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.

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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.

A woman drove me to drink and I didn’t even have the decency to thank her.

With a special credit to photographer Yannis Jan Dettingmeijer for capturing Santos so well in black and white. And an apology to W.C. Fields who I stole the headline from.

It was a woman who led me astray. Again.

But not with the usual wiles.

No, this time it was different. Very different.

Wine, women, song. They’d all woven their magic spells. And seduced me into watering holes. Like a camel to an oasis.

But this time it was something completely different. Something even Nostradamus couldn’t have predicted.

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It was art.

But it wasn’t fine art. It was what they called commercial art, in the sixties, when I first discovered it. It’s what they now usually call graphic design. But what made it so influential…on me at least…was it paid homage to graphic design in the days when it was still called commercial art.

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It was almost two years ago when I first noticed the art. On hoardings around 18th century homes that were being introduced to the 21st century. On crumbling walls of pastel pink and orange and brown. And wrapped around poles supporting an afro of wires.

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I had to check out this Santos Crudeteca. If for no other reason than to see more of this art. To find out who was creating it.

I like the name of the street Santos is located on. Callejon de Los Suspiros. The little street of sighs.

santos exterior wider

I used to imagine that those sighs were the sighs of lovers. Perhaps one lived on one side of the street. One lived on the other. And they would gaze longingly at each other from their balconies across the lane. But would never hold each other because of race, religion, or some other foolishly created wall.

And then I thought about the meaning again and the history of this town and how Lord Byron’s bridge of sighs was the path from the inquisitor’s office to the prison and the sighs came from those being led to their execution.

I also thought that Santos, or saints in English, may have some historical relevance. But then I knew that its predecessor was Diablitos, the place that used to open its doors across from Hank’s, right about the time that Hank’s closed theirs.

santos polo

Diablitos was and Santos is owned by Polo Aguilero. He’s a guy with a face that sometimes says devil, sometimes says angel. A face that sometimes says saint, sometimes says sinner.

Polo’s fiancé is Paulina Cadena Gallardo. And she’s the woman that led me astray. And the woman who made me walk into Santos that very first time. And the woman who helps to convince me to come back over and over again. Every time I see her art.

santos pauk

Paulina or Pauk as she prefers to be called had an old fashioned start to her career when someone cared enough to send the very best.

“I was seventeen. And a friend of mine worked in greeting cards. They saw my work and said I’ll give you $100 pesos for each design you do for me. I thought it was amazing getting paid for something I enjoyed doing so much,” said Pauk.

Pauk enrolled in a four year communications program at a Guadalajara college and began developing her skills in Photoshop and Illustrator. She completed the course in two years.

santos pauk talking

“I wanted to go to work”, Pauk said. “I wanted to create real things.”

Pauk found a marketing position with an advertising agency. Did some work for state governments, including Chiapas and Guanajuato. But soon found herself in conflict with the company’s designer.

“I didn’t want to sell the art. I wanted to create the art”, she told me.

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Soon she developed a style. A homage to the forties, fifties and sixties. I asked her where it came from.

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“In the beginning it was to make people laugh”, said the woman with the almost perpetual smile, even when she takes a turn behind Santos bar on their busiest nights. “It was simply a humorous way to communicate while still getting the facts through.”

“I loved that fifties look. I love movies. I love music. I’m always happiest when I’m dancing. All of those came together with the posters.”

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Pauk has done work for a number of bars and restaurants in San Miguel including Pescau and The Restaurant but it’s her work for Santos that wows me most.

I love dive bars. I feel comfortable in dive bars. And Santos is the best dive bar in San Miguel. Pauk captures that atmosphere in her posters.

santos band and crowd

I love music. I love rock and roll music. And Santos is the best rock and roll bar in San Miguel. I can almost hear the music in Pauk’s posters.

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Writing this blog is about searching for the best food and drink in San Miguel de Allende. And the accent is almost always on the food.

