The prettiest place to eat lunch in San Miguel de Allende.

Don Day is a foodie. And foodies will endure 110 degree heat, plastic tablecloths, obnoxious company, dust storms, stinging insects, rock hard benches, dirt floors and chipped plates for an interesting, exciting or unusual meal.

But once in a while, not too often mind you, Don Day wants another ingredient in his dining experience. He wants romance. And romance comes much more from setting than it does sustenance and service.

Now if you think it’s unusual for a guy of my advanced age to be a romantic, think again. According to the Revera Report on Romance, completed a couple of years ago in Toronto, senior men are even more in love with love than women, with 83 per cent saying it’s important versus 56 per cent of women.

So, a couple of Sundays ago, it was Don Day’s idea, not Don Day’s Wife’s idea that they dine in the most romantic setting in San Miguel de Allende. That setting is La Puertecita.

puertecita hanging sign

La Puertecita is nestled on the hill that shelters San Miguel’s eastern edge. La Puertecita arrived in San Miguel around the same time Don Day did, about ten years ago. La Puertecita calls itself a boutique hotel which is a term that Don Day dislikes but it does not call itself a boutique restaurant and Don Day goes there to eat, not to sleep.

puertecita dining room entrance

I’m not exactly sure what puertecita means but I suspect it means little door. A better name for the restaurant would be big window. Through that window is not your typical romantic view. No misty mountains silhouetting a sunset, no cityscape with patchwork quilts of lights, no crashing waves on limestone cliffs. Usually, in San Miguel, beautiful surroundings means the restored courtyard of an 18th Century home or a rooftop that overlooks San Miguel’s magnificent domes and steeples. When you’re sat on the terrace of the La Puertecita, you’re in a forest, a jungle, a garden. And the best time to experience paradise is with the sun shimmering through the trees.

puertecita tropical paradise

La Puertecita is a masterpiece of landscaping that is an absolute thrill to the eyes, ears and nose. When you combine that with food that treats the tongue reasonably well, you have something that is the utmost in sensory appeal.

puertecita lo rich sharon

It was Sunday at La Puertecita and our friends Richard and Lorain were joining us for what we thought was going to be brunch. We were the only people there so it was evident why La Puertecita is no longer doing the all you can eat buffet which is just as well for Don Day because, when there’s an all you eat buffet, Don Day thinks he has to eat all that he can possibly eat. Which isn’t good for the restaurant. Or for Don Day.

Instead, the restaurant is using their traditional luncheon menu. It’s a difficult menu to order from. There isn’t really a focus, certainly very little orientation to a specific cuisine. It’s the kind of a menu that is often found in hotels where you have to try and please all of the people all of the time.

There are a lot of Don Day’s favorite dishes on La Puertecita‘s menu but a lot of those dishes are ones that Don Day thinks are meant to be made and eaten at home not in a restaurant. Two exceptions to those dishes we often eat at home were Don Day’s Wife and Richard’s starter order of crab and shrimp cakes and Lorain and Don Day’s starter, the artichoke soup.

Don Day likes surprises. Don Day likes freebies. Don Day, of course, likes food. Combine all three likes and you have something that Don Day really, really likes. It’s what the French call an amuse bouche. And what Don Day calls a little taste to start your meal that never appears on your bill.

puertecita pork taco

It’s unusual to receive an amuse bouche in San Miguel restaurants. Especially the ones that Don Day frequents. So when the crispy little tacos stuffed with pulled pork and a mild chili pepper arrived at our table, I almost thought we had the wrong order. But it’s difficult to get the wrong order when you’re the only people there.

puertecita sauvignon blanc revised

We ordered a Sauvignon Blanc from the limited wine list. Though the carta de vinos is put together by Wine Cru, the well respected retailer in San Luis Potosi, it’s certainly not Don Day’s kind of wine list. The selection is dominated by Argentineans, most of which Don Day has never heard of, and it’s hard to understand why there are so many reds versus only three whites. Though the mark-up on the wines is not exhorbitant, the list is also lacking in range with nothing at the lower end of affordability. At 545 pesos, the cheapest red is, I believe, more expensive than the cheapest red at any other San Miguel restaurant.

puertecita nut oil

Next to arrive at the table is a good bread and a great dip. What’s in the dip we’re not sure. Olive oil, yes. Walnuts, yes. Orange zest, yes. Cilantro, yes. Plus some other herbs and spices. It’s a dip we’ve had before at La Puertecita and something I’d been cherishing all morning. It’s a little treat that’s always been on Don Day’s 60 scrumptious things to eat in San Miguel list and is very, very welcome after one or two too many balsamic and parmesan dips. Nobody loves butter more than Lorain and, even though there was also butter on the table, Lorain chose the oil and declared it “magnificent”.

puertecita artichoke soup

Don Day’s artichoke soup tasted like the artichokes had been roasted first which gave much more depth to the flavor. They could have used a shaving of pecorino or nutmeg or perhaps a splash of sour cream to not only help the taste but the look.

puertecita crab and shrimp cakes

Richard thought the shrimp and crab cakes were “amazing” but both he and Don Day’s Wife felt that the mustard sauce was overpowering.

“Next time I’d order the sauce on the side”, said Don Day’s Wife, “and there’s no excuse for an unripe tomato on the salad. The solution is simple, you just leave it off.”

puertecita fountain

I’ve read that San Miguel de Allende was once covered by a lush blanket of trees. There’s little of it left now but what used to be is still evident at La Puertecita. A landscape architect has altered it, enhanced it, improved it but the roots are still there.

puertecita sharon pool

The sun dances through the lilac sprays of a jacaranda above us. The bank is covered in a blanket of vinca and violets. Behind me a viburnum, a rare sight in San Miguel, is covered in a snowstorm of blossoms.

puertecita waterfall

What amazes me about the beauty of La Puertecita is that it not just excites the eyes, it excites the ears. Rushing water, musical fountains, rustling leaves, twittering birds. Halfway through lunch, Don Day had to just take a time out and take a walk along the patio to take it all in. The greenery, the water, the flowers, the statuary, the drapes, it really is the best non bricks and mortar site (or sight) in San Miguel.

puertecita linguine

I mentioned that La Puertecita‘s menu is lacking in the unusual and that was reflected in everyone’s choice for main course. We all chose pastas and they were all what Don Day would call everyday pastas, the kind you’d make at home on a boring Tuesday night. Richard and Don Day’s Wife had the fettucine with prosciutto and mushrooms. Lorain and Don Day had the linguine with meatballs and sundried tomatoes.

The pastas were pleasant if not particularly exciting. Lorain thought the meatballs were “nicely spiced”. Don Day was happy that the sundried tomatoes weren’t overpowering. Don Day’s Wife was impressed that the mushrooms were creminis rather than whites.

puertacita peanut pie

One of Don Day’s favorite reasons for dining with Lorain is that we are therefore guaranteed there will be a dessert. We chose one dessert with four spoons (because we have to pretend the other two want some) and a dessert that Don Day must first say in Spanish because he loves the sound of the words. We ordered pay de cacahuates. It just doesn’t sound so good when you call it peanut pie. It was good. Not too sweet. But it needed something to cut the overpowering finger in the jar of peanut butter taste.

“Maybe some bananas”, said Rich.

Don Day has a friend who doesn’t “get” San Miguel. They much prefer to spend their winters in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. La Puertecita is a lot like Manual Antonio except there’s no 98% humidity. No atrociously bad service. And, most importantly, no unimaginative food. La Puertecita is more of the tropical paradise that Don Day “gets” especially when it’s part of and only five minutes away from the center of one of the most vibrant towns in the world.

puertecita archway

Eating on the patio at La Puertecita is like being in a tropical jungle, like sitting in a botanical garden (and Don Day has paid to walk in gardens that weren’t half as nice). They say you’re never too old for romance. And La Puertecita is, to Don Day, definitely the most romantic restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.

Richard and Lorain had been to La Puertecita for drinks but had never been for a meal. Don Day will let them have a few words.

puertecita stairs sharon lo

“This is really a stunning place, it really is,” said Lorain. “It is not just pretty, it is the prettiest place I’ve ever eaten at in this town.”

Richard is a little more academic with his words. He said, “La Puertecita is an idyllic culinary experience.”

puertecita tile sign

But seeing that Don Day just spent a couple of hours writing this blog, he gets the last few words: In La Puertecita‘s promotional literature, they refer to the hotel as a “little corner of paradise”. If the hotel is a corner of paradise, the restaurant is Main Street. A lot more people in San Miguel should be walking that street. The food may not be the town’s best but it’s absolutely, definitely, the prettiest place to eat anywhere in San Miguel de Allende.

puertecita toasting with wine

La Puertecita is located at Santa Domingo #75 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Two of San Miguel’s best bargain wines are back in town.

besadevinoantonio

His name is Antonio and I’ve never been too sure whether I wanted him back in town or not. He’s the kind of guy that usually threatens other men. He’s one of these new-fangled marketing symbols designed to sell wine to that new-fangled generation of 20-somethings. Anyway, when he first showed up here in San Miguel de Allende a couple of years ago, Don Day took a bit of a liking to him. OK, a bit more than a liking to him. I admit I had him over to the house at least a couple of times a week.

