Tacos al pastor. A religious experience in San Miguel de Allende.

Did you know that October is Pastor Appreciation Month? Really. So in honor of this wonderful way of cooking pork, I suggested I take Don Day’s Wife for an extravagant lunch at San Miguel’s Tuesday Market so we could pay homage in harmony. Recognizing the significance of the event and, perhaps more so because she was hungry, Don Day’s Wife agreed.

The term al pastor can be defined as in “the style of the shepherd”. Which seemed very strange to me when I first arrived in San Miguel de Allende. You see, I was summoned to Sunday school as a child (and sometimes actually went there instead of the Dairy Queen), at a tender age I already knew that shepherds watch their sheep by night not their pigs. And tacos al pastor contain pork not lamb. There is, of course, like almost everything else in this town (except how those Saturday night Celaya girls can walk in four inch heels on cobblestones), an explanation.

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Though they’d been around since, at least, the late fifties, tacos al pastor became very popular in Central Mexico in the seventies when there was a large emigration from Lebanon to escape their Civil War. The Lebanese brought with them their style of grilling lamb on a horizontal, rotating spit, a style called shawarma. Due to pork being cheaper than lamb and pork being more popular with Mexicans than lamb, one meat slowly replaced the other. The word pastor however stuck (maybe because there’s no term for “in the style of the swineherd”?).

Before it gets a chance to play on the merry-go-round, the pork for tacos al pastor must be sliced and hammered into thin strips and then marinated in a mix of chiles, cumin, achiote (a spice that also gives the pork that reddish color), cilantro, onion and pineapple. How pineapple came to be used, Don Day does not know. It certainly didn’t come from the Lebanese. And the fruit is not native to Mexico. Don Day does know, however, that pineapple contains bromelein and, in Don Day’s opinion, nothing tenderizes meat better than bromelein.

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After the pork has been marinated for a few hours, it is somehow formed into a giant cylinder and placed on the prong. I have always wondered how you get the pork to all stick together and form this roll of porcine pleasure. But, because I’m afraid that someone called Elmer may be involved, I have chosen to never ask why.

I don’t know what it’s called in Lebanon but, in Mexico, the rotating spit is appropriately called el trompo. It shares its name with those wooden tops that you spin by wrapping and pulling a string that you’ll see for sale in places wherever you’ll see tourists in Centro San Miguel (though I can’t remember ever seeing a kid playing with one). On top of the prong is usually placed a pineapple and sometimes an onion so that their juices drizzle down over the meat.

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Now you don’t just slice and serve the pork from el trompo. It then goes on to a grill where it is tossed and turned, chopped and flopped by people who bring back memories of those plate spinners who came on to The Ed Sullivan Show right about the time we needed a bathroom break. Then again, maybe they’re more like the old Chop-o-Matic peddler that came on during the commercial. As do all occupations that require special talents, the juggler manning the spit has a name. He is a pastorero. You can see one Mexico City master pastorero in action here:

Now you don’t have to go to Mexico City to enjoy tacos al pastor because their popularity spread north from the capital long ago. And you can’t make them at home because you can’t buy your spouse an upright spit and grill for their birthday in case they cause you grievous bodily harm. But you can do as Don Day does and go to San Miguel de Allende’s Tuesday Market like we did this week and visit Pancho Tacos Pizza.

Pancho is the busiest stand in the entire market. Every Tuesday they sell hundreds of tacos al pastor and the reason why? They’re good, very good.

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You can get your puerco al pastor on tacos as Don Day does. Or you can get your puerco al pastor on a torta as Don Day’s Wife does. Or you can also get it on a gringa or burrito as neither of us do but many other people do. I squeeze a little lime on the pork, then top it with chopped onions, a sprinkle of cilantro and just a titch of the salsa roja. The tacos seem to get even better late in the day when business slows down and the meat becomes a little more charred and caramelized. Two tacos are enough for Don Day but Don Day usually orders three.

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We asked for la cuenta and Don Day’s Wife, who rarely says anything positive when we’re dining at a place that’s one step above a street meat stand, looked at me and said, “Those were really juicy, really tasty, we should come back again soon.”

Don Day paid the bill of $37 pesos, which for those not familiar with current exchange rates is less than three U.S. bucks. Didn’t I tell you I was going to take her for an extravagant lunch.

We did our usual stop to pick up barbacoa and consome at La Bodeguita de Oro for dinner and, when we arrived home, I thought, if there’s a Pastor Appreciation Month site on the internet, I’m going to post some words and pictures to share my enthusiasm. I Googled the three words and I got 2,040,000 responses. And I thought this was just some local delicacy! I went to the first page and quickly recofnized the errors of my ways. I had made an enormous mistake. Pastor Appreciation Month is not about tacos, it’s about paying homage to the clergy.

“Gimme that ol’ time religion. Give me that ol’ time religion.”

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Pancho Tacos Pizza is located at the Mercado Municipale in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You’ll find the restaurant on the southern edge of the market and about midway between the east and west ends.

What San Miguel needs is a good tapas bar. Oops, they already have one.

