33 Things I Now Know About Mexico

Image(This isn’t even the half of it, or the quarter of it)

Ed. note: We recently returned from a short vacay to Mexico. We went to escape the craziness that is America, and because it is the only country on earth that is accepting American tourists these days. As usual, when we have a great time in a foreign land, we like to share.

Mexico City is so big it makes Vegas look like Boulder City.

They used to call Mexico City D.F. (Distrito Federale), but that’s now as dated as the Frito Bandito.

Trying to see Mexico City in a week is like trying to tour the Louvre in an hour.

If all you know of Mexico are its border and beach towns, then you’re missing the real deal.  Diving in to where it all started is a cultural eye-opener.

Mexicans eat better and cheaper than we do.

They are more vigilant than Americans about Covid protocols as well.

CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, aka City of Mexico) is a walk-able city, but the distances are vast.

As with Tokyo (and most huge, international capitals), it is best to pick a neighborhood (Centro, Reforma, Polanco, Roma, etc.) and spend a day getting to know it.

Roma is tree-lined, peaceful, and filled with places eat — a nice antidote to the crazy cacophony of the city surrounding it.

There are more museums in one park (Bosque de Chapultepec) than in the entire state of Nevada.

Image(The Polanco at 2:00 am)

The air there is so lousy you can’t see the stars at night, none of them. (That little dot in the picture above is a helicopter.)

The air may be terrible, but I didn’t notice. The Food Gal®, however, was starting to complain of an irritated nose and throat by Day 4.

Uber is über-cheap – there is no reason to take any other form of transportation.

Speaking of cheap, food and drink are a serious bargain: from superb street tacos to modernist cuisine meccas, prices are laughably low.

Service with a smile is also the universal rule. The language barrier is also no big deal. To figure out the price in dollars, divide everything by 20.

Image(Pujol)

Modernist cuisine — as exemplified by hyper-local, multi-course, fixed priced menus — is alive and well. We hit the two biggest names (Pujol and Quintonil) and both were jammed with Rico Suaves and their lovely ladies. As I’ve said many times, the whole tasting menu thing has run its course, but as long as the World’s 50 Best nonsense is around, there will always be gastro-tourists (with more money than taste) keeping these things afloat. For this reason, the next time we’re here, I expect to be at the Taco Omakase at Pujol, or ordering a la carte from Quintonil.

You don’t see/hear many American accents (we counted three); this is a good thing.

You don’t see many fat people either (even among the mobs at Mercado de Merced).

People have asked me if it’s “clean.” Yes, cleaner than the human toilet that is downtown Los Angeles; more pristine than San Francisco. In many ways, CDMX reminded us of an Hispanic Chicago: spotless streets, wide boulevards, nice people and a remarkable lack of trash.

Image(Roma)

It is also safe. There is, literally, a cop car on every corner.

Crossing the street can be take-your-life-in-your-own-hands endeavor, however.

Beggars are a nuisance, but not an issue. Sit or stand anywhere for more than ten seconds and someone will approach either asking for a handout or to sell you some junk. You learn the words “no, gracias” very quickly, and will say them about fifty times a day.

Image(Anyone for an Orthopteran?)

They take their insects seriously here, at lunch and dinner.

As impressive as Pujol and Quintonil were, the first meal I’d revisit would be Guzina Oaxaca — a chic, casual spot in the Polanco specializing in Oaxacan cuisine in all its glories.

Image(Holy mole!)

Mexican wines were also a nice surprise. They use a lot of European varietals, to varying degrees of success. Pro tip: this is uncharted territory for even serious oenophiles, so let your sommelier guide you. No matter what you buy, it will probably be under $50. Pro tip #2: They’re doing better with their reds than their whites, but this is only based on a very limited sample.

La Merced is a zoo, a labyrinth, a maze of shops: a tangle of warren after slithering warren of alleyways and side streets selling miles and miles of junk. There’s also a food section (our real reason for going), but we never found it. Pro tip: Don’t go on a Saturday morning. Pro tip #2: Don’t let your Uber driver drop you off blocks from the main market — you’ll never find it, no matter how much you look at Google maps. Pro tip #3: Sign up for a tour, unless you enjoy being swallowed up by a sea of humanity seemingly enthralled with miles and miles of plastic junk. One of our companions remarked how ubiquitous and similar these “street markets” are around the globe — selling cheap clothes and toys to tens of thousands every day. “The one in Istanbul is even worse,” he sighed as we struggled to find an exit ramp from the human highway that enveloped us.  It was almost enough to make us miss Walmart.

Mercado Roma was as disappointing as Mercado de Merced was frustrating — it being little more than a glorified food court.

