• May 2015
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Deborah Schneider, executive chef, SOL Cocina

Discover Izote restaurant in Mexico
At its best, Mexican food is the cooking of farm, home and pueblo – women’s cooking. Decades ago, while her culinary contemporaries were still making fussy European-style continental cuisine, Patricia Quintana was one of the first trained chefs to elevate her native cuisine to the same level as French "haute cuisine" or Italian "alta cocina," and treat it as seriously. Quintana’s dishes are simple, rustic and elegant all at once, but they are 100 percent Mexican. She influenced a generation of modern Mexican chefs, and her touch is immediately visible in the American restaurants treading the same ground.

Quintana led the charge to rediscover traditional Mexican cooking, and today she works just as tirelessly to record and preserve the regional dishes and agricultural heritage of Mexico against the onslaught of imported foods and the degradation of one of the world’s most unique and distinctive cuisines. She has written numerous books, many of which are available in translation. She is a national treasure and Mexico’s acknowledged culinary grande dame.

Izote is located in the Beverly Hills-ish neighborhood of Polanco, near Chapultepec, where everyone who is anyone lives, shops and plays. For such a grand area, Izote itself is surprisingly simple, with lofty ceilings and tall windows that fill the room with light. Service is swift and warm, with enough Spanglish to paper over the awkward bits. Quintana is used to American and European visitors (while we ate, three members of the band Chicago came in to dine). Izote thoughtfully provides a Spanish/English menu, which is a good thing – though my culinary Spanish is good, Quintana’s menu is so original and unique that I was grateful to set my pride aside and read it in translation. While we managed only five dishes, Izote is a place you could come again and again, and never stop discovering.


"Limonada" of fresh-squeezed lime juice

Three toy "cazuelitas" filled with salsa verde with serrano chile, spicy chile de "arbol" salsa, and a salsa of roasted tomato and serrano "roja"

"Tclayudas": Thin disks of coarse-ground corn, both blue and white, toasted crisp on the "comal," and tasting earthy and a bit chewy. The bread – served in a gourd – came in handy for the sauces.

Amuse: Tiny (no more than 1 inch!) cakes of fresh corn, split and filled with warm goat cheese

"Sopecitos": Six small "sopes" with neat little edges topped with a light puree of black beans and a half shrimp sautéed with chipotle. You can watch these being made at the downstairs "antojitos" station, where two women grind corn and handmake tortillas.

Chile Ancho "Escabeche": Softened chile ancho served cold, stuffed with loads of fine-shredded "quesillo" cheese and more piled up on top, in a light sauce of "piloncillo" sugar and vinegar, with finely minced raw tomatillo and red onion garnish. Served (and eaten!) with small warm corn tortillas, freshly made, in a folded white linen napkin embroidered with Izote in the corner.

"Tamalitos": A lovely little lidded "cazuela" with four teensy tamales, no larger than your thumb. The green-wrapped ones were not really tamales at all, but were cheese with different fillings (mushrooms, squash blossoms, "epazote" leaves) and no corn masa. The brown tamal was made with corn masa and stuffed with shredded chicken.

Trio of sorbets (passion fruit, mango and lime) with a gorgeous, crisp cookie made of amaranth and honey

Here's how to survive in Mexico City
Bet you thought the Mexican national sport was soccer. In fact, on foot or in wheels of any kind, there’s nothing locals love more than a rousing game of chicken – with cars, with you, with an old lady with a cane, with a semi or a fruit vendor cart. Even the dogs do it. This, and other observations are collected below.

The air quality in Mexico City has improved in the last decade, but it’s still foul. While skies are blue, every breath is heavy with carbon monoxide, particulate matter and dust, and the altitude and dry air don’t help either. For the first few days, many people experience sinus problems or running noses, and it’s not unusual to see people on the street in surgical masks. You’ll want nasal spray, a decongestant, tissues and Vaseline for your chapped nose and lips. Eyes take a beating too; the favored eye drops are called OjoRojo and are sold at pharmacies.

