Sunday, October 30, 2011

Aromas y Sabores 2011, La Ruta del Norte: Santiago, Nuevo Leon-El Pueblo Magico

The fearless chef Patricia Quintana braves the cascading waters at Parque Cola de Caballo, Santiago, Nuevo Leon.

At the end of May I reunited with Aromas y Sabores, the northern route, and chef Patricia Quintana in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. After a relaxing dinner the night before at a cozy spot in downtown, and a rekindling of new friendships from the inauguration back in Mexico City, I was ready to taste the north!

I made it a goal to interact with everyone on two full buses during the next couple weeks--not easy with such a broad range of people, and so many cliques that had forged during the week I missed. With such intense travel and profound experiences, I felt like a kid who wasn't around for the 10th grade and returned to a high school that wasn't anything like the place I had left. I was the new kid, and the only pocho among mostly chilangos and spaniards. In the end my efforts would pay off, and the friendships and acquaintances made on this trip were as valuable as the knowledge acquired, and shall remain a fountain of inspiration.

Our morning commenced with an early departure to Santiago; just outside of Monterrey. The side of the road held signs of new tastes to come. I saw things like tacos mañaneros, grilled meat stands featuring sweeetbreads, empalmes(first time I had seen this word), and new regional guisados(stews). In Mexico, the local foods are all around the roads and streets; all you need do is look out your window.

Santiago, known as the Pueblo Magico(magical town), is full of natural beauty, ecotourism, and great cuisine. It's a place to relax and partake in mountain climbing and hiking in Chipinque Park, cycling, rappelling, camping, and to enjoy the picturesque mountains and waterfalls. Locals head out to La Presa de La Boca, a reservoir, for water sports and excursions by horse-back.

Machacada con huevo, local beef jerky with eggs.

We were received at the Hotel Hacienda Cola de Caballo(horse's tail--the waterfall looks like a horse's tail) by the local tourism representatives, a proud peacock(one of the local attractions), a breakfast buffet consisting of local flavors, and the lovely Reina de Las Ferias y Turismo Santiago: Tanya Silva. Everything is better with beauty queens; not to mention they're quite knowledgeable about their communities in a refreshing, non-partisan manner.

One of the highlights of our breakfast extravaganza was the machacada con huevo--one of the most amazing bites one can have wrapped in a flour tortilla. The Nuevo Leon style of dried beef isn't available in the US, and has a different taste than that of the Sonoran variety. Any machaca that makes it to LA usually come from Sonora--this was a rare treat.

The reigning queen of Santiago tourism, Tanya Silva, was beaming with charm, warmth and grace. She described her city as a place to relax and take in the natural beauty plus she turned me on to a couple of local dishes: pollo en salsa, and the famous rotisserie chicken at Pollos Guzman. Pollo en salsa is another local dish I didn't know; I was really starting to get a feel for Nuevo Leon. I enjoyed learning from her about Santiago: no alterior motives,no agenda, just a desire to share her love for Santiago, and be a great hostess. From here on out, I'm looking for the beauty queens!

On our way from breakfast to the waterfall we encountered some local vendors--I went light on breakfast to have space for such an opportunity. A bean dish was called Laurita Mexicano by the woman preparing the food, but I'm not sure this is accurate. It could be cowboy beans or chile con carne. Regardless of name; the bayo beans with tomato, tiny chunks of beef, onions and peppers delighted our senses with its well-seasoned northern tang.

Most of our group huddled hungrily around Comidas Maria Elena, a stand that has endured 50 years at the Cola de Caballo. They had 6 mouth-watering guisados(stews) for griddled gorditas(corn masa pockets), pan de elote(corn bread), and tamales.

Nopales con tortitas de camaron, or cactus with shrimp patties. As we learned on this trip, many dishes have the same names throughout Mexico, but the chiles, and other key ingredients change as to render them entirely different.

The picadillo had large cubes of local potatoes giving them a more hearty appeal than southern recipes.

Deshebrada de res, or shredded beef.

Asado rojo and asado verde are the local guisados at Comidas Maria Elena that captured my attention. Lusty stews glistening with pork fat and colored by the bled skins of regional chiles. The gordita of red pork was given additional flavor by a salsa of chile japones(Japanese chiles).

