It started out like a lot of things in Don Day’s life. It started as an excuse for a party. An excuse to get together with some favorite friends, favorite foodies, and favorite foodie friends. An excuse to eat some special Mexican dishes, drink a few glasses of wine and listen to some good music.
And then, next thing we knew, we were hosting an awards banquet.
Don Day has always welcomed the opinions of his readers. Probably because they’re as good as, maybe better than, his own. He’d always thought of doing a survey of the people who regularly read his blog to discover which restaurants in San Miguel De Allende are their favorites. But then he remembered how much he hated filling out surveys (even when he used to get silver dollars for telling people what he watched on TV).
So why not invite all the readers to a party. Make sure they have a drink in one hand. And then give them a pencil and form for their other hand.
The event was on.
The first thing you need for an awards show is a name and not just a name but something that you can acronize (yes, it really is a word). Our choice was the San Miguel de Allende Readers’ Taste awards or the SMARTs.
The next thing we needed for an awards show was a venue. Don Day suggested the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion because that way he might finally find out who Dorothy Chandler is. Don Day’s Wife suggested La Frontera and reminded Don Day how much he liked the outdoor space there, how he liked their little bar, how the restaurant was big enough to seat everyone. And how much Don Day liked Noren Caceres cooking. La Frontera won.
The next thing we needed for an awards show was an emcee. Don Day suggested we invite Whoopi or Ellen because he thought that was who Don Day’s Wife would most want to meet. Don Day’s Wife instead suggested Hugh Jackman. Don Day got upset with Don Day’s Wife for always suggesting Hugh Jackman for almost anything or everything. We decided on no emcee.
Next, were the awards themselves. We decided on statuettes but were having problems deciding in whose likeness they should be created. When Don Day’s Wife again suggested Hugh Jackman, Don Day got upset with Don Day’s Wife and there were certain words that he regretted using. A decision was made to save a great deal of money and not give away any physical awards.
There were a few other details. We’d have a wine tasting as that’s always a good excuse to drink more wine (as if Don Day needed one). We’d have some prizes to help twist the arms being used to fill out the forms. And at an awards event, we’d have to have live music.
The event, the SMART awards, happened last Sunday.
We started with a wine tasting in an attempt to determine the best inexpensive white and red wines available in San Miguel. The results were surprising and interesting enough for Don Day to save for a totally separate blog or, then again, maybe even two blogs.
By now there was music coming from the patio. It was the low-key, rootsy, country/folk sounds of Billy Parker. Billy has a repertoire that echoes Don Day’s favorite songs of all time. He apparently didn’t start singing and playing seriously until he moved from Texas to San Miguel. “When I was already ancient”, Billy told Don Day. Thank goodness Billy didn’t begin earlier or he might have been “discovered” and be living in some pseudo Tara plantation called Parkerville in the suburbs of Nashville instead of sharing his music with us in San Miguel.
Next on the schedule was Chef Noren’s amazing Mexican spread. First on the buffet table was a caldo de camaron which combined shrimps in a light, refreshing red sauce along with an imaginative medley of fresh vegetables. Right after the soup came a spinach, beet and jicama salad with a vinaigrette made from jamaica or hibiscus leaves; tamales stuffed with huitlacoche; and panela cheese baked with chipotle peppers.
The ballots were starting to come in and there was a new sound coming from the patio. It was the not so low-key, not so rootsy, but punky rockabilly sounds of the group that La Frontera‘s Jerry calls The Headbangers. They made Don Day wish he could spike his hair. They made Don Day wish he could wear jeans that match the color of his Margaritas. They made Don Day wish he could play the stand-up bass. They made Don Day want to dance.
On the buffet now were the main courses. Pulled pork in chiles pasilla and pescado a la Veracruzana accompanied by cilantro rice with chayote, chiles poblano and peas plus refried beans topped with queso fresco and fried plantains. Veracruzana sauce is one of the best things you can do to a fish and Noren Caceres version which goes heavy on the sweet bell peppers was the best version Don Day had ever tasted.
Don Day collected the rest of the ballots while the guests finished the feast with what Noren called mango chimis and what Don Day would call a wonderful canole style pastry stuffed with mangos and topped with vanilla ice cream.
We said goodbye to some old friends, exchanged some email addresses with new ones and headed home to do the accounting. Don Day sat there with pencil, paper and adding machine while every one in the house had to, at least once, say “you should be using a spreadsheet”. Why I should have been using a piece of canvas that you put under a tent to count numbers I have no idea.
There were a few surprises.
The most surprising part of the whole voting to Don Day was not who got the votes but who didn’t get the votes. There are seven restaurants in San Miguel’s Centro that all compete for the luxury market amongst mainly tourists but also, hopefully, a few of the wealthier locals. Now even though the crowd gathered at La Frontera wasn’t the mink even on a warm night crowd, they weren’t exactly the impoverished either and Don Day could name at least five and probably ten that definitely carry a multi before their millionaire status.
Those seven upscale restaurants that I put up at the top of the special event, special occasion, splurge ladder are Moxi at Hotel Matilda, La Hacienda de Guadalupe, 1826 at The Rosewood, Patio 3 at Hotel Le Meson, Andanza at the Casa de Sierra Nevada, Dos Casas, and La Calenda at Hotel Nena. Now, of the almost 300 points that were awarded in the voting, exactly zero, nada, none, nil, zilch went to any of these restaurants. That’s right, not one single vote to any one of them.