After breathing, the next most important things are your manners. The poorest person here could teach most Americans a thing or two about genuine human interaction. In spite of living with 20 million other people, "chilangos" are always courteous. Even if your Spanish is non-existent, a smile and a word go a long way. Learn to say please, thank you and excuse me – and say it. Treat people with respect. Everyone is addressed as señor or señora, even the panhandlers. You will be rewarded with great courtesy, and when you smile, you almost always receive a big genuine smile in return.

At some point, you will find yourself chewing in your sleep – out of habit. Food is everywhere, at all hours, from fresh tamales or "tortas" in the morning to fruit, tacos and "guisados" in the afternoon and way into the night. All of it is tasty, if not always good for you. Carry lots of coins for the street vendors. If you do eat in the street, choose a busy stand. The other great cheap places to eat are the tiny daytime "loncherias" run by women, which serve simple home cooking. Restaurants open around 1 p.m. for lunch and 7:30 p.m. for dinner, but "chilangos" eat at 2:30 or 3 p.m., and dinner doesn’t get rolling until 9:30 p.m. – later on the weekends. Sunday lunch is HUGE.

The single most dangerous thing you will do here is walk. Sidewalks are crowded and narrow, and no lanes or directions are observed. Aside from playing chicken with cars and other pedestrians, the sidewalks themselves are uneven, with curbs and steps in random places, and they frequently are filled with holes or broken concrete. Stairs are random and whimsical, like Escher on a bad day. Drops of several feet without railings are common, and usually unmarked. Tip: Wear sturdy shoes, watch where you’re going and look down. Good news: no dog poop.

Most people are good-humored, if intensely focused, so stow your grumps. As I said before, smile! Someone will smile back!

Very few people speak it. Smile, point, nod and say "gracias," and you’ll be fine.

Don’t even think about it. Just don’t. For example, the common turn called the "vuelta inglese" involves turning left or right across lanes of traffic from any middle lane. No one stops at stop signs, and lanes are only suggestions. Large streets merge into others without warning, or split in two or three with no street signs. Streets change names for no apparent reason. Streets are not laid out on any grid, and they go every which way. Most streets are one-way, but it’s okay to drive the wrong way if you have to get somewhere. Taxis are cheap and know their way around much, much better than you could ever hope to.

It’s OK to get a little bit lit up, especially on the weekends, but slurring and stumbling is considered very bad form. And drinking, of course, leads to …

You will probably be so dehydrated that peeing won’t be much of a problem, but I quickly learned to always scout bathrooms well ahead of time and use them wherever I find them. Best advice: You can always use the "banos" in Sanborns.

Mexico gets up early and stays up late, and it’s noisy: People like things pounding-loud and dazzlingly bright. Those Play-Doh-like silicone earplugs are invaluable.

Public transportation
The Metro is awesome! You can go anywhere for 3 pesos, or about 25 cents. The only trick is that you have to use your tickets the same day you buy them.

Historic sites
Signage in museums and historic sites is non-existent to minimal, and always in Spanish. Before you go anywhere, study up on what you’re going to see, and lug the guidebook along. Be sure to take water, hat and sunscreen for any outdoor activity, even in winter.

Dining at Pujol, Mexico City's finest
Pujol is one of Mexico City’s finest restaurants, and with its remarkable expression of Mexican flavors combined with cutting-edge technique and expert presentation, it's possibly unique in the world. Chef Enrique Olvera graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and has worked with chefs around the world. His influence can be seen in many other Mexico-area restaurants, and his style of "nueva cocina" exerts a strong gravitational pull on foodies and "stagistes" (young cooks) alike. His sleek restaurant Pujol is located on a quiet street in the swank Polanco district. Polanco and Lomas de Chapultepec resemble Beverly Hills except for all the security. The dining room is small and sleek with warm gray walls, and cream and wood accents. The restaurant opened 10 years ago, an event Olvera celebrated by self-publishing a remarkable book called "UNO" in a limited edition that I wish I’d bought. Well, next time.

We caught the chef smoking on the sidewalk, and he gave us a tour of his soon-to-open bakery on the corner and his smallish kitchen, which was dark but pretty sexy (for a kitchen) with a steeply angled white ceiling, dark blue tiles and pin spotlights on the stations. Chef's note: a small Rational combi for holding and a sous-vide machine for meats were placed on the neat little expo station.

