Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: With abundant seafood, an ideal place to spend a meatless Lent

For anyone giving up meat for Lent, Campeche City would be an ideal place to spend the 40 days. Seafood is inexpensive and abundant. Finding fresh ceviche is no problem, and the huge shrimp are wonderful. A local favorite preparation is coconut shrimp, but menus offered many other options. Likewise, pulpo was prepared in vastly varying recipes.

My absolute favorite seafood dish was the stacked salpicon de mero (a fish confusingly translated sometimes as grouper and sometimes as Chilean sea bass) offered at La Parrilla Colonial. Our top vote-getter for shrimp was a grilled wheel of shrimp topped with a cheese and spinach sauce served at Bavit 59. Other standouts included the cubes of ahi tuna topped with avocado at Bavit 59; camarones de coco and tostadas topped with pulpo al achiote at Restaurante Don Gustavo; and the achiote tuna tacos at La Parrilla Colonial.

And then there is dogfish. Americans have been slow on the uptake to eat dogfish, even though the small shark is commonplace from Maine to Florida. Fishermen harvesting them on the East Coast ship them off to England. The English apparently do not possess the same degree of seafood snobbery and gobble them up in pubs frying them for fish and chips. This lack of a market in the United States probably is a good thing because it takes a long time for these spiny dogfish to make babies; their gestation period is 18 to 24 months.

In Campeche, however, dogfish or cazon, is celebrated and used in numerous traditional dishes. Pan de cazon resembles stacked enchiladas. Black refried beans are spread on multiple layers of corn tortillas, topped with stewed, shredded dogfish and then covered with a tomato sauce prior to baking. Another centuries-old recipe features chiles xcatic, a regional yellow pepper, filled with stewed cazon. Although flavorful, we were not bowled over by either of these complex preparations. But this was not because of the flavor of dogfish. The cazon dish most to our liking was the simplest one – fresh dogfish tacos. We enjoyed these as an appetizer at Los Delfines, one of a strip of casual seafood palapa restaurants clustered together on one end of the malecon, a concrete boardwalk stretching miles along the bayfront.

We did eat meat several times. The Mister was smitten by the chicken with chaya, Mayan tree spinach, at La Parrilla Colonial. In addition to an elevated preparation of cochinita pibil, the kitchen turns out a flavorful taco al pastor for less than $1. Luan Restaurante Café offers a remarkably good milanesa telera, similar to a bolillo, but the cafe’s hours varied wildly. We broke away from regional specialties several times to enjoy Italian food at Scattola 59.

Both Luan and Scattola 59 endeared themselves to us because they carried multiple bottles of reasonably priced red wine. Some of the best restaurants in town made us feel as though they were conning tourists, as in us. They regularly claimed to be out of wines we ordered, with the only ones available as substitutes priced $5 or even $10 more. This touristy treatment made it hard to feel at home in the place we were staying for three weeks. A waiter at a boutique hotel should not be expected to beg customers to post positive reviews on TripAdvisor. And, in addition to upselling wine at another restaurant, the Mister had to endure a 15-minute parade of expensive Tequila offerings before finally being served the one he originally requested, strangely presented perched in a Johnnie Walker glass.

Aside from warning you to beware of or prepare to endure those peeves, we’d recommend any of the mentioned restaurants. The food in Campeche is distinctively different – in a good way – from any other place we have been in Mexico. Sure wish I’d encounter salpicon de mero in San Antonio.

Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Meals for when you’re staying longer than a few days

Having already raved about our four favorite restaurants in the historic center of Guanajuato, thought we would share some other photos of meals for you to ponder if you are staying more than a few days. As we set up headquarters there for a month, we sampled a number of places.

When we wanted a fresh and light change of pace, we headed to the new location of Delica Mitsu on Del Tecolote. The bowls were ample and good, but the Japanese bento-style assortment beckoned us several times. We’d each go to the glass case and point to the five things we wanted plated for our lunch. No alcoholic beverages are available, but loved being able to get an intensely flavored iced jamaica (hibiscus) tea without sugar.

Another unexpected spot was Habibti Felafel. The interior was welcoming, but we ordered falafel to-go, the best falafel we have ever tasted, to eat wrapped in lettuce on our rooftop patio. Centro Bharati on Plaza Baratillo was the place I finally found a rustic loaf of multigrain bread to my liking. On weekends, a chef offers a pop-up to-go fresh paella stand in a doorway on Calle del Truco. Hard to beat the price by the kilo.

