Sunday, December 30, 2012

100 Years and Counting: Cafe de Tacuba of Mexico City

I think it is safe to assume that one hundred years ago things were quite different. That is about the extent of my historical knowledge: a long time ago things were really different than now, and more recently things were a little less different. But in different ways. Deep, I know, but lacking some important details I admit.

Luckily there are sites like Wikipedia, where historically accurate or not, you can find all sorts of information on what was happening 100 years ago. For example, New Mexico became a state in 1912. This may come as little surprise, but I didn't know that. Fenway park in Boston hosted its first baseball game 100 years ago, making it baseball's oldest stadium. That I did happen to know, mostly because it was on TV. And the Titanic both set sail and hit an iceberg 100 years ago. I might have guessed that because I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was looking a little old these days. Wait, didn't he drown? He really is resilient.

So maybe things haven't changed all that much after all. Once again, the internet has caused me to re-think history and facts as I know them: Leo is still flourishing in his acting career, people still venture out on large boats through fields of icebergs, New Mexico is still a state and the Red Sox are still losing to the Yankees. Maybe things are exactly as they were 100 years ago.

This point is reinforced at Mexico City's Cafe de Tacuba, which turned 100 on December 13, 2012. Cafe de Tacuba has always been a favorite of mine, and my wife and I make a point of visiting almost every time we are in the capitol city.

We happened to walk in on the aforementioned anniversary date, and true to its timeless nature, didn't notice anything different about the place: Same straightforward but well-executed menu. Same waitresses and hosts dressed in historic outfits.

Same intricate azulejos tile-work. Same shimmering stained glass windows. Same historic paintings, from a distinguished portrait of the legendary (and wonderful, I might add) poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz to gastronomic-themed oils depicting the "discovery" (by Europeans) of chocolate and mole.

We did end up ordering both mole and chocolate--my wife with the latter, a thick-though-light, creamy and decadent hot chocolate  Me, a plate of huevos con mole. My mole was fantastic, embodying all the desirable characteristics of a slowly cooked, carefully prepared chocolate-forward mole: sweet, bitter, pungent, rich and ever-so-slightly spicy. I happily mixed it in with my beautifully fried eggs, done Mexican-style, so the bright yellow yolk just warms, but runs every which way on the plate.

They also brought us each a tamal and a little cup of atole, a sweet masa-based hot drink popular around the holidays. The tamales included red and green versions with pork and chicken, as well as a divine tamal de mole.

It was another great meal, made even greater by the fact that they were giving every table a 50% discount as well as a coffee mug marking the historic occasion.

Not too many restaurants last 100 years. Colorado's Buckhorn Exchange has made it 119 years at last count, but these days making through the first year can be difficult enough. As trends come and go and as bubbles continue to burst, it is nice to see the lasting power of a place like Cafe de Tacuba. Next time you're in Mexico City, take a step back in time and visit them. 100 years of doing it right means you are unlikely to be disappointed.

Cafe de Tacuba is located on, well, calle Tacuba just steps from the Metro Allende and a short jaunt to the Zocalo. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

From Quezon City to Colorado: A Taste of the Philippines Brings Filipino Food to the People

It's hard sometimes being a (half) Filipino in Denver. Not in a struggle-for-basic-human-rights-way or anything like that, it's just there aren't many of us around. When a town isn't overflowing with Pinoys it goes to follow that there aren't many Filipino restaurants. At one time I counted three, all in the far reaches of SE Aurora, and now only one stands. Needless to say that it was with great enthusiasm that I finally made it downtown to A Taste of the Philippines a few weeks ago.

As you may know (whether you believe it or not is another thing), I work for a living. And I don't work downtown so I have missed out on the explosion of food carts and other food related things that are happening currently in great numbers that I believe are referred to as trends. This trend of food carts and trucks has gotten a little out of control for my tastes, but every once and awhile, something good comes along. Something like a Filipino food cart.