Status

I’d heard the news. It was exciting news. San Miguel de Allende had a new tapas bar. This was news that Don Day had been waiting to hear since the decline and fall of the sadly missed Cafe Iberico. I was also happy to hear that it was “a couple of Suecos” that were running the place. Sueco is what Mexicans call someone from Sweden and, as there’s a grand total of two Swedes I know of that live in this town, I was guessing it was Anders and Kajsa Litzen. Don Day had first experienced Kajsa’s cuisine and Anders’ hospitality at Los Senderos and I liked it. A lot. Don Day didn’t frequent Los Senderos though. It was only a $50 peso cab ride away but it could have been a $5000 airplane flight for I couldn’t help thinking of the place as a special event destination that required a birthday, an anniversary, or some other special occasion. Which was a shame. Despite Los Senderos being a beautiful place to dine, Anders and Kajsa couldn’t make the restaurant work. And neither has anyone else since they left. I followed the husband and wife team’s careers as they moved to Dos Casas and Cumpanio but I always felt their personalities were somewhat lost there. Those restaurants always seemed like someone else’s, not theirs. I lost track of Anders and Kajsa for a while and guessed that they’d moved back to Sweden. Then I heard they’d started a catering business, news I took with a grain of salt. Like a journalist who’s never out of work, only freelancing (Don Day did a lot of freelancing), a chef is never out of work, only catering. tapasfromstreet Tapas SMA opened about a month ago on Umaran just west of Zacateros. It was previously the home of a couple of other places to eat and drink. About three years ago it was a sports bar that suffered from the oasis on Sunday/arid desert the rest of the week problem that often kills sports bars. For the last couple of years it has housed Orchidea, one of only two places in town to catch a taste of Thai. Tapas are a casual style of food and they’re best served in a casual environment. There is another restaurant with a tapas menu in San Miguel but it screams luxury and it’s an enormous place where most people look uncomfortable when they dine even though they’re seated on the most comfortable of couches. There are also a couple of other restaurants that have early evening tapas menus but they just don’t work for Don Day either. Tapas are traditionally consumed while seated on stools at a bar or high top tables. And that’s the style of Tapas SMA, at least in the front room. There’s a wooden slat topped bar with five stools and three high top tables with ten more stools. When Don Day’s Wife and I arrived at Tapas SMA, we’d just come from Cent’Anni where the stools have nowhere to comfortably place your feet. Tapas SMA‘s stools are designed for lingering, for conversation. tapasbackroom Behind the bar area there’s a cosy room with conventional seating. Off to the side there’s an even cosier nook with a table for ten that would be a perfect place to hold a serious meeting or a friendly family dinner. There were a couple of disappointments when we arrived at Tapas SMA. I first looked for Anders. No Anders. I then wandered down to the kitchen and peered through the window looking for Kajsa. No Kajsa. Was I wrong about whose restaurant this was? The disappointments continued. We sat at the bar and Don Day’s Wife chose a glass of Jacqueline Brut Blanc de Blancs, a French sparkler that scored quite well when Don Day did a best bubbles tasting last year. Yes, Jacqueline was in the house but she wasn’t cold. Don Day’s Wife grumbled (quietly) and, with no other sparkling wine available, chose a Sauvignon Blanc. She grumbled (a little less quietly) when the wine, though refrigerated, was far above the ideal drinking temperature if she wanted to get all of the crispness out of her favorite white grape. tapasblackboard Don Day spotted Incognito, one of his favorite bargain Mexican reds featured on a blackboard. I ordered a glass and ouch! Yet another disappointment. Incognito was out of stock. Don Day grumbled (now loudly) and asked why would you feature a wine that you didn’t have in stock. Why wouldn’t you just erase it from the board or, even better, strike a line through it with the words sold out. Absence does make the wine drinker’s heart grow fonder. Though I liked the wall of bottles that hung beside me, Don Day was hoping all the best bottles weren’t all hanging there. tapaswallofbottles Sensing our discontent, the bartender summoned a young guy with Aztec eyes, a scruff of a beard and a smile crying for a camera. He introduced himself as Antonio Torres and told us he was a one third owner of Tapas SMA and, indeed, Anders and Kajsa Litzen made up the other two thirds. tapasantonioatbar He told me that his supplier’s cupboards were bare when it came to Incognito but the 2013 would be released next month. He offered two alternative Mexican wines both, like Incognito, from the Baja, that weren’t on the printed list. Though Don Day has been intimate with most Mexican reds, he had never had the pleasure of meeting either of these two before. Antonio offered a small taste of both. I sampled and ordered a glass of both. But, at least, one at a time. KM 101 is a blend of 60% Tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot. It tasted young and fruity with lots of sweet blackcurrants. No, it’s not a wine with a lot of depth or nuances but it’s the kind of blend that Don Day thinks Mexico is very good at making and should be making more of. tapasorbitoandkm101wines Orbita is a little more complex on the nose with a whole basket of fruit on the tongue. Blackberries, raspberries and red currants combine with vanilla and pepper. Orbita is an unusual blend of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Petite Syrah. It’s a wine I’d order again. Tapas SMA was bringing back memories of those boring lectures on story structure that Don Day had attended long ago. We’d had the set-up. And the confrontation. I hoped we had now passed the climax and the denouement of “One Night in SMA Tapas” had begun. tapasmenu The food menu at Tapas SMA is like a dizzying trip around the world or at least back and forth across the Atlantic. The menu starts, appropriately, in Sweden; heads over the Atlantic to Mexico and the U.S.; does a turnaround back to Italy; shifts into reverse again to Peru and comes in for a gentle landing at its final destination, the home of tapas, Spain. We skipped Sweden. Though some of the world’s great chefs are Scandinavian, Scandinavian cuisine doesn’t exactly set Don Day’s tastebuds tingling. And, though Sweden gave May Britt, Anita Ekberg and Inger Stevens to Don Day, he wouldn’t be holding a wake if they took back Swedish meatballs, pickled herrings, and shrimps on toast. We instead started our tapas tasting on home ground, in Mexico, with fish tacos. This is a dish that Don Day would rarely order (I’ve never quite come to grips with why I need something wrapped in batter and wrapped in a tortilla, especially if it’s a thick corn tortilla). But it’s a dish that’s an excellent guide as to how good a kitchen is. “If I’m going to eat a fish taco, this is the one I’m going to eat”, said Don Day’s Wife after taking her first bite. The wrap was a thin white flour tortilla. The perfectly cooked fish was ABT (anything but tilapia) and probably grouper (or what Mexicans call mero). The batter was light and not at all greasy. The sauce, tasting mostly of chipotle, was piquant but gentle with the heat. I asked Antonio Torres if they made their own tortillas. “We make our own corn”, Antonio told me, “but only our abuelas (grandmothers) know how to make flour tortillas.” We were continuing to get over Tapas SMA‘s initial disappointments. Traveling down the menu, we skipped through the two U.S. dishes, particularly when Don Day, ever the food historian, saw that one of them might have been better credited to Mexico. Though Caesar Cardini also had a restaurant in San Diego, it’s generally thought that he first served the Caesar Salad in Tijuana. tapassalumiboard We also flew over Italy and Peru (vowing to return for the ceviches) and headed right to Spain. The dish we chose, though made with Spanish ingredients, has an even greater heritage in Italy. Tapas SMA‘s charcuterie platter includes jamon Serrano, sobrassada (from the Balearic islands) and another dried sausage from Cataluna that Don Day had never heard of. It’s called fuet and was served swimming in a bowl of hot olive oil. Too greasy for some perhaps, but not too greasy for Don Day. tapassausageinoil A charcuterie plate is not a great challenge for a chef. It’s not usually about cooking, it’s about buying. And even Don Day is fair to middlin’ at shopping. Tapas SMA had chosen to purchase two selections from San Miguel’s Anthony D’Avanza. A lot of Tony’s sausages have graced Don Day’s dinner plates but this was my first time with any dry styles. Nice to know I can now shop local for Spanish salumi. I told Antonio Torres I’d rather see an Iberico ham than a Serrano, especially since Nena, the only place in town that I know was serving it, has taken it off the menu. He told me, “It might just be here the next time you’re here.” On the charcuterie plate, for the first time I saw the personal touch of Kajsa Litzen. Sprigs of rosemary are her signature herb. And Don Day has never had a Litzen meal where they didn’t make at least one appearance. On the plate, they weren’t just used for decoration. They served as skewers for the olives. And they weren’t just functional. The taste of rosmarin had infused into the aceitunas verdes. tapasantonio Antonio is a chatty guy, with arms that wave like a traffic cop. He told us that usually there are five specials also at Tapas SMA but Anders and Kajsa were on a catering assignment in Puerto Vallarta and he thought it best that they not introduce anything new or different. Good idea, thought Don Day. “I think it’s very important to always improve the menu”, said Antonio. “That’s why we didn’t print anything fancy. We can change it in seconds.” Antonio Torres is 26 years old but seems far smarter than Don Day was when he was 26. Or 66 for that matter. He’s close to getting a law degree but told me, “I won’t be leaving the restaurant business any time soon. This is where my heart is.” Tapas SMA was our second food stop that evening and Don Day was already getting full but I had to make one more stop before I checked out the dessert menu. I thought about staying in Spain for gazpacho, calamares, chorizo or papas bravas but decided instead to head back home to Mexico for one last savory dish and one that, again, would let me compare the kitchen to other San Miguel restaurants. tapassope I chose something small, a $30 peso sope. Canadians like Don Day seem to be attracted to sopes. Maybe because they’re shaped like hockey pucks. The thick but not too thick corn tortilla base was topped with rajas. This mix of poblano chiles, a touch of onion, heavy cream and a sprinkle of pepper is often overcooked. But not this version; the chile peppers at Tapas SMA still had lots of give. The tortilla was as it should be, crispy on the outside and melt in your mouth in the middle. tapassergiobar I’d thought the lighting was a little too mid-afternoon in Tapas SMA. But now Antonio was dimming it down. It made the backlit glass bar shine even brighter (and made Sergio the bartender look even more handsome according to Don Day’s Wife). The bar has more selections than almost any cocktail bar in this town, including all those flavored vodkas that Don Day has vowed will never touch his lips (though it wouldn’t be the first vow Don Day has broken). Tapas were originally an early evening experience in Spain, often appetizers for a trip to a more formal restaurant later in the evening. It’s obvious from that stock of bottles that Tapas SMA is targeting not just that wine drinking crowd but also a totally different audience. There’s one market that Don Day’s a part of and a totally different one that comes out when Don Day’s long gone. The fact that the music on weekends at Tapas SMA starts at 10:30 pm is also testament to that strategy. Don Day knew immediately what the finale of his evening would be. There are only two simple desserts on the menu, chocolate truffles and ice cream. Without consulting, the woman who knows Don Day best said he’ll have the truffles. They were perfectly accompanied by a ripe blackberry and a mint leaf. They were music to my mouth. Though he’s still young, Antonio Torres seems to already get that people go to restaurants primarily for what Don Day calls “the experience”. It’s about ambiance, camaraderie, decor, environment, entertainment, luxury and other factors that are only vaguely related to the consumption of food. People go to restaurants not so much to have their stomachs filled but to have their dreams fulfilled. When I discovered that Anders and Kajsa were absent, I was worried. I shouldn’t have been. As Don Day’s Wife said, “The birds may have flown but someone’s still minding the nest.” She also said something far less eloquent but far more significant in the potential success of Tapas SMA: “This could be one great neighborhood joint.” tapassign Though a town can have too many tapas bars, they can never have too many “neighborhood joints”. The kind of place where the bartender knows your name, knows what you drink and knows to laugh at your jokes. A tapas bar makes a perfect neighborhood joint for Don Day because Don Day always puts food first when he decides what bar stool rates the presence of his bony behind. The lifeblood of almost any bar or restaurant is the regular. I think you might regularly see Don Day at Tapas SMA. Tapas SMA is located at Umaran #36 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 6:00 pm everyday except Sunday.

