Nov
01
2013

Wandering Traveler

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán surrounded by families & street food late at night

INTOXICATING OAXACA

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Late night street carts

Late night street carts

Oaxaca is more an experience of the senses than merely a place. It’s magic. Officially my favorite place in all of Mexico, it’s a small, ancient city rich with atmosphere, the smell of spices permeating the air, baskets everywhere piled high with mole blends or chapulines (fried grasshoppers). Hundreds of year old churches, live bands and street carts enliven cobblestone streets, lampposts and brightly colorful buildings with a romance that envelops, living on vividly in memory.

A wealth of chapulines (grasshoppers) line the markets & streets, served on guacamole & with mezcal

Wealth of chapulines (grasshoppers) line markets, served on guacamole & with mezcal

Mole spice mixes for purchase

Mole spice mixes for purchase

Being in the land of mezcal, with hundreds of mezcal producers in the surrounding valleys and mountains, and some of the best food in Mexico (and the world), Oaxaca is a dream destination in taste. It does take work to get there, whether flying in to a small airport or driving 7 or so hours from Mexico City through endless fields of agave plants, mountains, farmland and ever-changing terrain. But to experience both the state of Oaxaca and its namesake city is to be forever marked.

Stunning array of peppers in Benito Juarez market

Stunning array of peppers in Benito Juarez market

Worlds collide in the Benito Juarez market

Worlds collide in the Benito Juarez market

Exploring mezcal distilleries is a story all its own (see my article on mezcal distillation). I spent time with jimadors (agave plant harvesters) as they chopped agave plants with a machete, and with mezcal distillers as they distilled way up winding, narrow roads in the Oaxacan mountains in Sola de Vega. After a day up in the mountains, we ended with a home-cooked meal at one distiller’s home with a number of distillers and their families. We filled up on mole they worked two days cooking for us, sipping mezcal as kids and dogs ran around and grandmothers looked on.

About an hour outside Oaxaca city in Matatlan, I chopped roasted agave with a machete myself. This distillery was described as “modern” compared to what we saw up in the mountains, as they use a copper alembic still and crush agave plants with a horse and wheel. Still clearly Old World but not as ancient as clay pot distillation.

How could I forget stopping roadside up the mountains where two women made salsa, grilled Oaxacan cheese quesadillas on a streetside grill, while we drank from coconuts they’d just hacked open with a sword as we gazed across mountain vistas? Spend some time exploring the region and you will surely happen upon similar, once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Market

Selling freshly-made tortillas

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

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Tlayudas

Capturing the aromas and feel of Oaxaca is virtually impossible. It must be experienced to be believed.

Listing best restaurants is not the most relevant way of eating through Oaxaca. Among the best food of the city is street food or from the stalls of labyrinthine Benito Juarez market (Mercado de Benito Juarez).

Oaxaca is all about mole, mole, mole, and I was as ecstatic to taste mole through the region as I was to sip mezcal. As my favorite Mexican dish, mole is the most complex of sauces, sometimes layered with 30-40 ingredients, intricate spices, or in the case of what I consider the pinnacle – mole negro – it is earthy and rich with chocolate, nuts, spices, chiles.

Mountains of peppers

Mountains of peppers

Mercado de Benito Juarez is filled with mole purveyors selling spice blends (easiest to bring home), mole pastes, and more chilies than I’ve ever seen, even in California or around Mexico. The market houses stalls of produce, clothing, herbs, baked goods, mezcal, Oaxacan chocolate (another love: simultaneously grainy, sugary and earthy), and food stalls. Raw meat hangs from the rafters, Oaxacan cheese is stacked in massive blocks, and one can pull up to a counter to eat giant tlayudas: crispy tortilla discs layered with refried beans, meat, cheese and onions.

