You know what I miss most when I’m in San Miguel de Allende? Asia. Which must seem very strange if you know I’m a guy from Toronto.
I miss Vietnam, China, Thailand, Korea, Japan, India. Because those are the places I visit a couple of times a week in Toronto. Especially when I’m hungry.
There are approximately 740 Chinese restaurants in Toronto. There are exactly two Chinese restaurants in San Miguel. And one Indian. And zero Vietnamese and Korean. You get the picture.
But there are alternatives. Two very good alternatives for Asian cuisine in San Miguel. The first is very well known and very well respected. San Miguel’s second best favorite restaurant according to the 2015 SMART Awards. It’s called The Restaurant (never been sure whether the “e” in “the” is pronounced long or short) and even though it’s leaning a little more towards Mexican these days, it still has some exquisitely prepared, Asian-influenced dishes. Duck spring rolls with Chinese five spice. Thai style shrimp cakes. Tuna tartare with soy-wasabi dressing. Wok-seared green beans. Pork and shrimp gyoza dumplings. And other plates with just a hint of Asia.
The second alternative, which may possess my second least favorite restaurant name after The (or is it Thee) Restaurant, is not as well known and definitely not as well-acclaimed. Which is a shame. Because it deserves to be.
People do go there. But often only because they’re going somewhere else.
“Want to go shopping at Aurora? And have lunch at Food Factory?
Food Factory. In addition to it sounding like the dishes come off an assembly line, it really doesn’t tell you anything about what to expect there. And doesn’t hint at all at some of the best Asian dishes you’ll find hidden on the menu.
Don Day’s Wife and I received an email last week. From friends Philippe and Wendy. “We’re going to check out the art at Fabrica La Aurora. Want to meet for lunch at Food Factory.” See what I mean?
Fabrica La Aurora was raised from the dead about 12 years ago. An old, mostly abandoned, cotton mill creatively converted into artists’ studios and galleries. It took a while to catch on. And had some ups and downs along the way. But these days it’s full to the brim. And showing some art that I’d love to show in my home.
Food Factory is off to the left as you enter the front gates to Aurora. It may have once been the corporate offices of La Aurora. Where, until the gates were locked in 1991, pay envelopes were stuffed by San Miguel’s largest employer.
On the way down the wide hall to Food Factory, you’ll pass another restaurant. In the past it’s been a wine bar, a sushi bar, a music bar and, these days, a hamburger bar. If you don’t know any better, or in other words, if you haven’t been to Food Factory before, you’ll wander into this other place, currently called El Grandpa & Son, and they’d be a fool to redirect you.
If you do make it past El Grandpa & Son‘s doors, you’ll find yourself in a world of black and white. A world of cool elegance. White walls. White drapes. Some of the best white scarves and napkins that will ever touch your lap. Black furniture with black and white print cushions. And, when your server arrives, a blackboard with the day’s offerings.
The blackboard has a bit of everything (perhaps a bit of too much of everything) and I suggested to Philippe and Wendy that they trust me and we order Asian. And have the dishes placed in the center of the table in classic Asian fashion, or, at least, in classic Asian-American fashion. Philippe and Wendy are both very polite (they can’t help it, they’re Canadian) and agreed.
We started with Korean lettuce wraps or ssambap as I think they’re called (but don’t know how they’re pronounced) in those Toronto Korean restaurants. There the wraps are usually filled with beef.
Allen Williams, Food Factory’s executive chef and owner told me the idea of adding lettuce wraps to the menu actually came from P.F Chang’s.
“I saw how successful they were there and thought why not here. The recipe just evolved. The most valuable thing I brought home with me from apprenticing at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Geneva was learn the techniques, not the recipes.”
“I love the wraps at P.F. Chang’s so they were a great starting point. I then tried to improve upon them, make them a little bit different, a little bit better.”
At Food Factory, there’s a choice of chicken or shrimp lettuce wraps. Knowing we had chicken to come in other dishes, we chose the shrimp.
The cocktail-sized shrimp come swimming over a bed of vermicelli that I think the Toronto restaurants call japchae (another word I don’t know how to pronounce) in a sauce that Philippe said had “just the right bite” and Don Day’s wife threatened to drink from the bowl after struggling to get out the last few drops.
Next up was ginger chicken. In Asian dishes, chicken can often taste tired, dry and seem like it’s been hanging around in the sauce way too long. The chicken at Food Factory tasted fresh, moist, almost as if it had been melded into the dish minutes before. Sometimes I think Asian dishes are improved when they’re put in the hands of chefs with rounder eyes (think I’m allowed to say that).
Chef Allen told me this dish too has some of its origins at P.F. Chang’s.
“There are some things I can do as a single chef-owned restaurant that they can’t. An essential part of my dish is the peanuts, an impossibility for them.”
The sauce was a melding of ginger and pepper that Philippe said “was an explosion of heat”. “But not too hot for my tender taste buds”, said Wendy. The chicken topped fettuccini-sized egg noodles were a nice contrast to the vermicelli with the lettuce wraps.
Our next stop was Japan. With vegetables in a tempura batter. But not your typical tempura batter. This was lighter and crispier. What you’d expect more wrapped around an onion ring rather than the broccoli, green beans and mushrooms it coated. The dip was a chipotle mayo. It was like a geisha was being kissed by a vaquero.
“I like my vegetables crunchy”, said Wendy, “and these are exactly as I like them.”
There was one more stop on our trip. Vietnam for a clay pot. Now before I ever talk about what was inside, I have to talk about the outside. For I am a sucker for presentation, especially when it’s something stewed or baked in something the color of terra cotta. All I can compare it to is going to Toronto’s Victory Burlesque when I was a kid and the velvet curtains opened.
In this case under the lid was chicken. But different chicken than what came in the ginger chicken. This had a different texture. More like brown than white. More like duck than chicken.
“A lot of these dishes are my creations, my inspirations”, said Allen. “My clay pot includes bamboo shoots, mushrooms, hoisin sauce, chives, onions, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and, of course, chicken.”
Now if you frequented the Chinese restaurants of Toronto in the seventies like Don Day’s Wife and I did, and I suspect Wendy and Philippe did, you learned to love something called VH sauce. It was made in Canada and used in every one of those 740…or perhaps it was only 640 in those days…Chinese restaurants, especially on ribs. And there was a good reason every restaurant used it.
“I loved that gummy VH sauce”‘ said Philippe, “and this tastes just like it.”
“Awesome sauce”, was Don Day’s Wife’s more direct comment.
Our trip to Asia was complete. And we’d spent less than 20 of those Canadian dollars each per person. Or, more exactly, Wendy and Phiippe had spent it because it was reasonable enough that they picked up the tab.
“That was a really interesting mix of flavors”, said Philippe, as we walked down the hall to the exit.
“I loved the lunch”, said Don Day’s wife. “This could make me totally forget about getting back to those Asian restaurants in Toronto.”
“And me too”, I added.
Food Factory is located at Fabrica La Aurora on Calzada De La Aurora in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Telephone 415 152 3982.