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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Burritos Unwrapped
  • Burritos Unwrapped-photo
    by Gustavo Arellano
    The drive from Anaheim, California, to Jerez, Zacatecas, seemed to me like a long, unnecessary detour. But nearly every Christmas break during my childhood in the 1980s, my parents would load us up in our Ford Ranger and make the trek to their home city. The truck would rumble eastbound on I-10 until we hit El Paso, then make a dramatic turn south through Juárez, and into burrito heaven.

    Upon entering Juárez, we'd join the traffic on what's now called Carretera Federal 45, and reach the town of Villa Ahumada-"smoked village" being an appropriate name, considering all the cooking that goes on there. Here, roadside stalls, sit-down restaurants, and street vendors sell burritos of every stripe-vegetarian (rajas con queso, chiles with cheese); spiced ground beef called picadillo; even hot dogs stewed with salsa, hilariously known as burritos de weenie-all rolled into a flour wrapper folded in such a way so that the ends are not tucked in, better to portion out the bites with filling and those of pure tortilla.

    It was a great pit stop for the family, but especially fun for my parents. Whereas their Americanized children had grown up on burritos, the ones in Ahumada were the first my folks actually enjoyed. The burrito to them was as alien as a Korean taco; being from Zacatecas, where corn tortillas are the norm, they hadn't even tasted the flour variety until migrating to California in the 1960s. The American obsession with the food bewildered them-the ones we ate in the States were as Mexican as Doritos. But in Villa Ahumada, my parents were happy to feed on burritos because, well, that's what everybody ate. To them, Ahumada was the place where America became Mexico, and Mexico became America; the burrito was the food that embodied that in-between place.

    If the taco is the ambassador of Mexican food in the United States, then the burrito is the eternal misfit. All sorts of gastronomic sins get committed in its name: It's stuffed with french fries in San Diego and deli pastrami in Los Angeles; wrapped around a hamburger and smothered with chili in Denver. It's the most Americanized of Mexican dishes, one so pocho (slang for a Mexican who has gone gringo) that many gourmands incorrectly point out that the burrito is in fact an American creation.

    If the taco is the ambassador of Mexican food in the United States, then the burrito is the eternal misfit.
    But in the borderlands of Mexico, the burrito has reigned for nearly a century as a simple, austere beauty reflective of its sparse environment. It's here that the meal reaches its apotheosis, not as a tortilla wrapped around an avalanche of mush, but as a dish in which each part complements the others: an expertly toasted flour tortilla, with just enough filling so that it can be tightly wrapped to the girth of a child's wrist. The ideal iteration is more graceful than gargantuan.

    Even so, no one knows who invented the burrito. Historians have traced the term as far back as 1895, to central Mexico, where then as now it signified a tortilla rolled around ingredients. But today, the burrito exists in earnest only in northern Mexico. This is the homeland of the flour tortilla, and from this universal vessel, the regions of northern Mexico create burritos with their own homegrown ingredients. In Baja California, burritos feature fresh fish from the coast; in the Sonoran plains, carne seca (sun-dried beef) reigns; in Chihuahua, queso menonita (a pale yellow cheese made by Mennonite colonies), goes into nearly all of them.

    But the ultimate burrito trail remains Carretera 45. I haven't gone down that road in decades, partly because my parents can now afford to fly to Zacatecas, but really because the narco wars have soured that trek for us. But I'm an optimist, and plan to take my parents back to Ahumada one day, for a reminder of the time when those burritos were the first sign that we were on our way home. -Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Scribner, 2012)