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Pouring cool tejate

Elote (corn on the cob with mayo or creme fraiche and cayenne or chili powder) is served from street carts, as are cups of frothy champurrado (which I enjoy at home in SF), a chocolate-based atole (masa-based beverage), watery yet grainy with corn and spices like cinnamon or anise. Another fascinating Oaxacan drink is tejate, a cool elixir made from maize (yes, corn is a common drink ingredient), mamey pits, and fermented cacao bean with a cacao flower foam.

The aroma of Oaxacan hot chocolate and moles permeates the air. Oaxaca is a sensual dream, the Old World, romantic Mexico I imagined as a child.

Mole paste to make your own mole sauces

Mole paste to make your own mole sauces

Though I recommend wandering the city and markets or braving street carts, here are a few edible recommendations.

LOS DANZANTES

Los Danzantes lounge area

Los Danzantes lounge area

Having long been familiar with Los Danzantes mezcal at home in San Francisco, the brand’s restaurant, also named Los Danzantes, is in the center of Oaxaca City. Enter through a courtyard marked by a pool to an open-air dining room of dramatically high adobe brick walls, draped with canvas awnings, with sky visible around the edges. Another pool and palms mark the room, next to an elevated, cabana-like bar area. The restaurant feels like tropical escape, another world all its own.

Pool inside the restaurant

Pool inside the restaurant

Then… a dramatic thunderstorm hit as our multi-course dinner began. Rain seeped through the edges of the canvas, creating a loud-yet-soothing lull throughout the meal. Until it began hailing. Frozen ice balls zig-zagged in through every opening, splashing up from the pool, hitting us squarely in the face. As we laughed and exclaimed, my friends and I scooped up hail and threw it at each other. It was an unreal 10 minutes. Time stopped and we felt alive, like children, far from the rest of the world, fed by mezcal Negronis and squash blossom tamales… an entirely bewitching moment in time.

Oaxaca's oldest mezcal bar fronted by chapulines (grasshopper) sellers

Oaxaca’s oldest mezcal bar fronted by chapulines (grasshopper) sellers

MEZCAL BARS

Education at Mezca

Education at Mezcaloteca

Whatever you do, don’t miss the studious library of mezcal, Mezcaloteca. With over 400 mezcals in a dark wood, intimate bar lined with green lamps, here one can dig deep into mezcal. Choose from hundreds of producers who either have known brands or who you’d never find otherwise, all house bottled and labeled in detail, from distillers name to agave varietals.

Inside

Inside La Casa Del Mezcal

On the classic side, don’t miss Oaxaca’s oldest mezcal cantina, La Casa Del Mezcal. Its wood-lined bar is graced with a vintage jukebox, while ceiling, walls and lamps look like the Aztec world collided with a Tiki bar. Just a couple blocks from Mercado de Benito Juarez, the street outside the bar is lined with chapulines (fried grasshopper) purveyors. My recommendation is to chow down on a few salty, savory grasshoppers, then slip into the bar for mezcal.

Oaxacan architecture

Oaxacan architecture

HOTEL CASA de SIERRA AZUL

Massive doors of

Massive doors of Sierra Azul

I fell in love with my charming hotel, Casa de Sierra Azul, and its engaging owner, who welcomed us graciously, as if we were visiting her home. A handful of Western touches (think fluffy towels, “mini-bar” of American snacks like Pringles, etc…) elevate this from other hotels nearby, as does the beautiful 1800′s architecture.

Besides the rich hospitality, one taste of their mole negro (which I had every morning for breakfast it was that good) and I was grateful to wake up here. The hotel is a convenient few blocks from the Mercado Juarez and oldest cathedrals.

Enchanting hotel courtyard

Enchanting hotel courtyard

Despite often dry, arid weather, I hit the region this April when every day yielded one strong thunderstorm, or even a wild hailstorm. On the day I arrived at Sierra Azul, I checked in just as a heavy rainshower hit the center courtyard surrounding a fountain and lined with rooftop cactus. Giant ceramic pots housing frogs filled to overflowing with raindrops, the courtyard was awash in lightening. I came out of my room to watch the storm unfold in all its splendor. I will forever associate Oaxaca with passionate storms and this heartwarming hotel.

