THE REAL TASTE OF MEXICO
San Miguel de Allende has become somewhat of a gastronomic hub, with its hipster cafes and fine dining restaurants, alongside humble mobile kitchens and street food vendors
Discovering the new gastronomic hub of San Miguel de Allende
Wherever you are in Mexico, you are bound to find amazing food. While indigenous ingredients like corn, beans, avocados, tomatoes, chilli peppers, cocoa and huauzontle (a kind of broccoli) feature heavily in many dishes, much of what is considered traditional Mexican cuisine also bears the influence of the Spanish, who conquered the Aztec Empire in the 16th century. From these Europeans came rice, garlic, spices, oregano, coriander, meats, like pork, beef and goat, and dairy products like cheese. Over the next few centuries, immigrants from other countries including China, Italy, Lebanon, France and Germany brought new foods and cooking techniques with them—the French, for instance, introduced breads and sweet breads to the Mexicans, while the Germans taught the locals how to brew beer.
But just as these cultural influences and the availability of ingredients vary from region to region, so too the dishes and cooking styles. Northern Mexico, for example, specialises in meat-heavy dishes and grilling, thanks to the area’s strong ranch culture. In the Yucatan peninsula, Mayan, Caribbean, Central Mexican, Middle Eastern and French influences abound, as evidenced by the heavy use of ingredients like honey, tropical fruit, the Lebanese kibbeh and certain types of seafood like conch, which are commonly eaten in the Caribbean. Over in multi-ethnic Mexico City, one will find street food from all over the country.
San Miguel de Allende is another cosmopolitan city that’s big on street cuisine and so much more. Located in central Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato, and about 275 kilometres from Mexico City, the pretty cobblestoned colonial town is where you’ll find authentic Mexican food, from unpretentious street snacks like tacos, al pastor (marinated rotisserie pork) and anticuchos (beef heart skewers), to modern farm-to-table dishes and fine dining offerings from some of the country’s top culinary talents. What’s more, San Miguel de Allende is home to some good wineries. The city is, in fact, the starting point for the Guanajuato Wine Route, which takes wine lovers on a tour of the main wineries in the area. TRADITIONAL IS BEST
San Miguel de Allende has a rich and vibrant culture marked by year-round festivals, countless art galleries, exciting shops and markets, museums, historic sites and gardens, and an incredible selection of music-centric bars. Topping it off, the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
With so much to do and see in this city, it’s little wonder that meals-on-the-go are popular. When you’re hungry and in a hurry, there’s nothing more satisfying than an al pastor taco, which is essentially pork marinated in chilli and pineapple, grilled and topped with onions, salsa and guacamole. Or how about a hefty wheat flour burrito stuffed with rice, cheese, slow-cooked meat and beans, and served with pico de gallo? Want something light? Order a traditional soup called pozole, made with pork, hominy corn and chilli, and accompanied by a plate of crispy tostadas (toasted tortillas). For something sweet, there’s churros, a Mexicanstyle, hot fried doughnut that’s dusted with sugar and served with hot chocolate. If you’re after the ultimate simple snack that requires no utensils, try a boiled or grilled elotes (corn cob), which comes topped with lime, mayonnaise or cheese.
Mobile kitchens and food stands are among the best places to sample these traditional treats; you’ll also find itinerant food vendors (marchantes) hawking their food and fruit from baskets and buckets—and these can be found all over town. But if you prefer having a variety of vendors clustered under one roof, head to indoor mercados (markets) like Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, a three-minute walk from El Jardin, the main plaza in the centre of town, or Mercado San Juan de Dios, located in Centro, the town’s historic district. Here you’ll find rows upon rows of fruit and vegetable stalls (tomatillos or oversized cactus leaves, anyone?), butcher shops and stalls selling fresh-pressed tortillas and inexpensive cooked food. For delicious prawn cocktails served with crisp crackers, look for Mariscos Los Delfines at Mercado Ignacio Ramirez; and for hearty and nourishing roasted goat and chicken soup, make your way to Fonda Dona Reyes, also in the same market, in the adjacent Birrieria 71.
