Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2010 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2010

Welcome to Part 2 in our 3 Part “Best Of 2010″ series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages of the year. Part 1 covered the Best Adventures & Attractions of 2010 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, yes, end of year round-ups can be lame.

Or they can be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a valuable chance for you to get a quick hit of the best of the best tools, tricks, triumphs and truths that made our  Trans-Americas Journey in 2010 and, we hope, inspire you to hit the road yourself in 2011 (or 2012, no pressure).

Obviously, we’re going for a non-lame version here.

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2010 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…explored three countries (Mexico, Belize and Guatemala–though we’re still not through with the latter two)

…covered 12,662 miles (a slow year for us)

…spent $2,685 on fuel (yikes)

…had zero flat tires (for real)

…bounced over about a billion topes (vicious Latin American speed bumps)

We’ve also eaten nearly all our meals in restaurants of one description or another from street food stalls to bustling markets to multi-star restaurants. In no particular order, here are the

Best food & beverages of 2010

Best baked goods: Every afternoon around 5:00 a red VW Beetle (circa 1970-something) rolls into the Plaza Borda in central Taxco, Mexico with a 4’ wide basket heaped with a dozen varieties of freshly made pastries, breads, cookies and confections. The crew of female vendors can barely set the basket on its stand before they’re swarmed by locals eagerly pointing to their favorite goodies (all less than US$1). Luckily, the red VW returns with more lovingly-packed baskets strapped to its specially-designed roof rack until every morsel is sold. It does not take long.

Best agua fresca: The fresh  lime and strawberry infused water made by the friendly natural food vendor just inside the Mercado Libertad in central Guadalajara. All-natural, refreshing, cheap.

Best martini: The AAA four diamond Casa de Piedra restaurant at Hacienda Xcanatun near Merida in southern Mexico is renowned as some of the best eating in this already food-centric region (George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón dined here together in 2007). Co-owner Cristina Baker who is at the forefront of the local slow food movement and a passionate food innovator. She actually went to culinary school before opening the restaurant. The food (which combines French technique with local ingredients) was outstanding but it was the pre-dinner martini that was the star of the show–perfectly mixed, garnished with real cocktail olives and served in the most elegant (yet functional) decanter we’ve ever seen.

Best chef’s table meal: Casa Oaxaca is a world-class boutique hotel that is only out-classed by its food. Headed by lauded local chef Alejandro Ruiz, who’s at the forefront of nouveu Oaxacan cooking, the cuisine at the hotel restaurant, the neighboring stand-alone restaurant and a charming more casual cafe just outside of the heart of Oaxaca City is reliably inventive and delicious. Still, we were not prepared for the mind (and palette) expanding meal we were in store for when we sat down for dinner at the hotel one evening. Chef Ruiz protege Chef Luis runs the hotel’s small-capacity kitchen and the four course meal he delivered to us was stunning in its daring (semi-solid green mole, hot chocolate with mezcal) and it’s delivery (delicate fish on a polished rock instead of a plate). For 260 pesos per person (about US$22) it was also a stunning bargain. Reservations are a must if you want to eat at the small restaurant in the hotel.

Best cup of coffee: Bruno Geisemann, owner of Finca Argovia in the Ruta de Cafe in Chiapas, Mexico, has a vision and it involves worms. And compost. And babbling brooks. And birds. And trees all over his shade-grown coffee plantation. He’s worked hard for years to realize his vision–turning his family’s coffee plantation into a model of sustainable organic farming. The earth here is happy and you can taste that in Bruno’s coffee which is so complex, rich and smooth that we finally learned to drink it black. A collection of beautiful cabins on the lush property are the perfect place to wake up to a cup of Bruno’s black gold before touring the operation. Warning: Bruno’s enthusiasm is as addictive as his coffee.

Best tamale: In San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas State, Mexico a red light bulb in front of a house is the universal sign that the tamales are ready. We skipped the offerings in the heart of town and walked a few blocks down Leon Street (keep to the right when the road splits) and headed for a tiny red light in the distance. Here, every Wednesday and Saturday after 7:00 pm, a woman sets up a steaming pot of fresh tamales filled with a mind-boggling variety of meats, chilies, cheeses and vegetables each variety shaped and tied differently so she can tell them apart as she fills your order.

Best Italian: Homemade pasta, freshly-baked bread, excellent risotto, a great wine list–that’s what you get at Los Pelicanos on tiny Isla Holbox in Mexico.

Best tlayuda: Beautiful Oaxaca is such a foodie town that the choices can be overwhelming but the one emblematic local food is the tlayuda (you won’t find this concoction anywhere else in Mexico). Our favorite tlayuda is found about 10 minutes outside of the city center on a residential street called Avenida Mexico in the Colonia Infonavit 1 de Mayo neighborhood. Every night around 8:00 pm, a mother and her sons set up shop under a tarp. Look for the crowds and join them for a 12” homemade super-thin corn tortilla topped with a smear of beans, a handful of chopped cabbage, your choice of succulent fresh chopped meat and strips of mild Oaxacan cheese (like gourmet string cheese). Once on the grill, the tortilla is folded in half and the ingredients meld into a kind of Mexican Philly cheese steak. Topped with homemade salsas, this has the fun-factor of a snack with the staying power of a meal–and for less than $3.

Best breakfast buffet: The buffet breakfast has almost become a joke, except that there’s nothing funny about stale cereal, weak coffee and  and watered-down juice.  Our faith in the institution of the grand breakfast spread was restored at Live Aqua Resort in Cancun, Mexico where Siete restaurant lays on a buffet that includes succulent meaty Mexican favorites like cochinita pibil in addition to all the more traditional breakfast treats (eggs, baked goods, wonderful fruit) plus endless champagne, a pot of fabulous coffee right on your table and some of the best house-cured salmon we’ve ever had.