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Soulful Mexican Soups
  • mexican soups-photo
    by Patricia Quintana
    There are so many ways to get to know Mexico, but for me, the country is best understood through its soups. We're ancient: Every home cook here has a recipe for caldo Xóchitl con flor de calabaza, a squash-blossom soup named for the Aztec goddess of flowers that harks back to when the capital city was still known as Tenochtitlán. We're authentic: Regional soups like sopa fría de aguacate, a serrano chile-spiked cold avocado soup from the south Pacific coast, make the most of the distinct flavors, ingredients, and cooking styles specific to each state. (Even national favorites, like the bean soup sopa de frijol, evolve as you traverse the country: It's made with pintos in the north, black beans in the south.) We're international: One of the country's most beloved soups, sopa de fideo, fine pasta noodles in a rich tomato broth, was born of Italian immigration to Mexico; a vichyssoise-like potato and leek soup, meanwhile, nods to France. We're cosmopolitan: At restaurants in Mexico City, chefs outdo one another with elegant soups like sopa de chile ancho, a silken broth of pan-toasted, puréed chiles that is garnished with crisp-fried tortilla strips, julienned pasilla chile, a drizzle of crema, and slivers of avocado. No matter where you are, a meal isn't really a meal without soup-whether it's the warming consomé served at the beginning of a meal, or the brothy pinto beans that round it out-and here, soup can even be found in the streets. Some say the soul of Mexico is in the soups of the streets and the markets, where vendors sell homespun brews from their stalls, ladling out caldo de res, a hearty beef stew, topped with a confetti of cilantro and chopped raw onion. In Mexico, soups are basic. They comfort. They put us at ease and nourish our souls. They sustain us, and wherever we find ourselves, once a bowl of soup is in our hands, we're home. -Patricia Quintana, chef-owner of Izote in Mexico City, and author of The Taste of Mexico (Stewart, Tabori andamp; Chang, 1986)

    See a gallery of Mexican soups »

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Queen of the Yucatan
  • Transita Varguez Pacheco-photo
    by Mauricio Velázquez de León
    Just outside Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán, I drive toward the home of my friend, Margarita "Wiggie" Andrews. I exit the car and enter her sun-flooded kitchen, which is filled with the bustle of dinner being prepared. This time, I have come not to see Wiggie, but Transita Varguez Pacheco, her live-in cook for more than 50 years.

    I find Transita, a petite 78-year-old, working alongside her sister, Ernestina, and granddaughter Azul, directing them in her native Mayan, punctuated with Spanish words. In the Yucatán, both languages are often spoken, interchangeably. The Maya, an ancient Mesoamerican people, have occupied the peninsula for millennia. Their heritage is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more than in the food. This is why I'm here. I've always been fascinated by the region's cooking, and Transita has invited me to watch her make tonight's meal.

    The vast limestone peninsula that is the Yucatán seems worlds away from Mexico City, where I grew up. It's the country's easternmost point, physically and spiritually closer to Havana than to Mexico's capital. Though the native foods are the same as those in the rest of Mexico-squash, corn, tomatoes, chiles-it's in the Yucatán where the Maya mastered the cultivation and cooking of them. I admire the region's excellent tamales and pumpkin-seed salsas; I crave the bold recados-pastes made with chiles, herbs, and spices-that are rubbed on or stirred into all kinds of dishes.

    Though its roots are Mayan, Yucatecan cuisine is influenced by all over. Its remote location meant that Europe, not Mexico, was the main trade partner, and Old World ingredients were adapted to New World dishes. When the Spanish conquered the Yucatán in the 16th century, for instance, sour orange was introduced. It came to define emblematic foods such as cochinita pibil, pulled pork that is tenderized in sour orange juice and garnished with onions pickled in the same. It's also essential to pollo en escabeche oriental, or "pickled chicken," the dish Transita is most celebrated for, which she is making here today.

    Transita manages her crew like a restaurant chef. "A tortear!" (Make the tortillas!), she tells Ernestina, without taking her eyes off the chicken she is rubbing with a recado made from oregano, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, garlic, chiles, and plenty of sour orange juice. Transita then moves into the yard, where she chars some chiles over smoldering coals, briefly grills the chicken, and transfers them to a large pot. As the pot cooks over the coals, the sweet-spicy aroma is intoxicating.