An invitation to MEZCALOOZA. A tasting of tequila’s older, much wiser brother.

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Don Day wanted to write about the better mezcals available in San Miguel shops. But being a retired old age pensioner of modest means (everybody say aaaaahhhh!!!), I couldn’t afford to actually go out and buy a bunch of bottles.

So I came up with a plan…OK, maybe scheme is a better word. Invite a few Don Day readers to join me in the sampling, get their opinions on which of the ones we taste are their favorites, use their quotes in the write-up, and have them pay their fair share for the fancy mezcals. I asked Kenny Peters, the most agreeable proprietor of Dean Martini’s House of Blues if we could mess up his house rather than mine. And he said “let’s do it”. So here’s the fine print.

MEZCALOOZA. A tasting of fine mezcals.
Dean Martini’s House of Blues
Hidalgo #29
San Miguel de Allende
Thursday, November 6, 2014
7:00 pm
$395 pesos per person (cash please).

Food will be served but, even though it will be enough for dinner, it will be of the very cheap and cheerful variety so we can allocate most of the loot to the liquor.

RSVP. Space is very limited so I’m taking the first 15 to reply by email. Just send a quick note to dondayinsma@yahoo.com with the subject line saying Mezcalooza and your name (and any others if you’re more than one) in the body of the message.

And if you’re coming, please take a taxi.

Carnitas Vicente. Almost as good as carnal…no, I can’t say that.

Some people go to Dolores Hidalgo to dig up the roots of the Mexican revolution. Some people go to Dolores Hidalgo for the talavera pottery. A few go for the ice cream. A lot go for the wineries. And almost everyone who goes there goes to Carnitas Vicente. carnitas vicente sign Stan and Peggy Jones had agreed to chauffeur Don Day and Don Day’s Wife the forty or so kilometres from San Miguel de Allende to Dolores Hidalgo. Don Day’s Wife was trying to find the location of a ceramics maker who could create some new pieces to match a set we’d inherited when we bought a home in San Miguel. Don Day was trying to remember the location of Carnitas Vicente. I think there’s more than one Carnitas Vicente in Dolores. Though I don’t think they have the same owners. Stan and Peggy had been there before and, with a little teamwork, there it was. The big building we were looking for. Salon Bicentenario on Avenida Norte. carnitas vicente building Carnitas. The word translates into English as little meats. I had never seen the word until I came to central Mexico. Carnitas just didn’t exist in the days when Don Day used to do those sunburn, shooters and sand in the shoes holidays to the country’s east or west coasts. Carnitas don’t seem to have existed for that long in central Mexico either. I couldn’t find any reference to them in any Mexican cookbook published before the seventies. And the two biggest champions of Mexican cuisine, Diane Kennedy and Rick Bayless, allot less than a single page to carnitas in their early books. I’ve often seen the term estilo Michoacan in restaurants so I’m guessing it was the state of Michoacan to the west of Dolores Hidalgo where they originated. But I’ve never seen a town with more carnitas shops than Dolores Hidalgo. And I’ve never heard of a carnitas restaurant more famous than Carnitas Vicente. carnitas vicente stan eating Merriam-Webster defines carnal as “given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites” and carnitas does seem to bring out the animal in Don Day (and Stan Jones). You suddenly find yourself attacking the plate and eating much more meat than you normally would. Traditionally carnitas are ordered by weight (they’re 240 pesos a kilo or a little less than $20 at Carnitas Vicente) and a kilo is usually good for four people and a decent size doggie bag. carnitas vicente plate For some reason that Don Day has never been able to figure out (it’s almost as bewildering as the source of the phrase the whole enchilada), almost all places that cook and sell carnitas are takeout places. They may have a table or two but that’s usually all. Carnitas Vicente is different. It does a lot of takeout business but it also does a lot of sitdown business. Carnitas Vicente was started 34 years ago by a former butcher with movie star looks called Vicente Mendez and, though he wasn’t there when we had lunch with Stan and Peggy Jones, he usually is. It’s a place you’d call typically Mexican with furniture with beer logos, A Coca Cola cooler, tartan tablecloths, murals that tell the story of independence, and a television which seems to be perpetually tuned to a never ending soap opera. The restaurant sells a few other dishes, including barbacoa, but one look around at the tables and you’ll see that everyone seems to come for carnitas. carnitas vicente murals telenovella When Don Day thinks of carnitas, he thinks of two kinds of carnitas. There’s the real kind and the not so real kind. The not so real kind are the kind that Don Day might make at home, using a pork shoulder or butt and simmering it in water with spices. The real kind are what most carnitas restaurants, including Carnitas Vicente, make. They’re what make Don Day proclaim, “Praise The Lard”. carnitas vicente cauldron Carnitas Vicente simmers almost the entire pig in a steel cauldron of rendered fat, adds such unusual ingredients as oranges, Coca Cola and evaporated milk and are much more adventurous in their spice selection with cumin, cinnamon and cloves often added. Vicente Mendez takes a lot of pride in his selection of the animals he chooses. He only uses pigs from Mexico’s pork capital Irapuato and, in a week, the restaurant will go through more than fifty of them creating the porcine pleasures of carnitas. If you look like a typical tourist (as Don Day always does), your Carnitas Vicente server might bring you the mostly whiter, drier, leaner parts from the loin. If you simply ask though, he will bring you a choice of whatever part of the animal you want. Don Day likes the ribs, leg or shoulder with their extra fat and bones plus a little crispy chicharron, the skin of the pig. Thinking that Stan and Peggy Jones would have more pedestrian tastes (I should have known better), Don Day didn’t ask for any special parts of the pig. The ribs and shoulder could have had wings the way they flew off the plate. Don Day now knew the real meaning of keeping up with the Joneses. carnitas vicente stan and peggy Carnitas should be served with tortillas, limes, chopped onions, cilantro, a red sauce and a green sauce. Carnitas Vicente arrive at the table with all of those plus a cactus paddle salad and a bowl of too hot for Don Day to handle jalapenos. We all agreed that guacamole is a perfect partner for carnitas and ordered that as well. carnitas vicente jalopenos Now what makes Carnitas Vicente what foodies like Don Day call a destination restaurant? A place that’s worth driving almost an hour for. Well good carnitas should be moist and juicy. One checkmark. They should have a little crisp on the outside. Two checkmarks. They should be falling apart, melt in your mouth tender. Three checkmarks. And, other than salt, they should have very little flavor from the other ingredients in the pot so the pork is the prime taste. Checkmark number four. That’s four for four and why Carnitas Vicente is the pleasure palace of pork. Carnitas Vicente is located at Avenida Norte 65 in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico. They are open daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.

