After having been bunkered up in Toronto for far too many months, on my return to San Miguel de Allende, the very first restaurant I headed to was El Pato. I had been dreaming for weeks…no, make that months…about mixiote served by El Pato’s always welcoming Pilar Ortiz.
Mixiote. 20 years ago, I’d never ever heard or even seen the word. I had no idea what mixiote was. I was missing something that is, not just in Mexican cuisine but in world cuisine, very, very special.
I wasn’t alone in not knowing what mixiote was. I have met many Mexicans who don’t know what mixiote is. I’ve met Mexican chefs who don’t exactly know what mixiote is. I’ve read fat books about Mexican cuisine that don’t even mention it (including those by one of my heroes, Rick Bayless). So what exactly is mixiote?
Being exact isn’t easy, for there are many variations, but, in simple terms, mixiote is a seasoned meat dish that, like barbacoa, is traditionally cooked in a dugout pit. It’s usually made with lamb but you’ll also find it made with rabbit or chicken. The seasoning varies considerably from region to region and chef to chef but recipes I’ve seen published have included pasilla and/or guajillo peppers, cumin, garlic and avocado leaves. Mixiote was traditionally wrapped in leaves from the maguey plant before it was placed in the barbecue pit. Despite the presence of chiles, it is not really similar to any other Mexican dish and I’ve never had a version where chile dominates the flavor or a version that is spicy hot.
OK, I still haven’t told you what mixiote tastes like. All I can say is I have a good reason. Because it isn’t easy to describe.
It produces the same pleasures as an Italian red sauce, a yellow Thai curry, a Japanese ramen, an Hungarian paprikash. But it doesn’t really taste like any of them. Perhaps, it’s impossible to really compare it with any other dish.
One of the reasons you’ll meet Mexicans who don’t know mixiote is the regionality of the dish. It originated in the area that’s referred to as the Basin of Mexico, the center of the Aztec civilization, located primarily to the south of San Miguel de Allende. When you’re travelling on the backroads of the Basin and check out the signs on roadside food stands and restaurants, in addition to the word mixiote, you’ll often also see the words Hidalgo style (the Mexican state located southwest of San Miguel), stilo Pachuca (the largest city in the state of Hidalgo) or stilo Tulancingo (the second largest city in the state of Hidalgo).
Jose Luis Matuega is from Tulancingo, Hidalgo. He and his wife Pilar Ortiz are the charming owners of El Pato in San Miguel de Allende. Twenty-five years ago, they introduced mixiote to San Miguel. Fifteen years ago they introduced the extraordinary taste to me. El Pato (which translates as The Duck and which just happens to also be Jose Luis’ nickname) is still, I believe, the only restaurant in San Miguel that serves this simple but extraordinary dish.
The ever-delightful Pilar told me, “When we moved here, people knew nothing about mixiote. We were the only restaurant that had it. It was very difficult to be accepted. It’s hard to believe but, still today, there are a lot of people that don’t know about it.”
The word mixiote (pronounced meesh-ee-OH-tay) refers to both the dish and the maguey leaves that were originally used to wrap it. It derives from nahuatl, the Aztec language, and is a combination of the words for the maguey plant and the skin of the arm.
If maguey leaves are not wrapped around the individual mixiotes served in a restaurant, there are a lot of different alternatives that might be used. I’ve seen banana leaves and parchment paper but, at that favorite mixiote restaurant of mine, at El Pato, far-from-glamorous plastic storage bags with an outer wrapper of aluminum foil have always been the norm.
Pilar Ortiz doesn’t feel it makes any difference to the taste. “The flavor never changes if you don’t use maguey leaves”, said Pilar.
One thing that I’ve noticed is that, whatever the dish is wrapped in, the meat in a mixiote is as tender as you’ll ever get using any cooking technique. It’s such an overused cliché, in any writing about food, but the lamb in El Pato’s mixiote really does melt in your mouth.
“The lambs José Luis uses are very young”, said Pilar, “just six months old. That is the reason our mixiote is so tender. We use only the neck, the shoulder and the legs. There’s not much more in that plastic bag except succulent lamb.”
El Pato is quite secretive about what else goes into their mixiote but Pilar did tell me that the meat is never marinated beforehand which it often is in other restaurants.
“Everything happens in that little plastic bag. There’s definitely no bouillon. The only liquid that’s added might be water. The liquid you’re tasting is that juice from the lamb”, she said.
Don Day’s Wife compares it to sous vide cooking and the broth you get from the low and slow simmering of meats using that method.
I did coax a few of the details out of Chef José Luis. The only chile that he uses in his mixiote is the Morita. Moritas are one of the two chipotle peppers, made by drying fully ripe and red jalapeños. The chiles morita not only are where a lot of the flavor comes from, it’s also what gives his mixiote that cranberry red, gather around the fire, glow.
After a little more persistence, José Luis did share a few more details. “There are also cloves, cumin, laurel (bay leaf), oregano and pimiento in my mixiote”, José Luis tokd me.
One of my oldest friends and another big fan of Pilar Ortiz, Peter Ross, enthusiastically joined me on my 2020 maiden voyage to El Pato. His take on the mixiote: “It’s astounding how some reasonably simple ingredients can bring out such depth in the flavor.”
I once read a recipe for mixiote de borrego that began something like this: “Dig a hole twice as big as the sheep…”
The traditional pit used in pre-Columbian days is still the way it’s prepared by El Pato. Six nights a week (the restaurant is closed on Tuesday), José Luis Artuega prepares and cooks barbacoa, consome and mixiote in a two foot deep pit. El Pato’s pit is lined on the bottom and sided with rocks. On top of this, a roaring wood fire is started and logs are added until there’s an intense heat. The fire is then allowed to reduce to embers and ash and the pit is covered to eliminate any oxygen getting into the fire. By the next morning, the lamb will be fall-of-the-bone tender.
I asked Jose Luis how he knows when the fire is at the right temperature to add the meat. He gave me the answer that I always hate to hear but that all chefs always seem to give: “You just know.”
Now I realize that I could go on and on about the joys of mixiote in San Miguel and a lot of people will still never try it. There’s a simple reason. Outside of Mexico, less than 10% of North Americans eat lamb regularly.
For those who don’t or won’t eat lamb, I do have another suggestion (though I admit, being a lamb snob, I’ve never eaten it). Try a mixiote that’s made with the meat that more North Americans outside of Mexico eat more of than any other. Yes, there’s also a chicken mixiote. Though lamb is their signature meat, El Pato serves a poultry version with the exact same sauce.
Finding good mixiote is difficult. I’ve looked for it, in vain, in a Mexican city with a population of over 21 million people. Yes, even in this nation’s capital, it’s difficult to find a food stand or restaurant that serves mixiote. In San Miguel we are blessed with a very basic (no bathrooms), very simple (gravel floor) but still very charming restaurant where we can experience one of the world’s greatest dishes. If you don’t believe me, check out Trip Advisor where El Pato is currently ranked #2 of 442 restaurants in San Miguel.
And don’t go through what I went through for the last six months. Don’t mish out.
El Pato moved recently from its location on Calzada de Estacion and is now located a little further east, around the corner, down a signless street, but right beside the bus station. It’s worth the struggle to find it. The restaurant is open every day but Tuesday from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm but might close earlier if they run out of that mixiote.