I don’t go to Santos for the food. Even though they have a tasty and tender grilled octopus. I go for the drink. After I’ve already dined and drank somewhere else.

santos the band

I’m almost always there on Friday nights at about 9:30 when Kike Cornero tucks his guitar onto his lap and tucks his cigarette behind one of the strings. When Polo Aguilero plugs in his bass and plucks the first backbeat. When Miguel Favero magically makes a wooden box and two cymbals sound better than most full drum kits.

santos miguel

I hear Chuck Berry. The Kinks. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Dire Straits. Then a very familiar riff.

Doom Doom. Doodoodoodoodoodoo. Doom Doom. Doodoodoodoodoodoo. Doom doom.

I can’t help it. I’ve got to get up and dance. And sing along on “Sweet Home Alabama. Where the skies are blue…”

santos wall of posters

I look at Pauk’s posters on the walls. I look at her bopping solo behind the bar. I’m thinking I’ve never really thanked her for bringing me to sweet home Santos. Until today.

santos bar and crowd

Santos Crudeteca is located at Callejon de Los Suspiros #7 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Telephone 415 121 2880. Website: http://www.santoscrudoteca.com.mx

“San Miguel’s first choice for favorite restaurant is…”

With a big thank you to photographer Richard Smerdon for capturing the spirit of the SMART Awards dinner.

When I was 12 years old, a routine began that lasted right through my teens. It was called the Top 50 Countdown. And it happened every Saturday morning at 9:00 am…sometimes getting a late start after I discovered women. It was courtesy of 1050 CHUM, Toronto’s top rock ‘n’ roll radio station.

At about 11:15, my dad would say you can turn it up now. For we’d be down to the short strokes, down to the top ten. He’d be rooting for someone like Ivory Joe Hunter or Frankie Laine. My mother for Perry Como or Andy Williams. And me, Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran.

smarts entrance to posadita

I couldn’t help thinking about those days last night as we counted down, from ten to one, the winners of the SMART Awards, the choices for San Miguel’s favorite restaurants.

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The event was a tasting dinner, announcing and celebrating the winners. It was held at La Posadita, the number one restaurant at last year’s 2014 SMART Awards. The six courses featured The Very Best Of Posadita plus there were some good wines and some good old rock ‘n’ roll. And not one song by Andy Williams or Perry Como.

smarts david garza

391 votes were cast. With 73 different restaurants receiving at least one vote. In a town that Trip Advisor says has over 200 restaurants, this was obviously the creme de la creme, the top five percent.

Here are some of the things I remember saying that night during the top ten countdown:

In tenth place is an Italian restaurant that takes me back to the days and the restaurants I loved when I spent my mornings listening to top fifty radio. Shannon Casey said, “Great service, ambiance and food and the best linguini with clams you can get, not only in Mexico, but anywhere.” It’s a restaurant that very few people are quite sure exactly what its name is. With my favorite description being “the pizza/pasta place on Zacateros that people think is a flatiron building but really isn’t”. And yes, I still counted that as a vote. Number ten is Trattoria Antigua Romana.

smarts big crowd at tables

In ninth place is the only new restaurant. With my definition of new as a restaurant that opened sometime after December 2013. I think it’s a remarkable achievement because this is a far from cheap restaurant. Yet when you consider what you get on the tasting menu, from this chef-driven haven for foodies, versus what you’d get for the same quality in virtually any other city that’s considered world-class, this restaurant is very, very cheap. As voter Craig Woods said, “You’re not in San Miguel anymore, Toto”. But we’re still paying San Miguel prices. I’m talking about the restaurant at Dos Casas. Number nine is Aperi.

smarts tables at side

From ninth to eighth we go from a kitchen that might have cost $1,ooo,ooo pesos to a kitchen that might not have cost $10,000 pesos. It’s the place that Judy Zivko says has “the best eggplant I’ve had anywhere”. It’s the place with a three burner stove, a microwave and a location that has a less than zero chance of getting any walk-in tourist traffic. Yet there it is at number eight, the very much loved Denver’s Olivo Verde.

