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Coox Hanal

It doesn’t make any sense that this would be the last Mexico City restaurant I write about because it was one of our favorite, though incomprehensive, meals we had on vacation. Sometimes there’s not a lot to say about the satisfying so I’ve kept mum.

Cook_hanal_insideI have no idea how to pronounce Coox Hanal (“let’s eat”) as it’s not Spanish but Mayan. I don’t imagine the first word is like kooks. And accordingly, the food hails from the Yucatan. We only tried two snacky dishes, which was unfortunate, because this style of cooking is unique. NYC is very Pueblan so there are many regional styles I rarely get to explore. I’d also intended to visit a Oaxacan restaurant, La Bella Lula in Coyoacán, but time didn’t allow.

PanuchosJames had panuchos, bean-filled corn tortillas that gets topped with a variety of shredded meat. These ones used cochinita pibil pork, my recent obsession. My salbutes were similar but lacked the beany center and came with turkey, lettuce, cucumbers and tomato. Both are akin to what American would call tostadas, but the tortillas aren’t crisp like chips; they’re fried and pliable. Fierce habanero salsas and red pickled onions are classic accompaniments.

SalbutesWe very lightly scratched the surface. I want to know more about relleno negro, an ominously black stew made dark from a burnt chiles paste. Turkey frequently gets added and I think the relleno is a dumpling-like wad crafted from corn. I’m also curious about sopa de lima, a sour chicken soup using a fruit that’s not really a lime or a lemon, full on cochinita pibil and what everyone in the restaurant was eating that left a cleaned dinosaur-sized bone on the plate. I’m suspecting it was pavo (turkey) based since that seems to be a popular protein.

Coox_hanal_salsa_2We considered going back a second time but we were so traumatized by our Centro Turibus experience that I’d sworn off the overrun barrio. Wishing we had a Coox Hanal walking distance to our Condesa hotel was reminiscent of our longing for real Thai food in South Brooklyn. Sometimes foot travel doesn't cut it.

Coox Hanal * Isabel la Catolica 83, 2nd Fl., Mexico City, Mexico

Águila y Sol

Águila y Sol, by some accounts, is currently the best restaurant in Mexico City. I can see why that’s been said but since my repertoire only encompasses a fraction of the metropolis’s offerings I can’t personally concur. Like Pujol, this modern eatery plays with classic Mexican flavors and ingredients but is more grounded in tradition. Even the cavernous room felt a bit more staid, like an upscale hotel. The restaurant just moved to this location in the last few months so I wonder how it compares to the original spot.

You enter on the ground floor and take an elevator upstairs where your arrival is announced from podium to podium by staff donning earpieces. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that just didn’t seem very NYC. I have no idea if hosts and hostesses in L.A. walk around with wireless communication devices attached to their ears but I like to imagine that they do.

To lean on a recent discussion, Águila y Sol is more “mama” where Pujol is more “show-off.” And yes, chef Martha Ortiz Chapa is a woman. Also in light of the recent McNally/Bruni ladies manning kitchens flare up, it’s worth noting that many top restaurants in D.F. are female run. Mark Bittman wrote about another two just last month.

When the female half of the the youngish American couple seated next to us asked her boyfriend/husband how he’d heard about Águila y Sol he mentioned The New York Times. James was more irritated by this twosome than I was (usually I’m the one irked by little nothings) and swore he heard the words “Carroll Gardens” come from their mouths. If true, there is something grotesque about foodie Brooklynites (reluctantly lumping myself into that demo) clogging up the same restaurants miles from home. But at least I don’t gaze into my partner’s eyes all meal long while saying “I love you.” Thankfully, inoffensive, unromantic Canadians were seated on our other side.

Locals don’t show up until after 9pm. Part way through our evening, the chain-smoking twentysomethings started piling in. Tall skinny blonde Mexican girls with preppie Anglo-looking boyfriends who were probably Mexican too. They mostly drink and eat salads. I think this genre is called fresas, akin to American yuppies (a dated word I never use but whatever. Isn’t NYC completely teeming with wealthy under-30s? It must be a Gen Y fancying themselves as soulful and creative thing because I don’t sense the same disdain for these types that existed in the ‘80s). The staff was all shorter and browner (in the U.S. they just keep these guys in the back) and this seemed to be the case anywhere with $20+ entrees. I don’t want to be a class crusader, especially on vacation; it was particularly noticeable that’s all.