The very best avestruz restaurant in all of San Miguel de Allende

I’d passed it perhaps twenty, maybe even thirty times over the years. But today we were actually going. It was our final and only destination. The restaurant had intrigued me every one of those times we’d passed by. There were more signs outside than in that old Five Man Electrical Band song. With one word that always stuck out. The word was avestruz. Don Day had no idea what it meant. Curiosity not only lured the cat, it lured that old dog Don Day.

el rincon exterior

Though it’s not close to many people’s San Miguel homes, it’s reasonably close to Don Day’s. Close enough that Don Day’s Wife and I decided to walk. Our planned lunch included coctels de mariscos and on the way we passed two other places with signs advertising mariscos. This didn’t go unnoticed by Don Day’s Wife.

“I don’t really see the need to walk much further”, Don Day`s Wife said.

“But this place is really funky looking”, I pleaded to her, purposefully forgetting that funky isn’t even in her vocabulary when it comes to adjectives modifying places to dine.

“Like a food stand that’s grown roots”, I continued, digging myself into a deeper hole and generating one of her roll the eyes looks. “Besides, you can already see the sign through the trees.”

el rincon sign

The restaurant is called Rincon Nayarita and it’s on Boulevard de la Conspiracion (how could any place be uninteresting on a street name like that). Boulevard de la Conspiracion is what Salida a Queretaro becomes after you pass the roundabout where Senor Allende still has his head and is still riding his horse. In simpler and more exact terms, it’s just down a bit from being directly across the street from San Miguel’s Tuesday Market.

The first thing you notice when you walk in across the rough cement floor is nothing. Because this place is dark with the only natural light coming through the door behind you. The seating is on mostly blue plastic tables and chairs advertising Corona beer. It’s not a lot different from the white plastic tables and chairs advertising Corona beer that are the standard in most other low-end Mexican restaurants. The blue Corona furniture though doesn’t so much advertise the beer as pour it down your throat.

The word Nayarita obviously pays homage to the State of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It’s a state famous for long stretches of beaches dotted with corrugated metal and bamboo shacks selling fresh seafood. Rincon Nayarita brings memories of quaint weather-beaten places in Sayulita except for the lack of sand between your toes.

el rincon servers

The servers have that mischievous innocence that we all mourn the loss of, no matter how old we get. But they have enthusiasm and they’re obviously proud of the restaurant that employs them. As soon as we arrive one brings the menu; the other is quickly there with pad and pen in hand.

el rincon menu

Don Day’s plan for a simple shrimp cocktail is thwarted by the fact that the restaurant has more enticing starters like crab, oysters and clams. But shrimp was the plan so all we do is mix in a little octopus, choosing the cocktel de pulpo y camaron. It comes in three sizes. CH, M and G. They’re priced at 55, 65 and 75 pesos. This is the Starbucks theory of pricing. How can you order a small when for very little more you can get something that’s twice the size. Don Day ordered the grande (isn’t that what Starbucks calls it?) with the plan that Don Day`s Wife would share in its delight.

Now Don Day promises not to tease you too much longer because, unless you’re far more familiar with Spanish than Don Day, you have absolutely no idea what the hell avestruz is. But Don Day did know before he got to the restaurant. For, though he may not be among the best of food writers, he does believe he is amongst the better of food researchers. And he did his homework before he left the house.

Your diligent researcher had discovered that an avestruz has three pairs of eyelids over the largest eyes of any land animal, plus two toes and one toenail.

el rincon ostrich head

I also discovered that those photos of avestruces (yes I had to do more research to spell the plural) with their head in the sand (yes, now you’re finally figuring out what Don Day has been talking about) are probably doing it because they are rotating the eggs that they’re incubating. I also learned that an avestruz can stick its head up its own ass. Which drives me crazy because I’m dying to know why they’d want to.

el rincon ostriches on farm

Yes, Rincon Narayit specializes in ostrich. And if you’ve ever driven on the road to Queretaro and wondered where the meat from those emu and ostrich farms goes you now know at least one place.

All of his life Don Day has had a passion for chicks with long legs but I never thought it would come to this. But I just can`t help myself from trying everything at least once. Rincon Nayarit serves its ostrich as either tacos de avestruz for 13 pesos each or as fajitas de avestruz for 100 pesos. We chose the fajitas.

el rincon cocktail

OK, first the shrimp and octopus cocktail. It was definitely grande. Very grande. There were about 15 medium size shrimps and at least two sliced octopus tentacles. Don Day liked the consistency of both. Don Day`s Wife though the octopus was a little too “chewy”. They weren’t so much decorated with the sauce as they were swimming in it. But the sauce was more chili than cocktail and didn’t overpower the seafood. The cocktail came with corn chips, limes and virtually every local hot sauce known to Don Day.

el rincon sauces

And the ostrich?

Don Day expected the ostrich to taste like poultry. Maybe not chicken, perhaps more hearty, more oomphy, like duck or goose or maybe like turkey. Don Day was wrong. It was the color of red meat; the texture was just like skirt steak; and, at first, I thought it also tasted like beef. A couple of bites later I closed my eyes and thought again. The ostrich tasted like something Don Day rarely eats these days…something almost everyone seems to rarely eat these days…it tasted like veal.

Now veal is not a bad thing but, a few years ago, Don Day decided that almost every cut of veal that came from a calf had more taste when it grew up and came from a cow.

el rincon fajitas

The fajitas were prepared nicely with tomatoes and onions but, much to Don Day’s dismay and not so much to Don Day’s Wife’s dismay, no peppers. There was a serving of fluffy and lightly spiced rice and an OK iceberg lettuce salad on the side.

So what about the nutritional benefits of ostrich? Ostrich meat is very low in fat…maybe the lowest in fat of any meat. With three grams of fat per 100 grams of meat, it has less than half that of chicken at 7.4. Now I know that some people think that fat is a bad thing but Don Day likes fat, especially when it’s marbling meat and making it more tender and tasty.

So will Don Day eat ostrich again? Well I thought I might until I went online and checked the price. If ostrich was cheaper than beef maybe there would be a reason to eat it. And what about ostrich being a little bit better for you than beef? Well Don Day got over that way back when he surprised everyone, including himself, and lived past the age of fifty.

And will Don Day go back to Rincon Nayarita? Well Don Day’s not sure about himself but he thinks there’s a reason you should. It’s that bucket list thing that old guys like me think are so damn important. Because I think everyone who hasn’t tried ostrich should. At least once.

el rincon parking sign

There’s another reason Don Day might go back. Rincon Nayarita advertises music on weekends. Now I didn’t confirm that the sign was current and I’ve been fooled before so don’t ostracize (was dying to use that word) me if there’s not. But if there isn’t live music, there’s one of the best sounding jukeboxes I’ve heard in San Miguel.

Rincon Nayarita is located on Boulevard de la Conspiracion in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open every day except Wednesday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.

The cabs I’m hailing these days.

“Darling, I don’t know if it’s me or the wine talking, but I think we should open another bottle of wine.”

Don Day did take a year of economics in college. And, though he read a lot more Patti Smith than Adam Smith, he did understand the law of supply and demand. When the cupboard is empty, you buy more wine. When the cupboard is full, you drink more wine.

In Toronto, Don Day’s wine cupboard is almost always full to the brim. Because a two block walk from Don Day’s Toronto house is Canada’s largest wine store. And Don Day can be a very impulsive person when it is the demon grape that is tempting him.

