I arrived in Toronto in the mid-seventies and, in those days, the most affordable place to dine was what we called the Goulash Archipelago.
There, on Bloor Street West, we would eat dinnerplate-sized schnitzels and drink a red called Szekszardi by the litre at places like Continental, Taragato, Korona, and the only one that still survives today, Country Style.
We’d listen to gypsy violins and dance under black lights to Count Dracula and the Transylvanians (or on one occasion, what remained of The Platters). I loved those days. I miss those days.
Though schnitzel almost definitely had its beginnings in Austria or Germany, those Toronto restaurants all specialized in Hungarian cuisine. They had opened in the late fifties and early sixties, to feed the thousands of refugees who had fled Hungary and settled in what they called Toronto The Good. You could have your schnitzel as part of what was called the wooden platter or woodsman’s platter along with a pork chop, sausage, liver and bacon or you could have it just overflowing the plate with spätzle or nokedli (the restaurants’ words for noodles) on the side.
Schnitzel was simply a very thin slice of beef (or sometimes pork or veal or chicken) that was hammered into tenderness with a wooden mallet and covered with a breadcrumb mixture before it was fried. But was it ever good.
Then, one day, schnitzel was gone. Well it wasn’t exactly the schnitzel that was gone, it was me. Hungarian wasn’t trendy anymore. And I was following fashion more than ever. On the hunt for Chinese and Indian and Ethiopian and Japanese and Mexican cuisine. I’d almost forgotten about schnitzel until recently, when I saw it on San Miguel de Allende restaurant Marsala’s menu.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Something resembling schnitzel has been around as long as I have in San Miguel. Never under that name. Here it’s called milanesa or carne empanizada. But it’s still not that much different from the schnitzel that was my staple forty years ago.
Marsala opened a few months ago in San Miguel, the dream come true for longtime caterers and first time restauranteurs Marcela Bolaño and Ximena de Léon Campomanes. Marsala’s menu is hard to describe and, for lack of a better word, I’d call it international. I’d also call it different, unlike any other menu in town, and that’s what makes it particularly appealing.
Along with salmon in a pistachio crust and fideua (a dish similar to paella with noodles replacing rice) and chorizo, schnitzel is one of only three main courses on the current menu. On other sections of the menu though, you’ll find dishes like lamb ragu pappardelle, rib eye tacos and ravioli stuffed with artichoke in a three cheese sauce, all substantial enough to choose as a main.
Before the schnitzel, my choice of starter at Marsala would be something else I associate with Central/Eastern Europe, a pork terrine. It’s not the only pork terrine on a San Miguel menu (there’s a very good one at El Vergel) but this one is exceptional. A rough but not too rough texture. Wonderfully moist. Studded with prunes. Sided with crumbled pistachios, olives, gherkins, grainy Dijon and a fruit compote. And accompanied by some excellent bread.
And the schnitzel? It’s a bit different from that Hungarian schnitzel of the seventies. It’s a little thicker. As is the crust.
“We make a mixture of pretzels and panko for the crust”, Ximena de Léon Campomanes told me. “It also has some spices to add a little more flavor.”
The one place you will often see Mexico’s version of schnitzel or milanesa is in carnicerias. Marsala, however, butchers their own. Ximena told me, “…it’s done with the back part of the leg” and continued, “we tenderize the meat here at the restaurant; we get one big piece and cut it here also.”
The presentation of Marsala’s schnitzel is very different from those days on Toronto’s Goulash Archipelago. There are no noodles, no rice, no fried potatoes. But there are some buttery mashed potatoes forming a nice resting place for the beef. And, on the very top, super fresh and crispy greens, cherry tomatoes, and a couple of slices of cheese. The only addition I’d suggest is a wedge of lime to squeeze on top. And, to bring back those seventies memories, maybe a violin and accordion playing a waltz in the background.
Marsala is located at Hernandez Macias #48 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm, every day but Tuesday. For reservations, telephone 415 152 0080.