Search This Blog

Showing posts with label Mexican food. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mexican food. Show all posts

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Spice Up Thanksgiving with a Side Dish Straight Out of Mexico

On Thanksgiving I like the side dishes as much as the turkey. Maybe even more. Cranberry sauce, stuffing with dried apricots, pecans and sausage with fennel, Brussels sprouts with charred onions and almonds....I'm getting hungry thinking about those delicious dishes.
And yet.

As much as I'm looking forward to the sides we have every year, I also want to bring something new to the table. A dish that fits in and yet has a new flavor, something that surprises.

For Zester Daily, I interviewed chef Keith Stich in the Red O Santa Monica kitchen, across from the Santa Monica Pier. He did a video cooking demonstration of an easy-to-make succotash that he created for Thanksgiving.
Red O Santa Monica is part of a group of restaurants in Southern California, Chicago and the east coast created by Rick Bayless who has spent his career popularizing the foods of Mexico. His restaurants serve well-prepared, quality dishes with clean, fresh flavors.
At the Red O Santa Monica restaurant, my wife and I are big fans of his menu. We especially enjoy the ceviche, which may be the best we've eaten. The squid, shrimp and fish are fresh tasting. The sauce is lime-tart and hot in just the right way. And the plantain chips are crisp and delicious. I'm getting hungry again as I think about the ceviche.
Ok, back to Thanksgiving.

As part of the Red O menu, Stich serves Mexican street corn as a side dish. If you've traveled in Mexico you've seen street vendors selling corn on the cob from their carts. Charred and covered with flaky cotija cheese and eaten either in a paper tray or on the end of a stick, the corn has a wonderful smoky, salty flavor.
Stich took the kernels off the cob to serve the corn as a side dish to go with a menu focused on seafood and steaks. For a Thanksgiving side, he combines the ideas of Mexican street corn with a fall classic, succotash. Switching out the beans that are traditionally in the dish, he added butternut squash and he included poblano chiles to amp up the latin flavors.

Helpfully, most of the recipe can be prepared the day ahead which eases the craziness of Thanksgiving day.

Please take a look at the article and video on Zester Daily. The dish is really delicious and chef Stich is fun to watch in the kitchen.

Have a great holiday.

Adding Mexican Spice to Thanksgiving Succotash

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Authentic Guatemalan Ceviche and Mexican Ice Cream on West Pico Near Crenshaw

Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows this is a great city to enjoy ethnic food. It is easy to eat affordably priced meals at any number of national and regional restaurants including those that serve Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Brazilian, Thai, Jewish, Korean, Vietnamese, Armenian, Persian, Peruvian, Guatemalan, Ethiopian and Indian dishes. 

Living near the beach, I don't come into town as often as I would like. To meet a friend close to where he lives meant we needed to find a restaurant near the 10 Freeway at the Crenshaw Boulevard exit.
Not knowing where to go, I turned to Bobby Rock, who knows the area well. He had suggestions.They all sounded good. We wanted a light meal, so we figured we'd try La Cevicheria (3809 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019, (323) 732-1253).

As I parked in front of the restaurant, my friend called to say he would be late. A car issue, easily solved in ten to fifteen minutes. Ok, no problem. That gave me time to explore the area. 

Across the street, Jay's Market (4000 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles 90019) is a Latin grocery store with a really good fresh produce section, a meat market with Mexican cuts and a well-stocked liquor department. I mention the latter because I really enjoy Quezalteca Especial, a grappa-like, Guatemalan white rum I used to buy from Golden Farms (6501 San Fernando Road, Glendale, CA 91202), an Armenian supermarket in Glendale near Adana (6918 San Fernando Road, Glendale, California 91201, 818-843-6237), an excellent Armenian restaurant I've written about. 
Golden Farms stopped selling the rum last year. Jay's Market carries it. Not knowing when I would be back in the area, I bought two bottles.

Back to La Cevicheria. 

Ethnic restaurants in LA are often family run and draw heavily on the home cooking taught by one generation to the next. Serving the local community, La Cevicheria reached a wider audience when the restaurant was reviewed positively by Jonathan Gold, LA's premier ethnic restaurant critic, and included by S. Irene Virbila in her ceviche round-up. 

Waiting for my friend, I sat down at one of the two small sidewalk tables to read the newspaper. Enjoying a quiet moment, even though a large truck was idling in front while the driver made a delivery, a man in a black t-shirt stuck his head out of the restaurant's front door to ask, "May I help you?" "Just waiting for my friend," I explained. He invited me inside because sitting next to an idling truck wasn't all that pleasant.

At that moment, my friend arrived, so inside we went and found a table in the middle of the restaurant. The man in the black t-shirt handed us menus and introduced himself as Julio Orellana.  He waved his arm in the air, gesturing at Jonathan Gold's review on the wall. He was happy to meet us, he said, although the person we really should meet was chef Carolina Orellana, his wife, but she was not there. 

A gregarious person, Orellana gave us a thumbnail description of the restaurant. The recipes came from Guatemala. Carolina made everything in the kitchen. Ok. there were a few hot sauces in bottles because people fancied them, but everything else was made in the kitchen, the way his wife cooked for the family at home.

