12/29/09

Bit By Bittman: The Condesa Market


I was recently invited to a dinner where I met renowned NYTimes food writer and chef Mark Bittman. As the Bittman’s were visiting Mexico City for only a few days, I suggested taking them to the San Juan market in the centro, my favorite. Mark, a world weary traveler, had already been there once or twice, and didn’t want to go again, but when I described our local Condesa tianguis, his ears pricked up. “It’s as good as the Marché Aligre, according to my Parisian friend Caroline", I championed. Well, he took me up on the suggestion and a couple of days later a report on our Tuesday eyefeast appeared as his column in the New York Times: see link.
The Condesa “Mercado sobre Ruedas” ( market on wheels) appears every Tuesday morning in the streets surrounding the infamous Edificio Condesa, AKA “Peyton Place” so-named because of the notorious scandals of its artsy residents. There are other attractive daily markets throughout the city, but none beat this one for pure picturesque-ness. The fruits and vegetables, many of them exotically tropical, are gleaming and radiant, piled high in neat , bijou–like displays. Sweet and perfumy aromas waft about, inviting you to buy with your nose as well as your eyes. “Try some papaya!” encourages a vendor as you pass, “PAPAYA!!!” he pleads, in disbelief that anyone could possibly pass up such a treat. I took my sister-in- law Kathryn here, just before her return to Florida. As she passed the fruit aisle, eyes half closed, taking in the bouquet of sweet perfume, a defeated look came over her face. “It’s just not fair” is all she could utter.


I do my shopping here every Tuesday, and I always eat at the multiple mouth-watering street stalls that set up. The “food court” on Agustin Melgar offers a veritable encyclopedia of Mexican antojitos. Stop for some of the best carnitas in the city, or sit with regulars at the long table where tacos or flautas of succulent, slowly baked lamb barbacoa are served with a bowl of heartwarming broth. Across the aisle, beany sopes, earthy blue tlacoyos, and golden quesadillas offer good vegetarian lunch options. Carnivores should not pass up a taco of mixiotes, shredded mutton steamed in a maguey cactus leaf, spicy and fragrant with cumin; it will remind you of an Indian curry. When in a dietetic mood I head for the seafood stand and order a ceviche cocktail, avoiding the tempting but off the calorie chart fried fish filets, albeit with great difficulty. At the end of the line are more flautas, salty grilled cecina and a huge table of taco “guisados” of all sorts – I especially like the mole verde. All this can be washed down with a fresh juice prepared by two sisters at a little table nearby.
Thanks, Mark, for helping to put our Tuesday market on the map. From Bayless to Bourdain to Bittman , the word is out: Mexican Street Food is in!

A note to my readers: I have inaugurated a new blog as a forum for my non-Mexican writings.
See GOOD FOOD PLANET

***Read Nicholas Gilman interviewed (in Spanish) in Mexico's prestigious La Jornada - see link

11/30/09

The Mercado Medellin Night Market

For those visiting or living in el D.F., be sure to pass by the Mercado Medellín night market to see the Christmas market in full throttle. Stands line the east side of the market and besides offering Christmas trees feature decorations of all kinds, some from China and some handmade.
But even better, are the puestos which open after dark and remain in service until midnight. These offer a variety of antojitos from pozole to enchiladas to sopes. Jolly diners fill long picnic tables set up in the street. There is warm punch to wash it all down and flan or buñuelos with honey for dessert. A don't miss Navidad tradition in the city. The Mercado Medellín is located between Monterrey and Medellín, Coahuila and Campeche in the Colonia Roma. If you arrive by Metrobus, get off at Campeche and walk east. Nearest metro would be Chilpancingo. Open seven days a week until past midnight. The night market will be there through December 23rd.


11/17/09

Holy Mole! The Mexican National Dish



'Mas mexicano que mole', goes the saying, and no food better represents the spirit of Mexico than this famous dark, rich and spicy sauce.” Isn’t that the one made with chocolate?” people often ask when the subject turns to mole, (pronounced “MOH-lay”) but chocolate is the least of it. While some of the best known moles do indeed include chocolate amongst their many ingredients (the dark ones of Puebla and Oaxacan for example), many do not.
What is mole, really? The word derives from the nahuatl “molli” which means a sauce of ground chilies and nuts or seeds and spices. Perhaps coincidentally moler means to grind in Spanish. The Enciclopedia Gastronómica de México lists 37 varieties of moles from 21 states. It is generally agreed that mole is made of chilies, dried or fresh, spices, herbs, vegetables or fruit, and thickened with seeds, nuts or corn masa. Truly a celebratory dish, in most Mexican families it is reserved for special occasions. Making mole from scratch is a laborious process – some recipes call for up to 100 ingredients, although 15-20 is the norm. It is usually poured over poultry, most often chicken but sometimes turkey or duck, and occasionally pork, rabbit, even iguana. Non-Mexicans, used to a main course of meat augmented by a little sauce, often miss the point: the sauce IS the dish. That small piece of meat floating in a pool of mole is simply there to accompany the sauce to your mouth.
Eating mole may be easy, but making it is another matter..

Culinary historian Jesús Flores Y Escalante writes that in the preface to a recipe for mole poblano, his great grand-mother emphasizes that a minimum 25 ingredients are necessary. Her recipe included:
250g chile mulatos
250g chile pasilla
300g chile ancho
6 chile chipotles (3 mecos and 3 mora grandes)
250 g sesame seeds
250g almonds
½ kg tomatos
2 large onions
1 head garlic
8 allspice
8 cloves
1 stick cinnamon
1 tb cilantro seeds
1 tb anis seeds
a pinch of cumin seeds
2 tortillas, fried golden
100g peanuts
50g pumpkin seeds
1 piloncillo (cone of brown suger)
4 tablets chocolate
¼ kg raisins
1 plantain, not very ripe
1 bolillo (roll)
½ kg manteca (lard)
All these ingredients are fried or roasted, then ground and incorporated into the sauce, which is then cooked for hours. And don’t forget to prepare the turkey!

The state of Oaxaca has more varieties of moles, but Puebla’s mole poblano is by far the most celebrated.. Laura Esquivel describes its preparation for a wedding in Like Water For Chocolate – the scene in the movie showing its laborious concoction is memorable. Legend has it that nuns of the convent of Santa Clara in Puebla, were called upon to feed a visiting archbishop. Finding their larder bare, they put together a sauce made of everything they had, cooked it for hours, and threw it over an old turkey, the only creature available. One version even has them praying for a recipe – an angel swoops down and provides. These stories are certainly apocryphal, as similar sauces existed since pre-Hispanic times. In the 16th century, Franciscan monk Bernardo de Sahagún describes an Aztec wedding at which a dish he calls “molli” is served to the bride by her mother-in-law – the newlyweds disappear into the bedroom shortly thereafter.

All Mexican markets sell prepared moles, either in paste or dry ground form. They are easy to prepare – just make a “sofrito” of onion, garlic and tomato in the blender with a little water or broth. Sauté this mixture in some oil, then add the mole paste, turning and mixing the ingredients with the back of a spoon. Then, little by little, very slowly, add the hot stock, mixing and turning. The trick is to stop when the sauce reaches the consistency of heavy cream – it’s easy to add too much liquid, so be careful. Pour over previously braised chicken, or heated tortillas. A good vegetarian option is to serve mole over cauliflower –sounds odd, but the flavors combine well. And be sure to decorate with sesame seeds, sliced white onion and, if you are feeling celebratory, crema.


A few of my favorite places to enjoy moles in Mexico City are:
Fonda Mi Lupita
Calle Buentono 22, near Delicias, Centro
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm-6 pm
This tiny fonda, offers only sweet, chocolate-y, mole poblano; it is among the best in the city. Order chicken, either pechuga or pierna, or enchiladas, or simply mole with rice and torti¬llas, all served with the traditional garnish of raw onion rings, sesame seeds and crum¬bled queso fresco,. They also offer mole to take out.

La Bella Lula
Calle Río Lerma 86 (between Río Rhin and Río Sena)
Colonia Cuauhtémoc
Tel: 5207-6356
Open daily 10am - 7pm
There are branches in Coyoacán and San Angel:
- Miguel Ángel de Quevedo 652,
-Corregidora no. 5, corner Av. Revolución,

This popular Oaxacan restaurant is a good place to try the southern version of mole. Oaxaca is renowned for its “seven moles”: negro, amarillo, coloradito, colorado, verde, chichilo, and almendrado. Five of these seven moles are on the menu, but the almendrado stands out--sweet and tart with a complex fruity flavor. The tortillas and salsas are top notch here; the ambi¬ence is folkloric and festive.

