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

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

Do you remember when Italian restaurants changed?

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

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

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

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

antigua exterior

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

antigua bar and child

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

antigua old chianti bottle

antigua michelangelo

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

antigua olives on window sill

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

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

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

antigua menu

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

antigua vongole

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

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

antigua bread

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

antigua last of the vongole

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

antigua chianti bottle two

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

antigua crowd

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

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

antigua sign

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

A trip to Asia. Without ever leaving San Miguel.

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

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

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

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

food factory logo

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

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

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

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

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

food factory aurora sign

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

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

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

food factory group at table

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

food factory blackboard

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

food factory lettuce wraps shrimp

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

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

food factory allen one

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

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

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

food factory ginger chicken last drop

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

food factory ginger chicken

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

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

food factory allen two

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

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

image

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

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

food factory clay pot

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

food factory group leaving

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

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

“And me too”, I added.

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

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

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

It was a woman who led me astray. Again.

But not with the usual wiles.

No, this time it was different. Very different.

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

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

image

It was art.

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

image

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

image

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

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

santos exterior wider

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

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

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

santos polo

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

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

santos pauk

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

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

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

santos pauk talking

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

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

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

image

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

image

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

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

image

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

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

santos band and crowd

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

image

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

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

santos the band

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

santos miguel

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

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

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

santos wall of posters

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

santos bar and crowd

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

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

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

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

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

smarts entrance to posadita

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

image

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

smarts david garza

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

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

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

smarts big crowd at tables

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

smarts tables at side

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

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

smarts applauding band

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

smarts dancing

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

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

image

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

smarts family dancing

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

smarts antonio and me

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

smarts antonio award

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

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

image

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

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

(with a supporting actor credit to Don Day)

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

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

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

The Brine

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

image

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

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

image

The Chili

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

image

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

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

The Topping

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

Sprinkle sparingly over the top.

The Accompaniments

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

The most disgustingly decadent sandwich in San Miguel de Allende.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

torta cubana torta munda

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

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

tortas cubana wide la rica torta

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

torta cubana other stand

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

torta cubana on board

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

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

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

torta cubana side view

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

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

tortas cubana better blocking view

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

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

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

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

torta cubana starting the pile up

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

torta cubana adding cheese

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

torta cubana no name whole

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

torta cubana cut in half

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

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

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

La Virundela. Rising from the mesquite ashes.

Love is lovelier, the second time around.

I always liked La Virundela. I always liked the owners. I always wanted the restaurant to be successful. But I always knew it wouldn’t. Because it was always missing the most important ingredient. As good as the place was, they neglected to tell anybody.

The restaurant had humble beginnings about five years ago in a little spot on Calle Codo. The place was cold, noisy, bright, bordering on bleak. And despite the restaurant doing some very good things to red meat, Don Day’s Wife declared that she was not going back.

“I want the food to dazzle me, not the lights”, was the quote that I reported back in my 2010 review of the restaurant.

I remember suggesting to the owners that a dimmer might be a fairly economical way to make dinner a little more appealing. But it seemed to fall on deaf ears. Or blind eyes.

A few months later, I was surprised to discover La Virundela had moved to an extremely attractive new location, a 19th Century house that absolutely oozed charm. The problem was they forgot to tell me. Or Don Day’s Wife. Or anyone else. Despite being an avid reader of virtually every form of media, I wouldn’t have known La Virundela still existed if I hadn’t stumbled on it by chance one night.

la virundela exterior

It was a Wednesday. About 7:00 pm. I was walking by the restaurant on my way to a poker game that I was about half an hour too early for. I thought I’ll go in, have a beer, maybe an appie, and perhaps suggest to the owners that they might want to blow their horn a little.

In a place that might hold fifty, I was alone. I suggested they could use some of the free social media to stir up a little business. But they never did. It was as if they’d seen one too many Kevin Costner movies and thought all they had to do was build it and people would come.

So imagine, a couple of weeks ago, how surprised I was to see a La Virundela ad in our local weekly, Atencion. And another on the online site San Miguel Events. The restaurant was hosting a special evening. There was going to be live music. The owners of La Virundela had finally got it. They’d finally realized that you don’t just have to have a good restaurant, you have to tell people you have a good restaurant.