I am in love with mole... ate many different styles of mole each day in Oaxaca

In love with mole… eating many different styles of mole each day in Oaxaca

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Nov
01
2013

Wandering Traveler

In the remote Oaxacan mountains taking in Old World (clay pot) mezcal distillation

In the remote Oaxacan mountains taking in Old World (clay pot) mezcal distillation

MEZCAL JOURNEYS in OAXACA

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

One of my favorite mezcals in the Los Siete Misterios line, Barril

One of my favorite mezcals in the Los Siete Misterios line, Barril (bottle shot photos: www.sietemisterios.com)

Exploring mezcal distilleries with bartenders and staff from the fantastic Los Siete Misterios Mezcal, was one of the most unforgettable trips of my life. Besides amazing days in Mexico City (read more here) and the enchanting town of Oaxaca (more here), I had unreal experiences at distilleries where Los Siete Misterios’ different mezcal varietals are produced – there are six regular varietals, the seventh/siete being a changing varietal. For the first time in my life, despite visits to dozens of distilleries around the world, I witnessed clay pot distillation, the ancient way of distilling where liquid is distilled in a pot in the mud, not through a still.

I spent time with jimadors (agave plant harvesters) as they hacked agave plants with a machete, or with mezcal distillers working up winding, narrow roads in the Oaxacan mountains in the regions of Sola de Vega. After a day up in the mountains, we ended with a home-cooked meal at one distiller’s home with a number of distillers and their families. We filled up on mole they cooked for two days and sipped mezcal as kids and dogs ran around and grandmothers looked on.

Los Siete Misterios' whimsical Day of the Dead-influenced artwork, different for each varietal

Los Siete Misterios’ whimsical Day of the Dead artwork, different for each varietal

About an hour outside Oaxaca city in Matatlan, I chopped roasted agave myself with a machete. This distillery was described as “modern” compared to what we saw up in the mountains, as they use a copper alembic still and crush agave plants with a horse and wheel – still clearly Old World but not as ancient as clay pot distillation.

How could I forget stopping roadside up the mountains where two women made salsa, grilled Oaxacan cheese quesadillas on a streetside grill, while we drank from coconuts they’d just hacked open with a sword as we gazed across mountain vistas? Spend some time exploring the region and you will surely happen upon similar, once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Here are a few of mine, via photos:

Sola de Vega, Oaxaca

A jimador since he was a child

A jimador since he was a child in the mountains of Sola de Vega

Watching a mature agave plant cut down by machete from a lifelong jimador

Watching a mature agave plant cut down by machete from a lifelong jimador

Mezcal distiller walks us through agave fields

Mezcal distiller walks us through agave fields

Unreal: experiencing distillation in clay pots as it was hundreds of years ago

Unreal: experiencing distillation in clay pots as it was hundreds of years ago

Open air fermentation in hollowed-out trees

Open air fermentation in hollowed-out trees

Wild goats roam mountainside

Wild goats roam mountainside

Fermenting mezcal under leaves

Fermenting mezcal under leaves

Lush mountain views

Lush mountain views

Funneling mezcal into containers

Funneling mezcal into containers

Tobala agave, up close & personal

Tobala agave, up close & personal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distiller

Distiller blowing perlas (bubbles) through hollowed out carrizo (akin to a bamboo reed), sucking up the mezcal from the jicara (gourd), then letting it stream back to note quality of perlas which tells alcohol level

Clay pot distillation

Clay pot distillation: a marvel of Old World processes with clay pots buried in the mud, natural distillation running through hollowed out reeds, funneled via leaves into plastic containers

 

Stopping for roadside tortillas grilled up with Oaxacan cheese, served with homemade salsa & just cut coconuts to drink