Best fried chicken: The smell got us first. Pure hot salty deliciousness wafting out of a collection of unassuming open-sided restaurants located smack dab between the two churches on the main square in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. In a country that ‘s crazy for fried chicken, Chichi (as the town is called) is, if you ask us, at the top of the pecking order. Fried on the spot and served with rice, black beans, french fries (another Guatemalan staple) and hearty hand made tortillas. Eat your heart out, Colonel.

Best designer cocktail: Chef Richard Sandoval has a mind-boggling number of restaurants around the world including Maya in New York City and Dubai, Zengo in Denver, DC, Santa Monica and New York, Pámpano in NY and Qatar, Isla in Las Vegas, La Sandía in Denver, Santa Monica and Virginia and Masa 14 in Washington DC.. His latest is Tuna in the swanky Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. The Mex-Asian fusion food works surprisingly well but the standout for us was the refreshing (and pleasingly not sweet) Margarita de Pepino Toreada, which takes a traditional margarita and punches it up with fresh cucumber, Serrano chile and a splash of smoky mezcal. UPDATE: Tuna has since closed.

Best taco stand name: Spartacos in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico.

Best fish tacos: Sixteen pesos (about US$1.50)  is a whole lot to pay for a taco in Mexico (where they’re usually more like 3-5 pesos), but Taco Fish on a wide swath of sidewalk on La Paz Street in central Guadalajara, Mexico slings expertly fried fish and shrimp tacos with all the fixin’s (fresh salsas, spicy creamy sauces, fresh cole slaw). The crowd speaks for itself, but be warned: unless you’re an NFL linebacker do NOT order more than two.

Best non-fish tacos: Tacos may be everywhere in Mexico but they are most certainly not created equal. At Taqueria Los Paisas in Mexico City a theatrical grill master and his team churn out thousands of beef, chorizo or al pastor (a cone-shaped stack of meat slowly grilled on a vertical rotating spit like a gyro) each day to perpetual crowds who help themselves to a fixins’ bar that includes grilled cactus, spicy chunky potato salad and plump beans as well as the usual salsas. Check out the delicious also-rans in our Mexico City Taco Taste Test.

Las Paisas tacos Mexico City

 

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World Class Centro Historico – Mexico City

This post is part 3 of 5 in the series Mexico City

The heart of our beloved Mexico City is an area called the Centro Historico. It’s got everything from culture to art to architecture to food to bars to fabulous people and people watching. Here are some of our favorite unsung reasons to love the heart of this soulful city (and one disappointing sandwich warning).

The Angel of Independence is not technically in the Centro Historico, but it is the official symbol of Mexico City. Get here early enough on a weekend morning and you can score a pass that lets you (and a strictly limited number of others) climb into the statue's pedestal up to a small observation deck.

Mariachi cops patrol the Plaza Alameda near the Centro Historico in Mexico City.

The gloriously Art Nouveau and Art Deco Palacio de Bellas Artes is home to wonderful live performances and some of the most iconic murals in Mexico.

Mexico City's Catedral Metropolitana is the largest and oldest cathedral in The Americas.

Grand tiled buildings dot the streets of central Mexico City's Centro Historico. This one happens to house a terrific BBQ chicken joint on the ground level and is on the same block as our beloved Cafe Popular.

Welcome to Mexico City's central post office. The opulent architecture of what's fittingly called Palacio Postal almost makes paying nearly US$1 for a post card stamp from Mexico to the US worth it...

Old and (somewhat) new mingle like friends in Mexico City's Centro Historico. The Torre Latinoamericana was the tallest building in Latin America when it was built and Mexico City's tallest building from 1956 until 1984.

The Palacio de Bellas Artes and Plaza Alameda as seen from the observation deck of the Torre Latinoamericana.

The bright lights of Mexico City as seen from the observation deck of the Torre Latinoamericana.

Mariachi's outside the brand new Tequila Museum in Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City.

Ideal Bakery is a massive, delicious and addictive institution in Mexico City's Centro Historico.

Cafeteria El Cuadrilatero is owned by famous lucha libre star Super Astro. The wall of costumes from other famous lucha libre wrestlers is interesting and we appreciate the challenge of The Gladiator (if you eat this massive sandwich in 15 minutes or less it

We have no idea why, but Mexico City's Centro Historico is peppered with perfumeries ready, willing and able to craft a custom perfume or copy your favorite at a fraction of the price.

Classic 19th Century architecture in Mexico City's Centro Historico.

 

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In the Hoods – Mexico City

This post is part 2 of 5 in the series Mexico City

We’ve been posting a lot about Mexico City lately (see our tacos post and our posts about the recent bicentennial celebrations) but we’ve been focused on the Centro area of the city. In reality, Mexico City has the feel, culture, bustle and possibility of New York City and its distinct neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are a big part of why we love Mexico City so here’s our New Yorkers take on the best of the boroughs.

 

This macrame bus was parked on a street as a semi-permanent art installation in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.

 

Roma

The Roma neighborhood is most like New York’s East Village or Brooklyn before it got all fancy. Roma’s got grit, but it’s attractive grit with a youthful energy and an open mind. The shady sidewalks have cracks and the occasional spilled garbage can and they’re generally filled with hipsters in DIY fashion, big guys walking tiny dogs, people carrying yoga mats, you get the picture.

Gay pride flags are increasingly common in Roma and we once walked past a skate shop here that was staffed by slouchy teenage guys playing with a real live lion cub in the middle of the shop. True story.

Roma is also home to our beloved Non Solo Panino café and restaurant located on tranquil Plaza Luis Cabrera. We still love it for laid back people watching, a real slice of the neighborhood and generally affordable bistro style eats even though they raised their wine-by-the-glass price from 25 pesos to 40 pesos (about US$3.00) since the last time we were there.

