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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gran San Carlos

After the bicentenario blow-out, there was one last stop for us in Mexico--Monterrey. Having done a bit of reading up on the area, I knew there was one thing I wanted try there, and that was cabrito (roast kid goat). As usual, the schedule was conspiring against it: the day after the bicentenario celebration, the orchestra flew to Monterrey spread over three flights... of course, the last two were late, leaving barely enough to time drop things off at the hotel, get to the concert hall, have a quick sound check, and gulp a few bites of food before the 8:00 concert--and we were returning to the States early the next morning. It was our immense good fortune, however, to encounter an angel named Erica working for the Teatro de la Ciudad Monterrey. Diego, our tour manager, had mentioned to her our desire to try the cabrito there, and she not only advised us which place was the best in town (and which of the two locations she preferred), but called to reserve a table and asked them to wait for us to get there after our concert. She even called a taxi for us at the theater. In the post-concert rush to get packed up, I did not get a chance to thank you properly, Erica, so I'm thanking you now--I hope you read this one day.

We arrived at Gran San Carlos shortly after 11 p.m. to a warm welcome--and a large, practically empty restaurant. Yes, it was a bit late, but I didn't find out until I returned home that everyone in Monterrey was afraid to go out at night because of all the drug-war-related violence. But as they say, ignorance is bliss, and our bliss was two-fold that evening: the food was even better than I had hoped it would be. One orders cabrito here by the desired part of the animal: we asked the waiter which he recommended, and the reply was "pierna" (leg). So, pierna we ordered, and it was wonderful. There isn't much to say about expertly-prepared roast cabrito... crispy skin, juicy, tender white meat (the kid must be less than 40 days old)... perfection. My dining companions were also delighted with their sopa azteca (tortilla soup) starters.

Word among those who know in Monterrey is that El Rey del Cabrito is the huge party joint everyone knows about, but if you want real quality, go to Gran San Carlos. I can vouch for the second part of that statement.

Gran San Carlos
Av. I. Morones Prieto 2803
Monterrey (Nuevo León), México
(+52) (81) 8344-4114

Friday, September 24, 2010

“Los Arcos” - Antojitos Yucatecos

After Oaxaca, we returned to Mexico City to rehearse and perform what turned out to be a rather amazing concert: Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (or Orquesta Filarmónica de las Américas, if you prefer) was the opening salvo of the musical performances invited to play at the huge bicentenario celebration of Mexico’s independence in Mexico City on Sept. 15. There is a clip on YouTube of the first work we played (which I guess was broadcast all over the world… who knew?), the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Marquéz, where you can see yours truly engaging in one of the activities that actually helps pay his rent. You can watch it here, and there are clear shots of me at mins. 1:09, 5:22 and 9:30. The orchestra was then joined by some very well-known Mexican singers--Natalia LaFourcade, Ely Guerra, and Lo Blondo--who sang a selection of Mexican songs, marvelously arranged by Lev Zhurbin. This took place on a stage set up at the Ángel de la Independencia, in front of a reported 25,000 people standing in the plaza and the surrounding streets... definitely the biggest party I've ever played for! It was thrilling in a way I never expected... but, after all, we classical instrumentalists are definitely not accustomed to being received like rock stars!

This time in Mexico City, we were a bit more centrally located than before, adjacent to the neighborhood known as the Zona Rosa. Quite unexpectedly, the area is home to a large number or Korean establishment (among its many diverse attractions)--there are at least 15 or 20 Korean restaurants in a 3-square-block area. For lunch one day we picked one (Song Lim, c/Liverpool 158, 2nd floor--but there is no Western writing on the sign, only Korean and Chinese), and were rewarded with, among other things, jja jang myun that actually tasted like jja jang myun, and a fun budae jun gol.

I must say, that was about the last thing I ever expected to eat in Mexico!