But then one day he was gone. Skidaddled. Nowhere to be found anywhere in town. Despite Don Day’s searching. And talk about not missing your water til your well runs dry, that ain’t nothin’ compared to losing a favorite wine.

Antonio is the cartoon-like illustration for two wines called Beso de Vino. When Don Day first met Antonio, a few years ago in Canada, I thought he was a her because he had udders. Then I noticed that he also had horns and, remembering that time in a bar once before when Don Day was gender-challenged (far too busy looking at other things to notice the Adam’s apple), it didn’t take me long to realize that Antonio was, in fact, a bull and those were actually cojones gigantes. Now, normally, I like my wine labels more traditional…Old English typefaces, a line drawing of a 17th Century chateau, never more than two colors…but, I guess if I was going to drink Beso de Vino, I was stuck with looking at those gargantuan gonads.

Beso de Vino originates in the Carinena region of Spain. It’s an area in the northwest, just below Rioja, that in olden days, aka the 20th Century, was more famous for volume grape juice than anything else. Then, in 1997, a company called Grandes Vinos y Vinedos S.A. united more than 1000 wineries in the region and made them realize that marketing might be almost as important as winemaking.

besodevinobottles

Next, a bit of miracle happened. Wine Advocate, arguably the most important wine publication in the world, gave the Beso de Vino Garnacha a score of 89 and the Beso de Vino Syrah a score of 90. Now those scores are not unheard of except for one thing. These wines are cheap wines, very cheap wines, that when they first arrived were selling at Soriana, the San Miguel supermarket, for less than $100 pesos (about $8 U.S. or Canadian) a bottle.

I could get into the color, the nose, the palate and all of that other wine writer mumbo jumbo but, for once, I won’t. Though they’re Spanish in origin, Beso de Vino wines are much more reminiscent of wines from the Rhone Valley in France. The syrah is like a Northern Rhone wine, the garnacha (it’s the same grape as the French grenache) is like a Southern Rhone wine.

besodefinoliquorstore

But why am I telling you this? Like I said, Antonio and Beso de Vino left town over a year ago. Well guess what, Antonio’s back, big balls and all. I found him this week in one of the town’s most unsuspecting places. He was in that little liquor store with no name on Pepe Llanos, the one you’d only go in after you discover that La Europea and Cava Sautto have already shut up shop. Or because you’re going to Carniceria La Lonja and it’s next door. The wine is now a little over 100 pesos but would still be a bargain if it was as much as 200 pesos. There weren’t too many bottles (especially after Don Day left) but I was promised that more would be ordered and more would arrive this Friday.

besodevinoopening

Now Don Day always made it a point to never hang out with ballzy guys. They were the guys who usually started the fight and then left you to finish it. But Antonio’s obviously back in my life. We tipped a bottle of the Old Vine Garnacha, my favorite of the two Beso de Vino wines, the other night with one of Don Day’s Wife’s variations on spaghetti carbonara that includes rosemary, basil and cremini mushrooms.

besodevinopasta

I looked closely at the label and saw that even the graphic designer gets a credit. It’s no wonder Antonio has those cojones.

The liquor store with no name is located at Pepe Llanos 4 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

As close as you can come to a perfect burger in San Miguel de Allende

You’ve probably seen the greeting card. There are two very sophisticated looking women in their late thirties talking to each other over cocktails. The one is saying to the other, “Oh my God, I forgot to have children.”

Don Day was reminded of it this week when a very unsophisticated looking man in his late sixties said to himself over a cocktail, “Oh my God, I forgot to have a burger at Hansen’s.”

To Don Day, there is something more American than apple pie. Definitely something he enjoys more than apple pie. Someday, Don Day even hopes to convince one of his grandchildren to call his very first great granddaughter Patty. Yet somehow Don Day had gone an entire winter in San Miguel de Allende without once having gone to Hansen’s for a burger. And a Hansen’s burger is Don Day’s favorite San Miguel burger, about as close as you can come to a perfect burger in San Miguel…no, make that just about anywhere.

I didn’t have much an excuse for not going to Hansen’s. I’d been to the restaurant this year for my other favorites: the filet mignon, the chicken liver pate, the minestrone, the dense chocolate cake. About my only excuse was the one I’ve heard a lot of other people use, “It’s a bit out of the way.”

hansensburgerrichard

My friend Rich, who’d also survived the winter without a Hansen’s burger hit, agreed that he had a similar need and off we walked down to Calzada de la Aurora and then up on to Hansen’s roof. The roof is my favorite spot at Hansen’s. It’s not exactly a great view but it gives you a look at an early San Miguel, the one where tangled wires obscured almost everything and there’s a certain urban flavor when you see a congested street as well as smoky blue grey mountains, jacarandas in brilliant bloom and the distant domes of churches.

hansensburgertheview

It was early and getting my favorite table in the far corner was easy. Ordering was easy as well for when I come for a burger it’s always medium, with cheddar, fries and a Coca Lite. For Rich, it was lo mizmo, the same.

Every good burger is really all about the meat. And though sacred cows make the best burgers (thank you for the umpteenth time, Mark Twain), they’re unfortunately extinct in San Miguel. Hansen’s grinds their burger from Certified Angus beef with, I’m guessing, about an 80/20 lean/fat ratio which is perfect in Don Day’s eyes (and mouth). The meat is then nicely seasoned with salt (but not too much like the chains), pepper and, again I’m guessing, one or two other spices.

After you have the right quality of meat, you need the right quantity. There’s an all important ratio between burger and bun.

First let me tell you about getting the wrong quantity. Quarter pounders are obviously meant only for small children or the chains wouldn’t target their advertising at them. Sliders are one of the world’s stupidest inventions and should have slid off the end of the world shortly after they were invented.

hansensburgertight

The right quantity is what you get at Hansen’s. It’s close to eight ounces. And it’s moist and juicy and always cooked exactly as ordered. Don Day even likes that it comes with a little stick in it indicating that Don Day’s choice is medium. Not only that, the stick becomes a very efficient toothpick when you’re ready to get that last chunk of goodness out of the second last molar.

hansensburgerdonenessstick

A perfect burger is a cheeseburger. But Don Day is not a real stickler when it comes to what cheese he chooses. Don Day has had excellent burgers with Swiss, with brie, even with blue. At Hansen’s though, Don Day always chooses the cheddar because it’s good cheddar not some rubberized combination of vegetable oil and water. Don Day also likes that Hansen’s cheddar is white even though yellow cheddar is usually colored with annatto which is the same thing that colors cochinita pibil, one of Don Day’s favorite Mexican dishes.

Then we have the bacon question. Does the perfect burger include bacon? No it doesn’t. A bad burger includes bacon. Bacon is only necessary when the patty is made of beef that’s too lean. A Hansen’s burger has plenty of fat. It’s definitly NBR, no bacon required.

Next we have the fillings. In addition to the cheese, Hansen’s burger comes with one thing already inside the bun. Hansen’s burger arrives on your table with caramelized onions. Don Day thinks all burgers should come with sweet, luscious caramelized onions already inside but Don Day realizes and recognizes the different strokes phenomenon. Don Day realized at an early age that men and women are not quite the same and still pays homage to la difference. Don Day’s wife prefers her burger with raw onions so Hansen’s gladly obliges.

hansensburgerwithtrimmings

In addition to raw onions…and they’re perfect, tangy red onions by the way…a Hansen’s burger comes with two big leaves of frisee lettuce, a reasonably thick slice of perfectly ripe tomato, and a nicely sour but slightly sweet dill pickle.

Now if you live in San Miguel de Allende you will know that sourcing good dill pickles is even more difficult than sourcing single, heterosexual men without a checkroom full of baggage. There has never been a single San Miguel sighting of Strub’s, Don Day’s first choice of dills. There have been sightings of Claussen’s, Don Day’s second choice of dills, but they’ve been rare and they’ve been very expensive finds.

Hansen’s knows the importance of a good dill to a burgerphile. They know that it’s difficult to have a consistent, cost-effective dill available in San Miguel de Allende. So Hansen’s has the perfect solution. They pickle their own cukes. The result? Hansen’s dills have the five essential characteristics of a perfect dill: Tart, sweet, salty, juicy and crunchy.

Next in the pursuit of the most perfect hamburger in San Miguel comes the bun. Now, just as Don Day isn’t particularly fussy about what type of cheese is placed on top of his meat, he also isn’t terribly fussy about the bread that is placed below and above. There are some things he won’t tolerate. Like a cotton batting type Bimbo bun. But Don Day has enjoyed baguettes, ciabattas and even some soft crusted sandwich rolls in his time. Hansen’s bun is a soft bun with a slightly crispy exterior and a topping of sesame seeds. It is nicely sized in that the taste of bread doesn’t overpower the taste of the meat. Don Day knows that Hansen’s sources its buns from the very good bakery, Mivida, to their exacting specifications.

hansensmariana

Are we finished yet? Is the Hansen’s burger now ready to sink our teeth into. Not quite. It still must be sauced. Shortly after you order a Hansen’s burger, the server, and Hansen’s employs some of the most charming, efficient, devoid of attitude, and…I know I’m being a little sexist here…very, very sweet servers, returns to your table with a six pack of Heinies.

