Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Best Kept Secrets in San Miguel de Allende

Recently, I was surprised to discover that a friend, who has lived in San Miguel for over 17 years, didn’t know about Cava Sautto. Imagine the look on her face when I took her upstairs to check out the wine cellar.

Don’t ask me why, but Cava Sautto is still one of the best kept secrets in San Miguel.

I asked around about all of the places that I ultimately put on this list. More often than not, people knew little if anything about these treasures. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re already in the know about some of them.

Secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places; here are some of San Miguel’s bests that are just too delicious not to share.

Buen Apetito!

Cava Sautto
Hernandez Macias 59

This wine store, hidden behind the registration desk in Hotel Sautto, has a remarkable cellar that is stocked with well-known labels, including Casa Madero and other fine wines from Mexico, South America and Europe.

Want a bottle of Pingus 2006? Dominio de Pingus is a Spanish winery located in Quintanilla de Onésimo in Valladolid province with vineyards in the La Horra area of the Ribera del Duero region. The wine produced, Pingus, is considered a cult wine, and sold at extremely high prices while remaining somewhat inaccessible. Hand over 20,300 pesos ($1231.83 to be exact) and it’s all yours at Cava Sautto. It’s the most expensive wine that Cavo Sautto sells.

You could spend hours hanging out in the cellar studying labels but you’ll have more fun taking them home and tasting them.

I love champagne and at Cava Sautto, you get three bottles of the Cava bubbly for the price of two. Cava is probably the most Champagne-like sparkling wine outside of France and I was introduced to it two years ago at Cava Sautto. It’s 189 pesos a bottle.

Another secret? Cava Sautto has a wine fest every February. Along with many of their top wines, high-end liquors like Hennessy, Dewar's, Bacardi, Johnny Walker, Herradura, Chevas Regal, Bruxo, Grey Goose and other leading brands are featured at the show.

For 300 pesos, you can sample all of the wines or liquors at the event. At the end of the night, take your ticket stub into Cava Sautto and get a $200 peso credit for any bottle in the store. 

It’s one of San Miguel’s best parties. Mark your calendar for the next Cava Sautto Wine Festival on February 6, 2016.

Valeria is the General Manager of Cava Sautto and another Sautto family member that works at the hotel, along with the charismatic Ricardo Sautto at Bacco, another SMA secret that serves great Italian food. 

Ruben is always happy to help you and will go upstairs to grab a bottle of wine for you if you don’t want to make the climb. It’s worth it though. You never know what you’re going to find.

Cava Sautto is open 7 days a week: Monday - Friday from 10 AM-8 PM, Saturday from 9 AM – 10 PM and Sunday at 11 AM – 4 PM.

Don Santos Tacos
Clavel 8 off Refugio Sur

One of the most amazing things to me is that I have a Mexican friend who grew up in SMA and an American friend that lives within blocks of this restaurant in San Antonio and neither one of them knew anything about it and these are people who LOVE TO EAT.

As with a number of the streets in San Antonio, Clavel is not marked. Turn left on Refugio Sur and go down a few blocks until you get to a colorful fruit store on the corner that says San Antonio at the top. Take a left down the narrow, cobblestone street and Don Santos is in the middle of the block on the left.

Don Santos earns its accolades with authentic Mexican food at this location and a satellite at the Tianguis on Tuesday.

It could be called the Tale of Two Tacos; Don Santos famous Taco de Costilla and the other taco; Taco de Res. So this is another little secret: The Taco de Res is THE BEST BEEF TACO IN SAN MIGUEL.

The thin strips of beef are cooked in a pile of intestines and chorizo. It’s so well flavored and tender you can’t stop eating them. Honestly, I could eat the beef right off the grill it’s that good. I planned to have just two and ended up eating five. That’s a record for me.

Heap on a mound of onions, cilantro and some of their remarkable salsas. The red salsa is particularly popular, made with tomatillos and cascabel chiles. Try all of the salsas; it will give you an excuse to eat more tacos. It will also get you thinking about the salsas and wondering if they don’t actually make the tacos exceptional as well.

We went at 6:00 PM and they were just starting  to prepare the food. We left and came back at 6:30 PM and there was a long line out front. Obviously, the locals have the inside track on when this place opens.

There are several tables inside the restaurant where you can eat. Families often take up the communal tables, with couples and singles tucked in wherever they can find a seat.
Weekend nights are crazy so you might just want to order them to go. We were the only gringos in the place. Cost: 9 pesos each.

Food tent at Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Salud
Calle Insurgentes

When the weather cools off, I want a bowl of soup.