In San Miguel de Allende, Don Day does most of his wine shopping at La Europea. And in San Miguel, Don Day’s cupboard is almost always close to but never quite empty. For there just isn’t that much low hanging fruit to be picked in La Europea.

cab pascual toso on shelf

There are exceptions to that rule, however. In a couple of categories, La Europea has a supply that can satisfy Don Day’s most demanding requirements. The geographic category is South America and, more specifically Argentina. The grape color is red and more specifically Cabernet Sauvignon. At last count there were fourteen different Argentinean Cabs in stock at La Europea that Don Day would welcome to his cupboard.

cab vines

Argentina is one of those places that, if there was a Billboard chart of up-and-coming wine regions, it would have a bullet beside it. It’s definitely one of the fastest growing wine producing countries and total production now ranks fifth in the world. Argentina’s always been big on wine but Don Day hasn’t always been big on Argentinean wines. For many years, the big grape in Argentina was Criolla, a grape you may never have heard of and, even if you haven’t heard of or tasted it, it still should be removed from any bucket list. It’s a grape used to make a wine that Argentinians call vino de mesa. It’s a wine that Don Day calls plink plonk (it’s a similar color to rose and a reminder to me of those cloying Portuguese roses from the Sixties that, try as I may to forget them, still bring back joyful memories). In most recent numbers, Criolla still represented 44% of the wine produced in Argentina but other, more desirable grapes are catching up. Malbec, the grape you (and until recently Don Day) might have guessed would be number one does sit at number two and the number of hectares planted has grown from 10,500 to 21,200. Bonarda is third at 17,200, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon at 16,200. But the growth in Cabernet has been phenomenal. Up 600% from just 2,300 hectares 15 years ago.

cab vines mountains

Cabernet Sauvignon is, by far, the world’s most esteemed red grape and it’s not all that difficult to grow. It’s adaptable to many climates and many soils. It’s not difficult, either, to make a decent wine from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. But it is very difficult to make a great wine out of them.

The style of wine produced from the grape has many regional differences based on the amount of limestone in the soil, the average daily and nightly temperatures, the amount of humidity, frequency of rain, and how early (or late) in the season the grapes are picked.

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most tannic of all wines and to make a good wine from the grape, those tannins must be softened. Throughout the world, wherever Cabernet Sauvignon is produced that reduction of the tannins is almost always done by aging it in oak barrels.

cab barrels

In Cabernet Sauvignon’s birthplace, the southwest of France, the tannins are also softened by blending the grape with other varieties, most often Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The result is a style that is much more in favor with oenophiles than social wine drinkers with flavors such as green pepper, mint and cedar coming through as well as the primary taste of black currants.

In other parts of the world, often where days are much warmer and where the grapes are left on the wine for a couple of weeks longer, the taste is much more fruity and full with the taste of plums and cherries coming through and the word jammy often used to describe the flavor. In still other parts of the world, the taste of olives, eucalyptus or menthol often add to the intricacies.

cab argentina wine map

Almost all of Argentina’s Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in the state of Mendoza (the deep red on the map), in the dramatically scenic valleys and foothills of the Andes that separate the country from Chile. How far north or south the vineyards are and at what elevation they’re situated seem to have the biggest impact on the nuances of the wines. Almost every style is represented in the wines with some having the greeniness of Bordeaux, others having the jamminess of Australia and others having the peppery fruitiness of California.

cab bottles on table

Don Day has never found anything on the labels that is a good indicator of what style of Cabernet Sauvignon you’re going to get so Don Day has had to do a lot of sampling. Last night, Don Day’s friend Ricardo’s arm was given the mighty corkscrew twist to persuade him to help me as we opened, poured, swirled, sipped and guzzled our way through more than a few bottles of Argentinian Cabs. Here’s the best that we found (the prices are La Europea‘s) and keep in mind when Don Day is scoring wines, value is always the prime criteria. The order is from worst to first.

6. Ultra Kaiken  $358 pesos

This is one of the priciest Argentinean Cabs on La Europea‘s list and just isn’t worth it. There are hints of tobacco, raisins and coffee complimenting the fruit but you’d have to be very sophisticated oenophile to appreciate these nuances and consider the wine worth the money. Don Day has a hard time getting his hands in his pockets when he has to pull out more than $200 pesos for a bottle of wine and this one just has his hands scratching his head.

5. Pascual Toso Reserva  $334 pesos (on special at $223 pesos at time of writing)

Yes, there’s a little more complexity than the standard issue Pascual Toso (read on for that) but, again, not enough to warrant more than $100 pesos extra from Don Day’s shallow pockets. In fact, Don Day did a little side by side a while back and actually preferred the everyday Pascual Toso to the reserva.

4. Kaiken Reserva  $172 pesos

Now you’re talking. At less than half the price of Kaiken Ultra, this low end offering from the same winery delivers a big basket of fruit with blackberries joining red currants in the flavor. Not a lot of sophistication in the taste but for those who like a full wallop of jam, this is a good choice.

3. Pascual Toso $214 pesos (on special for $140 pesos at time of writing)

This is Don Day’s go to, everyday Argentinean Cab. I’ve been drinking it for years and will probably drink a lot more cases before I wear out my corkscrew. There’s raspberry as well as blackcurrants in the fruit along with hints of vanilla and chocolate. For those who like a California Cabernet Sauvignon, this is very similar and very available in San Miguel de Allende.

cab pascual toso bottle

For some reason, there are a lot of the same wines that go on sale at La Europea over and over again. When Pascual Toso Cabernet Sauvignon is down at $140 pesos, it’s a buy by the case for Don Day.

2. Catena $298 pesos

cab catena pouring

This was number one with Don Day at our little Argentinean Cabernet tasting. But not with anyone else. It’s over Don Day’s $200 pesos low ceiling, so you must know I really liked it. Usually I don’t read all the gobbledygook you find on winery’s websites but I thought the following quote about the different vineyards at different altitudes helped explain how Catena comes closest to a Bordeaux and why there are so many different styles in Argentina:

“At different altitudes, the family’s Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards express a unique profile of aromas and flavors: the black currant and cassis fruit flavors and ripe, sweet tannins of the La Pirámide vineyard (3117 ft elevation); the spicy aromatics and pepper notes of the Domingo vineyard (3675 ft elevation); the finely grained tannins of the Altamira in La Consulta vineyard (3593 ft elevation); the minerality and notes of eucalyptus of the Adrianna vineyard (4757 ft). The blend of these components creates a wine of unique character that has balance, concentration and a strong varietal identity.”

cab catena bottle

Don Day thinks the addition of 3% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot also had a lot to do with bringing out the hints of coffee and chocolate and that greeniness that comes with certain styles of Cabernet Sauvignon. Catena is one of the few Argentinean producers that blends small quantities of other grapes into their Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Catena would definitely be Don Day’s splurge choice.

1. Trapiche Reserva $158 pesos

cab trapiche label

I’ve saved the best to last. At least the best for Don Day’s Wife and our friend Ricardo. If Catena was a woman in a little black dress, Trapiche would be a woman in tight jeans and a t-shirt. Trapiche is all about full forward fruit. There’s not a lot of sophistication but there are plums and cherries and blackcurrants bursting out of the bottle. It’s the perfect wine for the social wine drinker. And won the “best value award” from all of us.

And remember, with Thanksgiving approaching, an Argentinean Cabernet Sauvignon goes not only with turkey and ham but also the most difficult of relatives.

Seven ways to commit one of the seven deadly sins in San Miguel.

Forgive me father for I have sinned. Since my last confession I have committed gluttony on at least seven occasions. You see, in San Miguel de Allende, there are so many good restaurants with so many great desserts to lead me astray from the paths of righteousness.