We read the menu. Hip hop music played overhead. More people came into the restaurant. The truck deliveryman came inside and found an empty table. A woman, her mom and a friend sat across from us. She ordered and when her food came, she told us about the dishes.

La Cevicheria is the kind of place where people start conversations with strangers. Everyone wants to talk about their favorite dishes.
The woman told us we should order the Chapin, described in the menu as "Guatemalan style with shrimp, crab, octopus, tomatoes, onions, avocado, mint, lime, Worcestershire sauce" ($12) and the Campechana ("shrimp, bloody clams, octopus, abalone, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, cilantro, avocado") served with crisp corn tortillas ($12). 

She also told us that because La Cevicheria doesn't have a liquor license, we could bring our own beer in brown paper bags. But, no bottles, only beer in cans. 

We shared a plate of Aguachiles, a ceviche appetizer with 4 jumbo raw shrimp, deveined, the shells peeled back to the tails. The shrimp were placed in a thick, spicy-hot green sauce, flavored with pulverized jalapeños, lime, cilantro, onions and garlic. The translucent shrimp quickly turned pink under the withering glare of the jalapeño-lime marinade. The heat surrounded the sweet shrimp and coated the inside of my mouth. The dish satisfied on so many levels. 

We had the Campechana. Arriving in an unglamorous, large metal bowl, bits of shrimp, clams, octopus and abalone float in an ink-dark liquid. Lacking the visual appeal of the Aguachiles, the Campechana cocktail needs to be eaten to be appreciated. Cilantro, avocado and peeled cucumbers brighten the seriousness of the ceviche. Eaten on pieces of crisp corn tortilla, each mouthful becomes an experience of contrasting textures and flavors--crisp, soft, chewy, sweet, acidic. After each bite, mouth empty, a quiet heat envelopes your palate like the sweet remembrance that comes when a lover leaves and you yearn with anticipation for her return. 
As a contrast to the two first dishes, the Mariscadas, a seafood stew is an intermezzo of quiet. Served in a mild tomato based sauce with steamed white rice ($15), the dish is visually elegant and easy on the palate, as if to say, Guatemalan cuisine isn't all about heat. Mariscadas comforts where its companions sought to excite and challenge.

Providing a through line for all the dishes, we had glasses of freshly squeezed, tart-sweet limeade.

After all the heat, we needed something sweet. My friend remembered Mateo's, an ice cream store on Pico, just west of Crenshaw. 

As we walked to our cars, we passed Restaurante Puerto La Union (3811 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles 90019, 323/373-0429). A quick look at the menu with its list of affordable, large plates of familiar Salvadorian dishes and we knew we would come back. Maybe next time we would have appetizers at La Cevicheria (surf) and an entrée at Restaurante Puerto La Union (turf).
Mateo's Ice Cream has three locations (1250 S. Vermont Avenue, #105, Los Angeles 90006, 213/738-7288 and 4929 S. Sepulveda Boulevard, Culver City 90230, 310/313-7625). We stopped at the West Pico store (4234 W. Pico, Los Angeles 90019, 323/931-5500). 

The ice creams and paletas (fruit bars with and without milk) are made in the Culver City store. All use fresh ingredients. When paletas are made right, they are sweet but not too sweet. They are all about flavor. 
The flavors are familiar--vanilla, pistachio, caramel, rum with raisins, egg nog with raisins, neapolitan, banana split, coffee, strawberry, banana and lemon. And not so familiar--mamey sapote, melon, pepino and chile, watermelon, smoked milk, tamarind and chile, pitaya, nance, tejocote, yogurt and dried fruit, guanabana, mango and walnut. 

Mateo's is rightly proud of their ice creams.

Besides ice cream scoops, fruit bars (paletas), smoothies, milkshakes and freshly squeezed juices, Mateo's also has a short menu of sandwiches so if you are hungry you can eat before you feast on ice cream treats.
I had a vanilla paleta with strawberries. Delicious. My friend had scoops of smoked milk and caramel. I wanted to try the coconut, pineapple and mango with chile paletas but after the lunch at La Cevicheria, I was too full.

I'm looking forward to my next visit to West Pico and Crenshaw.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Loteria Grill Opens on the Santa Monica Promenade

Westside fans of the Loteria Grill at the Farmers Market who lamented the long drive into LA can now enjoy Loteria's freshly made Mexican food right here in Santa Monica in the old Gaucho Grill space.

Loteria Grill Santa Monica (1251 3rd Street Promenade, 310/393-2700) opened just after Mother's Day. The restaurant and full bar are open 7 days a week, Sunday-Thursday 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM and Friday-Saturday 11:00 AM to Midnight.
A great way to experience the restaurant is during Happy Hour, 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM, 7 days a week, with an extra hour until 7:00 PM at the bar.

Happy Hour means 1/2 off appetizers and beverages (except for the specialty tequilas).

Making a Difference with Design 
When Jimmy Shaw, owner/chef, was setting up his first restaurant at the Farmers Market, Loteria could have been nothing more than another fast food restaurant in the maze of stalls. But Shaw's graphic design in that confined space stamped Loteria Grill as smart, hip and stylish.

