Regional Cuisine from Tlaxcala: Restaurante San Francisco

Tlaxcala, the smallest state in Mexico, is a mountainous area east of Mexico City, surrounded on three sides by the state of Puebla. The nahuatl name means "place of bread made with corn” (i.e. tortillas). Its capital city (also called Tlaxcala) is a pretty colonial gem filled with 17th and 18th century architectural marvels.
Naturally, this landlocked states’ food utilizes meats, fowl and herbs found in the area and is similar to, if less varied than that of Puebla. Hearty stews, thickened with seeds and nuts, habas (fava beans) and corn dishes reminiscent of pre-colonial times are the norm – it is a truly Mexican cuisine very much based on ancient tradition.
Near the Museo San Ildefonso, one of the city’s best contemporary art venues, I recently discovered Restaurante San Francisco, which specializes in the cuisine of Tlaxcala. Set within Casa Tlaxcala, a cultural center housed in a fine old colonial building, it’s a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of the city center. Open only for lunch, the reasonably priced menu offers some of the best known dishes from the region.
Start with a jarra verde Tlaxcala – a punch made with pulque (the

fermented sap of the maguey refined to produce tequila and mezcal), mint and lime. It’s refreshing and delicious, the yeasty flavor of the pulque not overwhelming. There are a number of appetizers to start your meal – a good choice is the platón Tlaxcalteco offering a selection of regional cheese, “antojitos” such as tamales and quesadillas, and chorizo – it’s large and can easily be shared by four people. While the salads are nicely presented, they are standard, nothing special, although the nopal (cactus) salad is particularly good, seasoned with cilantro and sprinkled with fresh cheese. Soups are more interesting: The sopa de habas con nopales (fava bean with cactus) is my favorite – it is a light cream, like split pea, the small shreads of cactus providing a nice tang; crema de cilantro, a mild but aromatic creamed soup.
The featured main dish is the pipian Tizatlán – made with either pork or chicken. The smooth green sauce of ground pumpkin seeds, chilies and aromatic green herbs is satisfying and earthy – you can tell this is Tlaxcalan ‘comfort food’. It differs from its Poblano cousin in the perfumy herbs used which give it an exotic and complex aroma.
The pollo Tocatlán may be Tlaxcala’s best known and most unusual dish. This savory stew is made with chicken and potatoes. The sauce, rich with roasted onions and tomatoes, smoky chayote chilies and perfumy cinnamon, is thickened with amaranth, a grain widely used in the region. It is a hardy dish worth trying.
Mole de olla, a soupy version of the Puebla classic is filled with fava beans, a variation particular to the region – it’s perfect food for a chilly day.
For those in a carnivorous mood, try the pit roasted barbacoa, popular all over central Mexico, or the cecina Zauapan, the Tlaxclala version of this popular dried and pounded meat.
Vegetarians don’t need to despair here – little burgers of huazontle, a green herb that tastes of asparagus, are bathed in a spicy sauce made with dried shrimp. Squash blossom flowers stuffed with fresh cheese with flecks of epazote, the odd medicinal tasting herb used all over central Mexico, are delectable.
There are some unusual desserts worth trying. Espuma de agave (a mousse made with tequila), panque de nopal (a sweet cactus cake), and my favorite, the refreshing gelatina de jamaica (flavored with dried hibiscus flowers)– Jell-o never tasted so good.
Nothing on the menu costs more than 100 pesos --a full meal will be around 150 per person, tops.
On the street a chalkboard announces a 48 peso “comida corrida”, but you won’t find it on the menu inside, so ask your waiter for details.
After your meal, be sure to check out the small gift shop selling crafts from the region – prices are reasonable.
San Francisco is a perfect place to bring out-of-towners during a tour of the sights – relaxing, and “muy mexicano”....try it, you’ll like it.

Restaurante San Francisco
San Ildefonso 40, Centro
Tel. 5702-9110
Open Monday through Saturday, 9-6PM

This article previously appeared in The News: Mexico City


A Culinary stroll in the Centro Histórico

As readers of my columns know, one of my favorite places to shop is the Mercado San Juan, south of the Alameda. I haunt its inspiring aisles on a weekly basis. After innumerable trips from the nearest metro stop, Salto de Agua, I’ve sampled a number of eateries that are clustered together near the market. A stroll along Calle López, which runs north from Arcos de Belén is like leafing through one of Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks. Within 4 short blocks you can fill up on a variety of Mexican antojitos or snacks – but don’t let that word fool you – there’s a lot of hearty fare to be found.
Start right at the north west corner of Arcos de Belén; amidst the cacophony of DVD vendors is a quiet little juice stand where for a mere 6 pesos a half liter of fresh-squeezed orange juice is waiting for you. Across Lopéz is the entrance to the Mercado San Juan de los Arcos de Belén. This wonderful and very traditional market is not to be confused the San Juan market mentioned above, which is a few blocks away. It’s a great place for a quick comida. The choices are varied enough that your tour could end here. Birria y Flautas de barbacoa, the first stand as you enter on the left specializes in lamb filled flautas, as well as tacos of birria, which also uses lamb that has been marinated and cooked in a rich chili sauce.

