Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guanajuato: A Great Food City?

You don’t go to Guanajuato to eat. So many people told me this before I left. But, despite all the claims that Guanajuato is not a food city, why is it that I ate so well this past week?

All of this pre-trip discussion forced me to do a lot of research before I traveled. In fact, I came to Guanajuato with a very specific eating agenda. I am however, open to moving off my plan if I see a restaurant that interests me. In this case, the only departure from the "food plan" turned out to also be the only disappointing meal I had the entire week. 

Guanajuato is a lot smaller than I remember but it's spread out with hundreds of narrow callejones running up and down. I was lost for the first two days even with a map. But I did find plenty of adventures in all of those back alleys.
This colonial-era city, which looks more Europe than Mexico, is surrounded by the Sierra de Guanajuato mountains. The landscape is stunning. Neoclassical and baroque-style colonial architecture gives this Mexican city a unique style and character all its own. Many have claimed it's one of the most beautiful cities in all of Mexico.
I was here twenty years ago for a month. At that time, eating was low on my priority list but I do remember how fascinated I was wandering through the narrow streets and alleys, just following my intuition.
I've always found the beauty in this city. You are consumed by it... not the minute that you see it but rather slowly, much like drinking a fine wine. It takes awhile to appreciate its depth. And once you leave it, you realize just how magical it was.
Local Guanajuato cuisine...

The local foods of Guanajuato are delightful...enchiladas mineras, pacholas (fried ground beef), Cecina which is a salted, dry meat I've had at Tuesday market, stuffed hot peppers and a wide range of appetizing tamales. Traditional Mexican fare with all of the local twists.
Trip Advisor lists 123 restaurants in Guanajuato. There are 265 in San Miguel. Although there is certainly not the variety of restaurants in Guanajuato that San Miguel has, Argentinean, French, Spanish, and Italian restaurants compliment the traditional Mexican offerings so you do have some good food options.

Casa Valadez (Jardin Union 3) is one of them. This restaurant was always full, mainly with Mexicans, which is a testament to the consistency and quality of their food. I ate there four times and all of them were great food experiences.

I've been known to judge a restaurant by its Arrachera and this one was cooked to perfection. Slight char on the outside with a beautiful, pink center. Just the way it's supposed to be.

This was also a new way of preparing and enjoying Chorizo for me.

The wow factor? The food presentation. It was obvious whoever was plating the food was a genius.
I went back here for breakfast - had an omelet filled with squash blossoms, cheese, tomatoes and onions and plated with a smear of beans, oil and cilantro - and again for dessert - a traditional Mexican cream-colored flan custard with deep amber, burnt sugar caramel but with chocolate accents including a small mound of rich, chocolate ice cream and crumbled brownies. I cleaned my plate both times.

The next day I had their luncheon special: a mixed salad with figs and dried fruit, a cream of Brie soup which was delicious, a beef dish that was splashed with just the right amount of green sauce and then smothered with green peppers, onions and corn and topped with a generous helping of - are you ready for this - homemade potato chips, and for dessert a strawberry mousse which had berries and shaved chocolate. And of course, I discovered those crumbled chocolate brownies when I got to the bottom of the dish.

That was a sweet surprise. I like surprises when it comes to most things...especially food.

Full portions were served and the entire meal was just $135 pesos.
 Eating at Hidalgo Market...

Whenever I'm in a new town or one I've not been to for awhile, I head to the market. The food in the market pretty much tells you what the locals are eating.
Ok, I'll admit this sandwich was a lot easier to look at than it was to eat.

It seems in every Mexican city, I find a sandwich that I love. In Puebla it was the Cemita. Here in Guanajuato it is the Guacamaya.

This signature street food sandwich is made of pork skin, fresh avocado, and a super-spicy pico de gallo that is added to a special sauce made with chiles de arbol.

It’s the most unhealthy sandwich on the planet... but it’s so good.
What defines the sandwich is the sauce. It has a rather complex taste along with low-sizzling heat.
I swore I would never eat Chicharrón but here I am singing its praises. Got to love the power of pork fat.

Torta Guacamaya Guanajuato

4 Bolillos
Chopped Carrots - optional
3 fresh red tomatoes
2 onions
Picked Pork Rinds
2 serrano chiles
1 clove garlic
4 dried chiles de arbol

The bolillo roll should be well-cooked and can be well-toasted on the outside since this sandwich can fall apart easily once it is filled.

Slice open and fill with chicharrón, avocado and a large spoonful of the salsa. Add pickled pork rinds. Carrots are optional. Squeeze a lime over the top and give it a generous dash of salt.

For the Salsa:

Chop two tomatoes, serrano chiles, one onion and cilantro to make a pico de gallo. Reserve.

Roast one tomato in the oven, with half an onion, a clove of garlic and 4 dried chiles de arbol. Once roasted, liquefy with a little water in the blender.

