Thursday, December 4, 2014

Taking A Bite Out Of Mexico: The Best Eats of 2014

My first year in Mexico has been one fantastic food adventure. I've discovered inexpensive and delicious Mexican and South American wines, indulged in more than my fair share of exquisite desserts, delighted in chapulines and other insects, devoured classic and nontraditional cooking and sipped so many smoky mezcals that picking my favorites for the year is challenging.

Part of the problem? In the same year that I sampled more new foods than ever before, there were very few things I tried that I didn't like. Yes, even the bugs.

In a year of travel, food on the road was a revelation. Because so many of Mexico's vegetables, fruits and grains are grown in the region, both the slow food and farm-to-table movements have taken a strong hold here and promoting locally-sourced ingredients has resulted in some outstanding and unpredictable food creations like the Roasted Beetroot and Date Salad from 1826 Restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel. 

Just take a look at the size of the crowds at the Saturday Organic Market where most of the top restaurant chefs shop.

Some of the best dishes I ate this year were sandwiches I found in markets throughout Mexico. From the Guacamaya at Guanajuato's Hidalgo Market, to the Amigos at Delicatessen La Jersey in Mercado San Juan, Mexico City to my favorite, the Cemita at Cemitas Las Polentas in the Mercado del Carmen in Puebla, they are all classics, lovingly constructed with top-notch ingredient and slathered with ridiculously good and unique flavoring sauces. Here in San Miguel, it was El Tucan's take on the American BTL that left me breathless.

What can I say about the black mole in Oaxaca? It took just one plate of dark, rich, and wonderfully sweet and spicy mole negro to convince me that it's the best thing I've eaten in Mexico...ever!

And what's up with bakery this year? From the better-than-Paris croissants at Cumpanio, the doughnuts at La Buena Vida, and the hot onion focaccia at MiVida, I'm certain I must have been Italian in another life. 

Desserts? With Magnolia Bakery opening in Mexico City this past week, the driving distance to a carton of this world class guilty pleasure (banana pudding) just got 1743 miles. And how can you find anything better than the Burnt Caramel Ice Cream Sundae at
The Restaurant? It's the same flavor-driving force that also makes their gorgeous panna cotta. I just might be living in San Miguel for the desserts.

This was also the year for premium drinks, especially variations of the classic Margarita cocktail. I still love the Margaritas at Hotel Sautto and Cafe Rama, but I savored the fresh and delightful taste of a Pineapple Margarita at The Restaurant, the Ginger Margarita at La Sirena Gorda, the Tamarind Margarita at La Posadita and a Pepino y Cilantro (Cucumber with Cilantro) Margarita at La Mezcaleria.

After years of not drinking dark beers because I thought they were too bitter, I fell in love with a Mexican favorite: Baja Brewing Company's Baja Black. It's now my standard for dark beer.

I'll be the first to admit that taste is partially subjective. Things like smell, texture, color, or even the mood you're in will influence how you taste food so not everyone will agree with my picks this year. In fact, I recently took a poll of favorites in San Miguel and got totally different answers from everyone including one food lover who likes a particular restaurant because it makes him feel like he's eating at home. Add atmosphere to that list.

Here are just some of your favorites:

Steak and tuna tartare at Cumpanio
Chiles en Nogada from Bugambilia
Tortilla soup at Correo Restaurant
Cochinita Pibil at La Posadita
Seven Taco plate at Tacos Don Felix
For "good" food - Hecho' s Cobb Salad...for "bad" food -  Hecho's bacon guagamole cheese burger
Short ribs at Firenze
BLT from Osvaldos
Stuffed shrimp, grilled with bacon, churro beans and rice at El Rinconcito
Huitlacoche and Squash Blossom Soup at Nirvana
The Margarita Pizza at Casa Chiquita
The Pork Hock at La Sirena Gorda
Tuna Carpaccio at Antiqua Trattoria Romana
Arrachera and Cheese Tacos at Muro

Mine? From delicious, traditional Mexican to new takes on old recipes, these are the dishes and restaurants that defined my year. 

