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Sunday, May 13, 2012
La Saturnina, Aguascalientes, AGS: Flores de mi Abuela
Whenever my grandparents would return after the posadas (9 days of religious observance before Xmas) from their hometown, Aguascalientes; the rear end of my grandfather's Cadillac El Dorado would be sagging from all the loot they brought. Ah, the good old days, before the 1 liter alcohol limit. There were perhaps 15 assorted bottles including Gusano Rojo mezcal--one of the most foul drinks ever made--Presidente brandy, Kahlua, rompope; also candies, marionettes, wooden toys; and beautiful, over-sized paper flowers. I had assumed in my incurious youth these were a typical item found all over Mexico.
Each year they made the journey to visit our family--three days by car, first, from Stockton to Blythe, then Blythe to El Paso, and finally El Paso all the way into Aguascalientes before the dawn of the fourth day. The trip was full of road side eats, bribes to clear all inspections, the Chihuahuan desert, and a perilous highway race between my truck-driver grandfather, and a motorist somewhere between Chihuahua and Aguascalientes. I was fortunate to have gone with them twice, but each time I think about the fact that I could have been going every year, I get so upset. The idiocy of adolescence. I now realize that being in Mexico with my grandparents was one of the most impressionable times in my life, and far more memorable than a thousand wasted afternoons with friends long gone.
While playing the Feria de San Marcos, the mother of all fairs in Mexico, in the birthplace of my father, and grandmother, I came upon La Saturnina and my heart stopped--I lost my breath for a moment. I realized I never saw these paper flowers in all my trips throughout Mexico--they are a specialty of Aguascalientes. The entire time I dined at this welcoming, traditional hidrocálido (people from Aguascalientes) restaurant I was thinking of my grandmother, and how she always brought those flowers back to decorate her home. I never thought about what that meant when I was young; was it something in her childhood, or perhaps some magical afternoon in the Jardin de San Marcos? It may be the only time she was vulnerable, nostalgic, and given to daydreaming.
It made me recall those two journeys with my grandparents driving from El Paso to Aguascalientes, Mexico; and how much things have changed in my cultural hometown, mi tierra.
The menu is a monument to the classic cooking of my grandmother's youth, in a state overlooked by mainstream Mexofiles. Aguascalientes is like the Rhode Island of Mexico is respect to size, but has a strong gastronomy, one not known well throughout Mexico, and hardly at all in the US. It does have one of the greatest carnita styles in Mexico, red pozole, flautas, tacos de lechon, chile de bola, birria (we use oregano to garnish instead of cilantro) and so many dishes, but La Saturnina is a perfect way to begin your discovery of my family's home state.
hidrocálidos come to this garden with elderly family members all attention and care is given to our abuelitos. They are formally escorted and walk in front. This is how it was when I went out with my grandmother's beloved first cousin, Chelo and the rest of the family for an evening stroll through the Jardin de San Marcos before a supper of sublime comfort: pozole rojo.
Next to the garden is the home of the biggest party in Mexico. Nothing come close to the Feria de San Marcos. It's a controlled mosh pit with roaming banda groups, everyone dressed in cowboy chic, and half gallon cups of micheladas. Spontaneous dance halls form in sections of the street, the casino is packed to the gills; at the palenque (cock fight arena) tipsy fans sing along with Joan Sebastian after betting on cock fights, and in the plaza de toros( bull fight ring) Mexicans from all over the republic demand a clean kill. If you leave before the sun comes up you haven't been to the Feria de San Marcos.
In the calm of downtown Aguascalientes resides the famous institution to cocina hidrocálida: La Saturnina. They have an tempting daily buffet that is prepared by a small army of traditional, seasoned cooks. There's a mole poblano--this is a dish of Aguascalientes borrowed from Puebla with some minor adulterations. Pork ribs in a chile de arbol sauce with nopales, chayote soup, perfect fideos, local cheeses, and adorable sweets. I once caught the restaurant during buffet service, but despite my whiny foodist frown at the exclusion of the regular menu, I left happy.
I could snack on re-fried beans made with bayos(small than pintos) every day of the week, especially with some chips thrown in and a couple of toasted chile de arbol. They're creamy and subtly larded for maximum flavor, all that's required is a flour tortilla-a warm bowl of brown soul.
Chile de bola is only found in Aguascalientes. It's the fresh form of the chile cascabel (rattler chile), which is common in it's dry form, but we like it fresh in all its bright, stinging glory.
I love the way the flautas come here. Flautas are taken seriously in this small industrious state, and I would hardly have them in only but a few Mexican states, and D.F., outside of Aguascalientes. Well seasoned beef flautas sit pretty with a bit of pork skin pickled transluscent, escabeche de chile de bola (pickled ball chilis), a soft local cheese and a tomato sauce. Sitting here taking my time with this "little whim", I can hardly think of a better plate of antojitos, and all around me: paper flowers.
Del Merito Aguascalientes, or notable Aguascalientes plates have a small section on the menu for regal antojitos that are a reflection of the fashionable hidrocálidos: the chiquiada(L), esmerile(center), and the condonche(R). Chiquiadas are smallish handmade fried quesadillas filled with flor de calabaza, a lightr serving than their DF cousins. You can have several fillings this way. My esmerile, an Aguascalientes-style gordita was stuffed with local chorizo--potatoes are also a typical guisado for the lightly fried snacks. The condonche can come sweet or savory, but in this case it was refried beans in the torpedo-shaped fried broken corn bite darkened by the beans, and topped with roasted chile poblano strips, and regional cheese. All the dishes come with the garnish of our pickled pig skin and escabeche de chile de bola, as if we wished they were on every plate--we do!
You might think that these are just gorditas and quesadillas, but they aren't. Mexican cuisine like other cuisines has items that are found everywhere, but they are transposed through the regional cheeses, tortillas, chiles, beans, chorizos, masa styles, and especially the guisados that are unique to the locale.
La Saturnina has eggs done every which way--I wondered if their huevos rancheros might be like my grandma's? They have all the classic antojitos of Aguascalientes done with local chiles and cheeses: gorditas here gorditas are done on a skillet and when fried with fresh masa are esmeriles), exquisite enchiladas, fried tamales, and tacos de albañil, or bricklayer's tacos loaded with fried potato purée, chorizo, or potato and chili strips.
Aguascalientes has an old Mexico feel to the downtown area, Plaza de San Marcos, and the neighborhoods near the mercados Juarez and Terán. The houses have driveways that go into the house, and rooms are separated by courtyards. The cuisine is outstanding and I can't wait to go back soon to see my cousins and pick up some carnitas at San Francisco de los Romo pa' llevar.
Breakfast at La Saturnina--perhaps stopping over after a night at La Feria--with viejitas silently laboring in the open kitchen amidst a garden of paper flowers, only scented by frying beans, chiles, mole, and the wistful reminiscence of the Aguascalientes of my youth is a time-honored taste of Mexico.