But I should have known better. The original Argentinean owners were gone. In their place is a young Mexican woman and she’s the one telling people about La Virundela. Getting people to come to La Virundela. And, with fingers crossed, hoping they’ll come back over and over again.

Don Day’s Wife and I went back last week.

la virundela laila

The new owner’s name is Laila Murra. She hails from Torreon in the northern state of Coahuila. She has looks that celebrate her Palestinian heritage. Including a mane of chestnut hair. And a figure far to slim to own a restaurant. Perhaps because this is her first restaurant.

“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. Ever since I spent my summers working in my aunt and uncle’s restaurant”, Laila told me.

“I know that doesn’t count much as far as experience”, she continued. “But as long as I always remember that my main job is to make people happy, I can hire people to do the things I can’t do.”

One of the first things Laila Murra did was hire Chuchu Vasquez as the restaurant’s chef.

la virundela chuchu at stove

If I was going to hire a chef in San Miguel de Allende, I’d look for one of two restaurants on their resume. For more good chefs in this town have got their start at The Restaurant or Mi Vida than anywhere else. Chuchu has both of them on his. As well as stints at restaurants in Argentina and Italy.

la virundela courtyard

My friend Cheryl called La Virundela “absolutely beautiful” last week when we were discussing the restaurant. And it really is one of the best looking places where you’ll ever dine. The smell of orange blossoms and the sound of a babbling fountain greet you when you enter the courtyard.

las virundela interior

The dining room avoids the usual Mexican cliches. With its blonde wood furniture topped by pink scarves, glittering chandeliers and white walls graced with tasteful art, it is what you would expect more in a very upscale hotel.

la virundela menu outside

The menu at La Virundela has changed little since the first time we dined there (including a wonderful cowhide exterior). And that first time we dined there, we started with empanadas. Because that seems to be the way you should launch every meal in an Argentinean restaurant. That first time, the empanadas were good. This time they were better.

la virundela empanada

This crust was lighter, perhaps the lightest crust I’ve ever had on an Argentinean style empanada. And in my book, light is right.

The empanadas come with a choice of five different stuffings. Ours was stuffed generously with spinach and queso fresco and brought memories more of Greece than Argentina with its similarity to spanokapita.

“The flavor is simply amazing”, said Don Day’s Wife.

Plaudits too went to the balsamic that became more than decoration on the wooden plate. Chef Chuchu, who with his topknot looks like a Latin version of a sumo wrestler, reduces it himself, adding orange zest from the fruit that hung above our head.

la virundela trumpeter chardonnay

We had chosen the when in Argentina route with our wines, starting with a Trumpeter Chardonnay from Rutini Wines. Don Day’s Wife likes her Chardonnay unoaked and I was a bit worried when I heard that the wine had spent seven months in the barrel. The tropical fruit aromas that are common from oak aging were evident on the nose but, on the tongue, the taste was more of apple, keeping Don Day’s Wife and Don Day happy.

Next was one of those not sure of what you’re going to get from the description on the menu courses. Salada mixta.

“I really like a salad with a lot of things going on”, said Don Day’s Wife.

la virundela salad

And she got a salad she really liked. There were three different greens, cucumbers, baby tomatoes, goat cheese, almonds, dried cranberries, red onions and maybe even some other treasure buried near the bottom that I didn’t recognize.

The biggest foreign influence on Argentine cuisine has obviously been Italy. And you’d be hard pressed to find an Argentine steakhouse that doesn’t also offer pasta. Ravioli and gnocchi are both big favorites and it was half orders of gnocchi in a Bolognese sauce that came next.

There are almost as many recipes for gnocchi as there are Italians in Buenos Aires and the exact ingredients that go into the dish don’t really matter as long the end result isn’t heavy or pasty.

I pronounced the gnocchi as “little clouds of joy” and Don Day’s Wife gave high praise to the sauce saying it “rivalled Firenze‘s Bolognese”.

la virundela trumpeter malbec

It was time for steak and time for steak is time for red wine. We stayed with Rutini, stayed with Trumpeter, and went with the most Argentinean of any grapes, Malbec. Like the Chardonnay it spends seven months in oak and has cherries on the nose with the addition of blackberries, plums and a little pepper on the tongue. Plaudits to La Virundela for stocking a 375 ml bottle.