Stopping for roadside tortillas grilled up with Oaxacan cheese, served with homemade salsa & just cut coconuts to drink

Matatlan, Oaxaca

The more "modern" method of crushing agave with a horse and cement wheel

The more “modern” method of crushing agave with a horse and cement wheel

Just-roasted agave

Just-roasted agave

Hacking agave with a machete

Hacking agave with a machete

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distilling in

Distilling in Matatlan

Fermenting agave

Fermenting agave

Alembic still

Alembic still

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roasting agave in a pit

Roasting agave in a pit

Befriending the horse

Befriending the horse

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Oct
15
2013

Wandering Traveler

The new Mexico: international, chic, clean flavors and culinary mashups like Mexican sashimi at La Trainera

The new Mexico: international, clean flavors, like Mexican sashimi at La Trainera

MEXICO CITY RISING

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Tree-lined streets and fountains

Tree-lined streets and fountains

Mexico City’s (MX) dining scene is HOT. Gorgeous diners smoke cigarettes while dining on sashimi platters accented by Mexican flavors from chiles to avocado. Experimentation – the likes of which is far advanced even from what one finds in Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara – reinvents classic Mexican flavors through an international, cosmopolitan lens (in San Francisco, the recent arrival of La Urbana from MX owners, brings a snapshot of what is happening in MX to SF).

Flying in to MX, the massive expanse of a city of nearly 20,000 million people looks like a dense maze of traffic covered in thick, brown smog. But on the ground there’s a surprising amount of parks, tree-lined streets, European-influenced architecture and impossibly chic restaurants. Some of the most raved about restaurants, like Pujol from CIA-trained Chef Enrique Olvera, reach gastronomy magic, working wonders with larvae and insects, frog legs and squash blossoms.

Charming Sabor Amor

Charming Sabor Amor

MX street food and markets are fascinating, full of gourmet treasures. Here one can explore all the complex regions of Mexico and the varying dishes and specialties from around the country in one market. In this metropolis of a city, “New Mexican” reaches its most realized state, reinventing Mexican cuisines for the next generation.

Far more than in Guadalajara and vastly different from traditional, romantic towns like Oaxaca, Mexico City is the culinary future of Mexico, where the world’s cuisines collide, informed by Mexican ethos, even as other Mexican culinary capitals keep tradition alive. Both are important. Despite my many travels to Mexico, I feel as if I hadn’t fully experienced the possibilities of Mexican cuisine until I visited Mexico City.

Fish on display at La Trainera restaurant

Fish on display at La Trainera restaurant

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Cocktail ingredients in Los Siete Misterios competition at Aurora Roma

Exploring mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca with the fantastic Los Siete Misterios Mezcal, we spent a few days in MX. There I judged a cocktail competition involving bartenders from NY, Toronto and Mexico City using Los Siete Misterios mezcals, while also visiting restaurants and cocktail bars. Mexico City is on the cusp of an artisanal and classic cocktail scene. There are up-and-coming bartenders with a fine sense of balance, like David Mora and Rodrigo Martinez Trejo, honing craft in some of the city’s best bars.

Cocktails at Sabor Amor

Cocktails at Sabor Amor

One thing I noticed at cocktail bars here is masking alcohol is common. The best drinks often tasted like complex layers of fruit and herbs… with little booze kick. While emerging craft bartenders in MX are using a fascinating mix of Mexican herbs, chiles, fruits and so on, veering away from sweet or giant martini glasses to classic glassware and balance, there’s still a big gap between what we see across the US or major cocktail cities internationally in terms of a broad and deep grasp of classic technique or understanding (or even much of a selection) of brown spirits, from whiskies to brandies. But Mexico City masters agave spirits and an innovative use of produce, so it’s only a matter of time before the international cocktail renaissance fully takes hold here.