Image(Cochinita pibil tacos at Turix)

The tacos are insane, but I already knew that.

Even the bad tacos in Mexico City are good tacos. The tacos at El Turix (a hole in the wall in Polanco) are some of the best of all.

Image(Sensational seafood at Contramar)

Mexican seafood is its own thing, treating fish in ways that would have a Frenchman crying sacre bleu! Like most of the country’s cuisine, it emphasizes strong flavors over delicate technique (see above).

That said, the better restaurants know how to treat fish right. Contramar (in the Roma neighborhood) is such a restaurant (reservations essential).

There is no such thing as a bad trés leches cake.

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Muchas gracias to foodie friends Greg and Deanna, and JB and Kathy, for setting up so many fabulous meals and acting as interpreters for the trip. All of us can’t wait to return, because….

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It’s Not You, Jose Andres, It’s Me

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The hottest love has the coldest end. – Socrates

We’re done, José.

It’s over.

It’s not you; it’s me.

Time to move on.

I’m not good enough for you.

I need space. (So do my trousers.)

Breakups can be sad, but sometimes tears are the price we pay for the freedom we need. (And boy do I need my freedom from the tyranny of tasting menus.)

Breaking up can make you a better person. This might be good for both of us.

Before we go into why this is necessary, a little history is in order.

What we now call tasting menus, used to be called degustation menus. They were the province of a certain level of high-falutin’ French restaurants, and they usually came on a little insert to the menu offering to let the chef decide what special courses he would feed you that night.

Tasting menus were an adjunct to the main, a la carte selections, and were of interest to mainly the most dedicated gourmands. You knew you weren’t in for the usual starter-main-dessert meal, and that the courses would be smaller, and there might be a couple more of them. Mainly though, you went the degustation route because it promised to show the kitchen strutting its best stuff.

This is the way things were from the late 1970s (when yours truly became seriously involved with cooking/food/restaurants), until the late 1990s.

Then, Tom “Call Me Thomas” Keller and Ferran Adrià came along and ruined everything.

Image result for French Laundry menu(This looks like 10 courses, but at the end of the evening, it was more like 15)

Gastronomy historians might have another take on this, but from my perch, the whole “you will be eating/swooning over 15 small plates of chef’s creations” really took off when Keller got soooo much press for his (mandatory, multi-course) feast at The French Laundry.

In 1997, I was in Napa Valley at a writer’s conference with Ruth Reichl, Colman Andrews, Corby Kummer, Barbara Kafka, and a host of others, and that’s all they could talk about. This talking eventually morphed into a gazillion raving/fawning articles about Keller in every major food ‘zine. Soon enough, the copycat race was on.

When Adrià made his big splash with El Bulli around the same time, the die was cast and high-end restaurants from Lima to London adopted the formula of wowing their customers with “techniques” over taste. A chef friend told me of going to El Bulli fifteen years ago and throwing in the towel….after the 44th course with more on the way.

No longer were a half-dozen specialties of the house enough, as you might find at Paul Bocuse or Le Cirque.  Instead, Keller and Adria started an arms race of escalating courses…where mutually-assured palate destruction was the result if not the goal.

These days, almost every restaurant in the World’s 50 Best centers its cooking around a bill of particular, itty bitty ingredients done by the biteful.

 

Image result for el bulli menu degustacion

It’s time to stop the madness.

Who really wants to eat like this? Answer: no one.

Watching chefs piece together teeny tiny pieces of food into dish after dish of edible mosaics no longer holds any fascination for anyone but jaded critics who constantly need to be dazzled while “discovering” the next big thing.

As Robert Brown elucidates in his excellent evisceration of the form, tasting menus have debased cuisine by turning it into an exercise in solipsism for chefs:

By tailoring his operation around it (essentially turning it into a glorified catering hall since most, if not all customers eat the same meal), a chef is able to run his restaurant with a smaller kitchen staff, determine with precision his food purchases, and enhance his revenue by manipulating, if not exploiting, his clients by exercising near-complete control over them.

Conceptually, the tasting menu is a losing proposition for the client even in the happenstance of an enjoyable dish. If and when you get such a dish, it is usually never enough, thus making you desirous of something you cannot have; i.e. more of the dish. When you have a dish that is less than stellar or just plain bad, the chef has foisted on you a dish you did not bargain for, thus debasing your meal in the process. The perfect or near-perfect meal is all but unattainable when your waiter brings you six or eight or twelve, sometimes even many more, tastes. Given the intrinsic hit-and-miss nature of tasting menus, I have never come close to having such a meal. As with great dramas, musicals, concertos, or operas, culinary perfection is almost always found in divisions of two, three or four.

