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Mexico City Revisited

Fine Restaurants and a Cooking school
by Hardy Haberman
Twenty years ago when I last visited Mexico City the signs of Americanization were just beginning to appear. A few Kentucky Fried Chickens and Shakey's Pizza Y Pollo had sprouted along the major thoroughfare. Upon returning this spring I was understandably worried when I found Tony Roma's, the Hard Rock Cafe and Chili's within a short distance of my hotel.

Luckily, there is a growing movement in Mexico to research and nurture authentic Mexican cuisine. It is born from the love and pride Mexican's have for their truly original food.

The first stop on my visit was to the Fundacion Herdez. This institute is housed in a 17th century colonial house just off the Zocalo, the central square of Mexico's capitol. Herdez, one of the countries leading food suppliers, has compiled the most extensive library of culinary books in Mexico. Amid lavishly restored colonial furnishings, Fundacion Herdez has collected over 1,500 books on the cuisine of Mexico. This library and the accompanying museum is open to the public by appointment, and has become a focal point for the rebirth of true Mexican cuisine.

For a first time visitor to Mexico City one of the best places to sample the local cuisine is one of the cities best kept secrets.

El Bajio, a small café at 2709 Cuitlahuac Avenue, is a very traditional restaurant, with delightful ambiance. The chef and manager, Carmen Titita is a well known figure in Mexican gastronomic circles. Her dedication to detail and careful preparation of authentic regional dishes make El Bajio a must for any serious food devotee.

My suggestion for appetizers, or botanas would be empinada's stuffed with plantain and beans. These delicate fried pastries are served with Chipotle sauce, a dark thick mixture of smoked jalapeños, that sets off the sweetness of the plantain filling. Though it might sound overtly spicy, it has a savory taste without being too hot.

A rich soup of ancho chilies and corn, traditional to the state of Puebla, makes a great starter for a cold day. This is served in a miniature Cazuela, a small clay cooking pot. The smooth texture and light green color make this soup is pleasing to the eyes as well as the pallet.

For a main course, try the traditional mole El Bajío style. This celebrated dish is one of Carmen's most popular. Shredded chicken covered in a deep brown sauce accented by fresh sesame seeds makes this dish an eye-popping delight. Eaten either alone, with rice, or rolled in a fresh corn tortilla, the dark flavors of the chilies blend with a hint of chocolate and is sure to bring a smile to your lips.

For those with a less adventurous palate, Carmen makes a pulled pork taco served with fresh chopped onion and cilantro. This is a very popular dish in Mexico. Of course every table is supplied with a bowl of refritos, refried beans topped with a sprinkling of queso and spears of baked tortilla chips.

Dinner in Mexico usually starts around 9:00 pm at the earliest. It's later than most people in the United States are used to, but a time that works quite well for the relaxed style of dining in Mexico City. For a quiet and romantic meal, I suggest Los Naranjos. This peaceful and elegant little restaurant is nestled in the city's Polanco district, at 334 Lope De Vega. As its name implies, the décor draws heavily on the orange spectrum, yet has a surprisingly serene feel. The cuisine is guided by Chef Alicia Gironella De'Angeli, recently awarded membership in the Academie Culinaire Française. Don't let the French honors mislead you; her food is pure Mexican.

Alicia interprets old recipes, local and forgotten cooking methods and ingredients to create dishes surprisingly modern and tasty with roots in ancient Mexican cuisine. For example, her Fettuccine with huitlacoche (alternatively spelled cuitlacoche) goat cheese tossed in extra virgin olive oil is a delightful surprise. Huitlacoche, sometimes called black corn truffle, is a fungus that grows on the ears of corn. It has recently been reintroduced into many kitchens and with delicious results. This dark truffle's delicate taste blends well with the sharp tang of goat cheese for a light and unique pasta dish.

For a light start to a dinner, try the Sopa de Hongos y Flor de Calabazza, a light soup made with fresh mushrooms and pumpkin blossoms. This soup is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the pallet.

I tried a traditional dish from the Mexican State of Hidalgo. Coñejo al Aguamiel, rabbit stewed in agave honey. This sweet and flavorful dish is served in a traditional cazuela, or casserole dish, with the rich dark agave sauce smothering the succulent pieces of rabbit. It is truly a unique and unexpected flavor.