In the new space on the Promenade, Shaw was confronted by the realities of a difficult space.

Gaucho Grill had its fans but the restaurant on the Third Street Promenade was famously dark and claustrophobic. Shaw's solution to that limitation was to knock down the front and back walls.

Feeling very much like cantinas I remember from visits to Mexico, the entrance of Loteria Grill is open to the Promenade. With the bar filled and diners soaking up the sun as they eat and drink, the open-air room is as welcoming as any restaurant could be.
Leaving the bar area on your way to the main dining room, you walk down a long hallway illuminated by a beautiful wall of three-dimensional loteria friezes.

Tall double glass doors protect the dining room from the commotion of the bar area. The high-ceiled room has a light, airy feeling. The space on the left is defined by the open kitchen and the busy activity of cooks and servers. On the right, the high wall is painted a dramatic, blood red.
The old, claustrophobic back wall has been replaced by a window with a view of what appears to be a carefully manicured  park that is actually an alleyway.
A Well-Constructed Menu
From what we tasted that day, I would recommend the Quesadillitas de Plaza, three fried masa turnovers stuffed with a delicious filling made with seasonal ingredients. This visit, the filling choices were squash blossom, roasted poblano peppers and cheese and, my choice, huitlacoche corn fungus or "truffle."
The quesadillitas had a mix of flavors and textures from the crisp masa, earthy-sweet huitlacoche filling, the salsa's mild heat and the creamy guacamole and crema Mexicana.

Whenever I am in Mexico, the one dish I always have is a shrimp cocktail. Unlike the American version, what you get in Mexico is a generous amount of freshly steamed shrimp in a chilled tomato juice "soup" seasoned with chili powder, lime, raw onions, peeled cucumber, cilantro and avocado.

You can eat the shrimp one by one with a spicy soup chaser or by placing a shrimp on a Saltine cracker with a piece of avocado and a chunk of onion.
At Loteria, the cocktail (Coctel de Camaron) is served in a large goblet, filled to the brim with shrimp, avocados, cucumber and that delicious tomato soup. Saltines are fanned across the plate like a winning poker hand.

To go with the shrimp, I had a shooter of chef Shaw's special tequila, the Loteria Double Barrel Herradura Reposado (no Happy Hour 1/2 off discount for this item). The smokiness of the Heradura Reposado paired well with the sweet shrimp.
For anyone new to Loteria, I would recommend the Probaditas Sampler. A dozen mini tacos are topped with a tasting of the restaurant's best fillings and sauces. My favorite sauce is the mole poblano, with its subtle heat and deeply rich flavor.
To go with our margarita de jalapeño and tequila martini with mango, we had the Ceviche Uno, Dos, Tres (available Friday, Saturday and Sunday). Perched on top of crispy corn tortillas, the ceviches ranged from red snapper with fresh tomato, tilapia and cilantro and shrimp with sweet mango and fiery chile habanero.

Restaurant reviews are appropriately criticized for inflated or over-enthusiastic language, but I can honestly say, the cocktails and ceviches were a riot of delicious and satisfying textures and flavors.
For a main course, you can't go wrong with enchiladas, especially when topped with the mole sauce. Although it isn't a main course, the sope with chicken or pork is also delicious.

If you're a hungry meat eater, the flank steak is very good. Carne Arrachera a La Parrilla comes nicely charred. A heavy steak knife accompanies the large piece of meat.

The dish also comes with sides that include refried beans, spicy escabeche (pickled onions, carrots and yellow peppers), potatoes with poblano peppers, zucchini & roasted corn and a generous amount of caramelized onions resting underneath the steak and soaking up all its fragrant juices.

My favorite way to eat the steak is to tear off a piece of freshly made tortilla, smear on some refried beans, add a thin slice of steak, a few strands of caramelized onion and a bit of escabeche. I slide the flavorful packet into my mouth, chew, enjoy and do it again. It's a little time consuming, but this way I savor all those wonderful flavors in each and every bite.

Last and Delicious
For dessert there are daily specials, mostly of the rib-sticking kind (flourless chocolate, caramel or tres leches cakes). I am told the tequila ice cream is good. That wasn't available so we had the Mexican sweet cheese ice cream (Helado Chongos), a thicker version of vanilla and very good.




Monday, February 13, 2012

Special Menus at La Sandia and Zengo at Santa Monica Place

If you live near Santa Monica, you have already visited the open air Dining Deck on the top floor of Santa Monica Place. For anyone who used to visit the old mall, what a difference!
The old food court was on the bottom floor of the mall. Dark and airless, the fast food restaurants weren't especially inviting.

The remodeled mall improved in many ways, most notably with the elevation of the food court to the top floor. For restaurant patrons, free valet parking is available with validation at the Second Street entrance.

