Saturday, September 28, 2013

Some of the Best Street Food is for Breakfast

Just look at the Catholic calendar and you’ll have a reason to celebrate almost every day this month. In fact, there have been so many “bring-on-the-tequila” moments I’ve lost track of most of them. 

Of course, celebrating means street theater, song and dance, church bells, music, parades, bullfights, fireworks, costumes and of course food and tequila.

That’s one thing I love about Mexico…food is celebrated. It’s the staying power of Mexican culture and the focal point of every fiesta. So what type of food do you typically find at one of these celebrations? Mole, Barbacoa, Carnitas and Mixiotes …all of which I ate this week off the street.

I use the term street food loosely to include market food, palapas and dives. Remember dives are defined as a hole in the wall, not necessary speaking about the way they prepare their food. They are also known by locals as the best place to eat because of both price and the quality.

I for one have never gotten sick on street food in Mexico. Where I did get sick was from a four star restaurant that I did not review or go back to.

I know there are some readers who will take a rain check when it comes to Mexican street food but I have to tell you that you’re missing out on some of the best food in San Miguel. To me most good street fare is simply Mexican comfort food.

Over the years, I have developed street food sensibility. I follow these simple rules before I buy. It’s what I do in Chicago as well as in Mexico.

Does the place look clean? Is it busy? Locals know. Do the food vendors handle the money? Move on if they do. By all means bring your own utensils and make sure the food is fresh cooked and not sitting around all day. Look for good cooking techniques and always remember that lime and chilies have superb antibacterial properties.

Tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel – the patron saint of San Miguel - and the party starts at midnight. I’m going to bed early and bank my sleep again for the second night in a row. Quite frankly I haven’t had a 7:00 bedtime since I was seven.

Another all-nighter you ask? 

You bet! In a few months I’ll be back in Chicago dreaming I have a party that starts at midnight followed by a breakfast that even I would crawl out of a warm cozy bed for.

Buen Apetito!

Barbacoa: Savoring Breakfast Street

One of the great thing I discovered this week? Barbacoa for breakfast. In fact, I realized that every dish I love in Mexico is breakfast food.

I’ve never eaten good Barbacoa until I went to Tuesday market and discovered my neighbor and a couple dozen others lined up at the Rodriquez family barbacoa stand waiting for one of the few seats in order to get a taste of what many call their favorite morning addiction.

The meat is slow-cooked until it is fall-off-the-bone tender. It is seasoned and infused with a flavor that even I’m now mesmerized with cooking. The best part is the consume that’s made with the drippings from the roasted meat. It’s magical.

I get a half a cup of the consume (caldo) without vegetables and a side of Barbacoa. Pile on the chopped onions, cilantro and squeeze a lime or two and you have breakfast that is so rich even I can’t eat a second helping.

How can you find this stand in such a congested market? Easy…just look for the busiest place and follow your nose.

Carnitas: My Go-To Breakfast

Back in Toluca in the early 90’s, we use to go to a little stand that served great carnitas for breakfast. I use to dream about them when I was back in the states and it was always followed by an exercise of trying to make them the next day. I never really knew how to cook them back then so I just kept on dreaming.

I finally did learn how to make excellent carnitas this past June and it was well worth the cooking class I took just to master them. They are not easy to make.

When I’m at the Tuesday market and I’m hungry for a dose of carnitas, my go-to place is the Bautista Brother’s. Perfectly cooked and not dried out like a lot of the other carnitas you see, this is one more dish I’ll put on my Mexican comfort food list. Hundreds of locals who eat there every Tuesday will tell you why.

Mixiotes: My Died and Gone To Food Heaven Breakfast

Of all the dishes I tried this week, Mixiotes was my favorite. I had it for the first time this morning. In fact, it’s one of the best dishes I’ve eaten since I’ve been back in Mexico.

Mixiotes is a specialty dish from Hidalgo (where owner Jose Luis hails from) and it’s made at only one restaurant in San Miguel: El Pato…my new favorite place for breakfast.

If this breakfast palapa at Calzada de la Estacion 175 were any closer to my house I would be there for breakfast every morning. They are open from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM and are closed on Tuesday.

Mixiotes is a little bundle of lamb that is cooked in the broth and has such a rich taste that even I wouldn’t try to duplicate it…that is until I get a few episodes of cooking in an underground pit under my belt… which may not be any time soon.

Even if I didn’t love this place, I would go there just to visit with the owners, Jose Luis and Pilar. They are warm and charming hosts who just happen to have some of the best street food in Mexico.

Pilar told me the reason their food is better than the rest of the pack is because it’s slow-cooked in a pit every night and Jose Luis never buys a lamb that is over 6 months old so the food is consistently rich and sweet. I did not however find it too rich to have a second helping of their regular barbacoa.

I’m sold. In fact, I hope I continue to discover regional dishes like this one but it’s going to be hard to find one that I like any better.

This is the best of the best.

Mole…Lesson II and III

My friend Alex is an artist. Aren’t all chefs? I have a new respect for this one however. He hasn’t cooked at Alinea or Girl and The Goat or some of the other great Chicago restaurants I know. He was a chef in Chicago however for over 17 years and he’s now a cook in San Miguel. He also happens to be one of the best I know. He just doesn’t know it.

Did I doubt him when he told me he would make his mother’s 70-year old mole recipe better? I did. In fact it was a recipe that an 89 year old Mexican food critic (she’s the most honest person I know) said was some of the best mole she’s ever had. I thought so too.

I never thought after just three lessons that I would be able to create what some have called the most complex dish on the planet: Mole. In fact, I’m done and it will be difficult to convince me that any recipe is better than the one we made today. 

The mole was so good in fact that it’s now a family secret…and mine too.

This round container holds the secret ingredients and I have to admit that it was an ingenious method of altering the recipe. But great chefs know food. It’s in their DNA. It’s what separates the good ones from the everyday cooks like me.

But that’s what I came here to work on and a work in progress is a labor of love.

I just don’t know it yet either.