I decided to only vote if it was necessary to break any ties. But it wasn’t. Or the restaurant that’s in seventh place would have received one more vote. It’s tough to mix two different cuisines. And particularly Italian and Mexican. Not to mention two chefs that used to be partners outside of the kitchen. But this restaurant does it magnificently. Number seven is Mi Vida.

smarts applauding band

Sixth place was a bit of a surprise to me because it’s a place that no one ever talks about. They just go there and eat. And often. Voter Jim Blakley said, “I never order from the menu as the special is so amazing and includes breads, sauces, chips, salad, main course with sides, a glass of wine or beer, and the best desserts in San Miguel.” In sixth place is the restaurant that has two names, Cafe de La Parroquia before the sun sets. And La Brasserie after dark.

smarts dancing

There are a few restaurants that specialize in red meat in this town but only one that’s in the top ten. Barry Merchant summed the place up succintly by simply saying “Best steaks and prime rib in SMA.” A lot of voters also mentioned how they’re already missing Dick Weber who has moved back to Texas. As long as he hasn’t taken his juicy rib eyes with him though, I think we’ll still get by. In fifth place is Hansen’s.

I don’t have to say much about the restaurant that’s in fourth place. I don’t have to talk about the view, the setting, the lighting, atmosphere. All I have to say is look around you. And at the food. Traditional Mexican cuisine from the North, the Yucatan, Oaxaca, Puebla, the South, Guanajuato. And great service even under the very stressful conditions of serving a six course dinner, banquet style. In fourth place, a place that I and obviously you have enjoyed for years now. Number four is La Posadita.

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Third place. This is where my Mom and Dad and I used to get really excited when we’d be counting down the top ten songs. In third place is the restaurant of a chef that I think got her first paying Mexican job cooking a dinner in our home, which just happened to be owned by her then boyfriend and now husband. If I told you that the cuisine was Peruvian, it may be obvious who finished in third place. Number three is the place I’d always want my bus to stop at, the wonderful La Parada.

smarts family dancing

Start a conversation about who’s the best chef in San Miguel and there’s always one that seems to rise to the top. I was going to quote one of the voters about their favorite dish at this restaurant but that would mean not talking about so many other dishes that other people had mentioned. It’s almost undoubtedly the choice for people looking for the most innovative, adventurous food in town, but imaginative, well prepared food, unfortunately, only puts you in number two position. Second place this year goes to Donny Masterton’s magnificent The Restaurant.

smarts antonio and me

They say that any person’s art is a mirror of that person. And there’s one artist in San Miguel who has created a masterpiece. Because he is a master at pleasing people through the power of food and drink. It took a couple of previous attempts before he got it exactly right. Including stepping into the kitchen to man the stoves himself. When he puts down the knives, emerges from the kitchen and steps out into the restaurant, he just oozes charm. That man is Antonio Delgadillo and he owns and operates the number one vote getter in the 2015 SMART Awards. San Miguel’s first choice for favorite restaurant is Firenze.

smarts antonio award

By popular demand. The recipe for the chili that won this year’s La Frontera Cookoff.

I was going to look up the definition of popular demand but, suspecting it was going to include more than two emails, I decided not to. Because I really wanted to share this recipe. Not because I had a minor part in its development. But because I think Don Day’s Wife created perhaps the best chili I’ve ever tasted.

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The Chili Cookoff was held at La Frontera a couple of weeks ago. And, talk about the thrill of victory, our chili won. Here’s the recipe but, beware, it does take a lot of dedication and time to make it happen.

Don Day’s Wife’s brined and browned brisket Texas Red. The recipe.

(with a supporting actor credit to Don Day)

Any dish is only as good as its ingredients and this chili is based on using the best brisket available, including the well marbled point section, and, where possible, mostly fresh not dried spices. It starts with the same meat that Don Day’s Wife uses for corned beef and Don Day then sometimes smokes to make pastrami. It’s what they call the pecha at San Miguel butchers and you don’t need to buy it from expensive cows that live north of the border or even in Sonora. Any local butchers (we get ours from Carniceria Nueva Aurora in La Luz) will get it for you within a couple of days if they don’t already have it in the fridge. Ask them to strip off all of the exterior fat. It’s the marbling that runs through the beef that makes it so tender and tasty.

