Shelling out - How to tip in Mexico

I’ve slung hash. I started as a busboy at Miss Colleen’s Chinese Restaurant. There was no future in it, as to graduate to a waiter you had to write in Chinese. But I got to take home all the leftovers. I then worked at a Jewish Deli (low pay and tips, no comment), a jazz club (no customers, no tips, but I could get drunk every night for free). By the time I was ready to retire – at 25 - from the ‘food services industry’ (i.e. toiling in Mafia owned kitchens) I was wearing what they used to call a monkey suit and was chosen to serve champagne to then President Mitterrand at a French Embassy event (I hid under the table but they found me). So I know what it’s like to work for tips. As I considered myself a very good waiter, who worked efficiently and gave a minimum of attitude, I’m both sympathetic and highly critical of bad service. But I know a girl’s gotta eat.

Mexico is a service-oriented country. There are a lot of people here whose work is doing something for someone else. Most middle class people have maids. People are available to carry your bags, pump your gas, shine your shoes, bone your chicken. Few of these people are well paid. Some aren’t paid at all.

Many foreigners, recent émigrés or visitors to The Big Taco are confused about tipping. One wants to do it ‘right’, do as the natives do. My father, who spent his last years in Japan, where they’ve never even heard of tipping, always told the story of having left a few yen on a restaurant table. His worried waitress came running out after him to give it back – not to offend. Likewise, my friends in Madrid wouldn’t let me leave a euro in the dish of a bar, claiming that wait-people are well paid in Spain. Not so sure about that. I think now, given Spain’s economic situation, these same friends would pocket my tip themselves.

Here is my advice on what gratuity to leave. Of course it’s subjective. I tend to err on the side of generous. Let’s face it, most of the people who serve you a 400 peso meal can’t afford one themselves and never will. I feel guilty when I buy a bottle of wine that costs what the bagger earns in 3 days. So I do what I can.

Street stalls - nothing is expected, and most people don’t leave tips

Market stalls/owner run fondas – I usually leave a few pesos. If the lunch is $35, I’ll leave 5. It’s optional – some people do, many don’t.

Restaurants (from Vips to Pujol) – Here, 10-15% is the norm (not 15-20 as in the US), although I tend to err towards 15. This is where you may leave more or less depending on the quality of the service. But remember that what you and I may think of as over-zealous service is here considered attentive. People are taught that it’s not nice to leave dirty plates in front of someone, so they are whisked away even when others are still eating. We may think that’s rude, here it’s good service. So don’t penalize your server for this. Wait service in Mexico is generally friendly – have you ever had surly waiter snap at you here? I haven’t.
A few high-end places add a ‘servicio’ charge of 15% onto their bill, as restaurants in France do. Although this is uncommon, it happens. I don’t like this phenomenon at all, because most people don’t expect it here, and leave a tip on top of the service. So, take the advice of my mother and always check your bill. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll find an error, and it never seems to be in your favor.

Bars – if you only drink, a small gratuity is the norm, in a dive, perhaps a couple of pesos, in a ‘nice’ place more.

Other, non-dining tipping situations:

Taxis – a tip is not expected. This will surprise New Yorkers where a full tip is not only expected but extorted. But I usually round off and give them a little extra. Come on, taxis are very cheap here…

Gas stations – Those Pemex guys expect a little something: 2-5 pesos, depending on whether they do extra things like wash your windows or check the oil. Let’s face it, it’s nice not to do it yourself, and it’s not sexy for a lady wearing high heels and a Little Black Dress to pump gas.

Gas delivery – tip those guys who carry the heavy cylinders to the roof - $5 (pesos) each. And give the truck 10 or 15 or they’ll never come back.

Water bottles – I give 2 or 3 pesos extra per ‘garrafon’.

Car parkers/'cuidadores' - we give these guys 5-10 pesos; sometimes more: the lady at the Lagunilla market (on Reforma) wants $20 to look after our car. It's worth it.

Baggers at the super – I’m generous with these people. There’s a sign in my local Superama (which is owned by Walmart, a company known for its miserliness) that clearly states that baggers aren’t paid at all. You just spent $70 on Haagen Daaz. Shell out.

Bogart to Ann Sheriden: "What do you reccomend?"; Ann to Bogart "Nothing, I never eat here, myself"

A note to my readers: Good Food in Mexico City has been included, amidst stellar company, in the New York Times' Diner's Journal

Text © 2011 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved


Shanghai Express: Mojing's back & Super Día has the Goods

Miss Anna May Wong might have moved to el D.F. had she known...

"I'm an occidental woman in an oriental mood for love", Mae West once sang. I know how she felt, only it's the food I'm usually in the mood for. We need not worry, for the Chinese are coming. Their products are everywhere, from the tianguis to Palacio de Hierro. It is said that Mexican flags and Virgins de Guadalupe are all made in China now. There used to be a Chinese community here in Mexico, workers brought in the 19th century to build railroads. They later opened 'fast food' restaurants called cafés de chinos, serving nominally Chinese dishes like chop suey as well as eggs, coffee and sweet rolls, much like the typical American coffee shop of yore. A few remain. But the Chinese themselves either assimilated into the population, left, or were, sometime around the revolution, ungratefully kicked out. But as we all know, things have changed. Communism ain't what it used to be. They're coming back in droves, this time not as abused laborers but as savvy business-people. And if that means more Chinese restaurants for us, I say, more power to 'em.

