Sometimes the simplest food is the what sustains the most, and that was certainly the case for me last week after a red-eye flight from LAX to GDL (Guadalajara). Cristina (yes, the one that posts on this board) met me at the airport and we immediately set out on a 5-day road trip through Michoacan, being home-based in Patzcuaro.
After about an hour and a half on the road we pulled off about 9:30 AM just outside of Zamora for breakfast. This wasn't just any old breakfast, nor was this any old road side stand. The stand is famous for it's carnitas and justly so. Within minutes of sitting down, a condiment tray was plunked down containing a salsa cruda, a red table sauce, and an encurtido of mild white onions, slivers of chile peron (aka chile manzana), seasoned with salt, vinegar and fresh oregano. This was followed almost immediately by a basket piled high with hot, fresh and pillowy corn tortillas, fragrant with the aroma of corn and slight char from comal. I hadn't realized just exactly how hungry I was until I caught a wiff of those tortillas and began wolfing them down trying each of the condiments as I went.
Lucky for me, the carnitas arrived just as quickly as the condiments and tortillas had. Pork in Mexico is a marvelous, it's still flavorful, toothsome and marbled with fat, and, thankfully, lacks that sawdust texture and general lack of flavor of the "other white meat". These carnitas had just recently come out of the cooking fat, which was most likely lard. They were crispy, fall apart tender, unctous, and when wrapped in one of the soft, pliant corn tortillas and adorned with some of the encurtido and a splash of red table sauce, about as close to food nirvana as one can get. Corn, pork and chiles, how much simpler than that can you get? The carnitas even made the cup of instant NesCafe seem like it had just been freshly brewed. A half-kilo of carnitas disappeared in the wink of an eye and left Cristina and I well fortified for the remaining trip into Patzcuaro, which is an incredibly beautiful drive.
Frankly, the purpose of this road trip was more related to Mexican folk art than food, both turned out to be wonderful. I saw and met some amazing artesans and craft people making stunningly beautiful pieces out of a wide variety of materials, that included, clay, copper, wrought iron, wood, needle and thread and tule reeds to name a few. The next road trip I'll have to make in a truck since I saw so many things I wanted to buy, but wouldn't fit in a rollaboard and carry-on.
The food was just as bright and as flavorful as the folk art was beautiful. We began each day with a breakfast that, while not as hearty as the typical American breakfast, or as soul-satisfying as the carnitas, was able to carry us through most of the day. The first day we retrieved the car and drove up to the Basilica in search of Cristina's favorite corunda vendor. Corundas are masa based, stuffed, shaped like a giant pyramid, wrapped in fresh corn leaves and then steamed. The ones we had for breakfast were uncommonly light and fluffy and had been stuffed with the doble crema Michoacan is known for and rajas (strips of poblano chile). The whole corunda was then liberally dressed with crema and a firey salsa de chile peron. Served with a chocolate atole (more like champurrado), it was a fine way to start the day. Another day began with bionicos purchased at the local tianguis (i.e. street market) and a variety of fresh baked pastries. A bionico is really nothing more than a parfait made by layering assorted cut fruits, granola and yogurt in a clear plastic glass and giving the finished product a good squirt of honey upon purchase. The most substantial breakfast we had was chilaquiles with a fried egg and beans one morning at the sidewalk restaurant of the Gran Hotel on the Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, which incidentally, also makes an excellent cup of Cafe con Leche.
Restaurant meals were not our focus but there were a few. In Santa Clara del Cobre, the copper center, we discussed the merits of a solid copper bathtub built for two (and priced at the bargain basement price of $17,000 pesos) over lunch at the restaurant El Camino Real. The meal began with Sopa Tarasca, a chicken stock based soup with skinny, crispy fried tortilla strips, shredded cheese and an ancho chile floating on top. Tasty, but a little pasty. For the sopa seca Cristina had Arroz Mexicana, which was unremarkable. I had the Macarrones, the Mexican version of macaroni and cheese, which was bland but filling. For the entree Cristina had a veal milanesa that was smothered with suave chile/tomato sauce studded with vegetables, while I had thinly pounded pork loin smothered in what the menu described as an orange sauce, but turned out to be more like an orange sauce enhanced with mustard (probably French's out of the jar), cloves, allspice berries and pepercorns, and it was utterly good. Dessert choices were duraznos and gelatina con rompope, rompope being an eggnog style liquor. Neither choice was exciting, but knowing that that duraznos would be canned peaches, we both opted for the gelatina. I don't think either of us expected a dish of jello and eggnog to be anything other than pedestrian. Boy were we wrong. Sometimes the most jaded and skeptical of foodie paletes needs to be reminded how delicious simple food really is. The gelatin was a pale, opaque yellow, floating in a pool of rompope of the same color. The gelatina lacked any hint of traditional jello rubberiness, but rather seduced the mouth with a velvet and voluptuous mouthfeel and refined and complex assortment of flavors. I've known for years that rompope can work wonders in a dessert, but who knew that plain old gelatin could actually be sensuous?