Brand new Hotel Brick in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City is buttoned-up and super-cool at the same time.

 

Best bed: The brand new Hotel Brick does the best job we’ve seen lately of melding hip (the hotel’s bar, lounge and restaurants have become instant hits with Roma locals who help create a vibrant scene most nights) and full-service. Like the neighborhood it’s in, this hotel manages to be buttoned-up and bohemian at the same time.

The lobby bar of the brand new Hotel Brick in the Roma neighborhood.

 

Condesa

Welcome to Soho, Mexico style! You can’t swing a cat without hitting a model or an actor in the cooler-than-you Condesa neighborhood where the stores are expensive, dinner starts at 10 and you’d better be on the guest list.

The fairly competitive/on display vibe is tempered by big leafy parks and plenty of cafes and bars to wind down in.  Mexico City’s admirable Eco Bici program–which has placed hundreds of bicycles for short or long-term use in automated kiosks across the city–has really taken off in the relatively-traffic free streets of Condesa.

Just a few of the hundreds of bicycles that are part of Mexico City's Eco Bici bike-for-rent program.

 

Best bed: Condesa df hotel has anchored this neighborhood for years and continues to provide spaces for the cool to congregate, particularly the rooftop bar. Do not miss the tiny but chicly-stocked hotel store.

A vintage car/art installation in front of Condesa df hotel in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

Rooms at Condesa df hotel, in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, are simply chic with views out to the leafy streets.

Welcome to the enormous patio that's part of Condesa df hotel's verison of a Presidential Suite. It's located just below the hotle's A-list roof lounge (is that Bono at the bar?).

Even the hang tags at Condesa df hotel have attitude.

 

Polanco

On the surface the Polanco neighborhood reminds us more of Beverly Hills than New York but after a day or two its charmingly diverse and gritty side shows itself and makes us feel right at home–if a bit underdressed.

The main four lane boulevard through Polanco is a shopper’s Shangri La with gleaming stores from Hermes to Chanel to Marc Jacobs to Bulgari to Tiffany, just to name a few. In fact, women come here from around the world to get their hands on the season’s must-have waiting-list-only items which tend to be easier to score here than at stores in Manhattan or Los Angeles where you’re competing with so many more shoppers.

Polanco is also where Mexico City’s sizable Jewish population is centered and there are synagogues and Kosher food stores and restaurants like Kleins were we ordered a corned beef sandwich which was positively anorexic by New York standards but was still passable.

What passes for a corned beef sandwich at Klein's in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City.

This is also the neighborhood where Carlos Slim’s new US$750 million mushroom-esque Soumaya Museum (named after his late wife), will be when it opens (theoretically) next month. And Mexican-born chef Richard Sandoval just opened his latest restaurant, Tuna, in Polanco. Read our full profile of Tuna restaurant for iTraveliShop.

 

Best bed: We’ve come to think of Hotel Las Alcobas as a boutique hotel version of the nearby Four Seasons. Perfect service, perfect amenities, perfect design, perfect location.

Another perfect element at Hotel Las Alcobas in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City.

Another perfect element at Hotel Las Alcobas in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City.

We've come to think of Hotel Las Alcobas in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City as a boutique version of a Four Seasons--it's that perfect.

 

Santa Fe

Santa Fe may not be the first most logical choice for a purely leisure traveler visiting Mexico City since it’s not convenient to the main attractions and museums. However, it’s a bit like Fifth Avenue with its mix of spending money (fancy stores, including one of only two Saks Fifth Avenue stores outside the US–the other one is in Dubai) and making money (corporate headquarters), making it ideal for business travelers.

 

Best bed: The new Distrito Capital hotel delivers some of the most exciting design we’ve seen plus awesome views over the Mexico City valley (all hotel rooms are located on the top three floors of an apartment tower).

The pool/lounge off an inviting open-air bar at Distrito Capital Hotel in the Santa Fe neighborhood of Mexico City.

Stark, playful rooms also boast unbeatable views over Mexico City at Distrito Capital Hotel in the Santa Fe neighborhood.

A bathtub with a view over the Mexico City valley from Distrito Capital Hotel in the Santa Fe neighborhood.

 

 

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Tasting Limited Edition “Vinos Mexico 2010″ – Puebla, Mexico

Last night we got lucky. After enjoying our very first Chiles en Nogada (a delicious seasonal regional specialty) at his acclaimed hotel and restaurant, Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía, owner and director Leobardo Espinosa invited us to join him at a private tasting of a very special wine.

As usual in Mexico, we are so glad we said yes.

Less than a year ago Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderón decided it would be a great idea for many of Mexico’s wineries to get together and produce some special blends as commemorative bicentennial wines. President Calderón likes wine and has even been credited with ditching the Spanish wines historically served on the Presidential plane and replacing them with Mexican wines. Bravo.

Anyway, a group of 21 wineries, large and small, from across Mexico ultimately took up the President’s challenge and they worked fast and furious over the  next few months to procure juice from 2008 and 2009 vintages, then blend it into three special bottles. We are familiar with a few of the wineries, but many participants were new to us. The list includes: Adobe Guadalupe, Bibayoff Vinos, Bodega la Redonda, Bodega Roganto, Bodegas Ferrino, Bodegas San Rafael, Bodegas Santo Tomas (one of our favorites), Casa Madero (the oldest winery in The Americas), Casa Pedro Domecq, Cavas Freixenet de Mexico, Chateau Camou, Moebius, Monte Xanic (another favorite), Valmar, Villa Montefiori, Vinicola San Patricio, L.A. Cetto, Vinos Tanama, Vina de Liceaga, Vinedos Aldo Cesar Palafox and Vinedos Azteca.

