian garcia group in living room

Julian arrived with his sous chef and a third member of the team to help with service and clean-up. As always, Julian was wearing a cheeky grin that shows off his Crest commercial teeth. His bedroom eyes (yes, Don Day’s Wife’s description) constantly seem to be sparkling. His hair (of which he has way more than any man deserves) is sprinkled with salt and pepper that, instead of adding years, has the nerve to make him look mature.

julian garcia another guapo shot

Our private chef started with a grouper ceviche, one of the easiest dishes to make, but one of the most difficult dishes to make well.

A great ceviche is where the taste of the fresh fish comes first and the taste of the citrus marinade comes a distant second. Julian Garcia obviously understands the priorities in a great ceviche.

julian garcia pouring soup

Seafood was the star of the second course as well, in a caldo de camaron estila cantina. This shrimp soup, once a late-night tradition at Veracruz cantinas, had a rich taste from the shells that was punctuated but not overpowered by chilis.

julian garcia sally soup

“This is quite a broth”, said Sally.

I think chefs shine a lot brighter when they work in your kitchen instead of a restaurant’s. Because they’re no longer a background singer providing the harmony, they’re out at the front of the stage with the spotlight aimed totally in their direction. They have autonomy. They have independence. And they’re not cooking something they tediously cook every day. They’re cooking what they want. And what they do best.

julian garcia beet salad

Next up was Julian Garcia’s salad, barely cooked beets paired with Cabrales, Spain’s greatest contribution to the world of blue cheese.

The richest tasting Cabrales is made not just with cow’s milk, but with a mix of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. This Cabrales had a sharp blue bite that would rank right up there with a Gorgonzola, a St. Agur or a Stilton.

“I didn’t think I even liked blue cheese”, one of the guys said, “but I love this”.

image

Another of the benefits of hiring a personal chef for a lunch or dinner is the interaction between you and them. There are no waiters; the chef is the server. Julian brought each course to the table, told us about each dish, and explained how things were prepared. There are no swinging doors with porthole windows between you and them. You can see what’s happening in the kitchen. You can wander in and watch what’s happening in the kitchen.

Eager to see how Julian was cooking the duck breast for the next course of magret with an hibiscus sauce and wanting to find out exactly what the chile ancho ash was that I’d been told “would be sprinkled over it”, I walked into the kitchen and surprise!

image

And what a surprise! There on my cutting board was what looked like…but could it really be? There on the red cornered board were what looked like something that is seldom seen in San Miguel de Allende. Only duck breast had been on the menu but the breast had brought one of their neighbors to dinner. Fabulous foie gras. I couldn’t think of a more welcome guest. Chef Julian had added the foie gras as a sorpresa especial.

julian garcia at stove with peppers

And the chile ancho ash? It was done by breaking up dried ancho chiles to almost powder sized chunks and then putting them in a very hot frypan for a few seconds.

julian garcia blowtorch bellies

It was a fire in the kitchen that lured me back a few minutes later. The flames were coming from a blowtorch that Julian was using to put a crispy crust on the pork belly.

julian garcia stan and belly

The pork, the last thing on Chef Julian’s menu, was served with pulque, guajillo and apple sauce. Breaking through the crust on the exterior led to a melt-in-the-mouth interior.

Now you’re probably thinking, pork belly? Last on the menu? No dessert?

“Well”, Julian Garcia had told me when he presented the initial menu, “I don’t usually do dessert. Because I think there are people who do dessert better than I do. But I’ll gladly pick some up for you.”

julian garcia sharon dessert

No, I thought, I’ll choose one of my own favorite dessert chefs. I’ll choose Don Day’s Wife. And her choice to follow all of the rich and complicated tastes that Julian Garcia had given us? A wonderful contrast. An airy lemon mousse.

“What a perfect ending to a delicious dinner”, said fellow foodie Dick Brinson, one of our paying guests.

image

Things weren’t quite over though. Because probably the greatest benefit of having a private chef in your home for an upscale formal dinner are the downscale informalities. Things are just more relaxed, more casual, and I’d broken out a dessert wine to wash all of those good times down.