Any bar on the Jardin de la Union offers great people-watching, but you are mainly watching tourists and vendors trying to hawk things to you and other tourists while listening to the same mariachi songs over and over. It’s a festive atmosphere best enjoyed in small doses. Heading down the street, La Santurrona Gastropub has only a few outside tables adjacent to the Church of San Francisco. If you are lucky enough to snag one, you can escape the vendors and watch a continual parade of locals out for afternoon or evening strolls. The fries are tasty, and my sandwich overflowed with grilled vegetables.

Having developed a little gelato habit in Italy this summer, we dropped by Estacion Gelato to satisfy our cravings. The Mister was partial to the affogata (sort of an espresso float) with a scoop of canela gelato.

Am throwing in a few other photos from places worth trying, but where we had a dish or two that talked us out of enthusiastically recommending them.

 

Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Wishing these dining spots were not 600 miles away

Have tried to whittle this down to three recommendations for eating out in Guanajuato but failed to do so. These four were our favorites during our month-long stay, and, hopefully, the photos will convince you to roam a few blocks off the main squares to find them.

A bowl of warm vegetables with salsa to smear atop fresh bread is an unusual amuse bouche that gets meals off on the right foot at Mestizo. The seafood ceviche there is the best we have tasted anywhere, and we had difficulties weaning ourselves away from it to try other starters. Just before we left Guanajuato we broke rank and ordered the tuna carpaccio, and it was equally as good. The Mister grew particularly attached to the chicken in achiote oil, while I enjoyed the shrimp pasta as much as any pasta we had in Bologna. The Mister’s found his filete de res served as rare as ordered and extremely tender. Fish, chicken and meat entrees are offered on a bed of small roasted potatoes or perfectly prepared vegetables. Free from dictatorial reach of the Chiles en Nogada Council of Puebla, the chef shunned the batter. Sorry, Puebla, but this fresh-tasting and not-over-sauced chile rises above its heavy fried cousins to the southeast.

Even if you try nothing else, the corn and jalapeno fritters with queso fresco at Los Campos Cantina y Restaurante are a must-have. If you are not sharing them with anyone else, they make a meal unto themselves. Two kinds of guacamole tempt you as starters as well, one topped with roasted tomatoes and splashed with mezcal and the other featuring roasted corn and chapulines (read more about grasshoppers in dishes here). An unusual dish to fall in love with – a huge bowl of lentils. This was so good I tried to somewhat duplicate at home this week. Studded with bits of serrano ham, the lentils were flavored with smoky paprika and topped with a poached egg, saffrony roasted tomatoes add fried onions. Quesadillas were made with homemade corn tortillas rosily colored from beets in the masa, and the serving of burritos was so ample some had to be taken home in a doggie bag. Roasted pork was served room temperature over cauliflower puree with a morita chile salsa. And the black bean burger provided for a nice break one day.

A deep bowl of rich bouillabaisse an order repeated at El Midi Bistro. The goat cheese en croute is a wonderful starter in this touch of France in Guanajuato. The layers of roasted eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes in the vegetable tian make a great dish to share. Both the smoked salmon tagliatelle and pasta marinara are flavorful, and a salad topped with shrimp definitely can serve a full meal. Although we failed to try any of the breakfast pastries for which the French bistro is known, the apple tart certainly serves as an enticing advertisement for them.

A Mediterranean restaurant, A Punto, is spread out on the first floor of the same building housing El Midi. For a luscious start, treat yourself to roasted figs stuffed with blue cheese and topped with glazed serrano ham all nestled in preserves. The roasted eggplant “salad” arrives layered with sliced tomatoes and generous amounts of goat cheese. Avocado soup is refreshing without reliance on the heavy-handed use of cream. Both the riso marinara and the shrimp pasta with a pistachio pesto please, and the chicken is well paired with a port wine sauce and wild mushrooms. A white chocolate mousse is among the artfully presented desserts.

If any of these dishes appear extravagant, they are not. The Mister noted upon returning to el norte that the most expensive meal of the trip was consumed in the Houston airport. Sadly, it consisted of two not-very-good chicken sandwiches, one glass of house red and one PBR. Welcome home.