Together they created three limited edition wines called Vinos Mexico 2010 to commemorate the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence from Spain: one vino blanco Elite, one vino tinto Elite and one vino tinto Premium. The wines were unveiled last night at Restaurant La Noria, a swanky eatery in a former hacienda in a swanky suburb of Puebla during a formal private tasting sponsored by Vineria, the big wine distributor in Puebla. Sophisticated wine writers, hoteliers, wine club members, restauranteurs (and lucky us), got to taste the Elite blanco and the Elite tinto (red).

Mexico Bicentennial wines

The white Elite–a blend of chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard and sauvignon blanc–starts with a bracing pucker, has a nice green nose and finishes with a lot of oak. There’s also a lot of honeysuckle which starts out lively but bloats at the finish. It’s a bit all over the map, but the effect is pleasing. The wine, made with juice from seven different wineries, improved substantially when poured very cold and it was very good with food–particularly the ultra-fresh ceviche we had to nibble on.

The red Elite is a mind (and palate) boggling blend of 13 varietals including barbera, cabernet-franc, cabernet-sauvignon, carinena, grenache, malbec, merlot, mision, petite syrah, ruby cabernet, sangiovese, syrah and tempranillo. Phew. Really, the task of blending so many different types of grapes from 13 different wineries into a complex wine is nearly impossible. What the winemakers did accomplish is the creation of a very easy to drink, no-brainer, light-bodied red that makes a good alternative to rose and would make an excellent base for sangria.

At 212 pesos (around US$17) for the Elite white and the Elite red and 400 pesos (around US$32) for the Premium red (which we did not get to taste) the wines are priced to try–and you really can’t beat the story behind their creation.

Our home base for this event was La Purificadora hotel where we spruced ourselves up in the solid alabaster shower (yes, even the floor is made from alabaster) and got our fancy clothes back into presentable shape (it’s not easy carting around cocktail party duds in the back of a truck).

Part of Grupo Habita (which readers of this blog already know we love), La Purificador is a favored haunt of politicians and movie stars (there were literally paparazzi stalking famous fellow diners during breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant this morning) and the sleek/chic atmosphere got us in just the right mood for the sophisticated and elite tasting.

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Taco Taste Test – Mexico City

This post is part 5 of 5 in the series Mexico City

Tacos are everywhere in Mexico and we’ve eaten more than we can count in the 16 months our Journey has spent here. But there’s something about the pace (need to grab a quick bite on my way to a meeting) and the coolness (need a snack before/during/after a night out) of Mexico City that is uniquely suited to tacos. Result? The town is lousy with taco joints.

Before we get a tidal wave of territorial taco tirades from folks who believe that they (and only they) know where to find the best tacos in Mexico’s capital city let us say one thing: this is not intended to be the last word on Mexico City tacos. Heaven forbid.

Okay, this taco stand is NOT in Mexico City (it's in Tuxtla Guitierrez), but we love the sense of humor in the name.

This is merely our take on the tastiest tacos we’ve tasted in Mexico City (so far) at places that are not mobile street vendors. Here we’ve focused on another level of tacos—one where there are tables and chairs and a permanent location and a cadre of loyal diners. For its combination of value, tastiness and sheer entertainment we prefer Los Paisas, but you be the judge…

A stack of el pastor meat on the spit--El Tizoncito in Mexico City claims to have invented this style of taco.

Name: El Tizoncito

Neighborhood: Condessa (though there are outposts across the city and across Mexico)

Vibe: Holier than thou. This place (the original installment of a chain) claims to have invented the ubiquitous tacos al pastor and its unique method of slowly grilling a cone-shaped stack of meat on a vertical rotating spit (like a gyro). This is like opening up a snack shop in Chicago and saying you invented hot dogs.

Strong suit: Um…

Insider tip: The al pastor tacos at El Tizoncito come with a fairly goopy, slightly sweep sauce on them—something we’ve never seen on any other tacos al pastor and which we do not generally consider a plus.

La cuenta: The al pastor tacos at El Tizoncito were, by far, the  most expensive we’ve ever had and really nothing special. In the end, we felt like we were paying for their claim to fame as the inventors.

And this isn't even a particularly busy day at Taqueria Los Paisas in Mexico City.

Name: Taqueria Los Paisas

Neighborhood: On the ddge of the Centro Historic

Vibe: Working man—and it’s always packed with working men and working women. Though there is a long comunal table with stools, be prepared for standing room only and join the crowd on the sidewalk.

Strong suit: A bar of DIY taco toppings which include grilled cactus, chunky potato salad and plump beans in addition to the usual salsas and limes. Pile on as much as you want. The handmade tortillas score points too.

Insider tip: The mustachioed grill master loves to practice his English and show off his considerable taco tossing skills. Smile at him and he’ll give you a goofy show.

La cuenta: 12 pesos (about $1.00) for a huge and hearty taco filled with thin slices of beef bursting at the seams with all the toppings you want.  Tacos al pastor and chorizo tacos are even more affordable.

The goofy grill master at Los Paisas puts on a show as he cooks up your food.

Name: Taqueria El Farolito

Neighborhood: Condesa  (though there are other outposts around the city)

Vibe: Jealous. It’s just not as cool as El Califa (see below) which is right across the street.

Strong suit: They serve their tacos with two tortillas so you can split up the ample fillings and their beef tacos come with the meat conveniently chopped for less-messy eating.

Insider tip: Our friend Crispin, who used to live and work in this neighborhood, swears by the tacos Campechano with special sauce here.

La cuenta: At 18 pesos for an al pastor taco and 34 pesos (nearly $US2.75) for a beef taco this place is on the pricey side, even for a fancy sit down taco joint in a hip neighborhood.