I liked the confidence of chef Chuchu when he said, “I’m going to cook the ribeye medium rare if that’s alright.”

la virundela steak on table grill

That’s what he said and that was what was delivered. Nicely charred, it was served on a little charcoal grill that enhanced the romance of sharing a dish and added a little showbiz and a little practicality as it kept the steak warm.

la virundela chef and rich

La Virundela has a big, brick and beam grill behind the dining room and a bread oven beside it that turns out pizza on Wednesday nights (that’s photographer Richard Smerdon reflecting in the mirror).

I’m never quite sure how much flavor you get from wood smoke but there’s definitely a hint of pyromania in every man and that certainly adds to the thrill of the mesquite-fired grill.

la virundela dessert

I was impressed by the artistic presentation of each plate throughout the meal at La Virundela and dessert was no exception. What we washed it down with was an exception. Something I’d never had before. And at 130 pesos a glass, probably only something I’d order after already sharing a bottle and a half of wine.

la virundela laila tannat dessert wine

Without seeing the label, I might have thought I was drinking port. In fact, it was Licor de Tannat. The wine had obviously spent a considerable amount of time in oak and has aromas of cherry and chocolate. I’ve enjoyed dry Tannat table wines from the Basque region of France and from Uruguay. It was a treat to experience it as a dessert wine that brings out all of the rich qualities of the grape.

So has La Virundela finally arrived? Are they now going to start filling those chairs with the handsome blonde wood grain? I’m not sure. Though they’re almost prime Centro, only half a block from the Angela Perralta Theater, La Virundela gets little walk-by tourist traffic. And there are two other Argentinean restaurants with much more street presence less than two blocks away.

la virundela sign

That advertising that La Virundela did was almost a month ago. And without continuing to flap their wings, without continuing the squawk, that rise from the ashes could quickly flutter out and bring them tumbling back to earth again.

There’s a tattoo on Chef Chuchu’s forearm. It’s in Italian but I think it translates as the best is yet to come. I hope so for La Virundela.

La Virundela is located at Hernandez Macias #48 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Telephone 415 152 4400. The restaurant is open Noon to 9:00 pm, Sunday; 1:30 to 10:00 pm, Tuesday and Wednesday; 1:30 to 11:00 pm, Thursday to Saturday.

La Frontera’s Chile Cookoff. Discovering that, like marriage, it’s a pairs competition.

With huge thanks to photographers Yannis Jan Dettingmeijer, Richard Smerdon and Philippe Visintini.

Though I’ve been called a real winner a few times in my life, I’ve never really won much in my life. Particularly in sports.

I made my little league baseball team. But everybody made their little league baseball team. I made my high school volleyball team. But you only went out for high school volleyball after you hadn’t made every other team. And then I mostly played a position that was sneeringly called “pine”. So, like almost every other man I know, I decided golf must be my game. And ended up decorating my hall closet with something that cost me three weeks salary and could have been occupied by a couple of cases of Chateau something that I couldn’t pronounce.

Then there were the sports I participated in that, for some unfathomable reason, some people don’t even consider sports. They require spending a lot of time in pool rooms, bowling alleys, casinos, horseshoe pits and card rooms. Most of them can be played with only one hand allowing for a drink (for proper balance, of course) in the other. And though I did get lucky and find a little extra money in my pockets some mornings, I never really considered them great victories.

image

Then, about a month ago, there was something in my inbox. It was an invitation to participate in a sport played by men in aprons. And, as I had some limited success participating in a sport played by men with brooms, I thought why not. Besides, in my only other time participating in this sport, in the very same arena, I had placed what I considered a reasonably respectable third.

Though there’s little chance that NBC will be reporting on the sport from Rio in 2016, we must remember that the sport played by men with brooms (but unfortunately no longer played by women in short, pleated skirts) took decades before it was finally sanctioned by the IOC.

That sport was curling. This sport was Chili Cookoff. The notice in my inbox came from La Frontera. And it was an invitation to compete in their annual event.

I said to Don Day’s Wife, “I think you should participate in the Chili Cookoff.”

“No you don’t”, she replied. “You think you should participate in the Chili Cookoff.”

