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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Coox Hanal

Along with Oaxacan food, probably my favorite regional Mexican cuisine is Yucatán-style food. It’s almost impossible to find in the U.S., and even in Mexico City, places to sample it don’t seem to be particularly numerous. Luckily, just around the corner from where we are rehearse is a Yucatán restaurant – probably the best know one in they city, Coox Hanal.

The somewhat unusual name, according to the back of the menu, means “let’s eat” in the Mayan language. And here, it’s a most excellent idea. We started with one of the best-known (for good reason) yucateco dishes, panuchos de cochinita pibil. Essentially small, open tacos with a layer of refried black beans, topped with shredded suckling pig pibil and slices of cebolla morada (marinated purple onion). Pibil is the Yucatán preparation – meat that has been marinated in citrus and braised in a sauce of annatto seeds (achiote), which gives it its almost startling orange-red color. These panuchos are wonderful, with just the right balance between slightly crispy fried tortilla, frijoles, and luscious pork.

Next were the papadzules (en salsa de pepita con huevos). Papadzules are more or less enchiladas – corn tortillas dipped in salsa de pepita (pumpkin seed sauce), filled with chopped hard-boiled eggs, then covered with more salsa de pepita and a bit of chile habanero-tomato sauce. Lovely – light in flavors and textures. A unique dish.

Even with this stellar preamble, the star of the meal – and yucateco cooking, as far as I’m concerned – is chamorro pibil (pork shank). One is served a whole shank on an oblong plate, bathed in plenty of the pibil braising sauce. Eat with corn tortillas, cebolla morada, and, for spice lovers like me, some the wonderful homemade chile habanero sauce on the table. Easily in my top 10 favorite dishes of all time.

I was in such ecstasy from what had come before that I forgot to get a photograph of the pan de cazón con salsa de jitomate. It’s not a particularly distinctive-looking dish, in fact – two corn tortillas filled with chopped fish, covered in tomato sauce. But the cazón, a smaller member of the shark family (I used to eat sopa de cação, a staple dish of Alentejo cooking, in Portugal) and the brightly-flavored tomato sauce are an inspired combination.

Lunch here the very next day included all of the above, plus the somewhat odd-looking rellenos negros. These are tortillas (surprise!), filled with shredded turkey, covered in a black sauce. The sauce is black because of a condiment recado negro, the black component of which is chiles toasted until... they are completely black. The final flavor, though, is quite mild. I found myself wishing that this particular sauce, however, was a bit less watery. Still, a very nice – soothing, even – flavor. Those are wedges of hard-boiled egg swimming alongside.

Like so many restaurants in Mexico City, this one closes by 6:30 in the evening. A pity - this would be such a great place for an festive evening meal.

Coox Hanal
c/Isabel la Católica 83-2º piso – Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5709-3613


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

El Hequito

This is not exactly an unusual sight in Mexico City:

...but this is the site of the best pastor meat I have ever tried. So often, it’s a bit too dry, or bit too greasy (although I do love my grease). And do not ever consider the stuff sold in America as pastor to be actual pastor meat. The pastor at El Hequito is always perfect. They do pastor – and very little else. When it’s this good, you don’t need to.

The taco pastor especial is a softball-sized portion of pastor meat, layered with sautéed marinated onion, guacamole, and an orange-flavored house sauce, with a small slab of queso manchego melted over it. Sublime.

If you’re especially fond of cheese, they’ve got you covered. Queso relleno “El Hequito” is pastor meat (of course), those onions and the house sauce, wrapped in a queso manchego crust, and mounted on a couple of flour tortillas. Ridiculously delicious.

Incidental intelligence (to borrow Martin Bernheimer’s phrase): their name refers to the tiny floor space of the original location (less than a square meter), nickname a “hequito” by their customers.

El Hequito
c/Gante 1 - Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5521-8834
(several locations around town)


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

For all your cow's foot needs...

My friend Elizabeth – who is here in Mexico singing the living crap out of Salome – liked the duck tacos she had at El Cardenal so much that she decided to order some duck tostadas at Fonda Santa Rita this evening.

