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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.”

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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.

The night we exported Cinco de Mayo from San Miguel de Allende to Toronto.

(With special thanks to photographer Marshall Postnikoff who took some of the shots…the good ones)

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You know what I like about Cinco de Mayo? It’s an adult event. Unlike any other, except maybe New Year’s Eve.

Call me selfish if you want. Don Day’s Wife probably would. But I like that there are no responsibilities to family on the fifth of May. No need to eat and drink what and when the kids eat and drink. No need to watch “Frozen” again with the grandkids.

Cinco de Mayo, as far as I’m concerned, is about wining and dining and doing some hearty partying with friends.

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Historically, the date means little to me. But, then again, honoring the day the pilgrims landed doesn’t exactly float my boat either. In fact, I’d guess that a lot of Canadians (and a few Americans) think the fifth of May is the day that Mexico gained its independence, not the day they beat some potentially excellent future chefs (yes, of course, the French), at the Battle of Puebla.

I didn’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo at all until I was in my fifties. In those days we were living in San Francisco and people would arrive at our local watering hole directly from work sporting their oversize sombreros, the ones they bought on that too much tequila night in Acapulco and then had to embarrassingly carry home on the airplane because it wouldn’t fit in the suitcase.

My best friend, Gil “El Bandito” Cruz would bring his mother’s homemade tamales and we’d politely yum yum yum our way through them even though they were 95% cornmeal and tasted like 100% cornmeal. “La Bamba” would come up about every fourth play on the jukebox and we’d all sing along on the chorus and make up words that sounded like Spanish on the verses. We’d start with Margaritas, switch to Sierra Nevadas, switch again to straight tequila, and swear we’d never switch that many times ever again in our life.

But then we moved back to Toronto. And Mexico was a couple of extra thousand miles away. And the best place we had to celebrate Cinco de Mayo was a basement dungeon called Hernando’s Hideaway. Where, as good as the food and the margaritas were, it was much more Houston or Dallas than Puebla or Oaxaca.

drake poster

Until this year. When I happened to spot a poster. The Drake One Fifty, about as trendy as trendy gets in Toronto (and Toronto gets very trendy these days) was bringing in a guest chef. There was a picture of him on the poster and though it cut off half of his head, there was a beard that was strangely familiar. Even without the oversized glasses, he looked a lot like Donny Masterton, the chef of The Restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.

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I checked the fine print on line and, yes, there was Donnie Masterton’s name, and, next thing I knew, eleven of us were meeting up there this week for a Cinco de Mayo dinner (and drinks). The best Cinco de Mayo dinner (and drinks) I’ve ever had.

drake one fifty sign

First, a little about the Drake One Fifty. The last time I ate at the Drake was at their original location. It was my friend Therese’s sixtieth birthday. I remember arriving at around eight to an empty barn. I remember leaving at about 11:30 to a line-up outside of about 150 20-somethings.

At the more downtown Drake One Fifty, the crowd is more 30-something. They pack the place from about 5:00 to 7:30 and then again from 9:30 on (yes, I’d love to know what they do between 7:30 and 9:30). The Drake One Fifty crowd is similar to the original Drake crowd in that they seem to have bigger thirsts than hungers.

I started out with a margarita, but you probably already guessed that. But you probably didn’t guess I ordered a Joanie Loves Chachi Margarita, which amazed even me when you realize that my opinion of the TV show was “Happy Days” becomes “Unhappy Days”.

drake margarita

The drink wasn’t a Donnie Masterton drink. The recipe was created by Drake bartender Mike Fortier and adds pineapple, cilantro and a cayenne pepper rub to the traditional ingredients. It was good, very good. Though I don’t know why, I could only have it with Casamigos Cazadores Blanco Tequila. I hate paying extra for a $60 a bottle of blanco tequila when there’s absolutely no way I’d know the difference from a $20 bottle once it’s inside a margarita (if you want to take me up on it, I have a standing bet that no one else can either).

I followed the margarita with a couple of beers and then on to red wine for, with Mexican this potentially good, it seemed like the right choice.

drake chef with appliances

Normally, at these guest chef dinners, there is a set menu with four or five courses and maybe a couple of options. Donnie Masterton had put together 15 different choices. Not easy when you’re working in an unfamiliar kitchen with unfamiliar staff.

drake menu

Not only that, the menu wasn’t just a rehash of his San Miguel de Allende menu. The chef had removed almost all of his usual Asian influences and made everything much more Mexican. There were a couple of dishes directly imported from The Restaurant. A couple of others were slight variations. The rest were all new to me.