El Bajío
Avenida Cuitláhuac 2709, Colonia Obrera Popular
Tel. 5234-3763.
www.carnitaselbajio.com.mx

Three Branches:
-Parque Delta Mall, Av. Cuauhtémoc 462,
Colonia Narvarte
Tel. 5538-1188
-Alejandro Dumas 7, Polanco
Tel. 5281-8245
-Plaza Parque Reforma 222
Tel. 5511-9124


Chef Carmen Titita, author of several cookbooks, is a big name in the Mexico City culinary scene.
Her original restaurant, located north of Polanco, features many traditional dishes. The duck in black mole (“de la abuela”) is truly the best I’ve tasted. Also in the menu is pipian verde, and an unusual mole blanco, thickened with corn masa. The menu in all four locations is the same; the Reforma and Polanco branches are the only ones open at night..

Azul y Oro
Centro Cultural Universitario, on the sec¬ond floor above the bookstore (near Sala Nezahualcóyotl), Ciudad Universitaria
Tel: 5622-7135
Open Sunday-Tuesday, 10am-6pm
Wednesday-Saturday 10am-8pm

Chef and culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s restaurant is off the usual tourist path, but worth the detour. Featuring Oaxacan influences with a modern twist, the changing menu is varied and reason¬ably priced. Duck ravioli with black mole is a lighter way to try the dark stuff, and the enmoladas Tlaxcala style are an interesting variation of poblano mole, slightly sweet, very fruity.
Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved

11/5/09

Turkish Delight: Istanbul Turkish Cuisine


For chowhounds like me, the opening of Mexico City’s first Turkish restaurant is welcome news. A few months ago, three friends, Burak Ozsalman, Cenk Oba and Ozkan Alkan, arrived from Turkey with little more than their suitcases and a good idea. The result is Istanbul Turkish Cuisine, a comfortable, unpretentious place with an outdoor seating area a few blocks north of Reforma, serving authentic Turkish food. A large Turkish-speaking family occupied one of the tables during our last visit--"real" people are always a good omen in a foreign restaurant.

Turkish food is characterized by the use of lots of fresh vegetables, smaller servings of meat or fish, and the judicious use of herbs and spices; some diners used to spicier Mexican food might find it bland, but I found is subtle and savory. Like Mexicans, Turks like to spend a lot of time over their meals, which are served as a big feast, with many plates set on the table at once. Meze (small appetizers) are the specialty here, and Istanbul offers over 150 varieties of them, although only 7 or 8 are featured at any given time—the menu changes with the seasons. I liked the maydanoz salatasi , a salad similar to tabouleh, made with parsley, cracked wheat and good olive oil. The patlikan salatasi, a smoky, roasted eggplant dip, and the manca, spinach in yogurt, were fresh and flavorful.

A dozen main dishes are on the menu, including kebaps and parrilladas (grilled meats) - mostly lamb, which is unusual in Mexico. There are several fish options, including a roasted fish of the day - all served with vegetables or salad. Under platillos caseros, you will find coban kavurma, chopped lamb with tomatoes, onions and green pepper, fragrant with cumin, served with rice. Desserts such as the postre de chabacano estilo turko (dried apricots in caramel sauce, served with rich, eggy home-made ice cream) or baked rice pudding, are well worth the calories.
This is home-style food, nothing fancy in its concept or presentation, but undoubtedly
authentic. Prices are reasonable, and the service is friendly. Both our Mexican waitress and one of the Turkish owners were very helpful in explaining the menu and style of eating Turkish food. Istanbul is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding restaurant scene here in Mexico City.

Istanbul Turkish Cuisine
Río Pánuco 163, Colonia Cuauhtémoc
Tel. 5511-2482
Open daily 11:30-1AM
$200-250 per person

10/9/09

My Favorite Mexican Foods and Where to Eat Them - Part 2

My search for the Taquería Holy Grail, serving either salsas verde or roja, continues to be a major part of my life. Sometimes it takes me to parts of town I didn't know exist and which don't appear in my 1998 edition of the Guia Roji. I've learned to trust no one but myself.

SEAFOOD COCKTAILS

Seafood cocktails, or cocteles de mariscos come in many varieties: shrimp, octopus, crab, and ceviches of various fish and sea creatures. They are one of the joys of Mexican eating. Mexico City is paradise for a seafood lover like me. The Mercado de La Viga, our astonishingly huge central fish market, is stocked by truckers who make the 8-hour trek daily from either coast. The gaps are filled by fresh trout and other odd aquatic creatures such as the crayfish-like acamayas from nearby mountain streams. There are many small and large restaurants there serving undoubtedly fresh seafood, and the shopping is glorious. Best to go early, as by 1 or 2, most of the stalls are closed. This is the only place I have found things like skate or scallops with any regularity. It is located east of the centro, best reached by taxi or car.
When I'm in a maritime mood but don't feel like a long shlep, I head to the centro to the humble street stall El Caguamo (Calle Ayuntamiento, near the corner of López) which I consider one of the city’s best places for seafood (caguamo is slang for a liter-size beer bottle). Half of Mexico City seems to agree with me, as it’s always packed. While common wisdom may tell you not to eat fish on the street, the offerings are exquisitely fresh, set on ice and behind glass--and the turnaround is swift. I have interviewed many devoted customers who swear they’ve never regretted eating here; and neither have I. The ceviches of jaiba, pescado, calamar or pulpo, (crab, fish, squid or octopus), made with chopped tomato, chili, onion and cilantro, augmented with lime juice and olive oil, are out of this world – just the right proportion of sour/herb aroma. They can be eaten as a coctél in a glass or on a tostada.
Alternatively, the sprawling Mercado San Pedro de los Pinos is famous for its seafood stalls. It is located an easy walk from its eponymous metro stop, south of Chapultapec Park. On wekends you are likely to hear live music.

TACOS AL PASTOR
Tacos al Pastor are the most "Chilango" or Mexico City food of all, perhaps the only one really of the capital itself. It appeared in the 1950’s with the arrival of Lebanese immigrants. Pork is marinated in chili and spices (recipes varying from stand to stand) and roasted on a vertical revolving skewer (known as a pastor in Spanish), sliced off by the taquero, and served as an open taco. A sliver of pineapple, chopped cilantro, onion and a selection of salsas top it all off.
One of my favorite places to eat tacos al pastor (sometimes called tacos arabes) is El Huequito (which means “the little hole”), a tiny operation on Ayuntamiento 21, near the corner of López, in the Centro Histórico. Around since 1959, it was among the first places in the city to serve tacos al pastor. At El Huequito, the sliced meat is swathed in a moderately picante salsa of chile de árbol, enhanced with chopped onion and cilantro, all rolled up in a small tortilla. Several intriguing salsas are available for serious chileros. The meat is juicy and succulent, the smoky grilled aroma lingering until you take the next bite. Washed down with an ice-cold horchata or agua de Jamaica, these 9-peso morsels are pure corazón mexicano. A good alternative is El Tizoncito, Tamaulipas 122, in La Condesa (with many branches around town).
Watch my video broadcast on this topic:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYvxWSyqZ0E

COCHINITA PIBIL
The cooking of the Yucatan, with its spicy, tart, and fruity flavors, is among the most distinctive and exciting in Mexico. Fortunately, Yucatecan food is readily available here in the capital.
The Yucatan peninsula is geographically isolated from the rest of the country, so its culture, heavily influenced by Mayan civilization, is unique. Spanish, Caribbean and even Lebanese (who controlled the hemp industry in the 19th century) immigrants have made cultural and gastronomic contributions. The food is characterized by very hot sauces (typical of very hot places) and local ingredients like pumpkin seed powder, red onion, sour orange, sweet pepper, lime, a marinating paste known as "achiote", capsicum pepper (xcat ik), habanero pepper, and coriander, as well as the aforementioned lima . Turkey, wild boar, venison and cazón (a small shark) traditionally provide the protein.
The peninsula’s most famous dish is cochinita pibil. Shredded pork is marinated in a paste of citrus and achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted until it’s falling-apart tender. The meat is eaten as tacos with pickled red onions and fiery habanero salsa. Alternatively, it is piled on a thick tortilla over a slather of black bean paste, and called a ‘panucho’. I’ve tried just about every venue for Yucatecan food in el D.F. over the years, and none has matched the quality of Coox Hanal (pronounced “coosh anAHL”). This popular restaurant, located on the second floor at Isabel la Católica 83, near Mesones, was founded by ex-boxer Raúl Salazar from Mérida, and it offers Yucatecan fare just as it's done in Don Raúl's hometown. Meaty, spicy, the flavors distinct--the ‘cochinita pibil’ at Coox Hanal hits all the marks.
The best alternative, and a close runner up, is Exquisito Cochinita Pibil, Campeche 122 (across from the Mercado Medellín) in Colonia Roma . This small simply-named fonda serves excellent Yucatecan food - the sopa de lima, made to order, is as fragrant as it should be, and of course the cochinita is succulent. The beautiful array of salsas is tempting, but watch out: one is more picante than the next.

