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 Madrid, Spain: Flavorful food memories

Yearning for a great arroz dish, after much reading, we settled on a Madrid classic – El Caldero. The paella pan of beautiful looking rice arrives tableside, and, with much formality, the waiter divides it up and then tops it with the seafood in a dark, rich broth. As we looked at it, we were happy he divided it fairly because there really was not much there, considering the price, once you removed the shells – a small piece of bonito each, one or two shrimp, maybe two pieces of squid. The rice was good, but did not bowl us over. The fried eggplant appetizer, however, was heavenly. Most of the people in the restaurant were suits conducting serious international business of some kind or another. In other words, El Caldero was a bit stuffy for this pair of travelers.

The place we preferred down the street a few blocks definitely was more casual. In fact, it was chaotically crowded, with walls covered with funky collections of random things. The place was inexpensive. Dishes arrived in no particular or predictable order. The seating was upon uncomfortable wooden stools at wooden tables too small to accommodate all the pots of food presented. But we really liked this place, Taberna Maceiras, enough so that we ate there at least three times. A skillet of sizzling padron chiles made for a great starter. We enjoyed Galician style octopus rice, fried calamari, traditional bean stews, meat stews and perfectly prepared mussels in this polar opposite of El Caldero.

Another wonderful rut we slipped into was Gastromaquia Chueca. Maybe it was the grilled goat cheese caramelized with honey and topped with a glistening pesto. Or the scoops of lemon basil sorbet with rum poured over them tableside for a refreshing mojito-style desert. Guacamole was served with ultra-thin plantain chips; seafood arroz topped El Caldero; and richly curried mussels were moist and plump. And, as we were regulars, we enjoyed sipping Spanish liqueurs offered us at the end of our meals. Please, fly me back there today.

Croquettes can be found everywhere, but many of them are not worth the calories. We opted to go to the specialists, La Croquetta. Squash and eggplant croquettes arrived with a refreshing sauce of yogurt and mint, and the jamon Iberico ones were perfect. Melting goat cheese in one was studded with nuts and raisins, and fried eggplant was drizzled with honey.

Salmorejo is a seasonal favorite in Madrid. The creamy rich cousin of gazpacho traditionally arrives with bits of chopped egg and thinly shaved jamon Iberico in the middle. One of the places we spooned into this was a.n.e.l., a popular neighborhood tapas spot a block from our apartment. This was a nice stop for lightly battered vegetable tempura, fried calamari or sliders; although I never understood its name.

Directly across the street from our apartment in the Casa de America cultural center was Le Cabrera. The comfortable patio offered bargain lunch specials, many of which emerged from the kitchen of the extremely tony restaurant next door, Cien Llaves. Grilled asparagus topped with thin slices of parmigiano reggiano and grilled trout were among the dishes we tried. We probably would have eaten there again, but, by lunch time, we generally had wandered far from home.

Also close to home was La Vaca y la Huerta, a place that fills up completely at prime times. Here the Mister could find beef entrecote served as rare as he wanted, while I could get a beautiful plate of grilled vegetables or salmon.

We enjoyed the comfortable atmosphere of Saporem during two of our lunches. While the bowl full of vegetables looks bland, they were wonderfully prepared. Shrimp tempura atop rice was nicely presented with a spicy sauce.

In a capital city, one needs to experience some of the cuisines imported from abroad. We loved both the look and food of Arabia, but photos turned out too poorly to share. Falafel and grilled eggplant topped with fresh chopped tomatoes were artfully presented, and the lamb couscous was tender.

Then we decided to dip into Sub-Sahara African food at Kim Bu Mbu, easier to type than say. The small intimate restaurant is nothing short of handsome inside. Among the specialties were fish croquettes with eggplant sauce and fish steamed in a banana leaf.

Now, I’m stopping because I have made myself starving.

If you know us at all, you are probably wondering where are all the photos from Italian restaurants. Believe it or not, we didn’t find an Italian restaurant in Madrid we liked enough to include.

If you are staying in Madrid for any length of time and read Spanish, revolt against TripAdvisor. Guia Metropoli Comer y Beber en Madrid is written by locals for locals and is updated radically on an annual basis. The paperback doesn’t have quite enough information to replace internet research, but it doesn’t just rattle off the tired top 10 tourist favorites.

Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Final flavorful food photos

Aside from Los Danzantes and La Biznaga mentioned in an earlier post, we patronized other restaurants worth suggesting. Again, will mainly let the photos do their own self-promotion.

  • Mexita Restaurante definitely is in the running to become a place we enjoy going to multiple times during a trip, but, alas, we didn’t visit until the last week. In the past year, the Italian restaurant moved out of the historic center to the Reforma side of the city, which seemed to have changed the profile of its customer base from overwhelmingly American to mainly Mexican. The individual-sized arugula salad is ample for two, and we split a stunningly gorgeous seafood pizza.
  • We fell in love with Origen a year ago, yet only went once this time. We loved the casual intimacy of the small inner courtyard, where you could feel the chef-driven kitchen pulsing beside you. Now there is a more formally appointed dining room upstairs. The innovative takes using regional Oaxacan ingredients were still beautifully prepared and are recommended, but we ourselves were unprepared for the stiff, more traditional atmosphere.
  • Café Bistrot Epicuro offers Italian Mediterranean dishes in its quiet interior. Its grilled shrimp and calamari platter and its seafood linguini are well presented, but my favorite part is the eggplant amuse-bouche. More please.
  • La Teca is a homey spot. Because it is actually a home. Pass through the tables set up in the almost garage-like entryway if the front door through the family’s living room is not open, and head back to the pleasant little patio. The food presented is Istmos-style. Unless you haven’t eaten in days, don’t be persuaded to order the works. The multi-course meal is both too expansive and expensive. The food is heavy, so stick to one or two items al a carte.
  • Gourmand Delicatessen presents a major change of pace. The small deli is a spot we order whole Spanish tortillas to take home for breakfasts or dinners. Sandwiches, sliders (particularly the eggplant one) and salads are all good, and Gourmand bakes their own rolls and bagels.
  • We keep looking for a good Sinaloan seafood spot in Oaxaca. We tried off-the-tourist-track Don Camaron this time. The ceviche was good, and the smoked marlin taco was something I’d never had before. But maybe one of the places with the lines running out the doors on a Sunday might prove more atmospheric.
  • A bright interior cozy patio surrounded by a book store characterizes La Jicara, offering numerous vegetarian options. The lentil and carrot tostadas were wonderfully refreshing.
  • Not a destination if you are on the other side of town, but the little Trattoria y Pizzeria fronting Conzatti Park is a nice neighborhood pizza place. The apple and gorgonzola pizza was simple and had a wonderfully thin crust, and the server delivers an amazingly addictive dish of olive oil loaded with thin crisp slices of caramelized garlic as a complimentary starter.
  • We loved picking up earthy breads from Pan y Co, and would pick up freshly roasted and ground coffee from a shop on a pedestrian plaza-like street running off Los Arcos and almost next door to chef Susannah Trilling’s new storefront offering her Seasons of My Heart moles and chocolates. So new even her website doesn’t list it and its address yet, and so new she herself was standing in it arranging things and talking to us about her products and classes. Sorry, those aren’t very helpful directions…. Maybe next time, in addition to wining and dining, I’ll break down and take one of her cooking classes.