There are some things in Mexico that are habits, customs, traditions. And after spending a few winters in Mexico, Don Day has become accustomed to these customs. Because Don Day likes them. Especially the ones that happen on Sundays.
Though Mexico has the second largest Roman Catholic population in the world (behind Brazil), fewer than 5% of the more than 100 million Mexicans who are categorized as Roman Catholic in the most recent census regularly attend church on Sundays. Many Mexicans are instead attending restaurants where, in the late morning, they traditionally consume pozole or menudo or, in the early afternoon, paella.
Paella has always been a bit of a problem in San Miguel de Allende. In the ten years that Don Day has been fattening himself up in San Miguel, restaurants that serve paella have come and gone like one hit wonders on a pop chart.
When Don Day left San Miguel last April, he had a favorite paella restaurant called La Bodega de Chu but when he returned in late January and checked it out, the doors were locked. He had heard that the new restaurant at the corner of Umaran and Zacateras served paella on Sunday but it didn’t even appear to be open on Sundays. There was a sign outside another restaurant on Salida a Celaya that suggested they specialized in paella but, when Don Day checked it out, it was very dark inside. So where to go last Sunday?
Well Don Day believes in advertising and Don Day had seen a sign on Canal (that’s a street in San Miguel not a place to punt your gondola) advertising a new place for paella on a Sunday. It was in the Plaza Principal, in the former home of Bella Italia, where Don Day had spent many a night years ago not for the sauces but for the sounds of local musicians Gil and Cartes. The new place was called La Choperia and Don Day has just enough Spanish to know that this was not a place that serves lamb racks, beef ribs and pork chops but a place that serves one of Don Day’s favorite beverages. Una choperia is a place that serves draft beer. It’s probably from the Alsatian word schoppe which, I think, also means draft beer. Now you would think in a town of 100,000 plus people, draft beer would be easy to find. But you’d be wrong.
So why? Well to a simple mind like Don Day’s, it’s tough to understand. Restauranteurs talk about the influence of the breweries and their power in Mexico. How, if you want furniture for your restaurant or a cooler for your beer, umbrellas for the patio, or even a licence to serve alcohol, no problem, the brewery will give it to you. Problem is, there are basically only two breweries in Mexico, Grupo Modelo and FEMSA and they control what seems like 99% of the beer biz in this country. And once they start giving you coolers or draft taps, understandably, they give you rules about what you can put in them. Unlike some Canadian or U.S. Bars that specialize in beer on tap, where it’s not unusual to get a choice of five…maybe even ten…different draft beers, in Mexico, the most you usually get are two. One will almost always be a clara, a clear beer, and the other a negra or obscura, a dark beer, with both coming from the same company.
Now Don Day likes…no, make that loves…beer. And especially draft beer. He likes to drink a considerable amount of beer on approximately two nights of each and every week that he spends in Mexico. It’s beer that helps Don Day think he can dance. Especially when he’s singing along with Kenny Chesney.
So, I’ll just sit right here and have another beer in Mexico
Do my best to waste another day
Sit right here and have another beer in Mexico
Let the warm air melt these blues away
So Don Day obviously welcomes a choperia to San Miguel de Allende.
We arrive at La Choperia around a quarter to one, hoping that it opens a little earlier to suit the expat style of eating brunch on a Sunday. But no, it has Mexican hours and opens at one which, as strangers in a strange land, we cannot quibble with. What we do find frustrating though is that paella isn’t served until two.
The restaurant is not a lot different than it was when it was Bella Italia except that the stage is gone. The long bar, a bar that Don Day always liked, is still there. Some historic photographs have been added showing the early days of draft beer production in Mexico, all of which seems to have come from Grupo Modelo who makes Corona, Pacifico, Modelo, Victoria and Leon and all of which have kissed Don Day’s lips. The furniture has been replaced with tables bearing a beer company’s logo, in this case again Grupo Modelo. But this is not the usual molded plastic beer company furniture, this furniture is made of wood; it’s sturdy and comfortable. It looks like the aim has been to create a restaurant/bar that fits into that area between gourmet and fast food, what’s known in the industry as casual dining and somebody has done a very good job.
A giant aluminum paella pan, about four feet in diameter, sits rather majestically in the middle of the room, presided over by a chef and servers in handsome red, black and white outfits. Don Day always wonders why casual dining restaurants in Canada and the U.S. don’t dress their servers in butcher’s aprons. They look good.
