Is there anyone else out there old enough to remember Marlene Dietrich singing that song in Destry Rides Again? I was humming it to myself the other day when Don Day’s Wife and I were having lunch at Chikatana. I was thinking how tough it must be for Aleysha Serrato Garfias, the owner of Chikatana, to get people through the gallery that fronts her restaurant and into the pleasures that await in her back room.
I know it took me a while. I had walked past the Noel Catayuno gallery a few times. I had even seen Chikatana’s logo and, wearing my old graphic designer’s hat, thought “very, very nice, wish I’d done that”. But I never ventured in.
Chikatana’s logo has a Miss Saigon meets Day of the Dead look. Which is no co-incidence. The restaurant opened last year on November 2.
The cuisine of Chikatana is what Aleysha Serrato Garfias calls Asiatica-Latina. Now I’ve never been much for fusion. In music (except maybe Miles’ “Bitches Brew” album) or food. But the way Aleysha explains her fusion cuisine, it made me, at the very least, inquisitive.
“I was living in Berkeley (California) and, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t eating Mexican or Italian (Aleysha spent her childhood in her family’s Italian restaurant Pomodoros, in the border town of Ciudad Juarez). I was hanging out with three Koreans and a Russian and they introduced me to a whole new world”, said Aleysha.
“They took me to these Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese restaurants. They knew what to order off the menu. I was wowed. No matter where I ate in San Francisco or Berkeley, it tasted like heaven.”
“When Salvador (Alysha’s husband) and I moved to San Miguel I had been a vegan for the last year (Alysha has since become a vegetarian; I call it progress; others perhaps wouldn’t). All I could find in this town were lettuce and tomatoes and more lettuce and tomatoes. Asian food has so much for vegetarians but not here. I decided I had to open an Asian restaurant. But then I thought about all of those deep, delicious Mexican flavors. I had to have them as well. I hope that explains our food; I hope that explains Chikatana.
It does. And what I like about Chikatana’s menu (another example of great graphic design and some excellent copywriting) is that it doesn’t go too far trying to make two foreign fares always work together. Some things are very Asian. Some things are very Latin. And they never seem to fight each other.
The tuna ceviche arrives looking like a wheel spun by Vanna White herself. I’m a fool for anything with a rose in the centrepiece and the very-talented chef Alejandra Landeros and her sous Evair Gómez spin it like pastry chefs.
The Latina touch is jalapeño, jicama and mango added to the traditional Asian ingredients. What makes it even better is the hardly even noticeable touch of vinegar in the taste. What makes it even better again is the rather ridiculous price of 85 pesos (and you could split it between four).
My next suggestion is the Quesa Kapacha which owner Alysha decribed to me as a Venezuelan tortilla. It wraps fresh corn around two of Mexico’s best cheeses, Oaxaca and Chihuahua. It’s sided with shoestring carrots in a chipotle sauce.
Aleysha Serrato Garfias showed me a photo she had taken that morning of some gorgeous looking corn out in the community of Palo Colorado that was untouched by Monsanto. The corn on the cheese kampacha reminded me of the sweet taste of Canadian “peaches and cream”, hours after it was torn off the stem in late July. “It reminded me of dessert”, said Don Day’s Wife.
Ramen. What do I say about ramen? Other than any restaurant with ramen is a restaurant worth walking through not one gallery but the entire Louvre to get to.
Chikatana takes this Japanese (and sometimes Korean) classic and Mexicanizes it with jicama, lettuce and radish. And, as apprehensive as I was when I first saw it, it works. The crisp and crunch of those added ingredients harmonizes wonderfully with the soggy noodles, egg and pork belly. And, this is what I really like about Aleysha Serrato Garfias (and remember she’s a vegetarian), when Don Day’s Wife told her that her ramen could be a little more oomphy, could be a little more porky, could use a little dashi in her broth, she didn’t get defensive (as virtually every other restauranteur would) she said, “Definitely we are going to work on our ramen!”
Like Smokey Robinson (with Kenny G on sax), I’ve saved the best to last. Let me tell you about a dish that instantly made it on to my next top “100 things to eat in San Miguel de Allende before you die” list. It’s called papas chikamikaze. It takes some soggy crinkle cut potatoes (that may have once been frozen) and tops them with paradise. Tiny chunks of bulgogi (Korean beef), Lebanese garlic (OMG so much garlic) sauce, sriracha (the world’s best bottled hot sauce), Vietnamese mayonnaise (like an aioli with attitude), kimchi, and spring onions get together in five part harmony and, getting back to Smokey Robinson, these fries have really got a hold on me.
We left with a plastic tub of something more treasured than Acapulco Gold in this town, something so rare that, in the past, Don Day’s Wife has traded her precious pink pickling salt for. Something that gave Don Day Wife’s a skip to her step as we walked up Hernandez Macias looking for a cab. Chikatana sells their kimchi (for $300 a kilo). It’s good and, even though I feel like I’m sharing ammunition with the enemy, it’s vegan.
You can walk past the storefront that Chikatana calls home without giving it a notice. Or you can see what the boys in the backroom will have. You can see what the very imaginative Aleysha Serrato Garfias and her very creative chef Alejandra Landeros have to lure you back there. Or you can just listen to a very Mexican Marlene.
Chikatana (which is a play off chicatanas, flying ants that Don Day’s Wife suggests I do not share the pleasure of) is located at Hernandez Macias #68 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open on Sunday and Monday from 1:00 to 7:00 pm, Wednesday to Saturday from 1:00 to 9:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday.