It’s been a tradition in Mexican restaurants since the first day I walked into one. It was back in 1974. In Toronto. It was called The Peasant’s Larder. It was where the Carlton streetcar bent around and down Parliament Street. In the days when Cabbagetown was still dodgy.
We’d sit down at the table, order our margaritas, and the server would bring corn chips and two different salsas. Absolutely free.
I remember one Saturday night walking from The Gardens after a Gene Pitney concert. We sang “24 Hours From Tulsa” to about Sherbourne Street. And then “Only Love” the rest of the way.
It was already after eleven when we arrived. Too late to be served alcoholic beverages in Toronto The Good. We ordered tap water, perhaps as our personal protest to the arcane drinking rules. And wondered what would happen if we ate all the chips and all of those extra spicy red and not so spicy green sauces and announced we were full and calling it a night. Would they try to charge us? And how much?
I’ve had my fill of free chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants over the last 40 years. Because I still find them irresistible. But I really don’t want to be three quarters full before my food even arrives.
Except when I go to El Arbol.
A couple of weeks ago, Don Day’s Wife and I joined a gym. Though we weren’t exactly sure what it meant, we had decided to become svelte. Until we realized there was a serious complication.
About 100 treadmill steps from our gym is El Arbol. And El Arbol serves the best before you even order freebies that I’ve ever had in a Mexican restaurant. And, praise The Aztec gods, it’s not chips and salsa.
Shortly after you sit down, a woman named Marisol, who’s about 4 foot 11 and 3/4 inches in height but stands very tall in comparison to most every other server in this town, will hand you the menu. About four minutes later she will return carrying a basket. About one minute after that, she will return carrying a small bowl and a slightly larger bowl.
In the napkin lined basket will usually be, no not tortillas, but some very north of the border bread rolls. Rolls that are almost east of the Atlantic for they even have favorable similarities to French croissants. And when they arrive they’re hot. Burn the fingers hot.
In the little glass bowl will be butter. Butter good enough for Don Day’s Wife, who is an absolute stickler for the best butter. And it will be refrigerator hard as Don Day’s Wife says all butter should be when it arrives at a table.
And then there’s the star of the show. In the slightly larger bowl is something that has me chanting “gitchi gitchi ya ya da da”. Singing my favorite Patti LaBelle song. In the other bowl is the best marmalade I’ve ever had in my life.
Now I grew up with good marmalade. Marmalade that came in imported Chivers, Baxters and Robertson’s jars with Olde English type styles and By Appointment To Her Majesty logos. Marmalade with citrus rind but not as much as this? Thick cut marmalade but not as thick cut as this. Marmalade that combined sweet and tart but not quite like this.
If you have as little self control as me, you will then make a sandwich with an extra thick layer of the extra thick cut marmalade and wash it down with El Arbol‘s cafe de olla sweetened with cinnamon and piloncillo.
And you will sit. Hoping your order comes very, very quickly. As the two buns left in the basket stare back at you like those big eyed Margaret Keane paintings from the Sixties. And you will reach over and cover them with the serviette, as though you’re putting the grandchildren to bed.
But if your wife is like Don Day’s Wife she will think she has forgotten to kiss the children goodnight and she will pull back the cover and helplessly reach in and take one roll, break it in half, and place the slightly larger piece on your plate. And you will put just as much marmalade on the half as you did on the whole bun.
And just like those nights at The Peasant’s Larder or Hernando’s Hideaway or whatever your favorite Mexican restaurant was called, when you’d hoover that entire bowl of corn chips, you will be three quarters full when the food you ordered arrives. And you will already have consumed more than the 635 calories the elliptical says you just burned at the gym.
As I sat there yesterday, eating my chile en nogada, despite it being suitably fruity (and spicy and creamy and nutty and savory), I was almost, but not quite, tempted to spoon the rest of the marmalade over the top of the pepper and adulterate one of Mexico’s finest gifts to the world of cuisine.
Instead, I finished my chile, but not quite all my rice, and walked over to the shelves where El Arbol sells a lot of jarred preserves and sauces to look, only in vain, for the orange thick cut marmalade.
“Marisol”, I asked. “When you bring the check, could you also bring me a little container of the marmalade for me to take home.”
“Of course”, was her reply.
Of course I ate most of it that afternoon.
El Arbol is located at Salida a Queretaro 173D in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day except Tuesday. The complimentary rolls and orange marmalade are not served every day. On some days, it’s thick sliced toast and almost as good mango and guava jam.