Recently I participated in a tasting for food writers at the side-by-side restaurants, La Sandia and the fusion restaurant, Zengo, both owned by the prolific chef Richard Sandoval.
A side note: if you are ever in a restaurant and you see a group of diners all taking photographs of each course as it is placed on the table, you are probably watching food writers doing "research."
During February at La Sandia, chef Sandoval celebrates the regional variations of the Mexican tamale with a "Tamal Festival," featuring two seasonal blanco tequila cocktails (a fresh pomegranate margarita and a passion fruit Mexican mojito) and eight tamals.
The tamal, as described by chef Sandoval:
From Mayan origin, meaning ‘wrapped;’ A traditional Latin American dish made of stuffed masa wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, that is steamed or boiled. Viewed as a comfort food, tamales are enjoyed throughout all parts of the day. Dating back to 1200 BC, tamales have traditionally been prepared for feasts and celebrations. Mexican tradition states that on Dia de Reyes, all enjoy a special bread, containing a hidden doll. He who finds the doll hosts a Tamal Party in February. Over time, tamales have taken on regional influences, resulting in hundreds of varieties of fillings and wrappings found throughout Latin America. 
My favorite was the Torta de Tamal, in the style of Mexico City. Shredded chicken is tucked inside a corn tamal which is placed inside a biscuit-like bun with lettuce, tomato, onion, salsa verde and a spicy chipotle aioli. Speared by the long toothpick holding the sandwich together was a slice of radish, pickled in salt and lime juice.

Ah, carbo inside carbo, the definition of comfort food. Delicious. The heat from the spicy aioli and salsa verde countered all that starchy creaminess in the right way.
Vegetarians will enjoy the tamals with the tamal de frijol con queso. Sweet black beans and melted cheese fill this tamal, which is topped with an entomatada salsa--the result of sautéing Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh oregano and chipotle peppers--and poblano crema.
If you are a pescaterian, you can have a filet of mahi mahi cooked perfectly in the tamal de pescado a la Campeche. The fish is topped with a slab of moist masa, seasoned with the herb epazote, tomatoes and spiced with cilantro and Serrano.
Myself, I'm a meat eater and I thoroughly enjoyed the shredded chicken in the tamal frito Toluca and the pork tamal estilo Oaxaca.
For dessert, chef Sandoval offers sweet yellow corn tamales wrapped in corn husks and topped with masticated raisins. The dessert tamales were good but the crispy churros were excellent.

La Sandia's sister restaurant, Zengo feels like the men's club you always dreamed about. A wide deck wraps around the dining room with views to the Promenade below. At night a refreshing ocean breeze gives the deck the proper amount of romance. With heat lamps a blaze on cooler evenings, the deck is the perfect spot to enjoy drinks, appetizers and a meal with your significant other and friends.

The dark wood and low lighting take some eye-adjusting. A long bar divides the restaurant into an inside dining room and the outside deck. Our waitress explained that "Zengo" means "give and take," which she suggested meant that the courses are supposed to be shared so everyone can have a taste of the varied and innovative menu.

Of course, "give and take" also refers to the fusion that is the menus focus. Latin American and Asian cuisines are mashed up in the most elegant way. From February 15-March 31, chef Sandoval brings together ingredients and techniques from Brazilian (Sao Paulo) and Chinese (Shanghai) cooking.
One of the best appetizers, the crispy Shanghai spring rolls look like traditional Asian fried spring rolls and they taste like very good ones indeed. Adding to the success of the spring rolls are the Brazilian tempero baiano spice mixture and juice from the acai berry added to the ginger dipping sauce.
The salt cod fritters, popular in Brazil, here called coconut crusted bolinhos de bacalhau, are delightfully crisp on the outside, and soft, warm and sweet inside. The sweet and sour sauce, Chinese in spirit, is better than you've probably had in an LA Chinese restaurant. If you have been to Brazil, the bolinhos de bacalhau will bring back sense memories of women from Bahia, cooking their fritters on make-shift set ups on the beach.

I'm happy to say my wife and I have when we visited our older son, Franklin, when he was studying in Rio.
We enjoyed days on the beach, eating the delicious snack food carried by vendors who walk up and down the sandy beaches selling fried shrimp, crisps, fresh fruit and ice cold drinks. We also ate at dozens of restaurants as our son showed off his Portuguese and treated us to his favorite restaurants.
During February and March, at Zengo you can enjoy the national dish of Brazil, feijoada, a meat, bean and vegetable stew. Cooked low and slow, the flavors of pork, beef, bacon, black beans and a dozen herbs combine into comforting deliciousness.
Zengo's version is refined and well-made. The black beans are cooked perfectly. Their sweetness blanketing the salty pork sausage and braised beef. Be sure to order rice with the feijoada. The salty sauce would benefit from the neutral rice.

The traditional Brazilian drink is the caipirinha, a stronger version of the Cuban mojito, made with cachaça. Zengo makes a very good caipirinha. The special drinks for the Shanghai-Sa Paulo festival are also worth trying: the pomegranate kumquat cocktail and the coconut caipirinha.
For dessert, the Shanghai-Sao Paulo menu offers a coconut tapioca with a mix of mango, kumquat, lychee, coquito nuts and shiso. All that is a mouth-full and you'll definitely enjoy every mouthful of tapioca, the perfect way to finish your tour of Brazil by way of China.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Delicious Authentic Mexican Dishes at La Sandia in Santa Monica Place


To celebrate Mexican Independence Day (September 16), through the weekend La Sandia will serve Ponche, a traditional Independence Day punch, and the rich and spicy Chile en Nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with pork in a walnut cream sauce.

