Josefina Quintera and Don Day don’t have a lot in common. But there are two things. Both of them came to San Miguel de Allende about ten years ago. And they both fell in love.
The object of their affection was not someone they wanted to hold or caress. But their love affair was with someone they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. They fell head over heels over San Miguel de Allende.
Josefina Quintera was living in Mexico City in those days. Working in sales for the Fairmont Hotel. But she knew, sooner or later, she wanted out of the big taco and to find new footing in a provincial town.
It was 2003. Josefina was a tourist in San Miguel, having breakfast with her mother, when her husband told her that he’d made an appointment to see a property that housed a Chinese restaurant. She grudgingly accompanied him. Two months later, along with their two young children, they were living here.
Chatting with Josefina, at her rooftop restaurant, she told me, “I realized that in my mind and in my heart, I’d always wanted to live in San Miguel. It’s everything that’s good about Mexico. The people. The history. The handicrafts. The architecture. The traditions.”
“We changed everything about the restaurant. So much so that people who’d been there before no longer realized they were in the same place.”
“When we were tourists in San Miguel, we’d never found a restaurant that we thought was perfect for people like us. A place that served the kind of Mexican cuisine we enjoyed. A place that Mexicans who lived in San Miguel would come to.”
Josefina referred to her initial concept as a Cenaduria. Don Day has seen the word before (La Alborada, the restaurant that serves some of San Miguel de Allende’s best pozole, calls itself a Cenaduria) but I’ve never quite understood what the word meant. I’m guessing it suggests a casual eating place.
“We started with five dishes. I guess they were our favorite dishes. At least the favorites that we knew how to make. There was pozole, cochinita pibil, tinga tostadas, green enchiladas and pambazos,” Josefina told me. “We wanted the locals to come and maybe the odd Mexican tourist. They didn’t. But someone else did. Gringos came. Both residents and tourists. They loved the main courses but they wanted salads. They wanted wine. They asked for bread. They expected cloth napkins. We realized we had to rethink the concept.”
“We closed for two weeks. When we reopened as a restaurant, we were pretty much what we are today. We were La Posadita.”
Cut now to ten years later. Don Day is at the SMARTs, an awards program held earlier in 2014 to recognize the best restaurants in San Miguel de Allende, La Posadita is voted the number one restaurant in town.
You can be a regular at La Posadita and have never met Josefina Quintera, perhaps never even seen her. She stays…perhaps hides…in the background most of the time. That’s a shame because she’s a very warm, charming and…yes, of course Don Day noticed…attractive woman. On the day Don Day interviewed Josefina she was dressed in the most traditional of Mexican tops over the most trendy of distressed jeans with calf high cuffs. Josefina’s style is the restaurant’s style. Old world tradition with a modern twist.
As Don Day can sometimes be a little forgetful, he had gone to La Posadita to interview Josefina Quintera with a list of questions in his notebook. It was a list of why people who’d filled in ballots for the SMARTs had thought La Posadita was the town’s best restaurant. I wanted Josefina’s opinions.
La Posadita‘s location is one of the very best in town. Just steps from the jardin and the parroquia, dead center…no make that live center…of everything that happens in San Miguel. But it’s still a restaurant that’s very hard to walk into.
If you know the three most important rules of real estate then you know the three most important rules of restaurants: Location. Location. Location. Directly after the restaurant rule about the importance of location could be the stairs rule. If your customers have to climb up (or down) stairs to get to your restaurant, they probably won’t.
Right after I interviewed Josefina, I actually watched it happen. I was on the other side of Cuna de Allende taking a picture of the front of the restaurant when a woman arrived. She looked at the signs. She looked at the stairs. Then she looked to the right at the other door. She peeked inside the door. Then she looked at the stairs again. Then she climbed the stairs to the first landing. Then she came down the stairs and looked at the signs again. Then she took a note from her purse. Then she climbed the stairs once more and, when I never saw her again, I presume she finally took the pleasures of La Posadita.