I emailed La Frontera saying “I’m in.” But I knew I really should have said, “We’re in.”

image

The San Miguel Chili Cookoff held at the Hotel Real de Minas used to be the biggest social event of the year in this town. Then for some reason, three years ago, it was no more and nobody seems to know exactly why (despite Don Day’s exhaustive attempt at investigative journalism).

chili cookoff noren

Noren Caceres (the one in the photo) and Jerry Harper, who run La Frontera, the restaurant with comfort food that I love getting comfortable with, had what I thought was a bordering-on-brilliant idea. They wouldn’t try to totally replicate the cookoff but they’d run a mini competition, add some extra food and drinks, good live music and a party atmosphere. This year was the third annual La Frontera Chili Cookoff. I’m hoping it some day rivals the original event.

Now Don Day’s Wife wears the aprons in our family. But though she’s definitely the best person at preparing food, I’m definitely the best at watching TV shows about preparing food. I can even stomach three straight half hours of Guy Fieri’s ego on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

So, I thought, who have I been inspired by lately? And I thought of Doug Adams, one of the finalists on the Bravo show Top Chef that was filmed here in San Miguel. He had won the third to last episode with his Texas Red chile with brisket. That’s what I would make. But I would go one step further.

“Honnnnnneeeeeee, do you think if I brined a brisket, like you do for corned beef and pastrami, it would enhance the flavor of the meat in a Texas Red chile?”

“Sure it would, but you’d have to change the brine a bit or it will end up too much like corned beef.”

“Do you think you’d know what ingredients to add and subtract to make that happen?”

“I think so. Would you also like me to do it for you.”

“Ahhhhhh, Honnnnnneeeeeee, only if you really want to.”

Of course Don Day’s Wife wanted to. Because Don Day’s Wife knew that if I brined it and it turned out to be a disaster, she would still get blamed.

Meanwhile, I had spent a week researching the other ingredients for my Texas Red. I remembered a few years ago writing a piece that included the exact recipe for the chili that had won the world championship in Terlingua, Texas. I did a Google search for my name and the word Terlingua and there it was. I looked at the ingredients: Mild Bills Onion Granules, San Antonio Original Chili Powder, Sazon Goya, Mexene Chili Powder, Cowtown Light Chili Powder. You’ve got to be kidding? Even Bonanza, San Miguel’s little store with so much more, wouldn’t have any of these.

I went back to Doug Adams recipe and another one for Texas Red from a guy with a series on YouTube that I watch called Dude Food.

I liked that neither recipe used any store-bought chili powder. I liked the fact that John Stage, the Dude Food guy used ancho and pasilla peppers, two of my all-time favorite vegetables (and not just because they aren’t green), to get most of his chili taste and what I hoped would be, not a burn, but a warm afterglow.

image

One week before the event, off I went to the butcher (my job because of my fluency in parts of a Spanish speaking cow’s body). An hour after I got home, in went this huge plastic bag to the refrigerator, stealing a home from 24 beers. Last Saturday, out the bag came. And I spent an afternoon and a bottle of wine doing the prep. Or perhaps that should be we spent the afternoon doing the prep.

I said, “Would you like to show me which is the good fat and which is the bad fat so I can trim it?” She said, “Would you like me to do it for you? And I might as well cut it into bite-sized pieces while I’m at it.”

image

I said, “I’ll think I’ll just use salt and pepper to season the meat.” She said, “I think you should use nothing because the meat will already be well-seasoned from the brine.”

image

I said, “I’ll think I’ll use the aluminum skillet to brown the brisket.” She said, “I think you should use the roasting pan. It has a bigger surface area.”

I said, “Look at all of the wonderful juices the meat is swimming in.” She said, “I think you should be pouring them off. You’re boiling the brisket, not browning it.”

OK, enough. You get the picture. And I’m only through about the first 15 minutes of a three hour operation. But you already know who really made the chile, don’t you?

I headed out on Sunday at High Noon (isn’t that when most hangings take place?) by myself with my pot of chili, my ladle and hopes of not being embarrassed by my (or perhaps our) chile (depending on the results). I’m not sure if it was Don Day’s Wife’s hair or nails that was the excuse for coming later in the afternoon or the common knowledge that only men would stand around drinking beer while selling and telling people the secrets of something simmering over two cans of Sterno.