Mojing, a Cantonese palace hidden inside a Chinese mini-mall, is amongst the few venues for 'real' Asian food in the city. It opened last year and was reported on in a popular lifestyle magazine that feigns 'hipness' (but in fact panders to the dumbest Malinchista instincts of middle class Mexicans). It was described as an anomaly, a 'wierd' Chinese restaurant where frogs are eaten whole. Sadly, 'authenticity' when referring to cuisine, is still not much appreciated here. Hence the plethora of lousy chop suey joints of the type that back in the US went out of style sometime around the demise of the Beatles. Of course, smelling "Chinese for Chinese" I went as fast as I could and wasn't disappointed. An expert chef from Hong Kong, Tan, prepares dishes for an almost exclusively Asian clientele, so no chow mein or sweet & sour is to be found. In fact, the waiters speak little Spanish (much less English). I had trouble getting them to understand that I wanted tea! Better to order it in Chinese: cha. And they stared in amazement when I ordered and proficiently handled chopsticks (palillos en español). The menu, however, is well translated into Spanish. There are so many interesting dishes to try, I couldn't possibly list them all here. Start with some dense steamed dumplings, served with the proper black vinegar, soy and hot oil dipping sauce. And/or some savory hongos en salsa picante. Soups are large - the "chica' is enough for six bowls. I like agri-picante con mariscos. Try the carne en salsa ligeramente picosa, fragrant beef with ginger and semi-crunchy green peppers and onions. Or, a whole fish with ginger and scallions and soy sauce. Camaron frito con anis chino and carne de cerdo con queso de soya deshydratado (pressed tofu,which is common in NY's Chinatown but something I've never seen in Mexico) are just two unusual but mouthwatering options from the large menu. Vegetables are fresh and bright: order estrapajo con ajo picado, the chopped garlic perfectly complements the crunchy, verdant zucchini-like loofah.

The space is large, with typical Chinese restaurant kitchy decor, a TV blairing Chinese programming. Tsingtao beer is available and only $25 pesos. Prices are reasonable; a full meal will be around $200 pesos. Although closed for a couple of months this spring (2011) they are back in business as of August with not one but TWO chefs, the friendly hostess promissed me. And an inexpensive ($65 peso) buffet is offered weekdays which is light years ahead of the normally gloppy competitors.
This is the real thing...津津有味 (Jīnjīnyǒuwèi: Buen provecho!)
Mojing Comida China
c/ Humboldt 56 (inside the mall)
between Artículo 123 & Juarez, Centro
Te. 5512 6901
Open Daily 12-11PM

Meanwhile, in the most unlikely neighborhood is found Super Día, a huge Chinese supermarket. It will not dissapoint those in need of any sort of dry or bottled Asian ingredient. From noodles of every kind, to Szechuan bean sauce and many types of sesame oil, chili oil, oyster sauce, dark or light soy etc. etc., even the hard to find Shaoxing cooking wine, it's all here. A nice selection of woks are in stock, and for anyone thinking of opening a dim sum parlour, industrial size steamers are available.
Super Día is located in Colonia Tabacalera (near the Museo San Carlos, Between Metros Revolución & Hidalgo) Av. Puente de Alvarado 34

A note to my readers: Good Food in Mexico City has been included, amidst stellar company, in the New York Times. See: Diner's Journal


In Search of Lost Time: Pâtisserie Dominique

I love Paris. Who doesn’t? I sometimes have fantasies of moving there, of being as French as possible, of breathing my last breath in a brasserie, napkin tucked in, spoon in hand, crème brulée cracked. Maybe that’s my future, maybe not. Meanwhile, I’ll make do with an occasional fattening visit (see my article on that), and a periodic foray into the land of Francofilia a la Mexicana that our great Euro-leaning city affords. But the best French food here is to be found at The French Lady’s house, that is, when she proffers an invitation.

One of my favorite parts of life in Paree is that morning experience, always full of bittersweet nostalgia for I don’t know what, when, sitting in a café, I tear open a warm, crusty, buttery croissant. Never in Mexico, nor, for that matter, anywhere else in the highly civilized world have I been able to recreate that divine Proustian sensation. Believe me, I’ve tried. In New York, no matter how good the pastry is, either the cup is paper, the price annoying, the traffic blaring or the company ornery - none conducive to reflection. In Madrid they put sticky stuff on their pastries so that you have to eat with knife and fork or you get punished-–ants at the meditative picnic. Here in Mexico, in theory, we have all the right elements for romance: old-fashioned cafés, a laid back, poetic ambience, nice people who think about life and death a lot. But no good croissants. Until now, that is.