Don Day thinks of these seven restaurants as The Magnificent Seven. Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and the rest of the guys, all fighting for a Mexican town. On Saturday nights, all of these restaurants are buzzing. At Sunday lunch, there’s still some serious hum. The rest of the week though they’re as empty as a politician’s promises. If they weren’t backed by a hotel business, I’m sure most of them would end up like another Magnificent Seven, the seven cemeteries of London, England.
I can come up with a few reasons for The Magnificent Seven not getting a lot of votes, lack of value for money being the main one. But no votes at all? Don Day is perplexed, yet, after three days of seriously thinking about it, I still have no explanation at all.
So let’s move from who didn’t get votes to who did get them. Of the 200+ restaurants in this town, only 48 received any votes. Of the 271 total points that were awarded, 139 were divided between only nine of those 48.
Don Day is now calling the nine the creme de la creme. Of those nine, there were five that Don would call the heavy, rise to the top cream. And there were four that Don would call the half and half, the light, or the coffee cream.
First the four on that second tier, all of which can be extremely proud of their performance when there are more than 200 restaurants on the playing field. In ascending order, from nine to six, the restaurants were Hansen’s, La Frontera, Olivo Verde and La Parada. No surprises there, at least not to Don Day.
And the creme de la creme? It was very close. There were only five points difference between number one and number five.
In fifth place was Hecho en Mexico with 17 points.
To Don Day, Hecho en Mexico has always been about the music and he can’t think of a better way to spend Friday night than listening to Pedro Cartas and Severo Barrera while eating at Hecho en Mexico.
Marshall Postnikoff agrees that it’s the entertainment that lures him, that and the “great food” including his favorite anywhere in San Miguel dish, Hecho En Mexico‘s grilled tuna. Richard Smerdon (thanks, Richard, for most of the photos in today’s post) also ranks the “huge portion” of grilled tuna as his favorite San Miguel dish and mentioned the “lots of choices” and “reasonable prices”.
For Winter visitors, the first and last places you eat at while you’re here say a lot about your tastes. Tom Cottreau said, “Every winter, on our first night in SMA, we have coconut shrimp at Hecho…love it!”
In fourth place, with 18 points was the restaurant that no one’s ever quite sure the name of, the place that a lot of people just call the Italian place at the flatiron. It’s official name, Don Day thinks, is Antigua Trattoria Romana.
Both Bill and Pat Harding ranked Antigua Trattoria Romana as their favorite restaurant. The reason? To Pat, “It just feels the most Italian.” To Bill, “I just love Italian food.”
Cactus Jack Jacobs also rates it as the best in town and cites the “consistently good food with professional service.” The pasta putanesca at Antigua Trattoria Romana is Jack’s pasta prima anywhere in San Miguel.
And Paige Vitousek simply stated that “Everything I’ve ever had there has been good.”
In third place with 19 points is another spot with a name that people are unsure of. Some call it The Restaurant. Some call it Sollano 16.
Annie Young ranks The Restaurant as the restaurant for her and mentions the great prices on appetizers. Don Day agrees that lunch at The Restaurant is one of the very best bargains in town with starters that please even the most sophisticated palate.
James Murphy’s top vote also goes to The Restaurant and James mentions the “creative menu”. There are four innovative dishes on that Asian-inspired menu that are on Don Day’s favorite things to eat in San Miguel.
In second place with 21 points was the Italian restaurant in Colonia San Antonio, Firenze. It’s another restaurant that’s been close to the top of Don Day’s list of favorites since the day it opened.
Craig Woods mentioned the great food and the great service and that the boneless short rib is his favorite thing to eat anywhere in San Miguel. Linda Knapp has another favorite dish at Firenze; hers is the squash ravioli.
The almost always succinct Bob Cumming said, “I like the food. I like the owner. I like the view of the church.”
And so we come to number one, the first ever winner of the SMART award for the most popular restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. With 22 points, La Posadita takes the crown.
Don Day has been sending guests to La Posadita for years but admits he hasn’t been there that much himself. The place obviously in in a great location, boasts one of the very best views in town and has service that’s a nice blend of casual and sophisticated. What Don Day found from comments on the SMARTs forms was it’s not just about the ambiance, a lot of people are very, very fond of the food at La Posadita as well.
Terry Weathers said, “Two of the primary reasons to move to Mexico are the Mexican cuisine and the ambiance. La Posadita has both in abundance.” Terry’s wife Chris said, “La Posadita has it all…view, service, good food and reasonable prices.
Molly Erickson mentioned the pozole. Molly’s husband Joe mentioned the huichinanga. Last night, when Don Day took some first-time San Miguel visitors to La Posadita, he ran into the Ericksons there; it was where they had chosen to spend their last night in San Miguel before heading home to Seattle.
As we sat there last night, I think I began to really feel some of the magic that the people at the SMARTs had written about on their ballots. I saw how full the place was on a Tuesday night, a rare sight in any San Miguel restaurant. The lighting in La Posadita shows the restaurant off beautifully and it was shared by the glow on the people’s faces. They all looked so happy, so content, they all looked…and I apologize if this sounds incredibly corny…like they were in love.
It’s no wonder La Posadita won the SMART award. It’s no wonder it’s San Miguel’s favorite restaurant.
I’m not sure there will ever be a second annual SMARTs award but I’m hoping so. La Posadita deserves all of the attention it can get.
La Posadita is located at Cuna de Allende #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from 12:00 Noon to 10:00 pm, closed Wednesdays.