Forget everything you think you know about Mexican food – it’s heavy, it’s fried, it’s fattening – and come with me to discover new, sophisticated Mexican cuisine in the historic heart of the country, known as EL Bajio or “low area”: Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. Filled with rolling hills, low mountains, modern highways and large farms, El Bajio produces much of Mexico’s grains, vegetables and fruit, which is one reason the “slow food” and “locavore” movements have taken root here. The focus on elegant and light cooking using organic products in amazing ways is being led by a young generation of chefs – several of whom are women – who are passionately promoting locally-sourced ingredients and recipes drawn from the diverse traditions and regions of Mexico. The region is chock full of winemakers and food producers working closely with these chefs, turning out surprisingly good wine and beer products as well as natural sauces, fruit and vegetable drinks, and condiments.
Forget, as well, the daily drumbeat of headlines that suggest Mexico is unsafe and overrun by drug gangs. While it is true that there are a few areas even Mexicans admit are dangerous – along the U.S. border and some coastal towns – the country’s heartland, which I recently visited during a wine and food tour, is safe, economically prosperous and dotted with a range of accommodations from small, charming boutique hotels, and luxury, 5-star resorts to cutting-edge business and convention centers.
An Aeromexico direct flight from New York or Washington to Mexico City takes about five hours. Connections to Leon, near Guanajuato, via Mexico City’s modern Terminal 2, are also available, and might be appealing to some travelers who prefer avoiding the traffic of the capital city. The airline– in its array of amenities – is a blast from the past. Imagine, no charge for checking a bag; meals and wine are complimentary; pillows and blankets are on one’s seat, and you don’t have to pay to view the movie or get headphones. Remember what that was like? I hardly did. Even in economy class, it felt luxurious.
Part I: Mexico City and Queretero
Paxia, Mexico City. We began our tour in the upscale Santa Fe section of Mexico City to explore the “new cuisine” of a rising star in Mexico’s cooking firmament.
Chocolate beer, anyone? It’s part of a seven-course Regional Tasting Menu, paired with Mexican beers and wine, at Paxia (“Peace” in Nahuatl), owned by 29 year old Chef Daniel Ovadia. Paxia, modern and elegant in décor, is devoted to the indigenous food of the country. The regions change every four months and when I was there, focused on the cuisine of Chiapas (one of Mexico’s southern states). After spending months in the region, Ovadia created an incredible menu, built around “farmer” mealtimes — 5 a.m., 8 a.m., Midday, 4 p.m., 7 p.m., and the Hour of the Fiesta. If you have the good fortune to go, be prepared for an absolutely unique feast.
Like a trumpet voluntary, the dinner is ushered in with three appetizers representative of Chiapis: a conch ceviche; a molded mix of Chiapa-grown beans and pork; and a corn tortilla wrapped around beans nestled on a bed of chocolate, cinnamon sticks and anisette whose aroma we are urged to inhale because it captures the essence of the land. The fragrance is amazing; the imagination behind it even more impressive.
Ovadia’s 5 a.m. breakfast is a delicious Café, chocolate y tamal, a coffee-and-chocolate corn tamale (incorporating the three basic ingredients of morning food in Chiapas). It is accompanied by an unusual fermented beer with a hint of chocolate – only 1,000 bottles are produced each year — obtainable only in restaurants.
8 a.m. breakfast, as Ovadia imagines it, is Patashete con pepita, a delicate layered dish of potato, chicken breast, cream cheese, sweet potato, chile, pumpkin seed, coriander and Chiapa bean puree, paired with a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc from Mexico’s Baja region. Even more amazing is his Costillitas y Cueritos De lechon, a melting mix of suckling pig, egg yolk, radishes, peppers, lemon, avocado and cilantro sprouts. For a pairing we were offered a choice of an artisanal beer from Toluca or an excellent Casa Madero Chardonnay.
A parade of equally inventive, complex tastings — corn soup over mango served in a fruit gourd, suckling pig with a corn sauce on a plate dotted with pop corn – rolled out. Not on this menu, but not to be missed, is a stunning, spicy Mole in a martini glass with a bar of soft Mexican chocolate that you vigorously stir into the Mole. I’m still dreaming about it.
The official end of our repast, five bon bons in a beautiful, handcrafted wooden box, summed up its multiple visual and taste pleasures. On the night we were at Paxia, Riccardo Carrillo, Executive Chief of the Paxia Group, executed this exquisite and unforgettable meal. For more information and to make reservations, go to the website for Daniel Ovadia and click on Paxia, Santa Fe.