If you’ve never tried a personal chef, do it. Whether you’re generous enough to pick up the price yourself. Or whether you’ve got the cheek to charge like Don Day does. And if you’re going to do it, I can’t think of a better choice in San Miguel than Julian Garcia.

You can contact Julian Garcia at foodlian07@gmail.com or call him at 044 415 100 3691.

In praise of the humble hamburger. And a very good one in San Miguel.

Wimpy: “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

They say there’s nothing more American than apple pie. I say there is. It’s called a hamburger.

Now I know what you’re thinking, with a name like that, it must have originated in Germany. How can you call it American. Well I’m saying, ask a German. He’ll probably call it American as well.

image

I’ve never done a top ten list of my favorite things to eat. Maybe I’m afraid of hurting some dish’s feelings. But I am, absolutely, 100% sure, no doubt about it, a hamburger would be on that list.

It’s such a simple thing. Just a piece of ground meat between two slices of bread. It was Laura Ingalls Wilder who said, “It’s the sweet, simple things of life that are the best ones after all” and, if you can’t trust the woman who gave us John Boy, who can you trust? I’m not sure John Boy could have found anywhere on the prairie in the late nineteenth century that sold hamburgers but, if he could, I’m sure they would have been among his top ten things to eat.

image

No, I don’t think there was a White Castle in Lara Ingalls’ Midwest (I never saw one until I moved to California in 1998) but they’re the place that, if not inventing them, popularized the burger, long before I’d had my first taste of mother’s milk.

White Castle was and is a fast food joint and I think that fast food joints should be the home sweet natural home for the hamburger. And I think that a burger should never be more than 15 bucks. But I didn’t always think that way.

Back in 2002, one of my favorite Toronto chefs Mark McEwan opened a new restaurant called Bymark. And on the menu was a very special burger with a very large price tag.

I said to Don Day’s Wife, “We have to go there. We have to try it.” And Don Day’s Wife said, “Why?” and then, when I didn’t have an intelligent answer, Don Day’s Wife paused and said “OK”, because that’s what you say to your spouse when it’s important to them, even though you think it’s totally ridiculous.

image

The burger at Bymark was…well, very good…but it just didn’t seem right eating a burger in Mies Van der Rohe’s modernist masterpiece TD Center. In some ways, it doesn’t quite seem correct to eat a burger anywhere that doesn’t have a gaudy sign. The burger is still on the menu today at Bymark. It’s a half pound slab of beef with Brie cheese, truffled peaches (yes, you read that right), foie gras and porcini mushrooms for 37 Canadian dollars or about 500 pesos. A lot of chefs followed Mark McEwan’s lead (and McEwan probably followed Daniel Boulud’s lead who put a burger with foie fras and truffles on New York’s Bistro Moderne menu the previous year so that “people could have a burger to drink red wine with”). Chefs, often in very high-end, haughty-taughty restaurants called their creations the “gourmet burger”, the “artisan burger”, the “chef burger” and, most recently, the “craft burger”.

The new Don Day, the Don Day of the last ten or so years, hasn’t wanted his burgers in anywhere that he has to make plans to go to, anywhere that he has to request reservations in order to have the honor of eating there. There are simply some things you go out to eat and there some things you eat when you go out. Does that make sense? OK, let me try this. Hamburgers are not a destination but a destination might include a hamburger. OK, let me try a specific example.

image

The Restaurant is one of San Miguel’s best restaurants (the second best in town according to the 2015 Smart Awards). And Donnie Masterton may just be the town’s best chef. But I’d never plan to go there on Thursday when it’s burger night. But if I ever ended up there, by chance, on a Thursday night, I’d probably order a burger.

image

I said earlier that a burger is just a piece of chopped beef between two slices of bread, but really, that’s just where a burger starts.

The bread can be crusty or squishy. It can be topped with sesame, poppy or caraway seeds. It can be a baguette or ciabatta. It can be a pretzel, an English muffin, potato bread or pumpernickel. The bread can be virtually anything but sliced white spongy sandwich bread.