Buen Apetito!

Best Dish: Mixiotes@El Pato

The next best thing to your mother's pot roast, Mixiotes is a traditional, pit-barbecued meat dish made of lamb that is cut with the bone and seasoned with pasilla, guajillo and spices like cumin, thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, cloves and garlic. It's then wrapped in small bundles and cooked in the ground overnight. At this thatched-roof palapa at the end of Canal Street, Pilar and Jose Luis will convince you there is no better dish anywhere in Mexico. If it weren't for the location, this spot would have a line around the block every day. Take a doggy bag because it's even better the next day. 

Best Meat: Prime Rib@Hansen's

A heavenly cut of prime rib is the Saturday night special. Call and reserve in advance. Totally worth the splurge. Hansen's cooks their Prime Rib in a custom built clay oven on low and slow so it's never available before 5 PM. Restaurateur Dick Weber, one of the owners, is the mastermind behind all of Hansen's great recipes. Come hungry and pass on a strong Margarita until after you eat. You'll want to savor every bite of this beefy feast. 

Best Salad: Roasted Beetroot and Date Salad@1826 Restaurant

1826 restaurant serves dishes made with the highest quality ingredients like Roasted Beetroot and Date Salad. Caramelized pumpkin seeds, rocket lettuce, marinated cherry tomatoes, fine herbs vinaigrette, Granny Smith Ice Cream and Medjol dates make an artistic and delicious mix. The magic is in the ice cream, the ingredient that really works and pulls all of the flavors together. Food snobbery at it's finest. Pass the check to your dinner date. With so many great things on the menu, we can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Best Presentation: Huevos Rancheros@Lavanda

How does this popular restaurant make perfect poached eggs look like little balls of Oaxaca cheese? Chef Karla's drop-dead gorgeous presentation comes from her training as a graphic artist. She's armed with a portfolio of her mother's classic recipes including this picture-perfect version of the dish. The taste will astonish even the most die-hard Eggs Benedict lover who has never given a second look at this Mexican standard.

Best Dessert: Burnt Caramel Ice Cream Sundae@ The Restaurant

Give into temptation. At Donnie Masterson's restaurant, known for its anything but predictable offerings, this exquisite dessert takes sweet indulgence to the next level. The custom made Ambrosia ice cream is swimming in caramel then laced with marshmallow and a sprinkling of cacahuates. Throw out the calorie book on this one. This confectionery masterpiece is almost too beautiful to eat. 

Best Chops: Lamb Chops@Paprika

Francine Llano Lory delivers these perfectly cooked lamb chops and to my delight they are a teaser because everything on the Paprika menu shines. Blink twice and you'll swear you're in Italy. If you enjoy high end food at a great price this place is a must. You'll get lost in the atmosphere. Check out the little altar on your left as you enter. The setting is almost as delicious as the food.

Best Ethnic Dish: Okonomiyaki@Casa de Cocinas

At Casa de Cocinas, Chef Michael Coon creates an ever changing menu of ethnic dishes like this Japanese pancake made with cabbage and shallots topped with crispy pork belly, bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, bull dog sauce and toasted nori. 8 dinners later, every one has been a four star experience. You will be rewarded with one surprising dish after another. 

Best Breakfast: Huevos Mexicanos@Oso Azul

This cafe is the place to go for breakfast when you're looking for a healthy dose of fresh-made-daily food and great conversation. Jockey for a spot at the communal table in the courtyard. The cafe looks typically Scandinavian with its white walls and blue-washed wooden tables and chairs. You might think for a minute you're in Denmark. Scandinavians make some of the best food in the world and what's not to love about this egg dish that is perfectly cooked in a miniature cast iron skillet. Bring lots of friends as this is a more-the-merrier type of place.