It’s not just the uncertainty of whether or not you’re going to the right place. The stairs are well worn, rickety and narrow and when you get to the top of the first flight, your first sight is what looks like a cashier’s window. It’s no wonder that people think they may be in the wrong place.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do about the stairs. And the sign is all we’re allowed because San Miguel is a heritage site,” Josefina told me. “I know that if people like us, they’ll tell other people. And if they really want to, they’ll climb up and find us.”
The second thing on my list to discuss was the view. Tourists are suckers for views. And so is Don Day.
Going to La Posadita is like going to the theater and, as in a theater, some seats are much better than others but, as in a good theater, there are really no bad seats.
Arrive at the right time of the evening and you can watch three different acts in the theater. The first act is on the eastern stage. It’s the parroquia, the church that Don Day thinks has the most beautiful exterior in the world, bathed in natural light. Then comes act two, the sunset over the blue gray western hills which, with San Miguel weather, is almost guaranteed to be spectacular. The final act is back to the east, the parroquia washed with electric highlights.
Though there are few walls to separate them, La Posadita is actually four or five rooms. With a wall of water, lights hidden in the walls, strategically placed greenery and pieces of statuary all doing their part to separate those rooms. The front room, furthest east in the restaurant is like the orchestra, the place for the closest view of the parroquia. And the further east you can sit, the closer to the stage you’re going to be.
At the far western end of the restaurant is the royal box. A single table and two chairs that Don Day believes is the very best place to sit in any San Miguel de Allende restaurant. The time to arrive is about half an hour before sunset. You’ll gaze at the rooftops of San Miguel, marvel at the colors as you count the moments to the sun’s final descent, watch the lights go on with a backdrop of the smoky blue Sierras, and finally spot the first twinkle in the sky.
“There are a few people who phone for reservations and ask for that one table for two. I wish I could give it to everyone,” said Josefina. “It’s where I’d sit if I was a customer.”
The music that you’ll often hear in La Posadita enhances the theatre reference. The last time I was there, I recognized the voice of Pedro Vargas, San Miguel’s most celebrated vocalist singing his passionate version of “Obsesion”. There couldn’t have been anything more appropriate. And, just as importantly, it was at the right volume to be heard but still allow conversation.
That last night we were there was a Tuesday night, a night usually as empty as a bottle of Victoria in Don Day’s hand on a July afternoon. But La Posadita was SRO. The mix was interesting as well. The crowd is always younger than most places in San Miguel. I think it’s where old folks like Don Day traditionally bring their younger guests. I’m always guessing at relationships in La Posadita. Grandma and grandpa are the expats who live in San Miguel; daughter, son-in-law and the grandkids are visiting for a week. And the mix of about 70% foreign tourists and expats and 30% Mexican is unusual for restaurants this close to the jardin.
Don Day is not exactly a stickler for service. I’ll suffer some ugly attitudes for extraordinary food. But when I was counting the ballots for the SMARTs awards to determine San Miguel’s best restaurant, I realized just how important it was to other people and just how much they appreciated the attention they received at La Posadita.
I remember the first time I climbed the stairs to La Posadita many years ago and the waiter walked over to our table. He looked sophisticated. Like the Greek waiters in their tuxedos that used to serve me in the sixties and seventies. And just because Don Day never read “Dress for Success”, he likes restaurant owners who did. Josefina Quintera obviously spends some lot of money to outfit her servers and, if you ever steal a peek in the kitchen, you’ll see the workers there always dressed in whites.
The thing Don Day really likes about La Posadita‘s servers is their attitude. They don’t want to be my best friend. And they don’t have their noses in the air as if someone just farted and they don’t know who it is. They’re right where a waiter should be. Right at the midpoint between serious and sociable when it comes to relating to guests.
“I don’t look for experience when I choose employees. I look for attitude,” said Josefina. “I look for people who smile at the interview. Who look happy in their life. Everything else they can learn if they have the right attitude.”
“I prefer to hire people when they’re young, around seventeen years old. Then I like to watch them grow. Both at work and in their personal lives. Get married. Have babies.”
Don Day ran into his friend Joe Erickson that last time we were at La Posadita. He told me, “I think they’re some of the best servers in San Miguel. I think the management just gets it. They understand how important good service is.”
During the time we spent together, Josefina Quintera only began talking with her hands once.
