Although there is so more to Monterrey than cabrito al pastor, or spit roasted kid, you could visit Mexico's third largest metropolitan area a thousand times and never err in ordering this local symbol of Nuevo Leon cuisine. There are an infinite number of restaurants that serve Mexico's first al pastor tradition ranging from large halls manned by teams of kid dismembering ranch-handed cooks, to more humble establishments. And of course there are the family gatherings if you'd be so lucky as to be an invitee.
Most first time visitors end up at El Rey del Cabrito, the King of Kid. It has a gaudy crown that lights up the hot, dry Regio(nickname for people from Monterrey) night's sky. There you can enjoy the devilish delights of whole kid carcasses dropped onto your table. I remember one trip where two guys from our group bailed as soon as they saw a neighboring table viciously tear into the roasted flesh of young goat. Later sissies! There's nothing quite as appetizing as a folded over kid placed in front of you--tortillas and condiments surrounding the tender, sizzling remains to form the fortunate diner's mise en place.
That place is fine, and you'll find that everyone will suggest their favorite place, but if you mention you're going to the Gran San Carlos, conversation stops and the crowd parts for you to pass. "Oh yes.....you know all about it!", says a Regio while doing a double-take.
I had been here before when I caught up with Aromas y Sabores in Monterrey, but decided that I couldn't leave town without having cabrito. I passed on the gala dinner after our long day in Santiago and Allende, Nuevo Leon to have a relaxing evening in one of Mexico's most important centers of commerce.
The cooking equipment at these restaurants is just an indoor barbeque with mesquite. The spectacle of milk fed kid, only 21-40 days old suspended on a metal rod over hot coals sends messages of lusty desire to your brain as you approach the restaurant.
Cabrito al pastor, Mexico's original al pastor means head-to-tail dining. Inside the roasting room skewers of tightly wound intestines cook alongside unidentifiable parts--nothing is spared, not even the blood. It's hot as hell in this den of smoke, fire, and slow-cooked cabrito that marinates every thread of clothing as well as the bodies and of the men who work here with its primal scent.
All cultures have a collection of small plates that accompany any festive grill or barbeque. In the northern Mexican cuisine of Nuevo Leon it's the burnt tortillas of the ranch--my grandfather would feel right at home here-- with salsa, beans, chiles, and the tortillas for making kid tacos.
The refried beans, called frijoles con veneno, or beans with venom, have a dark and gooey topping of a reduced asado rojo(pork braised in red chiles and spices) rested atop a porky mash of beans. These alone are worth the flight to Monterrey, and may make you reconsider all the fuss over foie gras, or or any over such indulgence. This might be what Fred Sanford meant when he said "beans and disease to you, too" in response to neighbor Julio Fuentes' "buenos dias, Mr Sanford."
In rare form; tiny grenades of fresh chile chiltepin bring explosive flavors to the meal. These little treats are hot.
Fritada(also called cabrito en su sangre, or kid cooked in it's blood) is another specialty of Nuevo Leon: lung, heart, liver, intestine, and the fatty material that protects them are cooked in a stew of kid's blood, tomatoes, spices, and chile ancho. In a time where everyone is talking about head-to-tail in the US--Nuevo Leon is light years ahead. This dish--like many offal preparations--has a taste of iron, but with more depth and complexity in flavor than your typical plate of innards. Each piece of offal paints a different color of the rich,bloody stew. It's unforgettable.
When ordering your cabrito, there are many options. The Gran San Carlos specializes in cuts rather than the whole and half-kid meals designed for groups. You can get a whole head of cabrito, cabrito en salsa, breast or leg, and there are also northern cuts of steak. But you're here for the milk-fed youngsters.
I recommend the paleta, or shoulder--the cuts appear to be mangled by the pressures of heat and rough rancher hands, but still maintain a certain comeliness. Perhaps it's the smells wafting in the air, the frijoles con veneno, and icy Victoria beers that have aroused your senses.
The shoulder is full of textures: crispy, coarse skin that's almost jerky-like, tender meat, fatty tissue, and chunks of meat attached to skin with the appearance of chicharrones.
The riñonada is an entirely different proposition. The back if the kid has thick , chewy skin that can be placed in a tortilla with a little bit of meat, or fat. There's a Cracker Jack appeal to this cut--tucked inside the fat is a prize: kidney. The bean-shaped organ awaits your plucking fingers; giving off a wet, sucking sound as you extract your prize. This is a more oleaginous piece of cabrito.
Kid is lean, musky, and has subtle flavors of goat. The al pastor style is one of the best ways to cook young goat; large sections of kid provide more than enough yield from their stingy anatomy. Lots of bones and inedible material to disregard, but the reward for your effort is delicate bites of quintessential Monterrey cuisine.
Both times I visited Gran San Carlos, I enjoyed scavenging around the bones and odd-shaped kid segments, making sure I attended all edible morsels.
The ambiance is typical of these places all throughout Mexico--it's nice but stuck in the 80's. Live music is performed by a quartet of competent singers doing everything from Luis Miguel to Vicente Fernandez to Pablo Cruise; all harmonized above cheesy keyboard patches and a percussionist playing a drum machine. Kind of like a Mexican Four Freshman. They smiled at each other after silly riffs at the beginnings of tunes while bow-tied waiters worked the room. There's a stained glass cupola in the center of the room just above a salad bar of iceberg lettuce, basic toppings and Wish Bone's greatest hits: Ranch, Thousand Islands, Blue(not Bleu) Cheese and Italian dressings. The salad is just there for the assist in digesting your meal.
But where else can you have a feast of sublime kid while listening to "Watcha Gonna Do?"
The Gran San Carlos is essential dining when in Monterrey. It's where you go for stylish cuts of cabrito al pastor rather than the folded lump of whole kid--not that there's anything wrong with that.
Gran San Carlos
Av. Ignacio Morones Prieto,No. 2803 Pte.
Colonia Loma Larga
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon
011-52(81) 8344-4114 from the US
Open for lunch and dinner
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