The average whole brisket weighs about seven pounds and that’s how this chili starts. It will serve about 10 to 12 people so I wouldn’t even consider spending this much time making the dish unless you’re hosting a party.

Next comes the brining that, historically, was done as a preservative but, in fact, imparts an amazing flavor. Here’s Don Day’s Wife brining recipe that began as her corned beef recipe with various ingredients being taken away and others added until they enhanced the traditional chili flavors.

The Brine

1.5 gallons of water
14 ounces of Kosher or sea salt
4 ounces of white sugar
5 ounces of brown sugar
4 teaspoons of pink salt (difficult to get in San Miguel and optional as it doesn’t do much to the taste but does add that nice corned beef color to the beef. This isn’t the expensive Himalayan pink salt so don’t waste your money on that).
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespooons coriander
8 bay leaves
1 teaspoon juniper berries (available at Bonanza in San Miguel)
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon cloves

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2 pasilla peppers (seeds and stems removed, toasted on top of the stove, and torn apart into smaller pieces)
2 ancho peppers (same directions as the pasillas)

Heat 1/2 gallon of the water to almost boiling and add all of the ingredients. Stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Cool to room temperature and add remaining gallon of cold water. Add meat and place in refrigerator for five days. You can use a tight roasting pan or pot or do like Don Day’s Wife does and have someone bring giant, sealable plastic bags down from north of the border.

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The Chili

This chili is a little different than most. Unlike almost every other chili that you’ll ever taste it includes no chili powder. The chili taste was created almost exclusively by the ancho and pasilla peppers, a little dried cumin and dried, smoked Spanish paprika.

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One 7 pound brined beef brisket
1/2 pound of smoked bacon
6 cups of chopped sweet onion
2 cups of chopped red bell peppers
2 finely chopped jalapeno peppers
4 tbsp very finely chopped garlic

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4 cups of beef broth (we find that Campbell’s canned is as good as making our own for chili)
1 cup of red wine
4 tbsp brandy
the juice from one lime
2 28-oz cans of tomatoes
1 cinnamon stick
4 ancho chiles (toasted on top of the stove, cleaned of their stalks and seeds, soaked in warm water and ground in a food chopper)
4 pasilla chiles (same as the anchos)
4 bay leaves
4 tbsp ground cumin
2 tbsp dried oregano
3 tbsp honey
4 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
2 tbsp smoked paprika

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Cut the bacon into small pieces and fry until almost crisp (make sure you have breakfast first or your half pound of bacon may become a quarter pound).

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Remove the bacon and add the brisket that has been cut into bite-sized pieces, using the bacon fat to brown it. Add some vegetable oil if necessary. This part of the process is the most time-consuming and is Don Day’s responsibility which is why I always begin with a full bottle of red wine, pour out one cup to be later added to the sauce and drink the rest while watching the never-ending browning process. Some good rock and roll on the iPad can also help speed up the task.

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Remove the beef and use all of those wonderful meat juices and fat to brown the onions, red pepper, jalapeno pepper and garlic.

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Return the brisket and the bacon to the pan including the juices that may have collected. Add the beef broth, wine, brandy, honey and tomatoes, cinnamon stick, bay leaves (Don Day’s Wife puts them into a little cage with foil wrap so we don’t lose them and end up choking somebody), the anchos, the pasillas, the cumin, oregano and paprika.

Place it in the oven for three to four hours at 275 degrees F. Or simmer it on top of the stove if you can control your gas burners better than we can. Remove the bay leaves and cinnamon stick and sprinkle the cilantro on top.

The Topping

Chopped cebollitas (green onions)
Cotija cheese (or any other cheese if you can’t get Cotija)

Sprinkle sparingly over the top.