9/22/09

The Fall and Rise of Rome – Two new upscale dining options in Colonia Roma

Lovely Colonia Roma, once home to La Capital’s ‘hoi polloi’ and cultural community, has seen better days. Mexico’s first planned neighborhood was designed at the turn of the 20th century on a Haussmann ideal of mixed use, i.e. middle to upper class housing. Tree-lined boulevards of single family homes interspersed with over-the-top mansions were equipped with running water, city sewer, electric and even telephone lines. Until the 1940’s, La Roma was the place to live. A cultural community thrived here well into the 1950’s – William S. Burroughs famously shot his wife in a game of William Tell gone awry at a bar here. After WWII (and the revolution), American suburban style living supplanted the baronial servant-heavy Porfiriato scene and the wealthy moved west to Polanco, or auto-and-swimming pool-friendly Las Lomas. La Roma went into a long decline. The ’85 earthquake, which hit this area heavily, put another nail in the coffin; much went to rack and ruin. Now, old homes, many in poor condition, feature auto repair shops, or other less-than-glamorous businesses, on their ground floors. Some buildings were demolished to make way for those mirrored glass behemoths that leer mockingly at the populace. Many streets, especially those south of the main drag (Av. Alvaro Obregon) are unkempt – residents toss their garbage with careless abandon, recalling Dickens’ London.
But Roma has been rising from its ashes in recent years. Savvy investors bought dirt-cheap houses and renovated them, while some of the larger mansions were turned into schools or offices or gay discos. A walk around any square block is a virtual tour of 20th century architecture, from neo-classical to high art nouveau and deco (see Jim Johnston’s Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for an excellent walking tour). Recently some of the more spectacular buildings have been meticulously restored. Others sit waiting redemption. A few mansions, windows shuttered or cloaked in flocked drapes, still seem to be homes to their original Norma Desmond-like inhabitants. A renewed appreciation of the architecture and the area’s proximity to the center and to its pricier neighbor, La Condesa, has made Roma appealing to artists and yuppies alike. Their presence has created a market for more upscale dining options. Aside from the dependably mediocre but glamorous Casa Lamm, there has been little to tempt the discerning palette west of the Insurgentes dividing line. Two new upscale establishments attempt to fill this gastronomic gap.
Sobrinos is an offshoot of the ever-popular see-and-be-seen Condesa venue Primos. Their menus are similar. While the name may conger up a Greek diner or a local mafia hangout, the food is mostly Mexican –nicely presented, satisfying. The subtitle “cocina del barrio” implies informality, a menu for sharing with friends. Divided into surf and turf, the bill of fare offers light Mexican classic antojitos such as tacos, tostadas, and seafood cocktails. A few heartier international dishes such as camarones marinera or steak tartare change with the season. My favorite from the sandwich section is the dense and savory updated Jalisco classic torta ahogada de pato. A crusty hunk of baguette is filled with duck ‘carnitas’ and bathed in a spicy red salsa – you eat it with a knife and fork. I 've noticed that ‘designer hamburgers’ have arrived in Mexico with a vengeance. The burger here was excellent. The meat is generously thick and of good quality, mercifully served on good crusty bread instead of a pillowy bun. The golden, crispy papas fritas on the side were much appreciated. The wine list is varied and prices are reasonable. Sobrinos sports the newly discovered (here in Mexico) retro bistro décor – old fashioned mosaic floors, wooden café tables with mis-matched chairs, chalkboard menus, and, thank goodness, no TVs in sight. It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Update (2012): A new member of the family, Padrinos, is located in the lovely patio in the centro at Isabel la Católica 30.

Restaurante Italiano Cabiria, (Closed as of 2012) is, as my grandmother used to say, the “ritzier” of the two places. The setting is lovely but out of keeping with down-at-the-heels Plaza Luís Cabrera, a few blocks south of Alvaro Obregón. Its two story ultra-modern design features full-length glass windows overlooking the plaza, a pleasant setting for a Sunday comida. I’m not sure if Roma is ready for a Polanco-style restaurant complete with black-clad hostess and corresponding prices. The large menu is classic Italian, from the Umbria and Tuscany regions – from antipasti to pastas made in situ, rissoti, meat and fish. There are many choices, perhaps too many. I have not yet seen enough diners to justify such a large menu - they should scale down. Nevertheless, the food is well prepared, the choices intriguing. On a recent visit, a classic tortellini in brodo, followed by a duck breast in orange sauce were both well prepared and flavorful. La clásica (ensalada) Caprese, however, was a loser: mediocre mozzarella, tasteless tomatoes, and Mexican basil, which cannot be considered a substitute for the Italian. Why put it on the menu if you can’t do it right? Likewise, a meat and tomato ragú over pasta was dull. They’re trying hard, and given the paucity of really good Italian restaurants in the city, I'll give Sobrinos another chance; I wish them well.

Both places are open for dinner, a real plus for visitors to the area.

Sobrinos
Av. Alvaro Obregón 110 (at Orizaba)
Tel. 5264 7466 or 5264 6059
Average $200 per person

Cabiria
Plaza Luís Cabrera 7 (Orizaba, between Guanajuato and Zacatecas)
Tel. 5584 5051 or 5564 1146
Average $400 per person



Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved

9/7/09

My New York / Mi México


“When faced with the choice of two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”
–Mae West

I’m a romantic at heart. Figuratively munching madeleines before I even heard of Proust, I’ve looked to the past for inspiration. A native New Yorker, I spent my early years in Greenwich Village, then still a mythical place inhabited by Bohemians and Italian immigrants. Later we moved up to the West Side, the world of Zabar’s, the Thalia cinema, and suffering Jewish intellectuals like Woody Allen, and my father. My twenties were spent in Brooklyn. I then made the big leap over psychological and physical borders to another world, Mexico, where I’m now a citizen. I’m here to stay.
Fragments of ‘my’ New York, of the ‘good old days’, float around my memory like specks of dust in a city sunbeam. Many of those memories are culinary: a 25-cent slice of pizza burning the roof of my mouth; a crusty, smoky pretzel, or sweet, woodsy coal-roasted chestnuts. There’s a Jewish deli in my mind where I fondly recall the sweet and acrid smell of pickles, the aroma of smoked fish, sliced pastrami waiting to be piled onto corn-rye bread, cole slaw and potato salad heaped on the plate, while chickens endlessly twirl on their rotisserie in the window luring hungry customers in with their crackling and dripping charred skin.

I explored the broken down river docks that looked to a mysterious far away land: New Jersey. Then, cold and exhausted, my friend Duke and I would run over to the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street for a free hot chocolate (if our waitress friend was on that day). We passed by furry animals hanging in Ottomanelli’s butcher shop window, sacrificial offerings for some Italian mamma’s Sunday dinner. I ate spaghetti and meatballs served by an old, black-clad Sicilian woman, while comfortably seated in a worn leather booth in some antique trattoria.

‘My’ New York was a black and white city; it looked like the foreign movies that made the rounds of the 8th St. Playhouse. Color was added as an afterthought, in little dabs of paint like the dots of red Corot used to bring his landscapes to life. Later my New York started to change. Bohemians gave way to hippies, then to politically minded progressives. They began to leave, victims of the Darwinian natural selection known as the real estate market. They moved to the country or to San Francisco. The Italians grew up and headed to the suburbs in New Jersey. The old Jews died, or ‘went down’, to Florida. And I moved to Mexico.

My arty parents had lived and traveled around Mexico during their exploratory early years. “In those days we knew you had to go to Mexico,” my mother said, explaining their fascination with the cultural renaissance going on south of the border. They bought a surplus army jeep and drove to Mexico City in 1949, intending to stay. But ‘their’ New York called them back, as it did later when, seeking to escape oppressive McCarthyism, they went to Europe ‘to live forever’. My parents passed their love of all things Mexican on to me. One of the earliest songs I learned was La Llorona, that mournful hymn of regret. We danced the Mexican Hat Dance in second grade, at PS 41. The aroma of roasting tortillas was familiar to me from regular visits to Casa Moneo on 14th street.

It was in 1973, when I landed in Mérida, that I became a mexo-phile. I think it was my first taste of sopa del lima that did it. A piece of Mexico attached itself to my soul like an orchid to a tree trunk.