Any cheese can be used. And cheese should always be used. The type of cheese isn’t that important either. I prefer medium Cheddar. Don Day’s Wife likes simple Swiss. But I’ve also enjoyed a very stinky (or socksy as Don Day’s Wife says) blue. Even processed plastic fantastic slices work when they’re melted, as long as there’s at least two.

Bacon is a welcome but not essential side. It should always be side and not back bacon. And there should always be two reasonably thick slices (how I wish Dave Thomas was reading this).

Any part of the cow can be used for the patty. Probably 75 percent of the burgers I’ve eaten during my lifetime have been made of ground chuck. And I have no complaints about chuck, which comes from the neck and shoulder, where there’s lots of fat and, therefore, lots of flavor. There are better parts of the cow you can use, parts that come from close to the bone, parts with silverskin, connective tissue and collagen, parts that will make that beefiness even richer. Dry aging can take the flavor even one level higher but places that do dry aging usually price burgers over my 15 buck ceiling, a number that I soon may have to elevate a couple of floors as a hotels.com survey revealed last week that the average price of a burger in Mexico City is now up to $13.34 U.S., already a few pennies more than $15 Canadian.

I am blessed with a wife who appreciates the burger as much as I do and makes one of the world’s best burger patties. She starts with brisket, shank, short ribs or cheeks and rough grinds it in an 80/20 ratio with her “secret” ingredient, pork belly. And even I perform a minuscule role in our kitchen, for it was only my intense and avid watching of the Food Network that allowed me to catch Laurent Tourandel from LT Burger in Sag Harbor, Maine saying, “Some chefs will say this is crazy, but you can make a burger juicier and moister by dipping the patty in ice water for 30 seconds. No longer than that. Then putting it on the grill.”

Don Day’s Wife not only knows how to grind a patty and make it more juicy, she knows how to spice a patty. She adds egg, finely chopped onion and garlic, salt and pepper and, occasionally, a little yellow curry. Restaurants often use something that disappeared from many people’s spice racks about 30 years ago, onion powder and garlic powder. A recent issue of Bon Appetit revealed that the celebrated Double RL Ranch Burger at The Polo Bar uses salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and garlic and onion powders in its seasoning.

But that place is in New York, that place has a dress code and that burger costs more than 15 bucks. So where in San Miguel do I go for a burger when I’m out and I’m hungry? It certainly will never be McDonald’s and not just because I’m “anti-chain”. In a recent issue of Consumer Reports, McDonald’s finished 21st out of the 21 fast food burgers that they rated.

Like I said, where I eat a burger is all about geography. If I’m going to Fabrica de Aurora, my choice is Hansen’s (presuming it’s open that day). If I’m in the middle of town, I go to La Antigua on Canal (unless La Antigua has locked the doors for the night). In that case I go the no-name stand on the west side of the jardin for what is known by us night owls simply as the jardin burger (because after seven hours of drinking, every burger is a good burger).

If I’m on Salida de Celaya in San Miguel, shopping for goat Camembert at Luna de Queso, XXL buns at El Maple, or some obscure allen key at Don Pedro, I go to a place that almost no one else goes to. Which is a shame. Because it might not make a great burger but it makes a good burger. A very good burger when you consider the price.

ruta 111 main sign

It’s called La Hamburgueseria Ruta 111. I know why it’s called La Hamburgueseria, that’s pretty obvious, but I’m not sure why it’s called Ruta 111 even though I know that Federal Highway 111 runs from one of my favorite Mexican cities, Guanajuato to another of my favorite cities, Queretaro. I do know that the owners like cars. Especially Mustangs and Vettes. And kids’ pedal cars. And Harley’s. And other iconic fifties images like Marilyn, Elvis and, of course, the beautiful and bountiful burger.

ruta 111 elvis etc

Ruta 111 isn’t exactly a fast food restaurant, even though it now has two locations (the original is on Boulevard de la Conspiracion which is convenient if, like me, you have your meat ground at La Carniceria Nueva Aurora) and, I think, aspirations of having more locations. It has table service which elevates it a little above fast food restaurants. But not much.

ruta 111 mustang

Ruta 111 looks like a fifties fast food restaurant or, at least, looks like a 2015 walk-in fast food restaurant trying to be a fifties drive-in fast food restaurant.