I read this essay two years ago and agreed with it, but it took that much time (and several more marathon meals) for the lessons to sink in. (You might remember that I was also bored out of my gourd by Meadowood and Alinea a couple of years ago.)

If New York restaurants are any indication, the next big thing is a return to sanity: the classic catechism of appetizer-entree-dessert. The way you eat in good French restaurants and homey Italian trattoria; the way the human body was meant to digest food.

When I go to Spain in a couple of months, it’s going to be a challenge — since the Spaniards invented (or have at least expanded and exploited) this unnatural way of eating more than any other culture. One of my solutions will be to go at lunch (like I do in Paris and Italy), where the meals are shorter, more focused and more fun. Plus, you then have the rest of the afternoon/evening to walk off the calories.

As for my recent meal at é by José Andrés, below you will find the list of dishes, along with some tasty snaps.

For the record: almost every bite was a testament to intense flavors and culinary skill. It was my third meal at é in as many years, and the best of the bunch. Chef de Cuisine Eric Suniga and his crew orchestrate a perfectly-timed concert where everything harmonizes — with a staff busting their asses while never missing a beat or hurrying the customers.

It’s dinner and a tweezer show, a plating performance if you will (the actual cooking takes place out of sight), which almost makes you forget you’re paying $400/pp for a meal with strangers.

The only trouble is there’s both too much and too little going on. Too many dishes and not enough time to reflect and contemplate them, and not that enjoyable if you really want to savor the cooking, the techniques, or the food and wine matches (which are excellent).

Even with those criticisms, though, there probably aren’t five other restaurants in America that can match it.

Image(Suniga and crew are on it like a bonnet)

But for me, no màs. Never again.

I don’t want to eat 20 different things at a sitting. I realized some time ago that you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns with these slogs — your satisfaction being inversely proportional to the number of fireworks going off in front of you.

Three to six courses is all one’s brain and palate can absorb. Everything else is just cartwheels in the kitchen, the chef as baton twirler.

To be brutally honest about it, this type of meal isn’t about the food, or the wine, or the conversation. The point is to have you ohh and ahh over the production. There isn’t much time between courses to do anything else.

The great joy of going to a restaurant is deciding at the very last minute what you want to eat, not what the chef insists you eat. Tasting menus rob you of that singular pleasure, and for that reason alone, I must bid them adieu.

Here are the dishes:

Truffle Tree

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Morning Dew

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Beet Rose

It was small and and tasty but not that photogenic; let’s move on.

Stone

Image(The black and white thingees are actually cheese; the things that look like stones are stones. Don’t eat those.)

Spanish Pizza

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Wonderbread

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Pan Con Tomate

This was a small piece of the world’s greatest ham on an almost-not-there puff of bread. The only thing wrong was there should have been more of it.

Uni Y Lardo

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Vermut

Image(This dish fomented much mussel love)

Edible Sangria

Image(The description doesn’t lie)

 

Esparragos en Escabeche

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Txangurro a la Donastiarra

Crab served in its shell — deliciously crabby but unremarkable.

Foie Royal

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Platija

Image(Steak for 8? No problemo!)

Chuleta

A block of fluke that was no fluke…even if it was a bit boring. FYI: fluke is always boring. Sorta surprised they used it.

Empanada

Image(This started out as a ball of cotton candy the size of a small child)

Menjar Blanc

Image(White food, aerated)

Winter in Vegas

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Intxausaltsa

Image(Your guess is as good as mine)

Cherry Bomb

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More things…

By the time you get to “more things”, only the heartiest of soldiers is still ready for combat. Most have run up the white flag as they’re being politely herded off to make room for more cannon fodder.

That’s when it hit me and I mumbled, “I still love you, José; I’m just not in love with you anymore. Certainly not with this dining concept. Whatever flame you may have ignited in me 20 years ago with your wacky Spanish molecular manipulation is now but a smoldering ash — the charred remnant of a fiery passion that once had no bounds (or course or calorie counts), and is now as worn out as bacon-wrapped dates.”

You’re better off without me. You’ll be happier with someone who appreciates you more than I do.

And I’ll be happier dating your sexy siblings: the smoking-hot Jaleo or the bodacious Bazaar Meat.

You wouldn’t mind, would you?

I hope we can still be friends.

Our meal for 2 came to around $800, including tax, tip, and $120 worth of wines by the glass. Notably absent above is any consideration of price-to-value ratio. For aspiring gourmets, globe-trotting gastronauts, and culinary show-offs, it’s probably worth it. For a one-time splurge it’s absolutely worth it. There’s no more convivial way to experience the glories(?) of molecular gastronomy, accompanied by a great steak.

é by Jose Andres

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.698.7950