What she was presented with a few minutes later slightly horrified her.

She exclaimed, “It’s all fat!” I thought to myself, “That does NOT look like duck fat... besides, duck fat is delicious!” After a bit more discussion, I finally asked her to point to what she ordered on the menu. Tostadas de pata. “Um, duck is pato. Pata is an animal’s foot.” At first I assumed it was pig’s feet, but I’m pretty sure now it was cow’s feet. The chief discernible seasonings were vinegar and oregano. Not really my thing, and definitely not hers!

In the meantime, I had a very tasty sopa de fideos (noodles in a nice chicken broth spiked with some type of mild, red chile)...

...and two eggs, rice, and mole poblano.

This is a very “local” sort of a joint, with offerings somewhat similar to El Rincón Tapatío, but with a much larger space and more festive atmosphere. The food, however, is better at El Rincón Tapatío (just a couple of blocks away).

Fonda Santa Rita
Av. Independencia 10 - Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5512-4485

Monday, June 22, 2015

Restaurante El Cardenal

I had been told before coming to Mexico City this time (to prepare a Salome for some Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional concerts) that one of the great perks of staying at the Hilton Reforma was the excellent restaurant in the hotel. I thought, “Yeah, fine.” Well, after two meals there, I’m convinced that Restaurante El Cardenal is, in fact, one of the best purveyors of traditional Mexican food in the entire city. It has several branches throughout the city, but the Alameda (Hilton Reforma) location is known to be the best one, and apparently draws people from all over town – even if they live nearer to another outpost

The first meal was upon arrival at the hotel after a much-too-early flight while waiting for our rooms to be ready. At that moment, all I really wanted was a long nap, so the most appealing option was a hefty protein-load. And quite the delightful protein-load it was.

The costilla de res is, naturally, the wonderful grass-fed beef from Sonora. It’s translated on the menu is “ribeye”, but it’s cut differently than in the U.S. – crosswise, like the Argentinian cut tira de asado. It is accompanied by two cheese enchiladas – please expunge all images of enchiladas sold in America from you mind – covered in a palpably homemade tomato sauce. Absolutely delicious, and a relative bargain.

El Cardenal is known for careful and traditional preparation of Mexican classics, using the best recipes. The moles are spectacular, both their tortillas de maiz (corn) and tortillas de harina (flour) are the best I have tasted anywhere, and they have their own bakery that produces their marvelous baked goods. Everything tastes like someone’s mamacita could have made it, placing it firmly in the category of “my kind of restaurant”.

The menu emphasizes Oaxacan moles (as opposed to the better-known-in-America poblano), and there were several around the table – all excellent. The mole negro was better than any I had tasted anywhere, including Oaxaca. By the second meal here, I reached the same conclusion about their coloradito. Since these moles are, essentially, dark-colored goop, they are, hence, not terribly photogenic.

For an appetizer, I had ordered something from the sopas (soups) category of the menu that sounded interesting, although not a lot like a soup: sautéed fideos (noodles) in a light sauce of chipotle pepper and tomato. Well, maybe they meant a kind of broth, I thought. Nope. What arrived was a plate of lightly-sauced fried noodles. Until that moment, I had somehow never heard of the category of dishes called sopas secas (dry soups), which is often a casserole involving noodles. Tasty, but not mind-blowing. And definitely not what I expected!

I began today’s meal with sopa de verdolagas con pollo (chicken soup – a real soup this time – with purslane). Michael and Cameron both ordered it the day before and had been raving about it ever since, so I had to try it. The raves were justified: a light broth with chunks of tender, MOIST white meat (no mean feat – in my experience, the second a restaurant boils chicken breast pieces they get dry) and purslane leaves, a delightful green that actually reminds me a bit of watercress. A squeeze of lime gives it just the right bit of tang.