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Most of the group (except me) started with the nachos or the gwock (even the Canadian waitress called it that). I thought I wanted to save myself for other delights. I wasn’t too excited either about the description, cauliflower and kale nachos. They sounded way too healthy. Until I saw them. And yes, there were those veggies. But also there were peppers and cheese and cream and enough friends saying, “Would you like to try the nachos?”

drake pulpo taco

I started with a grilled octopus taco. I’ve had Donnie Masterton’s octopus before and though I’m not sure what he does to totally eliminate any reference to Firestone or Goodyear (a marinade?), I couldn’t remember it being this good. I’d never had his octopus this way either. Included in the taco were chile de arbol, jack cheese, peanuts and avocado.

drake rabbit tostada

Next up for me was one of the chef’s classics, braised rabbit tostada. I couldn’t remember exactly what the tostada comes with in San Miguel and I couldn’t remember it being four inches tall. Piled on the little mountain were peruano beans, cabbage, radish, pickled jalapeños and queso fresco. This bunny is definitely worth hopping all the way up Sollano for.

drake nancy eating

drake sherry eating

drake pam eating

The others were eating the pork carnitas taco, the tandoori chicken taco and the rajas and cheese tamale and I was stealing bites of all of them. But I had room for one more savory choice and I knew from the first look at the menu what it was going to be.

drake chef in kitchen

In San Miguel de Allende, Chef Masterton’s pork cheeks are only on the dinner menu. I’m usually only there at lunchtime. And I’d never had them.

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As Don Day’s Wife said, “I hope the world never discovers just how good pork cheeks are”, and she’s right (as always, of course), “but I wish they could all taste how melt-in-the-mouth these are and how good that ancho chili sauce is”.

drake pork cheek skillet

I said, “I can’t believe how cheap they were” as I scraped the iron skillet clean and, when I got home, was amazed to see that they were $265 pesos on The Restaurant‘s menu (about $21 Canadian) versus $16 at Drake One Fifty.

drake churros

As I ate my churros (with chocolate and chili creme anglaise) I couldn’t help thinking, as much as I loved having Cinco de Mayo San Miguel style come to Toronto, should I be worried that the guy I consider the best chef in our little town, the guy now posing with someone with an Acapulco sombrero, might want to spread his wings and head back to a big city for a little more fame and fortune.

drake chef and sombrero

I sure hope not. But if he does, I hope I can be there.

Drake One Fifty is located 2406 miles from San Miguel de Allende. The Restaurant is located at Sollano 16 in the heart of San Miguel did Allende.

Nuts about a soup in San Miguel.

DD: “How about we host a Valentine’s Day dinner?”
DDW: “And I’ll spend all day cooking and all night serving?”
DD: “How about we host a Valentine’s Day dinner and hire a chef for the evening?”
DDW: “And who might that chef be?”
DD: “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have than Kirsten West.”
DDW: “So what are you waiting for? Call her.”

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There are a lot of things I remember about last February’s dinner but my fondest memory, by far, was the soup. It was a soup I’d never had before. And a soup I’ve wanted again ever since that night.

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The soup was crema de nuez and pays tribute to a nut native to Northern Mexico. Its habitat actually spreads up into the southwestern U.S., then all the way to Southern Illinois. Its name comes from its most northeastern reaches; it’s from the Algonquian, meaning a nut that requires a stone to crack. In English, it’s called a pecan.

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Though it’s doubtful that the habitat of the pecan stretched as far south as San Miguel de Allende, there is a tree in a yard on Calle Recreo that, from its size, could be well over 100 years old which would take it back to the late 19th Century when pecans were first commercially grown. An even older and larger pecan tree was used for all of the floors and cabinetry on the same property.

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In Canada, where I grew up, pecans were almost non-existent. I remember them in one of my favorite flavors of ice cream, in the very occasional pecan pie, in a candy called Turtles that was almost as essential a part of my Christmas as Santa, and that was about it.

I think the problem with pecans is walnuts. North of the 49th parallel, pecans were always the underdog. Walnuts always the reigning heavyweight champ.

Pecans made their way into a few recipes. But most of those recipes originated in the United States. And American cuisine has always had problems being accepted outside of its own borders.