Best Cheap Eat: Flautas de Pollo@El Tucan

At SMA's favorite cheap eat, these rolled tacos are overstuffed with chicken and topped with so many healthy vegetables you'll forget they were ever fried in a pan of oil to begin with. Bring a hearty appetite and leave your Spanish dictionary at home. Alex cooked for many years in Chicago and speaks textbook English. The bonus? You'll leave with a full stomach and a pocketful of change. 

Best Pop Up: Carnitas@Bautista Brothers

Carnitas should come with a warning label. What makes these porky bits so addictive is that they are simmered in lard until fork tender. Bautista Brothers have pop-up stands all over San Miguel including several at Tianguis de Martes. In a torta or a tortilla, this dish is certain to make your list of all-time favorites. Fights will erupt over a communal plate so get your own.

Best Taco: Jicama Taco@La Azotea

The signature dish of this popular rooftop bar in Centro is a slice of Jicama filled with lightly breaded shrimp and topped with fried leeks, mayo with chipotle and a tamarind sauce. These tacos are so light you can easily polish off two or three. Go after 7PM to catch the beautiful Parroquia views. Best staff in town. It's everything you wanted a restaurant/bar to be and then some. 

Best Soup: Gazpacho@Provecho

Ecléctica cuisine at this bistro where Irish owner Siobhan and her daughter Chef Joanna turn out splendid food. I love all the soups especially this meal-in-a-bowl Gazpacho where the vegetables are chunky and the garnishes top off all the wonderful flavors of the soup. Ideal combination of bold and comforting. Show your art at the gallery in back. Check out the rich desserts. The best kept secret in San Miguel.

Best Menu: Banana Fritter@Tapas SMA

The only problem I had at Tapas sma was splitting the dessert. Let's get this straight-  
I don't share dessert...especially these melt in your mouth banana fritters. Go ahead and order the entire rest of the menu though. I'll never have to convince anyone the prices are great. Anders Litzen and his wife Kajsa of Los Senderos Bistro fame opened this little gem that hit #1 on Trip Advisor in just 5 weeks. With the exception of the Calamari, portions are very generous.

Best Comfort Food: Barbacoa@Robinson Family Barbacoa Stand

This is Barbacoa at its very best; lamb wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked in the ground overnight. It's on the breakfast menu and this stand is an early morning favorite at San Miguel's Tianguis de Martes. Grab a half cup of caldo and an extra helping of Barbacoa, then load up with chopped cilantro, onions and a squeeze of lime. You wouldn't crave another thing all day. 

Best New Take On Old Recipes: Higaditos Asaltados@La Parada

This Peruvian favorite has many fantastic things on the menu like these Chicken Livers that are stir-fried with soy sauce, chile paste, and a chile cream sauce. They have my vote for not tasting anything like liver. Wash them down with the national drink: a Pisco Sour. Appetizer? Try the fresh Salmon Ceviche. In a town with dozens of great restaurants, this one stands out as one of the best.

Best Healthy Plate: Yogurt, Fruit and Granola@Moxi at Hotel Matilda

One of the most $$$$$ hotels serves one of the least expensive breakfasts in San Miguel. Go figure. Creamy Greek style yogurt with homemade granola and honey are set beside a pile of fresh, seasonal fruit. And doesn't breakfast taste better served on china instead of a paper plate? A superb pool view and outdoor seating make this spot one of the most delicious deals in town. 

Best Fast Food: Chicken@Broaster To Go 

If you would have asked me six months ago what food I missed the most, I would have said Big Jones fried chicken cooked in a cast iron pan with fresh leaf lard, butter and a ham hock. I gain weight just thinking about this southern dish. The next best thing to fried chicken is broasted at this little take out place with 4 tables if you decide to eat in. The skin is ultra-crispy. Ask them to serve it hot. Just like your grandmother use to make. Sorry, there will be no leftovers. 

Best Drink: Bloody Alfredo@Cafe Rama

Pass on the breakfast and drink up. I never gave the restorative Bloody Mary a second thought until I couldn't get a good one. Earlier this year, my friend Alfredo taught the bartender at Cafe Rama to mix this AM cure with plenty of primer and a dose of real horseradish. Make them green with tomatillos. X 2= guaranteed AM flush. 