ruta 111 hamburger on menu

The burger I order at Ruta 111 is called the Clasica. It’s advertised as more than a half a pound (250g) of meat. But always seems a little less than half a pound. The cut is sirloin which is usually a little too lean for a burger but I suspect Ruta 111 adds a little suet to the grind. The patty is cooked on a very hot charcoal grill, perfectly pink inside and charred almost to a burn on the outside. Though I can’t identify anything other than salt and pepper and the restaurant isn’t telling (“Es una receta secreta, Senor.”) it’s lightly but nicely seasoned.

image

It comes on an oversized soft bun with a substantial amount of sesame seeds. It includes processed cheese, a generous amount of very crisp bacon, a thin slice of tomato, shredded iceberg lettuce and raw onion. I add mustard (the classic French’s). I don’t add ketchup (another classic, Heinz).

ruta 111 condiments

Brought to the table (or the bar if they’re serving me) are three of those impossible to tip over bowls. One has very sour pickled jalapeños, one has fiery little yellow peppers that the server calls cascabellas, and one has bread and butter pickles that the server calls pepinillos. I put three slices of pepinillos on my burger and place one cascabella on my plate to nibble on.

ruta 111 pepinillos

On the side of the plate are thin sliced French fries that, even though single fried, are still very good.

With a diet Pepsi, my burger costs 70 pesos. With a beer…and they have every brand of popular Mexican beer, not just the ones that the company that gave them the cooler makes…my burger costs 80 pesos. If you drink a lot of beer, there’s a children’s play area.

ruta 111 empty seats

Now, normally, I might be flattered to be one in a hundred but not at Ruta 111. The restaurant holds about 100 people and the last time I ate lunch there, I was the only customer. I didn’t feel special. I felt stupid.

image

There have been times when I’ve gone by La Hamburgueseria Ruta 111 at night and it’s quite full. But when I’m on Salida a Celaya at night, I’m usually on my way to or from another restaurant or bar. With a burger this good, la Ruta deserves to have a lot more seats occupied at lunch as well.

ruta 111 front of menu

La Hamburgueseria Ruta 111 is located on the northeast corner of Cinco de Mayo and Salida a Celaya and at Boulevard de la Conspiracion 57A, Fraccionamiento La Luz, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

The best tasting tilapia anywhere. Right here in San Miguel de Allende.

Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime. Show a man where to buy fish and he won’t have to spend the rest of his life in a rowboat drinking beer.

I rarely eat tilapia. It’s not that I don’t like the taste. I don’t like the treatment.

Because tilapia don’t swim in rivers or streams. Or lakes or oceans. Tilapia swim on farms. In places like the New Mexico desert. Or indoors in Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada.

There’s just no sport, no challenge, no romance in that. A fish should be the reward for one man’s pursuit, equipped only with a pole, line, hook, bait and about three boatloads of patience. Or the bounty for leather-faced guys in sou’westers who brave raging stormy seas for weeks at a time never knowing whether their hold will be overflowing or empty.

mojarra deep fryer

I’ve been enjoying fish at San Miguel’s Tuesday market for years. At first it was the fillets (still don’t know how many ells that word should have), fast fried in a light and very delicious batter. And these days it’s the whole fish so I can eat the crispy skin that I love even more than the batter. Though I still order it con pasta which is what you ask for if you still want batter.

mojarra presented for approval

The fish they serve at the Tuesday Market is called mojarra. And when I first started eating fish at the Tuesday Market, I went to the World Wide Web (that’s what it was called then) and checked out what mojarras were.

Wikipedia, aka she who knows all (as a Spanish speaking woman pointed out to me it would be Wikipedio if it was male) told me that “Mojarras are a common prey and bait fish in many parts of the Caribbean, including the South American coast and Caribbean islands as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast of North America.”

And so I ate mojarras year after year. Until this year. This was the year I remarked to the guy at the Tuesday Market, who deep fries my mojarras so well in boiling, bubbling vegetable oil, that it was amazing how much mojarras looked like tilapia. He replied, “That’s because they are tilapia”.

mojarra cooked

No, I thought, these can’t be tilapia. Because tilapia do not taste this good. So I went back to the Internet (yes you can teach old dogs new words) and read Señorita Wikipedia again and further down in the description, further down than my impatient eyes usually travel, there was: “Mojarra is also commonly used in Latin American countries as a name for various species of the cichlids family, including tilapia.”