To top off the meal, I suggest the Espuma de Zapote con Salsa de Calamondina, a Zapote mousse with a sauce made from wild Calamonda oranges. The zapote fruit is not well known in the United States, but is very popular in Mexico for use in confections. It comes in more than 20 varieties and is shaped somewhat like an apple.

If you decide you would rather have a more traditional dessert, take a trip to El Morro for coffee and churros. This is akin to going to the French Market in New Orleans for beignets. Churros, fried log shaped confections rolled in cinnamon sugar with a donut-like consistency, are often sold on the street by vendors, but for the best and most popular in Mexico City, El Morro is the place. It's open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Sweets are part and parcel of the Mexican culture and cuisine. Candy shops and cake shops are everywhere in Mexico City, but the oldest and arguably the most famous candy store is Celaya. Located in the historic center of the city, Celaya features mainly traditional Mexican candies. Its décor hasn't changed since it was first built near the turn of the last century.

For cakes, the unlikely named Ideal Cake Shop or Pastelleria is a dieter's nightmare. Here the downstairs is filled with bread and pastries, but upstairs is an entire floor of unbelievable cakes. These wild visions, some as tall as 10 feet, are the centerpiece of weddings and quincenario celebrations (a girl's 15th birthday). The huge cakes are status symbols for some, each family trying to outdo the other with a bigger or wilder cake.

One of my regular activities when I was in Mexico twenty years ago was taking a stroll through the historic city center early in the morning. Before the shops had opened and the traffic jams had started, I liked to walk through the oldest part of the city and stop for breakfast at Sanborn's, one of the oldest department stores in Mexico. Started as a pharmacy years before the Mexican Revolution, the oldest of this nationwide chain of stores and restaurants was housed in a beautiful historic building covered completely in blue and white ceramic tiles. Breakfast at Sanborn's is a pleasure that can still be enjoyed today. The restaurant features both a breakfast buffet of traditional Mexican dishes and an extensive menu of specialties. My favorite is the traditional Huevos Rancheros - fried eggs, sunnyside up covered in a ranchera sauce of tomatillos and chilis. A basket of fresh baked Pan de Dulce, Mexican sweet rolls, rounds out a hearty breakfast.

For a great casual dinner, there is Villa Maria in the Polanco district of the city. Polanco is analogous to Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, and is home to some of the best new restaurants in Mexico City. Villa Maria is a modern building with a large glass enclosed atrium that spans two floors of dining. The décor is an eclectic mixture of contemporary and neo-colonial. The walls are covered with words of folk wisdom, jokes, and some slightly racy graffiti. Still the atmosphere is not overly kinetic, and the food is spectacular. Before dinner, try a margarita Villa Maria-style, made with tamarind juice instead of lime. If you want something light, I suggest the Crepes de Huitlacoche, (this popular black corn truffle seems to be everywhere) nestled on a pool of cilantro crème sauce. A traditional seafood dish, Huachinango (sea Bass) steamed in a banana leaf wrapper and served with a sweet tamarind sauce is another popular entrée. Be sure to leave room for desert, because the ever-changing tray of pastries and cakes are hard to resist.

Marriachi music rounds out the evening at Villa Maria. Unlike some noisy restaurants here in the United States, the musicians are reserved in their volume, allowing spirited conversation or romantic small talk without having to shout.

Cooking School
The dedicated culinary enthusiast will want to take advantage of a unique activity offered by one of Mexico's greatest chefs. Patricia Quintana, author of over a dozen cookbooks, consultant to restaurants around the world, and the leading force in authentic Mexican cuisine, opens her house to select individuals who wish to attend her cooking school. This dedicated and delightful woman conducts small classes in the basics of Mexican cooking. She takes her students through step by step, hands-on lessons in cooking techniques, ingredients and serving styles. Though a one-day course will not assure you the ability to cook like Chef Quintana, it will forever change the way you look at Mexican culinary arts.

During my visit with Patricia, she prepared Stuffed Chili Poblanos with Huitlacoche; Pickled Chilies stuffed with Guacamole and Squash Blossoms, and Chicken with Almond Mole Sauce. Each had a taste and character all it's own, and each dish was something I had never seen before.

Chef Quintana can be contacted to arrange a special class at her offices at Paseo de la Reforma #1355, Lomas De Chapultepec, Cuidad Mexico, DF. Rates and times change, but are very reasonable.

