Postcard from Mexico City: Pausing for a playful food break at Mercado Roma

Close to 60 vendors are squeezed into the multi-story Mercado Roma, yet somehow I ended up with no photo overviews to show you even though we ducked in there several times. I tend not to enjoy the crowds crammed into narrow aisles of gourmet food halls, but, by visiting midday midweek, we found sitting at a counter very pleasant.

Serrano ham, Puebla-style cemitas, Spanish tapas, cheeses. One quickly senses this is a playground for chefs from established restaurants to experiment. So many places seductively beckoned us, but we stopped twice near the front at Saigon Cocina Vietnam. Large, plump shrimp punctuated with lemongrass atop rice starred in a made-to-order daily special. The flavorful scene-stealer proved to be the tuna banh mi spiked with the perfect amount of ginger sandwiched in fresh, firm French bread. A nice bottle of red can be procured from an outpost of Tinto Mx to accompany your meal.

The danger in eating at the counter at Saigon Cocina is posed by its neighbor, Que Bo, lurking behind your back. Chocolatero Jose Ramon Castillo tempts you with a display case full of gleaming Crayola-colored chocolates. On several occasions I managed to limit myself to letting just one melt in my mouth, slowly releasing layers of complex flavors. Also, tucked away in a back corner of Mercado Roma is a booth full of gourmet paletas, Bendita Paleta, that represent successful crossbreeding of traditional Mexican popsicles and Italian gelato waiting to be dipped in a chocolate of your choice.

On a Saturday when the market was hopping, we opted to seek refuge in the soothing, serene surroundings of a full-service restaurant upstairs, Seneri. Chef Fernando Martinez adds a contemporary twist to traditional foods from his home state of Michoacán, and he won us over immediately with an amuse-bouche of a rustic corn taquito topped with a sassy-looking fried charral, a crispy little whitefish we enjoyed mountains of served aboard one of the floating boat/restaurants on Lake Patzcuaro about 25 years ago. The crudo de pescado nestled in a foamy bed adorned with perky flowers was almost too pretty to eat, but we managed. Chicken de campo was enriched by a sauce of wild mushrooms. Avocado ice-cream served as a refreshing but not-too-sweet dessert. The entire meal was perfectly paced. We were never rushed, yet never left glancing toward the kitchen in search of the next course.

Mercado Roma might have won me over on the concept of gourmet food halls.

Leaving you with a glance at more of the chocolatero’s mouth-watering creations….

Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Photo menu of a few local spots

Have some friends flying into Oaxaca about now, so wanted to do a quick photo menu for them of a few flavorful options. Our trip in August was shorter than most, so we did not visit quite as many places as normal.

As always, La Biznaga remains on the top of our list. The best margarita in the world is a major drawing card. Whether it’s for simple quesadillas for a light lunch or an upscale rare tuna atop roasted asparagus and crowned with an avocado mountain, we always leave happy. We had never tried the fish ceviche (featured photo) before or the stuffed Portobello mushroom and recommend both.

The patio of Los Danzantes is one of the most pleasant dining spots in Oaxaca, and it is a great place to sample mezcal cocktails. A major plunge into bold Oaxacan flavors is the ancho chile filled with huitlacoche (corn smut) and goat cheese atop a puree of platano, sweetened with a piloncillo sauce and swarming with a few of those prized chapulines (grasshoppers).

Rarely hungry at night, no wonder, we almost missed that El Olivo Gastrobar is open for lunch on Sundays. While popular for its tapas, it features two of our favorite dishes, arroz negro colored with squid ink and filled with seafood; and luscious large shrimp and serrano ham in a pernod sauce. Both could easily be split.

No fancy cocktails, but a nice house mezcal is offered at Casa Taviche. The draw is a delicious three-course lunch for 75 pesos. That’s right, less than $5. Everything is so fresh and well presented, from salads to small desserts. The choices for starters and entrees vary daily and usually include meat, fish and vegetarian options, such as chicken with poblano chiles or a vegetable tarta of layers of sweet potato and spinach. On weekends, Casa Taviche prepares perfect pork tacos, both cochinita pibil and al pastor.

