Wednesday, September 26, 2007

PawPaw (but no MawMaw?)

Spike and Mariano stopped by The Spro today with some freshly picked PawPaw in tow. Seems that PawPaw is an Appalachian fruit that no one actually sells and a fruit that Mariano and Luisa (his wife) have ventured into the wilds to pick themselves.

It's an interesting fruit that's mildly sweet with the texture of a ripe avocado but with lots of large seeds. It only comes around once a year and now's the time. The sweetness is very enjoyable - especially cold. The texture makes me wonder if there's some sort of guacamole-esque type of dish that can be made. Or perhaps PawPaw Ice Cream...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dead and No Water

The Linea: No water, no pressure, game over.

I arrived at The Spro this morning to find out that there was a water main break in Towson and our building was without water and would be without water for the forseeable future. Considering that coffee is 98% water, this is a problem.

Checked one of the bathroom faucets and it's blowing air. That's bad. Shut off the hot water tower and the espresso machine, but considering the air in the bathroom lines, there's going to be air in both machines too. Nothing major but an irritant nonetheless to correct later.

Luckily, the hot water tower still had some water left and I used the remaining boiler water to brew the mornings' rush.

Business is filled with adversity and one must find ways to overcome that adversity. The toughest part of the day is that I brought along all these ingredients to make salsa verde and guacamole, not to mention some steak to fry, and now all of that is kaput since we have no water for washing. Life is tough.

Plus the weather outside is brillant. Bright sunshine, clear skies and 86 degrees - what more could one ask for? Business is slow because of the signs letting people know we have no water so I'm sitting here waiting for the lunch crowd.

I'm able to make French presses of coffee because I've got my trusty red pot from Tokyo's Cafe L'ambre and my Thunder Range portable butane burner to boil water, so all is not lost.

But with the beautiful weather outside and Fiesta Mexicana on my mind, I think I just might close after the lunch rush (if there is one) and blow the rest of the day off and chalk it up to: "Water Main Broke - No Water."

Boiling water in the Red Pot.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Unattainable Mistress

That heady bitch in all her glory.

In the hearts of all coffee people, there lies a lust that is either difficult or impossible to satiate. It lies there dormant, in waiting and a source of pain to the person harboring it.

For me, it's the La Marzocco Mistral.

It's a machine of beauty. Sculpted. Angular. Industrial. It's a work of art disguised as a functioning espresso machine. I must have one. To behold. To covet. To cherish. To soothe my ego.

To the uninitiated, it's merely an expensive collage of copper and stainless steel. But it's so much more than that. Within it's sex appeal hides the innards of a GB5 - the most advanced La Marzocco to date. P.I.D. temperature control is just the beginning.

For the record, I love my Linea. I have three. The Linea is the La Marzocco gold standard. Good looks and appealing, the Linea is like your soul mate. Your true confidant. The one you can depend on. The Mistral is like that augmented and sexy blonde you wish was your mistress. High priced, expensive, sexy - a race horse. And did I say expensive? It's the one you secretly lust after while realizing you should never touch.

But how you fantasize about it. Running your fingers along the curvature of the body. Grabbing onto the wings on the side. Locking your portafilter into the group. Twisting it's knob until steam explodes from the wand. Pumping the drip tray up and down until you can't do it anymore.

It's pure barista fantasy...

She looks sexy now, but wait until you have to clean and polish her everyday.

The reality is that you'll burn yourself on the exposed groupheads, you'll tire of constantly wiping, cleaning and polishing the stainless, you'll tire of the tight twist to the steam knob and that movable drip tray will wear out, causing it to remain in a less than ideal position.

In other words, the fantasy will be over because real life would have stepped in, and you'll wish you were back with your old and trusty Linea instead of this high-priced, high-maintenance, hard-to-work-with bitch. Oh yes, you'll tear your hair out and gnash your teeth over what you paid to dump your old flame.

As for me? Perhaps one day I'll be with the ideal girl who will buy me a Mistral of my own. Then I'll have the best of both worlds...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Eating Plain in Toronto

Toronto has always been a favorite city of mine. From the heady nightclubbing days at RPM in the 80s to hanging out with dear friends (and hot women) in Richmond Hill to co-owning Rude Boyz Paintball in Mississauga to my current trip as part of the World Championship Barista Tour, it's always been a fun time - and this time was no different.

Except for my attention to the food.

I'm a different person than when I was last here in January. While I've always enjoyed good food, my expectations are higher now - I don't know if this means I'm harder to please or if the quality of food in general is just so low.

On the road with a chocolate covered donut from Tim Horton's.

In Canada, Tim Horton's is the ubiquitous place for coffee and doughnuts. They're everywhere. And I mean: EVERYWHERE. No matter where you go, where you turn or where you look, chances are that Tim will be there waiting to hand you his watery coffee and slightly hard donut.

I'm in Canada and I might as well do as the Canucks do and start my morning with a proper coffee and chocolate frosted donut from Tim Horton's. It's one sugar and some cream, please. The coffee is generic. No real discernable flavor other than "coffee." Watery and light, it's a coffee that satiates the masses and gets Canada rolling in the morning. The donut is reminiscent of the by-gone days of Dunkin' Donuts. That fluffy round donut that's yeast-driven, sugary sweet and yummy. Not the tired, thin, Krispy Kreme rip-off that Dunkin passes off as donuts today. Tim's donut is slighty harder (meaning: less moist) than the donuts we serve at The Spro, but they're okay. Nothing to rave about, just okay.