Dominique, who hails from the Alsace area of France near Germany, where they know a thing or two about baking, works miracles. Her eponymously named French-style hole-in-the-wall patisserie has been quietly churning out pastries and little French breakfasts for over three years now. I don’t know how I missed it. Located on a quiet, fairly well preserved street in Colonia Roma that recalls Paris as far as possible in this urban jumble, you walk through pretty turn-of-the-century doors into another world. Exquisite looking chocolate confections are preserved under glass, and baskets of fresh breads and those buttery breakfast morsels await. Sit at one of the two little round tables, surrounded by light, swirly French grande-mère décor, and order. The complete breakfast, consisting of juice, eggs, bread and coffee is, at 100 peso, a bargain. There are only two choices both pure bistro: omelettes or oeufs en cocotte: eggs swirled with crème fraîche and baked in a little ramekin. Perfect. Coffee - I order ‘café crème’ of course – is rich as it should be. And there are those croissants. She even does the almond ones. Correctly. I can now have my Parisian moment not ten minutes from home. What does The French Lady think? With a reluctant Parisian sniff, she gives Dominique the heads up. Allons-y.

Patisserie Dominique
Chiapas 157-A (between Monterrey & Medellín), Col. Roma
Open Tuesday-Saturday 9:30-6:30, closed Sunday and, in true French fashion, Monday.


The Forbidden Fruit? – Pomegranate Season in Mexico

They’re back. Those spectacular, evocative, erotic, granadas that splash their sparkling translucent ruby visages all over Mexican market displays like blood-drenched lights on Broadway. A symbol of either God’s goodness, or fertility depending on how you look at it, they’ve been painted and sculpted since the beginning of Art History, from Botticelli’s ‘Virgin of the Pomegranate to Cézanne’s Still Life with Watermelon and Pomegranate. And then there's the oil on canvas entitled "Vendedor de Granadas" completed by this writer a few years before changing careers and becoming a food journalist. Some even claim it wasn’t an apple but a pomegranate with which Eve tempted Adam making it the original forbidden fruit.

Pomegranates, which originated in Northern India and/or Persia, are used extensively in Iranian cooking but sporadically in other cuisines. They were brought to the New World by the Spanish and are widely cultivated here. But they play an important role in only one traditional Mexican dish – the famed chiles en nogada (see my earlier post) which is offered all over Mexico from early August until the Fiesta Patrias of mid- September. The seeds are used to garnish the white walnut cream sauce and complete the requisite triumvirate of flag colors. Otherwise, pomegranates are simply eaten, whole or pre-seeded. A plethora of ‘invented’ recipes such as pomegranate margaritas or salsas are out there, but nothing is found in the Kennedy/Bayless lexicon of tried and true tradition. So look to my previous post for Regina’s mom's family chile en nogada recipe. And try this Italian one, loosely adapted from every Italian mamma’s favorite fallback cookbook, The Silver Spoon.

Chicken with Pomegranate Sauce

In my version this dish is prepared as a fricassee, i.e. sauteed and simmered in liquid. It is similar to an Iranian baked specialty, and my guess is that it originates in Sicily where Arab influence is evident.

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

1 whole chicken cut up in serving size pieces (back discarded) or 1 breast cut in 4 and 2 leg, 2 thighs

1 small onion, finely chopped

20 g. dried porcini (available in Mexico City in the San Juan Market)

5 medium pomegranates

1 cup (250 g) cream (use a combination of ‘crema para batir’ and 'crema' or crème fraiche if you can get it – straight Mexican crema or American sour cream is too acidic)

4 fresh sage leaves, chopped (or use 1/2 teaspoon dried if no fresh is available)

salt and pepper

1. Soak the mushrooms in a bowl of 1 ½ cups hot tap water

2. Make pomegranate juice. It’s easier than you think. Simply cut fruits in half (through the middle, i.e. with stem and 'belly-button' on either end) and press through an orange juice squeezer, either the hand kind (see photo), the lever variety, or an electric model. No need to remove the seeds and “press with a wooden spoon” or “run through a blender and strain” as other recipes will have you laboriously do. Reserve a half for seeds to garnish, or make life easy and buy an extra cup of prepared seeds at the market.

3. In a large, heavy casserole or ceramic cazuela, heat the oil and butter; pat dry and lightly salt the chicken. Brown the chicken, turning from time to time about 10 minutes. Remove from pan.

4. Add the onions and sauté 2 or 3 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula

5. Add chicken, pomegranate juice, mushrooms and their liquid. Bring to a boil and lower heat to a very low simmer. Partially cover and cook for about 45 minutes, turning the chicken from time to time. Test a piece for doneness.

6. When chicken is done, remove the pieces with a slotted spoon to a ceramic bowl and cover to keep warm. Raise the heat under the sauce a little and add the cream and sage, stirring. Add pepper and salt if necessary. Cook slowly for a few minutes so the sauce thickens. Put the chicken back in and heat through.

Serve, garnished with pomegranate seeds.

A note to my readers: See this excellent article on me and my blog (en español)