La Sandia Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar shares the top floor of Santa Monica Place with half a dozen other restaurants, the Food Court and the Market.

You'll recognize La Sandia by the crowded patio and open air bar, offering over 200 tequillas, half a dozen margaritas and Mexican beers, Mojitos, Capirinhas and Sangria pitchers.
The front part of the restaurant is dominated by the busy bar scene, especially at Happy Hour. With generously extended hours Sunday-Thursday from 4:00pm-9:00pm and Friday 4:00pm-7:00pm, Happy Hour appetizers are $3.00 (shrimp ceviche, a choice of quesadillitas, tacos, empanadas and sliders, chicken wings and bbq pork ribs), margaritas $5.00, Mexican bottled beer $3.00, daily specials Mondays-Thursdays and $5.00, "bottomless" bowls of guacamole.
Walk past the bar and you enter the restaurant with a dining room in a plaza style expanse, dominated by a retractable ceiling, a large fountain with four, smiling cherubs and upholstered booths with plush seating.
On a recent weekday visit, the bar area and patio were packed with young professionals. The booths and tables in the restaurant were filled with a mix of couples, families with small children and groups of friends relaxing, eating and drinking.

The food is well-plated, with good sized portions. All the sauces, flour and corn tortillas and salsas are made fresh daily.
Featured dishes like the molcajete tacos for two ($23.95), could easily feed four as part of a family style meal that included the guacamole prepared tableside ($10.95/$18/95), an appetizer like the mushroom huraches ($9.95), one of the rich and deeply satisfying soups (tortilla soup/$7.95 and roasted corn/$8.95), another entree like the iron skillet shrimp fajitas ($17.95) and a sampling of the desserts, which include affordable portions ($2.95) of flan, tres leches cake, sorbets and a banana empanada with vanilla bean ice cream.
The moderately priced food is hearty, well-seasoned and fresh-tasting with a homemade quality. Nicely, La Sandia feels festive without being loud.

The molcajete is used in the presentation of many featured dishes.
Traditionally made from volcanic stone, the three-legged bowl is used in preparing the guacamole at the table. Whole avocados are mashed together with onions, fresh tomatoes, cilantro, serano peppers for heat, sea salt and lime juice. Guacamole can be good but at La Sandia it is great, with the perfect balance of salty, creamy, crunchy (those delicious raw onions) and heat. Eaten on the freshly made tortilla chips and all you're missing is an ice cold cerveza or a salt-rimmed margarita.

Attention to details is a standard of good cooking.
The molcajete tacos for two exemplifies that perfectly. Also served in a molcajete. This time the stone bowl has been heated in the oven so the sauce surrounding the cubes of grilled skirt steak bubbles and pops, releasing waves of savory sweetness into the air. Topping the dish are the quartered pieces of a whole tomato, two plump brown mushrooms and a packet of charred scallions. A raft of beef cubes appear to float on the surface.

Looking at the dish you assume the word "tacos" in the menu description is a mistake. There is a container of freshly prepared flour and corn tortillas next to the molcajete but surely this is a hearty stew not a "taco."

But you would be wrong. The molcajete contains the taco filling. Possibly the most elaborately constructed "filling" I had ever seen.

To finish the dish, you will ask your waiter for more flour and corn tortillas....many more. Dig deep into the stone bowl to discover its hidden, secret wonder: molten hot fundido cheese.

Tear a tortilla into quarters, put a spoonful each of the Spanish rice and charro beans (black beans simmered with chorizo and onions), a fork-full of caramelized steak coated in liquid cheese, add a piece of charred scallion, a tasting of the roasted tomato and green chile salsas and pop the tasty packet in your mouth.

As your mouth enjoys all those flavors and textures, your eyes close and you begin to mumble. Your friends at the table will wonder what you are muttering about. If they could hear you clearly, they would understand you are saying, "Oh my god that is wonderful."

When the plate of chile en nogada, the holiday dish, appears on the table, everyone will lean forward to inhale the wealth of aromas rising from the poblano pepper, split open to reveal the crumble of sauteed pork. One bite and your eyes close again and if you are all sharing bites together, all eyes will be closed and mouths will be moving as if speaking through sealed lips. A passing waiter will wonder if this is a group seance.
The walnut sauce makes the dish. Warm, creamy, full of flavors that are nutty and yet so much more, the sauce perfectly ties together the muskiness of the poblano with the sweetness of the pork. Adding the pomegranate seeds is a delightful finish. The acidic crunch cuts diagonally across the richness of the sauce.

Chef-owner, Richard Sandoval generously shared his recipe for Chile en Nogada so even after Mexican Independence Day, you can continue to enjoy this delicious dish at home.

