Saturday, May 15, 2010

Don Cuevas' Restaurant Salsa Acid Test

After a year of arranging restaurant breakfasts and sending out email notices, I'm retiring as breakfast co-ordinator for the Pátzcuaro R.O.M.E.O.s Men's Breakfast  Group. R.O.M.E.O. is an acronym for "Retired Old Men Eating Out."

I enjoyed most of it, with very few problems. But a frequent challenge is getting suggestions from the group as to the next week's restaurant venue. Many members ( I use the term members loosely, as we don't have by-laws, memberships, officers or dues) are reluctant to make suggestions.

After several years as an informal member, and a year of co-ordinating, I have devised an acid test which helps me decide if we should return to a restaurant. This test may be applied generally to eating out in Mexico, not just geriatric breakfasts.

It's based on several factors, but the main one is salsa, or salsa, if you prefer.

Who ever heard of a Mexican Mexican restaurant (that is, in Mexico) that didn't serve its guests salsas without having to request it?* We have, on several occasions.

Picture this scene: a plush dining room in an expensive, deluxe hotel in Pátzcuaro. Let's call it La Mansíon de Peluche. Tablecloths, uniformed waiters, chandeliers, warm croissants, butter curls, but no salsa, for God's sake.  That was a warning clue that the buffet breakfast that would follow would follow the path of insipidity. The presence of sliced hot dogs in their innocent, undisguised nudity, was more evidence that it was a kitchen that did not care.
 A request for salsa brought a heedlessly improvised dish of it after a short wait. Someone in the kitchen should have thought of this beforehand. This kind of plush service does not come cheaply, either. I'd rather pay for good food than for pretentious plushness.

Another hotel, a refuge more squarely located, and another buffet, with bad value/price relation down to an art. I was just trying to recall what we were served last time for $80 MXN. I think that besides beverages, there was huevos a la Mexicana of no particular distinction, some chilaquiles... there may have been more, maybe some bacon, but I can't remember. It was also notable for a lack of salsa. I felt cheated, but the servers were too busy getting more huevos (which had run out early before all of us got some) that I gave up on it.

Last Tuesday we breakfasted at  a new restaurant, "La Vista Incomparable", on the hill overlooking Pátzcuaro. The coffee was decent, the food wasn't bad, although not great. The fruit plate was unusually good and distinctive. Points!  On the other hand, the bread was dreadful. And there was no salsa. Again, $80 (these prices include or voluntary tip.)

Let's turn now to the positive side. Here is the Pátzcuaro Salsa Hall of Fame
• Fonda Mamá Lupe. A intense, brick-red sauce is on the table. No asking necessary. It has kick and good flavor. Try it on Hot Cakes instead of syrup. (Just foolin')  Sorry, I don't find a photo, but I'll soon remedy that.
I just picked up the print from the drugstore; here:

• Patio Las Brisas. Three salsas, in varying styles and strengths. You may have to ask for the dark, oily extra picante salsa.
Serious salsa, not for the fainthearted, at Las Brisas

Cooked Table Sauce, Patio Las Brisas

La Surtidora. Damn fine salsa. You don't need to start a petition to get some.

*Free* molletes with Salsa Cruda in center
A *free* amuse bouche of molletes at La Surtidora. Salsa cruda in center.

Listen, do I need to start bringing my own salsa to the plush but negligent restaurants? Would they care?
• Restaurante Lupita's (antes, Restaurant Cha Cha Cha). Nice salsa, innocent looking, but picante. Not very characterful. It's based on tomatoes and chiles perón.

Over in Morelia, even lowly Hamburguesas Richards offers decent salsas for its food, particularly its tacos al pastor.

Do I need to bring my own salsa to the restaurants that don't provide it? I don't think they'd give a whit, but
here's a recipe for my  Salsa Verde. It's not unique, but it's good.
Peel then wash a kilogram of tomates verdes, also known as tomatillos. Cook in simmering, lightly salted water until just starting to turn tender and translucent. Do Not Overcook. Drain in a colander and cool.
Roast, then sweat 6 medium to large chiles Poblanos. After 30 minutes of sweating, peel and seed. You may add 1 chile Jalapeño or 2 or more chiles serranos to the mix if you like the salsa muy picante.
Also partially roast  half of a peeled white onion.
Wash and disinfect a good handful of cilantro. Blot dry in paper towelling
Wash, disinfect a good handful of cilantro, and remove any large, coarse stems. Blot dry with a paper towel.
Place the peeled roasted chiles and the cut up onion in a food processor outfitted with the steel S-shaped blade. Pulse until a coarse consistency is reached. Add the cooled tomatillos along with a teaspoon of salt. Add the cilantro. Pulse to combine. Add some pure water to thin the salsa to desired consistency. Taste for salt.
You are done. This freezes well in small containers. There's little excuse for being out of salsa verde.

*There's a bargain breakfast buffet restaurant, in a non-elegant hotel. It does serve salsa but it serves neither bread or tortillas. In all fairness, I have to say that they do not normally serve breakfast but open specially for our group. The key to its popularity is that the food is both abundant and cheap.

(I see some bugs in this blogpost, but I can't correct them now. Hasta pronto.)

Salsa Update: On Sunday, May 23, we were at the restaurant El Gorjeo de Las Aves En Las Mañanas de Abril at Ziracuarétiro. They served one of the best table salsas ever made. Here is a photo. Among other things, it contains nopalitos.


Bob Mrotek said...

When I lived for a year in García, Nuevo León outside of Monterrey I really enjoyed "totopos" and salsa which every self respecting restaurant in Nuevo León offers you immediately after you are seated as an appetizer. There are usually at least three salsas and trying each one by spooning some on a totopo is almost a ritual. Totopos are made from corn and many people think that totopos are just fried tortilla chips but they are not. Real totopos have a flavor and texture of their own. Don Cuaevas, do you have a method for making authentic totopos?

