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

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS SASHA GON­ZA­LES

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.

JAVA FIX

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.

FIVE-STAR CUI­SINE

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.

You can’t miss Par­ro­quia de San Miguel Ar­cán­gel, a neo-Gothic 17th cen­tury church in the heart of town

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

Be­low A lux­u­ri­ous icy dessert star­ring berries and choco­late at Moxi

Be­low This black sesame tuna dish at Aperi is a treat for the eyes and taste buds

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

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