Sorry, if I'm just missing it, but realized I never included a link to additional photos from La Biznaga - our favorite place to go to in Oaxaca. Not only is the menu extensive, but they make the best margaritas we found in town. Lunch specials definitely are worth checking out on the blackboard by the sidewalk. The photo below is of mero fish topped with mole. To see more photos go to: http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr...
Finally finished our restaurant roundup from our trip to Oaxaca, but mainly through photos: http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr.... The photo here is grilled seafood at Epicuro.
We were there during a low period so did not need reservations anywhere except to reserve the 90-peso lunch special on Wednesdays and Fridays at Los Danzantes. You will be there during prime visitor time, so probably need reservations. Neither of us have been sick in Oaxaca in the past five years or so, and, as you can see from my salad post, we certainly did not avoid them in the nice restaurants.
We almost skipped Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante this trip. Don’t. Five years ago, we found it a little boring and stuffy compared to newer places. But the rooftop setting is spectacular; the service standards are resort-like; the stuffiness has evaporated; and the overall experience transcends any minor quibbles.
The salsa is made tableside to customize the heat, and the crumbly cheese tostada arriving with it was a perfect accompaniment. Our two salads (read more about Oaxacan salads here) came with diverse cheeses and interesting fresh ingredients. They were, however, horribly over-dressed; definitely ask for the dressing on the side.
Casa Oaxaca’s shrimp tostada was mounded high. The turkey mole was a rather straightforward, traditional presentation – good but not over-the-top memorable. There are more inventive sounding, and more expensive, entrees available. Go for an extremely pleasant, worth-lingering-over experience.
Things the kitchen turned out in the tiny inner courtyards of Origen amazed me. Cold dollops of beet granita contrasted well with roasted beets and pillowy mounds of foamed goat cheese in one salad. An interesting mixture of celery leaves, squash blossoms and purslane actually grabbed more attention then the tender pulpo topping it. A grilled romaine salad was overpowered a bit by the rich sauce, but every bit disappeared. More lima beans in it next time, please.
A poached egg was perched in a soup bowl before the toasted garbanzo soup was ladled atop it. Another cooling granita, this one with hints of rose, topped a shrimp and fish ceviche. Medallions of smoky pork had been wrapped with lean bacon and hoja santa leaves before a mole colorado was added. Oh, and the the flavors of a huitlacoche risotto ringed with foam were incredibly good. Go to Origen at least twice.
To view more photos from meals at this restaurants, please visit my blog: http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr...
Still eating our way through Oaxacan restaurants. This is from a recent blog post about La Biznaga:
La Biznaga was our favorite place to head to for meals five years ago, and it remains so on this visit. Comfortably casual, contemporary Mexican cuisine.
No matter what our food moods are, the menu has something on it to fit. Salads are stunning (see this earlier post); soups are interesting and flavorful. Menu del dia offerings are generous, and now the kitchen even makes smaller dishes from the “deli” available to order in the restaurant.
If that were not enough, we think La Biznaga hands-down makes the best margarita in town – tart, deep and potent. And we’ve sampled many.
To see more photos from La Biznaga, please visit by blog: http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr....
Thought you might be interested in insects on the tables in Oaxaca. This is from a recent post on my blog:
Given the way grasshoppers can leap, wonder how anyone catches all the mounds of grasshoppers, chapulines, the vendors offer for sale in the markets of Oaxaca.
Debbie Hadley points out on about.com:
"If you’ve ever tried to catch a grasshopper, you know how far they can jump to flee danger. If humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would easily leap the length of a football field or more. How do they jump so far? It’s all in those big, back legs. A grasshopper’s hind legs function like miniature catapults. When it wants to jump, the grasshopper contracts its large flexor muscles slowly, bending its hind legs at the knee joint. A special piece of cuticle within the knee acts as a spring, storing up all that potential energy. When the grasshopper is ready to jump, it relaxes the leg muscles, allowing the spring to release its energy and catapulting its body into the air."
Plus, they can fly.
Since ancient times, people in the hills and valleys of Oaxaca have consumed insects of various kinds. They are a widely available source of protein.