“My people are the restaurant. I want you to photograph them, not just me. They’re what the restaurant is all about,” she said, most emphatically.
Sooner or later it gets to food. And that was the next thing Josefina and I discussed.
La Posadita‘s menu has come a long way from those five entrees that they opened their doors with. It might be the biggest menu in town. It certainly has the most pages. It includes almost every dish on the Mexican hit parade. And it definitely makes it tough for Don Day to make a decision.
I’ve never been quite sure who’s in charge of La Posadita‘s kitchen. I’ve certainly never seen anyone emerge in a chef’s toque ready to receive the accolades of the evening.
I asked Josefina, “Who’s el jefe at La Posadita?”
Her answer came very quickly and abruptly. “I am”, she said, but then it was softened with, “but everyone who works in my kitchen is, in some ways, a chef.”
“If a plate comes back into the kitchen with food left on it I'm the one who wants to know why.”
“So many people have made contributions to the recipes over the years. I've been making the enchiladas verde for my brothers since I was fourteen years old. The lime soup I learned to make in the kitchen of the Hyatt in Merida. The mole is an ancient recipe from the grandmother of my husband. The cochinita was a secret recipe of my mother's. The chiles en nogata combines the recipes of my mother and my mother-in-law. The ideas have come from relatives, friends, employees. Almost everything on the menu has a little history.
“I want to never stop learning about Mexican cuisine. We travel to the Yucatan, Guerrero, Merida with our eyes open for ways to improve our current recipes or add new ones.”
Don Day's favorites from the long list of traditional Mexican entrees are the chamorro adobado, the mixiote de carnero and the cochinita pibil. I asked Josefina what she thought was the best main course on the menu.
“I'm most proud of our chiles en nogata”, she said. “We make them with love.”
Don Day does know that Don Day’s Wife favorite appetizer in San Miguel de Allende is La Posadita‘s bacon wrapped asparagus. And Don Day’s grandson Anderson’s favorite dessert is La Posadita‘s chocolate cake.
Wine is a very important part of a restaurant experience for Don Day. Because a dinner without wine is like (insert your own cliched simile here). I’m not a particularly sophisticated wine drinker but I am a somewhat fussy wine drinker and, I admit it, a bit of a cheapie when it comes to alcoholic beverages.
When you master the first flight of stairs to La Posadita, you’ll see a very impressive, glassed-in wine cellar. You’ll know right away that this place cares about wines.
The wine list at La Posadita could have been custom crafted for Don Day. For Don Day is not a wine connoisseur. Don Day is basically just a wine drinker. There are about 80 wines on the list. More than half of them fall into Don Day’s world of wine. They’re under 500 pesos a bottle. Not only that but Don Day can find many of his favorites, particularly his Mexican favorites. Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard at 300 pesos a bottle. LA Cetto Nebbiolo at 310 pesos. Casa Madera Cabernet Sauvignon for less than 400 pesos.
And the house red at La Posadita? is Montevina. The label that won “the best inexpensive wine” award at the 2014 SMARTs.
“Our cellar is the creation of my partner Javier, wine lover and avid promoter of our Mexican wines. 70% of our labels are produced in Mexico”, said Josefina.
Javier runs El Alcazar, the hotel that occupies the ground floor beneath La Posadita. Don Day is impressed by the list because it is one of the least pretentious I’ve ever seen and doesn’t make Don Day feel like he’s a stingy old codger who isn’t willing to let the moths fly out of his wallet.
Don Day congratulated Josefina on her SMARTs awards win and began climbing the long hill home up Calle Correo. As I walked I tried to think of a very specific reason why San Miguelenses like La Posadita more than any other San Miguel restaurant. And I think I may have got it. La Posadita is upscale in ambience and cuisine but downscale in prices. It’s a place that’s both classy and casual. It’s a place where people who play cellos and people who play Fender Telecasters could meet for lunch.
Josefina Quintera has created a perfect balance between upscale and downscale. Between luxury and comfort. Between classy and cheerful. If you’re fortunate enough to eat at La Posadita and she happens to step out of the shadows, Don Day suggests you congratulate her.
La Posadita is located at Cuna de Allende #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from 12:00 Noon to 10:00 pm, closed Wednesdays.