Don Day always wanted to see the Hot Club of France. But the Hot Club of France disappeared from this world about the same time Don Day appeared in this world. So Don Day had to be content to listen to recorded forms of gypsy jazz instead.
The closest Don Day ever came to seeing the Hot Club live was not in Paris. Or Lyon. Or Nice. Or anywhere else in France. It was, in all places, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Because when Don Day closes his eyes, local musicians Pedro Cartas and Severo Barrera become Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, the heart and soul of the Hot Club.
Now I don’t know what the cover charge was to see the Quintet de Hot Club de France at La Grosse Pomme in Montmartre back in the thirties. But I do know what the cover is at Hecho en Mexico these days to see San Miguel’s reincarnation. The cover is ridiculous. It’s nada. A price that makes Hecho en Mexico on a Friday or Saturday night the best musical bargain anywhere in this town. Yes there’s a minimum. But it’s so small I can’t even remember what it is. And I know it’s quickly gone after Don Day has a couple of drinks.
After those couple of drinks is when Don Day closes his eyes, opens his ears to Pedro Cartas and Severo Barrera as they play Gabriel’s Oboe or Cinema Paradiso, and thinks there’s nowhere in this world I’d rather be. And Don Day really believes that the senses associated with food are enhanced when the ears are receiving similar pleasures.
Now, from Don Day’s experience, places that serve up good music are, traditionally, not places that serve up good food. But that’s not the case at Hecho en Mexico. And Don Day was reminded of that at the recent SMART Awards that recognize the best restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. In the competition, Hecho en Mexico finished fifth. Which is a superb score when you consider that San Miguel has more that 200 restaurants.
Now Don Day would never consider Hecho en Mexico to be the best restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Because Don Day does not judge restaurants the way normal people judge restaurants. Don Day is a foodie and foodies are strange beasts. I’ve just spent about ten minutes trying to come up with something original and witty to define a foodie but I couldn’t. The best I could do is to tell you that whenever they’re eating, they’re already dreaming about their next meal. And they’ll put up with some butt ugly surroundings and a wheelbarrow of crap from servers in search of imaginative, well prepared food.
Hecho en Mexico‘s menu is not particularly imaginative. It’s a north of the border influenced Mexican menu with dishes like fajitas, arrachera, enchiladas, ribeyes, chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, reubens and fish tacos. You won’t find more inspired Mexican dishes like barbacoa, carnitas, mixiote, or mole.
What you will find though is well prepared and I was reminded of that the last time I went to Hecho en Mexico to watch Pedro Cartas work musical magic on the violin strings.
Another part of the SMART Awards was voting for the single best dish in any restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Hecho en Mexico had a dish that received a lot of attention. It was their yellowfin tuna. And Don Day had never had the tuna until his most recent visit to the restaurant.
First though we had to warm up. Our friends Richard and Lorain had joined Don Day and Don Day’s Wife and, knowing about the portions at Hecho en Mexico, we decided we’d start with just one appetizer for the table, particularly since we’d already been nibbling…or make that devouring…the complimentary chips and salsa.
While Pedro Cartas was tuning his violin, we tuned up with deep fried calamari. The squid looked a little lost on the plate (plenty of calamari but too much plate) but found pleasure on the tongue. The batter was light and the texture of the calamari had just the right amount of give. Hecho en Mexico serves it with a marinara sauce which didn’t work for anybody at the table. Don Day would rather have his calamari with tzatziki or aioli or tartar or cocktail sauce but there’s an easy solution at Hecho en Mexico. The red salsa that comes with the chips makes an excellent calamari dip.
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” It was now just after 7:30 and the band had kicked things off with one of Don Day’s favorite Beatles songs. Don Day likes that the music at Hecho en Mexico starts, not in the dead of night, but in the early evening which is when Don Day likes his music to start.
Don Day had stayed away from the tuna entree because tuna is a fish that he underappreciates when it’s overcooked. And, though he’s embarassed to write this, Don Day admits it. He didn’t trust the restaurant to prepare it correctly. In fact, it wasn’t even Don Day that ordered it. It was Don Day’s Wife, who is much more trusting than Don Day. But of course there was a promise that we would share if it arrived as requested. The request was for it to be seared very quickly on each side and barely warm in the middle.
Much to doubting Don’s amazement, Hecho en Mexico did it suitably rare with a crispy crust. And then served it in Japanese fashion. With wasabi and pickled ginger and soy. Which is absolutely Don Day’s favorite way to eat sushi grade tuna.
It was definitely one of the very best dishes anywhere in San Miguel de Allende. And I haven’t even told you the best part yet. The yellowfin tuna portion is enormous. I’d guess about 200 grams or 8 ounces. And the cost? 155 pesos! Now Don Day pays his fish retailer in Toronto $88 a kilo for yellowfin. Which is almost twice as much as Hecho en Mexico sells it for. My Toronto fish market throws in a lemon with my order. At Hecho en Mexico, you get your choice of two sides and the rajas con crema and jicama salad were perfect partners to the tuna.