I was scared about taking photos after reading this missive from a stranger, but there wasn’t any trauma. I’m a super quick snapper (and it shows). Attempting to capture a dish with minimal blur is my only aim. Compensating for color distorting candlelight is beyond my grasp.

But the food; it’s quite good. Neither James nor I could decide if we preferred Águila y Sol or Pujol. The style is enticing in the sense that it’s food food. No tasting menus, crazy plating or avant-garde techniques. More like updated classics that would score higher on a Top Chef challenge.


I will say that we chose a wretched wine and I’m snob-free on the subject. Luckily, my cocktail made of jamaica (hibiscus—like Red Zinger Celestial Seasonings tea) and dusted with chile power was dazzling. I really wanted to try something Mexican and I suppose that’s what sommeliers are for. I kind of randomly picked a red on the lower end of the mid-range, just taking a chance. I want to say that the region was Jala but I’m finding no evidence of that on the internet and since the restaurant has no website I’m without a crutch. A full month has nearly passed since this dinner so details are cloudy.


We both ordered ceviches for starters. James had one of the specials and I didn’t want to copy so I chose another version from the regular menu. His was spicier and more exciting. Mine was fresh with clean flavors enhanced by cubes of cucumber and plantain chips. I don’t know what the black seeds sprinkled over top were. Where’s Mexican Menupages when I need it?


This was the man’s meal (except I ordered it). As I eventually learned arranchera is charcoal grilled meat and is wildly popular in Mexico City. There’s even a chain called Arranchera that serves sandwiches on hefty wooden boards. This was a Lincoln Log approach to steak that my intentionally bald, bespectacled, beige-suited dining neighbor (and possible real life neighbor) also ordered and said looked like the woody toys.

On the far left is a salsa that was unbelievably hot; I really hadn’t anticipated such fire from an upscale restaurant so after my first blob my mouth was a little shocked. It seems like chefs here tend to tone down strong flavors in proportion to the price. There’s also a pile of pickled onions, jalapeños and shredded dried chiles that I want to say are guajillo. I’m always swayed by sides and one of the main reasons I ordered this dish was because I wanted to know what frijoles chino (Chinese refried beans) were. They’re hidden in the little tortilla cup and covered with wild streams of fried potato. They just tasted like refried beans. I thought maybe they were going to mash black beans or edamame (yes, Japonés not Chino but you never know). I’m not complaining.

Handmade tortillas in a variety of styles.

There’s a fish in there under the cephalopod-esqe dried chile. I did not taste this.


Ok, I nearly lost my mind when our meal ended with a freaking molten cake. As you may or may not know, these gooey clichés are the bane of my culinary existence. I truly wish I had a menu to jog my memory but I swear even with my mediocre Spanish comprehension, there was no mention warmth or baked or hot, any clues. The words chocolate, caramel and hibiscus caught my attention. I knew it was going to be a cake; perhaps I should’ve just assumed the worst. For the record, it tasted wonderful and chocolaty but I wanted something more inventive.


These were our post-dessert treats. James thought the waiter said the wrapped goodies were ensconced in rice paper. After no tasty dissolving on the tongue, we discovered it was merely tissue paper. All I can remember is that the brown nubs in the back were crazy salty and sour and might’ve been tamarind paste coated in salt. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a nice parting gift or not.

Águila y Sol * 127 Emilio Castelar, Mexico City, Mexico

Sanborns & Bisquets

Sanborns_view I cannot rest until I post all eating venues from Mexico City, no matter how banal. (Not true—I won’t go into Geisha, the pan-Asian restaurant that coats all sushi in cream cheese. I later learned that’s a common Mexican addition. Or the nondescript café where I discovered molletes, a pizza bread smeared with refried beans and topped with melted cheese and frequently chorizo. Apparently, this is a typical breakfast dish because I saw it on a lot of menus.)

Sanborns_breadI merge Sanborns and Los Bisquets Obregon together because they’re both chains in a Denny’s vein. That’s sort of a strange reference considering I haven’t been to one in probably a decade (I take that back—I did eat at one in Reading, PA around 2001) if only because they don’t exist here.