Returning to Mexico City in 1986, I was lured by the sordid, thrilling cauldron of mysterious activity. The past lingered over a decrepit, crumbling centro histórico, which had been brought to its knees by the recent earthquake. The centro intrigued me: I observed dusty alleys and hallways into which scurried enigmatic characters who disappeared into their anachronistic places of business. Photographers, hidden under a cloth, with a huge camera like those in silent movies, took oval sepia portraits. Quack doctors cured things you didn’t know existed. Stores offered statues of the Virgin, artificial limbs, and electric appliances whose designs hadn’t been updated in decades. Nightclubs featured old-fashioned cabaret performers, acts with names like Yolanda y Su Perla Negra.

Food decidedly caught my attention. Alluring aromas emanated from ancient taquerías, whose aquamarine walls were blackened by decades of greasy smoke. Bow-tie clad waiters served now extinct beverages and midnight breakfasts at the timeworn Café Cinco de Mayo. Old-timers imbibed at century-old pulquerías and cantinas, downing the free botanas and reminiscing about better times.

I boldly entered these places as if I belonged, like Alice in some low-rent Latin/urban wonderland. I embraced this world of the living past with open arms, exploring, using only a guidebook filled with decades-old tourist clichés. The imminent danger of a midnight stroll up the busy Eje Central, remnants of its show business past still evident, never occurred to me. I thought the pimps and whores lurking in doorways were somehow my friends and would protect me. Fortunately nothing bad ever happened. I entered a romantic and imaginary world of the past, now part of my mythical self. I decided to stay.

Nowadays I visit New York to see friends and family, shop for clothes, take in a Vermeer at the Met, eat dim sum in Chinatown and Thai food in Queens (a borough I’d only been to by mistake when I lived in New York). I go to the Carnegie Deli for a pastrami sandwich, and it still tastes like it’s supposed to. A guy on 8th and Broadway still toasts his pretzels the old way. The subway is as loud and mean as always and a few ancient “no spitting,” signs remain in place in the Times Square station. But much has changed. I’m not bitter about the differences that old-timers gripe about, the ‘young people who haven’t a clue’, the remodeled MOMA, the exorbitant rents. I got over that.

New York is in color now, digitalized and user friendly. It no longer knows me, and I don’t know it. Its strangely unfamiliar streets unroll before me like an Oriental carpet whose pattern I don’t recognize. My New York is frozen in time like an Edward Hopper painting, a still life on the counter of some long gone Madison Avenue coffee shop: my mother’s half empty, lipstick-kissed coffee cup, a lonely cheesecake awaiting a customer under its glass dome nearby. My New York has become somebody else’s New York.

Mi México es ahora, actual. Tortilla and chilied cooking smells have become the norm for me. I know where to get off the bus by spying banal landmarks from the corner of my eye like other Chilangos do. The past no longer dominates reality. I still go to the centro. I even have lunch at a little old fonda that looks like those stopped-in-time, el-México-que-se-nos-fue sort of places. I continue to explore the back streets of the Merced and Tepito. And it’s still magical.

I now see that ‘my New York’ never really existed. Nor did mi México. They were and they are in my mind. I belong to neither and to both. There’s no place like home…

A note to my readers: for those who read Spanish, I, along with
essayist David Lida, am featured in a cover spread in Mexico's
El Universal, Menú section this week. Click here to see it!
Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved

8/24/09

Seasons Greetings Part II - Nuts to you!

Late July through early October is walnut (nuez de castilla) and pomegranate (granada) season in central Mexico. Walnut vendors who ply their wares,from popular markets to the metro, arrive in the city in droves from the hilly and cool-climated states surrounding the capital. These are fresh nuts, usually sold partially opened. The meat, laborious to extract, is almost green, wet and uncured, and if not used immmediately, must be dried or roasted: if packed as is, it will become moldy.
Although walnuts are enjoyed as snacks, they are principally used to make the rich sauce served over stuffed chiles – the patriotic Chiles en Nogada - next week I will report on
this emblematic dish. The cultivation of walnuts originated in Persia and they were brought to Mediterranean Europe by early spice traders; they then made their way to the new world with the Spaniards. Their brief seasonal appearance is also much appreciated in Spain and France today.
Also originally native to Arabia are pomegranates. These spectacular fruits have been much celebrated in art and literature as symbols of fertility, due to their physical beauty and plethora of seeds. Here, they are consumed en mass – mountains are sold at every market in the country. And, of course, the seeds dot the surface of the aformentioned chile en nogada, providing a pleasingly tart counterbalance to the heavy cream and nut sauce.
As neither ingredients are commonly used in other traditional Mexican dishes, I have provided two of my favorite recipes which together utilize all three - counting the mushrooms of last week’s post - extraordinary summer-fall gifts from the Gods.





















Chicken with Pomegranate & Porcini


This recipe comes from the extraordinary tome The Silver Spoon, sort of an Italian Joy of Cooking, which only recently has been translated into English and Spanish. The recipe most likely of Sicilian or Sardinian origin, as those cuisines incorporate some North African influences.

1 chicken cut up into 12 pieces
2 tb olive oil
3 tb butter
1 large onion
½ cup (about 30 grams) dried porcini or chanterelles, re-hydrated in a cup of hot water.
The juice of 4 pomegranates, about 1 cup
1 pomegranate, for seeds to garnish
4 sage leaves, chopped
2-3 tb crema (crème fraiche)
a little flour for dusting
salt and pepper

Wash and dry the chicken; dust in flour and brown, in a large skillet or low clay cazuela in the oil and butter; set aside.
Saute the onions; wring out the mushrooms and add to the pan. Sauté for a couple of minutes.
Add the chicken, pomegranate juice, mushroom water, and sage. Cook over a low flame, partially covered, for about an hour, or until chicken is falling
apart tender. If there is a lot of liquid, remove chicken and boil down to concentrate. Stir in crema at the last minute and adjust salt and pepper. Remove to serving platter.
Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and serve. This dish goes nicely with fresh egg fettuccini.
Serves 4-6


Spinach & Walnut Salad

This is a Syrian salad as I have adapted it from the excellent Street Food By Tom Kime
As there are many Syrians in Mexico, undoubtedly someone here will be making it.

2 tb olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
¼ kilo (1/2 lb) spinach leaves, tough stems removed
1/3 cup walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
½ cup thick plain yogurt
½ ts sugar (optional)
20 fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
seeds of 1 small or ½ large pomegranate, about 3/4 cup
Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy pan over medium-high heat and cook the onion 4-5 minutes until pale golden.
Add the spinach and cook for a couple of minutes to wilt. Remove from the heat, empty spinach mixture into a shallow bowl and wipe the pan dry. Roast the walnuts in the dry pan for a few minutes, being careful not to burn them; cool and coarsely chop.
Mix yogurt with garlic and sugar, add a little salt.
Toss spinach with yogurt, place on serving platter, garnish with mint and pomegranate leaves.
Serves 4

BOING!
On another note, the Pasqual company, who makes Boing!, is an independent, employee-owned maker of soft drinks, and is on the verge of collapse. This is due to the hard-sell tactics of Coca Cola and other monster foreign based drink sellers who control 96% of the market. Boing! is made with fresh fruit juice (OK, and more than a wee bit of sugar), is delicious, comes in groovy vintage-looking bottles and is truly Mexican. Support it!

Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved

8/11/09

My Favorite Mexican Foods and Where to Eat Them - Part 1

Since 1978 I have been looking for Authentic Mexican Food in Mexico. The real, the undiscovered - by foreigners, anyway. The search for the miraculous, as my friend Stan likes to put it.
I never did find a guide book (or person for that matter) to help me, so I wrote one and became the guide myself. I have eaten my way through the capital as well as far beyond the D.F.'s borders, from Mérida to Monterrey. I've wined and dined in Polanco, eaten worms in Oaxaca, munched on armadillo in Chiapas, hitched and hiked and grifted, too. Still, certain simple (or not so simple) dishes, seemingly common, remain my favorites. Unrivaled examples of all of them are available within the confines of the Federal District. With a good metro map in hand I invite the reader to travel this mouthwatering inventory of Mexican classics.

1. FLAUTAS
I always ignored these seemingly calorie-laden bombs until I read an article asking famous Mexicans to name their favorite foods. That of alternative dramaturgue Jesusa Rodriquez was flautas. I had to find out more about them. They have since become my favorite antojito (corn-based snack). Elongated rolled tortillas (hence the name which means “flute”) are filled with potatos, chicken, cheese or barbacoa (roast lamb), deep- fried golden brown, then topped with cream and salsa verde, and sprinkled with grated queso fresco and shredded lettuce. For reasons unbeknownst to anybody, Flautas are usually served with caldo de gallina, a chicken soup better than any Jewish grandmother can make. My favorites come from a nameless stand in the Condesa on the west side of Calle Chilpancingo (fourth from the corner of Baja California by the metro Chilpancingo stop). Open Monday through Saturday, they do such a booming business that they have expanded into the facing storefront. A chilled mango Boing! is the perfect accompaniment.