And, on the other extreme, there is Criollo. A child of the famed chef of Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York City, Criollo gets quite the buzz in food media. We simply were far from blown away by the flavors. I admit we got off on the wrong foot when they were out of the $42 red wine at lunch time and could not offer us another for less than $1500 pesos, a major jump. I’ll link you directly to the New York Times write-up so as not to prejudice you. Lunch at Criollo is a leisurely seven-course well-presented sampling of dishes using local seasonal Oaxacan ingredients prepared using traditional techniques. Aside from our disappointment on the wine front, it’s not outrageously expensive. But we simply enjoyed our experiences at other places much more. To me, what the young chefs of Mixtli are pulling off in their railcar parked in San Antonio is far more interesting.

Hating to sound negative again, but last year we recommended Mezquite. The upstairs rooftop is such a nice setting, and the amuse-bouche of corn esquite is a nice starter. The cochnita pibil was a mushy mess of a sandwich, but the tuna tostada was still nice and refreshing. Mezquite bills itself as a mezcal bar as well, yet the cocktails they served us were as sweet as the Shirley Temples we were offered as children. We ordered two perros oaxaquenos, described as containing mezcal artesenal, citrus and sal de guisano. They were pink edging toward red. We asked our server if we had the correct drinks; he assured us we did. We ordered additional lime juice on the side. After adding an ounce of lime juice to each, they were still too sweet to drink. Go for the view, and maybe order straight mezcal.

Have to sign off now. All these pictures made me hungry.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: More than goulash on the menus

If you are about to choose a restaurant to go to in Budapest, first click back on this link to our favorite, Fricska Gastropub.

The courtyard patio of Kazimir (featured photo) is a pleasant place to sit. Both the chicken with apples and brie and the parmesan-crusted chicken are excellent, and Kazimir’s bowlful of roasted vegetables topped with parmesan presents a welcome change from heavier fare.

Ultra-casual Jelen Bisztro is a major bargain, a spot to balance out your average meal tabs if you have been splurging. Couscous salad is fresh and light; layered eggplant with pesto is nice and rich; and zucchini fritters are perfect for weekend brunching.

Fried chicken and a mushroom risotto were the lunchtime offerings the day we went to La Tabla, the casual sibling to the more upscale Esca Studio. Both were perfectly prepared, but not inspiring enough specials to draw us away from Fricska. We probably should have tried again on another day.

Not recommended unless you need to lunch mid-sightseeing on the Buda side were Pater Marcus Abbey and Dunaparti Matroz Kocsma. Although we almost were tempted to return for Dunaparti’s mussels, both restaurants are heavy on the touristy side.

Normally, I try not to be too critical in these posts and just skip over a restaurant that turns us off completely, but…. Stand25 Bisztro in the Hold Utca market receives such high ratings and is touted by many as the absolute best place try goulash. We went, and we tried the goulash. It convinced us not to order goulash again during our entire month. The flavor of the lamb pate was unremarkable; the layered potatoes were merely heavy, not tasty; and the beef shoulder smothered with gravy and topped with a grilled round of bread was as unappealing as it appears in the photo. And this lunch was not inexpensive.

Our experience at Stand25 sent us scurrying for refuge in restaurants offering foreign foods, an advantage in visiting a capital city. Missing Spanish dishes, we ducked into Padron for tapas – seared padron chiles and eggplant with goat cheese, honey and walnuts. Cured.

We enjoyed exploring the Lebanese and Mediterranean offerings of Dobrumba. The harira soup loaded with chickpeas, the tender pulpo and potatoes and the squid cooked in red wine all make memorable meals.

Padthai Wok Bar is a chain, but the made-to-order dishes taste so fresh. The one in our Pest neighborhood has outdoor seating on a beautiful little plaza.

And, of course, there’s Fricska. Oh, and those sweet potato fries at Samu-Rice.