Last morning in Guadalajara and have to fortify myself for the long, one hour or so flight ahead of me. Los Chilaquiles, Av. Lázaro Cárdenas #2729, came highly recommended for their, well, chilaquiles, the traditional dish of crisp tortillas sauteed in one of various sauces and accompanied by, more various things. It’s not, at all, the dish that shows up in Mexican restaurants in the States, at least the ones I’ve had it at, where it seems to be wan strips of tortilla floating about in soup with some chicken and sour cream thrown in for good measure.
The house classic at this place, for breakfast, is the “bandera”, or “flag”, a trio of preparations of the tortillas in a classic spicy red sauce, a creamy and spicy white sauce, and a not quite so spicy green. Beans and a fried egg are automatic, you pick your “stew” to accompany it, I’d been told, and online research backed it up, that the lengua, stewed tongue, couldn’t be beat. Absolutely delicious, wish we’d tried the place earlier in the week, especially as it was walking distance from our hotel.
When I first started figuring out the trip to Guadalajara, I knew I wanted to add in something more to explore in Mexico. I realized it’s been almost thirty years since I was last here, somewhere back in the mid-80s I came down on vacation to Mexico City three years in a row, and I found it fascinating, and fell in love with the food here, the first time I’d had “real” Mexican food. So I planned a week here, with food being the primary goal of course.
My initial thought was that I would try to get to all of the restaurants in and around Mexico City that made it onto last year’s 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America list. There are quite a few of them – nine – so it would be logistically possible, given that most of them are open for both lunch and dinner, but as I really looked at it, that just seemed a bit overwhelming. Plus, I want to have more of that “real” food that I discovered, and have been rediscovering over the last week in Guadalajara. So we’ll see how this goes!
On arrival at the apartment where I’m staying for the week, I realized I had to stock it up a bit – some airbnb folk make sure that there are things in the apartment to get you started, others don’t – it’s always a surprise. So I popped out to the local supermarket and picked up some coffee, fruit, and, I grabbed a couple of little tubs of hummus, cottage cheese, some mixed nuts, and celery. May as well have the occasional lighter snack while I’m here. Of course, that may be the last time I do that, but hey, I’m prepared.
The highest rated of all the spots on the list, coming in at #6, is Quintonil, Newton 55, which turned out to be about a five block walk from the apartment. It’s not quite what I’d expect – it’s on a little side street off of a small plaza, it’s got a sliding patio door to enter it, and, it kind of looks inside like some sort of corporate lunchroom where they’re trying to convince you that they’re at least vaguely “green”.
Service is… odd. It’s correct, it’s efficient, it’s emotionless – I don’t think I saw any expression on anyone’s face in the place that didn’t seem wooden. It doesn’t mean they didn’t come across as helpful and friendly, but it was like they’d all been trained not to let their face muscles loosen. The only real misstep, however, was around beverages – my waiter seemed to think that I could decide on what to drink, i.e., cocktail, wine, etc., without seeing the list of those. I had to ask him twice, after he twice came over and asked if I’d decided what I wanted to drink – the idea that I might want to look at the actual list seemed to mystify him – and that seems to be the order of the day – I didn’t see a single table get shown the cocktail and wine list when they got their menus, they had to ask for it. Even weirder, because there is a sommelier on staff. Maybe he’s supposed to bring it, not the waiters….
I did, finally, order a bottle of wine (and made it through about 2/3 of it, thank you very much), the 2014 Vinicola La Trinidad’s Afrodita, a quite tasty blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc – the menu leans towards vegetable and fish, so I figured a white, and the sommelier agreed.
I already knew I was going to do the whole tasting menu. It’s ostensibly ten courses, but there’s a little more to it than that. Plus, having looked at the menu, there was one appetizer on it that I knew I wanted to try, and asked if they could fit it into the tasting menu somewhere. On to the food – this was the amuse bouche, or botana, as they say here, a little mini ceviche with different seaweeds. Delicious start.
Also not one of the ten courses, a little knit cozy with a trio of dark tortillas (I’m not sure if they were blue corn, or possibly huitlacoche, the prized corn fungus here. Served with fried beans and a mild hot sauce. Quite good, I only had one, given the rest of the food coming down the line.
Aguachile de campo – nopales curados en sal, betabel y algas – you might remember from a couple of the Guadalajara posts the aguachile, the zesty lime, cucumber and chili “broth” that is served over raw shrimp, classically. Here, a very toned down version, with basically no chili, more just lime, salt and cucumber, beneath a small pile of salt-cured cubes of cactus pads, with a very sweet beet juice served on the side. Odd, just odd – I don’t quite get the cactus preparation, and with the lack of chili, the whole dish seemed like little more than salt and sugar.
Tostada de salpicón de cangrejo, lima, rábano y mayonesa de chile habanero – A delicious tostada topped with a mild habanero chili mayo, radishes, onions and herbs. The crab, for whatever reason, is in a quenelle underneath the tostada, and is in a light lime and herb broth. Personally, I’d rather have it on the tostada mixed in with the other ingredients, but that was easily correctable by doing it myself.
