Sunday, September 07, 2008

Mexico City: Family Meal

Queso de Tuna - Cactus Fruit Cheese.

There's been something missing from my trip to Mexico. All week, I've had a great time, met wonderful people and spent my evenings with good friends, but something has been missing - and it's been that "real" family experience.

Don't get me wrong, dining with friends has been wonderful and we've eaten together at some of the best restaurants in Mexico. Tonight's meal is something different.

Playing music in General Gutierrez's study.

Mezcal - where it all begins.

After our long day at Teotihuacan we're pretty tired and ready for a quiet night at home. Actually, I'm supposed to meet up with Adrianna and Hector but things are progressing at a slightly slower pace than anticipated. We've gathered at Sylvia's family's home for a casual dinner.

Unlike our restaurant adventures, this one is a decidedly relaxed affair. First, Joseph starts playing the guitar. Then General Gutierrez (Sylvia's dad is a retired army general) breaks out the tequila. Then the mezcal. Pablo grabs the beers. Peanuts land on the table and then out comes Oscar with the accordion.

It's gonna be a long night.

Oscar plays Amelie.

We sit around the table comparing tequilas, drinking beers and pounding the peanuts. It's a potent combination while Oscar is belting out Greek classics and the theme from Amelie. Pretty soon I start to notice that it's just us: the men. The women have retired to the kitchen and are busy preparing our meal. The moment that I realized this I found it slightly odd - odd because I'm from America and we're just weird like that.

Here, it seems perfectly normal that the women prepare the food and the men drink. Actually, it seems that it's been like that most everywhere in the world that I've traveled. I must be the weird one. With that in mind, I remember the phrase: When in Rome... and decide to go along with the flow. Besides, I've had enough tequila that brandishing a cook's knife could be a bad idea.

Maybe that's why the women cook while the men drink - they're smarter.

Oscar's homemade Chorizo.

Not long after, Sylvia comes out to show us the chorizo. This isn't some ancient Mexican ritual, it's just that Oscar makes the chorizo and wants us to see his work. It takes a couple weeks of drying to get the chorizo just right and these sausages look stellar. He hand grinds them and hand stuffs them into the casing. It's dry and slightly musty but it looks intensely delicious.

A few minutes later and out comes a bowl filled with Queso Oaxaqueno and the aforementioned chorizo. It's hot and served with warm, fresh tortillas. Just scoop it out and eat like a taco. Whatever they did to the chorizo (basically chopped it into the cheese), it's insanely delicious. I can't get enough. Just two simple ingredients balancing each other. Perfect. I want more but don't want to look like a glutton.

Chorizo con Queso

From there the food starts coming out. It's not a lavish affair. It's decidedly normal. Like eating at home. There's the cheese and sausage bowl, some green tamales and then leftover roasted chicken and the leftovers from our meal at El Rincon del Conejo. All served with tortillas and big bottles of Coca-Cola. Not to mention the continuing adventures with beer, tequila and mezcal.

In another moment, some pan dulces arrive. There's one flavored with anise that's nice. But the nata de coco is just too tasty for me. I must have more. Across the table, Reg has decided that the bread would be much better with butter and apricot marmalade. Apricot marmalade? In Mexico? We give it a try and it's not bad - pretty good actually, though I prefer just butter (as I always do).

Roasted Chicken

The food is good. Perhaps not outstanding, but good. But this isn't a meal about the food, it's about being together. Being with family, and Sylvia's family makes us all feel welcome so very far from home. Our meal is spent sitting around a table, enjoying a meal and sharing stories. There's more tequila and beer (but not too much).

After awhile, the jokes start. I've got the joke about the three religious men on top of a skyscraper. Oscar has his two religious men in an airplane. Later, I tell the more risque one about the Filipino in the Barrio. Senora Gutierrez goes to the kitchen when the General starts telling his risque jokes. It's a great time and the night will end too soon.

At close to midnight, it's time for us to head back to the center of the city and to our hotels. It's been a wonderful day and I look forward to going back again soon.

Leftovers from El Rincon del Conejo.

Pan Dulces

Tamales Verdes

Postres de Dulce de Leche y Figues.

Senora Gutierrez and The General.

Reg and Pablo.

Joseph and Sylvia.

Mexico City: Teotihuacan

The Pyramid of the Sun

I'm wet.

A light rain is cascading over my body. All of MesoAmerica is laid out at my feet. My heart is pounding. My rectus femoris muscles are on fire. As I close my eyes, I feel the soothing rain cooling my face. I stretch out my arms in victory.

I am a Teotihuacano God.

The name Pyramid of the Sun was given by the Aztecs, centuries after the it was abandoned. It is the third largest pyramid in the world. It is thought that this pyramid venerated a deity but the destruction of the temple where my feet stand has prevented identification of such. I, of course, would prefer that the deity be me.