Name: Taqueria El Califa

Neighborhood: Condesa (though there are other outposts around the city)

Vibe: The model moms, hipster students and other so-called “Califans” seem to be saying “We’re only here to fuel up on our way to (or from) somewhere even cooler.”

Strong suit: All staff members wear black t-shirts with cool graphic representations of their jobs. The delivery guys’ shirts , for example, have stylized moto-scooters on them. Some of the waiters shirts have a classic waiter’s apron printed along the bottom.  Other waiters wear a great t-shirt that says “Gringa” on the top (referencing a popular type of snack) over a picture of a buxom, half-clad American pin-up. Also, El Califa also provides a tower of salsas, tasty re-fried beans and fresh tortilla chips on the table.

Insider tip: They’ll deliver (even to your hotel) until 4 am and the place is a convivial mob scene on Sunday afternoons.

La cuenta: Their copyrighted beef “Gaona’s” tacos are 38 pesos (without cheese) but we thought the common, everyday, non-copyrighted bistek (beef steak) tacos were tastier and they were more reasonable at 22 pesos (about US$1.70) and their tasty al pastor tacos were just 11 pesos.


This post is part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Travel Blog Carnival hosted this time by Kat over at Tie Dye Travel. The Carnival is hosted every two weeks by a BlogSherpa member. The topic this time is Food Around the World.


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Base Jumping – Valladolid, Yucatan State, Mexico

Located about midway between Tulum on the coast and Merida inland, Valladolid is perfectly situated to serve as a base for day trips to plentiful area attractions including the Mayan ruins of Ek’ Balam and the flamingos of the Biosphera de la Reserva Ria Lagartos (more on those sites in our next two posts).

Valladolid is also perfectly situated to sizzle—smack in the hot zone of Yucatan State without the benefit of cooling ocean breezes. It was so hot when we were in Valladolid that the toilet water was steamy. It was two-cold-showers-a-day hot only you had to be sure you got your showers in before 8 am or after 7 pm or the water coming out of the cold tap would be hot.

The city’s naturally slow pace seems exacerbated by the heat. It is just too steamy to hurry anywhere. And despite its standing as the third largest city in the Yucatan, Valladolid still looks, acts and feels a lot like a small town.

Cathedral de San Gervasio - Valladolid

Valladolid's Catedral de San Gervasio.

Valladolid also has its share of small-town pride and beautification efforts are extensive and effective. Walls and buildings are splashed with a gorgeous and engaging range of colors. The main plaza in front of the Catedral de san Gervasio have curved poured concrete two-seaters where couples sit and face each other in the cool of the evening, the downtown mercado is small but full of some of the cheapest food vendors we’ve seen anywhere in Mexico (big sandwiches for 12 pesos, breakfast egg plates for 20 pesos, etc).

Valladolid - Parque Francisco Canton Rosado

Parque Francisco Canton Rosado, the colorful main square in Valladolid.

There are some surprisingly cosmopolitan moments in centro Valladolid too including the Maruja café and wine bar which looks (and smells) very European and also offers the best-made, best-value souvenirs in town including regional chocolate and coffee, handicrafts and witty t-shirts.

Right around the corner from the Maruja café, just a quarter block off the Parque Francisco Canton Rosado, is the Casa de los Venados hotel. Located in a renovated 400 year old hacienda, this boutique hotel is packed to the rafters with the most colorful, most engaging Mexican arts and crafts the American owners, John and Dorianne Venator, could get their hands on (reservations are a must). This year a sushi café called Sushi Va opened up too.

Colorful colonial buildings of Valladolid

Colorful colonial buildings of Valladolid.

Cathedral de San Gervasio at night - Valladolid

Catedral de San Gervasio at night.

Calzada de los Frailes Valladolid

The tranquil and chic Calzada de los Frailes street in Valladolid.

About a five minute walk from the centro area is a particularly well-kept and tranquil street called Calzada de los Frailes. This street is quiet, leafy and home to the Coqui Coqui hotel. Operated by the famous perfumer, this hotel offers just two super-chic rooms around a private garden with a spa, a café and a wonderfully retro-looking perfumeria.

A more affordable option in this charming neighborhood is the year-old Hotel Tunich Beh which has eight air-conditioned rooms (did we mention that Valladolid is hot?) around a small but serviceable pool plus Wi-Fi all for 450 pesos (about US$35) double occupancy.

Calzada de los Frailes Valladolid

The tranquil and chic Calzada de los Frailes street in Valladolid.

Calzada de los Frailes street is capped by the San Bernardino de Siena Convent, a 16th century monastery in a lovely stone building on grounds that include a private cenote. Right next to the convent is Taberna de los Frailes restaurant. Opened by French chef/restaurateur/hotelier Patrick Charles Laurent and Doña Maruja Barbachano (the pair also runs Maruja café on the main plaza), the restaurant is breezy and welcoming.

The bar, lounge and dining areas are all built in a garden over part of the same massive cenote that’s found on the property of the neighboring monastery. Ask to see the well-like entrances into the cenote, but don’t get any ideas about taking a dip. The cenote’s water level is 120 feet below ground level.

The Taberna de los Frailes menu is not cheap (90 pesos to 250 pesos) but the ingredients (steak, tuna, veal) are top-notch and the preparations make a happy marriage of international techniques and Mayan and Mexican flavors–shrimp tacos al pastor is a good example (200 pesos). Or risotto Ixel with chaya, a kind of Mayan collard greens, (90 pesos). The tuna and salmon we ordered were both impeccable and the chocolate souffle was served in a soup bowl–massive! Even if you don’t eat here, stop in for a cold beverage after touring the convent.

Templo de San Bernadino and Conveto de Sisal - Valladolid

The San Bernardino de Siena Convento.

