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Cocina Latina

Cocina Latina

This winter I seem to be snacking my way through Latin America. Where I had to search diligently to find good food in La Habana, in Puerto Vallarta I found myself confronting a plethora of native dishes, thanks to two knowledgeable hosts.

Recently, I was fortunate to spend a week with Luis Téllez and Xavier Corcuera, best friends, top notch chefs, and an ad hoc comedy duo when they cook together. On my arrival, Luis made guacamole, and the three of us ate on their terrace getting acquainted.

It was one of the best guacamoles I’ve had, accompanied by a drink I thought I would loathe: michelada, but which I took to immediately. Simply put, a michelada is a Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka. Sound horrible? It’s not. Try it sometime. Be sure to include lots of chili and fresh squeezed lime.

Eaten with fresh totopos (“nachos” is a Texan word), Luis’s guacamole was so chunky and filling I couldn’t eat supper afterward. With their fun company and the success of these simple treats, I was happy to put myself in their hands, gastronomically speaking, for the rest of the trip.

The coming days brought so much food I thought I’d burst. (Caveat emptor: Mexican food is not diet-friendly.) Early on, the boys asked how adventurous I was. I told them that back home I eat regularly with my best friend, David. The object of our dining out is to find dishes we’ve never tried before. A recent outing saw us eating cold jellyfish salad in Chinatown. They agree I was very adventurous.

The original Aztec version was made with meat from human sacrifices.
Now that’s adventurous.

One night at a local family-run cantina, one of those hole-in-the-wall places with plastic tablecloths and lit with fluorescent bulbs, where there’s always a dog sleeping under a table and a baby in a corner, they introduced me to one of the lesser-known delights of Mexican cuisine: pozole.

Somewhere between a soup and a stew, pozole is made with meat and corn, a plant sacred to the Aztecs. These days you can get it designer-made: chicken, beef, pork, or seafood. I had the “all-inclusive”, meaning bits and pieces of everything, including beef tongue and stomach. It was delicious and highly flavorful. According to Wikipedia, the original Aztec version was made with meat from human sacrifices. Now that’s adventurous.

Luis Téllez

Luis Téllez

Another evening found Luis and Xavier cooking a joint supper in their tiny kitchen. Xavier is the more easy-going of the two, while Luis is a trifle more particular about things. At one point, after one too many suggestions from Luis on how to prepare his dish, Xavier turned and asked, ¿Cocinas tú o cocino yo? “Who’s cooking–you or me?” Always an apt question when one shares a kitchen with a friend.

That night they served two delectable dishes: Camarones con arroz (shrimp with rice) prepared by Xavier, and what I thought were beef tacos, served up by Luis. The rice was subtle–aromatic and scrumptious–while the tacos were hearty and beautifully spiced, but with a twist–they were made with soy. Like my hosts, they were a perfect complement for each other, however, in what turned out to be a surprise vegetarian meal.

Xavier Corcuera

Xavier Corcuera

Both Luis and Xavier are big salsa fans. As a result, I tried plenty. There was only one I found too hot to attempt in anything but miniscule quantities, but several were delectable. The hottest, made from habanero chiles, burned my lips. On the other hand, my favourite was a dark red, smoky-flavoured condiment called salsa mulata, not unlike chipotle, and made from a mix of ingredients, as its name suggests.

On another evening, rushing to catch an art gallery opening, we stopped at a street stand to try a mixed plate of 4-for-5 dollar tacos. Chorizo is one of my favourites, but Luis was right in pointing out that the pork was not to be missed. Once again, a piquant salsa capped everything just right as we sat curbside and munched happily away.

Of all the dishes I ate that week, this was the most outstanding…the combination of lime mayonnaise, shrimp, and smoky marlin chunks was mind-blowing.

MahiMahiCilantroPestoFinalThe next night, at a beautiful open-air restaurant with a signed photo of Pavarotti on the wall, we shared a quiet meal of Enchiladas rojas de pollo (chicken tortillas) and sopes. The former is a soft tortilla covered in a red chili sauce, while the latter are shells made of corn pastry soaked in lime juice. The sopes are somewhat chewy when fried, and come filled with beans, cream and picadillo (ground beef), tinga (shredded spiced beef) queso (cheese) and pollo (chicken). I was too full afterward to contemplate dessert or coffee.