Come to me, Son of Jor-El. Kneel before Zod.

Ascending the pyramid.

At 233.5 feet, I have a commanding view of Teotihuacan and the entire Basin of Mexico. I can feel the power and inhale deeply. And I need to, because after a grueling 32 degree climb to the summit, I'm physically exhausted.

One would like to believe that such an accomplishment were a feat of great achievement, but there's at least another three hundred people either ascending/descending or just hanging out at the summit. If I'm a Teotihuacano God, then who are all these people???

Literally, everyone and their mother is up here. Mexicans, Americans, Europeans and people from just about everywhere on the planet are here, in Mexico, pretending to be Teotihuacano Gods. Cheaters. Maybe I should start knocking them off the pyramid and play King Of The Hill.

Yo soy dios a Teotihuacan.

Ascending the face of the pyramid is no easy task - unless you're an under ten year old child. How many of them passed me on the way up with nary a bated breath? Little punks, I should punt them off the top too. But honestly, I'm too tired to do any punting. My muscles are spasming and I'm worried that they'll give out due to muscle fatigue on the descent and I won't make it. This would be an un-ideal place to fall and tumble back to the ground.

I thought about abandoning my quest to the top at least twice on the climb up. But I wasn't going to let some young kids, old parents or skinny athletic types beat me. I was going to make it. Plus, there were three attractive women I had to look good for, who were making the ascent in ponchos and leather sandals with makeup and sunglasses. Sunglasses. In the rain. With makeup. And a tour guide. You know what that means: high maintenance and just right for papi.

High maintenance at the summit.

The view is both stunning and rewarding. There are mountains in almost all directions. The skyscrapers of the Distrito Federal, some 25 miles away, are but a memory. Other than the hum of the other 100 people at the summit, all is quiet. As I close my eyes (in a feeble attempt to control my wheezing breath), I can imagine what it must have been like some two thousand years ago with the entire Teotihuacan Empire laying at my feet, with my foot on the skulls of my enemies and surrounded by Teotihuacan women.

Kneel before Zod.

Evidently, this pyramid and the Pyramid of the Moon were built so that it is slightly northwest of the setting sun on two days of the year: August 12th and April 29th - which is one divinatory calendar year apart for the Teotihuacanos. According to Wikipedia, August 12th is significant because it would have marked the beginning of the present era and the initial day of the Maya long count calendar.

I also heard discussion that the pyramids of Teotihuacan are built on the same latitude as the pyramids in Egypt. Perhaps this was derived by the GPS systems of the extraterrestrial beings that came to our planet during this era and guided the construction of the pyramids. What I also didn't know was that Teotihuacan was a city larger than any other in Europe during its' time.

A view from the top of the Avenue of the Dead.

Happily, the descent was without incident. Walking along the Avenida de los Muertos one is impressed with the size of the construction by these pre-historic people. How they built this city over and over again is a mystery. And how they aligned everything so accurately is just amazing. The only thing breaking the quiet lull of your stroll is the constant hawking of obsidian trinkets, silver jewelry and God knows what else by hundreds of vendors. I ended up buying a really attractive shot glass made in the image of a jaguar god made by a vendor name Emiliano.

As I strolled along the grounds noticing the construction, I began to wonder. If I lived in a place with just a little bit of land, would it not make sense to mimic the construction techniques of these Teotihuacanos? Build a flat-roofed house with very wide stairs rising to the top and the entire house situated underneath? Plant grass on the flat roof and you could have parties and events on the roof of your house without the need for a backyard. It could also be incredibly environmentally friendly as well.

We toured the rest of the grounds and the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl before jumping on the shuttle and heading back to the entrance. Along the way, I spotted an Aztec Calendar blanket like the one I had been eyeing in Xochimilco. The lady wanted 200 pesos for the blanket. Sold. The guy in Xochimilco wanted 700 pesos for the same blanket. Deal.

It was a good day to be a Teotihuacan god.

Our Expedition Party: myself, Joseph, Pablo, Sylvia, Senora Gutierrez, General Gutierrez, Sylvia's Aunt and Reg.

Mexico City: Eating Worms at El Rincon del Conejo

Making fresh tortillas at El Rincon del Conejo.

We're on the road to Teotihuacan and we're hungry.

On this Sunday morning, myself, Joseph, Pablo and Reg have joined up with Sylvia's family to visit the pyramids of Teotihuacan. As we leave the urban congestion of Mexico City behind for the one hour journey to Teotihuacan we start to see the real Mexico. There's grass and mountains. There are trains with people riding on top of box cars.

But we need to eat and Sylvia's dad has just the spot: El Rincon del Conejo. The Corner of the Rabbit.