Grasshoppers, small locusts, can do an incredible amount of damage, the sort of damage resembling the plagues of the Bible. If a grasshopper consumes half its body weight in plants everyday, imagine what swarms can do, the kind of swarms that blocked out the sun in parts of the Midwest during 1931.
In the United States, 2010 was a worry-some year once again in the Midwest. But farmers have a superhero helping them fight such invasions. Charles L. Brown is the American czar of grasshoppers, the national policy manager for Grasshopper Control for the United States Department of Agriculture. And among his arsenal of weapons is metarhizium acridum, a mycoinsecticide. This is regarded as a form of “natural” control using entomopathogenic fungi to invade the grasshoppers bodies, take them over and kill them.
Sounds like your worst nightmare, body-invasion-type of horror film to me. Attack of the Fungi.
Makes the Mexican solution much more palatable as an intelligent form of insect control, perfect for organic gardeners everywhere.
Suppose all of those grasshoppers in the marketplace had been left to hop wherever they wanted, ravaging crops along the way? Instead they are being eaten. After being toasted on a comal with chiles and garlic and seasoned with salt and lime, the crunchy treats can be gobbled up by the handful like popcorn or wrapped in tortillas.
Although I never cared much for the greasy version offered in bars to accompany mezcal, I’m totally open to consumption in more upscale eateries. The enormous shrimp atop a nopal and roasted kale salad at La Olla were crawling with them, and they swarmed the ancho chile relleno at Los Danzantes.
And, true confession, we’ve consumed more insects than just grasshoppers. The Mister’s plate at El Origen was sprinkled with tasty ground black ants, chicatanas.
Oh, and you remember the nasty squirmy-looking worm in the bad bottles of rot-gut mezcal people used to bring home from Mexico as more of a joke? Well, he’s come out of the bottle and onto plates as well. A maguey worm, gusano del maguey, is actually a caterpillar that feeds on the heart of maguey, or agave, plants before emerging as an Aegiale hesperiaris butterfly. The more common red worms, chinicuiles, larvae of a moth that inhabit agave, are ground up with salt and chile to accompany a glass of mezcal, which has gone upscale as well.
To view more photos, hop on over to the original post at http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr....
From blog post about salads in Oaxaca:
Gorgeous greens, so incredibly fresh they taste as though the kitchen just harvested them from a rooftop garden.
Not the stereotypical first food post from Oaxaca, but the salads in this capital of respectful fusion of ancient cooking traditions and contemporary presentations are that good. Long-gone are the days when traveling Americans need feel constrained in vegetable consumption, and Oaxaca is about more than mole.
Among the salads we have sampled recently are:
Have posted photos of most of these salads at http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/postcard-from-oaxaca-serious-salads/.
From blog about Los Danzantes:
Only taking you out to one place to eat today because it was one of our favorites on our last trip and remains so. We keep returning, but not for the same dish.
Everything is well executed and beautifully presented, and there are so many things on the menu at Los Danzantes still beckoning us to try. Even something as small as complimentary jamaica (hibiscus) and crumbly cheese tostadas presented to us the other day are perfect. The deep red, richly flavored chilpachole, a soup stocked with crab, fish and vegetables should not be skipped, and chile ancho relleno filled with huitlacoche (large kernels of mushroom-like corn mold) atop a puree of roasted platanos and coconut with goat cheese, chapulines (more in a coming post) and caramelized piloncillo (unrefined sugar) is memorable.
Not surprisingly, we encountered some of the country’s best-known chefs slipping into Los Danzantes during the midst of and celebrating at the end of the recent Festival Gastronomico El Saber del Sabor.
To see food photos related to this post, please visit my blog at http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr....
Will be back soon with more updates…..
This represents our final fulfillment of our pledge to record some of our restaurant experiences from our recent trip to assist other travelers who obsessively turn to the internet before mealtime. (Well, semi-recent. October. And only a partial fulfillment. This has been a slow process, and the memories of restaurants and meals are fading a bit.)
Our apartment was in the Vieux-Port area of Quebec City, and foot was always our mode of transportation during our stay.
On the night of our arrival we lucked into seats at L’Échaude, a tony spot where reservations normally are a necessity. Service was extremely polished, and we enjoyed the rich flavors of a mussel and seafood soup in lobster broth and grilled seafood risotto.