San Miguel de Allende is one cool town, judging by the number of hipster cafes and bistros. One such spot is Café Rama (caferamasanmiguel.com) in Centro. The beverage menu features coffee made from a mix of beans from two of Mexico’s finest coffee-growing regions, Veracruz and Chiapas, roasted just for the café. Order inventive breakfast dishes like green enchiladas filled with chicken and bathed in fresh cream, tacos dorados stuffed with mashed potato, and chicken enmoladas covered in black mole (a kind of sauce) from Oaxaca and served with onions and refried beans. The bistro also functions as a gallery space and a jewellery store for its owners, Jaime and Cheryl.
Serious coffee drinkers will love Lavanda Café (lavandacafe.com) in Centro, where every drink is prepared with Mexican speciality coffee. On top of the usual cappuccino, flat white, macchiato and mocha drinks, the café also serves interesting coffee beverages like latte lavanda (latte with a touch of lavender);
cascara or coffee husk ‘tea’, an antioxidantrich infusion made from dried coffee husks and served hot or cold; and mareado, an iced espresso served with raw sugar and lavender. The food menu features local favourites like chilaquiles, corn chips topped with red or green sauce and served with cheese, sour cream and eggs or bacon; rancheros, a tostada topped with red sauce, black beans and caramelised onions; and tacos de pescado, a white fish taco served with watermelon pico de gallo.
Cumpanio (cumpanio.com) in Centro is a restaurant, café and bakery rolled into one. This stylish establishment may use European techniques in the baking of its breads and pastries, but the vibe is uniquely Mexican. As well as great coffee and delicious cocktails, the café serves specialties like pork crackling crepes with three-chilli-pepper salsa, and grilled prickly pear with white panela cheese, basil dressing and baked beans. If you’re visiting with friends, order the cheese and charcuterie boards, which come with various breads to share.
Zenteno Café in Centro is said to serve the best organic coffee in this part of town. There’s an extensive selection of brewing and extraction styles to choose from, including chemex, drip and aeropress, and the prices are just right. Even though this coffee shop is small, it is still comfortable and has a relaxed atmosphere. Grab a bite to enjoy with your drink; the menu offers café staples like quiches, tarts, pies, breads and pastries.
Locals love La Mesa Grande (lamesagrande.com) in Centro for good coffee and wallet-friendly breakfast and brunch fare. The café, which makes its own bread, specialises in hearty and wholesome meals featuring plenty of local ingredients. Try the pulled pork sandwich with ancho chilli sauce, the meat empanada (stuffed pastry) with olives, onion and egg, the mollete (openface sandwich) with beans and pico de gallo, and the cooked cactus with beans and eggs smothered in a spicy sauce.
San Miguel de Allende only became known as a serious culinary destination in 2011, when famed Mexican chef Enrique Olvera opened his restaurant, Moxi (moxi.com.mx) in the sophisticated Hotel Matilda in Centro. Drawing inspiration from the country’s lively and colourful markets, street food and homecooked meals, the Moxi menu is described by chef Olvera himself as having a “Mexican soul” but an “international palate”. The degustation menu features such delights as bean soup with garlic shrimp, confit suckling pig with radishes, watercress and bean purée, beef tongue with guajillo chile broth, bass ceviche with pickles, and risotto prepared with cuitlacoche (a type of fungus that grows on the ears of corns) and Mexican cotija cheese. Interesting fact: Chef Olvera also owns Pujol in Mexico City, which is ranked No.16 on
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Restaurante 1826 (rosewoodhotels.com) is another Centro dining spot that celebrates Mexico’s rich heritage and culinary traditions. It is named for the year in which San Miguel de Allende was renamed after its famous son, the Mexican independence hero Ignacio
de Allende. The restaurant is housed in The Rosewood San Miguel de Allende resort and specialises in farm-to-table dishes made using a combination of traditional and innovative techniques. Executive chef Carlos Hannon says that his team’s mission is to remind diners what Mexican food is all about. On the menu are treats like blue corn tortillas, tortilla soup and shrimp skewers.