The first menu item on owner and Chef Kathy Gietl's A Taste of the Philippines menu is chicken adobo. Adobo is a Filipino standard just like a tortilla would be to many Spaniards, or ratatouille to the French. There are many versions and every Filipino's mother, grandmother or other matriarch makes the best one. Gietl's was very good, but true to a my Filipino roots, I must say that my Auntie Cora's is better. Partly I say that so there is no chance I will have my adobo withheld from me this Christmas, but also because adobo is so deeply personal that the one you had all your childhood and life is without a doubt the best one. Still, like I said, Gietl's adobo was very good-- a comforting blend of the strong usual suspects like vinegar, soy and garlic. The meat was tender and the portion large. It would be an excellent introduction to Filipino cuisine for anyone.

Adobo: brown, proud and up front. 

The same goes for the lumpia, or fried egg rolls. Auntie Cora's is the best. She makes a lighter but thicker version and uses no meat; while Gietl's is thin, tightly rolled and stuffed with yummy pork. She even makes her own dipping sauce (Gietl, that is). Lumpia is something that everyone likes--and this one is stuffed fried with pork, after all. Don't forget to order a pair if you go.

I missed out on the pancit that day, which was gone after the lunch rush. We did have, however, manok sa gata, a sort of coconut curry a la adobo. My wife, who loves diverse flavors was not a fan of the overall combinations in the dish but I really liked it. All Filipino food is not for everyone.

Gietl was born in Quezon City and her mission, she told me, was to educate as many people as she could about Filipino Food-- and then of course, win them over with her cooking. Seems simple, but I think the problem with Filipino food being more mainstream is that it can be quite obscure, and the diverse flavor profiles can be very different than what the average American palate is used to. That being said, Gietl's cart has a nice variety of introductory Filipino foods that should appeal to just about everyone.

One problem many of the failed Denver-area Filipino enterprises share in common is that they might have tried to market to a Filipino population that really wasn't there. I admire Gietl because she doesn't seemed concerned with that at all. Her mindset seems to be that she is going to open Denver's eyes to the good of Filipino food one person at a time. She's cooking not to fill a niche in a cultural demographic, but rather because she loves it and she is passionate about the cuisine. I for one enthusiastically endorse this mission and will continue to punch my frequent diner card there as often as I can.

Regardless of the loyalties we Filipinos inevitably have to our home cooked meals, A Taste is serving up good versions of tried-and-true Filipino standards. And I, for one, don't get to eat my aunt's food but once or twice a year if I'm lucky, so to have A Taste here in my backyard is a blessing and a big step forward for our cuisine. Check her out. I think you will like it. If you do, go back. Learn. Embrace. Filipino for all!

Check out A Taste of the Philippines on twitter for the latest updates or just get on down there to 16th and Champa. A Taste of the Philippines on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Fresh Fish in Sayulita: Dining in the Riviera Nayarit

There has been relatively much travel in the Denver on a Spit household of late. Although when one is burdened blessed with twin toddlers, any venture out of the house may qualify as travel in that it is endlessly tiring and unforgivingly eventful. That has been part of the reason for my slow-to-post ways over the past couple months, and while I don't want to bore my Denver readers any more than I already do with non-Denver news, I really wanted to say something about our most recent trip to Mexico.

We ended up staying in a small town north of Puerto Vallarta that, coincidentally, was just written up by another Denver media outlet that you may or may not have heard of before, 5280. I am speaking of the weirdly enchanting little beach town of Sayulita, that somehow has many of the things I despise about many Mexican beach towns: American and European-ized restaurants and shops--yet has me determined to make it back some day. Having only spent a week there, I can't come to any conclusions, but the non-Mexicans who have moved to Sayulita in droves over the past decades do not seem to be the typical big resort types, though some clearly cannot spell:

The food, alas, thanks to the oh-so-many ex-pats can be both expensive and a little bland. Luckily, however, there is still enough local flavor so as one can dish out about $7.50 USD and eat this, at a classic beachside place called El Costeño:

Two fried whole fish freshly caught that morning, only hours from their last desperate flaps to return to their ocean home-- instead steaming hot on my plate quite literally oozing roasted garlic and oil from their gills--or more specifically, the small slices made through their delicate, now-crunchy skin. This is exactly what I crave when I visit a Mexican beach and El Costeño of Sayulita delivered. It was so good in fact, that instead of risking a less-than-stellar meal at an over-priced "dinning" joint I returned to gorge myself on this same exact dish the very next night. Plus, you couldn't beat the view.