Aurora Roma sign

Aurora Roma sign

Few have done more initially to usher in this renaissance than Limantour, with the tag line “Live the old new days.” Limantour advances the cocktail revival in MX, having just opened a second location. I visited both, one with an open storefront, warm glow and a bustling bar, the other, an intimate, upstairs lounge – both bars are relaxed yet sexy, serving elegant cocktails, including a San Francisco tribute, the hilariously-named San Francisco Homie, a rum recipe adapted from none other than 15 Romolo.

Common dessert cocktail in MX: espresso & Licor 43 (Spanish vanilla citrus liqueur) on ice

Common dessert cocktail in MX: espresso & Licor 43 (Spanish vanilla citrus liqueur) on ice

Aurora Roma in the Colonia Roma district – marked by a beetle sign – is a cocktail den graced with a long black bar and low, pressed tin ceiling. It was the site of the cocktail competition I judged.

Whether visiting pulque (viscous, milky, alcoholic drink made from fermented sap of agave plants) havens like Las Duelistas, or mezcalerias like El Palenquito, agave spirits are (of course) well represented across the city.

Here are dining and food recommends, from restaurants to bakeries, around the city:

QUINTONIL, Polanco

Mezcal cocktails at Quintonil

Mezcal cocktails at Quintonil

The best meal in my recent visit was the humble green structure housing Quintonil (which means amaranth leaf). Chef Jorge Vallejo, a young chef who comes from the aforementioned Pujol, showcases impeccable technique, indigenous ingredients and modern, unexpected combinations. Whether a clean cactus sorbet with burnt corn husk, or pork jowl marinated in achiote, each dish (paired with mezcal on my visit) was enlightened, highlighting the innovation and freshness that is Mexico City dining.

Superb dishes at Quintonil

Superb dishes at Quintonil

ROMITA COMEDOR, Colonia Roma

David Nava prepares cocktails at Romita

David Nava prepares cocktails at Romita

Romita Comedor is an impossibly cool spot. Up winding stairs in a 1900′s building above a clothing shop and salon, its high ceilings, black and white tiled floor, and massive, open window, combines Old and New World touches. The space is casual yet hip, serving delicious tacos, octopus and shrimp dishes, at mid-range prices.

Romita ceviche

Romita ceviche

Romita is a cocktail outpost for refreshing classics like Tom Collins, Negronis, and Caipirinhas, but also creative creations by bartenders like David Mora (who won the Los Siete Misterios cocktail competition I judged at Aurora Roma), like a bright blend of serrano chilies, mezcal, apple, lychee and cucumber, or a creamy Horchata de Aquacate blending Don Julio blanco with house horchata.

Striking, open air dining room at Romita Comeador

Striking, open air dining room at Romita Comedor

MONTAGU GASTRO WINE BAR, Del Parque Lincoln

Guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers

Guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers

Mexico City native Chef Rogelio Weber infuses dishes at intimate, glowing Montagu Gastro Wine Bar with international flair. Studying cooking in Barcelona, he’s cooked in London, New York and between Africa and Asia. His duck confit tostadas, black octopus tacos, mole amarillo, or chapulines (grasshopper) topped guacamole (a nod to Oaxaca) are comforting yet delicate. In addition, Montagu is a wine bar so expect a thoughtful array of wines from Mexico, South America and beyond.

Experimentation with varied local ingredients in cocktails at Montagu

Experimentation with local ingredients in cocktails at Montagu

SABOR AMOR, Colonia Roma

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El Irreal at Sabor Amor

Sabor Amor is in a dreamy, multi-floored house with a terrace and dining rooms of different colors and themes, including a pink and creme-striped room that feels meant for high tea. It’s the most romantic setting of the places I dined, offering earnest service and generous, artfully designed dishes.

Brightly colored rooms

Colorful rooms

Besides serving Oaxaca’s ubiquitous guacamole dotted with chapulines (fried grasshoppers), Sabor sends out rich dishes like a round tower of whipped cheeses (“El Irreal”) layered with eggplant, red pepper, basil and tomatoes, accented by chile oil. The restaurant does best with its Italy-or-Spain-meets-Mexico dishes, such as a bacalao (salt cod) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) ravioli.

