Breakfast in Hermosillo – Gallo Pinto

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After years of doing it the American way, I finally went for a real Mexican breakfast. My usual favorite place for breakfast in Mexico is VIPS, sort of a Denny’s equivalent, but there wasn’t a VIPS anywhere near where I was staying. So I went to the Mercado Municipal, where everyone else seemed to be at that time of day.

All the food stands were trying to lure me with their delicious cabeza (head), but I wasn’t ready for that. Instead, I went for the Gallo Pinto, a northwest Mexico specialty that they assured me was a highly traditional breakfast.

Gallo Pinto turned out to be a rich soup with big chunks of beef, hominy and lots of pinto beans. Sprinkled with cilantro, chopped onion and chile flakes, it was truly satisfying, and didn’t leave me sluggish, as I feared, in the brutal summer heat.

Maybe I’ll eventually break my Raisin Bran and yogurt habit.

Tijuana to Hermosillo by Bus

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They told me the ride would take 12 hours, but it turned out to be 13 and a half. Not a big deal.

The scenery was mostly desert, but the first couple of hours covered some remarkable arid mountain scenery. The bus drivers with the Elite bus company couldn’t have been nicer. When they saw me taking pictures, they made a special stop at a “mirador” so I could get better shots.

Cabeza, Cabeza, Cabeza

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I just started this trip on Thursday, taking buses from Los Angeles to Tijuana, and from there to Hermosillo, and I’ve had a surprising number of invitations to eat the heads (cabezas) of various animals. The picture of the steaming skull is from my favorite taquería in Tijuana, Tacos El Gordo. The others are from the Mercado Municipal in Hermosillo. Each time I passed a food stand, they tried to lure me in for breakfast with their delicious cabeza… So far, I’ve managed to resist the temptation.

Azuñia Platinum Blanco Tequila – Casablanca Restaurant – Venice, CA

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At my friend Robert’s suggestion, I went for the first time to Casablanca, a long-time tradition on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice.

Shortly after arriving, we were offered “the best margarita you’ve ever had.” I begged off, but Robert took up the challenge, and reviewed the range of super-premium tequilas that were on offer. He went with the Azuñia Platinum Blanco.

Azuñia tequilas are made from 100% Weber Blue Agave that comes from the Zuñiga family farms in the Tequila growing region of Jalisco, Mexico. The plants are cooked for 36 hours in clay ovens before being pressed, fermented and twice distilled. Here’s a great website that describes the process, with photos and all. http://www.azuniatequila.com/process/

And yes, it was the best margarita Robert has ever had.

Here’s Casablanca’s website: http://casablancarestaurant.net/

Casa Oaxaca – Culver City – Barbacoa de Chivo

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There’s a serious new Mexican restaurant on the westside – Casa Oaxaca, the wonderful Santa Ana restaurant, has just opened a new location on Venice Boulevard in Culver City. It’s so new that the Grand Opening is later this week – on Friday, August 9.

I met Rogelio and his crew, and tasted their delicious food at the recent East LA Meets Napa fundraiser event, so I’ve been looking forward to this new opening ever since.

The menu is unusually interesting, filled with specialties from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The number of fish and shrimp dishes reflects the long coastline of Oaxaca, and of course, some of the most famous moles are represented. I felt I should choose one of those, but I was just in the mood for barbacoa de chivo, and ordered that. It’s a favorite dish I’ve had in many places, and it usually tastes pretty much the same… delicious but the same. Rogelio’s version, to my surprise, was different, with a rich red broth, boldly spiced, but it’s the spicing that sets it apart from the others. Beautifully presented with black beans, a pyramid of rice, lime wedges and chopped onion and cilantro, I couldn’t have been happier. Even the hand-made tortillas were different, lighter and flakier than usual, reminding me of another Oaxaca specialty, tlayudas (which are also on the menu).

I’m really happy to have such a serious restaurant on the westside, and I know I’ll be stopping by regularly.

Here’s the address: 9609 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232

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

Casa Azul Hotel – Mérida

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I was in the Yucatán city of Mérida last year. I stayed at a perfectly nice hotel downtown, but now I really wish I had known about Casa Azul.

Mérida was a fabulously rich colonial city in an area where a great deal of wealth was generated by growing sisal, the material that for many years was used in the manufacture of rope. There is a particular boulevard of stunning mansions, many now converted to museums and public buildings, that would rival any city in the world, and it appears that Casa Azul is located in this neighborhood.

Yucatán is the site of a large concentration of remarkable Mayan ruins. I wasn’t on that kind of a trip, but I did take a day to see Uxmal. The ruins were stunning, the drive was easy and pleasant, and I finally was able to understand how entire cities can be swallowed by the jungle.

I’m certain my experience would have been much enhanced if I had stayed at a luxurious historical place like Casa Azul.

Here’s the website: http://www.hotelesboutique.com/en/hotel/casa-azul-monumento-historico

Imanol Caneyada – Tardarás un rato en morir

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My rating: 4 stars

Chantal Akerman, the Belgian film director, was having trouble raising funds for a musical that took place in a shopping mall. She gathered together the cast, and made a demo film, sort of a sketch of what the finished product would be, in which the players sang the songs and read the dialog with no locations or production values whatsoever. This sketch was well received by film festivals, won prizes, and resulted in funding of the originally conceived picture. The more conventional film went unnoticed, despite its bigger budget and more elaborate production values and technical effects.

I tell the story because I feel that Imanol Caneyada has done something similar in his “novela negra” Tardarás un rato en morir.

