“That’s the best steak made from Mexican beef I’ve ever had in this town.”
Don Day’s Wife used the “b” word the other night. Not the “better” word, the “best” word. Not the comparative, the superlative. She used it twice in fact. And “best” is a word that does not come lightly to her lips.
The location was the recently opened second floor of Vinos + Tapas, a restaurant that, after a few growing pains, is not only getting bigger but getting better.
The second floor dining room is just the start of the expansion. The postage stamp kitchen on the ground floor has been replaced by a football field kitchen on the second. And the soft coral and rose and tangerine view from the second floor terrace will soon be surpassed by an even wider vista on the third. If you’ve ever eaten at Vinos + Tapas, you have seen the vine through the glass on the east side of the restaurant.
It’s a trumpet vine, a 180-year old trumpet vine, and, for an old green thumb like me, it was a joy to see it exploding into color on the roof. When the elevator is complete and the third floor terrace is opened, it will become a grill. What began as a 26-seat restaurant will seat five times that.
We were at Vinos + Tapas to try out some new wines and sample some new arrivals on the menu. When the restaurant opened a couple of years ago, the focus was on small plates. There were pinxtos from the Basque region, tapas from Catalunia on Spain’s other coast, and a bit of this, a bit more of that treatment of some Mexican classics.
Now Chef/Owner Stefania Chavez has added a couple of additional pastas, a few more mains, and some extraordinarily good red meat dishes.
This is Chef Stefi’s 14th year in the restaurant biz. She’s all of 26 years old. At the age of 12, she was creating salads and desserts in her first kitchen job. At 16, she was the hostess at the recently opened The Restaurant. At 17 she was broadening her scope in the kitchen of the sadly missed Socialite. At 18, she was organizing tastings while managing Wine Styles on San Francisco. Recently, after many weeks of making the overnight bus from Guadalajara her bedroom, she added sommelier to her accreditations.
There is no shortage of charcuterie and cheese boards in San Miguel de Allende restaurants. At any of those restaurants, it’s a dish that, in order to be enjoyed to its fullest, should be shared and, the more people sharing, the greater the opportunity for the kitchen to sparkle with its selection.
Vinos + Tapas simply calls it a Cheese and Serrano Board on the menu but, when you’re ordering for five, that is a major understatement of what emerges from the swinging doors of the new kitchen.
There were five different cheeses, five different Mexican cheeses, five different local Mexican cheeses, five different extraordinarily good local Mexican cheeses with virtually all cheese styles represented. Special mentions go to a smoked Provolone, an aged Manchego, and a Gorgonzola that was combined with pecans.
Cheese makes an appearance on another new dish. A salad. Now I am not a salad guy but I am a fried cauliflower and blue cheese guy.
“Fried?”, inquired Don Day’s Wife. “How? It’s perfectly cooked, without any hint of grease.”
“I simply blanche it very quickly in boiling water, plunge it in ice water, then give it a few seconds in the deep fryer”, shared Stefi.
It’s a salad not only with tastes suitable for a guy who doesn’t do salads, it’s a salad with looks suitable for framing.
Rib eye tacos at Vinos + Tapas start off very simple. Just tender, tasty meat on a mix of flour and corn tortillas. Then pow! You dip a fork into the hueso…better known as bone, scrape up the tuétano…better known as bone marrow, then pile it up with semillas de granada, lentejas and escamoles…better known as pomegranate seeds, lentils and ant larvae.
“Eeks!” That was that was the first word that came out of Don Day’s Wife’s mouth when I translated escamoles (and some of the actual escamoles also almost came out). Then there was a pause. Then a “wow”. Then a “what an explosion of flavor”.
“I love these tacos. I love the presentation. I even love the ant eggs.”
Escamoles are the larvae of ants that hang out in agave plants (their favorite drink is probably tequila). They look a little like cottage cheese. They taste a lot like nuts and butter. They are incredibly expensive ($1450 a kilo currently according to Chef Stefania). And now my previously well-kept secret of how to introduce them to friends and family: tell them it’s rice until they’re “wowed” by that taste.
Don Day gets emails. And most of those emails ask questions. And one of the most-asked questions is “Where do I get the best steak in this town?” And it’s one of the most difficult for me to answer. Or should I say it used to be?
Borrowing A Fran Lebowitz line, “My favorite animal is steak.” I constantly crave steak. I eat a lot of steak. But most of the steak I eat, I eat at home. And most of the rib steaks I eat come from Costco. So I was obviously nervous when Stefi Chavez was persuading us to try her tomahawk in lavender sauce. I was even more nervous when she told me it was Mexican beef.
Tomahawk is the showbiz steak. And I appreciate a little flash and dash at the table. As long as I can erase from my mind that about 10% of the weight is in that almost useless handle. Vinos y Tapas presentation of the bone-in ribeye was superb. As was the cooking. There was a light char on the outside. Pink juices flowed from the inside. Ribbons of fat fluttered through the slices of tender lean flesh.
“Mexico?”, I asked Chef Stefi.
“Mexico”, answered Stefi.
“Sonora?”, I asked.
“Si, Sonora”, she answered.
The State of Sonora, located in the northwest corner of the country, has been building a reputation for choice, select and prime grade beef that now rivals that of Texas, Nebraska and Alberta. There is no great secret to their technique. The ranches in Sonora have been selecting the most appropriate cattle breeds and finishing them for a few weeks on corn.
You’ve already heard what Don Day’s Wife said about the steak. A similar opinion came from three others. Which meant that the tomahawk, weighing in at 1200 grams, was enough for four. Which meant that the scary $999 number on the menu is actually cheap when you do the division. And still not expensive when you add on a couple of orders of truffle salted potatoes and grilled vegetables.
There is still the odd miss on the new menu. Vinos + Tapas has recently switched from New Zealand to Mexican lamb and, as much as I like the lamb and I like the fact that the loin chops haven’t been trimmed down to lean little lollipops, marrying them with a chocolate sauce would best be solved by divorce. Those misses though are extremely rare and, for a 26-year-old, Stefania Chavez is, obviously, an extremely talented chef.
With the addition of the second floor and the soon to be completed third floor, Vinos + Tapas is moving up in the world. Not just in square feet but with a very well-rounded and very well-executed menu.
Vinos + Tapas is located at Insurgentes #63 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Tuesday to Thursday, 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm; Friday and Saturday, 2:00 pm to Midnight; Sunday, 2:00 pm to 9:00 pm. For reservations, call 415 152 2563 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.