In the historic center of Salinas we were greeted by a children's choir and a food fair featuring local tastes.

But first I slipped away for a quickie with some tacos mañaneros, or morning tacos. These are known as tacos de guisado, or tacos al vapor in other parts of Mexico. They're tortillas filled with stews and braises of the provincial affection.

Tacos Valdez has been around for 15 years in Salinas, serving the "tacos of the morning" from 7AM-3PM, Monday through Saturday.

Each day a variety of fillings are prepared, and some chiles rellenos, too, also to put in tacos.

The barbacoa in Nuevo Leon is a braise of beef, traditionally cooked underground. The taco of barbacoa at Tacos Valdez is sublime. I also took this quick stop as a chance to get to know the famous machacada con huevo a little more.

I found so many gems on this trip sneaking away from the group, but two tacos was all I could fit in for fear of the bus leaving without me. But, I highly recommend Tacos Valdez when visiting Santiago.

In the town square I sampled some mezcals and liqueurs from Nuevo Leon.

And if you thought that banana leaf tamales only existed in southern Mexico, think again. In addition to tamales de elote, and corn husk wrapped tamales, we tasted tamales colados of pork head stewed in red chiles.

Pan de elote, or corn bread cooking at the Cola de Caballo.

The sweet pan de elote, also called gorditas de elote on the ranches, is made with tender corn, vanilla, eggs and condensed milk.

Another unusual item from Santiago: turcos, or Turks--they're empanadas filled with various sweets. Turcos Santiago is one the most respected bakers of turcos--give them a try.

Nuevo leon is also a state of incredible panaderias with it's own unique forms of pan dulce, or sweet bread: turcos,semitas,polvorones, hojarascas, and the aforementioned pan de elote.

It would be later in the day--yes we did three cities this day including our evening back in Monterrey--that I would get my first taste of pollo en salsa and empalmes, but already Nuevo Leon impressed. I had visited Monterrey several times, but Salinas is an entirely new perspective on Nuevo Leon, and on Mexico. It's safe to say I fell in love with another town, another set of flavors, and the people. I shall return.

Santiago should be on your list of destination in Mexico; it's off the beaten path where you can enjoy an unspoiled Mexican experience.

Stay tuned for the next stop on Aromas y Sabores, la ruta del norte: Allende, Nuevo Leon.

For more information on Santiago, Nuevo Leon please visit their website here.

Aromas y Sabores, la ruta del norte 2011
Santiago, Nuevo Leon

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chelas and Chabelitas in Mexico's Beer Republic-Mexicali: Kilos and Beer, El Merendero, La Conga, El Sume

To say that Cachanillas(people from Mexicali) like to drink beer is to say that pirates like to sail the seven seas. The happy go lucky residents of Mexicali are the per capita beer drinking champions of Mexico. Perhaps it's the hot weather that prods the locals to such feats of mass consumption? Think Beldar and Pryatt Conehead dispensing with some mass quantity beer guzzling after a long flight from France!

When Cachanillas aren't drinking beer(referred to as chelas in Mexican slang), they're drinking chabelas, or chabelitas. Chabelas are micheladas(beer cocktails) with Clamato(Clamato was invented in Mexicali). During a recent weekend visit to Mexicali I too stayed cool with ice cold chelas(beers), mostly from local brands Cucapa and Mexicali, and lots of chabelas.

Kilos and Beer is a good place to start if you like live music. Like many places in Mexico that feature American music--expect the soundtrack of your youth. Here the band threw down some Aha! and INXS while the mostly 30-something crowd sang along and downed beers by the bucket:literally.

Chabela at Kilos and Beer

Kilos and Beer is a fun place to see cachanillas in full effect. There's solid bar food, too. And of course, there are chabelitas.

If you're up for some local nostalgia, there's El Merendero Manuet, a car hop that feels a little like the 50's, but Mexico style.

El Merendero has been a Mexicali tradition since 1949, located in the oldest neighborhood in the city. The cafeteria-like interior is rather sedate, so grab a chabela and head out to the parking lot for the action. It's Bob's Big Boy with beer and cowboy hats!