Walk further down this same aisle; on the left you will arrive at the aptly named La Olla de Abundancia, recognizable by its red counters. They serve just about every Mexican classic and their 35 peso comida corrida (full lunch) is indeed abundant. I like the enchiladas verdes, but you never know what will be on their extensive menu.
Across the same aisle on the right is a small but equally abundant (but nameless) Tostadas stand. There are at least half a dozen toppings to choose from, which are heaped onto a crispy fried tortilla. Wash them down with an agua fresca (fresh fruit drink) from the stand next door – they have an impressive selection.
Carnitas El Kioskito, at the corner of c/Delicias (as you exit and turn right from the market) is a branch of a beloved institution known for hardy Michoacán-style carnitas. I always order maciza – solid meat - it’s less fatty. This place is always busy with local workers—one of the sure signs of a good taco stand.
Next you’ll see Taquería Cocula (no. 137), a small, friendly fonda that does flavorful tacos of costilla (pork rib) with a selection of beautiful sauces. Their icy horchata goes well with everything.
Cochinita Pibil XEW (no. 107) is another hole-in-the-wall offering the spicy chilied pork specialty of the Yucatan. It’s named after the nearby radio station XEW, where just about every famous Mexican singer of the 20th century was once heard.
La Gran Cocina Mi Fonda, (no.101) is my favorite place of all on Calle López. This simple time-warp fonda is run by a Spanish exile. A host of regular customers (who are often asked to share a table) pack the place daily to enjoy home-cooked food, Spanish-style with a Mexican touch. Although paella is the specialty of the house, I prefer the roast chicken en su jugo and the Madrid-style potaje de lentejas, a lentil soup flavored with fragrant chorizo.
For something a little lighter, El Paisa, (no.94, across the street), serves chicken soup like your grandmother might have made – I’ll bet she didn’t make hand-made tortillas to go with it, though.
Tacos de Cabeza “Los Gueros” is at no. 93 and is usually crowded. For the more adventurous, try a couple of tacos of oven roasted sheep head here. They’re better than they sound.
Taquería Gonzalez is at the corner of Vizcainas on the right. “Los mejores tacos del centro histórico” shrieks the sign, and apparently they’re indeed the best as there is always a huge crowd gathered at this corner. Try the longaniza, sausage that's spicy and not so fatty. You can augment your tacos with nopales, beans or various colorful salsas.
Ricos Tacos Toluca (at the corner of Puente de Paredo) is a rare taquería serving specialties associated with Toluca and Mexico state. The chorizo verde is very, very green –naturally so, they claim. It is loaded with pignole nuts and tastes a little like Italian sausage. The roast tomato and chili sauce is another winner. Also worth sampling is the cecina, a pounded salted meat.
If all the carnivorous offerings have got you down, don’t despair. Around the corner on Ayuntamiento is El Caguamo, the best seafood stand in the city, previously lauded in more than one of my columns. Four types of ceviche, fried fish filets, or a hardy seafood soup should satisfy anyone’s maritime cravings. The fish is fresh as there's always a crowd and so turnover is fast.
Finally, stop for a relaxing expresso at either Café Cordobés or Café Villarias, both traditional cafés that also sell coffee beans.
Calle López is one of the older streets in the centro – don't forget to look up at the extraordinary architecture around you. And you’ve only trod the first four blocks…

This article was previously published in The News Mexico City


Our Daily Bread – Two European style bakeries in Condesa

One of my few gastronomic complaints about Mexico is the lack of really good bread. I mean French baguettes--fresh, dense, crusty—the kind available on every corner of Paris (or my home town New York for that matter). And I’m always searching for croissants that actually taste like butter, not the typical “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not” kind so common here. Well, weep no more. Three new places have opened their doors recently in the Roma/Condesa area. And all three make the kind of bread that would more than satisfy any Parisian bread-snob.