Inside the case you will not find six examples of something that refreshes the parts other beers can’t reach but six condiments, some of which are beyond all reach in other restaurants serving burgers. Inside the Heineken case are mayonnaise, chipotle sauce, ketchup (yes, it’s Heinz), yellow mustard (yes it’s French’s), Dijon mustard and BBQ sauce. Now Don Day only adds one of the condiments, the Dijon, to his burger but, vive la difference encore, he understands and appreciates other people adding other sauces, well everything except the most intolerable act of drowning everything in a tsunami of ketchup.

Don Day’s favorite San Miguel burger is now complete. No, make that almost complete. Because a burger without fries is like a man without a large screen TV.

hansensburgerfries

Fortunately Hansen’s not only makes Don Day’s favorite San Miguel burger, they also make Don Day’s favorite San Miguel French fries. They’re slim cut, obviously twice fried, crisp on the outside, yet still soft on the outside.

hansenssign

Rich and I had done it. We had avoided the unforgiveable sin, the unrightable wrong. We had done one of the few things you cannot come to San Miguel without doing.

“How was your burger?”, I said to Rich as we got up to leave.

“Best I’ve ever had in this town”, he replied.

Hansen’s Bar & Grill is located at Calzada de la Aurora #12 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open Thursday from 5:00 to 10:00 pm, Friday and Saturday from 1:00 to 10:00 pm.

Who makes the very best croissant in San Miguel de Allende?

Yesterday Don Day had a croissant for lunch. Then he had another croissant. And another croissant. And one more croissant. Then two more croissants. And still another croissant. And one final croissant.

croissantslots

Don Day had a little justification. My friend Rich and I had walked to eight different bakeries yesterday morning so I’d preburned (it should be a word) at least half of those calories. And how else could we determine where to buy the very best croissant in San Miguel de Allende.

croissantspillsburypackage

Don Day’s love affair with croissants precedes any love affair with women. It goes back to the time he was about ten and we had our first refrigerator. From inside the freezer section my mother brought out a tube and, with a thwack on the arborite counter and a quick twist of her wrists, launched my love of a classic pastry. I wanted to poke Mr. Pop ‘n’ Fresh’s belly every day of my life.

Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air.

The first time Don Day saw Paris, Don Day stayed at the Hotel California. From his tiny balcony, he awoke each morning to an aroma that made him realize that his affair with Pillsbury crescent rolls was little more than a roll in the hay. The deep and lasting romance was really just beginning.

croissantsboulangeriezang

The birth of the French croissant began not far from there when an Austrian artillery officer, August Zang, founded a Viennese bakery, Boulangerie Viennoise, at 92, rue de Richelieu. He named it, of course, for its crescent shape.

I don’t know how many croissants Don Day has eaten since then. I know when he’s in Toronto he still gets chided by Don Day’s Wife for his inability to walk past Petite Thuet without picking up at least one.

When Don Day first started to spend his winters in San Miguel de Allende, he realized he was living in a desert in more ways than one. But around the time Don Day arrived, so did El Maple bakery and so did, what Don Day believes, was the first available croissant in the town.

El Maple was one of those eight bakeries that we stopped at when we made our rounds yesterday. It was actually the second stop, after Mega and before La Mesa Grande, Mivida, La Buena Vida, Petit Four, La Colmena and Cumpanio.

We asked Don Day’s Wife and Rich’s wife Lorain to help us (OK, they begged us to let them help) rate the croissants and Don Day set it up so that the tastings would be blind, we wouldn’t know where each croissant came from. We’d score each sample on a one to ten basis. And we’d have butter, blackcurrant jam and a slab of cheddar join us on the journey.

Because Don Day loves Hitchcock, because he loves whodunnits, he will now take you through the eight contestants, from last to first (and no skipping to the end).

croissantslacolmena

In last place was La Colmena, on Relox, better known as The Blue Door Bakery (though Don Day always thinks it should be called The Blue Doors Bakery because there are two of them). Despite being around since 1901, La Colmena has, unfortunately, not learned to make a great croissant. As Don Day looks at the four judges comments, he’s almost embarrassed to share them (and Don Day doesn’t embarrass easily). The judges found it too sweet, too much like a brioche, too heavy. Richard’s comment was “would make a nice doorstop”. The only positive that could be said about La Colmena‘s croissant was the price. At 5 pesos each, they’re half the price of the next least expensive. Don Day did not need a calculator to add the marks; La Colmena scored only 5 out of 40.

croissantselmaple

Croissants have obviously improved a lot in this town. For San Miguel’s original and therefore once best croissant, the one from El Maple on Salida a Celaya, was in second last place. Judges found it too eggy, too dry, not at all flaky. “It’s more like a sandwich roll” said Lorain. El Maple‘s croissants, which are another reasonably priced entry at 10 pesos each, scored a 10 out of 40.

croissantslamesagrande

The sixth place finisher was a big surprise to Don Day. It came from the bakery that came number one when we did our best baguette competition. Judges found it “too bready” and “way too heavy”. “It’s like a brick” said Richard. The croissant ranked sixth was from La Mesa Grande on Zacateros. At 15 pesos, it was the most expensive of all which sure wasn’t justified with its score of 14 out of 40.

croissantspetitfour

In fifth place was another surprise. Paco Cardenas is considered by some to be the best patissier in San Miguel and Don Day has often enjoyed his sweet confections. The judges found his croissants, from Petit Four on Mesones, to be doughy, dry and chewy and not at all buttery. Petit Four’s croissants are also much smaller, barely half the size of some of the others, so at 13 pesos each can be considered quite expensive. They scored a 17 out of 40.

croissantsinside

In fourth place was the croissant from San Miguel supermercado Mega which wasn’t a real surprise. Don Day has already been quite happy with the supermarket’s pain au chocolat. The only real negative was that it was a little doughy and “could’ve spent a little more time in the oven”. Mega‘s croissants are a reasonable 9.7 pesos each and scored a 21 out of 40.

croissantslabuenavida

The bronze medal winner, the croissant in third place, and the first one that the judges had very positive remarks about, came from La Buena Vida on Hernandez Macias. Judges found it a little heavy and chewy but still a great taste. “I’d definitely eat it again”, said Lorain, “but I wouldn’t be dying for the next bite.” The La Buena Vida croissant is priced at 12 pesos. It received 25 points out of 40.

croissantsmivida

The second place finisher had “that light airy consistency you always hope for” according to Don Day’s Wife. It was considered “flaky” on the outside and “fluffy” on the inside. It came from the Italian/Mexican restaurant on Hernandez Macias that deserves to be recognized much more for its baking skills. The croissant from Mivida, which is priced at 13 pesos, scored an impressive 27 out of 40.

croissantscumpaniotwo

And the winner? Let’s just say it wasn’t even a horse race. One San Miguel croissant was a runaway, the Secretariat of pastries, leaving all the others in its wake. The accolades on the comment section of the score sheets go on and on. “I love this flavor”, “the perfect consistency”, “so flaky, so buttery”, “I just want more and more”. It was really no contest. Most of Rich’s family live in France and he was comparing it to the ones from the boulangerie just down the street from his sister in Montfort. “The finest I’ve ever eaten”, said Rich. The croissant from Cumpanio was in first place on every one’s score sheet and dominated the others with a score of 39 out of 40. The price of 14 pesos is an outright steal for something that tastes this amazing.

croissantscumpaniosign

I remembered when we were on that 10K hike yesterday morning. Don Day was afraid it would be a wasted walk, that all of the croissants would be almost all the same. I was afraid that everyone would be giving every croissant a seven out of ten. I thought I might have wasted 20 bucks. How wrong I was.

I was also amazed at how all the judges agreed on the merits (or demerits) of all the croissants. I couldn’t remember when Don Day’s Wife had agreed with Don Day so often in one day. The score of 14 did not come from one high and three low scores; it came from 4+4+3+3. The score of 25 came from 7+6+6+6. Cumpanio‘s top score obviously came from 10+10+10+9. Don Day has staged a lot of these best of events but never has he had so many people agree so heartily about the winners and the losers.

croissantsmega

Don Day wishes he was in Paris (often). There he’d like to repeat the croissant challenge. With Cumpanio against seven of France’s best patisseries. I think I’d put all of my Euros on Secretariat again.

Cumpanio is located at Correo 29, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

San Miguel seniors get fried on their first ever Fritanga.

Skipped the light fandango? Of course, Don Day had done that while in his early teens. But done the strong Fritanga? No, it had somehow escaped me.

fritangajack

Can you believe it. A guy approaching 70 years old and he’d never ever been on a Fritanga. I thought I must be the world’s oldest virgin. But then I found out Jack Jacobs still hadn’t lost his innocence either. And Jack is even closer to 70 than Don Day.

Fritanga. It’s a way of life for Mexicans with a rite of passage that usually happens somewhere between baptism and first communion. We were obviously a little late to the party. But, as Don Day’s dad taught him, better to arrive at a party late, that way the ladies are already a little tipsy and you’ll look a lot more handsome.

The problem was, you can’t just go off on a Fritanga alone. You need a seasoned traveller. Someone who really knows the ins and outs. Someone who knows when to start and, more importantly, when to stop. Someone who’s been there, done that, at least once or twice.

Jack had an idea, a brilliant idea, and a good looking one at that. Jack’s idea was Olma. We’d ask Olma to be our guide. She was born and raised in San Miguel de Allende. She had the all important local knowledge. She must have done the Fritanga a few times growing up.