Somehow we ended up in the neighborhood of Le Pain Béni in the old city twice at lunch time. The multi-course table d’hote menu represents quite a bargain and inside was relaxing after our long morning explorations. A crispy duck appetizer flavored with maple was wonderful. Maple seems to slip into the ingredients of numerous dishes in Quebec City. Among the dishes we sampled were a lobster-based risotto with fish and a flank steak with purple potatoes and carrots. The fruit salad was not a good dessert option, but the blueberry cake soaked with maple is highly recommended.
SSS, formally named Simple Snack Sympathique, is a popular, trendy spot in the port area and is a sister restaurant of Restaurant Toast. Weekday lunch seems to attract professionals rather than tourists. For lunch, I had salmon tartar with sesame seed and avocado, and the Mister ordered roasted lamb shank with gremolata and roasted vegetables. Both came with French fries, which you can exchange for salad or vegetables. But don’t. These are great fries.
A visit to the impressive National Assembly building was on our agenda, but, rather than go on the total tour, we checked out the restaurant, Le Parliamentaire. We had no reservations, but they are recommended. The Beaux Arts dining room with soaring ceiling is elegant, and service is formal. The table d’hote is not as expensive as one would expect in such surroundings, and the setting is worth experiencing.
We flunked planning ahead, and so often could not get in at the last minute for dinner at some of the popular restaurants in the old quarter. Part of the failure to make reservations was due to lack of hunger. Our long table d’hote lunches left no room for major dinners. We actually slipped into – true confession – a chain, not once, but twice, for lighter evening fare. The Piazzetta in the Old Port area is quite pleasant. The pizza is fine, but what surprised us was how good the restaurant’s main course salads are. We split a warm asparagus and prosciutto salad, which included grape tomatoes, olive and onions with balsamic vinaigrette; and a warm apple and camembert salad with croutons and pecans topped with a three-pepper maple syrup dressing.
As we neared the end of the two-week trip to Canada, I was beginning to yearn for a non-restaurant meal. The century-old farmer’s market, Marché du Vieux Port, was only about a block or two from our apartment and was filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and fish just waiting to be relocated to our kitchen.
One more night, and I’m sure I would have cooked.
Note: This is actually copied from my blog, and the links did not migrate. My blog has links to the websites of these restaurants and additional photos. http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr...
Thanks, plateaumaman. The photo is of the chickpea salad at Olive + Gourmando.
My fluent French flew away years ago. Before we left for our vacation in Canada, I tried cramming a few words back into my chaotic file cabinet of a brain via CDs in the car. I could not drive far enough even if I commuted daily from Dallas. It was really best if I kept my mouth closed in Montréal and Quebec City. I actually heard myself utter one sentence containing equal parts French, Spanish and English in alternating phrases to a perplexed Canadian.
But I did learn apportez votre vin is the Mister's favorite French phrase. We were always on the lookout for AVV prominently displayed in a restaurant window because that meant BYOW, bring your own wine, with no corkage fee. You can stop in the ever-present convenience store nearby and grab a bottle to accompany your meal. Duluth Street in the Plateau Mont-Royal area, where we were staying, has a large number of these spots welcoming budget-conscious winos. Unfortunately, most of these are open only for dinner when we were generally too stuffed from multicourse table d'hôte, or prix fixe, lunches, despite having walked for hours.
This post is part of a pledge we make every trip and rarely keep - to try to assemble whatever we can remember about restaurants for other travelers who rely as much on web reviews as we do. Memory already is an issue a month later (see paragraph 1), but here is my best attempt.
We arrived hungry on a Saturday evening, and our landlord suggested a spot near our apartment in the Plateau-Mont Royal neighborhood. We headed out on foot to a restaurant that looked nice, but vaguely chainy. It was packed, packed with people predominantly less than half our age engaged in spirited, animated conversations. They all looked so happily settled in at Dans la Bouche, we decided to wait 30 minutes for a table.