“I’m out of here, wish me luck”, I said to Don Day’s Wife. “Luck”, said Don Day’s Wife.

image

The standard uniform for a Chile Cookoff contestant is a guy who’s not sure if he’s going to a Jerry Jeff Walker or a Jimmy Buffet concert. And it seems essential to have a waistline that hasn’t seen the number 32 since the days when years started with a 1 instead of a 2.

image

And to have any chance of winning, the contestant has to have a name for his dish. Walter, who picks some fine Willie Nelson riffs, had almost as many hot peppers on his pants as he did in his White Chile of Death.

chili cookoff collier

Collier, who had won the only other Chile Cookoff I’d ever competed in, called his Southern Colorado Black Coyote. And had marinated his turkey in mezcal.

My chile didn’t really have a name just a number. It was Chile No. 5. Like Chanel No. 5. But does anyone wear Chanel anymore?

image

It seemed like forever as we sat around like guys outside of a liquor store on the morning after they turned the clocks back. And then, suddenly, the judges, who were anyone who’d paid what I consider the ridiculously low price of $200 pesos to get in, were heading towards us.

image

I enjoyed talking to the judges. They liked the fact that there were good size chunks of beef in my no-name chile. A couple of women said they thought it had “great color”. A guy who made it known he’d wasted way too many days at chili cookoffs thought I had “a chance of winning”. Another thought it tasted a little too much of tomato. One more said he liked the consistency (on one beer run, I bought an extra bottle to possibly thin the chili down but thought better of it and drank both of them). One guy thought my chili could have been a little more spicy. Then his wife corrected him.

chili cookoff wade and partner

I enjoyed the music. A lot. A little bit country. A little bit rock and roll. From guys like Van Engel. And Wade Ashley and Wendy. Plus a couple of guest spots. And four or five great back-up musicians.

image

I enjoyed hanging out with the other chili cooks. They were all of the “good old boy” variety. They all drank beer. A couple of them sang along with the band. They all shared serving cups and spoons when the other guys ran out. They all retried each other’s chili. And they all finally stood very erect and still. The winners were being announced.

chili cookoff tom and patrick

Third prize went to number seven, Tom and Patrick’s chile. Tom went up to get the gift wrapped cazuela of goodies. Probably because Patrick had already been winning most of the day in an intense game of cribbage.

chili cookoff nate

In second place was number three, Nate, despite the fact that he’d lived dangerously and included beans, an ingredient, I’m told, that can lose you the Texas vote.

chili cookoff bill #3

So who would get the giant cazuela? I was thinking number two, the guy I’d voted for. I liked Bill’s chile, the one with all those piquant poblanos. But as I sat at a table with Don Day’s Wife and my friends I must admit I was hoping Bill wouldn’t win.

image

“And the winner of the third annual La Frontera Chili Cookoff is number five.”

Number five? Oh my God, I thought, that’s me.

And then I did something really stupid. I danced up to the stage. And, no matter how bad my dancing may be, the dancing wasn’t even the stupid part. But I didn’t realize it.

image

I floated back to our table with an ear to ear grin. And didn’t even sweat the fact that I was lugging a 20 pound cazuela filled with goodies. And everyone at the table was looking at me. Staring at me. Because they all knew.

I had forgotten to take someone with me to the stage. The person I should have acknowledged as the heart, soul and inspiration of the winning chile at the Cookoff. The person who, let’s face it, really made it.

Don Day’s Wife had that look on her face. That look I usually respond to by saying, “Honey, can I get you another glass of wine.”

When I returned she was surveying the bounty in the bowl. And setting a giant wooden spoon aside.

“Are you ready to go?”, Don Day’s Wife said, in that voice that let me know she was very ready to go, carrying the spoon over her shoulder as we headed out to Stirling Dickinson Street.

image

“Bend over”, she said, “and tell me, if by some slim chance you ever get there, how many people are going to that world championship in Terlingua?”

La Frontera is located at Stirling Dickinson 28, in Plaza Pueblita, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Monday to Saturday, Noon to 8:00 pm. Noren Caceres makes a fine chile that could probably win any Cookoff contest.

Fairy tales do come true. At Firenze.

Once upon a time, there was a handsome man named Antonio. He went for a walk in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and soon came upon a building. He said this might make a good restaurant. But the space turned out to be too awkward and too small.