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Olma is Olma McLendon. Don Day had first met Olma a few years ago when she was one of the two amazing servers (the other was her sister) at the gone but not forgotten Cafe Iberico. Jack Jacobs had also met Olma at Cafe Iberico and he’d stayed close friends with her. We arranged a tentative date and Jack called to see if she was willing to take a few foreigners into that forbidden land of Fritanga. Olma agreed.

Despite the fact that doing the Fritanga might include using the words street, meat and eat in the same sentence, Don Day smoothtalked Don Day’s Wife into joining us. And after I discovered that our friends Marshall and Sherry were also among the unitiated, we invited them to also walk on the wild side.

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That walk began at the Jardin, the place where everybody meets everybody in San Miguel de Allende and the six of us started the stroll down Canal Street and under the Quebrada bridge led by Jack and Olma. We walked three or four more blocks until Olma put on her right turn signal. A couple of more blocks and she called a halt. We were there. Fritangaville. The world capital of Fritanga. El Mercado de San Juan de Dios.

Before Don Day provides you with a detailed diary of our excursion into the land of Fritanga though, perhaps I should provide a bit more of an explanation. Perhaps you don’t even know what a Fritanga is. After all, it’s not something that you can Google. Perhaps I should give you some background details. Perhaps start with some stats.

Recently, Mexico became the world’s number one country in a very weighty subject. According to the OECD, the United States is no longer the prince of portly, the potentate of paunch. Mexico has seized the crown. 69.5% of Mexicans over the age of 15 are now considered overweight compared to a mere 69.2% of Americans.

There are four reasons given for Mexico achieving the title of champions of chubby. Pastries, sweets, soda pop and, what a Fritanga pays homage to, what our tour was all about, fried foods.

“We’re going to eat things that are fried then are then stuffed into things that are fried. Everything we’ll be having will be deep fried. It’s the Mexican way,” said Olma.

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We started at El Huarache Veloz, the town’s most famous fonda for huaraches. Now if you’re like Don Day was about ten years ago and you’re thinking a huarache is a sandal and why would they be eating footwear, let me explain to you that the huarache you eat is simply a similar shape to the huarache you wear.

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A huarache begins life as a thick, handmade corn tortilla. It is then deep fried to create a crispy, crusty exterior and a soft, mushy interior that is then topped with anything and everything from potatoes to pork, chicken to chicharron a lot of which has, of course, already been fried. El Huarache Veloz have been making huaraches in San Miguel for over 50 years which is almost as long as huaraches have even existed. Mother and daughter team, Abigail and Gabriella, served us up three fat ones about the size of 12EEEs, one with nopales or cactus leaves, one with chicharron or pork rind and one with papas or potatoes.

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“I used to come here with my Mom, when I was just a kid”, Olma told us.

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Next stop on the Fritanga was just a few feet away. The next stall was Las Quesadillas. Now I’m sure you know what a traditional quesadilla is so let Don Day tell you what a non traditional quesadilla is, the kind you get at Las Quesadillas. Los Quesadillas takes a tortilla, tops it with your favorite ingredients and then, instead of simply placing it on the grill to add a little heat, they immerse it in bubbling sunflower oil.

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“I remember when I was a little kid saying to my mother, ‘I don’t want to go to school, I want to go for quesadillas’,” Olma informed us. “Now you know why Mexicans are so fat, they fry everything…and not just when they’re out, when they’re at home too.”

From Angeles, the chef and server, we ordered one deep fried quesadilla with picadillo, a mix of ground pork, potatoes and carrot, another with mushrooms, and a third with rajas which are poblano peppers in Oaxaca cheese.

Sherry and Don Day’s Wife were a little hesitant about attending their first Fritanga. This wasn’t exactly fine dining.

“The way they’re sizzling in that fat”, Sherry said, “I don’t think we have to worry about anything at all being alive in there.”

“I’d like to take Anthony Bourdain here”, said Olma but, if she’s anything like Don Day’s Wife, she’d probably like to take Anthony Bourdain almost anywhere.

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The quesadillas had a super crisp batter on the outside and Don Day and Don Day’s Wife agreed that they were a step up on the huaraches.

“Then why are you crying?”, I asked her.

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“Try the red sauce,” she said, “It’s made from chiles de arbol.”

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The Fritanga was getting better and better. But we needed a break. We were getting rather peckish. We decided to stop for lunch. And where else but the culinary capital of San Juan de Dios market, Dona Raque. Raquel has been cooking classic Mexican cuisine for over 40 years. Giant earthenware cazuelas surround her open kitchen, each one filled with sights and smells that entice you in a different way. You want to sample every dish but you’re not allowed.

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“A lot of Americans and Canadians come here,” said Raquel, “and they want to try everything I make. They want it all on one plate. They want all the different tastes to fight with each other. I just won’t allow it.”

We sadly passed on chuleto de puerco, pork chops in a green sauce with potatoes and nopales. We also had to skip the alhondigas, meatballs in a creamy brown sauce. But there was one brown sauce we couldn’t ignore, Dona Raque’s legendary chicken mole with it’s rich chocolate and nut base. I asked Raquel what regional style of mole it was. Her answer: “El stilo Dona Raque”. I asked her what kind of peppers went into it. When she got to the seventh one on the list, I decided to not ask any more questions.

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We also had to try a plate of creamy rajas and one of Dona Raque’s Chiles relleno, a poblano pillow overstuffed with cheese and accompanied like everything else with the traditional rice and beans. As Don Day was eating, he kept thinking this reminds me of going to Mom’s house. Raquel even wears eye shadow to match her outfits just like Don Day’s mother did.

“This is the real deal”, said Jack. “Nothing’s prepackaged. Nothing out of a box or can.”

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Cocina Economica Dona Raque is the busiest place in San Juan de Dios market, especially on Saturdays and Sundays when Raquel and her assistant Diana make their pozole and menudo. I couldn’t help but notice the cases of Coke that lined one wall but, of course, there wasn’t a single diet drink to be found in the market. I wondered if it was one of the unwritten rules of Fritanga. I remembered that Mexico is almost 50% higher in Coca Cola consumption than Chile, its nearest rival with an astounding 16 oz. of Coke consumed per capita every single day.

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Fritanga isn’t just an indoor sport. There are food stands outside San Juan de Dios market that are part of any fully formed Fritanga fest. We passed on the pambazo, giant bread rolls that were stuffed and then deep fried. We passed on the deep fried pork feet as there was a line up and Don Day doesn’t like lining up. We passed on the deep fried chicken gizzards but couldn’t resist the free sample.

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We couldn’t pass on Tacos de Maria though. Olma suggested one order of the bean spread tortillas that are…you guessed it, deep fried…for the six of us. I thought she was already starting to go through Fritanga withdrawal but Olma knew. One plate has a pile of five tacos. The price? 20 pesos or less than two bucks for the lot.

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Next stop was a little further down Calle Indio Triste. We were to look for the Nestle umbrella for it’s under that umbrella that you’ll find a rare treat that’s traditionally only available between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.

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I must say I gasped when I heard what we were going for. The word “pachole” came out of Olma McLendon’s mouth. Now if you’ve ever lived in the south of France, you’ll know that’s a word that seldom if ever comes out of a woman’s mouth. Thank God that Olma went on to explain that, in her homeland, pacholes were little cinnamon cookies that are a regional specialty of Central Mexico and are made from those flat topped brown sugar cones that are molded in wood. The cookies are, of course, deep fried.

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“I have been every year of my life to taste the pacholes”, said Olma. “Every woman’s recipe is a little different. I wish I could taste them all.”

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“Wow,” said Sherry, “we went to places I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own.”

“I always wanted to go,” said Marshall, “but I was definitely very nervous.”

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We were nearing the end of our Fritanga. We all thanked Olma profusely for taking five foreigners on an excursion that’s usually the private domain of Mexicans. It was a once in a lifetime experience that, as much as we enjoyed it, would probably be just that, a once in a lifetime experience.

It’s no wonder that Jose Antonio Alvarez Lima, a former state governor said, “We’re a country of undernourished fatsos”. It’s no wonder that Mexico leads all other large countries in the percentage of people with Type 2 diabetes. But one day, once in a lifetime, surely five ex-pats could be forgiven for getting totally fried.

What we needed now was something to wash the fat down. Something that would help us forget our overindulgence. Something that would emusify some of that oil intake. Somewhere where we could just sit around and chew the fat. Somewhere like La Sirena Gorda for Jack Daniels with beer chasers.

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And while we’re at the bar, we’d of course need an afternoon snack. A Fritanga finale. How could we pass up La Sirena’s pork hock. Even if it is stewed instead of deep fried. Don Day was beginning to understand why Mexicans like living large. Fritanga almost makes fat both worth the wait and worth its weight in golden oil.

How Lentils Revived a Romance.

I don’t know how you know, you just do. I’m talking about when your woman has a roving eye.

The first indication was at the pool. Almost every day at 10:00 am, Don Day’s Wife and I arrive at the YMCA. We then split up for an hour. Each of us going to our own sexually segregated gym to work out on the treadmill, elliptical and bike. Then, precisely at 11:00 am, we meet at the pool for 45 minutes of aqua aerobics or as Don Day’s stepson calls it, “That jumping around looking like you have to pee dance.”