“We don’t cook in the sous-vide,” the chef said. “Just reheat. It’s great.”

During our meal, the service was excellent and warm. The floor staff has a more-or-less firm grip on English and know the food inside out. Both sommeliers were female and well educated. We need more women in wine, don’t we?

With no further ado, here are words and pictures of Pujol.

ONE: Multiple amuse, presented at once

Mezcal Margarita de "Xoconostle" with Worm Salt: "Xoconostle" are green cactus pears, and their juice is lightly sweet. There was likely a hint of agave and lime, but the small drink was likely mostly mezcal – oily, immensely potent and delicious. The glass was rimmed very lightly with dried "gusanos" (maguey worms) ground into a powder with dry chiles, salt and possibly dry salted plums or chile-limon powder.

"Aquachiles" of vegetable: "Aguachiles" are usually raw shrimp mixed with cucumber, raw chiles, onion and lime, served in a rock "molcajete." Olvera’s version came in a small black china "molcajete" shape: fresh lime juice with tiny dice of something crunchy and yellow, cubed avocado, teensy sea beans and sliced chile serrano. If there was protein or onion, I ate it too fast to note.

• A raw "flor de calabasa" flower was filled with cold black bean puree and served in a glass globe with a hole in the side.

• A lovely gourd with a lid sat on the table smoking madly. Inside was a skewer of a single grilled baby corn with coffee mayonnaise; it picked up a little smoky taste from the smoldering corn husks, so it tasted almost chipotle-ish.

• Bread service: This arrived on a white plate that held a piece of heated marble, a tiny "bolito" of white bread and later, a little wheat roll. There were three dishes: "quenelles" of goat butter (like melting creamy goat cheese), regular butter and a red chile salsa, which was mildly spicy, and made of dried chiles and roasted tomatoes.

TWO: Celeste Blanc 2009, Mariatinto, Valle de Guadalupe. Winemaker: Humberto Falcon

This Baja wine (a blend) worked perfectly with a ceviche of gently curled strips of exquisite white fish set on a little swirl of fresh coconut and lime juices, accompanied by a slice of avocado "criollo" (small local avocado), paper-thin slices of red onion and chile "guero," and a few cilantro microgreens. Even in Mexico City, they use microgreens.

THREE: Tempus Dorado artisanal ale, made by familia Andreu

This ale – light but full of flavor – was an inspired choice with the salad.

Salads are generally ordinary, but not Olvera’s composed seasonal "ensalada de milpa" (field salad). On an olivewood platter he placed a streak of smoothly pureed black beans, a layer of fresh-tasting "queso fresco," slim slices of serrano, a charred wedge of "calabacita," zucchini flower petals and some other kind of orange waxy-crisp leaf or petal, a wedge of green heirloom tomato and a black "chochoyote," or little dumpling, made from blue corn masa. Some chefs include insect garnishes in their "milpa" presentations. If there was a bug, I ate it. When a chef is this good, you go with it.

FOUR: Catrina red ale, Hacienda de San Juan Puelilla, Hidalgo

It's a more powerful beer, much darker with a distinct red color. Since this dish tasted mostly of cheese and mushroom, the beer was a perfect complement.

A small tamal of "huitlacoche" (corn fungus) was found under a layer of "quesillo" (Oaxacan cheese) foam with a streak of pureed tomatillo salsa. When served, the waiter shook a small cloth bag over the tamal, sifting a light dust of ground dried chile and ground dried "huitlacoche" over the dish. There was a black streak of sauce made of tomatillos. Fresh-made little corn tortillas were served warm in an envelope of hand-woven fabric lined with satin. Elegant and practical, this is the kind of detail you expect in a restaurant of this caliber.

FIVE: Tinto de Mogorcito 2007, Valle de Guadalupe, Vinos de Garza. Winemakers: Ana & Amado Garza

These Guadalupe blends of cabernet and merlot are common, and bring out the best of both wines. This one started out well balanced, but I found that the salt in the dish made the wine flat toward the end.