Don Cuevas said...

Bob, I hadn't realized that authentic totopos are made differently than just fried tortilla chips. I suspect that the real thing is thicker, and fried in manteca de cerdo.

Got a recipe?

Don Cuevas

Bob Mrotek said...

No Don Cuevas, I don't have a recipe. I was counting on you for that. You see, I am not a baker, I am a big consumer...and in my case "big" is an understatement :)

Don Cuevas said...

Bob, as they are easy enough to buy, I don't fuss with making my own.

By the way, I'm having a light lunch of chicharrones, cacahuates salados, papitas Barcel, Gummi Ositos and a Coke. I have to hold back until a dinner we are attending after 4 p.m.

Don Cuevas

Bob Mrotek said...

You should toss down a frozen Gansito to cap it off. That ought to hold you for awhile. One suggestion. True aficionados accompany their Gansito with an Orange Crush. They call the dish "Pato al Orange".

Don Cuevas said...

Gansitos—aren't they snack cakes?

Thanks for the suggestion, but I don't eat junk food. Ha ha ha ha etc.

Don Cuevas

Anonymous said...

Viva la salsa!


Tancho said...

Sounds like you don't like salsas from NEW YORK CITY....
Yes you are 100 percent correct on the first impression of the salsa plate. Too bad that more restaurant owners never travel out of the 50 km rule, to see what is offered at other establishments.
You are so critical....jeje.
Remind me never to invite you over for breakfast!
Have you really run out of places in Patzcuaro?
I would think that there would be someone who would enjoy providing a decent breakfast for 80-100 pesos with a steady group. But then again I am never surprised at what I find and see in and at Mexican businesses.....

Don Cuevas said...

I never critique the hospitality of friends who invite us to meals. So, it's safe to invite us for breakfast! Besides, your home is not a restaurant. I only critique restaurants.

We have not run out of places to have breakfast in Pátzcuaro. We know the regular, reliable places.

$100 MXN is way to much for a breakfast hereabouts, unless we had champagne or bloody Marys with our carne asada Tampiqueña or such.

The bottom line:
Best breakfast for the least money in Pátzcuaro: Fonda Mamá Lupe. Just $40 for an excellent breakfast. Only the coffee is too weak.

La Surtidora does a good job, consistently, but charges more.

Another great place, IMO, but unconventional in Gringo terms: Birrería Don Prisci's, either in the Mercado or at El Parían. (Estacíon). But most R.O.M.E.O.s won't go there. No eggs.

Don Cuevas

Michael Dickson said...

I am eternally baffled at the frequency in which I encounter restaurants here in which I have to ask for salsa. It´s like having to ask for a fork. You shouldn´t have to ask.

La Surtidora has good salsa?! I beg to differ. It has one of the lamest salsas in town. The photo you show here is not the general salsa one should have on the table. It looks to me like something specific for that particular dish, and it does look very good.

My wife and I often eat at Surtidora but only at breakfast. Eggs need salsa, and what they serve there is little more than watered ketchup with a slight edge to it.

Don Cuevas said...

Felipe, thanks for that detail. What happens is, I think, that other than the R.O.M.E.O. breakfasts and many cups of coffee at other times, we almost never eat at La Surtidora. (Not that it's not good, mind you— we just don't eat out in Centro much.)

By the way, almost everytime our group eats breakfast at La Surtidora, they bring us an amuse bouche (botana, if you like), which is a nice touch.

Felipe says:
"It´s like having to ask for a fork. You shouldn´t have to ask."

Yet there are several restaurants in which you have to do exactly that. Or your utensils arrive after the food is on the table. What's the deal with that?

Don Cuevas

Tancho said...

How about paying Mama Lupe a few more pesos and saddle someone to make a good pot of coffee, bring it in inside one of those vacuum pots...or better yet, tell Mama you will pay her an extra 20 pesos if you teach her how to do good coffee.
Years ago, a B&B I stayed at during construction and they always broke the yolks on my poached eggs. I asked the owner if I could train their cook to make them the way I wanted. I did, and got free eggs for the rest of my stay. What is common to you and I often is in another world, so possibly look at some other probably have possibly and figured it wasn't worth the hassle.
I love the salsas at a few of the stands in the Mercado..seems the food there is better because they aren't big restaurants...only the cooks.

Don Cuevas said...

Tancho said:

"How about paying Mama Lupe a few more pesos and saddle someone to make a good pot of coffee, bring it in inside one of those vacuum pots...or better yet, tell Mama you will pay her an extra 20 pesos if you teach her how to do good coffee."

I wouldn't have the chutzpah for that. The coffee is bad, but forgettable. The food and price makes it worth putting up with the poor coffee.

Don Cuevas

Bekkster said...

My pet peeve is either getting no salsa or getting very little and having to ask for more (I don't know if this happens to you, but people here seem to assume that all foreigners desire little or no salsa on their food. Argh!).

If you ever come to Puebla, you should go to Pollos Mazatepec. There you get *seven* salsas, including pico de gallo, creamy peanut and chile, and salsa macha. It's divine.

Don Cuevas said...

Hola, Bekkster, welcome to My Mexican Kitchen.

This morning, our Pátzcuaro retired men's breakfast group went to Fonda Mamá Lupe. I was explaining my salsa theory to my tablemates. But there was no salsa at our table!

I was damned if I was going to ask for some. But when I turned around, I found a dish of the salsa at the other table. I was able to get a picture of it, but haven't been able to upload it yet.

So stay tuned.

Puebla is a great eating city we spent a couple of days there in Jan. 2009 and enjoyed it greatly. More about that here:

Don Cuevas