CHILE EN NOGADA


Serves 6


Ingredients for the sauce


1 tablespoon shelled walnut pieces
1/4 cup almonds, blanched
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup goat cheese
3/4 teaspoon each granulated sugar, salt and black pepper, to taste

Directions


Place the ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth. Set aside covered and refrigerated until ready to use.

Ingredients for the filling


1 3/4 pounds combination of shiitake, button and portobello or crimini fresh mushrooms, cleaned, de-stemmed and sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium white onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 pound fresh tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon almonds, blanched and finely chopped
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 medium apples peeled, cored and chopped
1 medium ripe pear, peeled, de-seeded and finely chopped
1 medium ripe peach, peeled, pitted and finely chopped
1 tablespoon of oloroso sherry
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground pork picadillo

Directions


In a large frying pan, heat the oil to medium high and sauté the onion until translucent; add the mushrooms until golden on all sides. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to cook until all ingredients are heated thoroughly.

Cool enough to handle easily.

Directions for final assembly


6 poblano chiles, roasted and peeled, stems kept attached
1 fresh small pomegranate, seeded
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Make a slit in each roasted poblano chile from the stem to the tip. Remove the seeds and placenta carefully and divide the filling equally to stuff the chiles. If not serving immediately, chill in the refrigerator, covered, for up to a few hours before heating.

Before serving, cover and heat through in a 300 degree oven for a few minutes or under the broiler until hot. When ready to serve, spoon the sauce over the stuffed chiles and garnish with pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Earth, Sun, Water and Art on the Southern Tip of Baja California

Recently I was on assignment for Peter Greenberg to Cabo San Lucas to test drive the 2011 Mitzubishi Outlander Family and Sports models. That road trip was only one part of an action packed, long weekend that included a lot of eating and a trip to nearby San Jose del Cabo.

With summer a fond memory and colder weather approaching, now is a good time to think about a trip to warmer climes. While some might happily settle for the familiarity of Hawaii, Florida or Puerto Rico, Mexico is a great destination with its vast, natural beauty, rich cultural history, amazing archaeological sites and wonderfully flavorful cuisine.

Mexico's well-publicized difficulties with crime have caused travelers to steer clear of the DMZ border regions. Tragically, it was those regions that were once the perfect places to experience the melding of two great cultures and peoples. 

Luckily there are safe places to visit in Mexico far from the border, a fact that Peter has chronicled in many posts. A recent trip to the southern-most tip of Baja California showed me what warm-weather fun awaits in Mexico.

Mitsubishi invited several dozen travel and automotive writers to visit Cabo San Lucas so we could test drive two of their new vehicles, the 2011 Outlander Family and Outlander Sport. With Baja so close and since Los Angeles had been cold and rainy all week, I couldn't resist a long weekend of 90 degree weather.

Normally a visit to Cabo for me would center around a frosty Pina Colada enjoyed at poolside. The second focus of my attention would be the spa. When I arrived, I indulged in both.

Given the afternoon heat, the Pina Colada was cooly refreshing. For a massage, the YHI Spa in our hotel, ME Cabo, offered a dozen different treatments, from skin-challenging exfoliations, antioxidant body wraps, waxes of various body parts, to more gentle therapies that emphasized peace, renewal, and beauty. 

Not wanting to be abraded, distressed or defoliated, I chose the Desert Air Massage, which, I discovered happily was administered by two masseuses--Lobita and Theresa--whose four hands meant that both sides of my body could enjoy the benefits of the massage simultaneously. The result was a semi-hallucinatory state of complete relaxation.

Most visitors to Cabo divide their time between relaxing and partying, the ratio of one to the other depending on personal proclivities. It's not by accident that Sammy Hagar ("The Red Rocker") celebrates his birthday October 13th every year at his nightclub, Cabo Wabo. Cabo is party-central.

There are a great many hotels bordering the Cabo San Lucas harbor with very different price points and qualities. The ME Cabo resort, where we stayed, had a typical layout with a grouping of pools, restaurants and bars in a center courtyard lined with tall, wispy palm trees, fronting the beach with an expansive view of the harbor.

The resort was comfortable and could be recommended except for several unforgivable failings. First and foremost, the disco music playing during the day at poolside and at night from the Passions nightclub was unrelentingly loud. In your room, sealing doors and windows provided no relief, even well after midnight. Another curious choice was what the hotel billed as their AWOL Club. During the day registered guests were excluded from the main pool, bar, restaurant and beach front area. The area was available only for those willing to pay a high entrance fee.

Also in the same area and a complete contrast with ME Cabo, the Hacienda Beach Club offers a gated setting with magnificent views of the harbor. The spa and restaurant are first rate. 

Sitting on the veranda of the Hacienda Restaurant and Bar, enjoying an afternoon Mojito, plates of tacos with handmade tortillas, quesadillas, tostadas, tortas, ceviches, and inventive starters like the salad of avocado, shrimp, and hearts of palm escabeche in a vinaigrette is a refreshingly pleasant way to enjoy Mexican hospitality. Lunch lasted longer than expected because we had to sample the Four Milk Cake, a riff on the classic Tres Leches cake, served with a compote of strawberries and blackberries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a sprinkling of crushed walnuts.