Coming soon: a new boutique hotel from the owners of Zamas in Tulum. They’re converting a house just a few doors down from Taberna restaurant into a brand new reason to visit Valladolid.

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Beach Boom – Tulum, Mexico

Tulum has been a major travel destination for years and the place has gone through many changes and much growth. The town of Tulum itself still feels like a Mexican town bisected by a highway. Yes, a shade more touristed than most Mexican towns but with enough local tourists from around the country to keep it real.

The beach area of Tulum is where the big changes are most evident and most ongoing–so much so that we stayed for an extra week to check it all out.

Beach art in front of La Zebra.

We were lucky enough to call La Zebra home for the first few days. Not only did we love the place (more on that later) but it’s also a good example of how things are changing in Tulum. Once a budget-bungalow joint that was free of frills and pretty cheap, as beach digs go, La Zebra was purchased by John Kendall who upped the comfort and decor level considerably.

One of the nine beach-chic cabanas at La Zebra in Tulum.

La Zebra (from US$110) is now a wonderful place to get your fix of beach-chic, Tulum style. Nine cabanas come in skittles colors and have plushly finished interiors (no leaky palapas here). Bathrooms inlaid with gorgeous stones, festive zebra-print linens, a small bottle of complimentary tequila and best of all: they’ve put the fans inside the mosquito nets so you can actually feel the breeze while you’re sleeping! There ought to be a law…

Cabana #1 is larger (two bedrooms), has a really sexy outdoor tub that’s enclosed in walls but open to the sky and is closest to the water. This cabana is perfect for a family or two couples. Just note that there’s no door between the bedrooms.

A shallow basin of water to rinse the sand off your feet before going into your room is smart. This version, outside every cabana at La Zebra, in the shape of a bare foot is the most charming version we've ever seen.

There’s also an even larger room above the restaurant that’s perfect for larger families/groups plus a stand-alone two storey positively luxurious house just a few steps down the beach which they have the gall to call the “Beach Shack.”  In the “shack,” the downstairs room has a king bed and an open-plan bathroom. The upstairs room has two twin beds and a bathroom and it opens onto a big furnished deck with a sink, fridge and outdoor tub. The place just screams “Party!”.

A suite and five more cabanas, with a shared plunge pool, are tucked right across the road on the jungle side of the property.

The bar at La Zebra is one of the best on the beach and their passionfruit margaritas, made with freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice, are legendary.

It took a long time and a lot of effort to get this sugar cane press to La Zebra in Tulum, but anyone who orders a margarita or mojito here will tell you its worth it.

As wonderful as the rooms are, you probably won’t spend too much time in them. La Zebra is right on the beach and it makes good use of its location with comfortable outdoor lounging areas and an inviting bar. Even if, like us, you believe the margarita is more often butchered than perfected, spin the dice one more time and order one at La Zebra.

Made with all natural fresh ingredients, including sugar cane juice squeezed using a hulking old press that’s attached to the bar, La Zebra’s passionfruit margarita is the welcome drink of choice. Warning: you will want more.

Beach lounging, La Zebra style.

Even hipsters have to eat and the restaurant scene in Tulum is definitely up for the challenge. We managed to grab a table at El Tabano (which, oddly, means horsefly) and were immediately struck by the juxtaposition between the staff and diners (all could have been models, except us of course) and the lovely ladies doing the cooking who looked like typical Mexican mamas and daughters busy getting the work of feeding the masses done. They could have been slinging tacos from a street cart but here they were busy drizzling balsamic.

It was a comforting combination that made us expect lively company and great food.  We got both.

As a birthday-party-in-progress passed around tequila shots we settled into our long wooden table and surveyed the more than 15 wines on offer and a menu that ran the gamut from seafood to tortilla lasagna (all listed on a massive chalk board). The homemade bread was delicious, the salad was huge and fish prepared in beer was out of this world–rich, salty, sweet, tender. The soggy and bland tortilla lasagna may need to be re-thought though…

Friends of ours (hi Joe and Pooja) raved about their celebratory meal at the Italian restaurant at Posada Margherita where they ate delicious food and drank lots of good wine. When they realized the restaurant was cash only (heads up) the proprietor told them “Don’t worry. You can pay me tomorrow. What’s important is the food.” Seriously.

That same night we enjoyed, of all things, a Thai meal at the restaurant at Mezzanine Hotel which manages a very urban look and feel (it could be in New York City’s meatpacking district). We sometimes feel guilty for “cheating” on the local cuisine when we choose to do something like eat Thai food in Mexico, but our meal at Mezzanine was worth any charges of food adultery.

Another thing we liked at the Mezzanine: the hotel throws a weekly party with a live DJ. To staff it, they fly in top-spinners from around the world and put them (and one lucky guest) up in a special DJ room at the hotel for two weeks at a stretch. The DJs get an awesome Mexican vacation and guests of Mezzanine get awesome parties.

The Thai restaurant at the Mezzanine Hotel in Tulum got the decor and the food right.

Opened in 1993, Zamas (which means new beginning) is a beach side option that helped spearhead the cool movement out here. Even today it retains a hippy movie set look and feel that’s easy-going and welcoming enough to make sense of the infrastructure, aspects of which could use a new beginning.

A standout at Zamas is the open air restaurant  ¡Que Fresco! where the pizzas are dreamy (out of a real pizza oven!) and the seafood chowder is complex and not fishy at all. Sadly, we didn’t have time to try the rest of the items on the inventive (but not outlandish) menu, but we’ll leave that up to you.

The owners of Zamas are currently transforming a home in the most interesting neighborhood in Vallodolid and plan to open it as their second hotel soon.

Perhaps the ultimate stamp of hip-dom is the fact that Grupo Habita, creators of iconic boutique hotels across Mexico including Condessa DF, Maison Couturier and Boca Chica, is working on a new hotel on the beach in Tulum–look for it to open its doors in 2011.