LA TRAINERA, Centro Historico

Raw fish tostadas at La Trainera

Raw fish tostadas at La Trainera

Impossibly hip La Trainera sports greenery growing on walls, a rooftop dining area, and mountains of fresh fish and seafood in a multi-floored mansion.

The aesthetic is as chic as the Hollywood-by-way-of-Mexico clientele. On the open-air top floor, everyone is (ironically) smoking as they dine on spanking-fresh sashimi. Raw tuna tostadas are a hit, a ubiquitous dish around MX, made popular by the restaurant Contramar. There’s a range of ceviches and tacos utilizing their impressive fish selection, but I found the sashimi and tostada menu sections offered the most gratifying dishes.

BOTTEGA CULINARIA, Condesa

Delirio

Delirio

A gourmand’s food shop, Bottega Culinaria stocks impeccable breads, cheeses, pastas, spirits, jams, sauces, cookbooks, and would be similarly at home in New York, San Francisco or Paris. It was a strong choice for French-style pastries and coffee in the leafy Condesa district.

DELIRIO, Zona Urbana Río Tijuana

With sidewalk seating evoking European cafes, atmospheric Delirio is a strong wine bar, cheese, charcuterie shop and all-day, casual cafe serving organic dishes for breakfast, lunch and wine hour.  While no dish I had here was exactly memorable, the setting is, making it a worthwhile stop for gourmet foods and even a few select mezcals we can’t get in the US.

In addition, food markets shine in Mexico City, particularly the “chef’s market,” Mercado San Juan in the Centro Historico, offering foods and produce from across Mexico.

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Nov
15
2010

Wandering Traveler

Guadalajara at night... behind the Cathedral in Plaza Tapatia

GUADALAJARA, MEXICO

One of Plaza Tapatia's many fountains

The gritty air and poverty in Guadalajara faces you as soon as you take a cab from the airport to downtown. But this first glimpse is hardly the make-up of the place. As dusk falls and you wander Plaza Tapatia, an enchanting 17-acre walkway that goes on for blocks in the Centro Historico (historic center) behind the largest and most famous cathedral in the city, families are out laughing and playing together. They wander the plaza, eating street food, blowing bubbles kids chase down the plaza or buying whizzing, whirring toys that light up like shooting stars as you catapult them into the air.

1866 opera house, Teatro Degollado, at dusk

There’s a European feel reminiscent of town squares of Spain or Italy, where families spend evenings together taking in the town. The glow of the cathedral is ethereal while the Plaza’s many fountains release a gentle mist that cools the heat and smog of the day. Here I sensed a whisper of the core of Guadalajaran people and culture, which unfolded further over the week. Certainly its riches are partly exhibited in its food…

LA FONDA DE SAN MIGUEL, Centro Historico – Points go to La Fonda de San Miguel for most magical atmosphere of any restaurant on my trip (though El Sacromonte, below, is a close second).

La Fonda's starlit atrium/courtyard

A flew blocks from the bustle of Guadalajara’s Plaza Tapatia, this haven opens up at the end of a long hallway laced with Jesus and Mary statues into a massive, Spanish villa-style atrium, twinkling with Mexican star lanterns over a giant fountain. As a parrot owner, I was charmed by hand-carved parrots on each chair’s back, and cages full of various-sized parrots and birds surrounding the courtyard.

La Fonda's guac w/ mango

The only-in-Spanish menu sounds mouthwatering. There’s even a long list of cocktails… debate amongst us drink industry folk ensued as to what ingredients might be in drinks like a “Bull” (turns out many of them are some form of spirits and Mexican beer or spirits and juice).