Just outside Cabo, Las Ventanas and One and Only Palmille offer luxury and great service in impossibly beautiful settings. Also nearby, the Sheraton and Hilton chains have large resort complexes. The Sheraton takes an Old World approach. The expansive property promotes quiet and relaxation in an elegant setting.  


Interestingly, while all the resorts publicize their beach fronts with photographs of clear blue water and large, sandy expanses, swimming is not advised.  The tidal undercurrent and surf are quite dangerous. Which makes the infinity pools at the hotels all the more inviting. 

Cabo San Lucas commands a view of the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) where cruise ships stop during the day. With an iconic rock outcropping and happily basking sea lions adjacent to Lovers' Beach, visitors enjoy the water in the noisy, busy Marina or by taking glass bottomed skiffs or day-tripping boats that travel to secluded areas like Santa Maria Bay or Chileno Beach where snorkeling and swimming among schools of colorful fish is possible in the calm, protected waters.

For the adventuresome traveler who wants more than just creature comforts, there are opportunities in Cabo to test one's skill battling with nature and good sense. And that is exactly what Mitsubishi had in mind. 

Like so many automobile companies, Mitsubishi saw their sales pummeled during the economic down-turn.  Biding their time, they chose 2011 to re-invigorate their brand with a cross-over line of low-price point/high value vehicles that, as we were told,  are "practical, affordable, fun-to-drive, and deliver great miles per gallon."

If you're a foodie, the proof is in the pudding.  If you're a gear-head, you have to put the rubber to the road.

We began the test drive in groups of two writers plus one Mitsubishi representative. Each team would drive one of the cars up the coast and the other model on the return trip.  We paired up as navigators and drivers and hit the road.

There are other parts of Mexico where driving a car is risky, but Highway 1, which stretches north-east from the southern tip of Cabo San Lucas to the area above the fishing village of Los Barriles, feels completely safe, although it's important to keep an eye out for the occasional cow ambling across the highway. I don't know if the drive is as easy as at night, but during the day, the well-paved highway is a convenient way to explore the area.

Starting in Cabo San Lucas, we drove an hour and a half north to Buena Visa on the coast. During the trip we were given details about the 2011 Outlander Family model we were driving:  the MIVEC motor, the Sportronic CVT, the use of plastic polymer components in the fenders, a 710 watt Rockford Fosgate Audio system, the AWC with its active front differential, and the brake energy rejuvenation system.

I vaguely understood what those features were supposed to do, but but they did translate into a car that had plenty of power, good handling (although a bit loose in turning), a quiet interior, a great sound system and comfortable seats. We agreed that the Outlander Family was a very pleasant way to make the drive and take in the passing scenery.

For most of the year, the vast expanse of plant life on the southern-most tip of Baja suffers horribly under cloudless skies and an unrelenting sun. The dull, leafless plants are almost indistinguishable from the brown earth. And then, in the fall, an amazing thing happens.

Unlike the Mayan Riviera, which receives upwards of five feet of rain through out the year, the arid, southern tip of the Baja peninsula averages a mere six inches. And when it rains it pours. That six inches comes all at once when hurricanes cut across the peninsula at the end of summer.

What we saw as we sped north on Highway 1 was the result of that extreme weather. A lush expanse of green covered the hills to the horizon. We took the greenery for granted, but locals pointed out that just a few weeks before, the landscape had been brown and forlorn.

Besides the test drive experience, our Mitsubishi hosts, together with Terramar Destinations, a tour guide service, offered us a smorgasbord of activities, from snorkeling in the protected waters of Santa Maria Bay, ziplining between high canyon walls where you put your trust in the tensile strength of rope and metal, and kayaking in the crystal clear waters where you as often as not battle high winds and a challenging surf.

In addition to the planned activities, we could also venture off on our own to pursue jet skiing, parasailing, kitesurfing where you can combine two dangerous sports, taking a safari into the expansive desert, trying off-roading on bone-chattering "Baja Buggies" or, abandoning all good sense, going sky diving.

For those who wanted a less adventuresome path, but one that still took them away from the confines of the resort property, we could go whale watching, swim with dolphins, sail on what are billed as "Party Booze Cruises" which deliver partying and booze as advertised, or sail around the harbor to enjoy spectacular sunsets, dinner and ice cold Margaritas.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed snorkeling in Santa Maria Bay, although the four hour trip on a catamaran was longer than expected. Many people whiled away the time taking in the scenery, singing along with rock classics like "Sweet Home Alabama," Stayin' Alive," "We Are Family," and "Respect," all the while drinking a great many Tequila sunrises, rum and cokes, and ice cold bottles of Pacifico.

The highlight of my adventure activities was an ATV ride at the rustic Hotel Buena Vista.

As a child I had an unfortunate experience on a motorcycle with a stuck accelerator that scarred my psyche and forearm. While an ATV has four wheels and could be considered "safer," those four wheels do not necessarily provide additional control.

After a minute of instruction, our guide led us onto the beach. Controlling the ATV took some getting used to, but, with the clear, turquoise ocean on our right as we headed north on the gravelly beach, it seemed the experience would be worth the risk. Our guide apparently thought the beach wasn't adventuresome enough because he quickly changed course and took us up a rocky hillside.