The view from our beach bungalow at Zamas in Tulum during a break in the rain.

Yes, the chic factor is gobbling up the beachfront in Tulum, but there’s still plenty of jungle and mangrove wilderness here too, thanks in large part to the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an. This 1.3 million acre preserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. The place is full of birds and mammals and even Mayan sites. Kayaking is the main way to explore the preserve since roads and trails are scarce/nonexistent.

Here we are on top of a tower overlooking the vast and varied Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an near Tulum.

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Scoop Scoops: Our 5 Favorite Ice Cream Treats in Mexico

July has been National Ice Cream Month ever since Ronald Reagan made it so during his presidency in 1984. He also decreed that the third Sunday in July is National Ice Cream Day. Anyway, to celebrate we thought we’d share some scoop scoops discovered during our 18 months of travel in Mexico. We’re not even dessert people but here in Mexico they definitely scream for ice cream. Here are five of our favorite finds.

1. Every region of Mexico is known for some sort of signature food. The state of Michoacan is the undisputed ice-cream state. You’ll find ice cream shops throughout the country claiming to make Michoacan-style ice cream. But to get the real stuff, you’ve got to go to Michoacan—preferably Patzcuaro. Every day in this Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) women set up ice cream stands under the arches that ring the lovely main plaza. Peruse the wares, but rest assured that every one of the dozens of flavors (corn, blackberry, chocolate, coffee, durian, guava, cheese) are homemade and totally natural. Full of real local fruit, real sugar (not corn syrup) and rich cream these treats (mere pennies per scoop) are rich and gooey.  And addictive.

The mouth-watering display at Helados Torres in Hidalgo del Parral, Mexico.

2. Hidalgo del Parral in Northern Mexico has many claims to fame. This is were Pancho Villa was gunned down, for example. The city was also instrumental in the country’s silver, gold, zinc and copper mining heyday. It’s also got one hell of an ice cream parlor. Right downtown off the Plaza de Armas you will find Helados Torres. Big, shiny, bright and featuring a display of homemade, all-natural gelato-esque delights like you’ve never seen, each vibrantly colored container topped with a pleasing display of the ingredients inside. Their ice cream (helado in Spanish) is as delicious to look at as it is to eat.

3. The Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon, on the Champs-Elysees-inspired Paseo Montejo in Merida in Yucatan State, is an institution where you’re likely to find families and first-daters enjoying massive portions of homemade creations that straddle the line between ice cream and sorbet—creamy and deeply flavored without the heaviness of cream or the iciness of sorbet. The mango is so true-to-life in both color and flavor that it seems like you’re eating the miraculously whipped and frozen fruit itself.

Just one of the ice cream vendors selling an extremely unusual selection of flavors around the main plaza in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico.

4. Most people who bother to stop in the town of Dolores Hidalgo come to see the site where priest Miguel Hidalgo delivered his famous grito on September 16, 1810 which helped ignite the Mexican Independence movement. This is an awesome reason to come and a compelling piece of Mexican history—particularly given the fact that 2010 is the 20th anniversary of the speech and Mexico’s Independence movement. But there’s one more unique offering in the town of Dolores de Hidalgo that shouldn’t be missed. The half dozen or so mobile carts in the town’s main plaza may look like regular ice cream vendors, but read the list of flavors–pig skin, corn, beer, shrimp, tequila, rose, mole–and you see why they’re unique. Once you’ve decided on an exotic flavor, your ice cream comes in an awesome freshly-made cone. A word of warning however: these vendors are dangerously generous and it’s easy to fill up just on the samples they offer of each flavor as you’re trying to make up your mind. We ended up with more than a dozen tasting spoons in our hands before we decided to try the mole ice cream (rich, salty, chocolaty and sweet with just a touch of spice).

5. Not all of our favorite Mexican ice cream is found on the street. At Hacienda Xcanantun, outside Merida in Yucatan State, the gourmet fare is as much of a draw as the luxuriously restored hacienda hotel.  You will enjoy your entire meal here but order their rich and subtly sweet roasted tomato tart for dessert and you’ll also get two scoops of deliciously confusing (sweet/fresh/green) homemade basil ice cream made with basil from an organic garden in the neighboring village. We recently heard restaurant critic Gael Greene says she “doesn’t like lawn clippings in her dessert” in reference to basil ice cream. Then again she color-coordinates her shirts to match her frumpilly antique hats.

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Goodbye, Guadalajara

All told we’ve now spent more than three months in and around Guadalajara and, as we prepare to finally move on, we wanted to share a few of heartfelt and (we hope) helpful observations about Mexico’s second largest city.

The Zócalo is anchored by the Guadalajara Cathedral or Catedral de la Asunción de María Santísima.

 

Best fish tacos: Taco Fish on La Paz. Yeah, 16 pesos is a whole lot to pay for a taco in Mexico, but this street spot slings expertly fried fish and shrimp tacos with all the fixin’s. The crowd speaks for itself. Warning: unless you’re an NFL quarterback (Go Saints!) do NOT order more than two. They’re huge as well as delicious.

Best old-guy bar: Molacho. There’s no sign. Go to the corner of Alcalde and Juan Manuel right in downtown and take the stairs off Juan Manuel up to the bar which is on the second floor above the Farmacias Guadalajara on the corner. What you’ll get is old guys galore (including one playing a baby grand piano, if you’re lucky) plus botanas (free bar snacks) galore, including tacos and tostadas and even soup. People rave about a place called Cantina La Fuente, but we found it to be too big and not very welcoming. Plus, there’s no baby grand piano and no botanas.

 

Palacio de Gobierno in Guadalajara, one of the few historic buildings left standing in the city.