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Walnuts, on the other hand, were in all of those European recipes. The ones that have been around for centuries. Ones that immigrants brought with them on cardboard cards packed in the bottom of steamer trunks. And the only attention pecans ever received was in lines like “if walnuts aren’t available, pecans may be substituted”.

In Mexico, pecans are called nuez which is confusing because walnuts and sometimes even nuts, in general, are also called nuez. Outside of Mexico, in other Spanish speaking countries, they are called pecanas or pacanas.

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In November and December, in San Miguel de Allende’s Tuesday Market, you’ll see a young guy with a wheelbarrow, dancing his way through the aisles, wailing “noooooooooays, noooooooooays”. He not only walks through the market, he walks to the market. He told me the pecans came from trees a few blocks away. But he wouldn’t tell me where.

pecans artesan vendor

In another San Miguel market, the Mercado de Artesanias, you’ll find a guy with this funnel shaped, copper cooking device that I’m not sure is a roaster, toaster, or something else altogether. But, whatever it is, it sure makes wonderful sugar coated pecans. The vendor definitely charges tourist prices but his personality is as bubbly as the syrup the pecans are prepared in, making it impossible for me to walk by without buying a bag.

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There’s another reason I have a commitment to this man and his pecans for it’s his pecans that caused a little revelation in my life. Up until I had his pecans, I was a died in the wool walnut man. But after I had his pecans, I realized walnuts weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

All I can blame it on was inexperience. And presumptuousness. I just always assumed that walnuts must be better because they were more popular. And I was wrong.

Walnuts and pecans are very similar in taste but there are two differences. Bitter and butter. Walnuts are more bitter. Pecans are more buttery.

I think it was the sweetness and buttery flavor of the pecans that made Kirsten West’s crema de nuez so very good.

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Kirsten West’s interest in Mexican cuisine began 29 years ago when she was living in L.A. and decided to go on a 12-day culinary tour of Mexico with Marilyn Tausand’s “Culinary Adventures” where she had some life changing classes with Diana Kennedy, the woman who, today, is considered the person who, almost singlehandedly, put Mexican cuisine on the world map. Diana and Kirsten became friends and colleagues and, it didn’t take long before Kirsten was as hooked on Mexican as Diane.

If Diane Kennedy is the queen of Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless is the crown prince. Kirsten West’s appreciation of Mexican cuisine was culminated when she met Rick Bayless in Oaxaca and, subsequently, spent eight years in Chicago working with him on his PBS television show and testing all of the recipes that went into his book, Mexico, One Plate At A Time.

I didn’t even realize pecans were native to Mexico until the first time I met Kirsten West. She was teaching a class in San Miguel’s Lifelong Learning Program about the origins of foods that were native to the Americas. I recognized on that day that there’s no one I’ve ever met with as much knowledge about the beginnings of the only national cuisine to have world heritage status granted to it by UNESCO.

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Kirsten West’s crema de nuez wasn’t the first Mexican soup I’ve had that was made with nuts. Spanish explorers found peanuts in the market when they reached what is now Mexico City and a popular dish in the state of Jalisco is a peanut soup. But that soup includes chiles and the nutty taste is a little lost compared to the rich, full taste of the pecans in the crema de nuez.

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The recipe, which Kirsten was kind enough to allow me to share with you, is, in fact, very simple. It’s so simple that I might actually attempt it myself unless, of course, Don Day’s Wife insists on doing it (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

Creamed Pecan Soup
Crema de Nuez

Pecans are indigenous to Mexico and grown extensively in the state of Chihuahua. They are used in an infinite amount of recipes; not only for pies. This delicious soup is a very good example.

Serves 6-8

3 tablespoons ​vegetable oil
1 ​onion, finely grated
1 ​tomato, grated and strained
8 oz. ​pecans, finely ground, save a few whole for garnish
6 cups ​chicken stock, preferably home made
¾ cup ​crema or sour cream
1 bunch ​fresh dill or any other herb of your choice for garnish (optional)

Heat the oil in a 4-quart sauce pan over medium heat. Fry the onions until they are translucent, and then add the tomato puree and fry until mixture has thickened. Add the ground nuts and fry quickly for about 30 seconds, then add the chicken stock. Continue cooking on medium heat for an other 10 minutes, then stir in the sour cream and mix well. The soup is ready to serve. Garnish with a whole pecan and the herb of your choice.