A filet of Mexican "escolar" (oilfish) was topped with "adobo oaxaqueno" (a paste of dried chiles). The fish was buttery and firm, almost stringy, and perfectly cooked. Three dots of sauce around the plate were a puree of poblanos topped with kernels of "huitlacoche."

SIX: Canada de los Encinos 2008, Valle de Guadalupe, 33 Encincos (Agrifolia)

This selection is a gorgeous blend of zinfandel and petit "verdad" that perfectly exemplifies the style of the Valle – it is potent with minerals, with the sun at its heart, and tastes of coffee and berries. It held its own nicely with the strong favors of the mole and parsnips.

Turkey breast was served pink-medium, topped with shards of crisp turkey skin and set on a puree of parsnips. Our waiter brought a little pot to the table and spooned a dark mole of Oaxacan "chihuacle" chiles onto the plate. It was perfectly smooth, rich and had the subtlest edge of something sweet and chocolatey? I don’t know but this was certainly the most elegant mole ever. I could eat it daily.

Passion fruit water was served with a small amount of tequila – no ice, but cold and slightly effervescent.

SEVEN: Drama! Quenelle of berry sorbet with crushed salted plums

At the table, the waiter lit a pitcher of mezcal on fire and poured it over the dish. Visuals aside, the sorbet disappeared and seemed to make the mezcal bitter. But what a fantastic presentation.

EIGHT: More drama, lest you be in danger of napping.

A bowl arrived with a towering Mylar sleeve containing something layered – Olvera’s brilliant piña colada. The captain lifted off the sleeve, and the bowl filled with bubbles of fresh pineapple juice, completely covering a subtle, fresh coconut ice cream, which in turn sat on diced pineapple compote and pineapple syrup. There were also a few cubes of pineapple panna cotta.

MIGNARDISE: This was a totally cool little wooden dish shaped like a miniature tajine (white outside with rings of color; signed by the artist), with crumbled white paper, and on it were some small squares of homemade halvah, fruit jellies and two tiny balls of Oaxacan chocolate.


Mexico: Stop at Mercado Xochimilco
There’s markets, and then there’s Xochimilco, which is a trip through time into pre-Spanish and early colonial Mexico. The area is known today for its canals and flowered pleasure barges, but for thousands of years it was the city’s farmlands: first for the local people, then the Aztecs, then the Spanish. The native people have endured through millennia of conquests because they controlled the fresh food supply and could negotiate rather than being enslaved. There’s still an insularity and clannishness. Beneath the modern overlay, the pre-Hispanic culture lies close to the surface.

Mercado Xochimilco is an object lesson in the country's traditional foods. The very oldest Mexican food is the corn tamal, and it is a common breakfast, so we started with the dish from a street-corner vendor. She was selling both red and green tamales out of a tin "tamalero." The green tamal came wrapped in a plantain leaf, generously filled with tart salsa verde and tender shredded chicken in silky firm white corn masa, all well seasoned. We ate standing up in the street, with a cup of hot corn "atole."

The second tamal we bought further in was small and bullet-shaped, about 5-inches long, and filled with a coarser masa mixed with "quelites" (wild greens) but no salsa of any kind. This type of sauceless, simple choice is more authentic. It was wrapped cleverly in a dry cornhusk, then steamed at home and brought hot to the market to sell. This wrap style is clever – the original pull-tab – just tug on the bit of husk sticking out of the top, and the tamal unrolls in your hand. I will be practicing how to do it!

The products of the "milpas" are harvested daily, and they are sold outside the market buildings from tiny stands by local vendors, people whose ancestors have likely been growing (and eating) here for thousands of years. Here you see dozens of kinds of wild greens, as well as arrow-shaped spinach, leaf lettuces, mustard greens and many more I don’t recognize. It’s the season for "romeritos," which look like tender rosemary branches wrapped in bands of grass. There are flowers, too – "flor de calabasa" and chamomile in big bundles. And all kinds of fresh chiles, fat and shiny next to carefully stacked columns of tiny, tender "nopales." Big bunches of fresh herbs are gorgeous – thyme, red and green "epazote," "papalotl," parsley and of course cilantro. Mushrooms this time of year are few – mostly oyster and white mushrooms, but also velvety piles of fresh "huitlacoche." Mushrooms are surprisingly popular.