Don Day’s Wife, who thinks Don Day looks like Hecho en Mexico‘s guitarist Severo Barrera but Don Day doesn’t know if it’s a slur or a compliment (“because he doesn’t have hair or socks either”) called it, “a crazy amount”. And said, “I would cut it in half.” But I’m not sure the people from the neighboring table going home with the styrofoam boxes would agree.
Lorain ordered the Cobb salad which in addition to the mnemonic EAT COBB (egg, avocado, tomato, chicken, onion, bacon, blue cheese) included slivers of jicama for a slightly Mexican crunch.
“It’s the best Cobb I’ve ever had”, said Lorain, “and probably the biggest as well. There’s no way I’m going to finish it.”
Lorain, who is not exactly big on greens, with an assist to the official stats for Richard, did clean her plate.
Richard had no problem finishing his dish either, clearing his plate of charcoal grilled tilapia with mango salsa and neither did Don Day have trouble finishing one of his favorite dishes, pescado Veracruzana. The fish was a little soggy but it’s tough to keep tilapia firm when you’re baking it in a sauce that includes tomatoes. The french fries on the side were, on the other hand, nice and crispy.
Pedro Cartas was now soloing on Almendra and Don Day was dreaming of having hair and socks like him instead of Severo. Almendra is a song that makes Don Day want to dance, a song that makes Don Day very happy.
Don Day doesn’t like to be serious and solemn. Don Day likes to be humorous and happy. And he likes to dine with people who are happy. And he likes his servers to be happy. Because happy servers are almost always very good servers.
On the back of Hecho en Mexico‘s servers’ shirts are three words. Comida. Diversion. Espiritu. Those words…food, fun, spirit…are very appropriate for the restaurant and perfect for the servers because they appear to be devoid of attitude and seem to genuinely want to make Don Day and everyone else happy. Your water glass is almost empty? Here comes the maitre d’ who has spotted it from across the room.
Don Day goes to restaurants to be treated special. To be treated better or differently than he treats himself at home. Special comes in three forms. Food. Service. And ambience. Don Day can get great food and good service at home but he can’t get the ambience that live music brings. At Hecho en Mexico you get ambience plus. Not just the music but the surroundings as well. The restaurant is built around a courtyard with rugged stonework balanced against delicate greenery. If you remember to reserve, as Don Day sometimes does, you can sit front and center by the stage. If you want somewhere a little more secluded there are warm and cozy side rooms.
The last tune of the set was En Mi Corazon which might be the most passionate tune the band plays. We were now reviewing the desserts menu and, in Don Day’s and Lorain’s hearts, the sweet tooths at the table, the passion was for the poy de cacahuates and the creme brulee. The creme brulee was good, very good. The poy de cacahuates or peanut pie was even better. Now sometimes a peanut pie can taste like you stuck your finger in a peanut butter jar which is far too nutty for Don Day. This peanut pie was subtle. A nice hint of peanuts decorated with heavy cream and chocolate syrup. It fell just behind the yellowfin tuna as the best moment of the evening.
If Don Day could forget for a few minutes that he’s a foodie, he’d probably vote Hecho en Mexico one of his top five San Miguel restaurants like the voters at the SMART Awards did. But what if Don Day was an entrepreneur instead of a foodie, what would he do with Hecho en Mexico.
In that case Don Day would wrap Hecho en Mexico in a big box, put a bright red bow around it, and take it to Cleveland and Wichita and Sacramento and Utica and Saskatoon, perhaps even Paris, France. Because Don Day thinks Hecho en Mexico is the best restaurant concept in San Miguel. A formula that would work almost anywhere in the world. That’s why it’s always the busiest. At lunchtime, in the early evening and later at night. That’s why it attracts residents and tourists. That’s why it’s frequented by young and by old. It has a menu with something for everyone (even a foodie). It has people who seem to love what they’re doing. It has gypsy jazz that’s no one I know’s favorite music but it’s music that no one I know doesn’t appreciate. And it has those prices that border on the ridiculous.
Eating out used to be either about fast food or fine dining. But fine dining has faded from the food scene. And might have totally burnt out if it wasn’t for special occasions. Casual dining meanwhile continues to rise in popularity. Hecho en Mexico is the ultimate in casual dining.
Now Don Day can’t remember ever taking a picture of the bill when he left a restaurant. But when he left Hecho en Mexico, he had to. Because Don Day felt it might just have been the best bargain he’d ever experienced.
Dinner for four with three bottles of wine (my only excuse was it was a long evening) cost 1305 pesos or about a hundred U.S. dollars. I don’t think it would be possible to have such an enjoyable evening at that price in a restaurant anywhere.
No, Hecho en Mexico is not a foodie restaurant. But it’s still a great restaurant for a foodie. Because it has that secret ingredient that very few restaurants have. It has fabulous music.
In addition to those three words that appear on the back of the server’s shirts…Comida. Diversion. Espiritu.…there’s another word that Hecho en Mexico uses in its promotion. That word is orgullasamente. To say the same thing in English, takes only two syllables, proudly or with pride.
Now I’ve never met the owners of Hecho en Mexico but, whoever they are, all Don Day can say to them is you should be proud. Very proud.
Hecho en Mexico is located at Ancha de San Antonio in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant and bar is open from Noon to 10:00 pm, Sunday to Thursday and Noon to 11:00 pm, Friday and Saturday.