Archive for the ‘Tostadas’ Category

Update on Marco Polo

August 28, 2007

Mimi and Alex have arrived in Oaxaca, and they are like putty in my hands. I understand that kind of mind-meltdown, the joy of being on a vacation where someone else makes all the decisions for you, and I am happy to be that person. So off we went to “Marco Polo” on Sunday afternoon for a big, big lunch.

We started with a “cocktele de jaiba,” shredded crabmeat in a icecream sundae glass, and tostadas de cazon, or shark. Both weren’t particularly memorable, but we all loved the chopped salsa of raw onions and hot fresh peppers. When we had arrived, the waiter had whisked it away, so I was glad I had asked for it back. Shark turned out to be a shredded meat, firmer than most fish, almost with the texture of Korean dried squid, but with not much else going on. Not bad, just not as exciting as you think shark is going to be. And the crab cocktail was a little too sweet, even after I squeezed lime after lime into it.

But everything else was delicious. We had something called “vitaminas al vapor,” which turned out to be a seafood soup stuffed with all kinds of squid, octopus, fish, and shrimp, as well as bits of soft egg and a flavor to the tomato broth that we couldn’t quite identify. The broth was sweetish, but in the way fresh seafood can be sweet, not annoying. It actually did taste kind of nutritive, so maybe “vitaminas” is a reference to that?

We had red snapper “al horno,” and then an order of pulpo, or octopus, cooked in butter and garlic. It was simple, meaty, and wonderful.

And finally, the bananas baked in the oven I had been wanting to eat for so long. This is one order, believe it or not, of one platano macho, or plantain, split in three parts, and then served with a little trio of rompope or Mexican eggnog, condensed milk called “leche Nestle,” and crema, which is more like crème fraiche than heavy whipped cream. The bananas had that tart flavor that I love about bananas and plantains here, that made the rich, creamy, roasted taste more striking by contrast.

We ate so much even Alex wasn’t really hungry for dinner.

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Ricas tostadas en El Pochote

August 27, 2007

This tostada is on my top 10 list of things I love to eat in Oaxaca, and pretty high up, too.

I’ve raved before the Mercado Organico at El Pochote before, but I will rave again. On the far wall from the entrance, next to the lovely Korean woman selling baked goods, there is a husband-and-wife pair that sells tostadas with a wide range of topping choices. A tostada is a crunchy taco, but not those U-shaped boats we all ate growing up, made by Taco Bello or Dos Pasos or whatever they called themselves. It’s flat, a little ripply usually, and not as hard-crunchy as a tortilla chip, thinner and crisper.

There are an array of topping choices, sparkling with different colors. Each tostada starts with a thin base of black bean puree, and then, you have to start making some decisions. There are nopales, cactus paddles, one that is spicier than the other, but both deliciously tart and fresh. There are sauteed mushrooms, and one type has small kernels of corn, too. There’s spicy chicken tinga, shredded white chicken breast, and then two kinds of requeson, a fresh ricotta-like cheese. One has green specks, herby, and the other is spicier and redder, but not actually hot. Just fragrantly spicy. You can thin avocado sauce drizzled over everything, as well as salsa. No matter what combination you get, one topping or 3, it’s 15 pesos. You feel almost righteously healthy eating so many vegetables, but you’re not making any sacrifices.

Probably my favorite is half spicy nopales, half mushrooms with bits of corn, topped with the spicy requeson, and then drizzled with both salsa and guacamole. It’s so simple and yet illustrates so perfectly what I love most about Mexican food, the way fresh, bright flavors and textures contrast and complement each other. (To think, melted cheese over everything represents Mexican food to most Americans!) The slightly tart nopales, the savory mushrooms, the spicy salsa, the creamy requeson, the crunchy tostada. It’s hard not to get it all over your face, but it’s worth every messy bite.

I think the wife recognizes me now, she smiled so broadly at me this weekend. It’s my Saturday morning ritual!

(This is my 100th post. Can you believe it?)

Delicious pork fat at El Biche Pobre

August 17, 2007

As I ate lunch on Wednesday, I thanked God that I had run 2.5 miles uphill towards Monte Alban earlier that day. My judgment may have been clouded by drink, as I started drinking my Bohemia beer and eating tortilla chips like a madwoman before my food came, but I have never tasted such delicious pork fat in my life as I did at El Biche Pobre.