It always happens the same way. We finish our entrees and Don Day’s Wife says to me, “Shall we get the cheque?” and I always reply, “Let’s just look at the dessert menu. Strictly for research. For the blog.” Remember, father, you told me that, unlike that other sin, it was OK to look.

The next thing I know I have fallen hard from grace again. Don Day’s Wife is rolling her eyes, tilting her head and sighing and the waiter is placing an enormous plate in front of me.

You say you need the exact details of each of the sins and the exact location of where they were committed? Why yes, father, I’ll gladly share them with you.

1. The frozen lime tart at Lavanda

sevendeadlydessertslavanda

“Lavender blue, dilly, dilly. Lavender green.” Don Day always thought the “lavender green” part of the lyrics were dumber than tripping over a cordless phone until I tasted Lavanda‘s lime tart. There are almost as many lime postres as flans in San Miguel de Allende. This is the sublime lime tart. And even better when it’s frozen.

2. The chocolate truffle cake at Hansen’s

sevendeadlydessertshansens

Don Day suffers from OCD, an incurable disease that is only heightened when he is in San Miguel de Allende. OCD is Obsessive Chocolate Disorder and it is most infectious when Don Day is on Calzada de Aurora and passes Hansen’s. It is there that the very thought of the restaurant’s chocolate cake, a dessert that more appropriately should be called a divinely decadent chocolate bar can bring on cold sweats.

3. The pumpkin creme brulee at Patio 3.

patiotresdessert

Now everyone who’s read “Cinderella” knows how to transform a pumpkin into a stagecoach but to transform it into a great creme brule that’s only something chef Alejandra Ventura and her team at Patio 3 can do. And ooooohhhhhh that spun sugar!

4. The burnt caramel ice cream sundae with marshmallow sauce and salted peanuts at The Restaurant.

sevendeadlydessertstherestaurant

Yes, you may have to suffer through some second rate service but Don Day thinks it’s still worth a visit to The Restaurant for such imaginative and well-executed food, including the very best ice cream dish in town.

5. The carrot cake at Victoria’s.

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La Palapa used to wear the crown as king of the carrot cake in San Miguel. It has now been passed to Victoria’s. This moist, creamy and not too sweet masterpiece would win the approval of that conejo connaisseur, Senor Bugs Bunny. And Porky Pig? He’d be disappointed with only one piece and would simply say, “Is that all folks?”

6. The lemon cheesecake at Mi Vida.

mivida dessert

Feeling anxious? Don Day has something better than prozac. It’s no coincidence that stressed spelled backwards is desserts. And sometimes you need an extra large dosage. Don Day recommends the lemon cheesecake at Mi Vida with so many pleasures on a single plate.

7. The peanut butter pie at Hecho en Mexico.

hecho en mexico peanut pie

Found a peanut. Found a peanut. Found a peanut one night. One night I found perhaps the best treatment of a peanut ever. Poy de cacahuates topped with chocolate syrup at Hecho en Mexico.

And one more recommendation. If you’ve reached an overripe old age like Don Day, eat dessert first. For life is so uncertain.

Raising the steaks. Finding the best inexpensive Mexican beef in San Miguel de Allende.

If Mexican cows had jobs they’d be fashion models. Because if you’ve ever driven past a Mexican cattle farm you know that Mexican cows are often not much more than skin and bone.

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Because Mexican cows are skinny cows they have little or no marbling (it’s those ribbons of fat that are the main influence on whether meat is tasty and tender). In addition, Mexican beef is rarely aged (the other big influence on whether it’s tasty and tender) So a lot of the meat you buy at a Mexican butcher shop can be almost as tough as the leather that some of the rest of the beast becomes.

Mexican beef is tough but definitely not tasteless. Mexican cattle are often still free pastured and seldom fed with supplemental corn. A diet of all grass and no grain gives the beef a taste that’s sometimes stronger (Don Day would use the word beefier if Don Day’s Wife wasn’t his editor and will probably remove it) and it’s often more interesting than U.S. or Canadian beef that’s finished on corn or barley or some other grain. So, for cheap cuts that are going to be slow braised in liquid, Don Day would always say save the money and don’t buy imported. Support your local butcher and definitely cook with Mexican beef. 

Steaks that are going to be grilled, broiled or fried in fat, though, are a different kettle of fish…sorry I guess that should be kettle of meat. In Don Day’s opinion (and I’m always very opinionated when red meat is the topic of conversation) there are only six types of steaks cut from Mexican cows that you should ever consider purchasing: Blade, skirt, flank, hangar, tri-tip and filet mignon.

Forget about buying T-bones, porterhouses, strip loins or rib eyes in Mexican butcher stores. In San Miguel de Allende, shop somewhere like Mega where you can buy excellent imported beef (but only in that tiny area in the northwest corner of the meat department) or, if you don’t mind frozen, at Carnevino where, even though the meat originates in Mexico, the cattle are finished on corn in a feedlot, the same way it is in Canada and the U.S.

This post though is not about these more expensive (and mostly more tender) cuts of steak. This post is about six other very flavorful cuts, five of which are among the cheapest cuts of beef you’ll find anywhere.

First, let’s get one recommended steak, the one that’s not inexpensive, the one that’s very different from the rest, out of the way.

meat cuts filet

Filet mignon (tenderloin).

This one is very easy to find and easy to ask for in a San Miguel butcher shop if you don’t find it. It almost always goes by the name filete, or occasionally, bistec de filete. It’s different because it’s the only Mexican steak cut that can still be sufficiently tender without any marbling or without tenderizing. I find the Mexican filet just as good as the U.S. but it’s not necessarily any cheaper (especially if you don’t mind the drive to Celaya or Queretaro to visit that somewhat loved, sometimes hated, but always respected Costco).

The other five recommended cuts of Mexican beef all are better with tenderizing, either by pounding or with a marinade. Don’t consider any of my recommended Spanish terms for the cuts conclusive because, as one friend remarked, “he’s totally effluent en Espagnol”, and different references say very different things about the names. Plus there doesn’t seem to be any consensus among the butcher shops I’ve frequented in San Miguel.

Tri Tip

Don Day had never heard of tri tip until he finally got California off his bucket list and actually moved there for a few years. When he left, he seldom saw it again outside of that state. Though many people consider this a roast rather than a steak, it can be just as good as a blade, flank, skirt or hangar steak, particularly if it’s marinated. And, because it’s usually cut thicker, it may be the best cut of all for treatment with a dry rub. I find it best to slice it before it’s served so guests aren’t awkwardly trying to cut it with the grain instead of against it and end up looking like grinning cows as they try to get their teeth through it.

Tri tip is one of the most difficult cuts to explain to a Mexican butcher and I’m guessing most butchers end up putting tri tip in the grinder. The most common Spanish term I’ve heard for tri tip is bistec de empuje but I’ve also heard punta en triangulo. Both terms, however, have also brought the head twisted to one side with one raised eyebrow look from Mexican butchers. The best plan may be to ask for la parte inferior del solomillo but it’s still going to be iffy whether you exactly get a tri tip. I also suggest using the word triangular (which is the same in English and Spanish) or even tri tip when you’re shopping; the butcher may have been through a similar exercise long before your attempt and may already know how to put a smile on a foreigner’s face.

Flank

Don Day’s favorite of all cheap cuts comes from the belly, just in front of the rear legs. It was orginally popularized in Paris bistros under the name bavette. Today, under its Mexican name arrachera, it also has an international following.

meat cuts flank

Now I must tell you that a lot of people (including some Mexican chefs and Mexican butchers) think that skirt steak is used for arrachera but Don Day thinks the best arrachera is made from flank. You’ll find arrachera on menus in the southern U.S., in Venezuela and in Argentina. The word arrachera often isn’t used until the cut has been marinated. Before it’s tenderized, the butcher might know it as falda which can be extremely confusing as falda means skirt in Spanish and (remember this is Don Day’s opinion) arrachera is a flank steak not a skirt steak. Flank can also go by the name entraña except entraña won’t be as closely trimmed, leaving a layer of fat that can actually help in the tenderness when it’s cooked. And there’s one more word Don Day has seen for flank steak in Mexico (but never in San Miguel) and that is ranchera.