Immediately inside the door, the tortilla ladies line up to sell handmade corn tortillas in both blue corn and white corn, speckled from the "comal" and still warm and flexible. We share a warm, fat "gordita" stuffed with mushrooms, topped with salsa verde and "queso raspado" on top.

Stalls offer bright red, lean beef and stacks of yellow-skinned chicken. Then it’s rows and rows of pork vendors with their sheets of irresistible warm "chicharron" and loops of hanging chorizo and "longaniza." The "chicharron espuma" melts in your mouth.

We make a beeline for one particular stand, where two ladies sell foods ancient and distinct to this region of fresh water and gardens. Their tamales are made of freshwater minnows chopped to a paste and cooked on a griddle instead of steamed. There's a bowl of chicken tripe, another of their avocado sauce and a pile of tiny, bright red pond crayfish.

 Several salads of "nopales" and local greens are made nowhere else.

I buy two kinds of mole from a very serious young man – a "pipian" powder and a paste of his mole "especiale." I also tuck away a piece of "acitonar" – preserved cactus used to add a tart note to certain salsas. He also sells bulk fruit loops, but I pass.

Finally, it’s time to start eating seriously. One whole side of the mercado is "comedores" – food stalls with blazing hot metal "comals" located inches from crowded aisles of shoppers, tended by teams of sweating women surrounded by pots, buckets and "cazuelas."

Everything sold here is based on fresh corn masa, either stuffed or covered with various salsas, cheese, beans, "guisados" (stews of meat or vegetables) or meats like "chorizo prensada," fatty pork bits fried crisp. Forget tacos: Here you eat enormous "huraches," "tlacoyos," "gorditas" and quesadillas. Everything gets a dose of "asiento" – rendered pork fat left over from frying "chicharron."

Cheeses are "raspado" (grated "queso fresco") or "quesillo," lovely dry Oaxacan-style cheese that is shredded to order and melts into cream. We eat until we’re ready to explode.

At the "agua fresca" man, we share an "agua fresca" of fresh lime and "chia" seed (yes, the same one you used to grow hair on your "chia" Elvis.) We watch a "taquero" at work – his specialty is snouts and entrails.

Outside we can’t resist a cup of hot "chileatole" of bright green chiles poblanos, herbs and fresh corn – just spicy enough and delicious.

Across the way, a very young woman dry toasts fresh corn cakes on an earthenware "comal." Her recipe is simple: ground fresh corn, a bit of sugar and ground cinnamon bark. They are crisp on the outside and soft in the middle, like a corn-flavored cookie.

At this point, we are done and stagger off to the car for the trip to Museo Dolores Olmeda and the Frieda Kahlo house in Coyoacan. Both well worth the trip.

Here's a few other photos from my trip:

Fruit, Mamey

Fruits "en alambre," or preserved

Goat head and barbacoa

The world's smallest restaurant

Yellow tomatillos – a first!

In Mexico I climb mountains, eat worms
I’ve been accused of being as food-centered as a Labrador retriever. In an effort to show some depth, we signed onto a trip out to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, more than an hour north of the city. After an interminable drive on crowded roads through Tijuana-style slums, we were suddenly in another Mexico: green fields, black-and-white cows tended by charros on horseback, little haciendas rolling off to the distant mountains.

Our driver Jorge, who is no dummy, dropped us at gate one and went off to nap in the shade for several hours while we made the 3-kilometer walk in the hot sun up the Avenue of the Dead. There is no signage inside to tell you what anything is, just a lot of touts selling crummy silver instead of water, which is what you really need after a few minutes stumbling up the ceremonial way. Fortunately, one cannot miss the great pyramids themselves, the Sun and the Moon.

 I climbed both. Steep as hell going up and down. At the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I stood on the very spot where the living hearts were cut out of the human sacrifices and their bodies thrown down the steep sides until blood ran down the steps.