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Then one day Don Day’s Wife didn’t arrive until 11:07. Where was she? This was a woman who was more precise than Big Ben. The same thing happened the next day. And the next. Why was she now always seven minutes late. She was in the woman’s locker room. Had Don Day lost her to someone who plays for the other team?

During our time in the pool, we always talk. Well, Don Day always talks. Don Day’s Wife mostly listens. We talk about where we’re going for lunch (our reward for working out). We talk about what we’re going to make for dinner and what we need to shop for. It was in these conversations that I first heard his name.

“Michael made short ribs this morning. I’m going to make short ribs tonight.”

“I learned a fabulous recipe from Michael today. We’re having it for dinner.”

“You should have seen what Michael made today.”

Michael this. Michael that. Michael was controlling my diet. Though I must say I was enjoying every dish.

Now there are quite a few adults who talk in their sleep, about 5% of them according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. There is, however, only one adult who sings in her sleep. That person is Don Day’s Wife.

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The problem is determining exactly what she’s singing. If I could make out the song, I’d gladly sing along, maybe even try a little two part harmony, perhaps add some choreography. But I’ve never been able to tell what song it is. Or I hadn’t been able until that one night, a couple of weeks ago.

I awoke to da da da deeda da da dada da and I knew I recognized the tune. Da da da deeda da da dada da. I knew it was from a classic musical but which one. Da da da deeda da da dada da. I began to make out a couple of words. I recognized “why”. I heard “be more”. I got it. It was from My Fair Lady. But she’d changed the words. She was singing “Why can’t Don Day be more like Mike”.

She wanted me to be more like this Michael. Well I suppose I could. Make that of course I will if that’s what it takes.

The first thing I had to do if I was going to be more like Michael was to find out who the heck this Michael was. Sure enough, the next day in the pool, I found out.

“Guess what we’re having for dinner?”, said Don Day’s Wife. “Lobster, lentil and arugula salad.”

“Sounds great. Bit of an unusual combo, though.”, said Don Day, knowing that the word Michael was going to be coming in the next sentence.

“Michael made it this morning. And he really made the combo work”, said Don Day’s Wife.

“Michael?”, said Don Day.

“Michael Smith, the PEI chef”, said Don Day’s Wife.

I had the suspect ID’d. Now I just needed his 10-20.

We were supposed to be babysitting grandchildren the following evening at one of the kid’s places.

“I’m just going to stay home and do some research”, said Don Day. “And have the lobster and lentils leftovers.

Locating Michael Smith turned out to be remarkably easy. Because Michael Smith has more TV shows than Don Day has original teeth. Chef Michael’s Kitchen. Chef At Home. Chef Abroad. Chef At Large. And when you have 146 channels and four and half time zones to choose from, you can have Michael Smith almost 24 hours a day. If, of course, that’s what you want.

I looked for similarities between myself and Michael Smith.

Michael Smith is very tall. Don Day is not even as tall as he used to be.
Michael has long curly hair. Don Day has long curly hair except gravity has moved it to his chin.
Michael Smith has 17680 followers on Twitter. Don Day still isn’t sure what Twitter is.
Michael Smith considers himself a “nutritional activist”. Don Day considers himself a “nutritional anarchist”.
Michael Smith collects maps. Even though Don Day has a glove box full of them, he uses Mapquest.
Michael Smith likes kite sailing. Don Day has often been told to go fly a kite.
Michael Smith is a windsurfer. Don Day has also had problems with unruly wind.

There just didn’t seem to be anything I could change that would make Don Day be more like Mike.

And then I found it. Michael Smith eats a lot of lentils. Don Day occasionally eats lentils. If Don Day ate more lentils then he’d be more like Michael Smith.

Old Don Day probably even had a couple of legs up on young Mike. I could probably pronounce Du Puy before Michael Smith could say Dada (have you ever wondered why, by the way, that so many children’s first words are about an art movement).

Don Day knows what a cotleydon is. In fact if Don Day was a little sharper dresser he might have started a group called Motley Don and the Cotleydons. I wonder if Michael Smith knows that a cotleydon is the inner part of the lentil.

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Now if you’re a regular reader of Don Day, you may know that he writes most of his blogs from his second home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. If you’ve ever been to Mexico, you may also know that Mexicans eat an awful lot of lentils. If you go into a Mexican supermarket, you’ll see a lentils section that’s almost as big as the junk food section in a Canadian supermarket.

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From his days writing about farming, Don Day knew that Canada produced the most lentils but he knew he had to know more than that to impress Don Day’s Wife so he went to lentils.ca. There he found some pretty impressive facts from Gloria Tsang, the author of “Go UnDiet. 50 Small Actions for Lasting Weight Loss”. This was perfect. Don Day’s Wife is currently out to set the new Guinness world record for the longest diet. Most people would have already disappeared following her regimen.

Gloria Tsang says “Numerous health organizations recommend eating pulses (no Don Day doesn’t know what a pulse is but bets that Michael Smith does) and lentils on a regular basis. Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating meat alternatives such as lentils on a regular basis to reduce the amount of saturated fat intake.”

Glo (that’s what Michael Smith apparently calls her so Don Day decided to boldly do so as well) goes on to say, “The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommends a heart-healthy diet with foods that are high in fibre and soluble fibre to help lower cholesterol. Lentils are an excellent source of fibre. Just 100 grams of green lentils packs in 28 grams of fibre – that’s more than a whole day’s worth of the fibre you need.

There was more stuff. About lentils reducing cholesterol (Don Day has Everest height lipid counts). About lentils having lots of potassium which is good for regulating blood pressure (Don Day’s Wife has high blood pressure…obviously from living with Don Day). About how lentils are high in folate content and even though Don Day doesn’t know what folate is (but bets Michael Smith does) he now knows it’s good for preventing heart disease (maybe even a broken heart if Don Day can’t convince Don Day’s Wife he’s as good as Michael Smith).

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And then Don Day saw it. On the home page of lentils.ca. The Lentil Recipe Revelations Challenge. What if Don Day submitted a recipe. Would that get Don Day’s Wife’s roving eye back on Don Day again? Would that make him the apple of her eye again. It couldn’t hurt thought Don Day.

But what to make? Well something Mexican of course. Don Day would take some of the popular Mexican flavors and incorporate them into his own little creation. It would have a Spanish name (because dishes with foreign names always sound better). It would be hearty (because that’s the kind of dish Don Day’s Wife likes best). It would be a little spicy hot but not too caliente (because Don Day’s Wife only likes it a titch spicy). It would be easy to make (because Don Day finds that no one makes the complicated dishes that he provides recipes for). And it would be very economical (because Don Day’s an old retired guy who doesn’t have a lot of money.)

Don Day then went all over the internet to make sure that no one else had ever had the same idea that he had and, when he was almost absolutely sure it was original, Don Day made another big decision. Don Day would team lentils with smoked turkey leg. Turkey was the basis for many of the original Mexican dishes, dating back to Aztec times. Smoked turkey leg is the Rodney Dangerfield of meat and is a lot like lentils in that it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Plus smoked turkey leg is super cheap, the very best bargain of any meat in Don Day’s opinion.

Don Day went through about twenty different names for the dish, then Don Day remembered the old KISS acronym. Don Day would simply call it Lentejas Mexicanos. Even someone whose never wasted Spring break in Cancun would probably know that simply translates as Mexican Lentils.

The next day at lunch I began to score points early. I told Don Day’s Wife that from now on I’d be putting a splash of water in the pan when I cook bacon. A tip I learned from Michael. I told her that we’d be having a few drops of balsamic vinegar on our strawberries and ice cream that night. Another Michaelism. And I would be cooking a dish with lentils, not something I learned from Michael Smith, but an original Don Day creation.

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Don Day’s Wife went off to the dentist and Don Day went home and put on his tightest blue jeans and the white linen shirt with one extra button undone. And Don Day made Lentejas Mexicanos.

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I won’t tell you what happened that night. But I will tell you what happened the next day. We went to the Y. We worked out in our respective gyms. And at 10:55, Don Day hit “stop” on the treadmill, changed into his bathing suit, had a quick shower and headed for the pool. When he arrived at precisely 11:00, Don Day’s Wife was already in the water.

“You’re early”, said Don Day.

“I am”, said Don Day’s Wife.

“It’s nice to have you back in the pool a few minutes early. It’s nice to spend a few more minutes with you”, Don Day said. “Was it the Lentejas Mexicanos?”

“Yes, that’s part of it”, said Don Day’s Wife. “That and the fact that, since the clocks changed on Saturday night, Michael Smith comes on an hour earlier.

LENTEJAS MEXICANOS

Ingredients:

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2 cups lentils (384 g)
16 oz. smoked turkey leg (450 grams)
4 cups low sodium chicken stock (1 litre)
2 cups water (500 ml)
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
4 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 cups chopped spinach or other leafy green
1 pint cherry tomatoes

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Preparation:

Sauté onion in olive oil over medium heat until tender, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook for another minute.

Rinse lentils and place in slow cooker (or ovenproof dish).

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Remove skin and fat from smoked turkey leg and dice into 1/2 inch cubes.