My second best favorite fish dish in all of San Miguel (my very best favorite is still the one cooked in rock salt at Mi Vida) was suddenly tilapia.

mojarra out of the pan

Wonderful tilapia when it’s cooked this way. Just barely done. Almost a kilo, enough for two, for about $100 pesos. With nothing but a squeeze or three of lime. And a shaker or two of salt. And best eaten with fingers not forks.

I can’t imagine that tilapia could taste any better. Anywhere.

mojarra wide shot of stand

The seafood stand that I eat at has no official name (I asked). It’s at the far Western end of the market and right about smack dab in the middle when it comes to North and South.

World class chefs to be featured at Sabores San Miguel. At Mexican prices.

Do chefs really deserve celebrity status? Well I’m a foodie and even I’m of mixed opinions. Yes, I understand why people who cook are now being treated like people who rock. But I’d still rather have dinner with Bruce Springsteen than David Chang (unless maybe I could break bread with The Boss and have the bread baked by Chang).

image

Which brings us to an upcoming event. Sabores San Miguel. It’s almost undoubtedly the most important weekend in this town when it comes to exciting our palates. And no, we’re not going to get a taste of The E Street Band at Parque Juarez. But some of the world’s greatest chefs are coming to the park to cook their very best for us. And do it in one of the most appetizing formats I could ever imagine.

This is the third year for Sabores San Miguel, the town’s Festival Gastronomico, and it just keeps getting better. We’ve always had the very best dishes from San Miguel’s very best local chefs at the very best (make that bordering on ridiculous) price of just $25 pesos a small plate but, in 2015, we’re starting to attract some of those rock star status chefs from beyond Mexico’s borders.

image

One of Southern California’s most celebrated chefs is Neal Fraser. Like me, you may have seen him on the show Top Chef Masters.

Neal’s restaurant is Redbird in Los Angeles and he’s used to serving small bites. In a seductive setting that was once the rectory of a magnificent cathedral, he features “kickshaws” that Neal’s wife Amy Knoll Fraser told the LA Times, include “tempura-crusted smelt with grilled lemon and spiced aioli; shishito peppers with bottarga and togarashi…and something called the Whole Hog, which has flavors of pozole.”

And what “kickshaw” will Neal Fraser be featuring at Sabores San Miguel?

image

Chef Neal told me, “I want to grill octopus because it’s one of my favorite things to cook on the grill.”

The simple (the chef’s adjective) accompaniments include black chickpeas, tomatoes, frilly mustard and anchovy vinaigrette. Sounds simply delicious to me.

image

Quinten Frye is the executive chef of Big Bear Cafe, a restaurant that sounds like it should be in the state of Washington, but is actually in Washington, D.C. Chef Quinten is making a return appearance to San Miguel de Allende for, early in his career, he worked in Donnie Masterton’s kitchen at The Restaurant. Since that time he’s gone from local hero to being talked about in Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.

Chef Quinten is serving two different dishes at Sabores San Miguel. One of them is a head cheese carnitas huarache with charred poblano, orange relish, pickled habaneros and cotija cheese.

He told me, “The huarache dish was the first thing I had to eat when I went to San Miguel and it was the first time I’d ever had a huarache. So that dish left quite the impression on me and I wanted to re-create it with some of my inspiration.”

image

Lily Jones is a baker. And, according to magazine, newspaper and food blog writers, a superstar baker (and, as you know, those food writers are always right).

Lily Jones gets almost as much press as the Kardashians. “One of the most sought-after artisan bakers of her generation”, said Stylist. “The queen of baked goods”, were the words in ES Magazine. And “It’s thanks to artisans such as Lily Vanilli that baking has never been so hip”, came from the pages of the Sunday Times.

Chef Lily will be travelling over 9,000 kilometres from her bakery, Lily Vanilli in London, England to San Miguel de Allende where, according to an email she sent to me, she’ll be making six different desserts. See if these descriptions (and those photos) make your mouth water as much as mine. I think I could spend a day at the food festival just eating her desserts.