Fresco by Diego is a restaurant/charcuterie/bakery with a fresh new look--part of what I call ‘The New Mexico City’: hip, casually chic, European. Beautifully designed using lots of wood, this friendly, open place reminds me of something you might see in northern California or southern France – it’s a “natural” look that is familiar and inviting. With only 5 outdoor tables, a lot of what’s sold here is ‘para llevar’. The kitchen is open so you can peer in and watch the experts at work. Young chef and owner Diego Pérez Turner spent years plying his trade in France, England and Holland. He learned to make quesadillas from a Morrocan chef in a Mexican restaurant in Paris. “He was always stoned on hashish, but made superb quesadillas” he told me. Turner studied baking in Holland, then after years abroad, returned to his homeland. With partner Rosi Lobaton, he decided to open a bakery, then expand it to include charcuterie, and finally complete meals. Rosi, whose husband is Lebanese, brings a middle Eastern touch to the menu. There are several Arabic appetizers, such as hummus, taboule, roast eggplant, and jocoque. The menu of main dishes is small, which I usually take as a good sign (I don’t trust restaurants that offer too many things on their menu—how can it all be fresh?) They make excellent lasagna, prepared with a well done Bolognese sauce and a dense, spicy tomato sauce. An outstanding duck in plum sauce is fragrant with ginger and pepper. Oblong-shaped pizzas are just right, with a thin, crisp crust, the sauce rich with concentrated tomato flavor. Sandwiches are ample – the “salmon marinado en casa” is my favorite. There are several salads and soups as well, and special dishes that change daily. But best of all are the breads and pastries – sweet rolls with cardamom, various fruit and cream tarts, croissants, cookies – and those baguettes! Dense and flavorful, they have a satisfying contrast between the soft, chewy inside and the crunchy outside--they will not disappoint. Everything is baked right on the premises so freshness is assured.

Another newcomer in the Condesa, Le Pain Quotidien is a Belgian chain bakery which promises to open in more locations around Mexico City. I’m usually wary of chains and don’t like to promote them, but I have to admit that the breads here are exceptional. The pain de campagne is weighty and redolent of sourdough, truly the best of it’s kind I’ve had outside Europe (it reminds me of the legendary Poilâne of Paris). Cakes and pastries are buttery good and the coconut macaroons are to die for. The pleasant, airy interior looks out on tree-lined Avenida Amsterdam, while classical music plays in the background – what a relief from the usual drone of pop music, or worse, television! The menu of salads, omelettes or a mixed breadbasket with imported jams is perfect for breakfast or lunch. Very good coffee is served a la francesa, that is, in bowls without handles. In the evening, there are several light “cena” offerings, such as “hot pot de pollo” and various bruschette, such as wild mushroom and Gruyere. There’s a small wine and beer list, too, if you want something stronger than lemonade or iced tea.

Fresco by Diego
Montes de Oca 23 (near Tamaulipas), Condesa
Tel. 5553-1027
Open 10:30AM – 9PM, Monday through Saturday

Le Pain Quotidien

Avenida Amsterdam 309 (between Celaya and Av. Mexico), Condesa
Open Monday- Friday 7AM-10PM, Saturday, Sunday 8AM-10PM

Boulangerie Francesa Artesanal
note: Closed as of July 2010

This article was previously published in The News Mexico City


Hot Tamales: Now is the Time!

When people think Mexico, they think tamales. The tamal (its proper singular name) is perhaps the most emblematic food in a culture full of emblematic foods. All over the country, morning and night, vendors set up their stands to sell these steaming delicacies to passersby hungry for a hearty breakfast, a quick supper, or in-between snack. A tamal, with the sweetened hot corn drink atole, is a traditional breakfast for many Mexicans. Who hasn’t heard that odd pre-recorded drone (“tamales Oaxaqueñooooos…”) of carts rumbling through the city streets at night?. From market stalls to fancy restaurants, tamales are found all over Mexico, and have been for centuries. As we approach February 2nd, the Día de Candelaria, tamales take center stage. Now is when we celebrate them.

The name comes from "tamalli", náhuatl for “carefully wrapped thing". Found all over Latin America, tamales vary from region to region, often with different names. The basic tamal is ground corn wrapped in a husk (usually corn but also banana leaf which makes a smoother, denser texture) and then steamed. The masa (corn dough) is mixed with lard, and typically contains a small amount of filling: chicken or pork with red sauce, green sauce, or mole, and strips of chile poblano with cheese are the most common. The filling is really only a flavoring—the main event is the corn itself. Tamales are usually eaten in the morning and at night. In residential neighborhoods, market areas, outside metro stations, and around town plazas, tamal vendors tend shiny steel containers with steam escaping from the edges. Because tamales cook for a long time and are sold hot, they are a dependably hygienic street food.

Día de Candelaria, February 2nd, marks the mid-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and, like Groundhog Day in the US, has long been thought to be an indictor of the weather to come. In Mexico it fuses pre-Hispanic with Catholic beliefs and signifies the date to begin planting. Since pre-colonial times, tamales have been associated with this time of year. They were placed as offerings to Tlaloc, the rain god, in Aztec culture. The Spanish colonists adapted the practice when people converted to Christianity, to fit their Candelmas Day. Today, accros Mexico, people celebrate this holiday with a “tamalada” or tamal party.