Kirsten West is available to conduct cooking classes or cater meals in your home with an emphasis on the best of Mexican cuisine. She can be reached at kirstenwest@mac.com.

A trip to the wine regions of Spain. In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

It was the last meeting of the season for the gentlemen who lunch, the last excuse for some serious drinking at midday before a lot of the snowbirds (including Don Day) stretched their wings and crossed their webbed feet in hopes of some early Spring warmth and, therefore, a soft landing in the north.

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I really wanted something special for our swan song (though I’m never sure if swans fly south) and Rosario Arvizu of The Wine Stop and Enrique Farjeat Guzman of Cumpanio soared. Rosario and Enrique teamed up together to produce something really worth crowing about (yes, I know, enough bird puns) as three of The Wine Stop‘s Spanish wines were paired with three of Cumpanio‘s very best dishes.

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I consider Verdejo to be one of the most underappreciated white grapes in the world. It originated in North Africa and, back about a thousand years or so, found its way to the Rueda region of Spain, east of the Northern border of Portugal.

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Up until the 1970s, the Verdejo grape was mostly used to make a fortified wine that can best be compared to sherry (and also best be forgotten). Then winemaking giant Marques de Riscal brought in a French winemaker (merci beaucoup, monsieur) who experimented with a few techniques such as harvesting and fermenting at cooler temperatures and reducing the time that the juice was exposed to the skins. The result is a complex mix of fruit flavors including grapefruit, apple, a hint of pineapple, and a touch of hazelnuts on the finish.

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Along with Viognier and Muscadet, Verdejo is one of my three favorite whites to go with the rich tastes you find in some seafood and that was what it was appropriately paired with at Cumpanio. Enrique Farjeat does a great job with salmon, slicing it wafer thin and accompanying it with apple and arugula topped with a light ginger and citric vinaigrette.

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Rosario had chosen a 100% Verdejo called AU (and told me it’s pronounced ow). In addition to the traditional fruit flavors that were expected, it had a hint of anise and a wonderful freshness. At $2568 for a case of 12, it is one of the better bargains available to San Miguel wine drinkers.

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Now I use the word best very sparingly but our next course at Cumpanio deserved the word. It is absolutely, definitely one of the best dishes you’ll find anywhere in San Miguel de Allende. It’s veal shank bones cut on the horizontal and perfectly roasted (timing is everything), with lots of parsley and course grain salt. It’s almost overkill but the grilled slices of baguette that accompany the bone marrow are generously smeared with olive oil containing herbes de Provence.

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On one hand you could say that this is a tough dish to pair with anything. On the other hand, you could say it is so good, it will pair with anything. You definitely need a little liquid to cut through the rich fat in the marrow and The Wine Stop chose a Tempranillo, but not from the more popular (and usually more expensive) Rioja region, from Ribera del Duero which is almost directly south. Obra Joven has classic notes of cherries and blackcurrants in a nicely balanced red. At $2268 pesos a case it’s also well priced.

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Our third and last wine was a Garnacha from the Calatayud region of Spain, not far from Madrid. Garnacha used to be the most widely grown grape in Spain (it was recently surpassed by Tempranillo) and it’s my favorite of all Spanish reds. Garnacha is particularly good with red meat and was perfect with the ribs served by Cumpanio.

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Teorema is 100% Garnacha and is aged for four months in oak barrels. The vines used are very old and the yields are very low. The result is a full bodied red with blueberry and cherry notes and a sprinkle of black pepper. The smashed sweet potatoes that accompanied Cumpanio‘s ribs worked equally well with the Garnacha and I lost count of the guys who said they knew that Cumpanio had great bread but didn’t realize that Cumpanio had such wonderful food.

Teorema is a little above the $200 peso per bottle that I use as my max for everyday drinking but it’s a nice little splurge at $3096 a case.

When you live in San Miguel de Allende, you can easily get used to shopping for wines with only the narrow selection of the two supermarkets or the three or four wine shops. But places like The Wine Stop can easily broaden the choices available while offering personal advice and service. Yes, you may feel like a wino rather than a wine drinker ordering 12 bottles at a time but I’ve never had a wine turn to vinegar.

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I’ve lost count of the number of times the gentlemen who lunch have broken bread together since last October but I do know that Richard Smerdon said “I think this is one of the very best” followed by Cliff Avant saying, “I think this one was the very best.” I know it made me very sad that I was flying back to Canada, far away from the ever improving food at Cumpanio and the increasing selection of wines from The Wine Stop.