Sanborns’s food is no great shakes but they’re ubiquitous like Duane Reade and reliable for a bathroom, atm and genuinely crisp air conditioning. (Like Spain, Mexicans aren’t as into being artificially cooled as Americans. That’s one thing you could count on in all the modern Asian cities I’ve visited: surprisingly solid air conditioning. Sanborns_tacosI enjoy the swampy to sweat-stopping contrast as opposed to experiencing varying degrees of warmth.) And their original location in the Casa de los Azulejos (house of tiles) is full of 16th century charm. The same couldn’t be said of Denny’s.

We were too late for breakfast so I had to settle for pibil tacos, which were on the oily side but not hideous. I always anticipated the bread basket and pickle dish because you never knew what might turn up in either. Here, you received an overwhelming amount of crackers, rolls and tortilla chips.

Bisquets_cafeI was thinking Bisquets in Roma was closer to our hotel than it was. I just wanted to try the café con leche even though I’m normally a black coffee drinker. They prepare the coffee tableside using one pitcher of coffee and one with milk, which gets poured from high in the air almost like Malaysian teh tarik, though not quite as dramatically.

Bisquets_bread I liked how they come around with a baked goodie basket while you’re perusing the menu (they’re not freebies but it’s a nice touch). Bisquets also had baby potatoes in their spicy pickled mixture. I’d seen cauliflower at cantina in Coyoacan but potatoes were strange and new. I then picked a crazy breakfast jumble of eggs, tomato sauce, peas, American cheese, plantains and tortillas, which was no fault but my own. Bisquets_breakfastIt seemed more Caribbean than what I’d eaten in D.F., more like crazy mishmashes I’ve eaten in Colombian restaurants. Of course, I ended up nearly cleaning my plate, crazy breakfast or not.

Sanborns * Madero 4, Mexico City, Mexico

Los Bisquets Obregon * Av. Alvaro Obregón  No. 60, Mexico City, Mexico

Nevería Roxy

Roxy_neveria Nevería Roxy is totally the Eddie’s Sweet Shop of D.F., which might mean more to you if you’ve been to the frozen-in-time Queens ice cream parlor. Condesa is no Forest Hills, though (but hey, that Trader Joe's shaping up nicely).

If I’m correct helados are ice creams and nieves are sorbets. Roxy_neveria_counterThe reader board menu behind Roxy’s counter seems to roughly devote a column to each style, though it’s not broken down as such with headings. (Damn, I shrunk the photo down so much that I can’t read the flavors anymore.) I had a scoop of turrón in a cone on my first visit. It was likeable but I decided that I shouldn’t have ordered creamy and candy-like when fresh and exotic fruit was so readily available.

Roxy_neveria_ice_cream On our second round a few days later, I tried a cone-less scoop of tamarind and zapote. The latter randomly chosen because I really wasn’t sure what it was but suspected it might be a freaky fruit with black innards. I chose correctly. The tamarind was sour and refreshing as expected; the zapote was hard to pin down flavor-wise. I immediately liked it more, it was sweeter, richer and vaguely prune-like. More like a dried fruit than a juicy one.

If I’d gone a third time I would’ve found out what a harlequin was, listed under Preparados.

Nevería Roxy * 89 Fernando Montes de Oca, Mexico City, Mexico

Flor de Lis

Flordelis_tamales I’m not tamale crazy in the least but it seemed remiss to pass up Flor de Lis since it was so close to our hotel and gets talked up all over the place. And I almost went tamale-less because dining during the late end of lunch a.k.a. la comida meant many of the varieties were gone. My original order of chile verde pork in corn husks became a chicken filling in banana leaves. I’m fine with either, really.

Some of the reasons I’m not crazy about tamales is because even when they’re light like these were, they’re still kind of dense and I worry about the insides to outsides ratio. Even though our next meal was a good five hours away, the meat and masa stuck right with me.

Flordelis_facadeI’m still not sure when the proper time for tamales is because you’d see people on street corners hawking them from giant metal steamers in the morning as well as the wee hours. I never did eat a street tamale aside from the one stuffed into a roll and that appears to be an anomaly.

Street food has never scared me but today I received an email from a stranger who in addition to giving me Mexico City food tips said that there’s two tons of dried feces in the air so watch out for uncovered food. I snorted out loud at work when I read those words. I’m not sure of the veracity of that boldly disturbing statement, and since I basically find and fact check statistics and all day long at my job I can’t help but wonder about that number. This will have to be looked into further because I would hate to eat a poop tamale, wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks.

