Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mexican food: much more than just beans & tortillas

Anyone want to share my molcajente?
I love Mexican food.

I think I have always loved Mexican food, ever since I ate a bowl of chilli while watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The first dish I ever learned to cook from scratch - chilli con carne - was one that at least has its roots in Mexico.

(And it's still one of my go-to dishes after 40 years; a favourite to cook, to share - and to eat.)

It does seem at times, that at least part of my life is a constant quest to find a good, authentic Mexican restaurant in my home city (currently Vancouver). Not easy in a city that is dominated by Asian cuisine.

I have managed to find a few pretty good ones, and some not so great.

And when I say "Mexican restaurants," I'm NOT talking about Taco Time or Taco Bell - despite claims, fast food places like that do NOT take you "south of the border" or anyone near it, for that matter.

However, after a recent trip to Mexico - my first to that country - I may have to re-think how I define "Mexican cuisine."

Yes, I did enjoy some traditional hearty fare associated with Mexico: fajitas, refried beans, taquitos, that sort of thing.

But even within that class of food, I discovered something new, a breakfast staple served in most Mexican restaurants: chilaquiles.

This dish mainly consists of corn tortillas cut in triangles or totopos, lightly fried and covered with green or red salsa, then simmered until the totopos are soft. It's usually garnished with a form of sour cream, and may or may not include onion rings, avocado slices, and pulled chicken. They're often served with refried beans, eggs, and guacamole. You'll find them in almost any Mexican breakfast buffet.

That aside, for the most part, I enjoyed a very different, in some ways, entirely new level and style of exquisite dishes prepared by Mexican chefs, cuisine you would not normally associate with Mexico.

Part of the reason for that was because of where we were on the Pacific coast - in Puerto Vallarta; that location influences local chefs, who have easy access to a huge variety of fresh seafood available regularly.

It all began the first night at a special opening gala for the event I was attending, the North American Travel Journalists 2015 conference. We dined alfresco, feasting on escargots, lamb shanks, lobster ravioli, Chilean sea bass, and cheese empanadas.

Some fun with food, at the River Cafe.

The trend continued the next night, during a dine-around event. I ended up at an eatery called the River Cafe, where we enjoyed live music and a tasting menu that included smoked salmon crostini, Pacific jumbo shrimp, and Sonora beef tenderloin.

It just kept getting better. The next night, we were wined and dined at La Leche, a very uniquely decorated eatery which consisted of high ceilings, and shelves along all the walls that went up to the ceilings. The shelves contained tins and canisters, all done in white with the restaurant's logo/name emblazoned on them. There, I had the opportunity to try a variety of different dishes in their seven-course line-up. The menu changes nightly, and it's written on a chalkboard.

You really have to be inside La Leche to appreciate it.

About an hour's drive out of Puerto Vallarta lies Canopy River Adventures. We enjoyed our final meal of the conference there, on a covered patio. It was a bit more traditional, with an option for beef, chicken or fish entrees, accompanied by tortillas, guacamole, and roasted peppers.

As you can see by reading the above, the cuisine in this country is incredibly varied.

But wait, there's more...

As part of my stay in Mexico, I spent two days in Riviera Nayarit. Our first day's lunch was in El Brujo (obviously a very popular name for a restaurant in the village of Bucerias, as there were three different eateries going by that name). This one fronted on the beach.

That was quite a unique experience, in many ways.

Never expected to be eating "Asian" while in Mexico.
For one thing, there was a steady stream of peddlers trying to sell us their wares, everything from necklaces to hats, massages to music (we were serenaded by a pair of Mexican troubadours who wouldn't stop until we paid them!), cigars to postcards.

Then there was the Tim Horton's sign on the beach, offering fresh coffee, smoothies, beer and Caesars on the beach, each day. Hmmm....

The food provided me with something different, too. I opted for the "Mixed Molcajete" - a mixture of grilled chicken, shrimp, beef, guacamole, cheese and peppers served in a broth contained in a heated stone dish called a molcajete (as pictured at the top).

That night, it was back to fine dining at the Marival. Again, the food was matched only by the view from the balcony dining room. We were served a variety of dishes in "threes," including a dish of Asian delicacies that included spring rolls, a Mediterranean trio that included a lamb shank, and one with three different types of seafood.

La Palomas sent us home in style. Not only was the ambiance and decor distinctly Mexican, the food was all based on Mexican-derived dishes.

Not sure I'll be able to conquer this dish like Huitzilopochtli.
I enjoyed Aztec tortilla soup (chicken broth, corn chips, cheese, avocado and sour cream), Aztec salad (mushrooms in sage oil and honey with arugula and cottage cheese), and Huitzilopochtli's Conquest (essentially ground tenderloin beef, some fruits and vegetables and a creamy sauce served up in a roasted bell pepper).

All this incredible food made it really hard to go back to Vancouver and the standard Mexican fare prepared by even the best restaurants (or even my own Mexican menus!).

Yep...I've been kicked up to a "new bracket" of Mexican food. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

So now I'm not really sure if I should be thankful for this - or maybe just a little bit ticked off at Puerto Vallarta...

A pair of Mexican troubadours on the beach at Bucerias,
to send you on your way.

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