2. TOSTADAS
Tostadas are the quintessential Mexican antojito. A crispy fried tortilla piled high with a meat (or fish) filling, then garnished with lettuce or cabbage, cream and salsa; there are infinate variations. Seafood tostadas can be especially spectacular.
In the middle of the Coyoacan market you’ll find a gastronomic art installation at Tostadas de Coyoacán – dozens of huge plates of mouth-watering tostada toppings. Shrimps, chicken, crab, mole, the list goes on. I start with their succulent lemony ceviche, topped with bright green salsa, then move on to pulpo, then maybe cochinita pibil...... I’ve eaten as many as four at a sitting, but I don’t recommend this. To drink, order agua de melón from the stand next door. (Be sure to choose only Tostadas de Coyoacán – their competitors are not as good.)


3. POZOLE
I love a warm hearty soup on a “cold” winter D.F. day (how dare I complain about the weather here…). Once I observed two shy campesinas, attired in home-made cotton dresses with rebozos draped over their shoulders, waiting patiently at the counter of the carnicería. When their turn came they asked for “una cabeza, por favor” (“a head, please”). The butcher looked at them quizzically (as did I) and asked what sort of head they needed. Their answer produced a huge, grinning pig’s head, which made even them laugh. “What will you do with it”, I queried? “Pozole, of course!” they replied.
Pozole, is the archetypal Mexican comfort food--a soup fit for a king. Basically, it’s a hearty meat broth, laced with chili and augmented with hominy (known as cacahuazintle in Mexico). The hominy is prepared by a process called nixtamalización, that is, soaked in lime, as for corn tortillas, which softens the kernels. Two blocks from Santa Maria de la Ribera’s groovy old Kiosko Moro is the extraordinary La Casa de Toño (Sabino 144), a pozolería set in a 19th-century mansion. Rich, red hominy laden pozole with all the trimmings is the specialty, although sopes. tostadas and other antojitos are also offered. At $34 pesos for a pozole grande you’ve got a real bargain, too. The appropriate maridaje is horchata..

4. CARNITAS
“But eet ees confit!” my French friend exclaimed when I showed her a large copper cauldren where pork carnitas were bubbling away in their own fat. The good parts of the pig are roasted this way and chopped up to serve - hence the name "little meats". They should be eaten cloaked in a tortilla, with an array of red and green salsas, cilantro, onions and a squirt of limón, of course. I always order ‘maciza’ which gets you an assortment of pieces, mostly the less fatty, but a little crispy skin. A specialty of Michoacan, there are thousands of carnitas joints all over town, but finding a great one is a task. I was drawn by the crispy brown crust and roasty aroma of these porky treats at La Reina de la Roma, my current favorite. They’re located at Campeche 106 (in front of the Mercado Medellín) in Colonia Roma. Proper quaff would be a crisp refresco de manzana (in a vintage bottle), or beer.



5. MOLE
'Mas mexicano que mole', goes the saying, and no food better represents the spirit of Mexico than this famous dark, rich and spicy sauce.”
Isn’t that the one made with chocolate?” people often ask when the subject turns to mole, but chocolate is the least of it. While some of the best known moles do indeed include chocolate amongst their many ingredients (the dark ones of Puebla and Oaxaca for example), many do not.
What is mole, really? The word derives from the nahuatl “molli” which means a sauce of ground chilies and nuts or seeds and spices. Perhaps coincidentally moler means to grind in Spanish. The Enciclopedia Gastronómica de México lists 37 varieties of moles from 21 states. It is generally agreed that mole is made of chilies, dried or fresh, spices, herbs, vegetables or fruit, and thickened with seeds, nuts or corn masa. Truly a celebratory dish, in most Mexican families it is reserved for special occasions. The tiny, atmospheric Fonda Mi Lupita, in business since 1957 on Calle Buentono 22, near Delicias in the centro offers only sweet, chocolate-y mole poblano; it is among the best in the city. Order chicken, either pechuga or pierna, or enchiladas, or simply mole with rice and tortillas, all served with the traditional garnish of raw onion rings, sesame seeds and crumbled queso fresco. They also have mole to take out.

A note to my readers: Forbes Magazine has recently named Mexico City one of the world's top five cities in which to eat well: click here for a link to the article

Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved.

8/4/09

Border Crossings - Burritos in Mexico City

I can’t say I ever ate a Tex-Mex meal I really liked. The concept seems to me like the worst of both worlds. And at the risk of alienating my Bay Area Buddies, I’ve always secretly hated burritos. I mean those two pound sinkers containing mushy beans, watery guacamole, flaccid cheese, weird orange ‘Mexican’ rice, chili-less salsa and more. I know they are made, sold and eaten by Mexicans, but does that make them Good Food?
Burros (better known by their diminutive burritos ) are really another name for tacos, only in the northern states of Mexico are made with wheat tortillas rather than corn. It is rare to find them in La Capital.
That’s why I was curious about a stand I pass all the time on Av. Insurgentes which always seems to have flocks of people around it: Los Burritos.
This neighborhood institution is set against a triangular city block which houses a lone, shuttered Porfiriato mansion which has sat forlornly for years like Madama Butterfly waiting for her Pinkerton, hoping to be rescued from the encroaching glass and steel forward-looking-only madness of the newly energized Reforma.
Los Burritos is always crowded with office workers, policemen, housewives and hipsters and I discovered why. The burritos are made Sinaloa style. There are eighteen different choices, from costillita con champiñones, a simple hash of pork rib and mushrooms, to the more exotic flor de calabaza and the redundantly named poblano de Puebla. Whichever you order, the combination of ingredients is sautéed fresh, covered with a hand-made 78 RPM record-size flour tortilla to steam for a minute, anointed with bean paste to give it some body and doused with one of five salsas, all unusual - I like the naranja con chile, the orange juice giving it a nice zing. Or the roasted morita especial, deep and dark. They are then wrapped, tucked and served – happily for the environment, on a re-used bag-covered tray. Not exactly what I would call a light repast, they are hearty and filling, not nearly as weighty as their full-figured northern neighbors.


And if you have burri-cravings and find yourself below the D.F. Mason-Dixon line of the Viaducto, there is always Los Burritos de Fuentes, in Coyoacán, whose fast food ambiance tries to Mc-emulate other plasticized chains but whose food is real. And they serve a beer I've never seen before called 'Malverde'. And they are open until well after the party has lost its spark.

Los Burritos
Calle Havre, near the corner of Insurgentes, Zona Rosa
open Monday - Friday 11-7 PM
Saturday 12-8 PM

Los Burritos de Fuentes
Miguel Angel de Quevedo 482 (accross from the Comercial Mexicana), Coyoacán
Open Monday-Thursday 1PM-1AM
Friday, Saturday 2PM-4 AM

Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved.

7/17/09

The Lebanese Connection: Middle Eastern Cuisine in Mexico City

What many people think of as generic Middle Eastern Food is, in fact, Lebanese. Lebanon, a country whose history is fraught with conflict, is also a center of culture widely influential all over the Arab-speaking world.
By far the largest community of foreigners to arrive in Mexico is from Lebanon. Since the end of the 19th century, there have been several waves of immigration of people from Arabic speaking nations, principally Lebanon, but from Syria and Iraq as well. At present, there are upwards of 400,000 people in the country of Lebanese descent, mostly in Mexico City, Mérida and Puebla. Escaping the persecution of the rigid Ottoman regime, the first wave of immigrants arrived between 1880 and 1910, during
the so-called Porfiriato, when Mexico received foreign immigrants with open arms. More came before and during World War II, once again to a post-revolutionary Mexico looking for some new input. A final wave arrived after the civil war of 1990. The majority are Orthodox Catholic, although some are Jewish and a few are Muslims. Many run garment and textile shops and factories, others, who settled in the Yucatan, became rich in the hemp industry. They all seem to have blended into a tightly knit community, despite religious differences. Illustrious Mexicans of Lebanese descent include moneybags Carlos Slim, glamour puss Salma Hayak, poet Jaime Sabines and underground diva Astrid Hadad. These days, most are people who were born here and have adapted to Mexican culture - they consider themselves Mexican and are not particularly connected to the homeland.
Naturally, Arab and Lebanese-Mexicans have left a distinctive mark on Mexican cooking. Ethnic groups who arrive in a new country where familiar ingredients are not available, always have to adapt, and so often the creative fusion of the old and new produces exciting new dishes. Most notable here is the spit roasted meat served as tacos and known all over the country as "al pastor". This quintessentially Mexican dish was born on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean as shawarma and is known in its first-genreration form here as tacos Arabes. The Mexicanized version, which developed in the capital, is made with pork, chili, and fresh pineapple.
Lebanese specialties that have been adapted are kibbeh, jocoque and stuffed grape leaves, here called tacos de parra. Kibbeh is a paste of ground meat (traditionally lamb but here, often pork or beef). In Mexico it’s sometimes called kebe and comes in various formats, sometimes raw, similar to steak tartar, or as a fried crusty ball (kebe bola). It is usually served with a green salsa or jocoque, a form of yogurt that has been drained of some of its liquid.
Stuffed grape leaves became tacos de parra, filled with seasoned rice and ground meat. Spinach turnovers here are called empanadas de espinaca, flavored with parsely and mint and spices. The ever popular garbanzo dip called hummus, the eggplant dip known as baba ganouj and the herb and bulgar salad called tabouleh are ubiquitous, and retain their distinctly Lebanese identity. The flat bread called pita is served at all meals. It is perfect for scooping up hummus, baba ganouj, jocoque or kebe cruda. Pita is also served sprinkled with the spice mixture zahtar, baked in the oven and served as chips for dipping.
Lebanese desserts are sweetened with honey or sugar syrup, filled with nuts or dates and perfumed with orange and rose flower waters.