Best Pasta: Amatriciana@Hotel Sauto's Bacco 

What's the definition of Southern Italian delicious? Amatriciana, served hot and made with fresh tomatoes, smoked pancetta, garlic, onion and basil. Sit in the outdoor patio, select a bottle of Valle de Guadalupe red from Cava Sautto and drink in the ambiance of your own fiesta. Bacco will get you day dreaming about the San Miguel that was. Richard Sautto is the ultimate host. Wear a shawl. Plan on plenty of leftovers. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Magnolia Bakery Mexico City

Cross another reason off the list to go back to Chicago this time of year. Banana Pudding.

With Magnolia Bakery opening in Mexico City this week, the driving distance to a carton of this world class guilty pleasure just got 1743 miles.

I've never use to be a fan of banana pudding so imagine my surprise when I devoured an entire carton three years ago when Magnolia opened in Chicago. All the social media hype lived up to the reality and I've been a huge fan ever since.

Mexico City based entrepreneurs and food lovers, Andros and Sonny, have been planning this venture for as long as I've known them which only goes to prove that you should never give up on your own daydream.

Magnolia first opened a shop in New York back in 1996. It's been featured on the hit TV show Sex and the City, on the Saturday Night Live Digital Short: Lazy Sunday and in a number of movies like the The Devil Wears Prada and Prime. It has been credited with starting the cupcake craze.

So what's the secret behind their success? Superior ingredients and great customer service.

Magnolia Bakery currently has international locations in Beirut, Dubai, Kuwait City, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Moscow City, Tokyo and now Mexico City.

Stop by the shop located at Virgilio #40, Col. Polanco, Delegación Miguel Hidalgo, C.P. 11560. Mexico City Mexico. The Hours are currently 7AM - 10PM. 

Come hungry because in addition to banana pudding, they also have cupcakes, brownies, pies, bars, cheesecakes and other heavenly treats.

Have a great opening guys and kiss your mom, my best friend Liliana, who like any proud mother will be eating her share of cupcakes and banana pudding for the next 10 years.

Buen Apetito !

Monday, November 17, 2014

BBQ: The Real Oklahoma Breakfast

It's 6 AM and I'm eating a bowl of left-over Kung Pao Chicken. That's what I love about being on the road. No rules on what you have to eat for breakfast.

Living in Mexico is testimony to the fact that you can eat anything for breakfast... Chilaquiles, Carnitas, Menudo, or even Barbacoa but when I'm headed north to Oklahoma, there is only one breakfast food I craved more than a bowl of Cheerios: real Oklahoma BBQ. 

Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and the Carolina's are all legendary for BBQ and each state has it's own alchemy for celebrated Q. The number of cities claiming to be the BBQ capital of the US has been hotly debated for years.

It all comes down to regional style. Don't ask me. I happen to love them all. 

Breaking the rules is just another reason to love a restaurant...

I was first introduced to great BBQ at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis, where ribs are roasted in coal-fired ovens rather than smoked. They use no wood at all giving way to the long standing theory that all great BBQ must be cooked in the traditional southern style.

Experimenting over the years I've learned one thing about BBQ; it's a lot harder than it looks. 

Great BBQ is a combination of art, science but mainly passion. Like anything else, you've really got to love it to be any good at it. 

You don't need to buy the most expensive, state-of-the-art equipment to crank out good Q. A friend of mine in San Miguel delivers some of the best by cooking on a small smoker that was handcrafted by a local who lives down his street.

You can be defined by what you eat here for breakfast so with my large, hungry Irish - Catholic family in tow, we pulled into the parking lot of Burn Co at 10:30 AM with only one thing in mind. Not our usual breakfast of fruit and yogurt or even a celebratory breakfast of Eggs Benedict and a Bloody Mary. This is Oklahoma. We need BBQ!