I had spent nearly all morning in the kitchen at Puente, trying to make amaranth-corn tortillas from scratch. I had boiled dried corn kernels with limestone the day before and let it sit overnight, and then rinsed carefully and rubbed away at each husk, almost individually, as per these instructions (which turned out to be wrong since the corn kernels need to be cooked 15 minutes or more). Rather than take a handful of corn and amaranth to the molino, I’d lugged my molcajete to work on the bus and decided to grind away by hand. One of the staff laughed and said I was “una mujer de campesinos,” or a peasant woman. The temperature in the office is cool, even in the kitchen, but I started to get so hot as I mashed away at that corn, and when I tried to grind the amaranth, I had to deal with the sticky paste that stuck to the mortar, the pestle, me, and everything else it came in contact with.

For all that work, since I hadn’t made very much masa or dough, I got 6 measly little tortillas. (They had good flavor, but they were too inflexible to be tortillas, memelitas maybe.) I ate one of them, and other than a banana, nothing else from breakfast to 3 p.m., when I left work. I felt like a crazed, hungry animal.

I’d never heard of “El Biche Pobre” until that day, but I caught a mention of it in a TripAdvisor thread and when I Googled it, it turned out to be one of Rick Bayless’s favorites. As I am becoming increasingly maniacal in my devotion to him, that was enough to get me lurching towards Calzada de la Republica 600, at the corner of Hidalgo, just two blocks east of El Llano park.

“El Biche Pobre” calls itself a “comedor familiar,” which I assume means “down-home food.” They’re particularly famous for their botanas, or bar snacks, and instead of getting a proper meal of soup, rice, meat, and tortillas, I opted for the botana plate for one, one of all of the above. Of course, since I was eating bar snacks, I had to have a beer.

Immediately, I knew I was somewhere special. The chips that came in the plastic basket were perfect, crispy, completely dry and without grease, with so much flavor they didn’t need salt, maybe just a dab or two one or the other of their salsas, green and red, and their guacamole. I was also given a little bowl of pickled dried peppers, onions, and garlic. I sucked the garlic out of their little papery jackets, licking my fingers and not caring what I looked like. That was probably the beer. I’d had pickled garlic before, but not like this, where they had been softened by cooking and then marinated in a vinegary sauce, like an escabeche. The dried peppers were also fantastic, smoky and intense but not so hot that I couldn’t taste anything else.

When my plate came, I honestly felt the slightest bit of disappointment. I’d read that their botana plate for one was huge, and this, while ample, wasn’t actually incredible. And then they brought out the second plate.

On the first plate, clockwise from the top: a fried taquito with guacamole; a piece of cold pork with avocado, tomato and pickled jalapeno; a quesadilla with cheese and epazote; a chile relleno; some pieces of pork milanesa; a bocadillo de papas or potato croquette; and the piece-de-resistance in the middle, “carne frita” or fried meat.

On the second plate, clockwise from the tamal: a tamal of frijoles sitting on top of another piece of cold meat; a memela with lard and crumbled cheese; a tostada with potatoes; and another tostada with beans, cheese, tomato and avocado.

I will only touch upon what truly moved me.

When I put a small piece of the “carne frita” in my mouth, I almost shouted, “What is this?” When I asked the waiter, all he could say was “meat of the pork,” “meat of the pork,” so I still don’t really know what made it so delicious. I am not normally a huge pork fat eater. I love fat for the way it conveys flavors, not so much in and of itself, but this made me realize that just plain old fat could be wonderful. It wasn’t like carnitas that melt in your mouth, or the porchetta-like roast I made last winter that practically collapsed in its own fat. It held itself together, with a good chewy texture, a lovely crispy exterior, and a melting layer of fat in the middle. Such a tiny piece to pack such a punch.

The chile relleno was my second favorite. Instead of using a fresh chile, they had taken a dried pasilla chile and filled it with more pork, shredded this time. It had a slightly sweet flavor, but almost the flavor of sweet hot peppers rather than a more straightforward, insipid sweetness.

The memela was very simple, just a crunchy, almost tough, corny little oblong, brushed with nothing more than “asiento” or lard and garnished with a little crumbled cheese. Its simplicity was its charm, like eating a perfect baguette with butter from French cows.

I loved the pork milanesa, more than any other I’ve had here, because the breading was greaseless and well-salted. Is “milanesa” really mean that it’s from Milan? And is “milanesa” preparation related at all to Japanese fried pork cutlet, donkatsu? Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to say all my lefty politics goes out the window when I think about the food benefits of globalization.

Everything else was very good, except the bocadillo de papa which was just boring.

I staggered out of the restaurant almost dazed. I had to get home as quickly as possible so I could lie down, but having woken up at 6:30 in the morning to go running with my neighbor and her friend, my legs hurt. But I still stopped for a cantaloupe paleta at Popeyes.