Flor de Lis * Huichapan 21, Mexico City, Mexico

I’m With the Band

Ignoring T.G.I. Friday’s late-to-the-game attempts at small plates, Subway has introduced a new overstuffed behemoth (I can’t find any reference to this on their lame website or on the blogosphere—perhaps I imagined it?). Surely, to compete with Quizno’s girthier sandwiches. Sorry Jared. The commercial that I’ve only seen once initially caught my attention because I’m a sucker for chain food gimmicks, then I became fascinated by one of the eaters, a office lady woman dressed to look younger than she is. Office ladies eat Lean Cuisine, salads and microwave popcorn, not bulging hoagies. But I do appreciate the attempt to include the fairer sex in their marketing ploy.

Another weird ladylike eating habit presented itself to me on Sunday. I was scoping out the now slightly famous Red Hook ball fields. I hadn’t been this year, and wow, it has practically been taken over by South Brooklyn post-college, just barely pre-stroller/SUV set. Live and let live, but I couldn’t ignore the female members of these crews and their approach to a food-centric gathering.

There were a number of groups scattered around the hot grass and precious few shady tables, and they tended to be made up of two or three guys with one girl. The young men were all chowing down on sasquatch-sized huaraches or greasy pupusas while their accompanying gal pal remained empty handed. Ok, a few had agua frescas and one of the dudes tried scoring a Diet Coke for his little lady but the damn Mexicans only had full sugar versions.

Boyband_2So, that’s how you spend your Sunday? Sipping lemonade and watching a bunch of men eat? I don’t get the point. Maybe it’s the 2007 equivalent of being subjected to band practice, a ritual no self-respecting woman over 24 should engage in.

Hmm, I was just skimming through my feeds and couldn’t help but notice this post from a Food & Wine editorial assistant (#4 of Five Bites Outside of Aspen). It looks like the girl managed to at least choke down half a quesadilla. We must’ve been on different days.

I, too, had a quesadilla on Sunday. And yeah, they’re unnecessarily large (though I handled a whole one no problem). I’d never had a Red Hook version before and was hoping they’d be compact and cheesey like the one I recently had in Mexico City. The Brooklyn ones aren’t really like quesadillas at all since they put tons of stuff in them like lettuce, onions and they don’t stay stuck in a half moon shape because the cheese is only melted to the tortilla and there’s not enough of it. The insides need to be gooey and you really only need one simple filling.

Jeez, I had no idea I was such a street food snob. I’d remedy this with a Subway sandwich taste test, if I could only remember the name of their new supersized product.

Photo from the New York Times article, "The Boys in the Band Are in AARP"

Sunday Night Special: Cochinita Pibil & Pickled Onions


Wow, I’ve barely cooked anything other than a turkey burger in the past three weeks. Vacation, recuperation and entertaining out-of-town family hasn’t lent itself to kitchen experimentation. Instead I’ve been eating mediocre take-out Chinese and paid visits to Totonno’s, East Buffet, Fragole, Sripraphai, Sophie’s, Om Tibet, Junior’s, Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, La Rosa and Sons and Dunkin’ Donuts (can you believe these no longer exist in Portland, Oregon?).

Sunday was not the smartest day to get back into the kitchen. Especially since I was keen on slow-cooking a pork shoulder, Yucatan-style. There’s nothing like a hot oven on all afternoon and evening during 90 degree heat. I suppose that’s the beauty of an outdoor roasting pit.

After reading a little Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless and Gourmet, I eventually settled on CHOW’s rendition of cochinita pibil. It seemed the simplest (though I can’t figure out how I managed to miss scrolling down and seeing all the negative comments) and I had no problem with using a pre-made paste. But a problem shortly arose with acquiring said paste.

Sunday morning I got into a huge unnecessary fight because James got up early and went shopping for ingredients without waking me up and asking what I needed and where to go. The hunk of meat practically cooks all day so I get that he was trying to get a jump start. I guess I’m a control freak because but I was irked because he didn’t know what store I had in mind. I was thinking of Nuevo Faro on Fifth Ave. around 16th street but the night before when I said “that Hispanic store in South Slope” he thought I meant the wretched National Supermarket in my old neighborhood on Fourth Ave. and 25th. No!

