Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hay Café, o Solo Nescafé?

A good cup of coffee in Mexico, a tantalizing possibility that rarely becomes a reality. Mexico produces great coffee but ask for a cup in most places in Mexico and you'll get a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafe! In the past, the best bet was a steaming cup of Cafe de Olla. Pretty good stuff, if you want a dark and sweet treat.

We were, therefore, hoping for the best but expecting the worst when we got to Mexico. Things didn't improve when we arrived in Guadalajara. We quickly understood that Mexico is in the throes of cappuccino mania! Everyone from middle-school kids to dowdy matrons were ordering them like they were manna from heaven. We were reluctant to try, since a good cappuccino is hard to come by anywhere; then we saw that most were made by pressing a button on a Greyhound terminal style machine, eww!

When we got to Guanajuato, we didn't expect to find anything better. Wow, we were wrong. Though it is a smaller city, it has a much more cosmopolitan sense. Why? It could be because of the university in town, as well as the annual influx of foreign (mostly European) tourists that come in every year for the Festival Cervantino. Right off the bat, we found Cafe Conquistador. It is literally a hole in the wall. I took the picture below from the entrance. It is basically the roaster you see above, a stack of bags full of raw beans and a counter where the beans are ground and the drinks made. Their coffee is all organic beans from Coatepec in Veracruz Mexico.

We found the coffee to be an amazing departure from everything we had tasted up until then. Fresh, strong and very drinkable. OMG was it hot, though! I felt like Kramer with a latte down his pants. In fact we noticed almost everywhere in Mexico that the coffee was boiling, not a bad thing. When life is slower and you have time to let it cool a bit, it's great.

Guanajuato is a great walking city, not that you have any other choice. All callejones and narrow stairways. One place we really enjoyed, more for the location and vibe than for the coffee was Santo Cafe. In the picture below, it is up the street on the right, (yes, that is considered a street) than over the "bridge" with the blue umbrellas. The place has good coffee as well as some interesting desserts and appetizers.

One place I have to mention, not so much for the coffee, though I hear it's great, is Cafe El Truco 7. Good food and ambiance, but most importantly, it's a great place to lose any stray dogs that you might have picked up. Of course there's a whole story behind that, but suffice to say that El Truco is central, open late and just a great cafe.

Last in Guanajuato, was Cafe Tal. Now, they have GREAT coffee. Also specializing in coffee of Mexico, they roast their own beans and have a wonderfully pared-down coffeecentric feel. Wonderful little space that you enter on the second floor, (which is at ground level) and walk down the stairs to the first floor. Guanajuato tends to remind you of an M.C.Escher print; all up-and-down but ending up in the same place! People come to Cafe Tal to buy great freshly roasted beans by the kilo or an americano y un cuerno (croissant). The staff is friendly and very accommodating, this is the perfect place to spend some time filling a notebook or penning postales (BTW don't expect your post cards to make it to the US).

Our next city was Morelia. A gorgeous colonial city in Michoacan. Downtown is one beautiful checkerboard, punctuated by baroque churches, plazas, palaces and the university buildings. This is where we stumbled onto what seems to be Mexico's answer to the Starbucks Empire. Finca Santa Veracruz has approximately 50 stores in Mexico, most centered in Mexico City. They manage the entire process from planting and growing on their own finca in Coatepec, Veracruz to roasting and grinding. The cafes are set-up as franchises and strictly controlled. We found the coffee to be MUCH better than most US coffee shops' coffee, though not as flavorful as what we found in Cafe Tal. I think they might have a winner here. Sorry, no pictures of this coffee shop, just the Catedral.

All in all, there is hope for Mexico on the coffee front. People are being exposed to higher quality ingredients and demanding more. There are indications that there is a greater appreciation and pride in the more local coffees. We saw shops featuring coffee from Oaxaca as well as Chiapas and Veracruz. I'm sure next time we go, it will be a lot easier to find great coffee.

Nescafe anyone?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Real Mexican Food?

"After being on vacation and eating all that real Mexican food, I doubt you'll be enjoying mexican food in Denver for a while, right?" -My Brother

"It is hard to pin down experts and restaurateurs as to what happened to Mexican food when it crossed the border." -Joe Drape, A Celebration of Tex-Mex NYTimes 10/24/07

Thus provoked, I enter the fray!

I understand the misconception that real Mexican food is found only in Mexico. Where would you find the most authentic French food? Pretty obvious-France. However, history has complicated matters when it comes to Mexican food. It seems likely the Joe Drape of the NY Times forgot about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 and establishment in 1836 of the Republic of Texas. Prior to this, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah; as well as parts of Wyoming and Colorado, were part of Mexico. So, Mexican food didn't "cross the border", the border just shifted south. Imagine the northern-half of the United States being invaded by Canadians and all-of-a-sudden, the food prepared there is no longer real American cooking, ludicrous!