The French seldom marinate their flank steak and flash cook it medium rare. I’d recommend that Mexican flank always be marinated.

Skirt and Hangar.

meat cuts skirt

These two cuts are both very difficult to find (or order) in Mexican carnicerias. After ten plus years of wintering (love using seasons as verbs) in San Miguel de Allende, I still find myself standing in front of butchers pointing to my oversized belly and blabbering in Spanglish, as I try to get the cut I want. The skirt and hangar are the two parts of a cow’s diaphragm that you’ll find in an area known as the plate. The skirt is at the top and the hangar hangs below it (hence the name).

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Don Day even researched the internet again today going to every translation site I could find looking for the right terms for skirt and hanger. All I could find were falda and arrachera. The best Spanish word I can give you to use at the butchers is diafragma but you’re still going to need a lot of luck. One of the reasons they are difficult to find in San Miguel de Allende is that most skirt and hangar gets cut up in strips for fajitas before it ever leaves the butcher shop.

Blade steak (chuck steak). I hummed and I hawed about putting this cut in but ended up not being able to stop myself. It’s a cut that even the most sophisticated butchers in Canada and the U.S. may not be familiar with. If you’re like Don Day was until very recently and had only heard the word blade used with the word roast and had only considered it as one of the best cuts to make a pot roast, think again. The Healthy Butcher in Toronto rates this cut as the absolute number one value of all steaks when it comes to taste versus price. They suggest the cut can be grilled without any tenderizing but Don Day thinks it needs a little help from a marinade (or a lot of help from a braising liquid) in order to sing “Love Me Tender”.

The problem with walking into a San Miguel butcher shop is, no matter what Spanish words you use to order it, it’s very doubtful that the butcher will have even heard of it. Blade steaks are located in the shoulder, just above the front legs, an area often known as the chuck. It is cut from the bottom part of the chuck (the slightly tougher flatiron steak comes from the top). Bistec corazon de diezmillo is the name one San Miguel butcher uses for the cut and punta paleta is another name I’ve heard used for the cut but you’ll be lucky if either one works and it might be better instead to describe where a blade steak is located to a butcher. And maybe also cross your fingers. On both hands.

Try a little tenderizer

Don Day has to emphasize the importance of tenderizing blades, tri tips, flanks, skirts and hangars and the best way to do it is with a marinade. The problem with marinades though is they can overpower the taste of the meat if the wrong ingredients are used or if the steak is left too long in the marinade. The arracheras you purchase in the supermarket, vacuum packed in a marinade can be very good but they can also taste like teriyaki sauce, papaya or some other dominating ingredient rather than beef. My recommendation is to prepare the marinade yourself.

meat cuts pineapple whole

The single best marinade ingredient is pineapple. Pineapples are a member of the bromeliad family and bromeliads have an enzyme called bromelain. Don Day only took first year chemistry (when luscious Linda switched to botany so did Don Day) so I can’t explain it with atomic numbers but nothing breaks down collagen like bromelain and, best of all, it doesn’t overpower the beef taste. I pick up my pineapples at San Miguel’s Tuesday Market (at the same time as I’m looking for $3 Hawaiian shirts with pineapples on them). Never ever, repeat never ever, use canned pineapple or canned pineapple juice; I have no idea why but it just doesn’t work.

You can add a lot of herbs and spices in your marinade or just let the beef do the talking. The following are the basic ingredients I would use for four eight ounce blade, tri-tip, hangar, flank or skirt steaks. 

1 cup of fresh pineapple juice
1/2 cup of honey
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Place the steaks and the ingredients in a plastic bag with a tight seal. Put on some old time rock and roll (rhythm and blues also works) and shake the bag around. Then refrigerate them for four hours. If it’s going to be longer before you eat the steaks, take them out of the marinade and rinse them off before putting them back in the fridge.

What butcher is going to give me the best chance of getting the steak I want?

Calle Colegio is butcher’s row in San Miguel with at least two carnicerias that will help you choose the best cuts of Mexican beef for steaks. Don Day thinks the very best San Miguel butcher though is La Nueva Aurora in Fraccionamiento La Luz. But it’s not exactly convenient for most people unless, like Don Day, you’re a regular at the Tuesday Market. From there, it’s only a couple of blocks away.

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Alberto, Aurora’s master of meat, has lots of simple charts on the wall as well as a binder with virtually every cut of meat illustrated and described which, if you’re patient, he’ll go through with you, page by page. But that doesn’t suggest he’ll have the exact cut you want in the display cases. He might, however be able to walk into the fridge, bring out a side and then cut it while you’re there. If not, he’ll almost always be able to get it for you within a few days.

Carniceria La Neuva Aurora is located at Durazno #24 in Fraccionamiento La Luz, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Where you’ll catch the best fish dish in San Miguel de Allende.

A few months ago, Don Day wrote a blog about Chef Boris Olvera creating a wonderful version one of his favorite fish dishes, pescado a la veracruzana. And though Don Day doesn’t get many emails, that day he got two. And both were raves about two other fish dishes that are available in two very well respected San Miguel restaurants.

So did Don Day rush out and sample them? No, Don Day didn’t. What Don Day did was delve a little deeper into the dishes.

The first was based on salmon but, unfortunately, it was salmon that had been farmed and frozen and Don Day prefers his salmon to have similar attributes to the women he prefers to dine with. Don Day likes his salmon wild and fresh.

The second dish was based on tilapia. In this case the restaurant didn’t know (they should have) whether the tilapia was farmed or wild or whether it was fresh or previously frozen. But statistically, there was about a 99% chance the fish was farmed. And Don Day doesn’t eat farmed tilapia. Not because farmed tilapia eat corn and soy rather than aquatic plants. Not because farmed tilapia are fed methyltesterone so that they grow fat bellies instead of sex organs. Not because farmed tilapia contain a lot of bad Omega 6 fatty acids and very little good Omega 3 fats. Not because Harvard University says farmed tilapia can have ten times more toxins than farmed fish. And not because a Wake Forest study said that farmed tilapia is worse for you than bacon.

Don Day doesn’t eat farmed tilapia because farmed tilapia is bland, almost tasteless and Don Day likes his fish to be rich in flavor and taste at least a little fishy.

Now if you’re a regular reader of Don Day in SMA, you’ll know that I don’t write about what I don’t like in San Miguel, I write only about what I like. And mostly only what I like a lot. So yes, today’s blog has a lining the same color as the skin of a fish. For today I’m going to tell you what I think is the very best fish dish in all of San Miguel de Allende.

mivida sign

Don Day is very fond of San Miguel restaurant Mi Vida but I don’t go there very often. Because often I look inside and it’s as empty as Don Day’s pockets after a Wednesday night at Cactus Jack’s San Miguel poker game. And, in Don Day’s opinion, ambience and atmosphere can only be fully achieved in restaurants that are, at the very least, half full.

It was no different the last time Don Day’s Wife and I went to Mi Vida. There were only two other diners in a restaurant that could probably seat sixty. But you can only go so long without Mi Vida‘s pescado entero del dia a la sal.

mivida room

Mi Vida is a beautiful and elegant room. It’s a little cluttered but still very classy. The tableware says quality. The napkins and tablecloths are the kind you hate to dirty. There’s an open airiness yet still a coziness. There is art that Don Day would be happy to have on the walls of his home (including a menu cover that Don Day thinks is the second best in San Miguel…Andanza is my favorite). And if you arrive on the right evening, you’ll catch some of the best live music in town.