And no paste. He did pick up achiote seeds and some achiote lard blend in a glass jar, but didn’t get the concept that these are raw ingredients that need seasoning. It was now going to take extra time and effort to make the paste from scratch. I hadn’t intended on toasting and pounding spices in such heat and humidity. I really felt like I was in the tropics, though. Our spice grinder bit the dust some time ago and some things like say, annatto seeds, are hell to pulverize even in a sturdy mortar and pestle. I pounded until my wrists almost snapped and the ingredients weren’t close to powdered.

Pre pound
Post pound

Ultimately, I also borrowed from a recent Gourmet recipe for the paste-making steps. We stopped an hour short of  CHOW’s original 300 degrees for eight hours instructions, which seem too high and long now that I think about it. The meat wasn’t dried out, though. Next time I would consider marinating the meat overnight but we were short-sighted as it was. Dinner wasn’t ready until Entourage started.


Cochinita Pibil
1 3-pound boneless pork shoulder roast (also known as pork butt)
1/2 cup fresh Seville (bitter) orange juice
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
3 tablespoons annatto (achiote) seeds
6 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican), crumbled
1 large banana leaf (about 4 feet long)
3 cups water

Heat oven to 375°F. Trim any excess fat from pork.

Toast peppercorns, cumin, and allspice together, then cool slightly. Transfer to grinder along with annatto seeds and grind to a powder. Transfer to a small bowl.

Mince garlic and mash to a paste with remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt using side of a large heavy knife. Add to ground spices along with oregano and remaining 6 tablespoons juice and stir to make a paste.

Trim center core from banana leaf and run it under hot tap water until leaf becomes soft and pliable. Remove excess water from leaf and cut in half horizontally; overlap the two leaves so that they are about 2 feet long and 1 foot wide, together.

Generously season pork on all sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place the pork in the bowl with the achiote mixture and coat it well, rubbing the spice mixture into any crevices. Place pork on banana leaves, fold in the left and right sides, and roll it up like a burrito, completely encasing the roast.

Place roast in a roasting pan on a rack, with the seam of the banana leaves facing down. Add the water to the bottom of the pan, cover tightly with foil, and place in oven for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 275°F and continue roasting for 6 hours.

Remove pork from oven; unwrap the banana leaves and discard them. Shred meat with two forks onto a serving platter. Serve with pickled red onions, warm corn tortillas, and salsa.

Serves 8

Recipe based on Yucatecan-Style Pork from Gourmet May 2007 and Mayan-Style Pit Pork from CHOW


Habanero Salsa

After leafing through a few versions of habanero salsas (mildly fun fact: habeneros are traditionally used only in the Yucatan), I chose one from the Gourmet’s international issue. It’s meant to accompany cochinita pibil. It ended up  too liquidy. I was hoping it would be thicker like the ones I had at Coox Hanal in Mexico City. I added an extra pepper and it still wasn’t so hot. When I eat it again, I’m going to strain off some of the orange juice and add a few drops of El Yucateco KutBil-Ik.

Pickled onions are also a must with Yucatecan fare. The end result is supposed to be tangy, pink slivers but I had to make do with white onions. After the achiote paste fiasco there was no way I was going to make a stink about only getting white onions from the store.

Pickled Red Onions
escabeche de cebolla

1 small red onion, peeled and sliced 1/8-inch thick
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cider vinegar

Parboiling the onion. Blanch the onion slices in boiling salted water for 45 seconds, then drain and place in a medium-size bowl.

The pickling. Coarsely grind the peppercorns and cumin in a mortar or spice grinder, and add to the onions. Add the remaining ingredients, plus enough water to barely cover.  Stir well and let stand for several hours until the onions turn bright pink.   

Makes a generous 1 cup

Recipe from Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless

I really don't understand memes and how they take off like wildfire. I was peripherally aware of a Robert Rodriguez taco cooking video showing up all over blogs in the past week but only took notice after I saw another one demonstrating puerco pibil. Everyone's a cook nowadays. Also entertaiment-related, I just discovered that even Variety has a food blog. Forgive me, I'm slow to Hollywood trends.