Tamales Especiales

No one in Mexico knows more about tamales than Beatriz Woolrich Ramírez. She should--she’s been making them her whole life. Owner of Tamales Especiales in Coyoacán, she is also a teacher, culinary historian, and “tamalera” par excellence. Tamales Especiales, (Centenario180, between Berlin and Viena, open Monday 10-5. Tuesday- Saturday 8AM-10PM, Sunday 6-10PM, tel. 5554-5996) is a shop and restaurant offering a wide variety of tamales, sold both retail and wholesale. Beatriz recounts that her mother, Doña Amelia, a strong willed Tehuana from Oaxaca, sold desserts to friends from her own kitchen. With the success of this informal catering operation, but against the will of her husband, she decided to open her own business. She rented an apartment next door to the family home and Tamales Especiales was born. That was 51 years ago.
Beatriz runs the family operation today. “Corn is the essence of Mexico,” she explained. “Tamales are made by hand in the same shape as an ear of corn, so they best reflects that essence. Interestingly, my cooking students often make tamales that look like themselves – short fat people make short fat tamales,” she chuckles. “The tamal is the presence of indigenous Mexico. It is God and life itself.” Her tamales are among the best I’ve tasted. Under the watchful eye of master cook Lupe, up to 14 different versions are made daily. The rajas con queso, most common in central Mexico, is airy-light and only mildly spicy. The denser banana-wrapped Oaxacan version is full of sweet chocolaty mole (my favorite). There is a “tamal vegetariano,” which contains no animal fat, and even a “pre-hispanico,” filled with “vegetables from the farm” and containing no fat at all.

How to make them
Tamales are labor intensive, but not really that difficult to make. The trick is mixing the fat into the dough properly so the texture is just right. Timing the steaming is essential. They should be neither soft and underdone nor overcooked which makes them mushy and watery. Here is a simple recipe adapted for residents of Mexico from Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican:

Tamales With Chicken and Green Sauce
yield: about 16 medium tamalesa small bunch of dried corn husks, available at any market
For the dough:
125 g (1/2 cup) white manteca (lard)
½ k masa for tamales (this can be bought at many tortillerias)
About 2/3 cup broth, (preferably light flavored poultry broth), at room temperature
1 teaspoon baking powder
Salt, about ½ teaspoon, (depending on the saltiness of the broth)

For the filling:
1 1/3 cups shredded chicken
½ cup salsa verde (simple green sauce made with tomate verde)
1. The cornhusks:
Simmer in water for 10 minutes, then separate out the largest ones; they should ideally be about 6” wide and 6-7” long.

2. The dough:
If the lard is very soft, refrigerate it to firm a little. Then, with an electric mixer, beat it until very light, about 1 minute. Add half the masa and beat until well blended. As you continue beating, alternate additions of the remaining masa with douses of broth, adding enough liquid to give the mixture the consistency of a medium thick cake batter. Sprinkle in the baking powder and enough salt to generously season the mixture, then beat for about a minute more until about ½ teaspoon will float when placed in a cup of cold water.

3. The filling:
Mix the shredded chicken with the salsa verde and set aside.

4. Forming and steaming the tamales:
Set up a small steamer and line it with corn husks. Then use the dough to form 16 cornhusk wrapped tamales (each will take about 3 tablespoons of dough), filling each one with 1 ½ tablespoons of the filling. To form the tamal, lay out a prepared husk with the tapered end toward you. Spread the dough into a 4” square, leaving at least a 1 1/2” border on the side toward you and a ¾” border on the other sides (with large husks, the borders will be much bigger). Spoon the filling down the center of the dough. Pick up the two long sides of the cornhusk and bring them together (this will cause the dough to surround the filling). If the uncovered borders of the two long sides you’re holding are narrow, then tuck one side under the other – if wide then roll both sides in the same direction around the tamal. If the husk is small, wrap the tamal in a second husk. Fold up the empty 1 ½” section of the husk, then secure it in place by tying with a ¼” wide strip of husk. Leave the other end open. Place upright and loosely (they need room to expand) in the steamer and cover with any remaining husks. Finally, set the lid in place and steam for 1 to 1 ½ hours until the dough comes free from the husk easily when opened – the timing will vary and it is best to pull one out and check periodically.

If you don’t want to do it yourself, tamales are available on just about any street corner in any city. And better yet, why not visit the incredible XVII Feria Internacional del Tamal (January 30-February 2) at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, Av. Hidalgo 289 near the main plaza of Coyoacán. As they have for the past 17 years, they will be offering a sampling of tamales from all over Latinamerica. Open 10-6.

This article was previously printed in The News Mexico City