Add the turkey, sautéed onion and garlic, chicken stock, water, and spices to the lentils.

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Cook on high in slow cooker for two hours, (or preheated conventional oven at 350 degrees F. for one hour or until lentils are tender.)

Add chopped spinach and cherry tomatoes and cook for further 20 minutes.

For a quick 30 minute stovetop version of this recipe, sauté the onion and garlic, add two cans of rinsed canned lentils instead of the dry lentils, add the remaining ingredients except the spinach and tomatoes, and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Add the spinach and tomatoes, and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.

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Servings: 8
Cost per Serving (based on prices at a Canadian supermarket website): $2.56
Calories per Serving: 309

Nutritional Facts (per serving)

Calories: 309
Calories from fat: 57
Total fat: 6.3 grams
Saturated fat: 1.6 grams
Cholesterol: 60 mg
Sodium: 825 mg
Potassium: 566 mg
Carbohydrates: 37.2 grams
Dietary Fibre: 15.5 grams
Sugar: 4.1 grams
Protein: 26.8 grams

Which restaurant won the SMART award for the best pizza in San Miguel de Allende.

Square box. Round pizza. Triangular slices.
Tonight, I think I’ll just stay home and work on my geometry.

At the SMART awards, held on March 30 at La Frontera, most of the buzz was about what restaurant would be ranked number one in San Miguel de Allende. But that wasn’t all that was on the ballot.

Guests were also asked to fill in the blank after My favorite pizza is at (or delivered from).

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The reason pizza ranked its own little question is because Don Day gets more comments, more emails, more opinions about pizza than almost everything else combined.

Pizza is definitely one of North America’s favorite foods. Look at the stats: Number of pizzas sold per year: 3 billion. Slices of pizza eaten every second: 400. Percent of all food service sales that are pizza: 10%. Percent of all pizzas consumed that are delivered: 63%. Total number of pizzas delivered by females to Don Day’s house: 0. Please, before I die can I have just one delivered by a woman.

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Oh yes, the results at the SMART awards. There were seven different restaurants that did well in the balloting. Five fought it out for third place. There was a very strong second place. And, of course, there was that coveted first place.

Don Day wasn’t particularly shocked by the results but there were a couple of small surprises.

When we did the accounting to determine the best restaurant numbers, Antigua Trattoria Romana was by far the number one restaurant in San Miguel that served pizza so I automatically thought it would also win best pizza. No, it was just one of the five who were so close in that race for third.

There was another close competitor that also made Don Day do a little head scratching. Another of the five in the race for third was Costco. Costco? Then I thought about it. I’ve been served the frozen lasagna from Costco and it was quite good, maybe the pizza’s just as good. Then I did some research. Costco has food courts (that I didn’t know). Costco food courts sell pizza (that I also didn’t know). And if you add up the sales of pizza at Costco it makes them the 15th largest pizza chain (that’s bigger than California Pizza Kitchen which is 18th). Now I think I get it.

Those other three that scored well but not quite well enough were Gombo’s, which has recently added another location on Salida a Celaya; La Grotta, which Don Day thinks was the first Italian restaurant in San Miguel; and the very comfortable and charming Mare Nostrum.

Before I tell you the two top pizza places, I will tell you a couple of facts about them. Neither of them offers delivery (darn) and neither of them scored a single vote in the best restaurant category of the SMARTs. So I guess we can presume great pizza but not quite as great spots.

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In second place, was Cent’Anni the new Italian restaurant that’s quickly become a favorite of the in for the weekend crowd and whose rooftop is already the go to place for Don Day’s weekly pizza hit. I’ve written about Cent’Anni recently so I’ll just give you a link if you want to know more about their wood fired, Naples style pies.

http://dondayinsma.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/it-didnt-disappear-into-thin-air-wood-fired-neopolitan-crust-pizza-is-back-in-san-miguel/

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And in first place and definitely the most loved pizza in San Miguel. Pizza Pig. It’s the restaurant that, if it was geographically closer, Don Day would definitely have a closer relationship with. And it’s the place that drew comments on the awards ballot like, “If only they’d deliver” and “Please, please ask them to deliver”. Pizza Pig also was reviewed by Don Day recently so, again, I won’t say anymore, I’ll just give you a link.

http://dondayinsma.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/heres-the-skinny-on-thin-crusts-at-pizza-pig/

And one more fact. And one that makes Don (I hate chains) Day a very happy guy. Despite all those scooters that we constantly see winding through traffic on San Miguel’s streets, Domino’s didn’t get a single vote.

Pizza Pig is located on the road to Dolores Hidalgo, about 5.5 km outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is open Tuesday to Saturday from 1:00 pm to 9:00 pm, Sunday 1:00 pm to 8:00 pm.

La Posadita wins the SMART award as San Miguel’s favorite restaurant.

It started out like a lot of things in Don Day’s life. It started as an excuse for a party. An excuse to get together with some favorite friends, favorite foodies, and favorite foodie friends. An excuse to eat some special Mexican dishes, drink a few glasses of wine and listen to some good music.

And then, next thing we knew, we were hosting an awards banquet.

Don Day has always welcomed the opinions of his readers. Probably because they’re as good as, maybe better than, his own. He’d always thought of doing a survey of the people who regularly read his blog to discover which restaurants in San Miguel De Allende are their favorites. But then he remembered how much he hated filling out surveys (even when he used to get silver dollars for telling people what he watched on TV).

So why not invite all the readers to a party. Make sure they have a drink in one hand. And then give them a pencil and form for their other hand.

The event was on.

The first thing you need for an awards show is a name and not just a name but something that you can acronize (yes, it really is a word). Our choice was the San Miguel de Allende Readers’ Taste awards or the SMARTs.

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The next thing we needed for an awards show was a venue. Don Day suggested the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion because that way he might finally find out who Dorothy Chandler is. Don Day’s Wife suggested La Frontera and reminded Don Day how much he liked the outdoor space there, how he liked their little bar, how the restaurant was big enough to seat everyone. And how much Don Day liked Noren Caceres cooking. La Frontera won.

The next thing we needed for an awards show was an emcee. Don Day suggested we invite Whoopi or Ellen because he thought that was who Don Day’s Wife would most want to meet. Don Day’s Wife instead suggested Hugh Jackman. Don Day got upset with Don Day’s Wife for always suggesting Hugh Jackman for almost anything or everything. We decided on no emcee.

Next, were the awards themselves. We decided on statuettes but were having problems deciding in whose likeness they should be created. When Don Day’s Wife again suggested Hugh Jackman, Don Day got upset with Don Day’s Wife and there were certain words that he regretted using. A decision was made to save a great deal of money and not give away any physical awards.

There were a few other details. We’d have a wine tasting as that’s always a good excuse to drink more wine (as if Don Day needed one). We’d have some prizes to help twist the arms being used to fill out the forms. And at an awards event, we’d have to have live music.

The event, the SMART awards, happened last Sunday.

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We started with a wine tasting in an attempt to determine the best inexpensive white and red wines available in San Miguel. The results were surprising and interesting enough for Don Day to save for a totally separate blog or, then again, maybe even two blogs.

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By now there was music coming from the patio. It was the low-key, rootsy, country/folk sounds of Billy Parker. Billy has a repertoire that echoes Don Day’s favorite songs of all time. He apparently didn’t start singing and playing seriously until he moved from Texas to San Miguel. “When I was already ancient”, Billy told Don Day. Thank goodness Billy didn’t begin earlier or he might have been “discovered” and be living in some pseudo Tara plantation called Parkerville in the suburbs of Nashville instead of sharing his music with us in San Miguel.

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Next on the schedule was Chef Noren’s amazing Mexican spread. First on the buffet table was a caldo de camaron which combined shrimps in a light, refreshing red sauce along with an imaginative medley of fresh vegetables. Right after the soup came a spinach, beet and jicama salad with a vinaigrette made from jamaica or hibiscus leaves; tamales stuffed with huitlacoche; and panela cheese baked with chipotle peppers.

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The ballots were starting to come in and there was a new sound coming from the patio. It was the not so low-key, not so rootsy, but punky rockabilly sounds of the group that La Frontera‘s Jerry calls The Headbangers. They made Don Day wish he could spike his hair. They made Don Day wish he could wear jeans that match the color of his Margaritas. They made Don Day wish he could play the stand-up bass. They made Don Day want to dance.

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On the buffet now were the main courses. Pulled pork in chiles pasilla and pescado a la Veracruzana accompanied by cilantro rice with chayote, chiles poblano and peas plus refried beans topped with queso fresco and fried plantains. Veracruzana sauce is one of the best things you can do to a fish and Noren Caceres version which goes heavy on the sweet bell peppers was the best version Don Day had ever tasted.

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Don Day collected the rest of the ballots while the guests finished the feast with what Noren called mango chimis and what Don Day would call a wonderful canole style pastry stuffed with mangos and topped with vanilla ice cream.

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We said goodbye to some old friends, exchanged some email addresses with new ones and headed home to do the accounting. Don Day sat there with pencil, paper and adding machine while every one in the house had to, at least once, say “you should be using a spreadsheet”. Why I should have been using a piece of canvas that you put under a tent to count numbers I have no idea.

There were a few surprises.