Pujol is the type of establishment that many might describe as being “like a New York restaurant.” The same has been said of Cinc Sentits in Barcelona, which also gave me pause while trip planning. Who wants to eat at a New York-esque restaurant when you’re trying to escape the city? I would just say modern. You know, kind of starkly decorated with deconstructed dishes, custom serving vessels and tasting menus.

Originally, I wondered if I really needed to eat foam while on vacation in Mexico City. But it turned out that I did. Enrique Olvera, Pujol’s C.I.A-trained chef, is clearly of the molecular gastronomy school (I really need to come up with a more apt short hand for this style since it’s not as scientific or clinical as that moniker implies), a frenzy that hasn’t fully seized Mexico yet.

Targeting the likeliest clientele, Pujol is located in Polanco, the neighborhood often referred to as the Beverly Hills of D.F, which only furthered my impression of the capitol as more of an L.A. than an NYC. The diners certainly reflected this. Though the cream on ivory room was fairly quiet when we arrived at 8:30pm–a group wine tasting was being conducted in the back–it soon filled up with parties that all seemed to know each other. 9pm seems to be prime time for cena.

It almost felt like we’d crashed a private party. I noticed this at both higher end restaurants, large, obviously wealthy groups dining together. Pujol attracted the 40-plus types where Aguila y Sol enticed younger crews, which seemed mis-matched because the latter felt like a stuffier restaurant in some ways. I don’t get that so much in NYC or else I just don’t frequent those types of restaurants. It was nearly a highbrow meatpacking scene but with foodie food.

This shot was intended to show the room, not me looking grim. The silver stand on my right is a portable purse-rack. 

We opted for the seven-course tasting menu without wine pairings. Strangely, a dining time is listed on the menu. The one I was given on request to take home was not a match of our dinner and reads, “7 tiempos (90 minutos)” though I swear ours said "60 minutos" and didn’t have the four wines listed for pairing. The dinner lasted more than an hour. I wish I could remember the wine. All I can say is that it was Mexican, similar to a cabernet sauvignon and was miles better than the one we had the night before. The degustacion was 495 pesos (395 per person extra for wine parings), which I thought great value for the caliber. That’s about $45. I’m not sure where else you’ll find an equivalent for such a price in NYC.

The menu is entirely in Spanish (so the English descriptions below might be a bit wonky) and the staff was accordingly monolingual. One of our servers would helpfully try to translate, though his accent was as heavy as I’m sure my Spanish one is. We got by, though it’s certain that nuances were completely lost on us. You have to be familiar with the original to understand the riff and I suspect that many dishes were plays on traditional flavor combinations.

The thing about these restaurants is that they’re not conducive to furtive food photography. It seems that the more a meal costs, the subtler the lighting gets. Nice for atmosphere but not so nice for flash-free shots. The colors were so much more vibrant in person. I’ll openly admit that these pictures do little justice to the subjects.


This was a big amuse (though you can’t tell from the photo) and it immediately came to mind when I saw Clay’s awkward apple construction on the premiere of Top Chef 3. I don’t know what this was, though the green gelatinous component seemed like nopales and there were a lot of crumbs. Olvera seemed enamored with crumbs and they appeared a few more times throughout the meal. I really didn’t want to eat the whole thing because it was awfully filling right off the bat.

Ensalada de nopal tierno curado en sal, guarnición tradicional, masa tostada, nieve de orégano-limón/Salad of salt-cured cactus paddles, traditional trimmings, toasted masa, oregano-lime sorbet

This was really good. I’m always wowed when I see a bunch of vegetables and they end up tasting like so much more. This was tangy, creamy, crunchy, warm and cold. I’m not sure what is meant by traditional trimming (garnish), perhaps the cheese crumbles. The little cactus tuile sticking up doesn’t seem very traditional.

Jaiba de concha suave, emulsión de chilpachole, gelatina de epazote, chips de ajo
/Soft-shell crab tempura, chilpachole emulsion, epazote gelatin, garlic chips

Initially, I had no idea what was presented but guessed it was seafood tempura. After closer inspection, I noticed the soft-shell crab shell on top of the fritter beneath the garlic crisps and epazote leaf. Soft-shell crab worked well with the chile sauce and bouncy, herby cubes. Ok, I just learned something. Like I was saying, this fanciful cuisine might mean more if you know the original. Chilpachole is a Veracruz-style crab stew, so the crimson swipe wasn’t merely a chile sauce but an approximation of this regional dish in sauce form.