Amongst the many Middle Eastern and specifically Lebanese places I have tried, two stand out.

Restaurante Al Andalus
Mesones 171 (several blocks east of Pino Suarez)
Tel. 5522- 2528
Open daily 9-6
Branch: a small cafe in Colonia Napoles at Nueva York no. 91
Situated in a lovely 18th c. mansion in the centro, near many Arab-owned businesses, this restaurant opened its doors 15 years ago. Founded by chef Mohamed Mazeh, whose goal is to provide fresh and authentic foods and to dispel the idea that Lebanese cuisine is greasy or heavy. The large wood-beamed dining rooms look over an old patio at trees and other colonial buildings - it is hard to believe you are surrounded by the epi-center of the teeming centro.
A "plato Libanés" could be your whole lunch. All of its components are correctly done and beautifully presented. Composed of nine elements, the 'dips' are distinctly flavored, grape leaves fresh and retaining their texture, kepes crunchy and spicy and a typical rice and lentil mixture moist and toothsome. Other entradas are jocoque seco con anchoas (dry sour cream with anchovies); shashlish (a paste of anchovies, capers and fine herbes); falafel (a "croqueta" of fava and garbanzo); the kibbeh, here spelled 'kepes'. One of their specialties for innards-lovers is tripa de cordero rellena (stuffed tripe of lamb).
I recommend the taco de chorizo arabe, tender, aromatic chunks of spicy, tart chorizo bathed in jocoque and parsley and blanketed in a warm, freshly baked pita. Desserts are, as usual, the aforementioned very sweet honey cakes and the coffee is strong and fresh. Prices are reasonable – lunch for 2 should be $300-400 pesos.

El Jamil
Amsterdam 306, corner of Celaya, Condesa
Tel: 5564-9486
Open Monday-Saturday 2pm-11pm, Sunday 1pm-7pm
Mexico’s only truly authentic Lebanese restaurant is the dream-come-true of chef and owner Mohamed Jamil. He presides over every aspect of his restaurant – you will recognize him by his movie-star good looks. A native of Beirut, he studied hotel and restaurant management but his dream was to share his love of good cuisine. In Mexico he saw the opportunity to do something a little different – to create a higher end, cleaner “hipper” venue for fresh and creative Lebanese cuisine. “What most of the world thinks of as Middle eastern food is actually Lebanese,” he claims. “Our menu is 100% authentic, not the usual fusion of cultures. Someone came in and asked for cous cous recently” he recalls, bemusedly. (Cous cous, remember, is from North Africa, not the Middle East). “ I invited them to eat here and they were just blown away….they didn’t even miss the cous cous”. He imports some of his own products: cracked wheat, olives, oil and grape leaves are of the highest quality. There are standard mezze (appetizers) – I like the eggplant, sort of a deconstructed baba ganouj, redolent of its oven roasting and anointed with good green olive oil. Standout main dishes are the tender beef brochettes, and, my favorite (and the chef’s), fish filets in sesame sauce dotted with roast pine nuts. This dish will be a surprise to all who thought of Lebanese food as meaty and heavy. The decor is simple, the music authentic (Fairuz, the grand diva of Lebanese song reigns supreme), and the sidewalk tables, each with its own water pipe, have views of tree-lined Avenida Amsterdam. The food is clean and fresh, the bread hot and service attentive. El Jamil is a favorite of both locals and members of the tribe.

Also worth visiting are:
Café Jekemir
Isabel la Catolica 72, near Mesones, Centro
Tel: 5709-7038

Forget those ubiquitous Seattle-based chains. I make a trip to this place in the Centro to buy my Veracruzano coffee beans; they are the best as well as the cheapest. You can also sit here to have a cup of coffee and Lebanese pastries or light food. Owned and run by several generations of a Lebanese family, it is still presided over by the Guraieb sisters and, when he is able, their father Fred, son of the founder.

Dumas Gourmet
Alejandro Dumas 125, near Mazaryk, Polanco
Tel.: 5280-1925/8385
Open Monday - Friday 8am - 8pm, Saturday 10am - 9pm,
Sunday 11am - 6pm

Glamorous chef Sonia El-Nawal, an ex-New Yorker of Lebanese descent, presides over her sleek “traiteur” style store with interesting Mediterranian dishes to eat at home, many of them out of the Lebanese lexicon, others smart creative fusions.On sale as well are good breads and gourmet products. www.dumasgourmet.com

Al Malak Productos Arabes
Av. Cuauhtemoc 160 at Guanajuato, Roma
Open daily 9:30am-7 pm

This shop and restaurant sells the best Lebanese pastries I’ve ever had. Also available are olives, nuts, couscous and breads. They have a small restaurant which offers light food.

Adonis
Hegel 205, Polanco
Branch in Tecamachalco, Av. de Las Fuentes no. 49-B
Open daily Monday-Wednesday 1PM-12AM, Thursday-Saturday 1PM-2AM, Sunday 1–7PM
Tel. 5531- 6940/ 5531-8081
This well known Polanco venue serves generous portions of typical Lebanese fare including good hummus, tabule “tacos Arabes”, and kibbe. There is a well stocked shop around the corner featuring breads, olives and excellent Middle Eastern pastries.


H'elus
Rep. del Salvador 157, (between Las Cruces & Jesus Maria), Centro
Inside an unassuming doorway a few blocks east of the Zocaló, at the end of the dingy hall, is an excellent take away - great pastries both savory and sweet. It has been here since 1949 and is still run by the grandson of the founder. His name is Helu - is he related to Carlos Slim?


La Nueva Libanesa
Dr. Vertiz no. 1111, Colonia Navarte
Tel. 5575-4324
Open daily, 10-10PM
This family-style place offers a copious lunch-time buffet.

Restaurante Miguel
Córdoba 226, Colonia Roma
Open Sunday 10-8, Monday-Thursday 10-10, Friday, Saturday until 11PM.
This dependable restaurant, frequented by Lebanese Mexicans, offers an enormous buffet comida on Wednesday and Friday. If you are lucky, they will put out the superb roast leg of lamb. It's a deal at $150…

Ehden
Gante 11-A, Centro
Good Middle-eastern food is served at outdoor tables on this pedestrian-only street.

Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved.
Photo Sonia El-Nawal courtesy Dumas Gourmet

7/7/09

Mondo Carne! - Part II

Why be a vegetarian? Here are the main reasons given in a website I found, and my answers.
1. Improve your health – I’ve seen more cadaverous looking vegans stalking the healthfood bins looking like escaped extras from Night of the Living Dead than I’d care to remember. I don’t buy it.
2. Save the earth – The earth is overpopulated. Too many pigs, cows chickens and people. Eat ‘em.
3. End cruelty to animals. Yes, definitely, this one I support wholeheartedly. And I hope and assume that something will eat ME someday.

That said, here are a few more suggestions for getting your bloodthirsty rocks off in el Gran Tenochtitlan.