After the waiter explained the promotional menu, we understood how those conversations were fueled and why they grew louder and louder. "Men and women eat free" every night. You order something like $29 of alcoholic beverages and then can choose from a menu of three-course offerings, including filet mignon and lamb chops with reduction of porto, cooked rare as we requested. A cocktail each and a bottle of wine, and we ate for free. We wouldn't go back, but our service and the food were good, if not exciting. Best left to those 20-30 year-olds.
Although lunch the next day in Old Montréal left us longing for that bargain and wondering if the city was more expensive than we desired. Marché de la Villette was overflowing with a crowd seemingly 3/4 tourists and 1/4 downtown regulars. We ordered the house red wine with our lunches and ended up dropping almost $100 including tip.
Part of this was my fault; I hadn't really taken the time to review the special combos. I ordered French onion soup and salade nicoise, about the most expensive lunch item. The soup had plenty of cheese, but the onions had been rushed and the broth wasn't rich enough. The salad was not what I envisioned. Instead of nice chunks of white tuna, it had a mound of super-mayonnaise tuna salad in the middle of a stack of an otherwise dry salad with white and pale green beans seeming slipped directly out of a jar. This might be the traditional Montréal preparation, but other menus warn you about the tuna salad. Lamar wisely ordered a croque madame, which appeared to be what the regulars do; it was a great sandwich with thinly sliced lean and flavorful ham. Fortunately, the rest of our excursions were more reasonably priced.
Which brings me to sandwiches. I don't eat them very often in San Antonio. This country has been so slow to recover from the culinary catastrophe of 1925, the debut of uniformly sliced bread - Wonder Bread. For generations, Americans consumed unnaturally white, flavorless bread that could be gummed easily before our first teeth arrived.
But everywhere in the state of Quebec, the bread was incredibly good and varied, even in train stations. Canadians also seem to take what goes in the middle of their bread seriously - great meats, cheeses and the freshest greenery. Pestos, instead of lifeless mayonnaise, packed flavor.
We ate wonderful roasted-vegetable panini at the Café des Amis at the Smith House after hiking up Mont Royal through the tree-shaded park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Oh, and the Canadian beer falls in the same category as the bread - much better than mass-produced American beer. Perhaps my favorite sandwich was my basil pesto, fig and goat cheese panino at Boîte à Lunch at the Montréal Botanical Garden.
Despite its location in the heart of touristy Old Montréal, Olive + Gourmando was filled with downtown workers at lunch time. The Mister enjoyed a Cajun chicken sandwich, while mine was goat cheese and caramelized onion with a raspberry dip, which was not even necessary. We shared a refreshing chickpea salad.
Ethnic diversity complicates dining decisions in Montreal. We sandwiched in a light dinner by getting to-go less than two blocks from our apartment - a kafta pita from Les Deux Oliviers. Although not hungry, we were envious of the regulars from the neighborhood embracing everyone in the kitchen before mounting the steep stairs to the second-floor dining room and having covered tagines of more bountiful Tunisian specialties ported up to them.
The ultimate bargain in the heart of the central business district and adjacent to the major museums is Boustan. White-collared suits stand in line at the counter next to blue-collar workers to get plates overflowing with Lebanese food. No white table clothes here; efficiency trumps atmosphere. While the dishes displayed behind glass and warmed in convection ovens can be off-putting, the flavors were wonderful. The $7.50 vegetarian plate was among the most diverse and ample vegetable plates I have ever enjoyed.
Venezuelan arepas at Arepera in Plateau Mont-Royal reminded us of our trip to Cartagena, Colombia. The only flaw was we arrived without fortified beverages in tow; the Mister actually was reduced to a non-alcoholic beer.
A rainy day, AVV and a convenient store across the street led us to duck into Restaurant Alexandre on Duluth. The service was great, and no one rushed us through the leisurely, multi-course, two-bottle-of-wine lunch that kept us dry for several hours. While no course stood out as a nouvelle inspiration, the fish was well-executed and everything else good.
Of course, that detour left us not very hungry at dinner time, and we were not eager to walk in the rain much longer (wimpy San Antonians that we are). Sandhu to the rescue. Piping hot pizza delivered to our door. Embarrassed to confess, we did this on both rainy nights. But the grilled vegetables, particularly the eggplant, Sandhu loaded up for us were great.