I had immediately zeroed in the barbacoa de cordero as what I wanted for a main dish, but it is served only for two. Luckily, Maestro Recchiuti agreed to share it with me. He proclaimed it to be the greatest thing he’s eaten in Mexico (and he’s been to Mexico half a dozen more times than me), and I agree. It's a shoulder of lamb – which, the English menu explains, has been wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves and cooked by burying it in the ground with charcoal. I'm not utterly convinced that’s the way this was prepared, in the centro of Mexico City. It arrived wrapped in paper, without a maguey leaf in sight, but it mattered not. Before wrapping it up to cook, the skin of the lamb shoulder had been brushed with salsa borracha (“drunken sauce”), a tasty and surprisingly complex concoction made with chiles pasillas and beer. It’s moist, incredibly flavorful, and...just get if you ever get to Mexico City.

Warning: their tortillas de harina are addictive.

There were, once again, several moles around the table. This time, Peter had ordered a mole verde – chicken cooked with chayote squash and a sauce scented with hoja santa. I copped a taste, and it was marvelous. Once again, better than the mole verde I had in Oaxaca.

This restaurant is rather expensive by local standards, but (not trying to be the ugly tourist here) for most foreigners, quite reasonable.

Restaurante El Cardenal – Alameda (Hotel Hilton Reforma)
Av. Juárez 70, Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5518-6632

Friday, June 19, 2015

"El Rincón Tapatío" - Taquería y juguería

Food in Mexico really tastes nothing like Mexican food in the U.S. (and yes, that includes California). The basic ingredients seem to be the same. Yet, somehow the tortillas are infinitely better here, the sauce condiments might as be well be made from different plant products altogether they are so much more flavorful, and the meats used to make things like tacos, huaraches, tortas, and the like... well, al pastor meat is a perfect example. This is how it is made virtually everywhere in Mexico:

And so it is with "El Rincón Tapatío". Notice in the foreground that there are spring onions grilling in the drippings from the pastor spit. When you sit down, you are immediately brought a plate of garnishes that includes those wonderful onions, some guacamole, and lime and cucumber slices.

Good as pastor is here, the arrachera meat (essentially steak) is the star. I ordered the alambre: arrachera meat grilled with peppers and onions, topped with some melted queso Oaxaca, accompanied by some fresh tortillas.

Utterly delicious. And I have no doubt the campechano meat (arrachera and chorizo) is just as good.

You have to WORK to spend more than 6 or 7 dollars here. This place looks and feels like it hasn't changed in decades. In other words, my kind of place.

"El Rincón Tapatío" - Taquería y juguería
Av. Independencia 68, local No. 4 - Col. Centro, Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5521-5179

Friday, June 12, 2015

Grand St. Chinatown Skewer Cart

I'm glad to see the Manhattan's Chinatown finally has a skewer cart worthy of comparison to its Flushing counterparts. It doesn't seem to have an official name, but its skewers are excellent, particularly the pork and chicken sticks.

The beef stick wasn't quite as great as the pork or chicken, and if it's lamb you want, get yours in Flushing - that's what all the northern Chinese carts out there do really well. Of course, if it sounds appealing, go ahead and order one and try it. At these prices, you can afford it!

They're open until 2 a.m. every day.

Grand St. Skewer Cart
NW corner of Grand & Forsyth, New York 10002

(D train to Grand St.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Peter Pan Donuts

Goddammit! I had been hearing (and reading) for years that Peter Pan Donuts made the best doughnuts in NYC, but since they are located in fucking Greenpoint, I refused to consider the possibility. A few nights ago, my friend Elizabeth mentioned doughnuts, and I realized I had not had a decent doughnut in, literally, years - which includes those hipster creations/abominations they sell at the Doughnut Plant (and don't get me started about cinnamon rolls - New York is an abysmal town for cinnamon rolls) - so. predictably, I developed a craving. Then it happened that I was within striking distance of Greenpoint today, and I decided to swing by.

It was, admittedly, late in the day, and most items were sold out, including my usual litmus test for a doughnut joint, the classic glazed yeast doughnut. But there were a few marble (cake) crullers left, and I espied a sour cream doughnut or two - enough for a preliminary sampling.

They are fabulous.

I feel confident the glazed doughnuts are every bit as wonderful... dammit. Why does Peter Pan have to been in fucking inaccessible Greenpoint??

Peter Pan Donuts
727 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn 11222

(G train to Nassau Ave.)