Sobrinos, Mexico City – That Perfect Restaurant

I sometimes fantasize about the Perfect Restaurant. The one you can go to at any time of the day, find something you really want to eat, and enjoy it in a pleasant indoor or outdoor atmosphere.

Like many people, I go to a variety of restaurants, and have favorite dishes at each place. One of the reasons is that no single restaurant covers a wide enough range of dishes to keep me interested, and even fewer have more than a handful of dishes that are really, really good.

But Sobrinos, in Colonia Roma, Mexico City, may be the Perfect Restaurant.

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I’ve been going to Sobrinos since 2009, when I had Thanksgiving dinner there. Grilled octopus with black beans wasn’t a terribly traditional Thanksgiving meal, but it was absolutely delicious, and I’m Canadian, so it didn’t feel like a betrayal.

I’ve been back several times since, and have been delighted every time by the comfortable room, the nice outdoor patio, and the friendly service.

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The menu is widely varied, and daily specials add to the variety. At any time, I can have any one of sevaral meat dishes, seafood specialties, or just quick snacks. A particular favorite for a light meal is the duck confit Torta Ahogada… the traditional (well, except for the duck part) Guadalajara “drowned sandwich” served on a crispy baguette and smothered in spicy red sauce.

Breakfast is a meal that usually requires specialization, but Sobrinos handles it with their usual skill and professionalism. On my most recent visit, I stopped for their “hotcakes” several times… They even put figs on my pancakes!

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Sobrinos is open from 8:00 AM to 12:00 midnight, and will take care of you, no matter what your mood may be at any hour.

Address: Av Álvaro Obregón 110, Roma Norte, Cuauhtémoc, 06700 Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico
Phone: +52 55 5264 7466

The Chinese-Mexican Cuisine Born Of U.S. Prejudice

I just had to lift this article from NPR… I’m heading for the border to try this great sounding cuisine as soon as I can:

From NPR… including the photos –

If you ask people in the city of Mexicali, Mexico, about their most notable regional cuisine, they won’t say street tacos or mole. They’ll say Chinese food. There are as many as 200 Chinese restaurants in the city.

North of the border, in California’s rural Imperial County, the population is mostly Latino, but Chinese restaurants are packed. There are dishes in this region you won’t find anywhere else, and the history behind them goes back more than 130 years.

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The Salcedo family sits in a coveted booth at the Fortune Garden restaurant in the city of El Centro, north of the border. The mother and three adult sisters are almost drooling, waiting for their food to show up. They come from Yuma, Ariz.— over an hour away — twice a month just to eat here.

A huge side order arrives, light-yellow deep-fried chilis, a dish I’ve never seen. Then a salt-and-pepper fish, which the Salcedos describe as “Baja style,” with lots of bell peppers, chilis and onions. But have you ever heard of Baja-style dishes in a Chinese restaurant?

Mayra Salcedo explains, “It’s like a fusion, Mexican ingredients with the Chinese. It’s very different than if you go to any other Chinese restaurant, Americanized Chinese restaurant.”

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“When they order, they don’t say barbecue pork,” says Fortune Garden co-owner Jenissa Zhou. “They say carnitas — carnitas coloradas.” That’s “red pork” in Spanish.

Zhou came to the U.S. from southern China. Her husband, Carlos, is from Mexicali, where he worked in Chinese restaurants. It took her a while to get used to her customers’ taste buds.

“You can see, every table, they have lemon and hot sauce,” Zhou says. “In Chinese food, we don’t eat lemon.”

Those fried yellow chilis on almost every table, chiles asados, are served in a lemon sauce with lots of salt — kind of a margarita flavor. If you believe the rumors, some chefs marinate pork in tequila.

It’s not just on the plate where cultures combine. In the Fortune Garden kitchen, the cooks speak to each other in Cantonese. The waiters speak Spanish and English.

“The restaurants you see now are remnants of the Chinese population that used to fill the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in Mexicali and in Baja California,” explains Robert Chao Romero, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches in both the Chicano and Asian-American studies departments and wrote the book The Chinese in Mexico.

And just why were the Chinese there? Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Spurred by anti-Chinese laborer sentiment among American workers, the 1882 law banned immigrants from China from entering the U.S. Tens of thousands went to Cuba, South America and Mexico instead. Many settled along the U.S.-Mexico border, becoming grocers, merchants and restaurant owners. Others managed to cross illegally and make lives in the U.S., including in Imperial County.