When it comes to chabelas, you can't leave Mexicali without stopping by Bar La Conga, located in the tourist zone. This is as old school Mexicali as it gets. It's a classic watering hole, where locals have gone to drink away the hours and escape the oppressive heat for the last half-century.

Ranchera bands wander in for a few tunes, and the jukebox keeps us entertained while they're roaming the redlight district grinding that accordion for some loose change.

Tecate is served on tap, which tastes so much better than in the bottle or can. It seems like it's not even that same beer we always have to squeeze some lime and drop in a dash of salt before it's even passable.

Even better? Partake in one of La Conga's legendary chabelitas with Tecate on draft. Here it's served in the classic chabelita glass with beer, Clamato juice, salt and pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and a little spice.

During the day it's a place to converse and ponder the night; in the evening it becomes part of the turbulent throws of bars, roving bands, touts,speakers blasting 50 Cent, and strip clubs.

Regardless of the hour, it's chabela's all around.

Mexicali even has a little something for the beer aficionados who might scoff at chabelas and the Tecates, Dos Equis route.

El Sume Mexicali, Cervezas del Mundo, or beers of the world, has a substantial selection of international beers and Mexican craft beers.

It is a nice place to hang out, and as the evening approached the place began to fill up with beer geeks, local office workers, and businessmen. The natives indulge in beers from the US and Europe, but for you it's a chance to check out some of Mexico's small production beers.

Cucapa, Mexicali's own craft beer hero that has crossed border is available on tap. The full line of Cuacapa is served here--including 4 not found in the US--as well as other Mexican beers like Las Minas from Ensenada, and 3B.

El Sume even has the first beer float I've seen in Mexico. Nothing daring, just a Young's Double Chocolate Stout with vanilla ice cream: simply delicious.

Wherever you go for a cold beer,or a chabela in Mexicali, you will discover the laid back spirit of the Mexicali people. Another beer anyone? Do you even need to ask?

Where to go for beers and chabelas in Mexicali:

Bar La Conga
Av. de la Reforma,#603
Zona Turistica
Mexicali, B.C.

El Merendero Manuet

Av. Pino Suarez S N-Colonia Nueva
Mexicali, B.C.

El Sume
Bl. Justo Sierra, #845
Mexicali, B.C.
Mon-Sat 4PM-1AM

Kilos and Beer
Bl. Juarez, #1799
Plaza Juarez
Mexicali, B.C.

Monday, October 3, 2011

1st Annual Baja Culinary Fest: October 5-9 in Tijuana, Ensenada, Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo, Mexicali, Tecate, and the Valle de Guadalupe

Today began the 1st Annual Baja Culinary Fest taking place in select venues throughout Ensenada,Mexicali, Rosarito,Tecate, Tijuana,and the Valle de Guadalupe. A local bounty of products and chefs will share the good news about one of the most exciting food destinations on the planet: Baja California.

Los Angeles based Chef John Sedlar(Rivera, Playa, and the creator of Modern Southwestern) and Baja Culinary Fest organizer, Chef Javier Plascencia(Mision 19,Cebicheria Erizo, Casa Plascencia, Villa Saverios, and Caesar's Restaurant) will be cooking a dinner together on Friday, October 7th at Mision 19.

Chef John Sedlar will also be joining rising Baja star, Chef Diego Hernandez and the new Valle de Guadalupe destination for Baja cuisine: Corazon de Tierra on Thursday, October 6th.

Baja legend, Chef Benito Molina of Manzanilla restaurant, Silvestre, and star of Benito y Solange on Utilisimo will be cooking at La Querencia on Friday night; he'll head up his own event at Manzanilla in Ensenada on Saturday, October 8th.

The big gun of Baja Med cuisine, Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero--Baja's ultimate hunter-gatherer--will lead a hunting expedition on Thursday, October 6th to bag some local game for a special dinner he will prepare for guests at this event. On Friday night(10/7), Chef Miguel will host a dinner at his original Baja Med shrine: La Querencia.

Real del Castillo cheese from Rancho Cortes.

Callo de hacha, Baja California scallops prepared by Chef Javier Plascencia.

Blue fin tuna from Ensenada on tostadas.

In addition to its wealth of local products, and leading innovative chefs, the fest will feature chefs from the US, Los Angeles based mixologists(Steve Livigni, Pablo Moix and Julian Cox), and Mexico's top chefs from throughout the country.