Though I ate Guacamole (68 pesos, approx. $5) everywhere, this version is enlivened with fresh mango chunks. Paired with a damn good Pina Colada (54 pesos, approx. $4.50), I was off to a joyous start.

Parrot chairs

Pechuga San Francisco (129 pesos, approx. $4.50) is chicken stuffed with huitlacoche… yes, corn fungus showed up all over the region, this dish in particular appearing on more than one menu. Finally ordering it here was a bit of a let down since the chicken was excessively dry. Epazote sauce couldn’t moisten it up enough.

Faring better is their popular Molcajete, another specialty of the region: stone mortar cauldrons bubbling with sauce, cheese and meats. My friend had a chicken version in a tart tomatillo sauce, though I preferred my Molcajete del Mar (140 pesos, approx. $11.50) filled with fish, shrimp, celery, onion, chiles, in a creamy tomato sauce, bubbling with melted cheese.

Candlelit alcoves surround La Fonda's courtyard

Another dish that sounds better than it tastes is Camarones Gustaf (168 pesos, approx. $14), looking more like an artful shrimp salad with seasonal fruit, cucumber sauce, and lemon. If I were able to taste the lemon, I think it would have perked it up, as would a zippier cucumber sauce.

With an ultra-gracious host, surrounded by chirping birds and the glow of candlelit romance, we left happy, despite not tasting one overwhelmingly great dish.

El Rincon's Chiles en Nogada

EL RINCON DEL SOL, TonalaEl Rincon del Sol feels like vacation under a covered patio with zesty margaritas and one of the best (if not the best) Chiles en Nogada (meat-stuffed poblano in walnut sauce with pomegranate seeds) I’ve had. A favorite Mexican dish of mine, here the walnut cream is rich yet light, playing off ground beef inside a stuffed pepper.

Queso Fundido at El Rincon

Finding the low-quality, Velveeta-like cheese of the Tex Mex-style queso fundidos I’ve had in Texas or Oklahoma unappealing, I was delighted to find Queso Fundido in Mexico is another thing entirely: a plate or bowl full of melted  cheese (not a creamy dip) usually covered in rosy-pink chorizo.

Amidst cobblestone streets and the renowned arts and crafts shops of Tonala, El Rincon del Sol is a delightful respite.

A tree grows out of El Sacromonte's glowing dining room

EL SACROMONTE, Zona Minerva/West SideEl Sacromonte is on a residential, tree-lined street, difficult to find until you happen upon its welcoming awning.

The main dining room is tented but open-air with a tree covered in white lights growing out of one side. There’s a romantic hush over the place and a warmth that exudes from the bar staff to our adorable, elderly waiter. None spoke English but aimed to please. Our tiny-but-spunky waiter noticed me taking notes off the menu and insisted I quietly slip the menu into my bag with a wink and a “Shhhh…

Creative Palm of Mallorca: chile stuffed w/ noodles, shrimp, basil cream, topped w/ fried onions

Review raves weren’t wrong on its magic – everyone from NY Times to LA Times has weighed in on this out-of-the-way spot. Presentation is artistically impressive, especially considering the affordable prices. But there was a heavy amount of shrimp (I even reached camarones burn-out) and some plates were more style than substance. Overall, however, creativity shone in the Nuevo Mexican food, with delectable items like avocado and rose petal soup.

Superb tequilas & house sangrita

Santa Anita’s Tartar (120 pesos, approx. $10) showcases earthy in a molded dip of avocado cream, huitlacoche (“corn smut” to you) and rice with fresh shrimp. Cold and mild, guajillo chiles give it a perk.

Palm of Mallorca (125 pesos, approx. $10) was my favorite starter. A chile stuffed with noodles and shrimp, drizzled with basil cream and addictive fried onion crisps, it’s truly a unique dish.