The Accompaniments

Any red wine. Any white wine. Any beer. Or anything else that’s going to wash down this chili that I’m so proud that Don Day’s Wife created.

The most disgustingly decadent sandwich in San Miguel de Allende.

Nicolas Gilman, who actually makes a bit of a living writing, in English, about food in Mexico (can you sense the jealousy in my tone of voice?), calls the torta “the quintessential fusion dish” and he’s right, or at least he’s right when the focus is on Mexico City where Nicolas makes his home.

But outside of the capital…and perhaps a few other big cities…the torta, Mexico’s version of the sandwich, can be a bit of a rare bird and, in San Miguel de Allende, appearances approach the frequency of dodo sightings.

Which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the movie “Chef”. Because “Chef” is now on Netflix and it makes me excruciatingly hungry for a Cuban sandwich. Because through about half of the movie, the chef of the title is constantly making Cuban sandwiches. And very good ones at that.

Now let me make one thing perfectly clear (yes, that was my Nixon impression), the Mexican Torta Cubana has almost nothing to do with the Cuban sandwich (which sounds even tastier when, in “Chef”, Sofia Vergara…yes, the sizzling Latina from “Modern Family”…says sanweeeeeesh). But then again, the Cuban sandwich has almost nothing to do with Cuba (just try to find a good one in Havana) but everything to do with Florida. But there are some similarities between the Cuban sandwich and the Torta Cubana.

The Mexican Torta Cubana and the Cuban sandwich are both served on a roll. They both contain pork. They both have ham. They both include cheese. And…well, that’s about it.

Before I talk specifically about the Torta Cubana, I should go back to talking about Mexican tortas in general. Or better yet, let one of my favorite food writers, Naomi Tomky, who pens for seriouseats.com, talk about them: “The taco and the torta are the twin pillars of Mexican street food, but where the taco is small and sexy and has long since seduced all of America in its many forms, the torta (with its many Mexican sandwich siblings) is just teetering on the brink of international stardom. The small size of a taco makes it an easy step into new flavors, but a sandwich is a meal, it’s a commitment.”

I’ll add one more fact…or perhaps more of an opinion…about what separates the taco from the torta. The taco is best consumed after the sun goes down, from chrome carts powered by propane tanks. The torta is best savored between nine and three, when the sun is at its height, somewhere indoors.

torta cubana torta munda

The classic torta spot in San Miguel de Allende has always been Torta Munda on Umaran so much so that my first born child, who hasn’t been in San Miguel for 15 years (yes, it is time he visited), still talks about their sandwiches. But despite having about 15 different tortas, they don’t have a Torta Cubana.

Lolita on Salida a Celaya used to have a Torta Cubana even though it seemed like far too upscale a place to tackle a downscale torta. But last time I was there, it wasn’t. It’s gone from their menu.

tortas cubana wide la rica torta

Which takes us to two of the best places for tortas…well, OK, two of the very few places for tortas. They are conveniently located, like bosom buddies, side by side in El Mercado Juan de Dios. One counter is very subtle in its approach to attracting people to eat there, so quiet it doesn’t even have a name other than the one I’ve given it which is No Name. The other, La Rica Torta, is in your face with its enticing, come hither graphics. When it comes down to who makes the very best torta though, in my opinion, quiet beats loud.

torta cubana other stand

In Mexico City, ordering a torta can be a terrifying task. For they all have fancy names that only the foremost of aficianados can understand. On a menu, you might find Chanclas, Guajolota, Cochinita, Cemita, Pelona, Ahogada, Marinas, Guacamaya, and the one I do understand, the Cubana.

torta cubana on board

In San Miguel de Allende, ordering a torta at La Rica Torta is only a slightly less daunting task. Here their names are all pretty well based on geography. There’s Azteca, Espanola, Hawaiiana, Francesca, Ranchera, Suiza, Americana, and, of course, that one that finds its way on to most every Mexican torta menu, the Cubana.

At the No Name Tortas counter next door, It’s relatively easy to order a torta. They keep things simple with straightforward names, handwritten, that describe what comes inside the bun. Those fillings include Salchicha, Huevo, Chorizo, Jamon and, once again, the one I almost always order, Cubana.