Walk in and it's all Mexico. The festive paper cutouts hang from the wall. A machine pumps out fresh tortillas onto a comal. It's rustic and festive at the same time - and evidently the food here is delicious.

Delicious nopal salsa.

Without much delay, we get right to it. Some salsa and nopal is dropped in front of us. The nopal is prepared with lime juice, tomatoes, chiles and onions, and it's absolutely delicious. In fact, it's the best I've ever had. Unfortunately, most places don't clean their cactus very well, which leaves a slimy film covering the surface that detracts from the flavor and experience. This is fresh, clean and fantastic.

First up, is a round of sopes, formed and shaped tortillas filled with refried beans, onions, chiles and cilantro. It's warm, fresh and the tortilla is slightly crisp. From here, things take a very interesting turn.


I've always maintained that I'll try anything. At least once. Put it in front of me and chances are that I'll eat it. Maybe it's an open mind for culinary adventure, or maybe it's just a macho thing. Either way, I'm about to be put to the test.

Two hot, sizzling ceramic bowls arrive with accompanying tortillas. Chinicuiles in one and Escamole in the other. That's Maguey Worms and Ant Eggs to you and me.

Yes, you did read that right: Maguey Worms and Ant Eggs.

Sylvia's aunt offers some Escamole.

Actually, the ant eggs look pretty innocuous. Little while things that could pass for cooked caviar. But nothing can hide the odd look of the red Maguey worm. They look like worms - no ands, ifs or buts about it, they're worms sauteed with chiles, cilantro and onions.

Eating them is pretty straightforward. Just take a scoop and put it on a tortilla. Add some salsa and eat. Again, the ant eggs are pretty innocuous. Simple. Easy. There's an interesting flavor to them that I can't really describe, but it's not offensive. The worms, on the other hand, are something else.

Taco de Chinicuiles.

There's no way around it. They're worms. And you know it. Perhaps it's the fact that you know they're worms and your preconditioned to think that eating worms is gross - because you can't separate yourself from the gross factor in your mind. Scoop it out, add some salsa (maybe a lot), roll it up and take a bite. The flavor is odd. Different. Not bad. Just different.

The weird part is the slight crunchiness that comes from the fried skin of the worms. You can't get over it. It's there. It's crunchy. You know it's not chicharrones. A part of you wants to cry but you press on.

Taco de Escamole.

Aside from the weird crunchiness, it's really not that bad. The flavor is mild and I have to wonder if my reaction isn't fueled more by social conditioning than by the actual experience of eating worms. In American culture, eating worms is gross and disgusting. You just don't do it. And I wonder: if I had eaten the worms without being told that they were worms, what would my reaction have been? Perhaps the less I know about the food I'm eating, the better.

El Rincon del Conejo is known for their odd selection of cuisine. On the menu, they've got crocodile, birds, buffalo, deer, goat, ostrich and more - including their namesake rabbit. The menu is large and varied, making it difficult to choose. I ask the guy what is his recommendation and it's for the deer.

Pan Dulces

Some pan dulce lands on our table and it's always the highlight of my Mexican meals. Pablo beats me to the chocolate covered concha so I opt for the regular. It's light, fluffy and moist. Pablo notes how it's hard to find concha in the States (he's in L.A.) that's moist and delicious because of our American penchant for making everything large. I think about the Mexican bakeries in Maryland and, they too, make the conchas a bit too big - and perhaps that's why they're usually dry.

But these are delicious. Almost perfect. I wish I had coffee. But our food is coming and I don't want to load up too soon.

Corte de Venado a las brasas

When the deer arrives, it looks tasty. Simply seasoned and grilled, the meat is thin and not as tough as the waiter predicted. There's a slight gamey-ness to it but it's barely noticeable. It's served with grilled nopal and cebollitas with fresh tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, jalapeno and hot tortillas. Quite simply, it's fantastic.

Arrachera - con frijoles, nopal asado, cebollitas y chile toreado.

Both Pablo and Joseph have opted for the steak Arrachera. Simply grilled with some cactus and beans. I had a taste and it too was delicious. Down at the other end of the table, Reg and the family went for the mixed special that featured just about everything this place has to offer. It was the smarter move. One that I didn't think of but wished I did.

The rest of the meal went smoothly. More bread and more deer and I was stuffed. Time to move on and visit Teotihuacan.

Parrillada Especial - cordoniz, filete, costillitas, chistorra, puerco, pollo, cecina, cebollitas, 1/4/ conejo, rodajas de queso y chiles asados.

Sylvia eats a rabbit leg.

The coffee people in us compels us to shoot this vintage Faema E61 Lever espresso machine they're still using.

El Rincon del Conejo
Carretera Lecheria Texcoco 19.5
Chapingo 56230
Texcoco, Mexico

Phone: 9558602