I wasn't expecting it quickly however since I had been warned that the line of Q-addicts waiting for the doors to open would be long. It was.

The real secret behind the BBQ? Their kitchen is lined with 11 Hasty Bake Charcoal ovens that have been manufactured here in Tulsa since 1948. It's all about controlling the inside temperature and the Q-chefs who use Tasty Bake ovens swear by them including Adam Myers, one of Burn Co's owners, who worked for Hasty Bake for 12 years doing both cooking demos and BBQ classes.

So what's on the menu? It's limited to a handful of specialties and all of them are addictive... like ribs and chicken, smoked potato salad, Mac and Cheese and The Fatty; bacon wrapped around sausage and finely minced hot links.

The sides were a big hit, especially the smoked potato salad; a hot bowl of grilled potatoes with chopped bell peppers and onions. I haven't had anything quite like this anywhere before and I could tell that my brother and brother-in-law, who are both accomplished Q-chefs, were already formulating recipes in their head. 

One small step ahead of them, I already had a recipe for smoked potato salad (with blue cheese) that can be modified. The recipe is also great without modification.

Not the star but certainly worth mentioning are the sauces. The hot was sweet with just a touch of heat and the mild had a mustard flavor in the mix and was a combination of sweet, sour and tangy.

The best part of our breakfast? The burnt ends they passed out while we were waiting in line to order. 

The last time I had burnt ends was at Real Urban BBQ in Chicago where they were my go-to food when it came to devouring BBQ at lunchtime. At that time, I was teetering on a daily indulgence. Yes, I was addicted to the tastiest part of the smoked beef brisket, the deckle, which is not only juicy and succulent but will fall apart if you even look at it. These caramelized chunks of beef are what Q lovers define as being one step away from BBQ heaven. Because they are not on the daily menu, make sure to check their specials.

It's no wonder this city girl keeps going back to her southern 'home-away-from- home' to eat...

While in Oklahoma, enjoy other traditional Oklahoma eats including Biscuits and Gravy,
Waffles and Chicken, Cheese Grits, Frito Chili Pie, Oklahoma-grown peaches, Chicken fried steak, Cornbread, Black eyed peas, Strawberries and Watermelon. 

During your stay, don't forget to visit the institutions that mark Oklahoma's standard for great, southern cooking, like Eischen's Bar, the oldest continuously-operating bar in Oklahoma (1896) where fried chicken is treated with a reverence. It's located at 108 S Second Street in Okarche, Ok near Oklahoma City.

To sample a new standard of cuisine, feast at the Waterfront Grill in Jenks,Ok. The decor has been called 'contemporary southern boathouse' with high, private booths and windows that border the banks of the Arkansas River. Waterfront’s steaks are imported from Allen Brothers in Chicago which was my first clue that the food would be great. 

The last time I was there, I had an Alaskan Grouper sandwich which was delicious. $10 and it was big enough to split. How can you beat a $5 lunch? That's likely what I would have paid back in Mexico.

I'll confess. When I'm in Oklahoma, all I think about is food....

The Oklahoma government website describes the Oklahoma 'state meal' as fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas. 

I love southern cooking and there's nothing quite like BBQ, cornbread or a chicken fried steak smothered in bacon-fat gravy to get you thinking about your next meal. 

Buen Apetito! 

Grilled Potato Salad with Blue Cheese and Bacon

3 pounds baby red potatoes, cut in half
2 Tbsp Olive Oil

1 Cup Mayonnaise
¼ Cup White Balsamic Vinegar
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp Dijon mustard

½ red onion, thinly sliced
Blue Cheese, crumbled
6-8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. 

Put the potatoes in a single layer in center of a large piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring foil up and seal the edges making a large packet. 

Grill potatoes at least 30 minutes on each side. Remove packet. Open packet and let potatoes cool 10 minutes. 

Whisk together ingredients for the dressing. Add dressing to potatoes (I used just half) tossing gently to coat. 

Stir in onion, blue cheese, and bacon.