Mix salsa with the pico de gallo and generously season with salt. Add lime juice.

Note: You can also add pickled pork skins to the sauce too.

I did not find as much Guanajuato street food as I remembered but what I did find was wonderfully local.

A well-hidden, classic cantina...

La Clave Azul Restaurante Taberna is located on Segunda De Cantaritos 31 up a tiny, hidden alleyway from Plaza San Fernando that you would never find on your own.

It's an old, two story cantina that is more like a museum with its unusual artifacts including old chandeliers, cameras, posters and photos.
It's famous for the botanas, like spiced, fried potato halves, which I thought I would not like but the flavor was amazing. They didn't taste a bit like Mexican potatoes which I have yet to love.
Here, you can grab a craft beer or get a taste of Mezcal, both of them made in Guanajuato.

If you’re up for good Italian food...
Check out La Capallina (Sopena 3) for some of the best thin-crust pizza I've had. A picture-perfect Margherita with a blend of four cheeses and topped with fresh tomatoes.

All the way around, we got great service in a beautiful, Italian-style space.

Not in the plan: My craving for Boeuf Bourguignon...

I saw this darling French restaurant - which will go nameless- and fell in love with their upstairs patio which has some of the best views in Guanajuato.

I could actually taste Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon when I saw it on their menu and ordered a glass of white wine as I worked up an appetite for this much anticipated dish. I had been craving it for months.

What came? I think a plate of warmed up leftovers.The sauce, instead of being rich and deliciously dark brown, was light and totally lacked the Parisian flavors of Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon.

Once again, a longing for all things Paris in that instant, especially the food, swept me away from the reality that this is Guanajuato and not Mexico City. I will make Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon at home...soon.

The owner and the chef both apologized and sent over an apple dessert but the experience killed any craving I had for good French food the rest of my trip.

I did like their internet password however: Bon Appetit.

Tiny Alleyways and Callejoneadas...

One of the most famous alleyways in Guanajuato is Callejón del Beso, an alley that is so narrow that people can actually kiss from opposite balconies.

It's also great fun to take part in a callejoneada, a walking serenade led by student musicians. It happens randomly almost every night.

We did the noon tour of the city by trolley departing from Plaza de la Paz in Centro. The ride is another great deal. It lasts 1.5 hours and costs $100 pesos.

Saving the best for last...
Las Mercedes (Calle de Arribe 6) is a beautiful restaurant on the hill in the San Javier residential district just 10 minutes from downtown. It was a 50 peso taxi ride.

This place is small and intimate with only 7 tables in the restaurant so be sure to make a reservation. Mine was at 5 PM when they opened for dinner.

I like going to a restaurant when it opens for dinner. You usually get great service... and the last available light for pictures.

I asked for a seat by the window. It was a table for four but they put me in it anyway.

First off I was impressed by the management. The owner went around to each table to greet his guests... not just once but frequently when I was there. Without question, the service was first - class.

I started out with a Margarita de xoconostle Las Mercedes - $90 pesos.

Xoconostle, pronounced choko-nose-leh, is the fruit of a cactus plant that is sour and tart. It's sweetened by the chef, using brown sugar and other ingredients, before it is incorporated into the Margarita. It's very similar in appearance to a prickly pear which my friend Kathy uses to make Martinis.

I deliberated over three dishes that all looked divine:

Chamorro Las Mercedes
Family special recipe of tender and juicy pork shank cooked in its own juices and served in a broth with tomatoes and black beans $208 pesos

Corte de Cerdo Nagano Canadiense
Nagano pork cowboy cut and rustic peanut mole sauce $232 pesos

Tacos de Carnitas de Pato Organico de Jiutepec
Organic Duck Tacos $112 pesos

I ultimately decided on the pork shank. It was superb and the sauce had that subtle spiciness that can only come from Jalapeños.

Remember, the older the jalapeño, the hotter it is. You can always tell by the skin.

If I came here the first night instead of the last, I would have eaten here every night and ditched my master plan it was that good.

We save the best for last for a reason.
It's not often I turn down dessert...

My parting dish was a plate of corn cake with homemade pecan ice cream and strawberries. I thought that the corn cake would be really heavy but it was rather light. The ice cream was also a great flavor for the corn cake.

There…I was done. This was the meal I was going to remember.The best. I was happy.

It's been said that Rick Bayless comes here to get ideas for his restaurants. I can see why. It's Mexican gourmet at its best where many of the dishes are made from old family recipes.

So after all this great food, why is it people say that Guanajuato is not a food city?

I'll be back for a second helping. After all, I'm now dreaming about that Nagano pork cowboy cut with the peanut mole sauce. Ah, peanut mole...

Maybe that's a good sign... that I'm finally dreaming about Mexican food instead of French.

Good food Guanajuato!

Buen Apetito!