The paella is 99 (not 100) pesos, is for a measured 400 grams, and includes a glass of wine, beer or soft drink. Lots of chain style marketing going on here. That’s usually good for a restaurant and sometimes good for their clientele.
Don Day’s Wife orders her paella with a glass of white wine. Don Day orders his paella with a draft beer. The choice of draft is the expected clara or negra with both coming again from Grupo Modelo.
The paella is a paella mixta which, in Don Day’s old Spanish days, usually meant that the restaurant was going to put a lot of the previous days’ leftovers in it. These days, in Mexico, paella mixta simply means there’s going to be a lot of different ingredients in it.
There were. La Choperia‘s paella includes mussels, clams, shrimp, octopus, chorizo and pork belly all in very generous quantities. Don Day has even been known to score his paella, in part, by counting the number of each ingredient. The paprika-laden chorizo was especially good, especially when you consider it’s not unusual to get those little cocktail wienies in a lot of Mexican paellas. And the pork belly was a real treat as it’s very rare that you’ll find it in any paella.
We had the usual complaint about almost any paella we eat. “The mussels and clams are overcooked”, said Don Day’s Wife, “but I don’t know how you avoid overcooked ingredients in a paella.”
Some people like their paella rice to be moist. Other people like the rice to be fluffy. Don Day likes his paella rice greasy and La Choperia‘s was. Don Day’s Wife also liked the texture which means it was greasy in a good way, with nice fats coming from the chorizo and pork and a generous amount of olive oil being splashed on it.
Now some people also measure their paellas by the amount of saffron that goes into it. Well unfortunately Don Day can’t tell you how much goes into La Choperia‘s. For despite decades of paella training, I can never be sure whether it’s saffron or tumeric or safflower or something else altogether that’s gone in to the dish. Though he hates to admit it Don Day, in fact, can’t even describe what saffron tastes like.
What I can guess is that with saffron going for over 30,000 pesos a kilo, there wasn’t much in a 99 peso paella. What’s important is that, whatever went into the paella, it was very well spiced. To both Don Day’s and Don Day’s Wife’s taste.
We took a look at the regular menu while we ate. Like the rest of the place, the graphics are very slick and professional, the kind of thing, once again, you’d only expect from a chain. Could it be, we asked ourselves, that this was in fact a corporate or franchise operation that we’d never heard of.
The menu items were again representative of casual dining. Starters included calamari, buffalo wings, shrimp tacos and cajun fries. There were pizzas, pastas, fajitas and steaks. And what looked like their signature dish on days other than Sundays is the hamburger. At 97 pesos, it’s pricey by San Miguel standards. But it does include bacon and cheese as well as french fries and, from 1:00 to 5:00, Monday to Friday, there’s a two-for-one deal. If the burger is as a humongous as the one on the placemat, it’s a great deal and, as Don Day is always on a mission to find great burgers, we vowed to come back and try it (but only during those two-for-one times).
There’s lot of slick marketing on the drinks menu as well. Cocktails have names like the cucaracha, lamborghini, astronauta and submarino all of which, despite Don Day’s vast experience, he has never tried or even heard of. Drafts are sold in five different glass sizes plus a 2.5 litre Grupo Modelo dispenser that the guys at the next table, sat in front of the Grupo Modelo stained glass window, were chugging their way through.
We needed one more glass of wine and beer to wash down the last of the paella and the cost of the wine either seemed a little overpriced or accentuated the value of the paella. At 70 pesos for the glass, that meant the portion alloted to the big plate of paella would only be 29 pesos.
By now it was a little after 3:00 pm and a singer/guitarist was serenading us from the corner. We were obviously wrong about it being important to have the paella ready in the early afternoon for as I looked around I realized the place was quickly going from very empty to very full. I also noticed something else. There was even more Grupo Modelo logos in the place. On the overhead lighting. On the light sconces. Though it was all reasonably tasteful, it was a bit much. I was beginning to suspect Grupo Modelo owned La Choperia. Maybe it was a franchise or corporate chain.
Though Don Day avoids chains like he does loud people (unless they’re singing), he respects that places like Applebee’s, PF Chang’s and The Olive Garden are among the most successful restaurants in the United States and knows that they are, obviously, what most people want.
One thing didn’t make sense though. Why would an independent restaurant or bar owner located close to La Choperia stock and sell Grupo Modelo beer if they were also his competitor? Surely the strength of the Mexican breweries can’t be that mighty.
La Choperia is located at Plaza Principal #8 (which runs between Canal and Hernandez Macias) in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is open from 1:00 pm, seven days a week.