Escape from Tacoland

Most gringos in San Miguel, even those who profess to be so hip to the local Mexican milieu that they’re ready to change their last names from Lynch to López, in fact live in a culinary rut of tacos, enchiladas, tortilla soup and arracheras, the latter a marinated flank steak about as ubiquitous as corned beef in Ireland.

Still, Stew and I are often reminded—and just as often forget—that Mexican cuisine is its own universe, as complex and varied as any in the world, and punctuated by regional quirks that are “acquired tastes” such as Oaxaca’s chapulines or fried grasshoppers. Oaxaca is one of the great, if not the premier dining destination in Mexico, where according to Stew, a late-blooming epicure, it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal.

There are some limits. During our three or four visits to Oaxaca, and its central food market, we’ve bumped into buckets of fried grasshoppers for sale, paused for five seconds or so, and just kept on walking. They are supposed to be great snacks, crunchy and tasty like potato chips, but the sight of charred grasshoppers, their little feet up in the air as if they’d been electrocuted, just doesn’t look very appetizing.

Two weeks ago Stew treated me to a birthday dinner at Dulce Patria, our favorite restaurant in Mexico City although in truth we haven’t tried that many others. Starting with the name, which I translate as “Sweet Motherland,” and the chef’s proclamation on the website that she “loves being Mexican,” the place is all about a genuinely Mexican cuisine that is also as far as one can get from the familiar bowl of guacamole with tortilla chips.

Coming attractions: Cabuches growing
 on the barrel cacti outside our bedroom. 

Instead you’re transported to the land of this stuff is amazing; what the hell is in it? Many of the names of the dishes are fanciful but unhelpful. How about a dessert called “María goes to the flower shop,” or an entree of “A joyful grilled fish.” Better ask the waiter. For starters, we settled on shared portions of oxtail on blue tortillas, and a Mexican take on bouillabaisse.

The hit of the entire meal was a salad with, among other things, lima bean-size pellets called cabuches, which turned out to be the flower buds of the Ferocactus, a type of barrel cactus that—great news—grows wild on our ranch though there are none available at the moment. The down side, I imagine, is that by harvesting them you abort the tiara of bright flowers that briefly pop up atop the barrel cacti once a year. When you bite into one of these guys your mouth is jolted by a sweet and unexpected juice.

The tab at Dulce Patria, including tip, came to one hundred and ten dollars, a cheap deal for a first-class meal, soup to nuts, thanks in part to the plummeting value of the Mexican peso, which has dropped to nearly eighteen-to-a-dollar.

This fall we’ll also be on the lookout for tunas, the fruits of prickly pear cacti, also abundant in our ranch in two colors, light yellow and pink. Supposedly one can make marmalade, fruit drinks and deserts with them, though no one seems to know how, including Félix, our gardener and live encyclopedia of Mexican lore.

Open wide: The two chiles Félix keeps harvesting, Tepín (left) and Pequín.

Félix also nurtures a few chile plants that keep producing handfuls of the little buggers, more than we can eat. Through the summer we had several varieties of chilis but now we are down to two varieties, tepín, a little smaller than a marble and bright red, and pequín, gnarled, dark red and about an inch long. That’s according to The Great Chile Book by Mark Miller; Félix couldn’t tell them apart. As far as Félix is concerned, everything goes better with chiles, no matter what kind.

Both of our homegrown varieties are plenty hot. Tepín scores 8 on the heat scale and Pequín 8.5. Jalapeños get a timid hotness score of 5.5.

A year ago, while eating with friends at a local restaurant specializing in Yucatecan food, Stew—in his new persona of an experienced gourmand—took a innocuous looking chile from atop his pork entree and popped it in his mouth. It turned out to be a habanero, heat index of 10 or the equivalent of gulping a tablespoon of lighter fluid and setting a match to it.

His face suddenly turned purple. That was the here-we-go-again signal to the waitress—who must have also received training in first aid—to fetch a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which along with milk is the usual antidote to gringos shoving chiles in their mouths. I suspect there must be a chile first-aid sign hanging in the kitchen of this restaurant, next to the one about the Heimlich maneuver.

Stew has not given up on chiles. Two nights ago he cooked pasta with some of our pequín chiles which was delicious. He says the most dangerous bits are the seeds, and that the skin has to be minced very finely to avoid an accidental chunk of chile, lurking like a land mine, in a spoonful of pasta.

Last night Stew whipped up some Piri-Piri Chicken, a Portuguese dish of African origin. The recipe called half a cup of hot sauce for the overnight marinade. I had some trepidations but it turned out delicious: moist, with a beautiful char and a taste that was hot and spicy but hardly a five-alarm fire.

As Stew continues his experiments in Mexican cooking and homegrown chiles, though, I think it might be best to keep an emergency pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla nearby, just in case.


Late-breaking news: Today’s New York Times has a list of 52 places to visit in 2016, and Mexico City topped the list, in part for its world-class restaurants. ¡Buen provecho!

2 thoughts on “Escape from Tacoland

  1. The proprietors of Dulce Patria sound as if they have taken their dish names from a Beijing (or Peking as I am wont to say) restaurant. But I am with Stew on chiles: any dish is improved with them. Has he tried ghost peppers? If the two of you come down this way, I can treat you to some dishes spiced up with them.


  2. My son did the same thing with a habanero. He turned maroon. I've tasted chapulines, okay, but nothing that I will go out of my way to eat.I've made agua fresca with tuna, but there are an awful lot of hard little seeds that need to be sieved out. I prefer to just order it in a restaurant.regards,Theresa


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