This, the first food tent in front of the church, is filled with locals getting their morning Pozole fix and mingling with friends, family and even this solo gringa who made conversation with just about everyone the Sunday morning I was there.

Hominy is featured in a comforting pozole; a broth that’s populated by chunks of pork and add-on garnishes such as onion, radish, lime and oregano. It’s frequently served as a celebratory dish at special events including quinceañeras, weddings, birthdays and New Year's celebrations or in this case, as a ritual after mass.

Cost: 40 pesos.

Tamales La Chappis
Insurgentes by Templo del Oratorio de San Felipe Neri in front of the fountain

I hate tamales. That was until today.

Street Chefs Maria de la Luz Tovar Hernandez and Educardo Alonzo Zarate Cruz have been making some of the best Tamales in SMA, taking the stand over from Maria’s sister five years ago.

Tamales are cornmeal dough stuffed with a variety of fillings that's then wrapped in cornhusks and steamed.

What makes this tamale so good besides the fact that I liked it is the masa and filling of pork and green chilies were perfectly balanced, flavorful and moist, and they didn’t need any extra salsa or toppings. You see, that was part of the problem. I always had tamales that were dry. These tamales are offered several different ways and they usually always sell out.

The other blissful half of this breakfast in the square is watching San Miguel come alive in the morning. An 8 pesos experience that’s pretty darn hard to beat.

Hidalgo and Calzada de Luz

I call this place the most retro seafood bar in San Miguel. It’s a hole-in-the-wall but it’s packed, especially on Sunday.The kitchen is nothing more than a taco cart that’s parked in the front of the room with fun food on the menu like this ball glass of beer that’s surrounded with mini shrimp. Like a typical kid, it’s tempting not to dunk them.

A popular spot with Mexican locals, this restaurant also sells a legendary shrimp cocktail of shelled, cooked shrimp in a spicy cocktail sauce. It’s served in a tall glass and topped with a mountain of fresh vegetables.

One of these days, I’ll save up my appetite and go in for two, thereby fulfilling another fantasy that only seafood can bring to an off-the-coast city like San Miguel.

Taqueria Gonzalez
133F Calzada de la Estacion

One of San Miguel’s best-kept secrets, this restaurant, located down from the bus station, has some of the best Tacos al Pastor in San Miguel. Let’s just say it runs a close second to the king; Andy’s Tacos in Centro.

The marinated pork is slow cooked on a vertical rotisserie and not picked off until it is close to perfect; perfect as in caramelized and slightly crunchy. Top it with the colorful orange chimichurri sauce made with vinegar, oil, garlic and Chili de Arbol and you get the fiery aftertaste that pastor lovers hunger after.

Its Mexican street cooking as it should be: fast, cheap and fabulous.

Open from 6 PM - 3 AM. Cost: 10 pesos.  Count your blessings and your change.

Venta de Chicharrón 
Calle San Antonio Abad # 20 A

This unknown shop with no name has seen long lines of locals anxiously awaiting their favorite addiction, fried pork skin, for over 20 years.

Simmered in vats of fat that will barley fit inside the tiny kitchen at the back, you can buy a portion that’s almost bigger than you are for small change. Healthy? No but who cares? Everyone in the line is smiling.

Chicharrón is a stronghold in Mexican cuisine so dig in. I like the variety with the meaty bits still attached (Chicharrón gordito) and there’s always a pile in the case out front corner to tempt your taste buds.

So why is this Chicharrón stand more popular than all the others? It’s always so fresh.

I can sum up this indulgence in three brief words: drool-worthy, affordable and habit-forming. 

You do the math. Nothing this good should be this cheap.

Dona Bola
Calzada de la Luz and Calle Amado Nervo 1A

Doña Bola is one of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in San Miguel. It’s on my A list of places to take people who want to see the real Mexico.

Starting out as a street stand, part of the appeal is that it’s only open on Sunday. They stay open until they run out, which is almost always by noon.

So what’s the secret of this soup kitchen? It’s home cooking where the recipe, ingredients and flavors have stayed the same over the years.

It’s packed with Mexican families and with locals outside the front door who have large Tupperware containers ready to carry it home. Dona Bola does a sizeable carry out business.

Doña Bola buys 50 kilos of tripe a week. They also use pork trotters, a.k.a. pigs feet, which now appear on menus all over New York, L.A. Chicago and San Francisco.

They start the cooking process 3 days in advance. The condiments that top this hangover cure are dried red chili peppers, jalapeños, onion, limes and cilantro. As usual, I always overloaded the bowl.

It's a time-honored restaurant that will not be found in any of your guidebooks.

Proof that word-of-mouth marketing works? By the time we left, the line was halfway down the block but don’t let that discourage your pursuit of happiness. They move pretty fast when grandma starts yelling rápido!