To order any of the three Spanish wines or a copy of The Wine Stop’s price list, email rosario.tws@hotmail.com. Cumpanio is located at Correo 29 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, Sunday through Thursday, 8:00 am to 11:00 pm, Friday and Saturday.

You’ll find Memory Lane on Calle Codo in San Miguel de Allende.

A bottle of red, a bottle of white,
Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight,
I’ll meet you anytime you want,
In our Italian restaurant.

Do you remember when Italian restaurants changed?

It was the mid-seventies when I first noticed. The red or checkered tablecloths were replaced by white. The Chianti bottles with candles were scrapped for tea lights in little frosted glasses. Chianti even stripped the wicker baskets off their bottles and we learned new wine words like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello.

Where noodles were once a choice of rigatoni or spaghetti, now there were words like penne, farfalle, fusilli and pappardelle. Where pasta dishes once had either a red sauce or white sauce, or perhaps Bolognese, Vongole or Alfredo, they now had names like Puttanesca, Pesto or Primavera, Arrabbiata or Amatriciana. They now served something called tiramisu instead of spumoni for dessert. And salad came before the main course instead of after.

The Mom and Pop owners retired and moved to the suburbs. Or returned to Abruzzi or Palermo. In their place were restaurants whose names ended in Inc. or Ltd. Restaurants with waiters that weren’t son-in-laws. Waiters that didn’t even wear black waistcoats and bow ties.

I liked the new Italian restaurants. And I frequented them. Often. But oh how I missed Guiseppe’s, Carlo and Adelina’s, Emilio’s, Capri and Vesuvius.

antigua exterior

Until I came to San Miguel. For in San Miguel, stepping into most Italian restaurants is like stepping into 1975. And none more so than Antigua Trattoria Romana.

antigua bar and child

There are the braids of garlic buds swagged along the bar. On the pillars, the garlic is intertwined with peppers. Fat jars of olives and peppers and decorated biscotti tins with a touch of rust perch on window sills. Empty Pellegrino bottles serve double duty as vases on the tables. And there’s still one lonely Chianti bottle wearing its straw skirt looking down at me from on top of a cupboard.

antigua old chianti bottle

antigua michelangelo

The drapes and tablecloths are in a be kind to red sauce and red wine spills color which contrasts well with the pale mustard walls. Amongst the prints on the wall is the almost obligatory “Creation of Adam” that decorates the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As well as a second copy of it. And a third.

antigua olives on window sill

The speaker that’s perched in a corner and pours out romantic ballads looks like it might have already had some years on it when Antigua Trattoria Romana opened 26 years ago. A child sits alone at a table for two, almost definitely the child of the owners, playing video games on her phone.

And I love it. Every inch of it. Because it’s exactly like those Italian restaurants of 1975. The kind Billy Joel used to sing about. And I used to rave about.

The menu has changed a little from those menus of the mid-seventies. But not much. My favorite starter, circa 1975, prosciutto and melon is there. As is my second favorite, eggplant parmigiana. There’s no straciatella soup but there is minestrone. The Caprese salad is on the menu as is that classic with potatoes, insalata rustica.

antigua menu

Every one of the pastas from the seventies I fondly remember are on the menu at the Trattoria. Pomodoro. Arrabbiata. Amatriciana. Bolognese. Alfredo. Frutti di mare. Diavola. And my favorite and the one I had for lunch yesterday, linguine con vongole.

antigua vongole

Traditional linguine con vongole contains fresh clams. The best linguine con vongole contains fresh clams and (I can hear the purists shrieking as they read this) canned clams. Antigua Trattoria Antigua makes the best linguine con vongole with fresh littleneck or manila or chione clams (sorry, but I’m too much of a landlubber to tell the difference), a few canned clams, white wine, butter (some minor shrieking amongst the olive oil only purists there), and parsley.