Since I was still learning the ropes, I fell to dead-last in the pack. That made me the beneficiary of my fellow journalists' road dust. The road was barely a "road," so the ATV had to be steered with considerable care, dodging holes and large rocks. 

With my face hammered by dust and gravel, struggling to stay on the miserable excuse for a road, the vibrations of the engine violently rolfing my body, I released all the pent up emotion of the moment by screaming for no one's benefit but my own, "Ohmygod, I hate this!"

The tricky part on this twisty-turning dirt trail was steering the corners. One misjudged turn could send my ATV tumbling down the cliff onto the pristine beach and crystal-clear water below.

After what seemed like hours, our guide pulled over to the side of a promontory so we could enjoy the view of the coastline. I dismounted my ATV, happy to enjoy a non-vibrating moment only to be embraced by one of our group who smiled broadly as he said, "Tell me that wasn't the most fun ever!"

We spent another hour on our ATV's, traveling further up the coast and then back to the beach. We watched two surfers propelled by "kites" that at times lifted them off their boards, suspending them midair in what appeared to be a magical sleight of hand.  We saw a school of a dozen dolphins following the coastline as they searched for food. We passed campers who were homesteading a beautiful stretch of beach. We stopped for water at a small resort of no more than a dozen cabanas with a fresh water swimming pool perched only a few feet above the surf pounding against jagged rocks.

Our ATV's took us places we would never have otherwise seen. This was definitely fun after all.

For those on the trip who didn't want that much adventure, Mitsubishi arranged for an art walk in San Jose del Cabo, just twenty minutes north of Cabo San Lucas.

The town surrounds the Plaza Mijares, anchored by the Mission San Jose del Cabo, built on the foundation of the original, 1799 Mision San Jose del Cabo de Anuiti.  The small church is charming, as are the narrow streets lined with stores selling a variety of goods. Evenings, through out the year, there are art performances in the plaza, free to the public, which feature a variety of music, from hip hop to traditional Mexican ballads.

Tourists from the cruise ships travel to San Jose del Cabo for a taste of authentic, local culture, something difficult to find in modern, noisy Cabo.  Allowing themselves several hours or the entire day, visitors enjoy a quiet walk around the historical center of town, with its many art galleries, jewelry stores and restaurants. 

Walk west on Calle Zaragoza on the southern side of the church, and sample the paletas, juices, and fresh fruit shakes at La Michoacana. Mexican taste treats, paletas are the wonderfully delicious ice creams on a stick flavored with a variety of fruits and vegetables. An insider's tip: paletas are sold in stores always called La Michoacana, no matter who owns them.  


On Boulevard Antonio Mijares, adjacent to the plaza, small stores sell beautifully crafted jewelry, clothing, and art.

Definitely worth a visit is Veryka: Art Gallery and Boutique (with a sister store in the Cabo marina). The work of talented Mexican artists are for sale. Of particular interest are paintings by Jorge Salazar and Guillermo Olguin Mitchell and the work of Jose Luis Serrano Carrillo, who appropriates traditional folk art objects like Day of the Dead figures and the Tree of Life, turning them into exquisitely detailed sculptures.  

Across the square, Antigua Los Cabos (Boulevard Mijares No. 5) sells art, handmade silver jewelry and a selection of artisanal tequilas. Around the corner, the small shop La Pinata carries toys, jewelry, handmade art, and curios from all over Mexico.

A few blocks from Plaza Mijares, Indian Hands  (Calle Alvaro Obregon 15 Col. Centro, 011 52 624 1052236, Lacalenda.mitla@hotmail.com) curates jewelry by local artists and exhibits large scale work by the talented painter, Adriana Quero Martinez. 


In the central historical district, liquor stores like Los Barriles de Don Malaquias (Blvd. Mijares and Benito Juarez) exclusively sell tequila. With almost a hundred brands to choose from, there are blends, some flavored with herbs and spices, as well as premium, aged, 100% agave brands. For the tequila aficionado, a tasting is offered at no cost.

While Cabo San Lucas is proud of the many luxury hotels that line its beaches, San Jose del Cabo offers more intimate accommodations. The affordable and elegant, El Encanto Suites on the western side of the historical district, is a two-story hotel with 28 rooms, each one adjacent to a garden, small courtyard or pool. You won't find tennis courts, a golf course, or big noisy discos here. But you will find relaxation and quiet in your room, on the compact grounds, or in the Ixchel spa. 

The even smaller Hotel Casa Natalia, with just 16 rooms, is, according to the web site, "like staying in an authentic Mexican home." At a fraction of the cost of the Cabo San Lucas resorts, Hotel Casa Natalia and El Encanto Suites give the visitor an up close and personal experience with Mexican art and culture. 

So if you're looking for an escape to a sunny landscape, the southern tip of Baja California offers pleasures any way you like them: big, brassy, and boisterous in Cabo San Lucas or quietly intimate in San Jose del Cabo, with plenty of raw adventure and interaction with the beautiful landscape in between.