There will be tastings, food related activities, Baja cuisine education, all-star chef dinners, some of Mexico's greatest street vendors, and a grand event on Saturday at the Museo Trompo and the WTC in Tijuana.

For a complete list of events, participating chefs, and festival information go to the Baja Culinary Fest website.

1st Annual Baja Culinary Fest
October 5-9,2011
Ensenada,Mexicali, Rosarito,Tecate, Tijuana,and the Valle de Guadalupe

Sunday, October 2, 2011

4th Annual Feria de Los Moles,Olvera St.,DTLA: Sunday, October 9th, 2011

A demo by the Pueblan contingency of the 4th Annual Feria de Los Moles on mole poblano soon grew tense on an overcast morning at what was supposed to be a casual backyard media-preview in Hawthorne, CA.

In the red corner, team Puebla stirred their prized mole poblano--considered the first mole of Mexico, and its greatest by chefs on both sides of the border--while talking about techniques and ingredients. The gentleman in the white corner representing Oaxaca couldn't let this continue without pointing out the differences in Oaxacan preparation, but definitely he was hinting at a Oaxacan supremacy. The red corner would have none of this, and shut him down by explaining why Oaxacan technique is flawed.

It's on:Mole a Mole!! Or, Puebla vs. Oaxaca this Sunday, October 9th, from 10AM-7PM at Olvera St.

Puebla and Oaxaca are home to the most famous of Mexico's moles, but moles are made in every state of Mexico. What all moles share in common is the use of chiles. Chiles vary from state to state, and from mole to mole. There are red, black, green, yellow, white; so many shades and styles of mole. Despite the coverage by American cookbook authors, and food television, there remains a mystery around this dish originating from pre-hispanic cookery; and Puebla and Oaxaca have been the only beneficiaries of this global interest.

Most moles aren't made with chocolate. The so called 7 moles of Oaxaca is a myth that seems to keep rearing its head. This bothered Oaxaca's Top Chef Alejandro Ruiz so much that this year he named Oaxaca's premier culinary festival, Saber del Sabor(to know the flavors):Beyond the Myth of the 7 Moles. The first lady of Mexican cuisine, Chef Patricia Quintana insists that mole not be referred to as a sauce--it's so much more.

Well, after the nerves had calmed a bit, we got to the task of enjoying some mole for breakfast. The mole poblano was looking sublime sitting there in the earthen pot. The mole has chocolate, a variety of dark chiles; in all over thirty ingredients go into this prized dish.

To enjoy mole, one must remember the dish is called mole because that's what it's all about. Their might not be anything more perfect than mole with rice. The dish is called mole poblano, not chicken with mole. Chicken and rice are just there for the assist.

Where mole poblano tends to carry a touch more heat,mole negro oaxaqueño,(black Oaxacan mole) is on the sweeter side.

The black Oaxacan mole is darker than mole poblano. This is the prize of the Oaxacan moles and also is packed with a variety of toasted components.

I have gone the past two years to this event. And the best way to learn about moles and their relatives, the pipianes(pumpkin seed based)is to taste,taste, taste!!

At the festival they serve full plates and lines get to be a bit long. My advice is to get there early and bring some friends to help you tackle all those moles.

Happy father and daughter enjoying the Feria de Los Moles 2010.

The Feria de Los Moles still is an insider's event, with a huge attendance from the local Mexican community. Us Mexicans tend to ignore the theme of food festivals and just go for something like this giant torta oaxaqueña pictured above. Tortas and clayudas will be flying out of the booths, but do not do as the locals here--it's about the mole.

Scenes from Feria de Los Moles, 2010

Olvera St. is always a pleasure to visit, especially when there is a special event. This year, it shall be a taste of Puebla and Oaxaca; let's hope they open this up to the moles from other states next year. Two of the best moles I've had this year were in a village in Michoacan, and from an L.A. based family from Guerrero, Mexico. Come out and sample away at one of Mexico's greatest gifts to world cuisine:mole.

4th Annual Feria de Los Moles
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Olvera St.
Admission is free, bring cash to buy food and drink.
Live music and traditional dancing