San Marcos Chicken Mole (125 pesos, approx. $10) is described on the menu as “the best mole than you have proven with the authentic recipe of Coronado’s grandmother”. Though English translations are hilariously off on the menu, they weren’t wrong on this mole’s stellar quality. Dotted with pickled red onion and sesame seeds, it’s a dark, spiced sauce robust with layered flavor, even if the chicken was a tad dry. Oaxaca is the origin region of mole, one of my most beloved eats, yet El Sacromonte represents well with their version.

Excellent mole at Sacromonte

Their signature dish is Queen Elizabeth’s Crown (190 pesos, approx. $15): juicy, plump shrimp woven into a seamless “crown”. I was on camarones burn-out as I neared the final third of the dish, however. Its lush, creamy lobster sauce began to wear, too. Salty and rich, the dish was certainly intriguing (and best shared), dotted with dissolving fried spinach, even if I could not finish it.

Garibaldi's spread

KARNE GARIBALDI, Zona Minerva/West SideKarne Garibaldi holds the Guinness Book of World Records for fastest service in the world (13.5  seconds) due to the fact that they serve only one dish in small, medium or large platters: carne en su jugo, shredded beef and bacon simmering in a beef broth. Rounds of sides come out: homemade tortillas, addictive, whole grilled onions, veggies, and their famous refried beans with corn, which they sell by the can.

Delightful Garibaldi servers

Service is cheery (no English spoken) and the filling spread totals to less than $10 a person with drinks. Oh, they also serve a mean (as in delicious) homemade horchata.

LA CHATA, Centro Historico – The best breakfast of my trip and a spanking clean stop for classic Mexican dishes, La Chata is conveniently located in the historic center of the city with huge platters of food for a few dollars.

Quality soup at La Chata

Watch the kitchen staff mold fresh tortillas and guacamole in the front kitchen, then order a hefty bowl of beloved soups, like regional favorite pozole. Their moist, flavorful chilaquiles are among the best I’ve ever had and come in a variety of breakfast combo platters with the likes of eggs, beans, potato hash. They also pour refreshing juices squeezed in-house, like a bright carrot-orange juice.

Casa Fuerte's idyllic patio

CASA FUERTE, Tlaquepaque – In my favorite area of Guadalajara, artsy, design-driven Tlaquepaque, is the somewhat touristy Casa Fuerte. Though plenty of locals dine here, there’s an English menu (we went for the Spanish one) and frozen margaritas at every table. Thankfully, our waiter understood “on the rocks” so we were treated to two margaritas, including a Tamarindo, the best tamarind margarita I’ve yet had. The regular limon (lime) was decent, though not great.

A perfect tamarind margarita

Under a leafy patio, next to a fountain full of koi fish, with a jazz trio playing soothing bossa nova, lunch here feels like vacation, so it’s easy to see why it’s far-and-away the most popular restaurant in the area.

I was wowed by Torta de Elote Colonial (68 pesos, approx. $5). A creamy corn cake reminiscent of polenta, drenched in a poblano/tomatillo sauce, it’s a regional specialty that’s completely satisfying. Not so with Beef Fajitas (68 pesos, approx. $13) with mushrooms and peppers, nor a bland Chile Relleno (89 pesos, approx. $7) filled with ground beef. Though the menu is hit-and-miss, I’d return to Casa Fuerte again to bask in its relaxing, jazz-drenched patio with one of those tamarind margaritas.

Casa Fuerte's delicious Torta de Elote Colonial

CAFE MADRID, Centro Historico – Though I can’t say I was taken with milky, weak coffee (a common plight around the region in my hunt for a decent cup), I appreciated accommodating staff at Cafe Madrid with its vaguely 1950′s diner decor (oddly enough, I’d instead go down the block to Holiday Inn’s in-house coffee shop for a stronger, better espresso).

A treat came in Jericallas (25 pesos, approx. $2), a traditional, regional milk custard. It’s baked, puffing up to a golden brown, reminiscent of (but different than) creme brulee. Redolent with cinnamon and vanilla bean, it gives off a whisper of banana and cardamom, though neither are present.

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