The noodles are, like every pasta I’ve ever had at Antigua Trattoria Romana (don’t you wish they had a shorter name), fresh, never dried, and, almost always, just a titch but not too al dente.

antigua bread

The pastas come with matchbook sized squares of bread that resemble a skinny ciabatta. They’re accompanied by the you can please all the people all the time duo of both olive oil and sweet butter. And they’re perfect for sopping up those last few dribbles of juice left in the bowl.

antigua last of the vongole

The linguine with clams would best be accompanied by a crisp white. But I just can’t order it. For on the wine list is that same Chianti that I ordered 40 years ago. Chianti Ruffino. One of the ones that, until about 40 years ago, came in the wicker basket called a fiasco. Yes, it’s a little rough but who cares.

antigua chianti bottle two

I’m not the only person in San Miguel who thinks so highly of the Trattoria. Trying to get one of the 42 seats on a Saturday night early, late, or any time in-between has been a sorry we’re full situation lately. Even trying to make a reservation for Saturday at midweek is impossible. It’s no wonder that, in a town crowded with Italian venues, Antigua Trattoria Romana still finished as one of the top ten restaurants in San Miguel’s 2015 SMART Awards.

antigua crowd

Sometimes I feel a little guilty living in the past. Listening to songs from 1975. Watching films from 1975. Going to restaurants that bring memories of 1975. Perhaps it’s because, at my age, I know I have more years of past to cherish than years of future to anticipate.

There are a few famous quotes that include the words “you can never go back”. The people who said them never went to Antigua Trattoria Romana.

antigua sign

Antigua Trattoria Romana is located at Zacateros y Codo #9 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from Noon to 11:00 pm, 365 days of the year. Telephone 415 152 3790.

A trip to Asia. Without ever leaving San Miguel.

You know what I miss most when I’m in San Miguel de Allende? Asia. Which must seem very strange if you know I’m a guy from Toronto.

I miss Vietnam, China, Thailand, Korea, Japan, India. Because those are the places I visit a couple of times a week in Toronto. Especially when I’m hungry.

There are approximately 740 Chinese restaurants in Toronto. There are exactly two Chinese restaurants in San Miguel. And one Indian. And zero Vietnamese and Korean. You get the picture.

But there are alternatives. Two very good alternatives for Asian cuisine in San Miguel. The first is very well known and very well respected. San Miguel’s second best favorite restaurant according to the 2015 SMART Awards. It’s called The Restaurant (never been sure whether the “e” in “the” is pronounced long or short) and even though it’s leaning a little more towards Mexican these days, it still has some exquisitely prepared, Asian-influenced dishes. Duck spring rolls with Chinese five spice. Thai style shrimp cakes. Tuna tartare with soy-wasabi dressing. Wok-seared green beans. Pork and shrimp gyoza dumplings. And other plates with just a hint of Asia.

food factory logo

The second alternative, which may possess my second least favorite restaurant name after The (or is it Thee) Restaurant, is not as well known and definitely not as well-acclaimed. Which is a shame. Because it deserves to be.

People do go there. But often only because they’re going somewhere else.

“Want to go shopping at Aurora? And have lunch at Food Factory?

Food Factory. In addition to it sounding like the dishes come off an assembly line, it really doesn’t tell you anything about what to expect there. And doesn’t hint at all at some of the best Asian dishes you’ll find hidden on the menu.

Don Day’s Wife and I received an email last week. From friends Philippe and Wendy. “We’re going to check out the art at Fabrica La Aurora. Want to meet for lunch at Food Factory.” See what I mean?

food factory aurora sign

Fabrica La Aurora was raised from the dead about 12 years ago. An old, mostly abandoned, cotton mill creatively converted into artists’ studios and galleries. It took a while to catch on. And had some ups and downs along the way. But these days it’s full to the brim. And showing some art that I’d love to show in my home.

Food Factory is off to the left as you enter the front gates to Aurora. It may have once been the corporate offices of La Aurora. Where, until the gates were locked in 1991, pay envelopes were stuffed by San Miguel’s largest employer.

On the way down the wide hall to Food Factory, you’ll pass another restaurant. In the past it’s been a wine bar, a sushi bar, a music bar and, these days, a hamburger bar. If you don’t know any better, or in other words, if you haven’t been to Food Factory before, you’ll wander into this other place, currently called El Grandpa & Son, and they’d be a fool to redirect you.

food factory group at table

If you do make it past El Grandpa & Son‘s doors, you’ll find yourself in a world of black and white. A world of cool elegance. White walls. White drapes. Some of the best white scarves and napkins that will ever touch your lap. Black furniture with black and white print cushions. And, when your server arrives, a blackboard with the day’s offerings.

food factory blackboard

The blackboard has a bit of everything (perhaps a bit of too much of everything) and I suggested to Philippe and Wendy that they trust me and we order Asian. And have the dishes placed in the center of the table in classic Asian fashion, or, at least, in classic Asian-American fashion. Philippe and Wendy are both very polite (they can’t help it, they’re Canadian) and agreed.

food factory lettuce wraps shrimp

We started with Korean lettuce wraps or ssambap as I think they’re called (but don’t know how they’re pronounced) in those Toronto Korean restaurants. There the wraps are usually filled with beef.