This neighborhood was the scene of what turned out to be my favorite meal in Mexico. My first evening there I was strolling through the area, seeing what there was, sniffing around, when I passed a very simple establishment--almost a hole in the wall--that smelled terrific. The sign said they served Yucatán-style food… I had no idea what that was, but I was determined to find out. They were about to close for the evening, so I resolved to return for lunch the next day. And return I did to “Los Arcos” - Antojitos Yucatecos. Upon inquiring as to the especialidad de la casa, I was told chamorro. Sold... without having any idea whatsoever as to what was actually going to arrive at my table! But I was willing to put my complete trust in any place that smelled that wonderful, and I was rewarded with the most delicious pork shank I have ever tasted. It arrives in a small trough, with an inch or so of deep orange-red broth on the bottom. The shank has been stewed with achiote seed paste (which gives the broth its distinctive color), a little vinegar and some spices, and served with tortillas and two kinds of onion relish (once again, I was warned that one of them was ¡muy picante!, and it was... a little spicy). The idea is much like eating carne en su jugo in Guadalajara: 1) eat a slice or two of pork, slurp some broth, make a little wet taco with some of the meat and some onion relish. 2) Repeat in any order. 3) Experience bliss. This feast set me back 5 dollars. They prepare chicken much the same way (pollo pibil), too.

I’m not sure I can explain just why I have such incredible fondness for this meal. I’m sure there are more beautifully and carefully prepared versions of this food around, in plusher surroundings. But there is something simple and honest about this place and their offerings... real food for REAL people, and it was a privilege to be able to mix with them for a few minutes and get a taste of something extraordinary.

“Los Arcos” - Antojitos Yucatecos
c/Florencia 43-A, Col. Juárez
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5533-5877

Thursday, September 23, 2010

La Casa de la Abuela

After the travel day from hell getting to Oaxaca, the LAST thing I felt like doing the next day was playing a concert, I was so damn tired. I also particularly wanted to try one other restaurant in town: La Casa de la Abuela. In an unexpected stroke of luck, the concert was an hour earlier than most of the others, and the restaurant was still open after the concert.

La Casa de la Abuela is much more the kind of restaurant I’m normally drawn to—-very traditional, nothing fancy... grandma-type food. And since “abuela” means grandma, I thought that boded well (it did). Kerrick (note to K: send me those pictures already!) and I shared an appetizer of taquitos de picadillo en mole coloradito (rolled tacos of seasoned ground meat, fried crisp, with coloradito, or reddish-brown, mole sauce).

That mole coloradito was, for me, THE most mind-blowingly wonderful mole I have ever tasted, including the mole negro at Casa Oaxaca the night before. “Complex” hardly begins to describe it... you’ve just got to go try it for yourself. For the main course, I had chicken with mole negro (not as great as the one the night before, but quite good), and Kerrick had the plato de la casa, a combination plate of six or seven varied items.

For me, the best ones were the tasajo, a variation of Mexican cecina (NOT Spanish cecina!--thin slices of beef that are salted and dried for a couple of days, then grilled), and a chile relleno unlike any I had tried before (top center, above the tasajo)—-it had a rather sophisticated pork filling, was battered, then fried... delicious. Also on the plate: a square of grilled cheese, an enmolada (a sort of simple mole enchilada), guacamole, frijoles, a cebolla asada (roasted onion), and a fried plantain. Good, simple, rustic fare.

To sum up: as far as I’m concerned, there are two moles you cannot miss when in Oaxaca—the mole negro at Casa Oaxaca, and the mole coloradito at La Casa de la Abuela.

La Casa de la Abuela
Av. Hidalgo 616 Altos, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca, México
(+52) (951) 516-3544

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Casa Oaxaca

The next concert after Guadalajara was in Oaxaca, and getting there was one of the worst days of my adult life. Because of a recently deceased Mexican airline, there were not enough available seats for the whole orchestra to fly to Oaxaca. So, half the orchestra (as bad luck would have it, my “half”) had to get up at 5 a.m. (this after being returned to the hotel at midnight after the concert the night before, by the same bus driver that got lost TWICE trying to find the concert hall that afternoon) to catch a flight to Mexico City, whereupon we all boarded a bus for the supposed-5½-hour drive to Oaxaca. Instead, it ended up taking NINE HOURS, culminating in a blazing convergence of incompetence and stupidity as we sat on that damn bus in the middle of a busy road for an hour and a half while a key to the gate of a hotel was searched for. The only thing that could save that day from utter wrack and devastation was a great meal. Fortunately, I got it.

