Once in a while I look at Trip Advisor to see what the real people like. Not food obsessed people like Don Day. But people who simply go out to restaurants for a tasty meal at an affordable price in pleasant surroundings. I was little shocked at the San Miguel de Allende restaurant that currently occupies number one on the Trip Advisor hit parade. Thinking about it though, I shouldn’t have been. The top rated restaurant in San Miguel is a quiet, unassuming, unpretentious spot that consistently serves hearty portions of traditional Mexican fare at fair prices.
I decided I’d revisit the restaurant and review it again next week. Then I thought again. The restaurant has never really changed much over the first few years and probably hasn’t changed much recently. So why not just republish what Don Day wrote a few years ago, shortly after the restaurant opened. I’ve changed a few things, particularly references to other restaurants that are no longer with us, but otherwise, most of what’s there is, hopefully, all still quite relevant.
Don Day has spent years trying to figure out what makes certain San Miguel restaurants successful while others disappear quickly into the town’s thin air. I’ve narrowed it down to seven factors: Food. Service. Value. Ambience. Promotion. Location. And, perhaps most importantly in the case of some restaurants, FOH.
FOH is an acronym for front of house, the restaurant industry lingo for the person in charge of almost everything except, usually, the kitchen. The FOH’s duties can vary considerably and are usually quite extensive but, often, the most neglected part of their job is charming the customer. In Don Day’s opinion (and he realizes it’s not everybody’s), it’s one of the most important factors in the success of a restaurant.
San Miguel de Allende has had some truly great FOHs. After just two or three visits to Hansen’s, you begin to think of Dick Weber as a personal friend. Bob Thieman at Hank’s is the definitive glad-handshaker; perched on his high stool at the VIP host table, he always seems to have one eye on the entrance, ready with his “great to see you again” welcome. Antonio Delgadillo at Firenze is usually there upon arrival with a kiss on the cheek for Don Day’s Wife and always makes a couple of glancing but memorable personal appearances at your table. Now, a new contender has thrown his toque into the ring. There’s a new front of house man with a restaurant that I predict is going to be around for a long, long time.
The FOH is Gerardo Arteaga. The restaurant is MuRo. That’s Gerardo on the left. That’s his business partner, Carlos MuRo on the right.
Six of the gentlemen who lunch…OK, make that the guys who eat too much…ambled over to MuRo this week to see if the place was as good as the talk that was going around town. A man, dressed in a crisp white shirt, perfectly pressed pants, a soft as a kid glove leather jacket and shoes with a just left the jardin sparkle met us at the door. It was Gerardo. I checked the garb and thought this guy could give the white-on-white shirt and silk-backed vest look of Bob at Hank’s a run for the money.
After shuffling some tables to make sure there was enough room for our ample girths (we’ve decided to watch our heights instead of our weights), Gerardo brought us the breakfast menu (it was just after Noon). As none of us have quite got into the Mexican custom of la comida at 2:00 pm, he replaced them with lunch menus.
The menu was what I’d call typical Mexican with very little of what I call gringo grovelling; I liked that. The menu had excellent English translations; that kind of kowtowing to expats and tourists is not only acceptable but very advisable.
Cliff wanted to start with a sopa de tortillas. I suggested we all start with sopa de tortillas. It’s a dish that’s very easy to prepare so it has to be especially good to impress. The rest of the guys agreed to la sopa (most of the guys are married and have years of training at being agreeable).
The soup had a pleasant peppery tang probably coming from both ancho and pasilla chiles. The tortillas were good and crispy (soggy tortilla soup is worse than soggy salad). It had a nice avocado and cheese garnish. But there was one problem: the broth just wasn’t hearty enough; I wanted more chicken flavor. Not a bad start though.
Throughout the course, Gerardo was supplementing the waiter as an attentive FOH should, refilling coffee cups and iced tea glasses, and replenishing napkins (we tend to slurp a lot).
I like a restauranteur who’s proud of what he serves. I want him to tell me what I should be eating even without me asking. Our host obliged. His strongest recommendation was for the chile en nogada. I’d had it a couple of days before but Gerardo’s enthusiasm was such that Art, Bob and Don went immediately for it.
Richard asked about the menu del dia special (a bargain at 99 pesos for three courses and a beverage). It was albandigas de res en chipotle but, after Gerardo pronounced the spice level of the meatball sauce at a six out of ten versus a one out of ten for the spicy salsa that came with the warm rolls that had been placed on the table, Rich decided they might be too much for his terminally tender tummy. Make that four chiles en nogada not three, por favor, Gerardo.
MuRo’s chile en nogado might be the best I’ve tasted in a San Miguel restaurant. Art said it “brought a brand new meaning to Mexican food”. Bob liked the fact that it was served warm rather than the traditional room temperature.
Cliff chose the pescado empapelado, a dorado served with an orange, lime and tangerine sauce. Dorado goes by a lot of different names; Don Day likes the Hawaiian one, mahi-mahi and dislikes it being called dolphin (because it’s not). Dorado is a pleasant but gentle-tasting fish that was a bit overpowered by the sauce. The dorado was wonderfully fresh though. Gerardo told us that, two days before it was swimming in the fruit sauce, it had been swimming in the Pacific.
Don Day wanted to see what the restaurant would do with an original dish and selected Chile MuRo. It was a poblano pepper stuffed with baby corn and zucchini and covered with a fresh garambullo and fig sauce. Yes, Don Day had to ask Gerardo what garambullo was. It’s the fruit from a tall (16 feet according to Wikopedia) cactus that grows around Puebla and Oaxaca.
The stuffing in the poblano was fine; the sauce was exceptional. The best comparison I can give for the taste of garambullo is gooseberry. Combined with fig, it was almost like an Asian sweet and sour sauce. Very original. Very nice.
A good FOH must not only serve but must also have the ability to entertain. As we contemplated dessert, Gerardo charmed us with a tale about a woman who was in town learning Spanish and became one of Cafe MuRo’s best customers. It appeared that her ability to pick up the more colorful language of the street was much better than what she might have been learning on Rosetta Stone.
For dessert, pastel tres leches was Gerardo’s recommendation. The cake was done in the lighter style (without butter I was guessing) and the three milks (evaporated, condensed and heavy cream) were all present in the taste.
MuRo has now been open for eight months. For the three years prior to that, Gerardo Arteaga and Carlos MuRo ran the karaoke bar, MuRo. The bar used to unlock its doors around the same time that Don Day locked his so he never went up to Plaza Primavera to embarass himself by doing his Sid Vicious version of “My Way”. Gerardo, a former lawyer and Carlos, a photographer told me the late hours were a big decision maker in getting out of the karaoke business.
MuRo is a quietly simple place that’s obviously been done on a sensible budget. Warm orange walls and Carlos’ photography add a coziness to the main room that holds about 30 max for breakfast and lunch. An adjoining room is used as a gallery to show Carlos’ work as well as that of a guest artist that rotates (that’s the art not the artist that rotates) monthly. In another room, there’s a gift shop with a rather uninspiring inventory.
Before we leave, Gerardo gives each of us a frequent visitor card with our own personal number on each one. Don Day will be going back to MuRo. Often. Not because of the promotion card but because I’m confident Gerardo Arteaga will make sure I’m a very welcome guest. I’ll feel like he has invited me into his home and is going to take the very best of care of me while I’m there. And I’m sure his home is going to be one of San Miguel de Allende’s better restaurants for a long time to come.
MuRo is located at 10B Loreto (close to the Biblioteca). They’re open from 9:00 to 4:30. Closed Wednesdays.