Capuchino de flor de calabaza, espuma de leche de coco, nuez moscada
/Squash blossom”cappuccino,” coconut milk foam, nutmeg

It took a while to figure out that “noo meh” meant nutmeg and was akin my favorite baffling ingredient description in Thailand, “ding gah” that we didn’t figure out was ginger for quite some time. Rick Bayless sipped this creation on one of his episodes so it kind of made me laugh when the streamlined glass mug appeared. Because, you know, Rick Bayless is kind of a cornball. Earnest and knowledgeable, but a cornball.

Filete de mero envuelto en hoja santa, huitlacoche rostizado, veloute de jitomate y masa, cracker de comino
/Sea bass fillet wrapped in hoja santa, roasted huitlacoche, tomato and masa veloute, cumin cracker

The entrees were both full on nueva cocina mexicana. Cumin, huitlacoche, hoja santa, masa—uber Mexican ingredients. The flavors melded in a dirty, earthy licorice way. Foam was definitely present, though it doesn’t appear in the description.

Top Sirloin, mantequilla de limón verde, aire de tortilla, puré de aguacate-chile serrano, sal de Nayarit
/Steak, key lime butter, tortilla air, avocado-serrano puree, Nayarit sea salt

This was awesome and I’m not joking. Despite the insane tortilla “air,” this dish was one of the simplest. It’s basically rare steak with guacamole, lime butter, sea salt and a hint of tortilla, like a fancy carne asada taco. I’m still not sure how the essence of a tortilla was so perfectly captured in such an ephemeral medium.

The not-my-type but handsome and stylishly besuited dad dining with his teenage son at the table nearest us (we had a very private table with no other next to it, a rare luxury in NYC) had the full-sized entrée and I couldn’t help but ogle it. He didn’t eat all of his butter either. They got little candies at the end of their meal that we did not (they didn’t finish those either). The staff seemed to know him, though.

Plato de quesos artesanales de Ensenada, Atotonilco y Atlixco
/Plate of artisanal cheeses from Ensenada, Atotonilco and Atlixco

I don’t know what these cheeses are, and I was sad that I was so full at this point. I could barely enjoy them. The middle one with an apricot-like jam was my favorite. The one on the right was creamy and very pungent and came with sliced prunes. The left one was similar to gruyere and had a berry blob.

Pie cremoso de limón verde, merengue, helado de yogurt
/Key lime cream pie, meringue, yogurt ice cream

Yep, it’s a deconstructed key lime pie with more of those crumbs. No complaints, and thankfully no molten cake ending.

Pujol * Francisco Petrarca 254, Mexico City, Mexico

Open & Shut Case

I wasn’t sure what a tinaguis meant literally (and was bothered by the McGriddles-style singular S) but they seem to be markets that set up in neighborhoods different days of the week. Condesa, where I was staying, had one on Tuesday off of Avenida Veracruz and another on Friday around Calle Campeche. I ventured out early (for me) Tuesday morning to see what I’d find.

I never ever frequent farmers’ markets in NYC (though I would if there was one less than five blocks away like this tinaguis) and it’s not like I could’ve done much with raw meat or even fresh fruit and produce since no refrigerator or stove were at my disposal. I was more interested in surveying the cooked food scene, anyway.

I didn’t even attempt capturing vendors and their wares on camera because it’s not my thing. When I was in Kuala Lumpur a few summers ago I met up with some photographically blessed bloggers (EatingAsia, Masak-Masak and others) and tagged along to a few wet markets. A lot goes into those seemingly effortless shots: time, set-up, tenacity. I’m a hands-off peripheral person, which is why I’ve never have spot-on photos and rarely include humans.

Speaking of Latin America vs. Asia, I was almost hoping that I’d get the same feeling for Mexican food and culture that I do for Malay-Singaporean stuff because there’s already such a glut of S.E. Asian boosterism, home and abroad. For no particularly valid reason, I feel like I should have some natural affinity or sense of ownership for a cuisine, and why not Mexican? Yes, it’s strange to want to be possessive of a style of food.