But not everything is ideal at Mi Vida. The restaurant always seems to be lacking (and needing) a maitre d’. Once you get past the front door though, service is very precise and very efficient.

mivida interior

Mi Vida arrived in San Miguel de Allende about five years ago, taking over a space previously occupied by El Gallo, an ambitious attempt by Nirvana to open a second location. It’s run by two chefs Davide Garibaldi and Greta Ortega, he from Italy and she from Mexico. The catchline for Mi Vida is, appropriately, Italian Restaurant with a Mexican Accent.

Previously Davide and Greta cooked together in Playa del Carmen and, I suspect, used to occupy rooms other than the kitchen together. Today the partnership is strictly business and one of the reasons that it may work so well is because I seldom see both of them in the restaurant at the same time.

mivida greta

It was Greta who was there the last time we were there. She’s a fortyish woman with a model’s walk and mysterious cat’s eyes who, with her school ma’am hair always pulled severely back, reminds Don Day of Dorothy Malone in her brunette days in The Big Sleep. I suspect that, like the Acme Book Shop proprietor that Malone played in the movie, she looks much more stern and serious than she really is.

If you don’t know what that fish dish on Mi Vida‘s menu is let me tell you that I copied the exact words pescado entero del dia a la sal from their menu and, in the simple words of Don Day, it’s simply a whole fish baked in a salt crust.

Though it sounds very scary (“Oh what if it tastes so salty nobody can even eat it!”), fish in a salt crust apparently isn’t that difficult to make. You gut a whole fish and remove the gills and fins but not the head and tail (Don Day would of course leave the nasty prep parts to the fishmonger). Then you stuff it with some light and simple spicing. You mix coarse salt with egg whites and wrap it up and roast it. The only controversy I’ve ever heard about preparing the dish is whether or not you scale the fish (some say it lets too much salt into the flesh if you do).

What cooking in a crust of salt does is help retain the moisture, keep the flesh flaky and, for some mysterious reason, make the fish exceptionally flavorful. There are a number of dwellers of the deep that work well using this treatment. Traditionally Mi Vida has used robalo. During our last visit, huachinango or, in English, red snapper was the choice. The importance of any fish dish is freshness and, though it was a couple of years ago when I asked him, Davide Garibaldi told me he was sourcing his fish from San Miguel seafood shop La Isla. That’s the same supplier of choice for all of the fish Don Day’s Wife cooks at our home.

As you know, all good things are worth waiting for. And the same goes for fish in a salt crust at Mi Vida. For it is only done to order. And prep and cooking take about an hour. If you were much more organized than Don Day you might call ahead. But that means you wouldn’t have an hour to fill savoring other delights from Mi Vida‘s menu.

The dish also needs to be ordered for at least two people so you’ll need an agreeable lunch or dinner date (Don Day is often available). At a price of 390 pesos a kilo and a kilo sometimes being enough for three people, it’s not only San Miguel’s best tasting fish dish, it’s also one of San Miguel’s best priced dishes of any description.

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Most recently, we started by ordering wine. The wine menu is a binder with one of those chunky covers that are more familiar in steak houses frequented by people with slim suits and fat expense accounts. It has more pages than some restaurants have wines. There are some Italian wines from Piedmont and Tuscany that, with their 3000+ peso prices would require Don Day to have a suit-wearing job to afford them but there are also a lot of bottles at the Don Day less than 500 pesos level. Almost always, we would order a white to go with fish but Mi Vida‘s fish in a salt crust is flavorful enough to handle a red. The fact that Incognito, a favorite from the Valle de Guadelupe that is very hard to find, was on the menu sealed the deal. The wine combines cabernet sauvignon, grenache and tempranillo, has wonderful hints of blueberries and blackcurrants, and is priced at a very reasonable 330 pesos at Mi Vida.

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In addition to the wine we ordered water. The look of the bottle of Ciel that comes to the table unfortunately robs the table setting of a lot of its elegance.

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Accompanying the wine to the table was Mi Vida‘s tin box of breads that are baked on the patio by Mi Vida‘s third partner Pedro Escamilla in a wood fired oven.

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At the front of the restaurant, Sale Pepe sells some of the best artisan baked goods in San Miguel. Included in the tin were three different and delicious breads as well as grissini sticks. With them came good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping.

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For our the wait is killing me course, the one where we hum Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” we went with the appetizer that seems to have been added to more restaurant menus than any other in the last year. We went with the pulpo a la parilla, grilled octopus done in salsa verde, served with seaweed, giant capers, roast potatoes and almonds and walnuts still hot from toasting.

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“That’s very tender octopus”, said Don Day’s Wife.
“That’s a wonderful accompaniment to the tentacles”, said Don Day.

Maybe the server saw Don Day’s Wife checking her iPhone for the time; maybe he had a way to recognize a man who is salivating; for when the server returned from the kitchen he brought a little surprise course. Two slices of bruschetta arrived on an oval wooden platter.

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“Um good”, said Don Day’s Wife, after her first bite.
“Um very good”, said Don Day, after his second.”
“That could be the best bruschetta, we’ve ever had in this town”, said Don Day.
“That is the best bruschetta, we’ve ever had in this town”, said Don Day’s Wife.

The bruschetta isn’t on the menu but I presume, Mi Vida will make it for you. Or, you could just try checking your iPhone when the hour’s wait for the fish is almost up.

Don Day likes a little showbiz in restaurants. Don Day misses caesar salad being tossed at his table. Don Day misses cherries jubilee, crepes suzette, bananas foster and any other dessert that became endangered by the sensitivity of smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. So drumroll, please. And maybe a few French horns. Mi Vida‘s pescado entero del dia a la sal revives the showbiz tradition.

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A metal tray is carried in on the extended arm of your server and placed on a side table. On the tray is a lining of parchment paper and on that paper, just turning a rich golden color, is the package you’ve been waiting for. Only a few exposed tail fins indicate what’s inside.

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The server then proceeds to open the package, removing the top crust of salt and, with knife and fork, releasing the most delightful of aromas, expertly removing the flakes of white flesh from the bones and placing it on each plate. Salad greens and veggies are added and, with one final squeeze of lime, San Miguel de Allende’s very best fish dish is ready to touch your tastebuds.

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What makes it taste so good? An art critic might call it minimalism. There’s no sauce for it to hide behind. All you taste is very fresh fish. And that is one of the world’s great tastes.

Now this blog could end here. But it won’t. Because there’s a grand finale to the best fish dish in town. I’ll tease you with some of the words that came out of Don Day’s Wife while we were eating it.

“What a beautiful presentation!”
“We could be in the finest French restaurant.”
“That’s one of the prettiest desserts I’ve seen in a long time.”
“You know I’m not really a dessert eater but this is impossible to resist.”

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Don Day is not even sure exactly what the dessert is called. I think Mi Vida‘s servers simply refer to it as lemon cheesecake. But what an understatement. It goes miles beyond that. It combines lemon, chocolate and strawberry in wonderful proportions. There’s cake, meringue and preserves. The tastes all work separately and they all work together. And the presentation on the plate is a work of art that can compete with the art on the walls.

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Our dessert was preceded by a complimentary lemon sorbet and followed by complimentary cookies. It was a fairytale ending to one of San Miguel’s ultimate dining experiences.

mivida cookies

There are three restaurants in San Miguel de Allende that are totally dedicated to seafood. But if you suffer from pescadophilia. If you want the best fish dish in town. You need instead to go to an Italian restaurant with a Mexican accent. You need only two words to put the best fish dish in your life. Mi Vida.

Mi Vida is located at Hernandez Macias #97 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open on Monday and from Wednesday to Saturday, Noon to 10:00 pm; Sunday 1:30 to 10:00 pm. They are closed Tuesdays. The bakery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 8:30 am to 10:00 pm, every day except Tuesdays.

The woman who built the best restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.