I'm drinking Tim's coffee because I've come to learn through the years that one is hard pressed to find a decent cup of coffee at a coffee trade show. Never mind that there are hundreds of coffee vendors, the quality is always mediocre to lackluster.

With Robert Goble from Elysian Coffee and crew at Kubo Radio.

After a long first day at the Canadian National Barista Championships, we're off to Queen Street in downtown Toronto to check out Kubo Radio. I'd been to Kubo back in January when Matt Lee took me there for lunch. I remember it being a pretty decent and funky place for Asian-fusion type of food.

This time, I was a bit disappointed. The place still looked the same and the staff was friendly but the food just didn't shine. Liz ordered some onion rings which were stellar. Thick breading over real onions fried to a perfect brown. Crispy on the outside, tender and onion-y on the inside. It was the highlight of the meal - which spiraled downward after that.

While I didn't try anyone else's dishes, Alistair and Robert reported lackluster meals as well and there was no raving about their dish from anyone in our group. For myself, I ordered their ribeye steak which promised baby bok choy and jasmine rice as sides. The meat came out with the requisite grill marks but the meat was lifeless and kinda tough. Maybe it was "select" grade meat (for $19.95). Even the usually fatty and tender outer rim was knife-resistant and flavorless.

My not so laudable ribeye steak from Kubo Radio.

Wishy-washy is the best way to describe this ribeye. Bland. Lifeless. With no salt on the table, I resorted to using the soy sauce provided - which is another peeve. I've toured around and lived in Asia - there was always salt on the table. It's like those people that insist on being provided with and using chopsticks in a Thai restaurant because it's "Asian" - never mind the fact that Thai people don't traditionally use chopsticks to eat their food.

But I digress.

Back to the meal. Again, lackluster and disappointing. Especially since I remember having a nice meal here previously. The baby bok choy was the highlight of my dish. Steamed just right, it was still slightly crunchy and flavorful. The coup de gras was the rice. The menu promised jasmine rice but the kitchen delivered brown rice. And I absolute hate, abhor and despise brown rice. Especially when I was promised and expecting the light, floral fluffiness of jasmine rice.

The sausage and egg breakfast bagel from Tim Horton's.

After a night of drinking with the locals and the duo from Elysian Coffee, one needs something strong to start the day. For day two of the barista championships, it's a late morning visit back to Tim Horton's. This time I'm trying their bagel breakfast sandwich and it's 10:50am.

The Indian guy working the sandwich bar isn't too happy to be making me another breakfast sandwich and grumpily tells the manager that mine is "the last one." It's only 10:55am and they refuse the girl behind me from getting the same sandwich.

In the end, I should have given her mine.

Without any prior experience with Tim Horton's breakfast sandwiches, I'm presuming that there's usually only one sausage patty included. Mine had three. Why, I don't know. Maybe that Indian guy was just upset and wanted to make sure there were no more sausage patties left, forcing him to make more sandwiches.

In short, it was pretty bad and I became another victim of in-house marketing. The posters on the wall made them look so good but it's was microwaved hell. Even the "scrambled eggs" were microwaved. And salty. Just more examples of why I've started to hate eating at national chain restaurants.

Stephen Morrissey digging into a Harvey's.

At the Toronto Congress Center and in the judges chamber, I find some lunch waiting for us. Seems that someone had gone out to the Harvey's next door and bought us some sandwiches: an assortment of cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches. Of course for me, if it's a choice between chicken or beef, I'm going to choose the beef, so cheeseburger it was for me.

As the knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade said: "He chose poorly."

World Barista Champion James Hoffmann and World Cupping Champion Annette Moldvaer dig into Harvey's.

And a poor choice it was. I don't know what that burger was supposed to be, but it wasn't beef. A beef by-product maybe, but not beef. It smelled like beef but tasted like processed beef cake. It had the texture of tofu or that imitation fish cake you see at Japanese markets. It even had a taste resembling beef, but it wasn't beef.

It was horrific.

And I couldn't finish it.

Ugh! The horror! The horror!

While I don't have any photos of our adventure, Liz, Amber, Alistair, Robert and myself had a nice meal at Torito before going to the Manic Coffee party later that night. The menu was all tapas and it was pretty darn good. The flatiron steak as well as the beef tongue were excellent. The ceviche was okay - seems they do it much better in Peru. Alistair chose some wonderful wines to pair with our meal and we enjoyed a great meal in the company of good friends. The way it should be.

Scott Conary chows on Harvey's while Brent Fortune enjoys his panini.

Annette looking rather pensive after her Harvey's as Tracy Allen gnoshes smartly on a panini.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

On The Road Again

I'm on the road again. This time, I mean it literally. It's just me, my GMC Sonoma and the open road, thundering through the hinterlands of Pennsylvania and New York State on the way to new adventures in another country: Canada.

I feel as though I've been travelling a lot this month. Just a week or so ago, I was Mexico City for the Compentencia Mexicana de Baristas and now I'm going to Toronto for the Canadian National Barista Championships. This trip to Toronto really is an unscheduled one for me and that's why I'm driving - to save money. Flights from Baltimore cost $400, plus car rental and it gets expensive. Drive up and spend $200 on gas. And I've done the nine hour drive before so it's no big deal.

Mother's Chicken & Fish, Batavia, New York.

The biggest problem about a road trip is eating. No matter where you go across this great nation, the food is just crap. McDonald's, diners, what have you - it's all the worst processed food our nation can throw at us. National chains and just general poor eating. The road signs are no help because you see the same crap mile after mile and since you're not a local, you can't possibly know the good places to eat because they're unknown.

