Marrakesh, come to Marrakesh
To the city of gold near the sky
Marrakesh, come to Marrakesh
Where the troubles of life drift on by
You don’t meet a lot of guys like J.J. Castañeda in San Miguel de Allende. He’s too big city, too fast talkin’, too street smart and, according to Don Day’s Wife, too ruggedly handsome.
There’s only one other San Miguelense that I can compare him too and that’s his mentor, another man with black-framed glasses, Donnie Masterton, a guy who may just be the smartest restauranteur in town.
“It was 2017, I was back in my home state of Texas when I got the call from Donnie”, said the chef. “It was Hey J.J., I want to talk about your future.”
“Mexico, I thought, crime and cartels, why would anyone in their right mind ever want to move there. But not very long after, actually after a few too many long tequilas in Casa Dragones, I said, Donnie, I accept your offer, though I’m not sure he’d actually made me one.”
The restaurant that Donnie Masterton hired J.J. Castañeda for was Casa Blanca 7. In 2018, it won San Miguel’s SMART Award as the town’s best new restaurant. In 2019, Donnie and J.J. made it two in a row when Casa Blanca’s sister restaurant, Fatima, took the prize.
“Yeh, we’ve now parted company”, said J.J., “but San Miguel is where I’m looking to spend the rest of my life. And Donnie Masterton and I will be best of friends forever. We’re like brothers with different mothers.”
Now, for the first time in his life, in the toughest time for restaurants in the history of my long life, J.J. Castañeda is running his own show. It’s a modest debut, not the big top, more of a sideshow, but J.J. Castañeda is as proud of what he’s putting on plates as I’ve ever heard him.
The place is Mesa Marrakesh. It continues J.J.’s fascination with Mediterranean/North African/Middle Eastern (yes, I know, too many slashes) cuisine.
“Some of these dishes go back a long way. They had their beginnings in a place in Palo Alto, California, with Donnie Masterton and I working together for the very first time”, said the chef. “Then Donnie went on his way and I went on to other things in the Bay Area.”
Mesa Marrakesh is in what can best (or perhaps worst) be called a gourmet food court. The theory is you come to a place (in this case Mercado del Carmen) and everyone can go to a different counter and satisfy their own tastebuds. The theory didn’t work at Mercado Centro in San Miguel. It didn’t work at Mercado Sano in San Miguel. And it doesn’t really work at Mercado del Carmen in San Miguel. But there are still three or four booths in Mercado del Carmen that are worth heading to, just for the individual experience. Mesa Marrakesh is one of them.
I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dips. Don Day’s Wife loves Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dips. There are four on Mesa Marrakesh’s menu all under the title Hummus which is a bit confusing as only one of the four contains garbanzo beans, aka chickpeas.
We tried to narrow our choice down to two but couldn’t. So I asked J.J. if he would plate three of them together for us. A “trio of dips” might even be a good addition to the food stand’s menu.
We thought the cauliflower with cucumber and mixed seeds was good.
We thought the other two dips were extraordinarily good. We hummed and hawed over which one was best.
The burnt eggplant with figs, bee pollen and local honey reignites memories of babaganoush but the flavors are even deeper, more earthy. It was my top choice.
Don Day’s Wife’s number one had the fresher face (and taste). Puréed spinach is combined with a sweet garlic clove, pine nuts, grilled panela (a Mexican cheese) and za’taar (a herb similar to oregano).
The dips are served on some excellent bread.
“Where do you buy pita in San Miguel?”, I asked J.J..
“You don’t buy it, you make it”, replied the chef. “It’s homemade.”
Mesa Marrakesh’s mains fall under the heading Kebabs on the menu. These are the kebabs of the Muslim world, the ones without skewers down the middle.
There’s a choice of lamb, chicken, beef, or eggplant and mushroom. There’s a choice of three ways to have them served: With french fries on pita, on couscous, or on hummus.
You don’t have to know much about me to know that I chose the lamb with fries and pita. What arrived at the table was a visual wow. The meat had that rich taste of lamb you only get when there’s a generous amount of fat in the grind. The tahini, harissa, mint, flor de calabaza and chinese pomegranate were as good on the tongue as they were on the eye.
As a side I chose the couscous that came with cauliflower, cilantro and a generous amount of mixed seeds. The dish had me thinking why do I always choose rice or noodles and so seldom choose the nutty taste of couscous.
It’s hard to put a handle on J.J. Castañeda’s chosen cuisine. Couscous shouts Morocco as does the name Marrakesh. But other dishes suggest the northern side of the Mediterranean stretching from Spain right across to Lebanon.
Whatever name you put on it it, the medley of tastes is very sophisticated, very exotic, very intricate, very eclectic, and we’re very blessed that we can experience those flavors in the middle of Mexico in such a casual and economical atmosphere.
A lot of chefs have come and gone from Mercado del Carmen. Not a single one of the original tenants from four years ago is still around. I asked J.J. Castañeda if he was in for the long haul.
“I’m liking it. Yes, we could have more traffic. Yes, I’d like more delivery orders”, said J.J..
“For so many years, I’ve been working for everybody else, making them famous, now I’m doing it alone. Who wouldn’t like that?”
“I think the concept works. This is fast food taken up a few notches which is what a lot of people want. I’d like to take my menu, take Mesa Marrakesh to other places similar to Mercado del Carmen, to other cities.”
“And a more conventional, bricks and mortar restaurant?”, I asked. “Do you see that in your future.”
“My eyes are open”, he replied, “wide open”.
Mesa Marrakesh is located in Mercado del Carmen, Pila Seca #19, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 1:00 to 9:00 pm, Tuesday through Thursday; 1:00 to 10:00 pm, Friday and Saturday; 1:00 to 8:00 pm, Sunday; and closed on Monday. For delivery ($60 extra), call 415 101 5084. Lyrics to Marrakesh credited to Michael Cretu and Michael Kunze, Peermusic Publishing.