At first, I was disconcerted by the wide range of topics, locations and characters he covers in this short novel. The first person narrative of the aide to a disgraced former Mexican state governor hiding out in Montreal takes only slight precedence over the story of a Montreal police detective trying to solve a series of bizarre murders. We get the back stories of not only the Mexican main characters, but also the Montreal policeman, a surgeon and his staff, a hotel employee and a most-wanted drug cartel chief. After a while, though, I realized just how ambitiously large the book was, and came to admire how concisely the author managed to show how the search for a Canadian serial killer can put the Mexican drug wars in context.

The theme I came away with is that nothing is really as it appears on the surface – personal relations, physical appearances, headline news, crime, national identity, political power and financial success included. The peaceful blanket of the constant snow in Montreal provides an apt metaphor.

An interesting book that could have frustrated me with its refusal to dig deeply into any of its characters or their stories, but that covered such a wide range that I came away satisfied.

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En esta impactante novela negra, Imanol Caneyada retrata con crudeza un mundo en el que imperan el poder del narcotráfico, las mentiras, el crimen, la corrupción, los asesinatos y la violencia.

A través de una trama envolvente y personajes delineados con exactitud, Tardarás un rato en morir nos cuenta la historia de un ex gobernador mexicano y su fiel ayudante, quienes deben partir en secreto hacia Canadá. Su exilio es la única manera de rehuir el callejón sin salida en el que se encuentran: terminar en la cárcel o ser alcanzados por uno de los más temidos capos de la droga, que busca vengarse de ellos.

Por otro lado, la ciudad en la que se esconden tiene sus propias historias perturbadoras. La nieve que cubre esas calles, supuestamente idílicas, se cubre de sangre, pues empiezan a desaparecer mujeres, a las que encuentran asesinadas y destazadas con métodos brutales.

Con un ritmo cada vez más intenso, la narración del ex gobernador relacionado con la mafia se entrelaza con la del asesino serial que siembra la desazón y el terror. El resultado es un thriller con una intriga bien lograda y una visión ácida de la realidad, que enganchará a los lectores.

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I’ll admit it – I’m fascinated by the huge volcano 40 kilometers from Mexico City airport, near Puebla. In this video, a father and son team climbed to the lip of the volcano to film it.

Here’s the link to El Universal’s website: http://www.eluniversaltv.com.mx/videos/v_8f5d06cc000f4d098d485440f627aeac.html

Guelaguetza

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Guelaguetza starts on Monday. A major pre-hispanic festival in the southern state of Oaxaca, Wikipedia has quite a lot to say about it:

The Guelaguetza, or Los lunes del cerro (Mondays on the Hill) is an annual indigenous cultural event in Mexico that takes place in the city of Oaxaca, capital of the state of Oaxaca, as well as in nearby villages. The celebration centers on traditional dancing in costume in groups, often gender-separated groups, as is traditional, and includes parades complete with indigenous walking bands, native food, and statewide artisanal crafts such as prehispanic-style textiles. Each costume (traje) and dance usually has a local indigenous historical and cultural meaning. Although the celebration is now an important tourist attraction, it also retains deep cultural importance for the peoples of the state and is important for the continuing survival of these cultures.

Oaxaca has a large native indigenous population, well over 50 percent of the population, compared to 20 percent for Mexico as a whole (depending on systems of classification). Indigenous culture in Oaxaca remains strong, with over 300,000 people in the state who are monolingual in a wide variety of native indigenous languages and many others who are bilingual in Spanish, or follow a predominantly indigenous lifestyle. Unlike nearby Yucatán also located in the Mexican Southeast, where the indigenous culture consists of closely related groups of the same culture (Mayans), the indigenous people in Oaxaca are from many different cultures. Zapotec and Mixtec are the two biggest ethnic groups in terms of population and area, but there are also a great number of other groups, and all have their own unique traditions and speak diverse, mutually unintelligible languages. The Guelaguetza celebration dates back long before the arrival of the Spanish and remains a defining characteristic of Oaxacan culture.[1] Its origins and traditions come from prehispanic earth-based religious celebrations related to the worship of corn and the corn god.[2] In contemporary Oaxaca, indigenous communities from within the state gather at the Guelaguetza to present their native culture, mainly in the form of music, costumes, dances, and food. It is the most famous indigenous gathering of its kind in Mexico.[2]Like many indigenous traditions in Mexico, this festival was adapted to and mixed with Christian traditions after the Spanish conquest of the area. The human sacrifice of a virgin slave girl[citation needed] was eliminated from the event, and the Guelaguetza instead became mixed into a celebration honoring Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Virgen del Carmen), emphasizing marianism combined with the surviving beliefs. In the early part of the 20th century, after a severe earthquake in the 1920s that destroyed most of the city, the festival was re-organized as a statewide cultural event to rebuild the morale of the peoples of Oaxaca “La Guelaguetza de la Raza”.[2] It began to take on a more modern form as a display of each peoples/region’s unique dance, and also started to become more of a show than a spontaneous festival. In the 1970s a stadium dedicated to the Guelaguetza was built on a prominent place on Fortin Hill in the center of the city. National and international tourism became increasingly popular when the ancient city of Oaxaca became a UNESCO world heritage city in 1987 and when a modern limited access highway was built to the city in November 1994. Before the highway, transportation was so slow that it was virtually impossible to journey through the rugged, often remote, mountainous high-altitude terrain to reach Oaxaca City from other cities such as Mexico City for a weekend trip to the Guelaguetza.

The celebration takes place on consecutive Mondays at the end of July in towns around the state and in the capital city’s open-air amphitheater built into the “Cerro del Fortín”, a hill that overlooks central Oaxaca City. The word Guelaguetza comes from the Zapotec language and is usually interpreted as the “reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services” in keeping with the importance in indigenous cultures of sharing, reciprocity, and extended community.[1] The Guelaguetza celebration also includes many other side events, including a performance of “Princess Donaji”, an epic prehispanic theatrical presentation performed the day before the Guelaguetza itself begins.