Postcard from Merida, Mexico: Incorrigible cats and other fine ‘arte popular’

arte popular merida

Okay, the blog obviously has left Italy. Am diving you straight into Merida in the Yucatan for a dose of fine contemporary folk art from throughout Central and South America, but primarily Mexico, from the collection of Fomento Cultural Banamex, Citibanamex. Click HERE to see additional photos and read the entire post.

Hopped a dining car bound for Jalisco last night via the Olmos Park roundabout – Mixtli

It was a short two-hour journey, packed with tantalizing flavors aboard a parked railcar behind a strip center on McCullough that has proven the downfall of many a restaurant owner.

But, thanks in part to the major impact of the Culinary Institute of America’s campus at Pearl as graduates emerge to challenge San Antonio’s collective palate, the chefs undertaking this venture called Mixtli quickly have created a buzz well beyond San Antonio. Chef Diego Galicia is a product of CIA Texas and has had stints at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Moto in Chicago and Lüke in San Antonio. Mixologist Jesse Torres is poised to graduate this spring from the San Antonio campus. Chef Rico Torres has extensive catering experience, and wine partner Veronique Cecila Baretto of Vinously Speaking loves to seek out small-production vineyards around the world.

What they are offering San Antonians is something remarkably different. For one, there are only 12 seats at one community table each night. And the table is right next to the open kitchen.

Portions are small, which is great because having somewhere between eight and ten different courses, each with different beverages, would be impossible to swallow otherwise. The menu is fixed, drawn from a single state in Mexico for a period of about six weeks. Descriptions on the menu are deceptively simple, but you have no choices to make anyway.

Traditional dishes are deconstructed and given radical makeovers with locally sourced ingredients from operations such as South Texas Heritage Pork Farm, Koch Ranches and Ferrra Coffee Roaster. Ancient techniques, such as roasting cacao beans for fresh chocolate and soaking corn in an alkaline solution – nixtomal – for fresh masa, are combined with contemporary presentation and approaches to cooking, such as sous vide.

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A trio of petite sopes, cakes of masa, featured three different toppings – one with swordfish, one with a scallop and one with a smoked oyster and caviar. Traditional ingredients of caldo michi, a seafood stew, never met the broth and were molded into a tiny timbal of seafood, chayote, radish and celery. The standard torta ahogada, or drowned sandwich, of Jalisco was transformed into a capped roll stuffed with braised beef with a salsa of chile arbol and a warm tomato sauce on the side for dipping. The cerdo al pastor rose far above street-food presentation to become a falling-off-the-bone-tender pork rib topped with pineapple and dabs of a cilantro salsa.

The greasy, goat birria – a chile stew – we encountered in Guadalajara many decades ago left me never wanting another meeting. But, in the hands of the chefs at Mixtli, it was translated into a moist, rare lamb chop prepared sous vide, with the guajillo chile salsa on the side. The thick tejuno, a coarse beverage made from fermented corn masa, was catapulted with an unexpected layer of flavor from a scoop of lime sorbet in the center. For dessert, yes, you do finally reach that destination, burnt sugar is hardened and cracked atop a snake of vanilla custard topped with bursts of flavor from dehydrated berries.

Beverages were harder for me to keep track of…. But all were all consumed, including cucumber and mango agua fresca; an on-premise carbonated bottle of tequila and grapefruit juice; a tequila anejo rimmed with salt combined with ground chile, salt and charales – tiny fried fish; Mexican coke; beer; Viognier white wine; Cabernet Sauvignon; a concoction of cacao and tequila; and Chiapan coffee. A deadly sounding combination of beverages if not served with food and in small quantities.

Sorry. There is only one seat available for this destination, and the last trip for this particular culinary adventure departs tomorrow night at 7 p.m.

But next week, the crew will be ready to magically transport you to the Yucatan. Tickets, including all food and pairings, are $80 per person. All aboard!

March 26 Update: Mixtli’s menu for the Yucatan experience is now posted:

Best Restaurant in Valladolid, Plus Warning

Every trip we make, we depend on other people’s food reviews.  I always pledge I will come back and leave extensive feedback on Chowhound.  But those good intentions get buried quickly under work waiting on my desk.

As a start, the best meal on our trip to the Yucatan was not in Merida but in little Valladolid.  While the patio courtyard of El Meson del Marques offers an extremely pleasurable dining experience, a new restaurant opened in November – Taberna de los Frailes – next to the Monastery and Church of San Bernardino de Siena.  The contemporary restaurant steps beyond the traditional recipes of the Yucatan.

Dining under a shady palapa in the back, our group sampled filete de pescado fresco en salsa verde mexicana (in this case an oregano-based salsa);  salmon zarandeado; and mero maya.  The mero, fresh grouper, had been marinated in the region’s sour orange juice and was presented in four coiled spirals, perfectly cooked.  What kept everyone’s forks hovering above my plate, though, was a mound of black risotto with complex layers of flavor popping out in every bite.   The dish sent us scouring the market the next day to purchase some of the rich relleno negro seemingly at its base.

At 160 pesos (about $13), the fish dishes were not the least expensive in Mexico, but they were more than worth the tab.  The service was professional, except our server neglected to inform us when we ordered that the restaurant has a chocolate souffle that needs 25 minutes to prepare.  We would have eaten at La Taberna de los Frailes daily, had Merida not been our base.

On the other hand, we did not feel satisfied with a 350 peso tab at the Hacienda Temozon on our way to Uxmal.  Fortunately, it was early in the day; so margaritas and mero (There it would have been fresh grouper with mango sauce and black sesame and couscous.) were not yet on our minds.  We simply ordered four mineral waters and an order of guacamole.  350 pesos, tip not included.  Although beautiful, the hacienda is definitely not a place to drop in for dinner, unless money is no object.

Note on March 20:  For anyone traveling to Merida and the Yucatan, I expanded this post on Chowhound to include numerous other restaurants .

Update on December 4, 2012: The New York Times travels to Valladolid.