The other restaurant meal we ate was in town at Don Rafa's. It was memorable for two things, a much better version of Sopa Tarasca and a much better version of Macarrones. The soup had a richer flavor and lacked the pastiness of the version we'd had in Santa Clara del Cobre. The macarrones had been made with Oaxacan string cheese and the addition of some sauteed onions and mushrooms, elevating this comfort food just enough for it to be ever so satisfying. I had a nondescript milanesa and Cristina had a chicken breast in the local mole, which was really quite good, and dessert was a respectable flan.
The remainder of our food came from either markets or street vendors. At night in Patzcuaro the vendors selling Enchiladas Placeras take the place of the market vendors. Stroll around the parimeter, watch the cooks as they work making the enchilada platters and choose which vendor suits your fancy. A platter easily feeds 2 hungry people, 3 if you're not so hungry, and consists of 12 small enchiladas, sauteed veggies and meat, which is usually chicken. The enchiladas are filled with a dab (and it really is a dab) of a potato/cheese mixture. The platter is garnished with a ladle of salsa, a handful of encurtido and a pickled jalapeno. It's an impossible amount of food that seems to disappear far more readily than it realistically should.
If you are a health conscious traveler, the one thing you probably don't really want to do is watch how an Enchilada Placera platter is actually made. A very large metal comal is set up over a very fast, very hot propane powered burner that puts out some serious BTUs. The comal has a well in the center in which most of the cooking is done. As the orders come in the cook liberally ladles soft lard into the well in the comal. The chickens are precooked, having been boiled earlier in the day. The cook adds whatever pieces have been ordered to the lard to heat them through and crisp them up. As the chickens are cooking, the cook then takes a handful of fresh corn tortillas, rifles them to separate them, and quickly dips them into a red chile sauce. With the free hand, the chickens are moved out of the oil to the side of the comal and the dipped tortillas then go into the lard for a quick fry and flip. They are moved up along the edges of the well, filled with the potato/cheese mixture, folded in half and sent back into the lard for a qick dip. The completed enchiladas are then moved over to the chicken and a very generous serving of cooked potatoes, carrots and onions is slid in for it's tour through the lard. A large oval platter is lined with romaine lettuce leaves, the enchiladas shingled out across the romaine, the potato/carrot mixture dumped on top, then the chicken pieces, some cheese, and lastly the condiments. Total time from the moment the chicken goes into the lard, to the moment the jalapeno hits the finished platter is probably not much more than about 5 mintues, which is probably the saving grace with respect to the lard. The temperature of the lard is so hot, and the amount of time the food actually spends in it is really comparatively short. Thankfully, almost all the lard remains in the comal well and is not absorbed into the food, which really does come out remarkably greaseless. It's hard to say which I liked better the enchiladas or the veggies, the chicken being more of an afterthought than anything, all of it was good. It didn't matter that I could hear my arteries snapping shut with each bite, some things are worth a little lard, and Enchiladas Placera is definitely one of them.
On a corner very near the Gran Hotel another vendor sets up and dispenses tacos, probably the best tacos I've ever had..........anywhere. They are made with very small corn tortillas, maybe about 4" in diameter and filled with your choice of beef steak, tripe, chorizo and a couple of other meats. They get a garnish of green salsa, finely minced onion and cilantro. There are some additional garnishes available to put on the tacos, but they really aren't needed. The flavors are very pure and clear and the garnishes the perfect enhancement. Just look for the busiest street stand you can find. People were at least 2 deep all around this cart the night we ate there.
Situated in the portals of the buildings lining the main plaza are vendors selling everything under the sun from cheap jewelery to candies, empanadas from atun (tuna) to zarzamora (blackberry) and exotic flavored ice creams and ices not to be missed. Late in the day buy an ice cream and wonder over towards the fountain in the main plaza to relax and watch the Dance of the Viejitos beign performed by a trope of youngsters.
The street market yields the usual array of dead-ripe fruits, vegetables and chiles that really do perfume the air of the market. Tiny little wild cherries and wild blackberries were in season and intensely flavored. I also had my first taste of nanches, a starchy, unsweet fruit with little flavor that leaves a weird aftertaste in the mouth. Most likely an acquired taste.
On our way back to reality we stopped at the street market in Quiroga for our last breakfast. Several weeks earlier a friend of Cristina's had discovered a taco vendor in the market making wonderful mole tacos. We were her first customers this day. As we watched she rolled masa into logs and then pressed them out in 10" narrow ovals on a wooden tortilla press. The finished tortilla was laid on the edge of a metal comal, filled with the mole mixture, folded and slid into yet more lard to fry. After much flipping and frying the tacos were stuffed with a little shredded cabbage, salsa and cilantro and passed over to us. A delightful way to start the day. This vendor also makes tacos with chicken, cheese and rajas and spinach in addition to the mole tacos. She sets up her stand on the sidewalk facing into the market. She is roughly located between the pan dulce and bread vendors and the walkway into the church.
5 days in Michoacan barely scratches the surface of possiblities for food and folk art. I'll be back for both.