Allen Williams, Food Factory’s executive chef and owner told me the idea of adding lettuce wraps to the menu actually came from P.F Chang’s.

food factory allen one

“I saw how successful they were there and thought why not here. The recipe just evolved. The most valuable thing I brought home with me from apprenticing at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Geneva was learn the techniques, not the recipes.”

“I love the wraps at P.F. Chang’s so they were a great starting point. I then tried to improve upon them, make them a little bit different, a little bit better.”

At Food Factory, there’s a choice of chicken or shrimp lettuce wraps. Knowing we had chicken to come in other dishes, we chose the shrimp.

food factory ginger chicken last drop

The cocktail-sized shrimp come swimming over a bed of vermicelli that I think the Toronto restaurants call japchae (another word I don’t know how to pronounce) in a sauce that Philippe said had “just the right bite” and Don Day’s wife threatened to drink from the bowl after struggling to get out the last few drops.

food factory ginger chicken

Next up was ginger chicken. In Asian dishes, chicken can often taste tired, dry and seem like it’s been hanging around in the sauce way too long. The chicken at Food Factory tasted fresh, moist, almost as if it had been melded into the dish minutes before. Sometimes I think Asian dishes are improved when they’re put in the hands of chefs with rounder eyes (think I’m allowed to say that).

Chef Allen told me this dish too has some of its origins at P.F. Chang’s.

food factory allen two

“There are some things I can do as a single chef-owned restaurant that they can’t. An essential part of my dish is the peanuts, an impossibility for them.”

The sauce was a melding of ginger and pepper that Philippe said “was an explosion of heat”. “But not too hot for my tender taste buds”, said Wendy. The chicken topped fettuccini-sized egg noodles were a nice contrast to the vermicelli with the lettuce wraps.

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Our next stop was Japan. With vegetables in a tempura batter. But not your typical tempura batter. This was lighter and crispier. What you’d expect more wrapped around an onion ring rather than the broccoli, green beans and mushrooms it coated. The dip was a chipotle mayo. It was like a geisha was being kissed by a vaquero.

“I like my vegetables crunchy”, said Wendy, “and these are exactly as I like them.”

food factory clay pot

There was one more stop on our trip. Vietnam for a clay pot. Now before I ever talk about what was inside, I have to talk about the outside. For I am a sucker for presentation, especially when it’s something stewed or baked in something the color of terra cotta. All I can compare it to is going to Toronto’s Victory Burlesque when I was a kid and the velvet curtains opened.

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In this case under the lid was chicken. But different chicken than what came in the ginger chicken. This had a different texture. More like brown than white. More like duck than chicken.

“A lot of these dishes are my creations, my inspirations”, said Allen. “My clay pot includes bamboo shoots, mushrooms, hoisin sauce, chives, onions, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and, of course, chicken.”

Now if you frequented the Chinese restaurants of Toronto in the seventies like Don Day’s Wife and I did, and I suspect Wendy and Philippe did, you learned to love something called VH sauce. It was made in Canada and used in every one of those 740…or perhaps it was only 640 in those days…Chinese restaurants, especially on ribs. And there was a good reason every restaurant used it.

“I loved that gummy VH sauce”‘ said Philippe, “and this tastes just like it.”

“Awesome sauce”, was Don Day’s Wife’s more direct comment.

Our trip to Asia was complete. And we’d spent less than 20 of those Canadian dollars each per person. Or, more exactly, Wendy and Phiippe had spent it because it was reasonable enough that they picked up the tab.

food factory group leaving

“That was a really interesting mix of flavors”, said Philippe, as we walked down the hall to the exit.

“I loved the lunch”, said Don Day’s wife. “This could make me totally forget about getting back to those Asian restaurants in Toronto.”

“And me too”, I added.

Food Factory is located at Fabrica La Aurora on Calzada De La Aurora in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Telephone 415 152 3982.