All-you-can-eat moules frites, a four-night-a-week special, sent us to Bières et Compagnie in Plateau Mont-Royal on another evening. Even narrowing down our choice to mussels in advance did not make decision-making easy. Five flavors of mayonnaise for the frites, about two dozen types of mussel preparations and 100 varieties of beer are available. While I halted after the initial kilogram of mussels, the determined Mister opted for more.
The casual, neighborhood atmosphere led us to wander over to Café des Entretiens twice for dinner. Among the dishes we enjoyed were a hearty vegetable couscous, a rich marscarpone risotto and a healthy preparation of blue marlin on a bed of quinoa with a mango salsa. The pianist and bass player on the second visit were perfect for our final night in Montréal.
(Some photos and direct links to all of these restaurants are posted on my blog at http://postcardsfromsanantonio.wordpr...)
Amazed at how many people of all ages were out on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River at dusk and after dark on Saturday night - many on bicycles. People are ready, even though the plantings along this new stretch of riverside pathways are not, even though the banks seem moonscaped more than landscaped.
We were down there because we finally got around to... experiencing G&G Mobile Bistro, tracking them southward to 116 West Mitchell, tucked away behind Boneshakers. Parking is limited, but, as half the customers seemed to arrive by bike, that presents no real problem.
Shaded by trees, the new location offers a sweeping view of the river's voluptuous new curves in the Mission Reach. Once we have something growing, this could actually turn into the prettiest spot along the river's course through Bexar County and is ideally positioned to catch the evening breeze from the south.
We went out back and ordered the five featured courses for $14, no choices to make. What's on the blackboard is what you get. Then we went in to grab a not great, but very inexpensive, bottle of wine from Boneshakers, which boasts a pretty impressive beer selection.
Arriving at 7:45, just in time to secure prime seating, seating in short supply by 8:15. Don't know how they possibly keep track of who ordered one item, three courses or all five, but, somehow our little cardboard cradles came out one at a time, each one delivered to our table precisely as we finished the course before. The first course featured a mound of caramelized onion on brie served with croutons and slices of apples. The apples had a dose of coarsely ground pepper on them, which I wouldn't have thought would work. It did. Next was a plastic glass filled with an acorn squash soup, bravely made without ladling in too-rich cream and unexpectedly spiked with a flavor burst or two from chunks of lime pulp. Then we were served a great little salad, followed by pork flavored with balsamic perched on perfectly herbed vegetables. Everything tasted so fresh and healthy. The only course we didn't care for was the dessert, a flan-cake.
My husband kept repeating G&G is his new favorite restaurant. It's the type of place you want to tell everyone about on the one hand, but realize the danger that it will soon be too popular for you to get that prime seat. Shhh....
Hope they let us return. Occurred to me on the drive home we committed a food truck faux pas. We completely forgot to return our wine and water glasses to Boneshakers, rudely left them on the table under the trees. We'll be better next time.
Somewhere in chowhound I have another post that talks about five different restaurants, but this post is about the Bar at Bohanan's, 219 East Houston Street in San Antonio, not the upstairs restaurant.
In the downstairs Bar, Mark Bohanan sheds some of the formality of the restaurant by offering a selection of traditional sounding sandwiches with upscale twists: the BLT features Kurobuta – the Kobe beef of pork – bacon; the grilled cheese has aged gouda, heirloom tomatoes and basil; and the roasted lamb has caponata, goat cheese and arugula. He even makes a nod to that traditional San Antonio snack, Frito pie.
The traditional dark wood used for the bar and trimmings is counterbalanced by the large storefront windows fronting on Houston Street and overlooking the courtyard. Seating and tables vary in size and arrangement, creating comfortable spaces for couples or groups of friends.
Bohanan’s Bar features classic cocktails. No modern-day blender in sight.
Mad Men is credited with igniting the classic mixologist craze; so it seemed fitting to order a drink invented by ad men with the swagger of Don “What-you-call-love-was-invented-by-guys-like-me-to-sell-nylons” Draper. The Moscow Mule. The refreshing drink with fresh lime and a strong ginger flavor seems more tropical than its name that reflects the Russian origins of the product the mule was supposed to push to gin-drinking Americans, Smirnoff’s vodka.
