At the end of January I had the opportunity to go to a small, work related, conference in Monterrey, Mexico. I did my research, checked out what to do and see and tried to find some recommendations on great places to eat. I found lots of stuff to do and see in Monterrey, but precious little about where to eat. On-line searches and requests turned up nada. The request on this board went unanswered, so I was pretty much on my own as far as finding food. And, to say the least, I arrived in Monterrey expecting the worst. It's not the food destination that Oaxaca, Vera Cruz or even Guadalajara are, but I left having been very well fed and pleasantly surprised.
The conference was held at the Radisson Gran Ancira, a gorgeous old hotel located on one corner of the Plaza Miguel Hidalgo. This is a colonial style hotel that has been very, very well maintained. Service was excellent and I highly recommend it. A word about Plaza Miguel Hidalgo, it is not large and is lined by other hotels, a couple of decent restaurants and a small museum. There is a coffe bar/pastry shop in one corner of the museum that provides outdoor seating and is a great place to relax and watch the people go by. I've yet to figure out how Mexican women manage to walk on cobblestones in 4" stilleto heels. And you see lots of them go by along with young families, lovers, businessmen, merchants adn the rest of the world. I also tried the torta shop on the plaza, good but not memorable.
I ate two meals at the Gran Ancira, one an off the menu dinner, the other their Sunday buffet. For dinner I had the filet mignon. It was tender, flavorful but just past medium in doneness. The steak was accompanied by an assortment of still slightly crisp baby veggies and had been plated onto a mound of mashed potatoes, which while very tasty, were a little on the gluey side. But, all in all, mashed potato glitch aside, the meal was perfectly fine.
Our entire conference group ate at the Sunday buffet, which was immense. There were at least 20 different kinds of salads, including Enselada Americano, which turned out to be cole slaw :-). A soup station, and an omelete station. There was a wide assortment of entrees ranging from Paella Valenciana to Mole to Hauchinango Veracruzana. Desserts were house made in the French style and quite over the top. I was with a bunch of food service professionals and all of us were wowed by the dessert spread. And they really did taste as good as they looked. But the most unusual feature was a service cart that had been turned into a make-shift palapa serving made to order ceviche. You chose your fish and your accoutrements and the server whipped it up for you on the spot in a sundae glass. Very cool. If you leave this buffet hungry, it's your own fault. This is, to be sure, hotel food, but it was well done enough to be worth a recommendation, particularly if you're in the Zona Central/Zona Rosa and stuck (actually not very likely) for a place to eat.
Monterrey is cabrito (goat) country with several large restaurants that cater to the tourist (foreign or Mexican) trade. One evening a couple of the local conference hosts took a group of about 6 of us to a cabrito restaurant that does NOT cater to the tourist trade. The Gran San Carlos is a large, comfortable restaurant with an upscale clientele. I don't entirely recall the appetizers because I was madly flirting with the Salvadoreano seated next to me, but I do recall that guacamole was passed, along with some excellent queso fundido (called chorizo con queso here), maybe some charro beans too. Of course, it could also have been the Vampiro cocktail that I was drinking that caused me not to remember the entire meal. A vampiro is made with white tequila, sangria and grapefruit juice, and they go down easily, probably a little too easily. When you order cabrito, you specify the cut you want as well, as in shoulder, breast, flank, leg, etc. Most of us ordered cabrito and I think most of us ordered breast meat. What you order is exactly what you get, a plate of meat, that's it, no other adornments. Baskets of fresh, hot corn tortillas and a couple of table sauces are all that you need. Underneath the crispy exterior of the meat, it was soft and rich, only somewhat mildly gamey, and when rolled into a taco with a dab of hot sauce the perfect blend of corn, meat and chile. We skipped dessert but were presented with a small assortment of candies. The Gran San Carlos serves one of the best restaurant renditions of Cafe de Olla. Small individual ollas are used as the coffee cup and, oh the coffee. It is strong, liberally laced with canela and piloncillo, and pecan halves floating on top. An impressive end to a very satisfying meal. Prices are moderate by American standards at the Gran San Carlos, dress is casual to a little dressy. Clientele is almost all Mexican.
Several meals were eaten at Tec de Monterrey, the local sponsor of the conference. The campus in Monterrey is the flagship for the univeristy system. We had a sit-down dinner on the 14th floor of the President's building, which afforded some pretty spectacular views. On the table when we entered were totopos, guac and a couple of table sauces. The first course was a cactus tartlet. Small, thin corn tortillas had been pressed into fluted molds adn deep fried to create the crisp tart shell. They were filled with nopal cactus paddles that had been small diced and combined with some red onion and cilantro and tossed in a light lime based vinaigrette and garnished with crumbled cotija. Very simple but very good and a refreshing way to begin the meal. The tart was followed by Huitlacoche Soup, a chicken stock based soup with corn, onion, chicken and a couple of other veggies, to which huitlacoche had been added. Huitlacoche is a blackish/purplish fungus that can develop on an ear of corn during the rainy season. I have never been a huge fan of it since I think it tastes about like dirt, but teh huitlacoche went well with the soup. Cabrito Stuffed Pepper and Veracruzana Fish with Mexicana Style Rice and Romeritos was served as the entree. A pasilla had been stuffed with a mixture of cabrito, cheese and vegetables, but not battered and fried, making it much lighter than expected, and the fish was well, fish. The Veracruzana sauce was good, though a bit mild. The romeritos (a green veggie), OTOH, were lovely. Tejocote Pudding and Stuffed Guavas with Rompope arrived as the final course. The guavas were pretty good, but I'm not sure Tejocotes are a good idea for pudding (actually more of a mousse). An excellent meal on a college campus, what a concept.