Mixed Company - Los Parados
Monterrey 333, corner of Baja California, Colonia Roma
This fabulous carny hang-out offers real tacos al carbón that is, meats cooked over coals on an open grill. Many places claim they do them but really sauté their meat on a griddle. Not the same thing. Costilla, chuleta, chorizo, pollo, they’ve got it all here. The salsas, hand mashed and set in gigantic molcajetes, are superior. Varying hours are listed, but they seem to always be open, morning to morning. I was there recently at 2:30 AM on a Thursday night/Friday AM, and a fascinating cross-section of worn out gay/straight bar patrons, thugs, off-duty whores and policemen were happily devouring their succulent char-roasted morsels of goodness, all the while downing ice-cold horchata or beer. And, it behooves me to mention the normally unspeakable “B” word. Yes, the burgers, Mexican style (i.e. topped with salsa, bacon, cheese, etc.etc.etc.) are sensational.

They Drive By Night - El Borrego Viudo
Av. Revolución 241, corner of Viaducto, Colonia Tacubaya
Open daily 24 hours
This legendary end of the party taquería specializes in tacos al pastor, de cabeza, suadero (beef), and tepache (an old fashioned fermented pineapple juice drink). If you are driving, which you undoubtedly will be to have arrived in this out of the way neighborhood, they have an enormous garage where you can park and eat – good for a late-night/early morning snack accompanied by other semi-conscious revelers.

Fit for a queen - La Reina de la Roma
Campeche 106 (across from the Mercado Medellín), Colonia Roma
Open daily 9am-6pm, closed Mondays
This small fonda in the heart of Colonia Roma is a great place to sample typical antojitos (corn-based snacks). But they specialize in carnitas, (pork slowly roasted in its own fat, as in confit) which are served either in tacos or on sopes or huaraches. I think these are the amongst the best in a city saturated with carnitas. Three different salsas are provided: verde and two rojas, one made from dried chilies, the other from cilantro and onions and roast tomatoes. The aguas preparadas, jamaica or horchata, are rich and not too sweet and the ensalada de nopales is a pleasant accompaniment adding that much needed touch of green.

Giving good head - Tacos de Cabeza “Los Güeros” is a tiny daytime “local” at Calle Lopez no. 93, near the Salto de Agua metro stop in the centro. For the adventurous, try a couple of tacos of oven roasted sheep head. Lengua,(tongue) buche (lips), oreja (ear), nana (not sure myself, but it doesn’t wear funny glasses and sing), nothing’s wasted here. They’re better than they sound. It is always crowded with downtown denizens.

Next week I promise to write about salad bars.

6/30/09

Pozole - The Mexican Comfort Food

Two shy campesinas, attired in home-made cotton dresses with rebozos draped over their shoulders, waited patiently at the counter of the carnicería. When their turn came they asked for “una cabeza, por favor” (“a head, please”). The butcher looked at them quizzically (as did I) and asked what sort of head they needed. Their answer produced a huge, grinning pig’s head, which made even them laugh. “What will you make with it”, I queried? “Pozole, of course!” they replied.
Pozole, (pronounced poh-SOH–lay), is a quintessential Mexican comfort food--a soup fit for a king. Basically, it’s a hearty meat broth, laced with chili and augmented with hominy (known as cacahuazintle in Mexico). The hominy is prepared by a process called nixtamalización, that is, soaked in lime, as for corn tortillas, which softens the kernels. It is sometimes eaten at home, often for festive occasions – my friend Daniel reported celebrating las fiestas patrias, the evening of the 15th of September, at the home of his in-laws with a big family pozole. But more often it is enjoyed at pozolerías, restaurants devoted to this sumptuous dish, or at market and street stalls.
The word pozole comes from the Nahuatl potzonti or posolli, meaning to boil or bubble, and versions of it are made all over Mexico. A similar thick soup was mentioned in the chronicles of the early Spanish missionary Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. He reported Moctezuma eating pozole that contained thigh meat from a sacrificed warrior in a ceremony honoring the sun god, Huitzilopotzli. Today’s version is usually made with pork (the pig’s head gives the best flavor, although simple meat and bones will do) and garnished with shredded lettuce, radishes, onion, oregano and perhaps chicharrón (pork skin), tostadas and more chile—the ‘garnishes’ can sometimes fill half the bowl. There are many kinds of pozole in Mexico, although the state of Jalisco is home to the most famous variety, pozole blanco. In Guerrero green pozole is common, thickened with pumpkin seeds. I much prefer the third version, the rich chili-red pozole rojo, associated with Michoacán .

Rick Bayless, the tireless chef, restaurateur, and host of the PBS series, ‘Mexico, One Plate at a Time’, is author of Authentic Mexican, from which I adapt the following recipe for Pozole Rojo (for home cooks lucky enough to reside in Mexico):
.

Pozole Rojo, Michoacán style
Yields 10-12 large servings
1 k. prepared cacahuazintle (available at any mercado, or packaged at the supermarket)
½ small pig’s head (about 2 k.), scrubbed and halved, OR 3 medium pigs’ feet (about 1 k. total), well scrubbed and split lengthwise
800 g. meaty pork neck bones
800 g. lean boneless pork shoulder, in a single piece
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 large dried chiles anchos (about 60g total)
4 large dried chiles guajillos (about 30g total)
salt to taste (about a tablespoon)
For the condiments:
½ medium-sized head of cabbage, cored and very thinly sliced
(iceberg lettuce can be substituted for the cabbage)
8-10 radishes, thinly sliced
1-½ cups onion, finely chopped
About 1/3 cup dried oregano
3 or 4 limes, cut in halves
15 -20 tostadas, preferably home fried.
ground chile piquín, available in the market, where moles and spices are sold

1. Put the meats, bones, cacahuazintle, onion and garlic into a pot with 7 liters of water.
Cook until tender – the corn will start to “blossom”--that is, to open up at one end.
2. Toast the chiles, a few at a time, on a comal or griddle, pressing down with a spatula (20 seconds or less on each side should be sufficient-- be careful not to burn them or they will be bitter).
Remove the stems, cores and seeds, and submerge chilies in a bowl of hot water. Soak for 20-30 minutes. Drain, place in a blender jar and add ½ cup water; blend until smooth. Strain through a medium-mesh sieve into the simmering soup and mix well.
Generously season with salt and let simmer for an hour or so.
3. Finishing the soup:
Remove the meats from the broth and when cool enough to handle, cut off the usable meat from the bones and chop into 1-2 cm pieces, shredding the shoulder pieces.
Just before serving, season the soup with salt to taste. Add the meat to the pot and let simmer a few minutes to reheat.
Serve in pozoleros, deep soup bowls, with all the accompaniments set up on the table so that each diner can help himself. The tostadas are a crunchy accompaniment to enjoy between big spoonfuls of the soup.

If you would rather have someone else deal with the pig parts for you, there are many excellent pozolerías around town; a few of my favorites are:

Pozolería La Casa de Toño
Sabino 144, Colonia Santa Maria La Ribera
Tel. 2630-1084
Open Monday - Saturday 9 AM - 11 PM, Sunday until 10 PM
Two blocks west of the main plaza of Santa María La Ribera is the extraordinary Casa de Toño, a pozolería set in a 19th-century mansion. Thick, red pozole with all the garnishes is the house specialty, although sopes, tostadas and other antojitos are also offered. At $34 pesos for a grande, this is a bargain meal. Lovely rooms decorated with murals and original mosaic floors create a pleasant, old-time atmosphere.

Pozolería Tizka
Calle Zacatecas 59, between Córdoba and Mérida, Colonia Roma
Open daily 12 - 10 PM
I used to live upstairs from this bustling place in the heart of La Roma, so I ate here a lot. They specialize in hearty and delicious pozole verde from the state of Guerrero. It is similar to the red kind, but instead of red chilies, ground pumpkin seeds provide the thick, green soup base, which has a nutty, earthy flavor. The tostadas here are especially fresh and crisp, and redolent of corn flavor. Also offered is pozole blanco in a simple clear broth. There is often live guitar music at comida
time.

Doña Yoli
Calle San Ildefonso 42 , near Calle Argentina (go up the staircase at the back of the building)
Open Monday - Saturday, 2 - 6 PM
The dark, rich, chili-infused broth of this pozole contains pork, maize, and comes with all the trimmings described above; crisp tostadas are served on the side, all for 35 pesos. It’s a convenient stop before or after a visit to the spectacular Museo de San Ildefonso, whose exit door is just across the street (the entrance is on Justo Serra, around the block).

Mercado de Comidas
Calle Higuera 6, Coyoacán center
open approximately 2-11PM, daily
This well known garage-like space, a block from Coyoacán’s central Plaza, is open late. Most people stop here for a rich pozole at the stand right in the center. The deep-fried quesadillas sold
here are fresh and delicious.