Many, including Rick Bayless, have sung the praises of the Casa Oaxaca restaurant, and for good reason. The setting, an 18th-century manor house, is stunning, the flavors fresh and unusual, the execution superb. Normally this kind of restaurant would fall outside the scope of this blog, but the favorable exchange rate meant that the Menú degustación “oaxaqueño contemporáneo”, plus wine, ran about 40 bucks a person—-an almost ridiculous bargain. It entailed six courses, plus a teaser of crispy blue corn tortillas with (from bottom to top) guacamoles, spicy rajas, and tomatillo salsa.

First up was rollitos de hoja santa-—taquitos made with an anise-like herb... subtle and delightful. Then came mole verde con lechón-—green mole with suckling pig. Lovely, although the flavor of the sauce was a bit muted for my taste (I freely admit my bias toward bold flavors). Next was to have been amarillo de venado (yellow mole with venison), but through an oversight it never arrived and we didn’t realize it until the end of the meal, so we never got to try it.

Bolder flavors arrived with the taquitos de pato con coloradito-—crisp little rolled duck tacos in a rich, reddish-brown mole sauce. Excellent. The crowning glory of the meal, however, was the mole negro con pavo-—black mole with turkey.

Neither Kerrick nor I had ever tasted a mole of such complexity and depth and... well, it was simply stunning. And turkey breast was the perfect foil for it: contrasting light flavor, yet a bit more substantial than, say, chicken would have been. For a few blissful moments, the hideous memory of the Bataan Death March plane/bus ride was erased.

The final course was dessert, nieve de leche quemada con tuna (shaved ice flavored with burned milk and prickly pear fruit).

Desserts tend not to be my thing, and though good for what it was, this definitely was not my cup of tea. The mezcal digestif that followed, however, was.

All of this was accompanied by a bottle of Palo Alto reserva, a cabernet/camernere/syrah blend from Chile... 2009, I believe it was. Normally I would have wished the wine to be not quite so young, but its almost-brashness turned out to go quite well with the huge variety of fresh flavors that evening.

Casa Oaxaca
c/Constitución 104-A, Col. Centro
Oaxaca, México
(+52) (951) 516-8531


Monday, September 20, 2010


The next stop on the tour after Zacatecas was Guadalajara, where we were fortunate enough to have a whole afternoon and evening to explore. After perusing the Chowhound boards, I had decided the two things I absolutely had to try in Guadalajara were torta ahogada and carne en su jugo. So, that afternoon Kerrick and I set out to walk from our hotel near the Expo to the centro histórico and the Mercado Libertad (purported to be the largest market in the western hemisphere--it is indeed massive). The walk took well over an hour, and by the time we arrived at the mercado, we were ready for some sustenance. The seemingly endless maze of food stalls on the second floor seemed like the ideal place to try torta ahogada, so we picked a stall at random (one of the several we passed called Rosita—-it features three or four bubbling cauldrons of stewing meats on display up front) and ordered our tortas. They were pretty great: chunks of stewed pork in a bulky, crusty, hero-type roll which is then “drowned” (ahogada) in a thin sauce of red chile, the spiciness of which can be adjusted to your taste. (Photos by Kerrick Sasaki)

I loved it so much, I decided I had to have another before leaving Guadalajara, so the next day between our rehearsal at the theater (the Teatro Degollado in Gudalajara is the most visually and acoustically gorgeous theater I have ever had the privilege to perform in) and the concert, I dashed a few blocks south to a fairly well-known place called La Gorda for another one. Skip this—-it was but a pale imitation of the soul-satisfying experience of the day before.