This, of course, made us starving hungry. After we returned from the pyramids (we also tucked a 30-minute visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe into the drive), we were famished, so it was great to see that local Condesa favorite Taco Gus was open for business. Taco Gus, sibling to another fave, Tacos Hola, is best described as a taco stand in an alleyway, because that’s what it is – about 8 feet wide, most of which is cooking equipment, and 50 feet long. It is open only four hours a day but like all the great ones, it is packed the whole time. Gus’s young, hip staff sells a dozen of the favorite "guisados," along with tacos al pastor and my downfall, "tripa" (tripe) deep-fried in pork fat until chewy-tender. We elbowed our way in and ate three generous tacos – huge, delicious, served with no waiting and incredibly cheap – for about $6. I will have pictures later this week of Gus’s in action.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, despite being tired to the bone, we decided it was the Night to Drink Mezcal, and off we went to Charro, also in Condesa on Vicente Suarez. I apologize for the pictures – I was trying to be secretive about taking photos. I should have realized that the beverage makes you bulletproof and invisible.

Besides its sexy location and weekend scenester cred, Charro’s main claim to fame is its careful selection of mezcal, currently the hottest drink in the city. The drink – all artisanal, all small batch – is poured at the table into a round-bottomed cup made of dried gourd, which is held upright by a woven ring and sits on a little woven grass mat. We ordered "Tobalo" and "Verde Silvestre." Both are Oaxacan, but taste distinct from one another, though they share a big, very smooth character full of the taste of the agave. Unlike many second-rate mezcals, there was not a trace of smoke. The mezcals come with a plate of quartered orange slices and a little pile of bright red "sal de gusano" made of dried ground maguey worms, salt and ascorbic acid. It’s tart, salty and crunchy, like a dry sangrita, and enhances the flavor of mezcal. The protocol: Lick a pinch of the salt off your hand, sip the mezcal and bite into the orange. And we were off!

Though we were the only people there on a Monday night, apparently Charro is one big, hot scene on the weekends. I was pleased to see that Chef Daniel Olvieda’s food is Baja inspired, and features Baja-sourced ingredients such as oysters and smoked marlin.

First thing to hit the table were two miniature earthenware "cazuelas" of salsa with wooden spoons: a thick, intense salsa verde and a spicy-hot salsa "quemada," probably made with green habanero. No tostadas. What! No chips and dip! Apparently the salsas are there to enhance the food. What a concept.

My travel companion, Carole, had read about chicken empanadas, Oaxacan style – fried and dusted with sugar, served with a martini glass that's layered with something clear on the bottom, probably mezcal, and dark chocolate mole on top. Our waiter stirred them together. The sauce was rich, spicy and chocolatey – a bit cloying.

A tropical ceviche was too sweet, sticky and heavy. And there was way too much of it. The "totopo" basket was very stylish, but the totopos – made from very thin white corn tortillas – were too fragile to carry the ceviche. It was the only clunker of the evening.

"Crepas de camaron" brought three fat crepes filled with small, sweet shrimp and sautéed diced onion. The pale green sauce was thick, yet almost fluffy, intensely flavored with roasted poblano and a little "epazote," finished under the broiler with only a little melted "quesillo" on top and a ripple of pureed black beans.

The hit of the evening was Carole's "pescado in hoja santa" – a filet of "robalo," similar to a huachinango, wrapped in fresh "hoja santa" leaves, wrapped in a plantain leaf, poached and served in a light broth of tomatillo. The fish was moist and firm, with a few fried plantain chips scattered over.

Dessert, a lovely and completely gratuitous afterthought, was the chef’s take on "bunuelos": three tiny flour tortillas deep-fried, thickly coated in cinnamon sugar and stacked with layers of "cajeta," or sweetened goat milk caramel. Cloyingly sweet (I could never have gotten it down without the ice cream) and not that interesting. Total bill, service included, was about $75 for 2 people, with alcohol.

We finished the mezcal and realized that we were not only exhausted, but drunk as well, and I couldn’t feel my legs. The logic of mezcal dictated that we either keep drinking (and wind up being pushed out of a taxi at dawn) or go to bed. Carole is smart. We crashed – but it was a darned close call.

If we’d kept going we never would have made it to Xochomilco and Coyoacan – which is tomorrow’s tale.

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