    As the dinner guests arrive, they stop by the kitchen to greet Transita with hugs and kisses. Though it's hard to believe, Transita confides, "I didn't really know how to cook when I started." She was hired at 16, without previous experience. With no idea how to feed a household, she went to the market and watched other women shop, bought the same things they did, and asked how to cook them. When she returned home, the first dish she prepared was puchero, an elaborate stew of chicken, beef, pork, and vegetables. "They loved it!" she says, clapping at the memory.

    When the meal commences in the dining room, I stay in the kitchen with Transita, Ernestina, and Azul. They serve the first few courses, and the plates come back clean. But when they send out the pollo en escabeche, we hear whoops and cheers coming from the dining room. In this moment, Transita slides me a plate. The chicken is smoky and spicy, fruity yet tart. It's extraordinary. As dinner wraps up, each guest comes to the kitchen to thank Transita and her crew. Someone calls her Queen of the Yucatán, and this is how I will remember her. -Mauricio Velázquez de León's last article for Saveur was South of the Border (April 2011)

    See the recipe for Pollo en Escabeche Oriental »
    See the recipe for Pumpkin Seed Salsa »

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Day of the Dead
  • Day of the Dead-photo
    by Shane Mitchell
    On the street leading toward the Church of San Andrés Apóstol in the village of Mixquic, an hour southeast of downtown Mexico City, vendors tempted a festive crowd with the hominy-rich stew pozole, and with radishes, fried grasshoppers, and pillowy pan de muertos, Spanish for "bread of the dead," a sweet holiday treat. Children laughed around me, begging for cotton candy and sugar skulls. Mariachis strummed. The sun was setting as everyone proceeded through the gates of the churchyard's walled cemetery. I followed, too.

    On the Day of the Dead, the veil between the worlds of the deceased and the living becomes more transparent; only then may spirits press against that elastic fabric to savor the essence of tequila poured into a glass or a cigarette burnt to ash. To mark the way from the underworld, families across Mexico create folksy ofrendas (altars) piled with spiced black beans, tamales, and other foods, which serve as the spirits' earthly signposts. In Mixquic, families sit bundled next to headstones covered with marigolds during a candlelight vigil called La Alumbrada (The Illumination), awaiting the return of their lost loved ones. For me, a visitor, it was my sister I longed for, taken suddenly and too young.

    Weaving around the crowded graves late into the chilly November night, I was invited to slug fiery mezcal from a communal bottle passed by cheerfully drunk brothers. Another family solemnly shared a home-baked pan de muertos. It was coarse and chewy, with a dusting of sugar on the brown crust. This generosity to a stranger in their midst seemed to me a sacrament of sorts. A stinging fog of copal incense rose from clay burners to swirl eerily around our heads. And before dawn, when the church bells chimed, throughout Mixquic, the aromas and flavors of proffered food faded as phantom travelers, sated, fled once again into their mystical world.

    "Come back," I whispered. "Come back."

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Saucy Dish
  • A Sanborns server holding enchiladas suizas-photo One amazing place to eat in Mexico City is actually in a department store. Sanborns reminds me of Woolworth's, and in fact, it has American roots; the chain grew out of a Mexico City pharmacy opened in 1903 by Walter and Frank Sanborn, brothers from California. To encourage employees to stay at work during the midday siesta time, the brothers served them lunch, and the in-store restaurants evolved from that effort.

    Today, Sanborns has 174 outlets, but the one in the capital's Centro Histórico is unique. It's set inside a spectacular 16th-century residence covered in blue-and-white tiles. Inside, amid the magazines, clothing, and housewares, there's a coffee shop and a cocktail lounge, and then there's the dining room, located in a soaring courtyard festooned in murals and carved stone.

    Whenever I'm in Mexico City, I come here for enchiladas suizas. Unlike Stateside renditions, where the sauce is tomato-based and sweet, Sanborns' chicken-stuffed enchiladas are served swimming in a cream-enriched tomatillo sauce and blanketed in bubbly tangy Chihuahua cheese. They're tart, salty, soupy, and unimaginably rich-and their outsize flavors manage to stay in balance with one another.

