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 San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca: Carnaval customs as creative as their carvings

Brightly painted, intricately carved copal figures of real and fantasy animals, alebrijes, from the small town of San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca, are known around the world. Whole families of carvers pass down their traditional techniques to provide their livelihoods, with every home seeming to double as a retail outlet.

Every year they unleash that creativity to stage a mezcal-infused celebration of Carnaval, the final day of wild indulgence before Lent. Despite the loss of young men who have left to find work in el norte, there seemed to be no shortage of volunteers willing to smear their bodies in motor oil in hopes of planting kisses on young women unafraid of ruining their clothes. We witnessed no such embraces, but the afternoon was still young.

Other young men engaged in crossdressing, some quite convincing, as though there were not more women than men remaining in the community. The formally attired bridesmaids created a colorful entourage parading through the streets prior to the sham wedding of the bride and groom performed by a jovial padre of sorts.

Outsiders were embraced, so much to the point that our friend, Clyde, padre-looking himself, was drafted into the ceremony to provide the blessing of the bride and groom by exuberantly splashing water on them and anyone standing in close proximity.

American politicians should take note. We didn’t meet the town’s mayor, but he or she knows how to encourage enthusiastic support. The mayor’s ambassadors were freely distributing shots of mezcal and dipping into buckets of tepache and horchata to quench the thirst of all, whether residents or tourists.

Maybe San Antonio should forget spending money on expensive advertising for visitors. Mayor Ivy Taylor simply needs to enlist volunteers to offer complimentary shots of tequila and margaritas along the River Walk. Word of mouth about San Antonio’s hospitality would spread like wildfire.