The most surprising part of the whole voting to Don Day was not who got the votes but who didn’t get the votes. There are seven restaurants in San Miguel’s Centro that all compete for the luxury market amongst mainly tourists but also, hopefully, a few of the wealthier locals. Now even though the crowd gathered at La Frontera wasn’t the mink even on a warm night crowd, they weren’t exactly the impoverished either and Don Day could name at least five and probably ten that definitely carry a multi before their millionaire status.

Those seven upscale restaurants that I put up at the top of the special event, special occasion, splurge ladder are Moxi at Hotel Matilda, La Hacienda de Guadalupe, 1826 at The Rosewood, Patio 3 at Hotel Le Meson, Andanza at the Casa de Sierra Nevada, Dos Casas, and La Calenda at Hotel Nena. Now, of the almost 300 points that were awarded in the voting, exactly zero, nada, none, nil, zilch went to any of these restaurants. That’s right, not one single vote to any one of them.

Don Day thinks of these seven restaurants as The Magnificent Seven. Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and the rest of the guys, all fighting for a Mexican town. On Saturday nights, all of these restaurants are buzzing. At Sunday lunch, there’s still some serious hum. The rest of the week though they’re as empty as a politician’s promises. If they weren’t backed by a hotel business, I’m sure most of them would end up like another Magnificent Seven, the seven cemeteries of London, England.

I can come up with a few reasons for The Magnificent Seven not getting a lot of votes, lack of value for money being the main one. But no votes at all? Don Day is perplexed, yet, after three days of seriously thinking about it, I still have no explanation at all.

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So let’s move from who didn’t get votes to who did get them. Of the 200+ restaurants in this town, only 48 received any votes. Of the 271 total points that were awarded, 139 were divided between only nine of those 48.

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Don Day is now calling the nine the creme de la creme. Of those nine, there were five that Don would call the heavy, rise to the top cream. And there were four that Don would call the half and half, the light, or the coffee cream.

First the four on that second tier, all of which can be extremely proud of their performance when there are more than 200 restaurants on the playing field. In ascending order, from nine to six, the restaurants were Hansen’s, La Frontera, Olivo Verde and La Parada. No surprises there, at least not to Don Day.

And the creme de la creme? It was very close. There were only five points difference between number one and number five.

In fifth place was Hecho en Mexico with 17 points.

To Don Day, Hecho en Mexico has always been about the music and he can’t think of a better way to spend Friday night than listening to Pedro Cartas and Severo Barrera while eating at Hecho en Mexico.

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Marshall Postnikoff agrees that it’s the entertainment that lures him, that and the “great food” including his favorite anywhere in San Miguel dish, Hecho En Mexico‘s grilled tuna. Richard Smerdon (thanks, Richard, for most of the photos in today’s post) also ranks the “huge portion” of grilled tuna as his favorite San Miguel dish and mentioned the “lots of choices” and “reasonable prices”.

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For Winter visitors, the first and last places you eat at while you’re here say a lot about your tastes. Tom Cottreau said, “Every winter, on our first night in SMA, we have coconut shrimp at Hecho…love it!”

In fourth place, with 18 points was the restaurant that no one’s ever quite sure the name of, the place that a lot of people just call the Italian place at the flatiron. It’s official name, Don Day thinks, is Antigua Trattoria Romana.

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Both Bill and Pat Harding ranked Antigua Trattoria Romana as their favorite restaurant. The reason? To Pat, “It just feels the most Italian.” To Bill, “I just love Italian food.”

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Cactus Jack Jacobs also rates it as the best in town and cites the “consistently good food with professional service.” The pasta putanesca at Antigua Trattoria Romana is Jack’s pasta prima anywhere in San Miguel.

And Paige Vitousek simply stated that “Everything I’ve ever had there has been good.”

In third place with 19 points is another spot with a name that people are unsure of. Some call it The Restaurant. Some call it Sollano 16.

Annie Young ranks The Restaurant as the restaurant for her and mentions the great prices on appetizers. Don Day agrees that lunch at The Restaurant is one of the very best bargains in town with starters that please even the most sophisticated palate.

James Murphy’s top vote also goes to The Restaurant and James mentions the “creative menu”. There are four innovative dishes on that Asian-inspired menu that are on Don Day’s favorite things to eat in San Miguel.

In second place with 21 points was the Italian restaurant in Colonia San Antonio, Firenze. It’s another restaurant that’s been close to the top of Don Day’s list of favorites since the day it opened.

Craig Woods mentioned the great food and the great service and that the boneless short rib is his favorite thing to eat anywhere in San Miguel. Linda Knapp has another favorite dish at Firenze; hers is the squash ravioli.

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The almost always succinct Bob Cumming said, “I like the food. I like the owner. I like the view of the church.”

And so we come to number one, the first ever winner of the SMART award for the most popular restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. With 22 points, La Posadita takes the crown.

Don Day has been sending guests to La Posadita for years but admits he hasn’t been there that much himself. The place obviously in in a great location, boasts one of the very best views in town and has service that’s a nice blend of casual and sophisticated. What Don Day found from comments on the SMARTs forms was it’s not just about the ambiance, a lot of people are very, very fond of the food at La Posadita as well.

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Terry Weathers said, “Two of the primary reasons to move to Mexico are the Mexican cuisine and the ambiance. La Posadita has both in abundance.” Terry’s wife Chris said, “La Posadita has it all…view, service, good food and reasonable prices.

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Molly Erickson mentioned the pozole. Molly’s husband Joe mentioned the huichinanga. Last night, when Don Day took some first-time San Miguel visitors to La Posadita, he ran into the Ericksons there; it was where they had chosen to spend their last night in San Miguel before heading home to Seattle.

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As we sat there last night, I think I began to really feel some of the magic that the people at the SMARTs had written about on their ballots. I saw how full the place was on a Tuesday night, a rare sight in any San Miguel restaurant. The lighting in La Posadita shows the restaurant off beautifully and it was shared by the glow on the people’s faces. They all looked so happy, so content, they all looked…and I apologize if this sounds incredibly corny…like they were in love.

It’s no wonder La Posadita won the SMART award. It’s no wonder it’s San Miguel’s favorite restaurant.

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I’m not sure there will ever be a second annual SMARTs award but I’m hoping so. La Posadita deserves all of the attention it can get.

La Posadita is located at Cuna de Allende #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from 12:00 Noon to 10:00 pm, closed Wednesdays.

Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell a pho that’s not ho hum.

When Don Day and Don Day’s Wife retired, they began to forget what day it was. Except maybe for the days when they are in Toronto. And especially if those days are a Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. Because those days, in order, are their sushi, ramen and pho for lunch days.

When Don Day is in San Miguel de Allende though he seldom has any idea what day it is. Because he has never been able to get sushi, ramen or pho that he considered quite good enough to rate chicken scratches on a calendar.

There have been some closies over the years but I’m sure you know the old line about horseshoes and hand grenades.

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As far as ramen and pho are concerned there’s only one restaurant in San Miguel that has them and it’s the only one I can ever remember serving these classic Japanese and Vietnamese soups. The place is Oko Noodle Bar, the Asian restaurant located in Plaza Alhondiga. Pho is important enough to Don Day that he used to venture into Oko occasionally, especially when he was going to be shopping at Mega across the street. Lately, though, Oko pho just hasn’t been quite good enough, despite Don Day’s fairly low expectations.

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Don Day’s last time at Oko for pho was again a disappointment. The heart of pho is the beef broth. Oko‘s broth had a broken heart. It was almost tasteless. On that day Don Day decided that Oko was easily phogettable and pho would become an “only in Toronto” dish.

But Don Day spoke too soon. Because one day Don Day was looking at Warren North’s weekly menu at Mi Cocina Creativa. And there was that three letter word.

Could Don Day trust a guy with round eyes to make him pho. I had trusted Warren North to make me Neopolitan pizza despite the fact that he probably can’t sing a note of O Solo Mio. And he’d made almost perfect pizza.

We were on for the pho. And I knew if I could round up enough people, I might be able to talk him into coming to the house and doing it as a catering job.

I emailed The Gentlemen Who Lunch, aka the ROMEOs (retired old men eating out).

Lunch. pho Bac. Bahn Mi. Thursday. 1:00 pm. My house. First 14 are in. YEA or NAY?

Within a few hours we had 15 (including me).

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Warren North and I have something in common. People say he looks a little like Brad Pitt. People say that since Don Day grew his goatee he looks a little like Brad’s older brother, Armstrong, or as he’s known for short…yes, you worked it out.

There is something that we do really have in common. Warren North comes from Seattle. Don Day comes from Toronto. They’re a couple of thousand miles apart, but both very close in the size of their Asian populations. Which means that both Warren and Don Day have eaten a lot of Asian food. Which means that both Warren and Don Day have eaten a lot of pho.

Warren told me, “Seattle is known for its rain and cloudy days. It’s the first thing people usually think of when they think of my city and I don’t blame them…’cause it’s true! But the people of Seattle have a small secret that helps us get through those cold, rainy days. And that secret is our huge, vibrant Vietnamese community and the food they cook. It is not uncommon for a Seattleite to curl around a big, steaming bowl of pho a couple of times a week, especially during the winter. It warms you to the soul and for me it brings me back to center.”

Don Day realizes, however, that if you don’t come from Seattle, or from Toronto, or from a city with a large Vietnamese population, you may not even have the foggiest idea what pho is.