According to Cocktail Times, the Moscow Mule was invented in 1941 by Heublein executive, John G. Martin, and the owner of the Cock ‘N’ Bull Bar, who wanted to bolster his flailing ginger beer franchise:
“They ordered specially engraved copper mugs and Martin set off to market it in the bars around the country. He bought one of the first Polaroid cameras and asked barmen to pose with a Moscow Mule copper mug and a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. Then he would leave one copy of the photo at the bar and take a second copy to the bar next door to show them that their competitors were selling their concoction. Between 1947 and 1950, thanks to their invention, Smirnoff vodka case columns more than tripled and nearly doubled in 1951.”
Surely, Don Draper would approve. Bohanan’s Bar seems to have the original drink down pat, evening offering it in a copper mug General Manager Scott Becker says they had custom-made in New York. My friend and I are hooked.
Attentive service, fresh presentation of food and cocktails Don would drink are all good qualities. But what makes a body want to return to the Bar at Bohanan’s is that it is quite simply a great place to talk.
Maybe too late, but here are some recent great meals I have enjoyed in San Antonio:
The Cool Cafe, 123 Auditorium Circle: A crepe filled with spinach, mushrooms and liberal amounts of olive oil served with sweet and crisp roasted potatoes; huge chunks of salmon cooked shish-kabob-style and served over basmati rice; half-price wine on Sunday. Better hurry, because the new owners of the Havana Hotel seem inclined to want the Mediterranean cafe out of the way. Liz Lambert has completed work on the hotel to instill it with the same coolness factor as the San Jose in Austin, and I am happy to learn the great basement Bar will no longer be filled with dense clouds of cigar smoke. If Lambert can make a former “motor court” hip, she certainly should be able to make a building with the architectural bones of the Havana inviting. Did I mention the Cool Cafe knocks 50 percent off all wine on Sundays? Call first to be sure it has not been evicted: 210.224.2665.
Tre Trattoria, 4003 Broadway: Considering I have not been blogging long, it might arouse suspicion for me to mention this meal again. Sorry, but this is my vision of a perfect Saturday lunch for making a couple feel as though they are on vacation: grilled radicchio with lemon vinagrette; a pizza topped with goat cheese, pistachios and balsamic cippolini; and a bottle of A Mano Primitivo. One might think Jason and Crystal Dady were bribing me, but they would go broke if everyone who came in placed such a budget order. Price for two, including the bottle of wine: $41.30.
Azuca Nuevo Latino, 713 South Alamo: For a while, the kitchen seemed to suffer from attention-deficit as management focused on a northside location, but everything appears back on track. Few restaurants present food with more artistry. Would highly recommend garlicky tostones, tender grilled squid and the tropical fruit garden for dessert, much more decadent than it sounds. The caipirinha is a nice change from margaritas or mojitos.
The Filling Station Cafe, 701 South St. Mary’s Street: The place to grab a sandwich, such as the turkey habanero on rolls made in the teeninsiest kitchen. There might be all of three tables tucked inside, but there is additional seating outside. Have used Jon’s services several times to provide sandwiches for meetings, and everyone always raves.
Zinc Champagne, Wine & Spirits, 207 North Presa: The name immediately lets you know the beverage side of the menu is well-stocked; yet the bartenders do not complain about making something off-menu – such as what I have christened a “tequito,” a mojito with tequila instead of rum. Zinc is open during the week for lunch, but seems to be trying to keep that secret. Pears, goat cheese and pecans perk up a small Zinc salad, and the portobello patty melt with spinach, nopalitos and cheese is hearty fare. The sweet potato fries arriving on the same plate keep me from exploring the menu much farther, despite the high praise friends lavish on the Texas salmon salad with pearl couscous.
This is part of a much longer blog - "New York Times Making Amends" posted on wordpress.com under postcardsfromsanantonio on April 4 - that begins a rant about John Edge's article in the New York Times claiming Austin's breakfast tacos beat out San Antonio.
