The rumor started to circulate back in November. Chef Marcela Bolaño and her partner Ximena de Léon Campomanes were opening a new restaurant, a new Asian restaurant.
I was intrigued. I was enthused. I was excited. But I wasn’t surprised. Marsala, their first San Miguel restaurant had quickly become one of my favorite and most frequent haunts and I already knew about Chef Marcela’s fascination with Asian cuisine.
Marcela and Ximena’s interest peaked on a trip to Southeast Asia in 2017 and it wasn’t long before pho and a Vietnamese pork loin salad appeared on Marsala’s menu. A pork belly bun followed them soon after.
“I remember one day Ximena saying to me. I think you have to slow down on adding these Asian dishes. That’s not who Marsala is”, Marcela told me.
I was almost counting the days to when their Asian restaurant would open when, on Christmas Eve, I received a message from Ximena. No exact date yet but the restaurant now had a name. The restaurant would be called Kǒuyīn. I had no idea what the word meant. I had no idea even what language it was.
December became January. January became February. I watched the media, the mail, the messages. Then, on February 17, a day that I knew was Marcela’s birthday, her fiftieth birthday, another message from Ximena. We’re opening today. With a menu attached.
I always try to give a restaurant a good month to work out the kinks, get rid of the glitches, massage the menu. On March 29, the day that Don Day’s Wife and I arrived at Kǒuyīn for lunch, the sign was still a work in progress on the wall.
We climbed the stairs to the rooftop (the elevator and a cozy indoor dining area are other works in progress), admiring a San Miguel view from a vantage point we’d never really experienced before.
As we walked in, Ximena and Marcela were there at a hightop. Ximena is the matter-of-fact half of the partnership. Marcela is the exuberant half.
“So what are you most proud of on the menu,” I asked.
“I’m proud of everything”, Marcela replied, with her usual effervescence. “I’m excited about absolutely anything and everything on the menu.”
Ximena showed us to our table and we did the traditional perusal. First of the surroundings, then the menu.
We liked the look. More bar than restaurant. Casual and comfy. A shallow pool (crying for koi) in front of us and the canvas cover over us giving it an “are we on the coast?” feeling. Little touches of Asia in the furniture and fixtures. The servers dressed as Communist Chinese laborers. The egrets building nests in the jacarandas an extra added attraction.
The menu though was a surprise. There are Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants. There are Thai restaurants, Korean restaurants. But Asian restaurants? Offering dishes from all over that continent. They’re as rare as a woman working a sushi bar.
And if this was an Asian restaurant, where were the usual clichés? Starting with the soups. Where was the pho? The ramen? The hot and sour? Or the miso?
After four months away from our first…or perhaps it’s our second…home in Toronto and suffering from dim sum withdrawal, we ordered the pork filled steamed buns and the Szechuan dumplings. Staying in China for our third choice, we chose the Peking duck rice bowl and, after Marcela stopped by and gave us an “absolutely, definitely, you must have the popcorn chicken”, despite Don Day’s Wife’s hesitancy about the accompanying blue cheese ice cream, we added it to the order.
In old-fashioned Chinese restaurants, when steamed buns arrived at the table, you usually played the “find the filling” game; the dough always dominated the dish. Chef Marcela’s steamed buns are the opposite with more moist minced pork than there is bread.
I like my dumplings with a little crisp and wasn’t disappointed when I lifted one from the plate and saw the nicely browned underside. The dipping sauce is one of those with a delayed hit. When it first enters the mouth, there’s a gentle sweetness. That quickly changes to a swift kick in the back of the throat. Then, a few moments later, you feel the watering in your eyes.
Order a water with lime at Kǒuyīn and you won’t get a wedge of fruit on a side plate. Instead, a flat black shot glass will arrive at your table filled with fresh juice. It’s such a novel and nice touch.
Speaking of novel containers, Kǒuyīn’s entire selection of plates and bowls is one of the most imaginative I’ve ever seen. The monotones and use of deep, rich colors enhance the Asian theme while, at the same time, they frame the food.
“Every plate was designed for an individual item on the menu”, Marcela told us.
“They’re pretty and they’re practical”, added Don Day’s Wife. “They also do a great job of holding the heat.”
The popcorn chicken is described as Korean on the menu. It could also be described as South Korea meets North Tonawanda for the sauce tastes an awful lot like that used on Buffalo wings. The batter is ultra-light and the chicken remarkably moist for what appears to be breast. And the blue-cheese ice cream? Well if you like a blue cheese dip on your Buffalo-style chicken, you’ll absolutely love it. And one last thing about the chicken: It’s on the starters section of the menu but the portion’s much more like a main.
There are three bowls on the Kǒuyīn’s menu. Peking duck is a favorite of ours but the necessity of remembering to order it in advance at Dragon Chino means we rarely get to eat it in San Miguel. So it was a treat to see the components of the dish served in a rice bowl at Kouyin and topped by something we’d never seen in a Chinese restaurant, a poached egg.
The bowl is a nice combination of crispy and creamy and if, like me, the skin is one of your favorite parts of Peking duck, you’ll welcome the generous quantity with its citrusey, five-spice flavor.
Chef Marcela told us that Kǒuyīn is Mandarin Chinese for accent. Which is very apropos for the restaurant. The full name of Ximena and Marcela’s first San Miguel restaurant is Marsala Cocina Con Acentos. At their second restaurant, even if it’s a well-recognized standard in Asian cuisine, Chef Marcela adds her little touch, her special accent to every dish.
We had held off on ordering the mains and were too stuffed to consider anything from the intriguing list or even sharing a postre.
“There’ll be more additions”, said Marcela, “I’m working on a few things”.
“Like sushi?”, I asked.
“No, no sushi”, she replied. “I love sushi but sushi’s all about the fish and, this far from the sea, it’s impossible to have the freshest fish, day-in and day-out. I am working on a ramen though and I know you like ramen. I’ll tell you what I’m going to put into it if you don’t tell anyone.”
I’m going to keep my promise but I’ll tell you I will definitely be back to try that ramen, plus a lot more of the menu. Kǒuyīn’s debut is one of the most compelling ever in this town. Our first impressions are going to make us very frequent visitors.
“Kǒuyīn is the restaurant Ximena and I have dreamed about; it’s my dream come true”, said Marcela Bolaño.
It’s also the type of restaurant that I’ve dreamed would someday open in San Miguel de Allende. Now my dream has also come true.
Kǒuyīn Asian Eatery is located in Hotel Apapacho, Bajada del Chorro 11, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 2:00 to 10:00 pm every day but Tuesday.