Even more interesting were the tours the next day of the kitchens at Tec de Monterrey. Why am I mentioning this? Because they do thousands of meals a day and they are almost all from scratch cooking. There were production kitchens the size of a small airplane hanger where rows of cooks were prepping raw ingredients, stuffing tacos, tending stocks and soups. Most interesting were the flat top grills loaded with crispy tortilla strips and soft, meltable cheese, waiting for chilequilas to ordered at which point, a tomato or tomatillo based sauce would be poured over the mass of tortilla chips, quickly stir-fried, flipped onto a plate and sent out for service. Chilequilas are notoriously hard to do because they essentially have to be made to order and do not hold. These were very, very good, and crispy. If you are in Monterrey, and near Tec de Monterrey and in need of a good, quick, and inexpensive meal, you could do a lot worse than to seek out one of their dining areas and try those chilequilas.
The entire conference went to dinner at La Valentina, a romantically dark and seductive restaurant. The meal started with Crema de Tres Quesos, a soup made of 3 cheeses into which additional crema had been swirled. It was raining when we arrived, so the soup was kind of like comfort food. We had our choice of Camarones del Patron, shrimps in an orange and guajillo sauce, with mushrooms, or Arrachera al Grill, steak served with and enchilada and beans. I chose the shrimp, the person sitting next to me the steak, and we ended up splitting our meals with each other. The shrimps were good, not over cooked, but to be honest there wasn't much noticeable orange flavor in the well balanced sauce. It probably would have been even better with a little more orange. Of course, the double Don Julio's I was drinking could have dulled my taste buds ;-O. The steak was a steak, good, not over cooked and tasted like beef. I mean, seriously, how much can you really write about a steak, especially a good one. For dessert we were offered Crepas de Cajeta. Cajeta is carmelized goats milk and exceedingly popular in northern Mexico, but not exceedingly popular with me. The crepes were attractively presented, warm with a small scoop of melting ice cream. They were good, but not remarkable mostly because I'm not a big fan of cajeta made with all goats milk (though I do find goat related products in Mexico milder than those in the U.S). Throughout the meal we were ably seranaded with mostly romatic songs by 3 musicians, which only added to the seductively relaxed ambiance. I'd go back to this restaurant in a heart beat.
Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma is headquartered in Monterrey. They brew XX (Dos Equis) Lager, XX Ambar, Superior, Sol, Noche Buena, Carta Blanca, Tecate, Tecate Light, Bohemia and Indio. Plant tours are offered M-F from 9AM to 5PM and on Saturday from 9 AM to 2PM. Tours are offered in English. The plant covers two sides of a major street, so an underground tunnel was constructed to reduce the risk to employees crossing the street. They also use the tunnel to present the history of the company and display company artifacts. The entire brewery is exceptionally modern and all beer is brewed in the German tradition, except the experimental brews or ones in development. Those are brewed using American technology as they can be small batched easier -- go figure. The tour walks through the whole process, though there is not a tremendous amount to really see, but they do let you get a free beer in their beer-garden at the end of the tour. This may or may not be of interest depending upon how into beer you might be. Also on the grounds of the ceveceria is a baseball museum that pays homage to Mexico's love affair with America's national pasttime.
The Central de Abastos in most Mexican cities is a bustling market selling every conceivable thing under the sun. This is NOT the case with Central de Abastos de Monterrey. It is mostly a commerical zone and I spent about 90 mintues there. I've seen better dried chiles and their selection of produce seemed limited. I did manage to pick up some sal grano, Bayo beans, frijole de junio and frijole de mayo, but by and large I didn't see much that would entice me back for a second visit. Almost no fondas or food stalls.
Two non-food related places worth seeking out are the Musuem of Mexican History and the folk-art store Carrapan. The museum is set back from the street and fronted by an enormous pool of water and fountains. The museum is done in marble in almost all of it's entirity. The current exhibit, which is what drew me in, is on the Jaguar and it's role in the history of Mexico from pre-Columbian times to the present. Truly fabulous exhibit with several old Olmec sculptures. Jaguar will be at the musuem until the end of February '05 and is definitely worth the visit. I read enough Spanish to get by, but I understand that there is a self-guided tour with English headphones. The permanent exhibit upstairs is also worth a visit. Next door to the Mexican History complex is the Museo Dulceria, or sweets museum. Where the Mexcian History is grand and impressive, all in marble, the museum of sweets is a very small shop. Also worth a look.
Serious students and or collectors of Mexican folk-art should plan a stop at Carrapan, which has been in business 50+ years. Prices are not cheap but the quality is extremely good and the selection and variety wide. Good but less spendy pieces can be found at Tikal, which is located in a residencial district, but most cab drivers can find it.
My drive into Monterrey from the airport was anything by auspicious. The air was brown which matched the scenery and the miles of manufacturing plants. What I hadn't bargained for was the sheer energy and/or industriousness of the city and it's people. And it proves once again that looks and first impressions can be deceiving. Monterrey is a friendly, charming city worth stopping and spending time. The water is safe, the food is good and you don't have to look too hard to find it. I suspect this may just have been the first trip of many.