“The Chinese invented undocumented immigration from Mexico,” says Romero. He says they were smuggled in with the help of guides hired to lead them across the border. “Smuggling with false papers, on boats and trains — the infrastructure for that was all invented by the Chinese.”

Today’s Border Patrol grew out of the Mounted Guard of Chinese Inspectors, created to keep Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. At the same time, the Mexican government welcomed Chinese immigrants to go to the sparsely populated border region, to work on farms and in mines and canals.

The Chinese-Mexican cuisine this history begot is even more prominent on the Mexican side of the border, as I learn while taking a drive over the border with George Lim. He lives in the U.S. but commutes every day to Mexicali. Lim helps run one of the city’s oldest: El Dragon.

Why cross the border every day to run a restaurant? Lim explains that Mexicali’s population is nearly 1 million, which dwarfs the rural population on the California side of the border.

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“Just doing the math, you’re going to have a lot more customers here in Mexico,” he explains. “And I hate to say it, but people in Mexico are more sophisticated than in Imperial about Chinese food.”

That sophistication may come from decades of people eating Mexican-influenced Chinese food here. Once, it was a necessity: Chinese cooks used Mexican ingredients like chilis, jicama and certain cuts of meat, because that was what was available. Now it’s part of a culinary legacy.

There’s a new dish at El Dragon: arrachera beef, served with asparagus and black bean sauce. Lim says that’s the best meat for tacos, a clear Mexican influence: “Asparagus could be both Chinese and Mexican, but the sauce, the black bean, that’s Chinese.”

I try out a kind of Mexican-Chinese-American hybrid: an egg roll with shrimp, cilantro and cream cheese that seems like it shouldn’t be good, but is. And at El Dragon, they put avocado in the fried rice.

Lim says people still come from China to work in Mexicali restaurants, and sometimes these cooks move up north, to work in Chinese kitchens in Imperial County.

“One of the goals is to go to the U.S., have a better life for you and for your kids, give them a better education, better opportunity, maybe earning dollars instead of pesos,” he says.

The same reasons, in other words, that drew their ancestors here from southern China 130 years ago.

This story first ran on KQED’s The California Report. Vickie Ly helped with reporting and translation. The series “California Foodways” is supported in part by Cal Humanities. Lisa Morehouse, an independent journalist, produced this story during a fellowship at Hedgebrook, a residency for female writers.

Lotería Grill – Tamal de Rajas

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Despite its location on the Santa Monica Promenade in Los Angeles, Lotería Grill is a serious restaurant. The menu is limited, but always excellent, and it’s a pleasant, comfortable place to spend time with friends or just grab a quick lunch, as I did today.

A creature of habit, I usually go for something involving their rich, spicy Morita salsa, but today was different. The holidays are traditionally the season for tamales, a dish that requires a lot of effort in addition to the love that always goes into them. How could I resist?

I had a choice, and went for the Tamal de “Rajas con Queso Panela y Salsa Verde.” One of my very few complaints about tamales is that they are often dry, but this was perfectly moist, without sacrificing the satisfying chewiness of the corn base. The rajas (nopal cactus) blended their okra-like flavor with the tomatillo sauce and poblano chiles perfectly, and it was quite possibly the best tamal I’ve ever eaten.

Here’s the website: http://loteriagrill.com/santa-monica

La Casita Mexicana – Chiles en Nogada

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You know you’re in a serious Mexican restaurant when you see Chiles en Nogada on the menu… and La Casita Mexicana is most certainly a serious Mexican restaurant.

Many cuisines include stuffed peppers on their play-list, but this is by far the most interesting I have ever encountered. It is a poblana pepper, stuffed with a wonderful mixture of ground meats, fruits and spices, smothered in a walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

The dish has its roots in the historic Puebla region of Mexico, and intentionally includes the red, green and white of the Mexican flag. A seasonal dish, Chiles en Nogada is typically served in September, so we just made it in time this year.

Chiles en Nogada isn’t the most common dish, certainly not in Southern California, but I’ve learned to always order it when I have the opportunity. And I’ve never been disappointed… well, yes, I once had it served in peppers that were painfully spicy, but even then, it was better than missing out.

That said, I think the version I had last night at La Casita Mexicana is the best I’ve had. The balance of sweet and savory flavors overlaid on the earthy green chile and the rich, nutty cream sauce was just perfect… and the occasional burst of pomegranate was a lovely surprise every time.