Potzollcalli
Av. 5 de Mayo, Centro
open daily 7:30AM-11:30PM
The pozole at this unpronounceable chain is a little blander than many, but perfectly acceptable, for those who prefer to play it safe--the restaurants are very clean. There are branches all over the country: see their website for locations (www.potzollcalli.com.mx)

This article has previously appeared in The News, Mexico

6/23/09

Mondo Carne! - El Mercado Martínez de la Torre

The great (of pen and girth) food writer R.W. Apple dreamed of spending his final days in Lyon in a wheelchair, being pushed from bouchon to bouchon by a vegetarian, eating his way to carnivorous oblivion. I would stay closer to home and spend a few days ingesting the pure-cholesterol heaven of carnitas, barbacoa, chorizo and chicharrón. It can all be had at the huge and bustling Mercado Martínez de la Torre. Located east of the barely functioning Buenavista train station in working class Colonia Guerrero, it's easy to get to by metro - simply hop the no. 3 or B to the "Guerrero" stop. The venerable vendors of this über-popular beehive of gastronomic activity recently took to the streets to protest the opening of a Walmart-owned superstore being planned nearby. This and other mega-stores have been systematically reducing sales in the 300 traditional markets throughout the capital - don't get me going....

But here at the Mercado Martínez things are in full swing. Fruits, vegetables and meats of every variety were being snatched up by voracious local shoppers on a recent Monday. But best of all, this market is known for its taco stands, featuring - you guessed it- meat. Largest of all is the amazing Tacos 'Lola la Trailera', which occupies both sides of an aisle smack dab in the middle of the market. Named after an eponymous '80's hit of Mexican trash cinema, its "madrina" (or patroness) is the buxom star of this 'Frijolywood' film classic, Rosa Gloria Chagoyan, who, they claim, is a friend of the owner. Here you'll find tacos of grilled meats: cecina (salted pork), costilla (pork ribs), longaniza (a less fatty chorizo) and grilled beef. Salsas, red and green, are hand-made in the molcajete and horchata is the house libation.

Nearby are several barbacoa stands. My favorite is conveniently named La Mejor. Lamb (a generous word--it's really mutton) is pit roasted in maguey leaves (maguey is the cactus used for mezcal and tequila). Succulent and aromatic, it is served as tacos with onion, cilantro, lime and some extraordinarily dark earthy salsa. To immerse yourself completely in ovine rapture order a bowl of consomé culled from the pan.

If all this isn't enough to satisfy your primal cravings, there are also several carnitas ("confit" of pork) stands and a "chicharronería" (my term) with a chitlin display that has to be seen to be believed. For those who miss their grandma, a couple of large "caldo de gallina" (chicken soup) boothes will warm your heart. And the sea is not left untapped - a fresh shrimp cocktail awaits around the bend.
So save the tofu for a rainy day and dive in for a meaty repast. And don't forget to do a little shopping while you're at it - bargains abound. Do your part and support our boys behind the aprons!

6/17/09

Where there’s an OY there´s a VEY - Eating Jewish in Mexico City

So they ask a Jewish boy from Manhattan to write about Jewish food in Mexico? What, you think I should be nice? They call those fluffy pillows from Wendy’s Kosher Bakery bagels? The corned beef sandwich at Klien’s has two measly slices of dry meat in it--two! The pickles are from a jar! And the prices! You could plotz!
Did I go into it with a bad attitude? – you bet. But bubbeleh, I ended up learning something. So nu?
It turns out there is indeed a world of “Jewish Cuisine” in the land of pork and tacos, but it’s not what you’d expect. Nothing to do with Barney Greengrass or the Carnegie Deli, my old haunts in New York.
Instead, I found “Piny” Tacos Kosher, (closed 2012) which offered alambre de hígado (made with chicken liver). I tried schnitzel a la Veracruzana at Restaurante Sinai (Izazaga 118, centro). And the shawarma in pita out at Shuky’s in Tecamachalco (Fuente de Templanza 17, inside the mall) is the best in town (like tacos al pastor with an accent).
I asked every Jewish Mexican I could find (and there are many, around 50,000 at last count) what their food memories are, what they think of as Jewish food in Mexico, and I got a lot of different answers.
It turns out it all depends on where your abuelos come from. Mine were from Russia, as were most in the eastern U.S. They ate gefilte fish, lox, borscht and blintzes. But in Mexico, the original national identity of immigrant Jews is more diverse. It includes Greece, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Spain, Portugal as well as Russia, Poland and Germany. And that diversity shows (or, at least, did once) in the cooking.
The affable Clara Melameh, librarian at the Centro Cultural México-Israel in the centro histórico, is of Russian-Polish extraction like me. She claims to make the best gefilte fish in town. “Only there’s no one left to eat it.”, she laments. “Nobody alive even knows what it is! My son went to live in Israel, and I’m divorced. I’m going to do all that work--for who?” Invite me, Clara!
The Centro Cultural where Clara works occupies a colonial building on calle Republica del Salvador. A fascinating permanent exhibit chronicles the Diaspora of Jews in Mexico and there’s a whole section devoted to food, mostly about what is eaten at holidays and festivals, which seems to be common to Jews everywhere. Charoses, a sticky mixture of dried fruits, nuts and spices is a reminder of the mortar used by Jewish slaves in the construction of buildings. It’s served from Sana’a to Scarsdale. Chicken soup—or as we used to call it, ‘Jewish penicillin’, is another universal favorite – but it doesn’t differ much from anywhere else, unless you put in chili.
Few of the early immigrants are left in Mexico, and younger generations have assimilated. Mexican Jews don’t intermarry much (only about 10% do, apparently one of the lowest rates in the world ), most go to Jewish schools, and religion remains a strong force. But popular Mexican culture now rules the kitchen. So many traditional Jewish dishes have disappeared, along with the grannies who carefully harbored them. What does remain are a few restaurants and grocery stores catering to people who keep strictly kosher. This means nice clean kosher chickens and beef, a handful of products I would put in the “appetizing” (i.e. New York delicatessen) category, and a lot of other stuff I wouldn’t feed to a starving schnorrer. In my search for my N.Y. roots I found decent pastrami at Kurson Kosher (Emilio Castelar 204, Polanco), and bought a jar of pickled herring at Shuky’s in Condesa. And La Selecta (Julio Verne 90 has decent smoked fish and cole slaw.  But forget about the frozen Kosher pizza, the dry kashrut cookies, and the sundry canned products. These are fine for folks who put their money where their mouths are and follow the ancient and respected tradition of keeping kosher. I salute them. But it’s not about fine cuisine, it’s about religious dietary law.

Dyed-in-the-wool chilanga Mathilde Askenazy’s parents were from Spain and Greece. They didn’t know from ‘bagel with a schmeer’. She remembers a dish she calls “chunt”, a sort of a layered bean stew. “Everybody ate it when we were growing up,” she recalls, “every family had its own recipe”. Her sister Klara, fondly recalls an eggplant salad her mother made, but hasn’t had it in years. These dishes, like the delicious chicken with artichoke hearts I ate at the Restaurant Sinai, is typical of the Sephardic Jews and, one could say, of Jewish cooking in Mexico.
The Sephardim are those who left Spain and settled all over the Mediterranean and North Africa. They spoke Ladino, an antique form of Spanish. I was able to locate one of the few books on the subject printed in Mexico, written in Ladino and Spanish: Lo Mishor de lo Muestro: Un Recorrido por la Gastronomía Tradicional Sefaradí. ( Our best: A traditional Sepharidic gastronomic tour). Mouth-watering recipes are culled from the Turkish, Greek, Lebanese and North African lexicon. Here is one, as I’ve adapted and translated it.

Pescado al Horno con T'jine (baked fish filets with sesame sauce)
serves 4
1 k. firm fish filets (huachinango or sierra)
1 tb. lemon juice
½ ts. salt
¼ ts. mustard powder
¼ ts. ground cumin
Salsa Tjine:
3 tb. Tjine (sesame paste)
1 tb. lemon juice
¾ cup water
5 cloves garlic
5 sprigs parsley, chopped
¼ ts. salt

Put all sauce ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
Prepare a glass baking dish – rub with olive oil and lay in fish filets, sprinkling with the lemon, salt, mustard and cumin. Bake for about 10 minutes at 180 C, add the sauce and cook for 15 minutes more. Serve with white rice.

So, dahlings, you’ll still have to go to the Big Apple to nosh on a knish or pig out on a humongous corned beef sandwich. But you can get a nice bowl of matzoh ball soup at the Sinai, and even follow it up with a plate of kosher chilaquiles or a shwarma taco. The rest you’ll have to do yourself.

This article was originally printed in Inside Mexico; for more info on Jewish stuff in Mexico see their April 2008 issue:
http://www.insidemex.com/living-in-mexico/download-the-april-issue-of-inside-m%C3%A9xico