Azuca Cocina Latina
Zinc Champagne & Wine Bar
Every trip we make, we depend on other people's food reviews. I always pledge I will come back and leave extensive feedback on Chowhound. But those good intentions get buried quickly under work waiting on my desk....
As a start, the best meal on our March 2010 trip to the Yucatan was not in Merida but in little Valladolid. While the patio courtyard of El Meson del Marques offers an extremely pleasurable dining experience - enough so that we ate dinner and breakfast there - we stumbled across a new restaurant that opened in November 2009. I say stumbled because we kept wandering around in the mid-day sun trying to find Restaurante San Bernardino de Siena that the Rough Guide said is "locally known as Don Juanito's and frequented mostly by vallisoletanos." We did finally locate Don Juanito's, but there was the type of hand-scrawled sign posted in the window that you never want to spot before a meal: "Cook Wanted." Although, presumably, one is now hired, that day, not one table was occupied by a turista or a vallisoletano.
So we returned to try the one too new to be in the guidebooks that we had passed by several times already, Taberna de los Frailes, next to the Monastery and Church of San Bernardino de Siena. The contemporary restaurant steps beyond the traditional recipes of the Yucatan. Dining under a shady palapa in the back, our group sampled filete de pescado fresco en salsa verde mexicana (in this case an oregano-based salsa); salmon zarandeado; and mero maya. The mero, fresh grouper, had been marinated in the region's sour orange juice and was presented in four coiled spirals, perfectly cooked. What kept everyone's forks hovering above my plate, though, was a mound of black risotto with complex layers of flavor popping out in every bite. The dish sent us scouring the market the next day to purchase some of the rich relleno negro seemingly at its base.
At 160 pesos (about $13), the fish dishes were not the least expensive in Mexico, but they were more than worth the tab. The service was professional, except our server neglected to inform us when we ordered that the restaurant has a chocolate souffle that needs 25 minutes to prepare. We would have eaten at La Taberna de los Frailes daily, had Merida not been our base.
On the other hand, we did not feel satisfied with a 350 peso tab at the Hacienda Temozon on our way to Uxmal. Fortunately, it was early in the day; so margaritas and mero (There it would have been fresh grouper with mango sauce and black sesame and couscous.) were not yet on our minds. We simply ordered four mineral waters and an order of guacamole. 350 pesos, tip not included. Although beautiful, the hacienda is definitely not a place to drop in for dinner, unless money is no object.
As we left Uxmal in search of a late lunch, we opted to go the opposite direction of the Hacienda for a more reasonably priced meal and landed at The Pickled Onion, just south of Santa Elena. Instead of stopping at the village museum that Cadogan describes as displaying "the rather ghoulish remains of colonial-era burials found beneath the church floor," we sat outside on The Pickled Onion's deck with margaritas, which were among the most acceptable we had in the Yucatan. The name is drawn doubly from the marinated onion accompaniment offered alongside extremely hot salsa verde (Warning: Habanero Alert. Always test the heat of salsa in the Yucatan before ladeling on your food, even if you are from Texas.) at most restaurants in the area and the fact that the British ex-pat owner's last name is Pickles. Although British, her kitchen successfully has absorbed the flavor of traditional Yucatecan dishes, including flavorful pork and venison options.
Back to Merida. Conveniently, we were renting a house near the market at Parque Santiago, known for its restaurant stalls with outdoor tables staffed by efficient waiters. The menus of Yucatan specialities were more extensive than one would think possible to offer out of the tiny kitchens, but the food was quite good and a bargain. Before selecting a location, we watched where most the locals headed and ended up trusting La Reina Itzalana for both a breakfast and a light dinner. Merida is my kind of town in that people do not feel bound to restrict breakfast to eggs. At a table next to us, people were eating an assortment of everything - sopa de lima, panuchos, tacos and sandwiches on fresh bolillos - first thing in the morning.