MexicanmelonRegional Mexican food is insanely diverse and nuanced compared to many other Latin American countries that rely heavily on the rice+beans+meat combo. It’s a big country. I like what I know but it feels like a just good friends thing where laksa, noodles and curries are full on crushes. I’m no advocate of arranged marriages or learning to love so I’ll have to face the facts. White male hipsters and dorks all over the country are allowed to cozy up to Asian gals, so why not me with food? My… I’m getting off track.

I was surprised to see lychees and such a preponderance of melon, my most hated food (not fruit, food). I managed to avoid most of the guys handing out samples until one literally stuck a small wedge in my hand. I panicked, then wondered if maybe I was missing out on an amazing flavor experience like people who say, “I never liked green beans until I ate freshly plucked from the earth haricot vert in Brittany” or something. I nibbled a piece and yes, it tasted like melon, then I wondered if I was going to suffer fruit-induced bodily harm later in the day.

We stuck with the non-raw stuff and randomly picked a quesadilla stand from the many on hand. I do regret never getting to try a tlacoyo. For both antojitos, some were made with blue corn tortillas, others white. Initially, I wasn’t positive that the narrow oblongs on grills were quesadillas because they were so skinny. I stayed simple and had a chicken and cheese one that I dabbed with lots of deep dark chipotle salsa. I’ve always liked horchata but now get why it’s so good. There’s nothing more refreshing with hot food and weather. It’s like ultra water and serves a need like coconut water.

It was when I spied the woman with a giant metal tamale steamer and plastic cooler on the corner in front of the OXXO that I got excited. From a distance she appeared to be stuffing something in a bolillo (roll). Was this a new sandwich species? In my stilted Spanish I asked, “¿es un tamale en pan?” paired with a smiling yet confused expression. A younger woman who might’ve been a family members confirmed with a “si,” and they both laughed like they also thought it was funny.

Fun is good, especially when it comes to sandwiches. I used to think Hawaiian was a wacky torta style but in Mexico City it appeared by be as commonplace as VW bugs on the street. Much weirder were tortas Rusa and Kentuky that I saw listed on a few signs.

shut tamale sandwich

open tamale sandwich

The tamale lady then rattled off a list of tamale choices; dulce and mole are the only ones I recall now. I chose mole because a sweet tamale in a roll just didn’t seem right, though I know they eat ice cream sandwiched between bread/brioche in Singapore (I still can't get over the awesomeness of these insane colors–I'm a sucker for any edible that's unnaturally hued) and Italy. Savory starch encased in starch immediately brought chip butties to mind, but really mealy bready snack is more akin to a vada pav or panelle sandwich.

All three of those brown on brown treats are greater than the sum of their parts, so too the tamale sandwich. It’s not until you really get a few inches into the creation that all of the components make themselves known. You do spend a bit of time just chomping on corn and wheat products before getting to the meaty, moist heart of the beast. I didn’t see anyone adding condiments, thought that would’ve seemed logical. Such a multi-facted monster does exist and it’s called a mother-in-law sandwich.

Wondee Siam

I could’ve sworn I had been to Wondee Siam before but after hitting up this location, I was sure that this small space on the east side of the street was not what I was thinking of. How did I not know there were two Wondees blocks from each other? Apparently, it’s a Hell’s Kitchen trend, as Pam Real Thai also does the same two-fer in two blocks trick.

I would say that the food is notch above run of the mill Manhattan Thai and they don’t wimp out on the spicing if you request hotness, but I wouldn’t say it’s a destination restaurant. I would take it over my many local Thai options, though. I ordered fairly straightforward items.


Yum ta lay. When in doubt I often get the seafood salad. This rendition had an orangey rather than clear dressing, which was probably from chile paste since I didn’t sense any tomato flavor.


Ped kra prow. I do like duck and am baffled by haters of the water fowl. Dark meat, fat and skin? It’s like chicken but so much better. I could eat just chiles, basil and the flavorful residual oil with white rice.


Pork panang curry. I’m not used to pineapple in my curry but it doesn’t bother me like completely inappropriate carrots or broccoli. Pork and pineapple are an amazing duo as proven by Hawaiian pizza. I didn’t have to think twice when this photo was requested by a stranger to illustrate an article about a woman putting crap in her husband’s curry. Tasty. (6/12/2007)

Less crap-filled review for

Wondee Siam I * 792 Ninth Ave., New York, NY

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