    These blockbuster suizas are also the originals, created in 1950 by a Sanborns chef who added cream to enchiladas en salsa verde. The gooey dish was dubbed suiza ("Swiss") after that dairy-centric cuisine. Along with other Mexican and American-style dishes-club sandwiches, carne asada, and hamburgers-the enchiladas suizas are served by waitresses dressed in cartoonish riffs on indigenous garb. The uniform's outsize triangular collar and striped skirt are so iconic that amigos of mine have worn them to costume parties. But it's not just the subject of parody. Sanborns is a real part of Mexican life-beloved as a one-stop shop for everything you need, including a rich and comforting meal.

    See the recipe for Enchiladas Suizas »

    Centro Histórico
    Tacuba No. 2
    C.P. 06010
    Mexico, D.F.

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Breakfast at the Border
  • Breakfast at the Border-photo
    by Mandoacute;nica de la Torre
    Over breakfast in Tijuana in 2010, the two sides of me came face to face. I was there, a Mexican-American poet visiting from Brooklyn, with the novelist Cristina Rivera Garza, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. It was my first trip to the area, so we were sightseeing across the border. Cristina, a double agent of sorts, keeps two cell phones, two wallets, and homes in both cities. We were overnighting at her house on the Tijuana coast.

    In the morning, I took a walk on the beach. Cristina had told me to head north, toward the border. She would meet me at the fence and then take me to her favorite breakfast hangout, El Yogurt Place, whose semicircular dining room offers panoramic views of the international divide.

    When I got to the border, Cristina was waiting for me next to a puzzle of iron rails, some bent or broken, some altogether missing. Affixed to the fence, which stretched about twenty feet into the surf, were two signs: "danger objects under water" and its outrageously imprecise translation, "pilegro fierros bato del auga," which, in English, would be something like "nadger metals bewo watre." People find this fence so unimposing that they even climb over for kicks, Christina said.

    We headed toward breakfast. On our way, we passed Friendship Park where, until recently, family and friends were allowed to touch each other, and even share food, through a wire fence. In 2009, the completion of a 21-foot-tall barrier here had compromised that park's purpose.

    At El Yogurt Place, we sat in a banquette and looked out onto the palimpsest of property lines. The leafy American side appeared uninhabited for miles, while the edge of urban Tijuana was jammed up against the U.S. I had flown here from New York City, my home for almost two decades.

    Born to a Mexican father and an American mother, I grew up in Mexico City, but we summered in Maine. I travel back and forth to Mexico a few times a year, but I struggle with the transitions. In my psyche, both worlds remain achingly remote. Now, I was witnessing their ambivalent convergence.

    I dug into my plate of chilaquiles, yesterday's tortillas-stale and torn but fried and reborn with a tangy, gently spicy tomatillo salsa and a dollop of crema. A humble but filling meal, chilaquiles is born of an imperative to not waste food. Like refried beans, those gratifying leftovers that are spread on day-old bread and smothered in cheese and salsa for molletes, another of my breakfast favorites, chilaquiles is redeemed by its ingenuity and deliciousness. As I savored each bite, I was struck by a feeling of connection. My eyes were trained on the greener grass on the other side of the fence, but my taste buds held me here, in Mexico. -Mónica de la Torre, a poet based in New York City, whose latest book of poems is Four (Switchback Books, 2012)