The following morning found me trying a dish prepared by one of Luis’s work mates, a chicken-chili tamale made with masa, a soft corn pastry similar to the sope, but steamed in banana leaves. It would be hard to rate this higher than so many of the other dishes I had, but it was certainly delectable.

That afternoon found us rushing–yet again–over to try one of Luis’s favourites, lamb tacos, where I also had Agua de limón. Ostensibly a limeade prepared from very small, sweet limes, it carries the subtle flavour of flower blossoms. Here the tacos were hard shell and prepared on an open-air street grill by an indigenous family. We surprised them just as they were closing up shop, but they were very accommodating and stayed open a little longer just for us. I’m glad they did. They were delicious.

In case you’re wondering, there are plenty of good sit-down restaurants in Vallarta. The one day I was able to sneak out to a restaurant without being chastised, I went to a fun place I usually frequent when I’m in town: Joe Jack’s Fish Shack. It was the only time I spent more than $8 on a single dish. I had fresh mahi mahi served on a subtle tomato-flavoured rice with brown beans. My drink was a green chili-mint margarita, in honour of St Patrick’s Day. (The drink alone was $8.50.) While it was good, I didn’t enjoy it any more than what Luis and Xavier cooked up much more cheaply for me.

If you find yourself in Mexico, try out Luis’s food tours or take one of his tailor-made excursions to many points around the country.

cc_michelada_s4x3_lgOn my final night, Luis found the perfect place to take me: Taco Loco. There, I tried something he’d been tempting me with all week: seafood burritos. He recommended a combo of marlin and shrimp in a soft shell taco, or wheat tortilla. Of all the dishes I ate that week, this was the most outstanding. I can’t say why precisely, but the combination of lime mayonnaise, shrimp, and smoky marlin chunks was mind-blowing. I drank a large Agua de guayaba (guava juice) with it, subtle and not too sweet. A perfect score of ten on that one.

Were there any misses, you must be wondering? Surprisingly, just one, and that was more a matter of taste. A late night, post-club outing to another hole-in-the-wall had me confronting pambazos, a “delicacy” from Mexico City. I watched in fascination as a tiny woman prepared the equivalent of a salsa-soaked hotdog bun cut in half, flipping it with her fingers on a hot grill till it turned crisp. She spread it with chorizo paste, followed by layers of something like coleslaw, onions, crumbled cheese and finally cream cheese. I have to admit my taste buds were confounded a bit by that one, for the first and only time on the tour.

pozoleYou may also be wondering about the wisdom of eating so many exotic foods and the effect they may have on your system. You can think of it as building up resistance, but after twenty years of travel to Latin America, I still get the occasional twinge. Prepare yourself with the necessary chemical remedies, if you must, but know these things pass quickly. Remember that if it’s hot enough, it’s sterile. Just avoid the ice and tap water. (I didn’t, but that was by choice. Still, nothing dire transpired.

On my final morning in the city–always a sad day–Luis made chilaquiles for breakfast. It’s a sort of frittata dressed up with tomato puree, slivered onions and totopos, all mixed together. I’d never tried it before because I dislike soggy bread (hence my reaction to the pambazos). In this case, I found the concoction quite palatable. The spiciness elevated it to something more than an unusual omelet, while the totopos remained firm, making it heartier and more interesting overall.

Okay, if you’re not hungry now, you better check your pulse. As for me, I’m more than ready to go back. If you find yourself in Mexico, try out Luis’s food tours or take one of his tailor-made excursions to many points around the country. He speaks fluent English, French and Spanish, and is a consummate host. Email: luis@mexicoencounter.com; Cell: +52 322 120 4691. Or visit his website: mexicoencounter.com.

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Jeffrey Round.jpgJeffrey Round is a writer of contemporary fiction. His latest book, the noir-thriller Lake On The Mountain, has been short-listed for a 2013 Lambda Award. Visit his website: jeffreyround.com.

 

 


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