The restaurant again, is El Consteño, if you ever make it down.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Udi's "Tacos al Pastor": The Secret's in the Mushrooms

Since the ironic font has yet to catch on to the degree that it really should, and it is otherwise difficult to type one thing while meaning another, I tend to make liberal use of quotations marks in my "writing". A recent trip to the Udi's in Stapleton, Denver's newest "neighborhood", provided me with an irresistible opportunity to fill my post with quotation marks.

We were there for "dinner", which in my toddler-run household happens no later than five, usually while my lunch is still digesting. Nevertheless, here we were, and my spider-pig-like pastor sense zeroed in on the following words emblazoned on the wall menu: "Al Pastor Tacos". Before I knew it, I was ordering them and they were on my table.

Of course I didn't have high expectations for my tacos al pastor, being that I was in a bakery, and even more so because this bakery was in Stapleton. Though there are many worthy tacos within a long home-run of Stapleton's borders, this "urban" community is pretty much the antithesis of raw pork marinated in spices roasting on a spit with an open flame. But I did appreciate that there was no purporting on the part of Udi's about having an "authentic" experience; or certainly no mention of "street tacos", as there is in a certain "taco" shop I just wrote about that is about as far from the "street" as one can get while only being a few feet from it.

My tacos were served on what seemed to be a freshly made tortilla. I suppose that should be a given since I was in a bakery, but nevertheless it did not go unnoticed. It was piled high with a good (but unnecessary on tacos al pastor) pico de gallo-like salsa and came with a respectably spicy (something that "street taco" place can't claim) chipotle-heavy "salsa". I poured it over the top and also noticed there were grilled pineapples on the taco as well. Nice touch. I didn't take the time to examine the rest of the contents, as my kids were frantically doing something or other that they probably shouldn't have been doing, and I practically swallowed the first taco.

It was tasty and not bad. I didn't get much flavor from the "meat", but the marinade was surprisingly much more "pastor-like" than I would have expected. After my second taco I took a moment to examine the contents: this was not pork. I remember seeing chicken and shrimp as options on the wall menu, but I didn't pick either of those, so whatever could this be?

My "taco" it seems, was made of mushrooms. When "reading" the menu initially, I overlooked the actual ingredients, because when I see "tacos al pastor" on a menu, I assume that "pork" is involved. You don't say that you want a meat-product in your hot dog bun when you order a hot dog any more than you would ask for a "pork" taco al pastor. However, upon examining the menu a little closer, I saw that the contents were rather clear: crimini and shitake mushrooms.

I "smiled". I never would have ordered this if I knew beforehand it was made of mushrooms, but I'm "glad" I did because, well, I just ate possibly the world's only mushroom taco al pastor. And although I'm pretty sure no vegetarians have made it past my blog's logo, if you are reading this and you don't eat animal flesh, or even if you happen to know someone like that, it might be worth your (or your friend's) while to get over to Udi's and try this freak-show of a "taco". Me? I'll never eat it again--though not because it didn't taste good. It just felt--and still feels--wrong.

Technically I'm not sure a "taco" can be called a "taco" when it was supposed to have pork and didn't. And although some of the flavors were there (and the marinade better than some "real" pastor taquerias), calling it "al pastor" is also a stretch, so let's compromise and add in some extra quotation marks. For the best mushroom ""taco" al pastor" you may ever eat, stop by Udi's for dinner and enjoy.

Udi's Bread Cafe at Stapleton on Urbanspoon


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