Maca & Blood Orange Cantucci
Lime Hazelnut Rochers
Hibiscus, Beetroot & Coconut Macaroons

image

Lime & Cacao Friands with Mandarin Ginger & Rye Shards
Mezcal, Lime & Coconut Macaroons

image

Pear Cakes with Chili, Ginger & Chamomile syrup & candied spiced pepitas

Sabores San Miguel is happening from June 12 to 14, in Parque Juarez. Admission is free and all the dishes and all the drinks are 25 pesos each. In addition to Neal Fraser, Quinten Frye and Lily Jones, the list of international chefs includes Ted Corrado from The Drake in Toronto; Carlo Mirarchi, the Michelin-starred chef from New York; Bret Thompson from the Mexican-inspired Pez Cantina in Los Angeles; and Joe Hargrave from San Francisco’s (and soon San Miguel’s) Tacolicious.

I figure it would cost about 50,000 pesos in airfare if you wanted a taste of all of these acclaimed chefs. At Sabores San Miguel, the world tour could cost you less than 200.

Sabores San Miguel is being held from Friday to Sunday, June 12 to 14, in Parque Juarez, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. For times and more information, including details on a very worthwhile charity event the night before the festival begins, check out saboressanmiguel.com.

Paletas. The icy, spicy Mexican delight.

When I was a little kid, I was raised mostly by my grandparents. And, when I was a little kid, I had a favorite treat. It was called an ice lolly. And it combined fruit juice, sugar and this amazing invention called ice.

Now this invention may not seem particularly inventive if you, like me, didn’t spend their early years in Europe where, despite my grandparents running a bar, I had never seen an ice cube, never mind a refrigerator in my life.

But there was this van, this amazing electric-powered van, that passed in front of the bar at approximately 6:15 pm each and every evening except Sunday. And the driver of this van would stop and shimmy and slide from the driver’s seat into the back of the van, slide open a window (another fairly amazing feat) and rotate this carillon that I was sure awakened the appetites of the residents of the Necropolis of St. Andrew that bordered the bar.

I never knew how but, somehow, the driver of this van was able to sell frozen lollipops in orange, lime or grape flavors that never melted until they were kissed by your lips. On most days I looked longingly at the van through my bedroom window but, on Saturdays, I would receive my pocket money, a silver sixpence, and one third of it would be allocated to an orange flavored ice lolly.

I would eat it painstakingly slowly, only placing it in my mouth when enough ice had melted on the outside to start the juice running down the stick to my fingers. By the time I was finished, my hand would be a syrupy mess and some of the juice would be approaching my elbow but the pleasure wasn’t over. I could now play the game of sticking and unsticking my fingers and, on the first day it rained (which was never a long wait in Britain), my stick would be entered in the neighborhood gutter race.

When I was ten years old, my parents decided that we would be better off in the new world and, despite my kicking and screaming, “What if they don’t have ice lollies?”, off we ventured to Canada where, thanks to my father’s job building Studebaker Commanders, I could afford even more than one ice lolly a week because, in Canada, when you bought one ice lolly, you got a second one for free.

image

They had a different name, a name much more grown up and appropriate for a kid learning what the word adolescence means. They were called Popsicles. And even though they now came in two additional flavors than ice lollies, banana and cherry, neither tasted particularly like bananas or cherries so I was still an orange guy.

image

What I did love was that two for the price of one deal where you got two stuck together in a paper bag for a nickel. My problem was that, despite my mother’s warnings, I could never get them home fast enough to break them apart with a knife as my most patient mother recommended. Instead, I would attempt a manual separation, usually with the help of the corner of a building, and end up with a horizontal rather than a vertical break which demanded the immediate consumption of both halves.