 

Most disturbing corporate mascot: The Farmacias Similares guy. Okay, this is a national chain of pharmacies and you see them all over Mexico. However, there seemed to be even more of them than usual in Guadalajara–all with some poor guy dressed up like the chain’s perpetually smiling fake pharmacist mascot prancing around out front. There’s just something about this guy that makes us want to whack him in the head…

This kid likes the ubiquitous Farmacias Similares mascot way more than we do.

 

Best market and best market vendor: In Guadalajara the impressively massive Mercado Libertad gets all the attention and it MUST be visited. But our favorite go-to market (as in we went there every single day for lunch and sometimes later for dinner too) was the comparatively tiny Mercado Corona. Great food vendors (from tacos to seafood to carnitas) and the second floor is full of stalls selling potions and lotions and sprays meant to fix anything that might possibly be wrong with your life. Want more success at work? Pick up a can of Call Client, whose label proclaims that it contains “Genuine Spray.” Got problems with gossipy friends or a chatty-Cathy spouse? Both are easily handled by a product called “Shut Your Mouth.” Even better than that is our favorite market vendor, the perpetually happy man who runs a small health-food/juice bar stand on the market’s first floor. Not only did he make the best aguas frescas (water infused with fresh fruit) we’ve had in Mexico, he always spent time to help us with our Spanish too. tip: mix strawberry (fresa) with lime (limon).

Smartest urban quirk: the walking/running man.Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city (after the vastly more-huge Mexico City) and it runs remarkably smoothly thanks to a whole host of tools and rules that keep even the sometimes congested downtown under control. One such tool is liberal installation of fabulous crosswalk lights that now only countdown the number of seconds that you have left to cross the street but also displays a moving human who speeds up its pace as the seconds tick away. If nothing else, this walking/running man made us smile every morning on our way to Spanish language school. Mexico City could learn a lesson here.

 

Best totally different places to see live music: Casa  Bariachi and On the Rocks. Guadalajarans (aka Tapatios) love their live music–from traditional Mariachi (which Tapatios will claim was invented in Guadalajara) to modern rock. Our favorite place to see massive mariachi bands with a rotating cast of sit-in starts is Casa Bariachi, an enormous festive place that is almost always packed with tables full of Mexican families or Mexican women on a raucous (tequila-fueled) ladies’ night out. It’s unbeatable. For live rock we stumbled upon a place called On the Rocks which is run by a gregarious guy named Isaac who makes sure the waitresses are smiley and speedy and the bands (which usually play covers of US and European rock songs in English and in Spanish) are of high quality. His own band performs on Wednesday nights.

Most confusing moment: trying to figure out when/where the futbol (soccer) games were. Guadalajarans, like most Mexicans, are crazy for soccer. Here the two top teams are Chivas and the Liones Negros. We were understandably anxious to see one or both teams play, but our initial research on their official team web sites and the local sports pages left us totally confused about where and when the teams were playing. We even asked friends with much better Spanish than ours to do the same. None of us could figure it out. When we finally did get the hang of how to know which team was the home team and, therefore, where the  game was taking place we’d already missed a bunch of matched. We never did get to a game…

Most uninhibited fountain: Along a pedestrian mall in downtown Guadalajara is a fountain. That’s not the the remarkable part. The remarkable part is that the fountain consists of a group of small boys cast in bronze, all of them peeing into the center of the fountain. It’s called the “kids peeing” fountain.

Yep. This is a fountain full of bronze boys peeing.

 

Greatest family ever: the Delgadillo/Sanchez/Hellyer clan. The generosity, help, support and overall wonderfulness of every single member of this family not only made our time in Guadalajara immeasurably easier and more enjoyable but also added to our understanding of one of the greatest things about Mexico in general: the generosity and pride of the people. We literally can’t thank them enough for feeding us and letting us stay with them and putting up with our rickety Spanish and making us feel like we were part of the family. We look forward to continuing the friendships we started in the Guadalajara area long after we’ve moved on.

Karen is all ears sitting on one of the whimsical sculptures by Alejandro Colunga in Plaza Tapatía in front of the mural-filled Hospicio Cabañas.

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Forget Fruitcake – Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Christmas, as you might expect, is a big deal in Mexico and the season stretches all the way to January 6–aka Three Kings Day (Día de Reyes in Spanish). In some parts of the country this is day on which children get their presents, not December 25.

Three Kings Day is also celebrated with its own special cake called a rosca de reyes. A particularly massive and popular bakery in Mexico City called Ideal actually shuts down production of all other goodies in the days leading up to January 6 and focuses exclusively on churning out tens of thousands of rosca de reyes cakes which are duly gobbled up by the masses.

In Guadalajara the Colegio Gastronomico Internacional charges its budding chefs with the task of baking a rosca de reyes that measures 1,500 feet (500 meters) long. That’s more than a quarter of a mile of cake! This we had to see. We have to admit we were a bit disappointed to discover that it’s not one continuous cake, but a series of three food (1 meter) long sections lined up end to end. However, it tasted great and went perfectly with the mugs of hot chocolate they were also handing out.

Part of the quarter mile long rosca de reyes cake baked every year by chefs-in-training at the Colegio Gastronomic Internacional in Guadalajara.

 

A warning about the good old rosca de reyes, however. Each and every one is loaded with white plastic representations of the baby Jesus (inserted after baking so they don’t melt). If your piece of the cake contains one, you could break a tooth plus you’re responsible for throwing a party on February 2 at which you must supply tamales for everyone.

Have we mentioned how much this country loves any old excuse to throw  a party?

Serving up the 1,500 foot long rosca de reyes baked by chefs-in-training at the Colegio Gastronomic Internacional in Guadalajara.

Want the recipe? Check out the piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com about this epic Christmas cake which includes the official recipe from the Colegio Gastronomic Internacional. 

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