My first stop came early because I was starving. McDonald's. I used to love McDonald's. I used to love their fries. I ordered a large Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal because I wanted the big cup to use the rest of the trip. Somewhere along these last few months I must have turned a corner because I found the burger to be disgusting. I ate about 3/4s of the burger and fries and I just couldn't stomach the rest.

That's never happened to me with McDonald's.

The Quarter Pounder kinda kept my tummy filled (but not satisfied) until we were mid-way through New York State. That's when I knew I had to find something good - even if it killed me. In the sleepy town of Batavia, I spied a cool-looking chicken and fish joint called Mother's Chicken & Fish and knew I had to try it.

Being from Baltimore, the chicken and fish places here aren't necessarily in the best parts of town and most of Batavia doesn't look particularly fancy, so there was some level of apprehension as I parked the Sonoma around back and walked to the front - fearing that I couldn't possibly lose any of my luggage and continue with my journey.

The two-piece chicken meal at Mother's.

Like the exterior, the interior is clean and fresh with bright and bold colors. The menu is large, varied and tempting. I wanted to order and taste many things off the menu, but instead I stuck with the two piece chicken meal with western fries and cole slaw.

The chicken was hot, crisp and delicious. A most welcome change in this sea of crappy roadside dining. The spices I found to be slightly odd and different than what I prefer but satisfying nonetheless. Nothing that a good dose of salt and Texas Pete hot sauce can't correct. The slaw was solid. Slightly sweet and vinegar-y with just the right amount of crunch to the cabbage. But the color was monotone white and could have used a good dose of red cabbage and black pepper to give it some pop. The fries were soft and tasty as well - in the same batter as the chicken so the flavors matched well.

It was a good choice and a great place to stop.

Running for the Border into Canada.

The rest of the journey was relatively benign (and that's a good thing). Just myself, some tortilla chips, a cooler filled with Coke and water and the voices of Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey and Pizzicato Five to keep me company.

Mother's Chicken & Fish
242 Ellicott Street
Batavia, NY 14020

Friday, September 14, 2007

Ballistic - Dia Uno Mas

Spro Barista and Culinary Guinea Pig, Arianna sporting the ExpoCafe apron from Mexico.

Most days at The Spro are focused on coffee. But every once in a while, we get into a food kick and all sorts of things happen. These past couple of days have been filled with Mexican-style food and today is no different.

It's the last day I'm in the shop before heading off to Toronto for the Canadian Barista Championship and I've got guacamole on my mind. There's a bag of avocados I picked up at Costco on Wednesday sitting on the counter and in need of serious attention, not to mention the bag of tortilla chips leftover from yesterday's attempt at chilaquiles.

One of the best guacamoles I ever tasted was a chunky concoction whose texture I loved. It was time to make something approximating that.

In a large stainless bowl, I coarsely chopped up the avocados, added some chopped onion, garlic, cilantro, tomatoes and roasted jalapenos. Mash it all together with a fork, squeeze some lime juice, add some salt and stir again. Add as much or as little lime and salt to taste. Easy peazy.

Lunch that afternoon for Arianna and myself was the fresh guacamole and tortilla chips, along with leftover chicken soup and quesadillas from the two days before. Another tasty experiment and just another day at The Spro...

The guacamole awaiting chips who would go on later that night and feed hungry college students at Towson University.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Going Ballistic, Segundo Dia

The salsa rojo for the chilaquiles simmers away.

It's a long day for me here at The Spro. Open to close. And I'm feeling a bit hungry. Good thing I started my prep for today yesterday.

In Tokyo, Ana told me that her favorite food is enchiladas, usually in salsa verde. That's pretty good stuff but what really turned me on in Mexico City were the chilaquiles. As I wrote in El Bajio, I had discovered chilaquiles with the perfect balance of soft and crisp - and I was now on a mission to recreate that for breakfast.

Casually following a recipe from Rick Bayless' Mexico, One Plate at a Time I simmered chopped onions, garlic and tomatoes from my garden in a large pot with cilantro, salt, roasted jalapenos, and some canned chipotle en adobo for about fifteen minutes. Once the salsa was ready, kill the heat, drop in some crispy corn tortilla chips - the proper, thick kind you make or source from the local tortilleria and not the thin, cheesy commercial kind like Tostitos. Stir the chips and salsa together until all the chips have been coated, cover and let sit for five minutes.

Salsa Rojo Chilaquiles con pollo y sandia agua fresca.

Perhaps through divine inspiration or merely hunger, just as I was getting the salsa to a simmer, Spike calls to see how the chilaquiles turned out. Upon learning that it was cooking, he would be "right over."

Spike arrived just as I was plating the chilaquiles.

Toss the chilaquiles in a bowl or on a plate, top with some crema, sliced onion, grated queso anejo and you're ready to rock. Add a little frijoles refritos on the side, some shredded chicken and a fried egg on top and it will be divine.

Of course, I didn't bring along a skillet so the fried egg and frijoles were out, but I did have some chicken left from last nights' stock making.

It was my first time making chilaquiles and I admit that I was a bit overzealous with the chips and added a bit more than I should have - making the dish a bit more crunchy than I would have preferred. Otherwise, I thought it turned out pretty darned good. The flavor of the salsa and the crema and I thought I was back in Mexico City.

Mexi-Asian Fusion??? The Lychee Agua Fresca.

One of the most exciting discoveries of my trip to Mexico City were the agua frescas - that tasty delight of water, sugar and fruit blended into rich smoothness. I first had a taste of agua fresca in Los Angeles back in May during a visit to the then under construction Intelligentsia Silver Lake. Tony and Kyle took us to a local Mexican joint and the watermelon agua fresca was just smashing.