Being back in Mexico City after so many years gave me a chance to get reacquainted with the charm and liveliness that characterizes the city. It remains one of the world's great metropolitan areas and a culinary Mecca for food lovers. My only regret was not having enough time to visit all the great places I remember, but I know I will be back.

The magnetism of Mexico City is hard to resist.

Mexico City Recipes

Stuffed Pasilla Chilies from Oaxaca
From The Library of Fundacion Herdez
12 servings
Preparation time: 1 1/2 hours
12 whole chili pasilla
1/2 c. vinegar
1/4 c. oil
1/2 c. wheat flour

For the stuffing:
2 lbs. pork loin
1 chicken breast
3 cloves garlic
1/2 onion
1/4 c. oil
1/4 c. chopped onion
10 cloves garlic (chopped)
2 lbs. chopped tomatoes, peeled and seeded
2 oz. raisins
2 t. capers
5 chopped ripe olives
2 oz. peeled almonds
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1/4 t. black pepper
1 stick cinnamon
1 pinch marjoram
1 t. sugar
salt to taste

For the coating:
1 T. wheat flour
2 c. oil

Sauté the chilies lightly, then put inside a plastic bag and let them sweat. Using a scissors and without cutting the stem off, open the chilies carefully and scrape out the veins and seeds. Soak in a solution of salt, vinegar and water. Cook the pork, chicken, whole garlic cloves and 1/2 onion in a pressure cooker for 40 minutes. Let cool, discard the garlic and onion and shred the pork and chicken. Sauté the chopped garlic and onion in oil; add the tomatoes and cook until they change to a brighter red. Add the rest of the ingredients, leaving the herbs, sugar and salt for last. Cook on medium heat. Once seasoned add the pork and chicken and cook until the mixture is reduced.
Stuff the chilies and close them. Coat in flour and beaten egg and deep fry until crisp and golden.

Chicken with Almond Mole
From Chef Patricia Quintana
Ingredients for the Chicken:
10 c. water
2 medium white onions, peeled and quartered
2 garlic heads, peeled and roasted
1 cinnamon stick (at least 4 inches long)
8 whole cloves
salt to taste
2 chickens, cut into pieces or 8 split chicken
breasts (approx. 4 1/2 lbs.)

Ingredients for the sauce:
3/4 c. lard or vegetable oil
1 1/2 medium white onion, peeled and quartered
8 cloves garlic, peeled
2 c. almonds, blanched
1 c. roasted unsalted peanuts
1 cinnamon stick (at least 4 inches long)
4 whole cloves
16 black peppercorns
1 croissant, torn in pieces
4 large ripe tomatoes, roasted
4 dried chili anchos or dried California chilies, washed, very lightly roasted, seeded and deveined and soaked in hot water
1/2 c. lard or vegetable oil
2 slices white onion

Ingredients for the garnish:
1 can chilies largo or jalepeños (about 8 oz.)
3/4 c. blanched almonds or peanuts finely chopped
2 T. freshly chopped parsley

Preparing the chicken:
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, salt and chicken. Simmer for 25 minutes or until the chicken is partially cooked. Allow it to cool in the broth. Then remove chicken from broth and reserve both. Strain the broth.

Preparing the sauce:
Heat 1/4 cup lard in a large saucepan. Add the onions, garlic, almonds, peanuts, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and croissant pieces. Cook for 25 minutes. If the mixture begins to stick, add a little more lard or oil. Place mixture in a blender or food processor. Add tomatoes and chilies and purée the mixture.
Heat the 1/2 cup lard in a saucepan. Brown the onion slices. Stir in the puréed mixture and cook until it releases it's fat and you can see the bottom of the pan when the mixture is stirred. Rectify the seasoning. Add 2-3 cups of reserved chicken broth, or as much necessary to slightly thin the sauce. Add the chicken and cook for an additional 25 minutes. Rectify the seasoning.

To Serve:
Serve the almond mole from a large clay pot, garnished with canned chilies, chopped almonds or peanuts and parsley. Accompany with freshly made tortillas.

For a light alternative presentation use poached chicken boned and sliced thinly. Measure out 2 1/2 cups mole and thin with 1 1/2 cups chicken broth. Serve with a fan of sliced chicken breast over a ladle-full of sauce on each plate. Garnish with almonds, yellow chilies and baby parsley. Extra mole can be frozen for later use.

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