(With special thanks to photographer Marshall Postnikoff who took some of the shots…the good ones)
You know what I like about Cinco de Mayo? It’s an adult event. Unlike any other, except maybe New Year’s Eve.
Call me selfish if you want. Don Day’s Wife probably would. But I like that there are no responsibilities to family on the fifth of May. No need to eat and drink what and when the kids eat and drink. No need to watch “Frozen” again with the grandkids.
Cinco de Mayo, as far as I’m concerned, is about wining and dining and doing some hearty partying with friends.
Historically, the date means little to me. But, then again, honoring the day the pilgrims landed doesn’t exactly float my boat either. In fact, I’d guess that a lot of Canadians (and a few Americans) think the fifth of May is the day that Mexico gained its independence, not the day they beat some potentially excellent future chefs (yes, of course, the French), at the Battle of Puebla.
I didn’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo at all until I was in my fifties. In those days we were living in San Francisco and people would arrive at our local watering hole directly from work sporting their oversize sombreros, the ones they bought on that too much tequila night in Acapulco and then had to embarrassingly carry home on the airplane because it wouldn’t fit in the suitcase.
My best friend, Gil “El Bandito” Cruz would bring his mother’s homemade tamales and we’d politely yum yum yum our way through them even though they were 95% cornmeal and tasted like 100% cornmeal. “La Bamba” would come up about every fourth play on the jukebox and we’d all sing along on the chorus and make up words that sounded like Spanish on the verses. We’d start with Margaritas, switch to Sierra Nevadas, switch again to straight tequila, and swear we’d never switch that many times ever again in our life.
But then we moved back to Toronto. And Mexico was a couple of extra thousand miles away. And the best place we had to celebrate Cinco de Mayo was a basement dungeon called Hernando’s Hideaway. Where, as good as the food and the margaritas were, it was much more Houston or Dallas than Puebla or Oaxaca.
Until this year. When I happened to spot a poster. The Drake One Fifty, about as trendy as trendy gets in Toronto (and Toronto gets very trendy these days) was bringing in a guest chef. There was a picture of him on the poster and though it cut off half of his head, there was a beard that was strangely familiar. Even without the oversized glasses, he looked a lot like Donny Masterton, the chef of The Restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.
I checked the fine print on line and, yes, there was Donnie Masterton’s name, and, next thing I knew, eleven of us were meeting up there this week for a Cinco de Mayo dinner (and drinks). The best Cinco de Mayo dinner (and drinks) I’ve ever had.
First, a little about the Drake One Fifty. The last time I ate at the Drake was at their original location. It was my friend Therese’s sixtieth birthday. I remember arriving at around eight to an empty barn. I remember leaving at about 11:30 to a line-up outside of about 150 20-somethings.
At the more downtown Drake One Fifty, the crowd is more 30-something. They pack the place from about 5:00 to 7:30 and then again from 9:30 on (yes, I’d love to know what they do between 7:30 and 9:30). The Drake One Fifty crowd is similar to the original Drake crowd in that they seem to have bigger thirsts than hungers.
I started out with a margarita, but you probably already guessed that. But you probably didn’t guess I ordered a Joanie Loves Chachi Margarita, which amazed even me when you realize that my opinion of the TV show was “Happy Days” becomes “Unhappy Days”.
The drink wasn’t a Donnie Masterton drink. The recipe was created by Drake bartender Mike Fortier and adds pineapple, cilantro and a cayenne pepper rub to the traditional ingredients. It was good, very good. Though I don’t know why, I could only have it with Casamigos Cazadores Blanco Tequila. I hate paying extra for a $60 a bottle of blanco tequila when there’s absolutely no way I’d know the difference from a $20 bottle once it’s inside a margarita (if you want to take me up on it, I have a standing bet that no one else can either).
I followed the margarita with a couple of beers and then on to red wine for, with Mexican this potentially good, it seemed like the right choice.
Normally, at these guest chef dinners, there is a set menu with four or five courses and maybe a couple of options. Donnie Masterton had put together 15 different choices. Not easy when you’re working in an unfamiliar kitchen with unfamiliar staff.
Not only that, the menu wasn’t just a rehash of his San Miguel de Allende menu. The chef had removed almost all of his usual Asian influences and made everything much more Mexican. There were a couple of dishes directly imported from The Restaurant. A couple of others were slight variations. The rest were all new to me.
Most of the group (except me) started with the nachos or the gwock (even the Canadian waitress called it that). I thought I wanted to save myself for other delights. I wasn’t too excited either about the description, cauliflower and kale nachos. They sounded way too healthy. Until I saw them. And yes, there were those veggies. But also there were peppers and cheese and cream and enough friends saying, “Would you like to try the nachos?”
I started with a grilled octopus taco. I’ve had Donnie Masterton’s octopus before and though I’m not sure what he does to totally eliminate any reference to Firestone or Goodyear (a marinade?), I couldn’t remember it being this good. I’d never had his octopus this way either. Included in the taco were chile de arbol, jack cheese, peanuts and avocado.
Next up for me was one of the chef’s classics, braised rabbit tostada. I couldn’t remember exactly what the tostada comes with in San Miguel and I couldn’t remember it being four inches tall. Piled on the little mountain were peruano beans, cabbage, radish, pickled jalapeños and queso fresco. This bunny is definitely worth hopping all the way up Sollano for.
The others were eating the pork carnitas taco, the tandoori chicken taco and the rajas and cheese tamale and I was stealing bites of all of them. But I had room for one more savory choice and I knew from the first look at the menu what it was going to be.
In San Miguel de Allende, Chef Masterton’s pork cheeks are only on the dinner menu. I’m usually only there at lunchtime. And I’d never had them.
As Don Day’s Wife said, “I hope the world never discovers just how good pork cheeks are”, and she’s right (as always, of course), “but I wish they could all taste how melt-in-the-mouth these are and how good that ancho chili sauce is”.
I said, “I can’t believe how cheap they were” as I scraped the iron skillet clean and, when I got home, was amazed to see that they were $265 pesos on The Restaurant‘s menu (about $21 Canadian) versus $16 at Drake One Fifty.
As I ate my churros (with chocolate and chili creme anglaise) I couldn’t help thinking, as much as I loved having Cinco de Mayo San Miguel style come to Toronto, should I be worried that the guy I consider the best chef in our little town, the guy now posing with someone with an Acapulco sombrero, might want to spread his wings and head back to a big city for a little more fame and fortune.
I sure hope not. But if he does, I hope I can be there.
Drake One Fifty is located 2406 miles from San Miguel de Allende. The Restaurant is located at Sollano 16 in the heart of San Miguel did Allende.