It had been years since I’d been to Kuni Doni. I can’t give you a good reason why. Other than the so many restaurants, so little time excuse. I always liked the place but I also thought it lacked a focus. There wasn’t anything on the menu that I absolutely, definitely had to go back for.
Then last week I saw an ad. And advertising works better on old advertising guys than it does on normal human beings.
Every Wednesday it said. A choice of five things cooked on the grill for 140 pesos. Almost anything cooked over wood or charcoal works for me. And down in the fine print (about 7-point for other old ad guys who might be reading this) it said the price included a glass of wine or a beer.
All sounded good to me. And sounded good to retired chef Mark Tamiso who I was having lunch with. Start time for Todos Los Miércoles was 2:00 pm which didn’t exactly thrill us. I even know Mexicans who eat lunch before then. But hunger does make the heart grow fonder.
My first reaction was disappointment. Kuni Doni had changed hands. And the previous hands were at the end of the arms of Patricia, perhaps the most beautiful restauranteur in San Miguel. But the new owner, Francisco García Chávez, though disappointingly male, was charming and welcoming and seemed very sure of himself when he said, “You should try the octopus; the chef is very proud of it.”
Since I got over my squeamishness (I hate to admit it but it was at the ripe old age of about 30), I haven’t been able to get enough octopus. And neither has Don Day’s Wife. But I never get it at home. If Don Day’s Wife wasn’t also Don Day’s editor, I could tell you why I think she never prepares it. But I can’t…oh, what the hell, I am going to tell you.
Don Day’s Wife is a perfectionist. She dreads the chance of failure. She hates the possibility of ever making a mistake. And there is probably nothing more iffy in the world of cuisine than octopus.
The first time I saw anyone trying to tenderize octopus was in Greece. The fisherman would repeatedly pound it on the rocks then hang it, like laundry, on a clothesline to dry. Since then I’ve seen chefs rub it with daikon, plunge it back and forth between a boiling pot and an ice bath, put it along with two wine corks in a pot of simmering water, freeze it with liquid nitrogen, and cook it only in a copper pot. Sometimes it worked very well. Sometimes it didn’t work at all.
So I think Don Day’s Wife plays it safe. Lets other chefs walk the tightrope. And I must say, I don’t blame her.
José Guadalupe Ramirez is the chef at Kuna Doni. He once worked under David Jahnke at MX, perhaps the best teacher this town has ever had. And the schooling shows.
“I put the octopus in boiling water along with orange and lime for about an hour”, said José.
The cephalopod (always wanted to use that word) then goes on to a round grill with wheels reminiscent of the Weber BBQs that anyone who could afford one had in the eighties. I could never understand how they sold so many of those grills because it was almost impossible to get the food close to the coals and things haven’t changed. The charcoal flavor did come through but it would have been nice to have had a little char on those arms (yes, arms is the correct terminology for an octopus’ appendages, not tentacles).
“I’m surprised”, said my friend Mark. “It’s very tender, very tasty. That’s not easy.”
And still very sweet, not at all rubbery, I thought.
Now when you have a meal with a chef, even a retired one, you never order for yourself; you order something to share along with a couple of side plates. The other choices were tuna, salmon, a burger (which looked very enticing on the next table) and pork ribs. We chose the ribs.
Chef José bakes them without any liquid in the oven, then places them on the grill (again a barbecue with hotter coals closer to the meat would have helped). The sauce is a combination of mustard, ketchup, Maggi and Sriracha that was reminiscent of commercially bottled (aka Kraft) sauce which, actually, is not a bad thing.
“These are melt in your mouth”, said Mark, “and the meaty taste stilll comes through with the sauce.”
The ribs are served with fries in a cheese sauce that’s a bit scary at first.
“Not sure if that looks more like Velveeta or Cheez Whiz”, I said, which brought on a long discussion of both of those foods in our childhoods.
“It’s actually a combination of Oaxaca and Parmesan cheeses, milk and barbecue sauce”, Chef José told us.
It was different and it worked; an original and tasty way to serve potatoes.
Todos Los Miércoles is, as the advertising says, always on Wednesdays but, also, only on Wednesdays. On other days, at least until 5:00 pm, Kuni Doni has a very traditional menu of Mexican cuisine. At five o’clock though, it’s almost like you have your choice of two very separate restaurants with two very separate menus. Restaurant number two is called Sushi 23 and, as a man desperately seeking good sushi in San Miguel, I promised myself to try it soon.
“I know I’ll be back”, said Mark, “at least for that octopus.”
Kuni Doni is located at Salida a Celaya #24 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 9:00 am to 8:30 pm, seven days a week. The BBQ special is available from 2:00 pm on Wednesdays. A buffet is offered from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm on Sundays.