Here’s the website: http://casitamex.com/

Huitlacoche – Aquí es Texcoco and Olympic Mercado

I wonder how many gringos had huitlacoche for both lunch and dinner yesterday? Well, I did.

Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on the corn plant, and the unappetizing english translation is corn smut. It has a rich mushroomy, corny sort of flavor that gives a delicious earthy undertone to other foods, particularly tortillas and cheese, in my experience.

I’ve heard it called Mexican caviar, and although I had tried it a few times before, I really started to focus on it after reading the wonderful novel Policía de Ciudad Juárez by Miguel Ángel Chávez Díaz de León. His main character is fascinated amost to point of obsession with huitlacoche, and orders it wherever he can find it.

I had two entirely different experiences with huitlacoche yesterday.

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The first was at a food stand in the Olympic Mercado, where Los Angeles vendors set up shop on Saturdays. I had a huarache de huitlacoche. It is called a huarache because the masa is formed in the shape of a sandal, like a super-thick tortilla. (No, I haven’t yet figured out the difference between a huarache and a chancla, which translates a flip-flop sandal) The corn aspects of the huitlacoche flavor blended beautifully with the toasted corn flavor of the huarache, and they were balanced nicely by the melted cheese.

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In the evening, I drove out to Bell Gardens, near Commerce, to Aquí es Texcoco for their spectacular roast lamb. I’ll tell you about that in another post, but right now, you need to know about the “quesataco” de huitlacoche.

In one of the most unusual presentations I’ve ever seen, they brought out sort of a quesadilla that didn’t have a tortilla wrapper, but rather crunchy, toasted cheese instead. Filled with melted white cheese and huitlacoche, it was one of the most delicious things I’ve put in my mouth this year. Interestingly, I found that taking a bite of tortilla with it brought out the flavor of the cheese and the huitlacoche even more.

Here’s the website for Aquí es Texcoco: http://www.aquiestexcoco.com/

And the Olympic Mercado is where it always is – on Olympic Boulevard east of the fashion district.

So What Kind of Chile Should I Use?

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After my recent post on chile-laced tamarind ice cream, a friend sent me a recipe for cooked apples with ancho chile.

I wasn’t paying attention at the supermarket, and found myself with all the necessary ingredients except ancho chile. I’m a resourceful guy, so I thought “what the heck” and substituted chipotle… with disappointing results. I ended up with an oddly smoky, brown-sugary mess that just didn’t work with the sour granny smith apples.

That’s when I was reminded that it’s high time I learned the difference between the many different chiles.

Here’s a great starting point. A summary that features 12 commonly available chiles, with a quick description of each, and an indication of their heat level.

I wasn’t surprised to see how hot the habaneros can be. I have a vivid memory of tasting a tiny dollop of habanero salsa one evening in Mérida, and pretty much ruining my dinner with the pain.

Here’s the link: http://pocketchangegourmet.com/12-essential-chile-peppers-for-mexican-cooking/

Lupita’s – Fish Taco

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The Grand Central Market on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles is in the process of gentrification. You can now buy an egg sandwich for $13 or grass-fed beef for $35 a pound, but some of the old-line food stands are still there. Thank goodness.

I recently stopped Lupita’s, and was pleased to find a classic Baja style fish taco. Perfectly fried fish fillets on warm tortillas, smothered in shredded lettuce, crema, pico de gallo and hot sauce, with a dash of squeezed lemon, they can be the perfect lunch.

Let’s hope they don’t get forced out of the market by the trendy new places.

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Quesadilla de Huitlacoche y Pollo

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Walking through the Olympic Mercado in downtown Los Angeles, I was drawn to the stand where they were making quesadillas. When I saw the big dish of huitlacoche, I was powerless, and placed my order.

Huitlacoche seems to be translated as “corn smut”, but it’s a fungus that grows on the corn plant, and has a complex, musky flavor of corn and… well, fungus. Mexicans are divided on the subject, but I tend to line up with those who love it with a passion.

Some braised chicken, grilled onions and shredded nopal on a hot, cheesy tortilla rounded out the experience, and I was a happy guy.

La Huasteca – Lynwood, CA – Shrimp in Red Chile Salsa

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One of the highlights of the AltaMed East LA Meets Napa fundraiser in July was the shrimp in red salsa served by La Huasteca.

La Huasteca is one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, as you can see from some of my earlier entries in this blog. They are super-friendly and make some of the best moles I’ve ever tasted, and now I have an idea of the magic they can do with seafood. It’s really worth the trip to Lynwood.

Here’s the website: http://www.lahuasteca.com/