Now just because the name is the same at two different torta stands does not mean that the contents will be the same. For a Torta Cubana seems to consist of virtually everything that the torta stand may have on hand. And, where a typical Mexican torta might include everything but the kitchen sink, a Mexican Torta Cubana might even include the sink.

torta cubana side view

In Lucky Peach, the ultimate foodie magazine, Brigham Barnes calls the Torta Cubana “a savagely beautiful meat beast that the less artful or non-smitten might call a Mexican garbage plate on bread.”

David Lida, author of First Stop in the New World, and a man with an obvious passion for tortas, says “If a torta isn’t precisely a work of art, it is by all means a handicraft.”

tortas cubana better blocking view

In Mexico, the craftsmen who makes tortas have a name. They are called torteros. At the counters in the Juan de Dios market, the craftsmen are actually craftswomen and are called torteras (at least by me). They start usually with a soft roll called a bollito unless you are like me and order one of the tortas especiales or the tortas gigantes. In that case the torta will start with a telera.

Now I’m never sure if it’s the camel or the dromedary that has two humps but I’m sure that it’s the telera that has three. It’s a roll about eight inches long by about five inches wide topped by those three humps. With its size, loaf might be a more appropriate word than roll.

After you order your Torta Cubana at No Name Tortas, the tortera will ask you if you would like it con huevo and you will say con todo because quantity is the most essential ingredient of a Torta Cubana. The tortera will then scramble the egg in a bowl and, gently, roll it onto the grill. Next, she will cut the telera in half, then smear the inside with a generous glob of mayonnaise and place each side face down on the grill. She will then reach into each of three tubs and pull out a small handful of what she calls salchicha (and I call chopped up wieners), a medium size handful of the most frighteningly red chorizo, and a large handful of what she calls milanesa (and I call breaded pork). They will then be placed next to the egg on the grill. Next comes three half rashers of thick, smoky bacon to prevent the other four items on the grill from suffering from loneliness.

Now, comes the time for dairy. The tortera will place a bright yellow square of processed milk solids (you know, the kind that come with the Kraft word on the plastic wrap) on the grill. Beside it she will place a handful of crumbly cheese and construction of the sandwich will commence.

torta cubana starting the pile up

One half of the telera will be turned over on the grill and on it will be placed the bacon, followed by a slice of ham and a slice of what the tortera calls queso de puerco (and I call head cheese and Don Day’s Wife calls mystery meat). A spatula will then pick up the salchicha, chorizo and milanesa (it takes a number of attempts) and place them delicately on top. Next comes the egg and two cheeses plus more dairy, this time a fat slab of fresh white goat cheese.

torta cubana adding cheese

Then it’s salad time. Shredded lettuce, then sliced tomatoes, half an avocado, and a slight pause while, if you’re as pink as me, the tortera will ask are you sure you want chilis, you will say un pocito and three slices of pickled jalapeños will be placed on the summit of the mountain.

torta cubana no name whole

The fillings complete, the tortera will now place the other half of the telera on top and strong-arm it down one last time on the grill, reducing its thickness from about six inches to four inches. She will then slice it in half and attempt the delicate operation of maneuvering it onto a plastic plate of the most unappetizing color without losing a single chopped weiner or flake of chorizo, an almost impossible task.

torta cubana cut in half

The result: A sandwich of epic proportions that might be unrecognizable to its namesake John Montagu (yes, he was the Earl of Sandwich). So enormous it would rival the middle of the night creations of Dagwood Bumstead. So filled with flavors that every bite is like savoring a new dish.

But one important warning. Do not attempt to eat a Torta Cubana alone. It is best when shared with a loved one. Or a perfect stranger if necessary. Or even better (and I’ve seen it done), a family of four. Which is one helluva deal for $61 pesos including a 600 ml Coca Lite.

El Mercado Juan de Dios is located at Indio Triste 14B in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is open from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm daily.