Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Opting for neighborhood comfort over anything near the Michelin trail

Having already posted about paella and our favorite restaurants, will mainly let photos do the talking for some other restaurants you might want to try if you are staying in Valencia for more than a few days.

Our neighborhood was so comfortably casual, and somehow we quickly developed almost a reverse snobbery when we ventured into tonier neighborhoods to eat. We had an excellent lunch at Seu Xerea during restaurant week, and the service was perfect. Pumpkin croquettes with blue cheese and curried meatballs were among our starters, and the Valencian rice with mussels and saffron was well executed. But, we ended up not returning because the restaurant was a bit more formal than our hood in Carmen and a bit pricier as well.

Hamburgers are everywhere in Valencia, as they are all over Europe, and Mar Cuatro Cocina Mediterranea presents an upscale opportunity to experience flavorful oxen burgers. But, again, we were out of our adopted neighborhood and the price crept up, particularly the wine, as a result. For great burgers in a more laidback setting closer to our apartment, we preferred the Martinez brothers’ popular Lamburguesa Urban Food.

For a total change of flavor, we recommend delving into Moroccan dishes at Restaurant Dukala. Both their chicken croquettes and pastilla – in this case the sweet and savory chicken mixture completely encased in flaky pastry – have loyal followers crowding into the restaurant on weekends.

Here are a few more places to consider exploring if the related food photos above seem appealing:

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Honing in on our favorite lunch stops

The simple floorplan stenciled on the wall by the entrance gave me a clue I was going to like Refugio Restaurante. The kitchen is designated with “You are not here.” Off to a good start. But the name, “Refuge,” carries a deeper connotation for locals than my mere relief from cooking. The intimate restaurant is across from an underground bunker, Refugio, built to shelter up to 600 people during the Spanish Civil War when Valencia was bombed more than 400 times.

If you head to Valencia, these four spots were our favorites for repeat visits. These photos are all from multi-course lunches, with three courses for two people with a bottle of wine plus tip running about the same as we pay for a pre-tip bottle of wine in a restaurant in San Antonio. Kind of like free food, and we rarely recovered enough from these ample lunches to want anything to eat in the evening. Before I start, though, we had expected and unexpected paella and rice dishes at all of these. For those photos, go back to an earlier post.

Refugio bills itself as offering contemporary fusion food, and the kitchen obviously loves playing with food. Aside for variations on the Mister’s go-to moist dark brownies for dessert, the daily menu selections never seem to be repeated. Even better than deserts were the wonderful vegetable flans, whether pumpkin, asparagus or corn. The fish and langostino suquet was magical, and both seafood and meats, including duck and ox, always were cooked perfectly.

Namua Gastronomic almost escaped our notice. Fairly new, there were few reviews online, which meant it was not as full as the more established Refugio. Namua became the end-of-our-stay favorite. An amuse-bouche always started the meal. Heirloom tomatoes atop a fish puree was refreshing, and panko-crusted cod arrived nesting in a dark rich sauce of tomatoes and tuna. The chef deftly turned out fried foods, such as appetizers of sardines or artichokes, and sometimes turned to classics from other regions, such as the judiones de la granja, the giant beans and sausage we first encountered in Segovia.

Lunches at Viva Mascaraque were a little more extended affairs, with an amuse bouche – a light melon soup on one day – arriving before three courses of appetizers, a main course and dessert. For the main course, we often were seduced by the paellas. Chef Mascaraque was head chef at the Hotel Ritz in Madrid and at the Spanish restaurant at Harrods in London; yet this restaurant was still almost as comfortably casual as the two above and only a few dollars more. As I clicked on the website, I did notice Viva Mascaraque now offers a shorter weekday menu eliminating two of the appetizer courses for about 13 Euros.

While the first three restaurants were all in the Carmen neighborhood, Mythos Tapas y Mas was on a shady tree-lined street in Canovas. The lunch menus did not vary as much from day to day, but the sea bass was wonderful and it was hard to resist the baby beans in a lacy thin crepe basket. And sitting outside on the quiet street was well worth the walk.

Definitely missing the personal implication of that Refugio sign now that we are back in San Antonio.

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.