Tártara de aguacate tatemado, escamoles & chips de quelites – This is the extra dish I’d ordered – I wanted to see what a chef working at this level did with the escamoles, the ant pupae and larvae that I’d been introduced to in last week’s cooking class. My favorite dish of the evening (though the tostada above comes in a close second) – slightly misleading in that a toasted avocado tartare wouldn’t be a tartare, since that implies something raw, but so be it – it’s in the “form” of a tartare, being finely diced and mixed with the escamoles and little wisps of the greens that have been toasted, and the whole thing surrounded by a seaweed powder (he does like his seaweed).
Salbute con cuitlacoche nixtamalizado en mantequilla avellanada, miel de agave y polvo de chile mije – Another excellent dish, though slightly hard to eat – a salbute is, traditionally in Yucatecan cuisine, a small corn tortilla that’s been deep fried in lard so that it puffs up. Here, it’s filled with the corn fungus I mentioned, along with some fresh corn, mixed with agave honey and a local chili powder made from chile mije, a Oaxacan chili similar to a dried pasilla. It kind of burst and fell apart on the first bite (it was recommended to pick it up and eat by hand), but I loved it.
Chileatole de hoja santa y algas, chayotes y flores – a chileatole is a traditional beverage made with corn masa, fresh corn, ancho chili, epazote, onions and spices, and water. It can be made sweet, but is more often served either cold or hot as a sort of thickened broth, and often meat or chicken broth is included in the mix. Here, made with hoja santa, an aromatic leaf with a sort of peppery root beer flavor to it. Lurking underneath the surface were noodles made out of chayote, a fruit that has a texture similar to a summer squash. Not a dish I’d have again, it was interesting, but the textures and flavors just didn’t work for me.
Callo de hacha, aguacatae, jitotomate, con mojo de chilhuacle negro y perejíl – Scallops, sliced, just warmed, with avocado and tomato – the sauce quite interesting, made with the very rare chilhuacle, which literally means ancient chili in the Nahuatl language – it’s one I’ve never tried before, but I’m going to look for some dried ones to bring back with me – what a great flavor!
Pesca del día con puré de chile guajillo, frijol ayocote y pico de gallo de piña y chile güero – The fish of the day was lubina rayada, striped bass, runner bean puree and a pineapple and güero chili puree in dots around the plate – and a guajillo chili sauce poured aside it – there was a whole lot of sauce pouring at tableside going on, or at least it felt that way – while looking back it was only 3 out of 10 courses that had something poured over it at the table, maybe it was because it was these three in a row.
Papada de cerdo en recado negro perfumado en cascarilla de cacao, vegetales fermentados y cebollas confitadas – a fairly underused cut of meat, the papada is the dewlap, or the fold of skin and fat that hangs under the jowl – as such it’s mostly, skin and fat, with little meat. Coated in recado negro, a traditional charred chili and spice blend (and probably much of the impetus behind all these ash preparations I’ve been seeing), and cocoa husk. The vegetables were just barely fermented, no strong flavors. It was a nice dish, but not one that wowed me.
Nieve de nopal – basically a cactus pad sorbet. On its own, a nice palate cleanser, but it was topped with a heavy sprinkling of salt that sort of destroyed that effect and overwhelmed the sorbet – I think someone slipped with an awfully large pinch.
Uvas confitadas, espuma de té limón, ruibarbo y granizado de tomate – this was more the palate cleanser than the last, with lightly cooked grapes (not really confited as best I can tell – probably they were put into a vacuum pack with whateer the confit-ing liquid was and poached at a low temperature, currants, a lemon tea foam, and a tomato water granite. Nice and refreshing.
Merengue de frutas rojos – I have to admit, having three fruit desserts in a row just seems like a bad choice. At this point I’d have really liked something a bit more decadent to polish off the meal. Red fruits, a little crispy meringue, a little soft meringue. Meh.
This was the “coffee service”, which is automatic – café en olla, which is basically coffee cooked with cinnamon, sugar and milk, a crisp sort of Belgian waffle, a mini-doughnut, and some passionfruit marmalade. It’d be nicer at breakfast, and just seemed a little out of place with the rest of the menu.
So, overall, the room doesn’t impress me. The service is as I described it above, correct but a bit wooden. The food, quite interesting, and for the most part, delicious. A ten, really, twelve course tasting runs a flat 1150 pesos (about $64 right now), plus the one additional dish, a bottle of water, a bottle of wine (which ran 700 pesos itself ($39) – their wine prices are really high – they had some mid-range Argentine wines on the list and they were roughly 10 times what I’d pay for them in a restaurant in Buenos Aires – I assume there are some high import costs involved, but that seems excessive – regardless, I want to try Mexican wines while I’m here), and tip – all came in at $135. Not bad at all for one of the top restaurants out there.