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Tortillas in Mexico
  • making tortillas by hand-photo
    by Roberto Santibaandntilde;ez
    The tortillería near our home in Mexico City was dark and tiny, with a machine that spat fresh tortillas out onto a conveyor belt, which carried the hot, puffy disks to a counter up front. The ladies who worked there would wrap a kilo in the cloth I'd brought with me. They were steamy and almost too hot to touch. As soon as I got home, I would sprinkle salt on one, roll it very tightly, and squeeze it so it stuck together. Our nanny nicknamed it pegada, the word for "stuck." I miss tortillas pegadas. I don't know if I ever went a day without eating tortillas in Mexico. It's the country's most cherished food. I like to think it was a huge moment when Mesoamericans figured out how to unlock corn's nutrients through nixtamalization, the soaking of the grain in a slaked lime solution that makes the corn more digestible and easier to grind into the substance called masa, the base for corn tortillas. Of course, tortillas are different everywhere. There are wheat-flour tortillas, beloved in the north, and thicker tortillas in the Yucatán (pictured) that are made, often by hand, from corn washed so thoroughly that the grain becomes as white and soft as wheat flour. In Mexico City, the tortillas are rougher, with bits of corn still visible. When you spend so much time with a foodstuff, you begin to know it intimately; every household develops its own quirky ways with the tortilla. My favorite innovation was my grandmother's tacos de barriga, "belly tacos." She and I would go to the tortillería, and as the tortillas came out onto the conveyor belt, she'd take a knife and cut off the thin layer that puffs up during cooking, the part that looks like a pudgy belly. She stuffed these tortillas with chicken, rolled them up, and fried them. They were so fine, like puff pastry. From a very young age, I knew that a tortilla could be anything. -Roberto Santibañez, chef-owner of New York City's Fonda restaurants and author of Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales (Wiley, 2012)

    See how to make fresh tortillas »

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Sweet Mercy
  • Nuns selling religious items and baked goods-photo
    by James Oseland
    You see them outside churches all over Mexico-sisters from local convents selling home-baked sweets, a sort of eggnog spiked with rum or brandy called rompope, and assorted spiritual tracts and talismans. A few years ago, one of these sisters basically rescued me. I was driving down the highway on my way to Mexico City and witnessed a horrific car crash. After tracking down an ambulance and spending considerable time at the scene, I could do no more to help. By the time I arrived in Mexico City, the trauma had fully registered; I was on the verge of collapse. And there she was, with a smile for everyone who passed. When that smile settled on me, my eyes filled with tears. I'm not a drinker, but some instinct compelled me to reach for one of her bottles of rompope. It was strong and sweet, a nectar and a consolation at a moment when I needed it profoundly. Sister, wherever you are, thank you.

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: Death in The Afternoon
  • Death in the Afternoon-photo
    by Juan Pablo Villalobos
    This memory spans all of my life. We could place it in 1980, at the baptism of one of my cousins. Or in 1995, at the wedding of another cousin. Or even in 2007, at my first child's baptism. I could also relate this memory in the future tense, in 2016 or 2028. Every time my family has something to celebrate, we kill a calf. Its meat, wrapped in succulent blades of maguey leaf and steamed slowly over a wood fire, all but melts into a delicious stew called birria. This dish is the pride of my home state, Jalisco.

    I have skipped something here, and it is not casual: It is the moment of the calf's sacrifice. Cieneguilla, my uncle Mario's ranch in the highlands, is where my family celebrates our parties. It is a dairy farm, and thus the slaughtered ones are always males, born by mistake within a system in which only females can be productive. As a kid, I was always at home playing soccer or watching TV the day before the celebrations, when a ranch worker stung the heart of the chosen one with an instrument like an ice pick. It must be done at least twelve hours before cooking the meat, to give the carcass time to bleed out completely. Only once did I witness the sacrifice, and what I remember, more than the blood or the brutal indifference of the act, is the laughter of the workers during the gutting of the animal, the jokes about handling the testicles, those classic and sad homophobic jokes so common in Mexico.

    This memory is made of dust, the dust of the unpaved road we needed to travel from our town, Lagos de Moreno, to get to the ranch, long before the construction of the current road. The monotonous semiarid landscape of Los Altos de Jalisco: acacias, cactus, and the maguey plants that are birria's essence. Its cut blades, stripped of thorns, washed and charred, line the interior of the vessel where the calf is cooked. On my uncle's ranch, 50-gallon metal drums are used; water is poured on the bottom and a grill is placed inside, making an unbeatable makeshift steamer. The largest pieces of meat are placed in the bottom, the head in the center, and the small pieces on top. The top is then covered with more maguey leaves, so that the calf is thoroughly wrapped, and the whole thing is placed on a rack over a wood fire. You need to have a fire of medium intensity, one that is constant but never angry. Tightly close the steamer-a huge stone set on top is the perfect solution-and wait, depending on the weight and age of the animal, between two-and-a-half and four hours.