So Antonio went for a second walk and found another building and again said this might make a good restaurant. But the restaurant turned out to be too far away and too big.

So Antonio went for a third walk and found another building and again said this might make a good restaurant. And the restaurant was not too big, not too small, not too awkward, not too far away. The restaurant was just right.

firenze syrah new sign

Firenze, the third edition, is a very special edition. Chef and owner Antonio Delgadillo has found a very manageable space, very close to the heart of San Miguel, with an elegance that perfectly matches the elegance of the food and service.

And now, there’s even a sign out front, a very classy sign carved out of cantera stone that heralds the handsome interior that awaits inside.

firenze syrah antonio drinking

I was at Firenze a few days ago helping Antonio Delgadillo review some new potential wines for the restaurant’s list (if you write enough about something, people might actually think you know something about it). Joining us were Don Day’s Wife, fellow wine enthusiasts Chip Swab and Antonio Tovar, and Alina Morales and Rosario Arvizu from Queretaro’s The Wine Stop.

firenze syrah the group

Antonio was pairing each of the wines with some of Firenze‘s most celebrated dishes, ones that over the last few years have made the restaurant one of the most respected and cherished in San Miguel.

firenze syrah burrata

The burrata that was served with sweet grape tomatoes, prosciutto, arugula, balsamic vinegar and olive oil was “simply exquisite” according to Don Day’s Wife. I’m not sure there’s a better starter in San Miguel with every ingredient complimenting another.

firenze syrah antonio and alina tasting

Some great wines were poured. Including a magnificent Amarone with a duck ragu and a rare Aglianico with a beef tenderloin bathed in a summer truffle sauce. But both of those wines had that nasty extra digit on their price tag that would prevent them ever being ordered by Don Day.

firenze wine stop robalo

The wine I got most excited about though was the one with the seafood course, featuring the ever-increasing-in-popularity robalo, a fish that, sadly for those living in my other home, in Toronto, currently registering -23 degrees, is impossible to get. Antonio paired it beautifully with scallops on a bed of creamed leeks. The wine was a red, a red light enough to go with fish but not too light that it wouldn’t work with poultry or pork.

firenze syrah aimery bottle

And why did I get so excited. It was because it brought back fond memories of the wines I drank when I first started to drink wines. And even more important…or is it more importantly…it was a wine I could afford to order the next time I go to Firenze.

When I first got into wine, it had to be French. And, if you had money it had to be Bordeaux or Bourgogne. Or, if you didn’t, it had to be Rhone. I chose the wines from the Northern Rhone. Wines that were usually made exclusively with the Syrah grape.

They had names like Cote-Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint Joseph, and Saint Péray. I used to like to say those names, especially hairrrmeetaaaaaaj. But those are names I have never ever said in San Miguel de Allende because those are names I’ve never seen in San Miguel de Allende. And it’s just as well. For those names now command the same big prices as Burgundies and Bordeaux.

firenze syrah aimery label

The Syrah we tasted at Firenze comes from further south in France. An area called the Languedoc that is the source of most of the best bargains in France these days. The wine is called Aimery and it’s made by La Cave des Vignerons du Sieur d’Arques. There are flavors of blackberry, with a touch of pepper and a hint of mint.

I was walking down Recreo a couple of days after the tasting and Antonio Delgadillo was walking up with an armful of flowers (we forget all the things chefs might have to do before they even get to work). I asked Antonio if we was going to stock Aimery Syrah.

“Yes. For sure. I’m just about to order it”, he told me.

Once upon a time there was handsome man called Antonio who had a little restaurant with very few wines available. Then Antonio moved to a new and bigger location and there were more wines available but they sometimes weren’t the most inspired choices. Then, finally, Antonio moved to a very nice, very convenient, middle sized location and, even though the selection wasn’t very large, there were enough good, well-priced wines available to make at least one of his customers very happy.

Don’t you just love happy endings.

Sieur d’Arques Aimery Syrah is now being poured at Firenze for $80 pesos a glass or $390 pesos a bottle. Firenze is located at Recreo #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 1:00 pm every day except Sunday. If you are interested in purchasing Aimery Syrah directly, by the case, you can email Rosario Arvizu of The Wine Stop at rosario.tws@hotmail.com.