Though I did experience the early days of the transition from wooden sticks (just in case you wondered, they were birch) to push-up plastic bags, I virtually forgot about these frozen fruit delights. Until I started to spend part of my life in Mexico. For Mexico has taken this simple sweet treat to new heights.

paleta family red white green

In Mexico, these frigid fruits are called paletas. They come in virtually every flavor imaginable. And there’s perhaps nothing more Mexican than seeing a young family sat on a bench in San Miguel’s Plaza Civica eating a red, a white and a green paleta. Paletas are consumed by people of all ages, including ancient people like Don Day. And they are better. Much better than any flavored ices you’ve ever had.

paletas two women jack daniels

Why are they better? The answer is taste. And why is the taste better? It’s simply a matter of ingredients.

Popsicles are usually composed of water, sugar, corn syrup, gum, stabilizers, artificial flavoring, and artificial colors. Paletas are usually composed of fruit juice. Any more questions?

Though there are tales of the Aztecs bringing ice from the Popocatépetl volcano and mixing it with fruits, the exact origins of the paleta are unknown. How it became so popular though is well documented.

In the early forties, in the town of Tocumbo, in the state of Michoacan, there was a little ice cream shop called La Michoacana.

image

Business was good but the locals didn’t have a lot of money to buy a treat like paletas. So, in 1946, brothers Ignacio and Luis Alcazar and their friend Agustin Andrade took off for the capital and opened a paletaria (did you ever notice how Mexico has a single word for every business) called La Michoacana. Soon there was a second La Michoacana and a third and a fourth and a tenth and a hundredth and a thousandth. Friends and family came and bought and sold franchises and almost emptied the little town of Tocumbo.

La Michoacana bred La Nueva Michoacana which led to La Michoacana Real and La Reyna de Michoacana and La Michoacana Original and La Nueva Reyna de Michoacana and enough other variations that could have kept a dozen law firms working 24/7 in the U.S. Today there are over 15,000 La Michoacanas, including at least a couple that I’ve been known to frequent in San Miguel de Allende.

paletas la michoacana looks like chain

The one most people know is at the Northeast corner of Mesones and Juarez, the corner that’s better known as old gas pump corner. It’s a slick looking store with fancy artwork, servers in uniforms and about as much charm as any chain.

la michoacana sign

If instead you cross the street though and start to walk down Insurgentes, on the first block, on the north side, just after you pass the little square and before you get to Reloj, you’ll see a sign above a door also saying La Michoacana. This one looks like I think a La Michoacana should look. It’s a carnival of color which leaves you terribly tongue-tied trying to decide what to order. Because I don’t want to appear indecisive, I always order the mango chile paleta. It’s hard to think I could do any better.

paletas color michoacan

Now I mentioned earlier that the difference between a paleta and the commercial frozen ice treats north of the border is that usually the paleta is made of only fruit juice. But not always. Sometimes it gets even better. With chunks of fruit, maybe spices, perhaps nuts.

paletas mango chile in hand

The mango chile paleta at La Michoacana on Insurgentes is actually more fruit than juice and just a hint of ancho that anyone other than the most piquant-evasive could handle.

paleta la reyna exterior

Most paleterias will have at least ten different flavors and many more than twenty. They’ll usually be divided into paletas de agua and paletas de leche (or crema). You’ll find one of the biggest selections in San Miguel de Allende at La Reyna de Michoacan at the corner of Ancha de San Antonio and Potranca. It’s another funky looking shop with almost as many signs as it has paleta flavors. If I’m eating tacos at the Saturday organic market, it’s just a block away for a paleta dessert.

paletas color la reyna

So here we are in the hottest, muggiest of San Miguel days…OK make that here you are as I’m in Toronto in about the only month where the weather is better than San Miguel de Allende…and I thought I might help you search through those never ending lists of flavors to some of the ones you’ll find in San Miguel and, if your palate is similar to mine, you might enjoy the most.

paletas list of flavors la reyna

Pepino and chili. This, to me is the ultimate grown-up paleta. Can you even imagine a kid, any kid anywhere, ordering cucumber?

Pie de limon. Key lime pie on a stick. A frozen version of one of the world’s all-time favorite desserts. Need I say more?

Rum and raisin. It sounds a little weird (even to a guy like me who likes his rum) but I ordered rum and raisin ice cream in Havana a few years ago because of some distant memories of an ice cream in my youth. Then I had a rum and raisin paleta in San Miguel. And I was hooked.