Fiesta Flags
Is there a fiesta in progress? Just look up and if you see the endless lines of colorful papel picado, the party’s on. There will likely be at least a half a dozen people running down the street to join in.

Whenever I see papel picado, it instantly makes me happy.

Papel picado is Mexican folk art with common themes of birds, flowers and skeletons. The colors selected are linked to specific holidays; orange for Dia de Los Muertos and this red, white and green commemorating September 16th, Mexican Independence Day.

So what’s the big secret about something we see practically every day?

Everyone loves these flags and recently I’ve been giving them out to everyone. Imagine being gone for months and coming home in the middle of the night to find fiesta flags strung throughout your house. That generated an endless round of smiles. Just a little something for her office, I recently gave a set to someone who was more excited about the fiesta flags than the 5 star restaurant she was scheduled to eat in that night in Mexico City.

You can buy them at Papelería El Iris, San Francisco 16, but prior to Dia de Los Muertos, they are sold in the tents at the top of Insurgentes by Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Salud. Cost: 15 pesos.

Go to the first tent on the top of the steps on your left where Angelita has them in every size and color.  

Across the way, at the top of the steps to your right, Karla, who is also selling sugar sweets, owns Papeleria Yareli at Ave 1 de Mayo #63, Fraccionamiento Palmita de Landeta, and has a variety of decorative fiesta flags with very unusual patterns.

Buy me a set to hang in my kitchen and I’m already cooking for you.

Buenos Aires Bistro 
Mesones #62

Did you know that Buenos Aires Bistro teaches tango lessons every Wednesday night? This is news to a lot of people, including me.

Ezequiel Agreda is the instructor and at these group tango lessons he can make anybody dance the tango and look good while doing it. No small task. Just ask Chef Mariano Alvarez, who is speaking from personal experience.

* 7pm Beginner's Group Class; for people that have never danced tango and want to start; 

* 8pm Intermediate Group Class; for people that have already been introduced to tango before and want to build on what they have,

*9pm and onwards; open dance floor to practice what was taught that night.

Each class is just $20 pesos; Buenos Aires Bistro subsidizes the rest of the cost of the lesson which is for Ezequiel's time and experience; it is a way of giving back to the tango community and promoting the tango culture.

Eating at Buenos Aires Bistro after burning off all those calories during your tango lesson? Try something light and new on the menu; a yummy Birria salad with caramelized apples and a balsamic vinegar reduction.

Food for thought? Yes, I’m still thinking about the short ribs a week after I ate them.
More on Buenos Aires Bistro and Chef Mariano Alvarez in a November post.

Gelatería Dulce Fusión 
Calle Relox #6

Which is better, liquor or ice cream?

You don’t have to make that decision with this gelateria opening on Relox near the jardin. They also have another shop in Tequisquiapan in Querétaro state.

Alcohol and ice cream are made for each other with flavors like Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Whiskey, and Tequila.

No waiting until happy hour to get your fix with these tipsy scoops; they’re open at 10 AM if you want to get a really early start.

Don’t worry. It’s 5:00 somewhere. This one’s on me at 28 pesos a scoop. Salud!

Posada de la Aldea
Ancha de San Antonio 15

Most of us know that you can go to the pool at Posada de la Aldea, so what’s the big secret? You’re likely to get a private concert while you’re exercising.

On the top floor of the hotel, overlooking the pool, there is a grand piano where many of San Miguel’s best pianists’ practice.

Cost of the swim: 60 pesos. Cost of the concert: FREE!

 Now, if only I could get that group of mariachis from the Jardin to come over.

Tequila and Mezcal Tastings

Need something entertaining to do when guests come into town?

You can book a tequila or mezcal class with a minimum of three people for 600 pesos each at the Rosewood Hotel’s 1826 Tequila Bar. Alex, the resident Tequilier (tequila sommelier) helps guests to learn more about the 120 tequilas and 20 Mezcals they offer. We love this bar for its range of selections and its’ stylish surroundings.

You can also arrange for a Mezcal tasting at La Mezcaleria, 47-A Correo. Monica and Alexander, a young couple from Mexico City, have created a attractive space of their own design and a menu of different Mezcals. We sampled four brands: Espadin,Tobalá, Tepestate and Cuixe. If you have a large group, call them in advance at 415-121-5354.

Mercado Central SMA
Codo 36, corner Ancha de San Antonio y Calle Nueva

25 vendors will be selling their produce, flowers and other goods at this new market scheduled to open December 1st.

Alejandro Ochoa, who has been selling his vegetables on the front steps of the old Espinos market for over 15 years, was just awarded the first stall.