Started in 2008 by chef Donnie Masterton (formerly of Bice, Beverly Hills and Tavern on the Green in Manhattan), The Restaurant (therestaurantsanmiguel.com) in Centro uses quality seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers, growers and ranchers and artisanal cheese makers. Open for lunch and dinner, this popular establishment serves ‘global comfort food’ that’s also good for you. Imagine dishes like blistered green beans with soy, ginger and basil, braised rabbit tostadas with cuminscented black beans, coriander, cabbage and lime crème fraiche, and chilli-dusted crispy shrimp tacos on jicama tortilla, topped with a tomato, red onion lime and chilli arbol salsa. The desserts are just as spectacular but beautifully simple— think organic vanilla and raspberry crème brulée and burnt caramel ice cream sundae with marshmallow sauce and salted Spanish peanuts.
At Aperi (aperi.mx), also in Centro, chef Matteo Salas creates elegant and innovative food “for the senses”, from corn stew and ceviche to octopus in lentils and smoked beet salad. The four-course tasting menu is an excellent way to sample special dishes, and the wine list includes a selection of imported vintages and reasonably priced Mexican wines that go perfectly with your meal. Aperi also features an open kitchen so you can watch the chefs in action.
THE GUANAJUATO WINE ROUTE
Few people know that San Miguel de Allende has an impressive wine-growing tradition. Back in the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors planted grapes in Guanajuato. In those days, the wineries produced wine solely for the church, but today, vintners are reviving the area’s reputation for top drops, offering tours of their vineyards, wineries and cellars to the public.
Along the famous Guanajuato Wine Route, you will pass well-known wineries where you can sample the wines along with gourmet food products, find out how the vines are harvested, and learn how different wines are produced, all while taking in the beautiful landscape.
One of the most frequently visited wineries is Vega Manchon (cunadetierra.com), which is known for its award-winning Cuna de Tierra wine label. Located in the town of Dolores Hidalgo, about 30 kilometres from San Miguel de Allende, the vineyard offers several varieties of red and white wine, including Tempranillo, Syrah, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc. All tours include a horse-carriage ride through the vineyard and a detailed explanation of the winemaking process.
Bodega Dos Buhos (dosbuhos.com), located about six kilometres from San Miguel de Allende, is another winery worth visiting. 10 grape varieties are organically grown here, all harvested by hand before being turned into wine. A typical tour includes a walk through the winery and vineyards and a sampling of various wines and local cheeses in the tasting room. Bodega Dos Buhos is also a notable art centre, showcasing the works of local artists like Alejandro Rivera Leal, Peter Levanthal, Margaret Dawitt and Atanacio Maldonado.
And don’t pass up the chance to visit Toyan Winery (vinicolatoyan.com), which is a mere 10-minute drive from the centre of town. A highlight of this organic winery, which produces Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir wines, is its underground cava. It is in this unique wine cellar that wine connoisseurs come to brush up on their knowledge of the wines and winemaking techniques. At the entrance of the cava, guests will notice two meteorites, which are said to balance the energy of the place.
Thanks to its big gourmet ambitions, San Miguel de Allende is now the country’s secondbest food destination after Mexico City. Only time will tell if it will take over to become the gastronomic heart of this great South American nation.
Below This black sesame tuna dish at Aperi is a treat for the eyes and taste buds
Below A luxurious icy dessert starring berries and chocolate at Moxi
From top Besides fresh breads and pastries, Cumpanio in Centro also offers a range of Mexican speciality dishes; At Zenteno Cafe, patrons who order the organic coffee can choose from various brew and extraction styles
You can’t miss Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a neo-Gothic 17th century church in the heart of town
Above Vega Manchon is known for its award-winning Cuna de Tierra wine label
Below Visit Bodega Dos Buhos not only for their organically grown wines, but also to see the works of local artists