In Mexico City, Ana remarked that she hardly ever drank Coke and now I know why. With such a selection of fresh fruits and juices, who needs Coke? Well, maybe I do, but it seemed like I couldn't get enough of the agua fresca.

Throughout the day, it was sandia agua fresca, toss some sweet slices of watermelon from One Straw Farm, a little sugar, some water and blend that sucker up - seeds and all (sans rind). In the cup, the seeds will fall to the bottom but the drink will be luscious and sweet. Making it really was quite simple.

In the Philippines and Hawaii, lychee is quite popular. In fact, I have some very fond memories of my friend bringing me grocery bags filled with freshly picked lychee. Immense.

But here in the wastelands that is Maryland, fresh lychee is hard to come by, so canned will do in a pinch. Toss whole lychee (sans seeds) into the blender, add some of the syrup, a little water, some ice and let 'er rip!!! In fifteen seconds, you've got an Asian-Mexican Fusion beverage and you can sell that for $5.95!

Mexican Chicken Soup - sort of.

As the day progressed, it was time to get the soup rolling. I don't really know what to call it. Mexican Chicken Soup? Maybe? It's a bastardization of another of Rick Bayless' recipes. Just that I didn't have all the ingredients, so it just kinda "flowed."

Simmer some garlic and onion in oil then add chopped jalapeno and a pound of chopped tomatoes. Add the chicken stock, carrots and whatever else you have handy - oh, did the recipe call for red swiss chard? Oops! We'll use green instead. Did he really say to skim the fat off the stock??? Fat's good for you, buddy.

The recipe called for chicken parts to be added, but having to fish chicken pieces out of your soup and eat it, making your hands messy is just a pain in the butt. Shred that chicken, mister! Then toss it in there!!!n Break up some corn and add that too. Got some tortilla chips handy? Err, maybe not this time...

Serving the chicken soup with a glass of sandia agua fresca.

Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, add cilantro and season to taste with salt. Ladle it into a bowl, season with some freshly squeezed lime juice and serve.

Ah, not a bad way to spend another day in coffee...

Man of La Concha

Three conchas hanging out at The Spro.

I want to stake my claim now, before it's too late:

I have had conchas prior to my trip to Mexico City.

I just never knew what they were.

And now that I've had real, authentic, Mexican conchas - battled over by Senora Garcia, I know what they should taste like. Light, fluffy, delicately sweet and covered with a rich, sugar topping. A true concha is divine. All the others are just poseurs.

Unfortunately, these conchas are the latter.

I found them at the local Mexican bakery filled with friendly folk but the bread was rough and on the dry side, which made for an unpleasant eating experience that wasn't overturned with coffee. A proper concha is a delight to behold and perfectly balanced with coffee. Although, the center one with the pink stuff was better than the others.

The search for great concha in America begins...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Going Ballistic

Roasted garlic, tomatillos and jalapenos ready to blend.


Yeah, that's it: desperation.

After eating so much good and fresh food in Mexico City, I can't get enough. Instead of merely expanding my appreciation for food, it's increased my desire to only have quality fresh food. And since I can't always buy it, I have to make it.

The day started with a visit to the local Mexican grocery in Fells Point. It's a small joint but chock full of just about everything anyone needs to make nearly anything authentic - including a large room filled with CDs and DVDs. Fresh tomatillos and nopal are not a problem here. And there's a Panaderia next door and a tortilleria down the street, making it virtual one-stop shopping for your Mexican needs.

Today's shopping list includes the above mentioned tomatillos, as well as: tomatoes, garlic, jalapenos, limes, poblanos, Maseca, queso Oaxaqueno, canned adobo chiles, queso anejo, onions and a tortilla press. Then some pan dulce from the panaderia next door and some tortilla chips from Tortilleria Sinaloa down the street.

Of course, when it comes to Mexican cuisine, I'm just a neophyte who's only eaten at El Vip Sito. I don't know what I'm doing or how to do it. That's why I've turned to experts like Spike Gjerde and Rick Bayless (by way of his cookbook) to guide me in the discovery.

Chef Spike pours out the freshly made salsa verde.

I've been flying relatively blind during my shopping excursion. I just picked up the items in the amounts I thought would be best - regardless of what Bayless' recipe might have suggested. By my own admittance, I prefer cooking to baking. Cooking is open, expressive and ready for interpretation. Baking is precise, measured and any degree of "improvisation" can render the batch benign or worse. Baking is too restrictive for my wandering mind.

Luckily, Spike is an "on the fly" kind of guy and the quantities I've purchased pose no problem. First, the salsa verde. Grab the tomatillos, jalapenos and garlic and roast them in a pan until scorched. Remove their skins and drop into a blender. Chop up some white onion - hell, roast those too! Add some cilantro and salt and blend that sucker down until chunky and "dippable." Done. Finished. Grab some chips and dig in. But better yet, let it sit overnight and allow the flavors to mingle and the heat to increase.

Working up the stock with some chicken, onion, carrots, pepper and bay leaves.

I'm not only making food to eat for dinner, I'm also planning tomorrow's meal at The Spro. It's going to be an open to close day for me (8am to 8pm) and I need to eat something other than blueberry muffins or a stromboli from the local pizza delivery joint. With that in mind, I'm starting up a chicken stock for tomorrow's soup. In a large pot goes half a chicken, plus some miscellaneous body parts, i.e. necks and short ends, as well as whole peppercorns, a couple bay leaves, chopped onions, chopped carrots and a little cilantro. I might have added more but I was running out of ingredients.

