Gourmet food courts. They’re usually called Mercado This or Mercado That in Mexico. The concept originally sounded absolutely amazing to me. Take a few good chefs making a lot of the world’s best dishes and put them all in one place sharing tables and chairs, sharing gas and electricity bills, sharing parking and advertising, and, most importantly, sharing customers. The best laid plans of mice and men and restauranteurs…well, you know what often happens to those plans.
As good as the concept of gourmet food courts sounded, many of them have been dismal failures. In Mexico City. In Oaxaca. And here in San Miguel de Allende. Our first, Mercado Centro, came and went. The second, Mercado Sano survives, but the restaurants on the second floor are as busy as a baseball diamond in December.
Though I’m sure it hasn’t been a roaring success, San Miguel’s Mercado Del Carmen is, at the very least, still existing well into its third year. Tenants have come and gone, including two with established restaurants in other parts of town, but it’s rare that I’ve ever seen any of the space in the building unoccupied.
One of Mercado Del Carmen’s newest tenants is Chikatana. They moved there after less than a year in their first location in prime Centro. The original Chikatana was in a bright and airy courtyard on Calle Hernandez Macias. Unfortunately, the courtyard was lost behind a dark and intimate art gallery. Walk by traffic did just that, kept walking by.
“The rent was so high we had to price things high to have any chance of making money”, Chikatana’s owner Aleysha Serrato Garfias told me. “It’s a lot easier here. People see us; they try us; they like us.”
“We know our cuisine is different. They may come here to go to Lima (another recent new tenant in Mercado Del Carmen). Then one of them wanders over to Chikatana, checks out our menu, and they try one of our bao burgers. That didn’t happen on Hernandez Macias.”
“It’s a much more casual crowd in Mercado Del Carmen. I like that. If we have a run on the ramen one night and run out, people understand. They don’t get all upset. They know the meaning of the word fresh.”
I liked Aleysha Serrato Garfias and Chikatana from the first day I walked into the restaurant’s original location. Aleysha has that kind of attitude, hustle and savvy that’s almost essential for a restaurant to succeed. Her chef, Alejandra Landeros, is obviously very talented. She was putting some of San Miguel’s most innovative dishes on plates. I remember being incredibly excited to try Alejandra’s ramen.
Ramen. What can I say about ramen? One of the three essential dishes that should be on the weekly luncheon menu of every living human being. Chikatana had ramen on their original menu, at their original location, but it didn’t quite work.
Aleysha Serrato Garfias calls Chikatana’s cuisine “Asian with a Latin heart” which works beautifully as an advertising slogan but didn’t quite work when the restaurant added jicama, lettuce and radish to ramen. There’s still radish in Chikatana’s ramen but I’m happy to report it’s getting better, much better. It may now be the best ramen in town (and, yes, I know there’s next to no competition).
Ramen is basically a broth and noodles. The broth is usually created by roasting and boiling pork bones for many, many hours, but it could have a fish, chicken or even beef base. The noodles are always from wheat and never from rice and originated in China. They then moved to Japan and these days, including at Chikatana, are often from Korea.
The two essential additions to ramen are slices or chunks of pork and halves of not hard-boiled, not soft-boiled, but perfectly-cooked eggs. The rest of the ingredients are mostly optional as long as they don’t stray too far from the straight and narrow.
When I ate my first ramen, which was only about 25 years ago, there was only one ramen. These days there are about 25 different styles of ramen. But one seems to be leading the way in popularity, the miso or (if you’re eating at a Japanese restaurant) Hokkaido-style. It’s Don Day’s Wife’s favorite ramen. She uses the word umami to describe the soybean paste. And Don Day’s Wife has extraordinarily good taste in almost everything (except, perhaps, men). Chikatana’s ramen is a miso ramen.
The pork that Chef Alejandra adds is Korean-style which means thin-sliced belly with a high lean to fat ratio which is always rolled when it’s retailed (but I don’t know why).
Alejandra grills it first and splashes a marinade that includes sake, mirin and soy sauce over it. The meat has just that right amount of give when it gets between your molars.
The chef includes that original radish plus spinach and carrots to her pork, chicken and beef broth. What’s best about her ramen though is what she doesn’t add.
In almost every single one of the hundreds of Japanese restaurants in Toronto that serve ramen, you must make a decision when you order. They usually use Madison Ave lingo on the menu but in layman language it’s basically a choice of mild, medium, spicy or extra-spicy. Unfortunately, mild to one palate is spicy to another.
Chikatana avoids that conundrum totally by putting the heat on the side. An Asian spoon is filled with chogochugang (chogang after three beers), the sweet and spicy Korean dipping sauce. You then add it slowly but surely to your ramen to your tongue’s content. Brilliant!
Chikatana’s ramen isn’t perfect. I’d like a little more meatiness in the broth. It’s a bit stingy with the amount of noodles. And some (but not me) might want their pork a little less fatty. Otherwise, this ramen was good, really good, good enough to pick up the bowl at the end and pour down the very last slurp.
Chikatana has made quite a few changes to their menu since they made their move to Mercado Del Carmen. It’s a little less Mexican, a little more Asian, but they do still have their original and extraordinary kamikaze fries. Problem is, there just isn’t room for them after that ramen.
Chikatana is located in Mercado Del Carmen at Calle Zacateros 45 in San Miguel de Allende. The restaurant is open Tuesday to Thursday, 1:00 to 9:00 pm; Friday and Saturday, 1:00 to 11:00 pm; Sunday, 1:00 to 8:00 pm.