Hotel Tip. A nearby Westin Santa Fe, as sleek and contemporary as anything found in New York or Los Angeles, is just a short car ride away from the restaurant. It’s also a good jumping off point for the next day’s trip north.
Cooking Classes in Mexico City. Elsie Mendez, who led our journey, is a passionate promoter of Mexico’s “new cuisine.” She offers tailor-made food and wine Culinary Weekends in Mexico City as well as destination food-and-wine packages to cities and regions of Mexico. A Day-of-the-Dead Trip (one of Mexico’s festive holidays), for example, is one of her specialties. The menus and cooking workshops are designed and priced exclusively for her guests. The heart of the experience, says Mendez, is to meet and interact with the real Mexico –its food, its people and its history. Mendez knows – and is loved by — everyone in the Mexican food world and hires the best local guides for her tours. For more general information go to Flavors of Mexican Cuisine. Then go to email@example.com to arrange a tour that works for you.
Santiago de Queretaro
Queretero, the capital and largest city in the state of Queretaro, about 125 miles north of Mexico City, is both a thriving, modern industrial urban center with a booming economy and an ancient crossroads with majestic museums, cathedrals, and an aqueduct built in the mid-1700s.
The historic center of Santiago de Queretaro, settled over 450 years ago, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a joy to walk its outdoor markets, especially on Saturdays, when farmers and crafts people sell their handmade wares and local produce – ham, cheese, honey, olives, and such specialties as squares of Jicama coated with lime juice, salt and chili powder. The streets, with cafes and performers of all types, are like a small carnival.
Meson Santa Rosa, Queretaro
In the heart of this historic district, on Plaza des Armas, sits a beautiful hotel and restaurant in a lovingly restored colonial building with a covered, indoor courtyard that is, in itself, a work of art. The rooms are charming and, in the evening, elegant birthday and wedding meals are served in its gracious courtyard. On Sundays, a magnificent traditional Mexican breakfast can be found, augmented by home made bread and breakfast rolls. Should you be lucky enough to meet the owner, Senora Mari del Prete, who resurrected the building and plantings with her Italian husband, you may receive the best butter cookies on the planet. She gave us each a little bag to take with us, which I doled out to myself like gold each morning. Definitely worth a stay and visit. Go to the Hotel Meson Santa Rosa website.
Casa el Caserio, Queretaro
If you want to hang out where local families and business people eat, drink and dance, head for Casa El Caserio, which is both a restaurant and, next door, a nightclub. There is an outdoor playground for kids and liquor cabinets for regular customers. Built within the stone walls of a beautiful, 350 year old house, the setting is romantic and dramatic. I drank my first Tamarind Margarita. Others went for Mango or straight-up, aged Tequilla. But all of us delighted in a light, healthy and delicious first course whose green, white and red colors are those of the Mexican flag: blanched green beans in a vinaigrette layered with local cheese and dotted with potato crisps and pomegranate seeds. The restaurant also introduced us to a fabulous stand with hooks for holding our pocketbooks and bags, which we found almost everywhere we went to dine in Mexico. The walls of the nightclub are decorated with images of famous faces, from Mick Jagger to Frieda Kahlo. And Saturday night is Flamenco night. For more information and to make reservations, go to the Casa el Caserio website.
La Redonda Wines & Vineyards, Queretaro
While in Queretero, enjoy a wine tour and tasting at a family-owned Mexican vineyard, now in the hands of Claudio Bortoluz, whose grandfather planted the first vines. A medium-sized winery, focusing on the domestic market, it uses both American and French oak barrels. Most fascinating to me during the Tasting was how superior the chardonnays aged in French oak were to those aged in American barrels. With Mexican owners, a winemaker from Spain, and red and white wines produced from French and Italian grapes, it’s truly an international enterprise. La Redonda, part of a mini-boom in Mexican wines, of which there are over 100, is gaining popularity for its Cabernets, Chardonnays, Merlots and Sauvignon Blancs, especially its 2008 Serra Gorda champion. Last year, over 90,000 people visited La Redonda. Maybe next year, you will, too. (For more information go to the website for La Redonda).
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Read more about Eleanor’s Mexican adventure with Part II: San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato and Part III:Chefs Ada Valencia and Monica Solis.