By the time we made our way back toward the hotel after our mercado experience (that place is wild—-it has to be experienced to be believed), it was time for dinner, and in my mind that meant one thing: carne en su jugo. Luckily, what is probably the best-known purveyor of this dish in Guadalajara has a location near our not-particularly-centrally-located hotel. Karne Garibaldi has it down to a science: the moment you are seated, you are brought the “fixins”—small tortillas, red chile sauce, chopped white onions, chopped cilantro, limes, refried beans spiked with corn kernels, tiny fried corn tortilla chips and lard (lard really makes everything taste better), and fried cebollitas cambray (spring onions much like the calçots of Catalunya, minus the greens).

All that’s left is to decide on the desired size of your meat and what you want to drink. Again, almost immediately a shallow earthenware dish appears full of what looks like small pieces Philly steak meat swimming in a rich beef broth, with bits of crisp bacon on top. The whole spread is actually a bit overwhelming, and we were glad to be able to observe the plan of attack of a neighboring table seated at almost the same time as us. It worked beautifully: drizzle a few spoonfuls of red chile on the meat, then sprinkle some chopped onions and cilantro… maybe a squeeze of lime.

Mix a bit, slurp some of the utterly delicious broth, munch a few pieces of beef, make an impromptu taco with the tortillas-—with or without refried beans, according to whim—-repeat in any order. The meal couldn’t have been simpler in conception, or more inspired. And it’ll run you less than 10 bucks a person.

This seems to me such a great idea, I can’t imagine why it hasn’t caught on in the U.S. No exotic ingredients are required, preparation on the restaurant’s part is not complicated, and the final dish can be adjusted to literally anyone’s tastes (well, perhaps not vegetarians, but who cares?).

Guadalajara locals seem to agree that Karne Garibaldi is not actually the best place in town for carne en su jugo-—that prize apparently goes to Kamilos 333. But a trip to the Santa Teresita neighborhood was not possible this time, and I did not feel deprived in the least.

Karne Garibaldi
Mariano Otero 3019 (at Plaza del Sol)
Zapopan (Jalisco), México
(+52) (33) 3123-2607


Gorditas Doña Julia

A couple of days ago, I returned from a two-week tour of Mexico with the Orquesta Filarmónica de las Américas (Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas). It was a hectic tour schedule that left very little time to explore and find good food (except in places where I didn’t want it, like the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City--ick--it might as well have been suburbia), but I did eventually sniff out some meals worth writing about.

The first of these was in Zacatecas, almost a week into the tour, and by that time I was more than ready to eat something worth writing about. Zacatecas is a normally-quiet mining town with real 18th-century charm, the most beautiful place we went the entire tour. We, of course, managed to arrive on the eve of an anniversary of some event, the nature of which I have forgotten, which was celebrated by shooting off guns in the main square. Luckily, very near that main square is a local institution: Gorditas Doña Julia. It’s a simple establishment, and very easy to miss because the most obvious sign above the doorway says “Hotel Posada de la Moneda”. But once you’ve zeroed in on it, be prepared for hearty, honest, expertly-prepared food. The only thing they do here is gorditas: thick, round, tortilla-like bread cooked on a griddle, then split like a pita and stuffed with a wide variety of fillings. (Thanks to Melissa Tong for the photo.)

Doña Julia has at least twelve, and between Kerrick—-my intrepid tour roommate and dining adventure companion—-and myself, we were able to try about half of them. Our favorites were picadillo (seasoned ground meat with diced carrots, potatoes, and peas), deshebrada (shredded pork and cubes of potato in a spicy sauce), and arroz con mole (rice and mole sauce). (Photo: Kerrick Sasaki)

Vegetarians, be advised that the mole contains chunks of pork—-a couple of vegetarian string players in the orchestra found that out the hard way! But really everything here is delicious, from huevo (scrambled eggs) to carne de puerco (pork in a mildly spicy sauce), and friends attested to the deliciousness of the nopales (prickly-pear cactus in a very spicy sauce) and rajas con queso (strips of roasted green chile peppers and cheese, also quite spicy). And at 10 pesos apiece (about 80 cents), they're an unbelievable bargain.

Gorditas Doña Julia
Av. Hidalgo 409
Zacatecas, México
(+52) (492) 923-7955