Bring the pot to a boil then simmer for an hour, skimming the scum off the top the whole time. Don't let it boil otherwise it won't be clear. But definitely remove the scum as it forms. Don't be lazy and wait until the end to skim!

My first attempt at quesadilla/empanada not looking too shabby.

It's my first time working with Maseca and I'm finding it to be pretty simple. We work up a small batch and make some corn tortillas, just to check things out. They turn out decent and now it's on to the quesadilla.

When it comes to the quesadilla, I really have very little clue as to what I'm doing. I'm now running strictly on what I saw the lady at Fiesta Mexicana doing. Ball up a little of the Maseca, place in the tortilla press and press it down. Drop some queso Oaxaqueno in the middle along with some meat and fold it over. Easy peazy.

Of course, I find out that it's much harder than that lady made it seem. She did it with such casual elegance and I'm fumbling around flustered. Perhaps it's the amount of Maseca or the amount of pressure but I'm definitely finding some thin spots where my stuffing is popping through. A Patricia Quintana I am not.

Taking cues from the lady serving quesadillas outside of the Gigante supermercado in Mexico City, I make a few with ham and cheese. The rest I decide to make something a bit more reflective of my personal tastes - a little Queso Oaxaqueno and some freshly cooked and sliced onglet.

The quesadillas fresh out of the frypan.

I believe that the lady outside of Gigante fried her quesadillas in pork lard and as much as I fancy myself the kind of cook who would use pork lard without a second thought, I don't have any around the house. Although I do have a 40lb. jug of peanut oil that I think it up to the task.

Preheating the peanut oil in my trusty 12" cast iron skillet to 375F, I drop the quesadillas into the gleaming oil. They snap, crackle and pop as they fry angrily in the oil. Watching them turn a golden brown is true magic. That crisping nature of oil that seals the food and actually steams the interior is just amazing. It's beautiful.

Serving it up with some crema, salsa verde and Coke.

Unfortunately, that lady in front of Gigante is an expert. My measly attempt results in a couple of them breaking open and direct frying the interior. For a moment I think about pulling it out and trying to graft a new piece of Maseca over the exposed wound, but I decide to move forward and eat the tragedy instead.

With the quesadilla fried to a golden brown, it's time to eat one and see just how it turned out. I dig up one of the Onglet y Queso ones, top it with some crema and salsa verde and tear into it.

A glimpse of my Onglet Quesadilla.

The quesadilla is just right. Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. The queso has melted into a brilliant emulsion with the hanger steak. I cooked the hanger steak to a carmelized medium prior to stuffing and it's just right. The only problem is that the flavor is a bit flat. Queso Oaxaqueno is a mild cheese and the onglet wasn't salted enough so it's all a bit flat - even with a healthy dose of salsa verde and crema. While not the end of the world, I prefer things to be served ready to eat and not in need of the salt I'm pouring over the steak. Note for next time: don't be afraid of the salt.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fiesta Mexicana!

Quesadillas (back), Sopes and Salsa Rojo (front).

Maybe it's just a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or maybe it's just because I have come to love real Mexican food, but I'm back home in Baltimore and feel worse for it.

In order to soothe my pains and hunger pangs, I've found my way back to Fiesta Mexicana in Rosedale and have dragged Chef Spike along for the ride. When I first told him about Fiesta Mexicana before I left for Mexico City, Chef Spike was a bit more than skeptical. He was outright indignant. There could be no place in Baltimore with authentic flavors in spite of my assurances.

Like I might have said before, the interior is relatively plain. Just plain drywall and drop ceilings. To lighten up the mood, the walls are painted in a vibrant yellow and there's Mexico decorations all over the place, as well as candies and the ubiquitous Bimbo bread rack that you see all over Mexico City, giving it a festive and happy ambience.

Senora Lopez is behind the counter with her fastidious assistant who, last time, was huddled intently over chicken she was shredding. This time, we were the only people in the joint and it was time to grind.

Our pambazo(left), quesadillas(back) and enchiladas verdes(front).

On many occasions, when dining with friends, we like to order several rounds to share so that everyone can get a taste. To say that we indulged ourselves is being too modest. We went to town. At one point, the ordering was so frenetic, I thought we were ordering everything on the menu. Spike is what one might term a "Mexi-phile" - he's spent a lot of time in Mexico touring and eating his way through the countryside. He even spent his honeymoon there and his last restaurant venture included many Latin influences. Combine that enthusiasm for the food and our methodology for ordering multiple "tasting" dishes and it's going to get ugly.

Rather than get into the gory details so early on, I'll just list our order:

- Two Sopes - one sin carne, the other Chorizo con Papa
- Pambazo - Fresh roll tossed in a guajillo sauce, flash fried and stuffed with sausage, lettuce, potato, sour cream and cheese.
- Enchiladas Verdes
- Three Quesadillas - Hongos, Papa con Chorizo y Rajas con Queso.
- Two Jamaica Agua Frescas
- Two Coca Colas Hecho en Mexico
- Two Jarritos Mandarin sodas

And on top of that, Spike almost ordered a round of tacos!

Spike suspiciously eyeing the pambazo.

We start off with a round of "Mexican Cokes" - that unique clean, crisp fizz of Coke that we don't get here in America. What a shame it is that Coke from Mexico (and beyond) is better than that in the nation which founded Coke. It's cold and delightful.

There's no class or decorum amongst friends - especially when you're the only people in the joint and we tear into the food. First the sopes, then the quesadillas, then the pambazo, and then the enchiladas. This feast is an ugly scene. A bite here, a tear there and a cut of the knife as we divvy up the bounty. Adults would be horrified.