Pistachio. Because it’s like eating pistachios. And I’m like a magician when a bowl of pistachios is placed in front of me. They disappear.

image

Grosella. When I experienced my first pucker from the paleta made with this locally grown, star-shaped yellow currant I went looking for the fruit. I’m still looking but still haven’t found it any form other than frozen.

Mamey de leche. The perfect balance of sugar and cream from a fruit that’s about halfway between a sweet potato and an avocado. I can’t eat it without breaking into an old Jolson song.

paletas two women on street

Plátano rostizado. It must be the roasting that makes this creamy concoction so much better than plain banana. That plus a little vanilla and cinnamon.

Mango and chile. And let us not forget, of course, my all-time favorite flavor and, according to my favorite palatero (yes the people who make them have a name), the favorite, in terms of sales numbers, of San Miguel de Allende. Don’t even think about reducing those numbers.

The Restaurant’s chef to open Tacolicious Taco Lab in San Miguel de Allende.

Last week, when I was blogging about The Restaurant‘s chef Donnie Masterton bringing Cinco de Mayo to Toronto, I wrote, “Should I be worried that the guy I consider the best chef in our little town…might want to spread his wings and head back to a big city for a little more fame and fortune.”

image

I obviously should have, because Chef Masterton is leaving us. Well sort of.

In the previous century, back around 1999 and for a few years after, I lived in Tony Bennett’s city by the sea and with a little help from those cable cars that climb halfway to the stars I would visit a restaurant called Azie. Out front, would often be a guy called Joe. And in the open kitchen would be a guy called Donnie. And I’ve never forgotten the oven-baked mussels on the iron skillet I would eat very slowly at the elevated bar.

image

In 2009, that front-of-the-house guy Joe, full name Joe Hargraves, opened a restaurant called Tacolicious that, despite its name sounding like an adjective from the Taco Bell dictionary, became a mega hit, so popular that there are now three Tacolicious locations in San Francisco and one in Palo Alto.

image

On the Tacolicious website, it says, “It took a trip to Mexico City – where the food is served in settings as sophisticated and urban as you’ll find anywhere in the world — for us to realize that tacos don’t have to be relegated to street food or a corner mom-’n’-pop.”

The chef at Tacolicious was a guy called Telmo Faria. Now, Faria, a native of the Azores, is moving on to open his own Portuguese restaurant and, though he’ll remain a business partner with Hargraves in the Tacolicious chain (and yes, I hate to use the word chain) there was a need for another executive chef.

That person is Donnie Masterton but, fear not, we’re not quite losing him to San Francisco and, in fact, this might be some of the best restaurant news that San Miguel de Allende has heard in a long time.

image

According to sf.eater.com, “As part of the new collaboration, Tacolicious will open a small restaurant, the Tacolicious Taco Lab, in San Miguel de Allende, with Masterton as executive chef; it’ll be the company’s first project outside of both the Bay Area and the U.S. Hargrave’s plan is to have quarterly confabs and tests with Masterton about new menu items, then bring him up to the Bay Area to help institute them at each of Tacolicious‘ locations. Masterton is already at work on developing new ceviches, gorditas, and panuchos for Tacolicious’ upcoming menus.”

I asked Donnie Masterton if he was opening a second restaurant and his answer was “yes” and though he didn’t give me an address, he told me he had a location “in Centro” and the targeted opening date is “before the end of the year”.

image

If you’ve ever eaten at Tacolicious in San Francisco, you may have fond memories of tacos made with guajillo braised short ribs of beef, Baja style Pacific cod, pollo in mole colorado, and filet mignon with caramelized onions. In San Miguel, Chef Masterton envisions a “smaller space, smaller menu but this is where we will test new ideas and dishes that will go on the menus in the States.”

He told me, “I’m really very excited about the project and to be working with Joe again. Something we have been talking about ever since we worked together in the late 90’s.”

image

I’ve met a lot of people in San Miguel de Allende who have a passion for casual Mexican cuisine but want it in a setting a little more upscale than the Tuesday market or a taco cart. They should be very excited about the project as well.

The Restaurant is located at Sollano #16 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The location of Tacolicious Taco Lab is TBA.