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 Oaxaca: Two upscale restaurants not to miss

My regular followers are probably abandoning me as I obsess about the foods of Oaxaca, but I really want to have posts with photos to help people visiting Oaxaca for a shorter period of time make decisions about where to dine. Besides, we’re about to head home, so this blog will soon resume its San Antonio-centric focus.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Buen provecho!