The steak course arrives to finish us off.

It may not have been our finest, white tablecloth hour, but it sure was good.

Like I said, Spike had been skeptical of the place since I told him about it before leaving for Mexico. A Baltimore joint with sabor autentico? No way. But now? Oh, yes.

Savory. Delicious. What's that I taste? Lime? Roasted tomatillo? Roasted guajillo? There's a slight burn. Fantastic. Whatever it may be, it's just damn good and we can't seem to get enough.

The Damage.

But secretly, I'm scared. Scared that we ordered "too much." The last time I was here, I merely had the totopos and the enchilada de mole and that had me wasted. Those two were super-filling and now we had this cornucopia of Mexican food landing on our table in waves that easily could have fed a party of five - and Spike wanted to order tacos too? We were in trouble.

Not too long after the steak tampico arrived, I realized that we were "in the weeds" and running deep. Our brisk pace had slowed to a dead crawl. Sizeable pieces of pambazo and totopos rice remained. Even pieces of steak lie hidden beneath the onions. We were done. Bloated. Stuffed. There was some enchilada remaining, but I made it my personal vendetta not to leave any enchilada unescorted. I made good on my promise.

Senora Lopez presents us with our "dessert" - Tacos a la Mexicana

Completely wasted, Senora Lopez urged us on to a final course beyond our better judgment: an order of tacos Mexicana - a pork taco with red, white and green toppings to emulate the national flag. This round was on the house, so we couldn't turn it down. I closed my eyes as I ate the taco - both savoring the flavor and concentrating on digestion.

We were wiped out. Done. Finis. Pau.

The food was excellent. Just simple food and simple flavors, simply prepared and delicious. We left stuffed beyond our imaginations and satiated in our hunger for proper Mexican cuisine.

I can't wait to go back this week.

One Straw

The bounty from One Straw Farm.

Some of you know that I've been migrating towards locally grown, fresh foods lately. This is the latest harvest from One Straw Farm in White Hall, Maryland. They're an MDA Certified Organic farm and they produce some great crops.

This week we've got an assorment of produce, ranging from fresh tomatoes, red and yellow sweet peppers, one butternut squash, zucchini and watermelons.

The tough part about working with freshly harvested foods is that it really stretches your imagination on how to use it. I'm thinking a soup for the butternut squash, guacamole for the tomatoes, agua fresco for the watermelon and just plain 'ole roasting for the peppers and zucchini. In the meantime, it will be a mad rush to use them before they turn.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Eating Coyoacan

It's my last night in Ciudad de Mexico and it's a bittersweet affair.

My friends and readers have asked me what I've seen so far on this trip. Have I seen the Zocalo? Or the Mercado de San Juan? My mom wants to know if I've seen the Virgin of Guadalupe. Have I eaten at Izote? Or Aguila y Sol? Have I done all the things I usually do on my trips? Inquiring readers want to know!

Well, I've been to Costco...

And, to answer your questions: yes, THAT Costco. The warehouse members-only retailer with everything in bulk. I've been there. I've seen the Mexican Costco and, let me tell you, I couldn't imagine going anywhere else.

It sounds odd, I know, but I've either been busy with calibratiing judges or at the competition. Otherwise, I'm just hanging out with Ana - no matter where she is. She's got two cafes here in Mexico City, so we've been at one, or the other, or both. I even got a twenty minute stint tending the bar at her Nueva Anzures location. Good thing no one came in 'cause I wouldn't know how to take their order.

So, on my last night in Mexico City, we took a sort-of guided tour around some of the city's interesting spots.

First, a tour through the Zocalo where the city has set up and elaborate light display to celebrate Mexico's Independence Day on September 15th. The streets around the Zocalo are packed with cars and walking spectators who've come to see the fancy light display. From there, it's on through La Zona Rosa to see where the homosexual community hangs out - although why this is a notable part of my tour is still in question.

Touring the Zocalo from the back seat with Ana.

For some reason, Ana's baristas feel it absolutely necessary to take me to a table dance place. In fact, for the past four days, they've been asking and encouraging me to go. I've been politely declining and while there's certainly a level of respect for Ana that I do so, it's really because I'm just not interested.

Thinking that I'm only holding out because of her, Ana also encourages me to check it out. After a few moments of trying to convince everyone that I would prefer not to go, I give in because it seems that her baristas really want to go and are using me as an excuse. Those that know me probably are reading this reasoning in doubt, but let's get real - I've been doing this for twenty years. The chicks dancing on stage while spinning on a pole thing has gotten old and stale - especially when you've been spending your time with someone you really enjoy spending time with. The club was the usual augmented women, stacked and toned and perhaps five years ago I would have been all over it, but not now. It was a most excruciating fifteen minutes.

Finally, we get to Coyoacan. Home to Frida Kahlo. In fact, we drive by her parents house and it looks like it did in the movie. That was pretty exciting. In the town square, or Zocalo, there's the usual Sunday fiesta happening with lots of vendors selling all sorts of foods and handicrafts. I only bought a couple of Luchador stickers but what I really wanted to buy was a Luchador mask. That would have been cool.

Just in case you were wondering - that's copper tubing jammed in the squeeze bottles to fill the churros, don't know if the filling reacts with the copper, but it tasted good!

Our eating tour started with real Churros. Not the crap we find in the United States that's been frozen, boxed and reheated. This is the real deal. Extruded batter dropped into boiling lard - what more could you ask for? These technically are called Churros Rellenos, or filled churros. It's your choice of filling from Nata to chocolate to blackberry, strawberry and more.