It’s our last day in Puerto Escondido

July 28, 2007

It’s our last day in Puerto Escondido. Erin has already left for the airport, and Elena and I are spending the 5 hours before our bus in the most profitable way—doing nothing on the rooftop terrace of our hotel. Elena is in a hammock reading, or maybe even napping, and I’m sitting with my laptop facing the bluest ocean imaginable. It’s almost too mean to say out loud to my friends, who are going back to lawyer jobs in San Francisco, but I’ve been on a vacation from my vacation.

In this blissed-out town, I haven’t been doing my usual nosing around for superb food, and perhaps for my Zen acceptance of life, I’ve been rewarded with some of the most memorable food adventures I’ve had so far.

Playa Carrizalillo is the best kind of surprise. It’s a bit further west than Playa Zicatela, with its wide expanse of glassy waves that look like the purest and cleanest of blue-green Japanese ceramics as they break. Carrizalillo is not as obvious, if only because you have to descend a long flight of stairs to get there. The steps are solidly constructed and pretty, with flowers and suitably tropical plants at every angled turn, but the best part is only a few turns from the top, when you immediately see before you the perfect, deep blue, baby bay.

Little thatched palapas and restaurants line the beach, selling beer and shrimp cocktails. The restaurants aren’t particularly noteworthy, though I’m impressed they don’t mark up the beer more, and there are fewer vendors who come by, probably because of the steep steps.

There is, however, a leathery, old man selling mystery mollusks that were tender, almost buttery, and salty from the bucket he just caught them in. He called the bivalves “callos de margarita,” which after some Google research, Erin and I have decided they are some type of scallop. The conches he called “caracoles,” which I thought meant “snails” in Spanish.

The callos had a pebbly, almost spiny outer surface, and a deep purple ring around the pearly interior. He husked them right on the rocks, rinsed them in the murky seawater in his bucket, sliced them thinly and expertly, and served them back in their shells, with a fresh squeeze of lime and some hot sauce available, though it turned out for us to be superfluous. It was better to eat add just a bit of lime and taste the sweetness of the meat.

In classic Mexican fashion, he didn’t assume that Erin and I, who were standing over him almost panting with eagerness, wanted to buy a mollusk or two. We were finally moved to explicit action when another woman started negotiating a price for all the mollusks he had left. The fact that I might never taste a “callo de margarita” again is okay. It seems so fortuitous, so blessed, that we got to taste them at all.

We even had more nieve de coco, this one purer and cleaner, the more innocent version compared to the more sophisticated salty-sweet coconut ice cream we’d had on Playa Marinero. I am glad I don’t have to judge which was better.

We had thought nothing could top Playa Carrizalillo, but two days later, we went to Mazunte. About an hour east of Puerto Escondido, Mazunte is a small town that seems to take the overflow from the hippies and nudists in Zipolite. The whole town consists of four or five streets in a loose grid, only two or three of them paved. It’s not much of a surfer town, and it feels even more laid-back than Puerto Escondido, which I hadn’t known was possible.

We stayed all day on a little semicircle of a beach that had no umbrellas, no lounge chairs, only a lovingly ramshackle beach hut selling sandwiches, juices and tropical cocktails. We had brought a light picnic lunch with us, based on the tostadas de corozo I had gotten obsessed with after our lagoon guide, Lalo, told us about them. They were flatter and darker, a little thicker, and not ripply like your usual tostada of corn. When I tasted them, I knew immediately they were worth the long, hot walk to the market in town and dealing with the surly woman who sold them to me. They were just sweet enough, rich with the milk of coconuts, but completely dry and non-greasy. Topped with ripe avocados, fresh lime juice, and criollo tomatoes, crinkly like heirlooms, they whet our appetites for more.

It was so easy to walk just a few feet backwards to Babel, the little drink hut, run by a group of young, attractive South Americans, who were so at ease with their good fortune. The entire area was little more than 15 by 15 feet, with a few chairs, two hammocks, and an astonishing view of the ocean. Their mix tape was clearly a beloved one, as we heard the same Bob Marley song twice. We put our feet up and drank big, soda fountain glasses of “cucu melon,” 1 for 35 pesos, 2 for 50, which were made of freshly squeezed honeydew, a bit of mezcal, crema de coco, sugar, and crushed ice. So simple and so good. I kept thinking about it for the rest of the day, absentmindedly murmuring, “Wouldn’t that be a good drink for a summer dinner party?” I know it would console me back in Brooklyn, when I finally have to go back home.