Visiting a variety of regions in Mexico, reminded me that there is no monolithic cuisine in Mexico. There is so much beautiful variety. You'll find that the tortillas in Morelia are different than those in Guanajuato; up north you have wheat flour tortillas; and in Guadalajara, forget the tortillas, it's all about the amazing bread. Ceviche in one coastal area like Zihuatanejo is sweet and saucy, while in Nayarit it's a dry, crumbly and tart. How can anyone say that there is one real cuisine? Can a cook in Oaxaca tell the cook in Chihuahua that her beans are not authentic; not Mexican?

Joe Drape's article in the Times is very enjoyable and in the right spirit. He embraces Tex-Mex food as another one of America's great regional cuisines. I choose to see it in a slightly different light. I think that Tex-Mex, New-Mexican, Californian, are just the northernmost regions of historico-culinary Mexico. This region that goes from southern Colorado and Central California, down to Yucatan and Chiapas have traditions and ingredients that are very similar. Through isolation as well as adaptation, these distinct regions developed their own brand of Mexican food. When well prepared, they are all delicious and unique in their own way.

So "don't be hatin'" on the "Mexican" food of the Southwest, try it. Take it in it's historical context, but most importantly, judge the taste on it's own merits. Leave your baggage at the border and enjoy!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Quel tragique, non?

I like pound cake, I like croissants.
I don't like one-pound croissants.

The croissants at The Market on Larimer Square are so dense, they throw off my rhythm. You can forget the iambic-pentameter! For some light, buttery, croissants, check out Les Delices de Paris (5303 Leetsdale Dr.). It's a good thing they are SO far away from my house, otherwise...

Wanna Tart?

Got the baking bug this weekend and decided that a batch of fruit tarts would be necessary. Dug out this great recipe for the crust, the most important part of a tart. Perfectly flakey and buttery, yum! Filled some with apples cooked in butter, sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon. Filled others with peaches prepared in a similar manner. I also baked a crust blind and made a custard. This I will fill with bananas and cream. Here is a sample:

Butter Pie Crust Dough
1-1/4 cp. All Purpose Flour
1/2 tbl. Sugar
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/2 cp. chilled Unsalted Butter (1/2" cubes)
3 tbl. Ice Water

Mix together dry ingredients. Cut in butter until you have a coarse meal. Add the water and work in until you have moist clumps. Make into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour. Use for your favorite tart.
This makes one 9" tart.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mayonez- It Covers a Mulititude of Sins

Are you trying to make a salad out of canned goods from the Breshnev era? Did you boil your makarony until it was the consistency of wet toilet paper? "Eta nichevo!" (no problem), our Russian-speaking friends would say, "that's why we have mayonez."
No smetana (sour cream) for the borscht or pelmeniy? No dressing for the salat? Break out the mayonez! If you have real klas you won't forget the ketchup! Remember, Russian Dressing is simply French Dressing with; yeah, you guessed it, mayonez.

For some more Soviet food delights, check out this link to Soviet Food Posters. Of course Uncle Joe wouldn't let anyone starve, right?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Your Twinkie* Tip

Wednesday night is "Rib Night" at CityGrille. Succulent baby-backs with fries and so-so-slaw: eight and a quarter.

I swear they put way to much BBQ sauce just to see how messy people can get. Deep Fry Spy, "How did I get sauce on my shoulder?" Delighted, messy faces all around, wet-nap IS included. If you are down Colfax way, check it out. (321 E. Colfax Avenue, park in the back)

*Good 'ole down-home grub: "That boy is like a twinky; brown on the outside, white on the inside."

¿Qué Paso?

Left you hanging, did I? Sorry. I got all worked-up about the state of the restaurant business here in Denver, threw an "Anton Ego"-sized rant, promised a follow-up that would spell death to the posuers and life and eternal fame to the true masters of the art, then fsstt....
As I try to steel myself for this self-imposed battle, Gourmet publishes their list of 100 restaurant, across the country that embody the spirit of local, fresh, organic foods. How many restaurants in our fair city? ONE. Yes, I realize that Gourmet's nod to a restaurant is not the sine qua non of legitimacy. But, they are not far from the mark. More to come in a true Part 2.

The real reason I left you on a limb is that I was in Mexico for two glorious weeks. As you read this, I will be preparing a short travelogue with pictures focusing on our culinary experiences.

Coming soon:
  • Does real coffee exist in Mexico?
  • Can I eat at the mercado without spending the rest of my trip on the can?
  • If all the cooks in the U.S. are from Mexico, who's in the kitchen in Mexico?