Ana holding up our Lechera Churro. Muy sabrosa!

Ana and I decided to split two. You know what I like about her? With the exception of seafood, she's a pretty adventurous eater, and she's willing to share. A bite of this and a bite of that. I never have to wonder what her food tastes like because I'm going to get a piece. And well, I just love that!

We get a chocolate-filled and Lechera-filled churro. They both piping hot, delicious and dripping. All over my shirt. Crap. But damn were they good. Eating one is that event where you bite, realize it's too fricken' hot, then have to chew with an open mouth, trying to suck in air to cool down the churro that's boiling in your mouth. You're hoping you don't burn your tongue. You're hoping you don't burn the roof of your mouth.

Fresh corn coming out of the pot.

Next stop, just a few minutes later, is the traditional Corn on A Stick, or what Ana simply calls: Elote. It's boiled corn that's mounted on a stick and slathered with Crema, grated Queso Anejo (I'm guessing) and powdered Chiles de Arbol.

Being from Maryland, I'm used to a corn we call Silver Queen. It's thin, it's sweet and the kernels are tight and uniform. And, I'm guessing, it's also a breed that gives maximum yield to satisfy our nation's insatiable appetite. In contrast, this Elote is big and oblong-shaped with large, funky-sized kernels that are lightly sweet but with a definite snap and an elusive texture that makes it hard to tell where the kernel ends and the cob begins.

The Elote-dero (Is that really a word?) prepares my corn on a stick.

It's a tasty, if not odd, treat for me, although I'm starting to feel a bit full in spite of myself.

Ana looking ready to pounce on my Elote.

In my pursuit of quality coffee around the world, I've seen some interesting approaches that different shops use in making coffee drinks. And when I say interesting, I'm usually outright horrified.

One of the "must see" stops here in Coyoacan is Cafe El Jarocha. It's the most popular and busiest cafe in Mexico City. Maybe it's the Mexico City version of New Orleans' Cafe du Monde, but whatever it is, I'm shocked to my core.

I've reached a point in my coffee journeys that I usually won't taste the coffee at places. Why subject my short life to such monstrocities? But we're here because I "must" see it and the crowd is impressive. It's a busy shop. And I mean BUSY. There's multiple counters, perhaps two dozen baristas and two hundred people - all making and drinking utter crap.

We ordered an Americano and a Cappuccino. To make the cappuccino, the barista takes the styrofoam cup, fills it with milk and steams the shit out of it. I mean, he's pumping the cup up and down to make those large, dishwater bubbles and scalding the milk in the process. For the coffee/espresso part, he's got a large plastic jug holding some suspicious-looking black liquid that he pours in to top off the cup. Grate a little cinnamon on top and it's heading our way.

I want to run.
I want hide.
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.

The El Jaroche barista on a mission to massacre coffee.

I didn't get to see them make our Americano but it was putrid. Dark, black and angry liquid. A hollow form of what it might have become in the hands of a skilled and loving roaster and barista. It's a shame really, because I would love to write something positive about the coffee, but it was absolutely horrible. Perhaps the worst coffee I've ever consumed.

I wouldn't wish coffee this bad on my ex-girlfriends.

God only knows why she's smiling. That bouffant foam looks hostile.

Evidently, they do their own roasting at El Jaroche. It's a simple gas-fired roaster and it looks to be in good condition. I wonder how much coffee they consume in a week - cause it's nearly 11pm and this place is jamming. So jamming that the neighboring pastry shops and coffee sellers are also doing good business.

Places like this make me wonder why they are so popular. The coffee is absolutely horrendous, could it be the service or just the experience of being in Coyoacan with friends? I don't know.

The drum roaster at El Jarocho - but where's the Tostador?

I hate to go on and on, but it's rare that I run into coffee this bad. It's so bad, I can't drink it. In an attempt to ease the pain, I seek out a chocolate covered donut with sprinkles at a bakery next door. It's dry and not very sweet or flavorful and does nothing to help the coffee. I'm stuck.

As we walk back to the car and through the Zocalo, Ana manages to unload her cappuccino on a young girl asking for money. It's a horrible thing to do to the less fortunate people of the city but I'm glad to be rid of that putrid mess. I look for a place to stash my americano and find some garbage bags stacked outside a restaurant and conveniently lose my cup.

The night is ending and my trip to Mexico City is rushing to a close by the second. When you find someone you truly enjoy spending time with, the end is always a difficult one. It was in Tokyo and it's worse in Mexico City. As with any relationship, there's a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and self-doubt to overcome, but I'm hoping that those problems can be overcome and that this adventure will continue.

Meanwhile, it was the best time of my life - and I only got to see Costco...

Arigato Tokyo from Coyoacan.

Senora Garcia y La Concha Pederse

Senora Garcia and the Missing Concha

Ana, Senora Garcia (her mom) and Tia Cristy waiting for a table at Bondy.

According to Ana, the Sunday Family Meal is taken at the local Los Bisquets Bisquets Obregon, but every once in a while, they decide to go somewhere else. Today was one of those days and we found ourselves at Bondy Restaurante y Pasteleria Vienesa in Colonia Polanco because Senora Garcia wanted to have their famous Conchas. What are these famous Conchas, I hear you saying? They're a slightly sweet bun covered with a sugar-type coating much unlike anything I've seen in the United States. And when it comes to Conchas, Bondy is supposed to be the best.

Problem is, it seems that Bondy's is already out of Conchas and I think Senora Garcia is getting a bit upset.