We’ll start with a pronunciation. pho rhymes with the word that Don Day says when you ask him a science and technology question. pho is pronounced fuh.

It’s not one of those ancient dishes handed down over centuries. pho began in the early 20th Century in a province southeast of Hanoi. Soon, however, it became the most popular street food throughout the country and, early in the morning and early in the evening, vendors still walk through the streets with mobile kitchens hanging at each end of a bamboo pole.

Pho consists of a meat broth, spices, linguini shaped rice noodles and meat. Beef is the most popular meat. Chicken is the second most popular. Don Day thinks that pho made with beef is, quite simply, the very best beef soup in the world.

Warren North tends to agree, only far more eloquently.

“I have always had a special passion for Vietnamese food. Every aspect of the cuisine excites and enchants me. Almost every dish is accompanied by a multitude of different herbs and the soups are delicately laced with exotic spices and additions of ginger, garlic, and shallots. Everything seems so simple and unassuming at first glance when eating Vietnamese food. But the flavors that come from the food on your first bite explode into a beautiful medley of cinnamon, star anise, basil, and the most rich, deep sweet and savory flavors.

“To me, pho bac or beef soup is one of the greatest culinary feasts known to man. Now please, know I am a chef and not known for hyperbole. I am very serious about that statement. Vietnamese food is hands down my favorite cuisine, anywhere, anytime, period.”

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Pho is almost definitely the most popular of all Vietnamese dishes. Bahn mi is almost definitely the second most popular. At the gentlemen’s lunch, we started with bahn mi. In Toronto, bahn mi sandwiches are what you can term a mania, a craze. On the rare night when Don Day has stayed up past Midnight, Don Day has also done another thing he rarely does, line up for food. At Bahn Mi Boys, Toronto’s most popular spot, that line-up is still there (apparently) a couple of hours later.

As far as the specifics of the dish, Don Day believes it’s best to also let Warren North talk the details when it comes to describing bahn mi.

“Like almost any other culinary culture, the Vietnamese also have their take on the sandwich. They called theirs a banh mi and physically it appears to be your average sandwich stuffed in a roll, like a hoagie or simple torta. But what lies inside a banh mi is vastly different.

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“My take on banh mi is very traditional and would be very common to find at any Vietnamese deli or street vendor. I start with a regular French roll like you find at the San Miguel supermarket, Mega or at the local bakery, La Espiga. It gets split down the middle, a little mayo is tossed on the inside and it’s put into a hot oven to toast up.

“I then cook the pork filling for the banh mi. I start with coarse ground pork in a hot pan or wok, preferably. Over high heat, I add a multitude of ingredients such as onions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, and siracha hot sauce. The pork filling cooks until it starts to brown then it is set aside. The other meat-based ingredients for a traditional banh mi are head cheese and pork pate. I omit the pate but keep the head cheese which is what I like to describe as a pork terrine sliced very thin that appears like sliced meat you’d get from a deli counter.”

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The guys at the table were wolfing down the bahn mi sandwiches until someone asked Don Day what the sliced meat was. When I told them head cheese a couple of them slowed down slightly. When I told them what head cheese was made of, a couple more slowed down considerably. But nobody stopped.

Warren also continued.

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“Head cheese has a great texture and adds a strong yet balanced flavor to the sandwich. When assembly comes along, I add to the toasted rolls a slice of head cheese, the spicy ground pork, fresh cilantro, cucumber slices, and finally pickled carrots and radishes I make the day before. I believe that it all comes together to create something much greater than the sum of its parts!”

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The pho broth had now been simmering on the stove for a couple of hours and it was driving Don Day crazy. I asked Warren what exactly goes into it.

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“Everybody has a slightly different recipe for pho bac depending on preference and region. My recipe for pho bac leans more to northern Vietnam but I’ve added a few things that I love so much about the pho from South Vietnam. To start my pho, I bring about 6 kilos or 13 pounds of beef bones to a boil in a very large stockpot. I then char and peel a lot of ginger and shallots that also go in the pot. Then comes the part where the soup starts to become pho, the addition of all the spices. What I add to pho bac includes coriander seeds, green cardamom pods, true cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, star anise, and fresh baby peppercorns. I toast up all those spices in a hot pan and then wrap it up in cheesecloth with twine that also goes right into the broth. The final addition is a large, hearty cut of beef brisket. That then all simmers away for hours while skimming every 10 to 15 minutes. It is a lot of work but what you have in the end is an incredibly fragrant house and the best beef broth on the planet! The final step before you enjoy your pho Bác is to plate it all up. I start with a very large soup bowl into which I add cooked vermicelli rice noodles, sliced brisket from the broth, fresh bean sprouts, basil, sliced onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and to top it off a few slices of thinly sliced raw dry-aged steak. Then I simply ladle the hot broth over the ingredients which cooks the raw beef and brings everything together!

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Don Day wanted to go and put Buddy Can You Spare A Dime on the iPod as all the guys got into the soup line. Pho traditionally also comes with a side bowl containing bamboo shoots, cilantro, basil, lime wedges and hoisin sauce and the extras were there at the end of the line, along with extra sriracha chili sauce for those who, like Don Day, like it hot. Don Day doesn’t have soup bowls as big as Warren would have liked but that was simply solved with seconds. And, for Don Day, thirds.

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The Gentlemen Who Lunch called our Vietnamese Day one of our best ever lunch days. That was a little to do with absence of pho in our lives making the heart grow fonder but a lot to do with Warren North’s pho being absolutely phobulous and on a par with Golden Turtle, Pho Hung and Hanoi 3 Seasons, the three restaurants that form the holy trinity of pho in Toronto and where Don Day will be returning to in a couple of weeks.

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Meanwhile, San Miguel de Allende has Mi Cocina Creativa, Warren North’s food delivery business for their pho. I have no idea when it will be on the weekly menu again but, if there are enough requests, I’m sure he’ll make up a special batch or, even better, if there are enough people, come to your home and prepare it for you as part of his catering business. I think Don Day’s already up to his two allowable puns, but do it pho goodness sake.

Mi Cocina Creativa is located in San Miguel de Allende Mexico. To receive a copy of their full menu and/or be placed on their weekly email for food that’s available for delivery that week, email Warren North at warrenjnorth@gmail.com or call him at 415 152 8382.

Eureka, I’ve found it! After a decade, I just savored San Miguel’s most elusive fresh food.

The search had been more of a safari. But the hunt is over. The prey has been captured. Today Don Day finally found the rarest and most precious of cargo in San Miguel de Allende.

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Don Day had spent eleven wasted winters in San Miguel on a hapless adventure. I’d asked every farmer, every market gardener, anybody with the slightest shade of green on their thumb if they had any. Every February, I’d traipse through Parque Juarez during the Candelaria plant festival (sometimes twice) asking every single nursery and grower if they had any. One March, I did secure three plants of the substandard Russian variety from Via Organica and planted them in a garden, only to return in December to a patch as bare as the back of Don Day’s head. Last year, Don Day’s friend Cheryl had brought in seeds from Canada, had generated a couple of sprouts, a few leaves, then pppppfffffttttt, they were gone. This past December, Don Day’s Wife had even smuggled a few shoots in her purse, which meant four bathroom breaks and four times waking Don Day on the flight because “I know I’m going to hit red” at Benito Juarez.

Every year when I’d go out on a hot lead and come hope empty handed, Don Day would feel like Columbus.

“Look Chris this has got to stop, I’ve already funded two voyages but all you bring back are things like corn and potatoes which are fine for feeding the cows but it’s pepper, black pepper I’m yearning for.”

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It was actually Don Day’s Wife who experienced today’s vision. Don Day was too busy searching for a hidden gem in the wine section. I didn’t see it until it was already in her shopping cart at Mega, the San Miguel supermarket.

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Now I know I’m going to upset a few Roman Catholics, maybe even some non-Catholics, but you know who I thought of when I saw it. Don Day thought of Juan Diego. The guy who had that vision up on the mountain near Mexico City. I couldn’t help it. I even started singing that incredibly beautiful Tom Russell song.

And she is reaching out her arms tonight
And yes, my poverty is real
I pray roses shall rain down again
From Guadalupe on her hill

Yes, Don Day takes food a little too seriously. Comparing a spice to Nuestra Senora. But don’t we all take something a little too seriously.

Anyway we got it. And yes, we got all of it. Every single package. Every single sprig. We just couldn’t take a chance. It might have gotten into the wrong hands. Imagine it in the possession of a vegetarian. Imagine it not being able to swim over a juicy marbled ribeye.

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We celebrated our monumental discovery tonight when Don Day’s Wife made our first ever sauce bearnaise with fresh Hecho en Mexico estragon. And as Don Day’s daughter-in-law dipped her steak in the emerald flecked cream, she declared it “delectable”.

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Next Wednesday (that’s the day that fresh produce arrives at Mega), Don Day promises to give the rest of San Miguel de Allende a fighting chance at the French tarragon. Don Day promises to shop at Soriana, the other San Miguel supermarket instead.

Thanks to photographer, Marshall Postnikoff for allowing me to use one of the best photographs of San Miguel de Allende I’ve ever seen. You can see more of Marshall’s work at http://www.photographybymarshall.com