So, who says nice guys don’t finish first?

El Tucan
Hernandez Macias #56

I’ve been eating flautas at the best little dive in SMA since I arrived so what’s the secret? Alex always made his flautas with corn tortillas. I recently ordered them with flour.

Flautas with flour tortillas = comfort food equivalent to a Chicken Pot Pie.

The bonus? They are literally covered in a mound of fresh vegetables which is on par with a large side salad.

Got to love this homemade 2 X 1 at 35 pesos. Regular orders are 5. I can only eat 3.

Day of the Dead

As both the restaurants and the cemeteries await their annual Day of the Dead embellishments, here is a little known fact:

A day before the holiday, families are often cleaning the graves and preparing for their celebration. It’s the best time to go if you want to get interesting photographs and talk to the locals about the holiday traditions.

I met some inspiring people last year and plan to meet up with them again this year.
As I continue to connect, they are letting me in for a more intimate portrait of what the holiday is all about.

I’ve been building a Day of the Dead altar for over 30 years and consider it the most sacred of holidays with the most extraordinary traditions.

My favorite holiday in Mexico, I watch “The Book of Life”; a movie celebrating Day of the Dead. It was one of the picks at the Guanajuato Film Festival’s this year where I saw it in Spanish. I didn’t understand all of it but it didn’t matter. The message was transparent and visually illustrated through the splendid animation. You can purchase a copy at Juan’s Café, Relox 37, for 100 pesos.

Casa de Cocinas Day Trips

So what’s the secret on Michael Coon? We all know he’s a world renowned food and travel expert; the former Travel Director and Co-Creator of the Culinary Institute of America World's of Flavor tours. He also does outstanding culinary tasting at Casa de Cocinas every month and conducts tours to many of Mexico’s culinary centers like Mexico City and Oaxaca.

Well, now he’s leading day trips and overnight tours. I for one am partial to these mini vacations. You can get on Casa de Cocinas mailing list by emailing Michael at

I recently went on the day trip to Ex-Hacienda Jaral De Berrio; a celebration of Mezcal and Mixiotes amid the exquisite architecture and ruins of the hacienda. He works exclusively with the staff there to provide an authentic and historical experience. The tours are small, personal and reasonable.

So what’s another one of Michael’s best kept secrets these days? He will lead a trip to Casa Madero in 2016.  

I’ve already signed up. Have you?


I am captivated by the contemporary take on Tacos al Pastor created by Gabriel Ferrant, Chef de Cuisine at San Miguel’s newest restaurant, ZUMO, Orizaba 87.His version uses grilled red snapper from Ensenada with achiote and a simple corn taco base.  
In addition to having some of the finest food in San Miguel, you’ll also get one of the best views.
For reservations, call Cindy at 01 415 152 0489.
More in a post on ZUMO in November with their talented triple trio: Chef Ferrant, Stewart Haverlack and Vanessa Villegas.

Jicama Tacos
La Azotea
Umaran 6

I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve talked to over the past 6 months who have never been to La Azotea.

The architect behind the most popular taco in SMA, the Jicama Taco, is Chef Jose Maria who has ruled the kitchens there for over 20 years.

So how many Jicama Tacos does he serve in a year? 15,000 and counting. We’ll see if another popular appetizer, the pollo popper, hits that number any time soon.

Another secret? They have the best wine pour in town. 60 pesos a glass for my favorite, the house wine. Really.

Birdie's Burgers

With a December opening on the horizon, Birdie’s Burgers can’t come soon enough.

Birdie’s Burgers was spawned from the popularity of burger night at The Restaurant, Calle Sollano #16. This one is the In and Out which was so good I had to go back the following week for another one. 

The name comes from The Restaurant’s logo; Chef Donnie Masterton’s daughter drew the bird when she was just six years old and it’s been part of the Masterton brand ever since.

With many burger joints creating oversized patties, I tend to gravitate back to the classic, which is what Birdie’s is going to be. 

                                                                                                        Photo: Birdie's Burgers

Think Apple Pan, In and Out and Shake Shack with a 3-4 oz. thin patty. I’m celebrating the thin patty because you get the perfect balance of meat, toppings and bun in every bite.

Want a Double double with grilled onions? There will be plenty of selections. The depth will be pulled from what is piled on top of these simple patties. Just like The Restaurant, super-fresh ingredients are the foundation of Birdie’s signature taste.

So what’s a Birdie’s Burger going to taste like? I think it's going to be the kind of burger that makes you keep saying to yourself: just one more bite. Suddenly, it’s disappeared and you have no clue where it went.

On the bird watch. Stay tuned.