Once we arrive, Ana meets with the receptionist to get a table. It's going to be about a twenty minute wait. No problem. Her mom goes to ask about the Conchas at it seems that the only Conchas left are floating around the restaurant on peoples' tables.

From my limited experience eating at Mexican restaurants, it seems that for Desayuno (breakfast) and Cena (dinner), the first course is a course of pan dulce or sweet breads. It's a great way to begin the meal and I've really gotten into it. The breads aren't sweet in the way our danishes and pastries are. They're lightly sweet so as not to overwhelm the palate so early in the meal. Add a cup of coffee or some fresh juice and you're good to go.

Except, Senora Garcia isn't. She's on a mission for Conchas and no one is going to get in her way.

Bread and salsa - an unexpected union.

Once we sit, bread and salsa arrives. Unlike the United States, they don't put butter on the table. They put salsa. It's kinda weird to this gringo but the light fluffiness of the bread paired with the zestiness of the salsa are an excellent match. If I wasn't trying to be on my best behaviour, I might have chowed down harder.

Bondy is an interesting place. It's a Viennese restaurant and pastry shop. I make a mental note to check out the pastry shop but forget later. I don't know why, but I'm always surprised to find cuisines from other parts of the world in the cities that I visit. Viennese is a surprise. Good thing the food here is good too. We're seated in the back room. A patio of sorts that's fully enclosed with walls, but with open windows around the perimeter. The deep yellow paint is comforting, or perhaps it's just the woman sitting across from me. I'm not sure which, but at this point, I'm too blind to care.

Senora Garcia and the Chocolate Concha.

Our server and the manager comes over because Senora Garcia is none too pleased. This is Bondy dammit and they're supposed to have Conchas. While she's been nothing but wonderfully nice to me this whole week, you know she's a tough lady. Don't get on her bad side or Zwack! You're dead meat.

Unfortuntely for the dynamic duo, they've gotten on her bad side by not having the Conchas ready. They're famous for Conchas and it's unacceptable and inexcusable that they do not have more for us (at least that's the gist of what I'm understanding Senora Garcia telling these two). I'm the new guy on the scene so I don't quite know how to act. I just keep to myself, while part of me wants to start laughing at these two guys being berated by Senora Garcia, and the other part of me is just glad not to be in their shoes.

Tia Cristy and the Other Concha.

Somehow and from somewhere, two Conchas show up on our table. A chocolate and a vanilla one. They're two beautifully sculpted pieces of bread topped with a delicate sugar crust. They look divine. I don't know where they came from or how they materialized. Maybe they made them fresh. Maybe they were hiding. Maybe Senora Garcia had them lifted off of someone else's trays. I've come to accept the fact that there are certain things in life I don't have to know. These Conchas are one of them.

Turns out, that after all the heartache spilled upon the staff, the Conchas are for Tia Cristy and myself. Me, because I'm visiting from the United States, and Tia Cristy because she's visiting from Mazatlan and will be going home in a few hours. At first, I'm a bit embarassed. After all that work, I thought Senora Garcia should have it. No, no, no - that's not acceptable, but maybe you should split yours with Tia Cristy, suggests Ana, so that we can have a taste of both. Good idea.

The Conchas are wonderful. Light, airy, puffy and lightly sweet. The sugar topping is delicate, crusty and delicious. It's not overtly sweet, just an overall light sweetness that's perfect with a cup of coffee. I make a mental note to find a Concha place back home and buy regularly.

Finally - my Chile en Nogada.

On my first day in Mexico City, Ana kept telling me about this very seasonal dish called Chile en Nogada. The ones at Gigante Supermercado were okay, but I should wait until we go to place that does it better. Bondy is the place. It's a large poblano chile filled with picadillo- a mixture of meat, aromatics, fruits and spices, that is topped with a nogal(walnut)-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. It is served cold and is oddly delicious.

Of course, the chile gives it a light zing, but the rest of this sweet, savory and rich delight. Kinda hard to describe but very tasty. In fact, it's one of the only dishes I've ever had that I thought would pair beautifully with coffee. Put those two together and it would be an absolute sensation.

Senora Garcia and her Frijolada.

To my world, all of this is just a little bit odd. I've been here a week and have spent a considerable amount of time with Senora Garcia and Tia Cristy. While I was a bit worried before meeting them, I'm feeling pretty darn welcome by them and I think I get along with them - especially since Tia Cristy (after getting used to my odd penchant of taking pictures of all our food) has started to encourage me by yelling out: "photo, photo!". Of course, there have been some missteps along the way, like my use of the word "tu" instead of "usted." Ana corrects me yesterday on my improper use - of course, I'm horrified. I'm trying to make a good impression but I might as well be yelling out "YO!" Ana assures me that he mom understands and is pleased that I'm trying to speak Spanish, but that very morning upon getting into the Tracker...

"Hola Jay, como estas?", calls out Senora Garcia from the drivers' seat.
"Muy bien Senora, y tu?"

Bloody Hell. Chihuahua. It seems like I can't stop - even though I stop myself immediately after saying it, it's too late. I'm the monger of disrespect. If I wasn't trying to make a good impression, I probably would have blurted out: "Shit!"

Molletes para Ana.

Senora Garcia is a gracious lady and readily acknowledges that I'm trying and it's okay too because it seems that the Mexican youth are also losing the respect of using "usted" when speaking with older people. It's a very generous accommodation but I feel dumb nonetheless. And I was trying so hard to remember!

Imagine what the reaction might have been like if I was the one without Conchas - Zwack!!!!

Bondy Restaurante y Pasteleria Vienesa
Galileo 38
Colonia Polanco
Mexico City, Mexico
+52 5 281 1818