Budget places - low on atmosphere - we would definitely recommend include El Trapiche, on Calle 62 near the plaza mayor, for traditional dishes and, just across the street, El Marlin Azul, for ceviche and fresh seafood. Aside from the deep blue awnings, signage is lacking at the Marlin, but the locals know where to find it. Upon a peek into the main door of the bustling spot, you might be deterred by the thought of having to eat too quickly at the counter or small table for two. But back back out onto the sidewalk, enter the unmarked door on the left and you will find a room with two rows of booths. We lucked out and grabbed a booth just as the 1 p.m. lunch rush hit; there was a waiting line by 1:05. A second wave of customers poured in at 2 p.m. Like most seafood houses in Merida, El Marlin Azul is only open at lunch. Perhaps this custom dates to pre-refrigeration days when seafood would only be fresh in the morning?
The budget place we would not particularly recommend will not suffer from my review; there are always waiting lines and delivery bikes zooming in and out as fast as the suffering tender of the extremely hot wood-burning oven can shovel the pizzas in and out. If you are fortunate, you can grab an upstairs table in the loft of the tiny Pizzeria de Vito Corleone on Calle 59. We split an inexpensive pizza - half vegetarian and half vegetarian with sausage. The main vegetables represented were canned mushrooms, and the sausage was a sort of hot-doggy, Vienna-sausagy thing (fortunately, I was eating part of the other half). But, if you are on an extremely tight budget, the pizza crust itself is quite good, and, at 17 pesos a bottle, it offered the cheapest beer we found in any restaurant the whole trip.
Across the street, one can encounter the opposite - a soothing patio shaded by a large orchid tree with live music at night - Amaro. Although dominated by ex-pats and tourists, Amaro presents a pleasant dining experience. In addition to traditional Yucatan foods, the restaurant has numerous vegetarian choices - ideal for someone like me who would never attempt to wade through the large quantity of pork placed on one's plate in the Yucatan. Amaro is know for crepes de chaya, similar to spinach, but I opted for a wonderful roasted eggplant dish.
For lunch one day, we meant to head to Cafe Alameda but ended up at Los Almendros on Parque de la Mejorada by mistake. I would not have tried Los Almendros, as it is often dismissed as a chain, which I tend to avoid like the plague. Perhaps it is more touristy at night, but, at lunchtime, the locals - no other gringos - poured in from the adjacent parking garage, unfortunately highly visible through a plate glass window. The waiters had that old-fashioned formality that reminded me of the days when Texans flocked to the traditionally great restaurants of the border towns. The waiters with senority watched the doors to make sure they caught their regulars; a "junior" one, probably only in his late forties, got us. The legend perpetuated by the restaurant is that this kitchen originated poc-chuc, pork marinated in bitter oranges. I am unsure whether bitter represents a type of orange or that the oranges used are harvested before they are ripe. My husband thought this was the best poc-chuc of the trip - better even than the highly regarded Kinich in Izamal. I decided to finally find out what queso relleno was and was surprised that it truly is stuffed cheese: A huge wedge of Edam filled with picadillo and swimming in a white sauce. I ordered queso relleno at Kinich as well, and the flavors of the picadillo at Los Almendros were more complex and rewarding.
Our last evening in Merida, we joined a dining room full of other Americans at Casa de Frida on Calle 61. As I had indulged in chiles en nogada - a chile poblano filled with picadillo with a walnut sauce spiked with fresh pomegranite seeds - at my favorite place to have it, Restaurante Bugumbilla in San Miguel de Allende, two weeks earlier, I skipped this specialty of the house. One of our foursome judged Casa de Frida's version of chiles en nogada as good but a little sweet. Despite having made a ton of roasted vegetables at our house the night before, I was "meated out" and had a very respectable upscale salad. We had no serious complaints about the food; although my husband described his as lackluster. Something in the restaurant seemed off that night. Perhaps it was a tension in the room created by the fact that there appeared to be only one waiter. But, amazingly, he was experienced enough to come close to keeping all dozen tables well-served. Maybe it was that the clientele was so all-American; or maybe that we knew we had a 7 a.m. flight to catch in the morning. Rely on some other chowhound for additional evaluation of Casa de Frida.
Sorry, almost this entire post is priceless, meaning I am not sharing peso amounts with you. Unfortunately, I made few notes along the way. But, by American standards, all the restaurants mentioned were reasonably priced. Having traveled through much of Mexico and living in Texas, we still found Merida offered plenty of opportunity to experience dishes foreign to us. Buen provecho.