    My family's birria is eaten with handmade tortillas, and with my Aunt Celia's famous sauce. It's just a tomato sauce cooked with chile de árbol, which, once blended, is mixed with salt, oregano, onions, and cilantro. The big secret is why Aunt Celia's sauce tastes like no other in the world, including those of my mother and the rest of my aunts, the flavor progressing in its particular way from herb to onion to the sweetness and burn of the chile. It's not an irrelevant secret: In Mexico you should never underestimate the power of sauces as a source of family rancor.

    These are meals with a mass audience, with a never-ending line of ten to fifteen people at the kitchen's entrance. Children-and picky adults-eat the meat from the legs and the back, while the rest of the adults save ourselves for the moment when the beautiful calf skull arises from the huge drum, holding within the most treasured delicacies: the tongue, cheeks, eyes, and brains. It's a small reward for so many stomachs, so the negotiations are always difficult. I still remember my childhood's disgust when I saw my father and my uncles ingesting those parts. And to think that today I wouldn't mind forever falling out with a relative over them. In my family, growing up means learning to fight for the head.
    -Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of Down the Rabbit Hole (Farrar, Straus andamp; Giroux, 2012)

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: The Pride of Puebla
  • Chicken Mole Poblano and Mexican Red Rice-photo
    by Betsy Andrews
    On a recent trip to Puebla, I paid a visit to a storefront mill called a molino. There I met Luz Maria Leonor Gonzalez, a lively mother of eight grown children who told me to call her Doña Luchita. It was Mother's Day, an occasion fit for mole poblano. The spicy-sweet, sienna-colored sauce is the preeminent holiday dish in this small colonial city 85 miles southeast of Mexico City. Housewives were lined up with buckets of ingredients they had prepared to be crushed to a paste. Through the rotary grinders went mulato, pasilla, and ancho chiles; spices like anise and coriander; sesame seeds, almonds, and peanuts; burnt tortillas, stale bread, even animal crackers, for thickening; and, for sweetness, brown sugar, raisins, chocolate, and ripe plantains.

    Doña Luchita had been up into the wee hours frying her ingredients to intensify their flavors. I followed her home and watched her thin the paste with stock and simmer it. She made envueltos (wraps)-rolled tortillas topped with shredded chicken, onion, and mole. Her sauce had a fruity flavor, trailed by a mellow burn. Along with Doña Luchita's cheery ribbing-"We don't waste!" she cried, pointing at an envuelto left on my plate. "Who's going to eat this?"-it put me in a festive mood.

    Such was mole poblano's original purpose. "An important person was coming, and the nuns made this for him," Doña Luchita told me, repeating an oft-told tale. But though the dish is said to have been invented at Puebla's 17th-century Convent of Santa Rosa, its name derives from molli, the Nahuatl word for sauce. Mole poblano's spices, nuts, and fruit arrived with the Spanish, but its chiles and tomatoes are native. Served everywhere now-mostly over chicken-it has become a national dish, an expression of Mexico's mestizo culture.

    I got a taste of mole's past in the tin-roofed outdoor kitchen of Maria Gabriella Sandre de Tlapaltotoli, a woman with both Nahuatl and French last names who lives in Cholula, an ancient town on Puebla's outskirts. Sandre, an in-law of a chef friend of mine, had gathered relatives to pitch in on a batch of mole for the family. Each woman had a job: sorting chiles; charring tomatoes; slaughtering a turkey to serve with the sauce; simmering the mole in a washtub-size cazuela set over a blazing fire.

    "This is mole del pueblo, not mole poblano," Sandre insisted, noting that each pueblo, or village, has its own recipe. This version, made without chocolate and with smoky chipotles, was earthier and more savory than Doña Luchita's. It took two entire days for a small army to prepare; were this an occasion like a wedding, they might have cooked enough for a thousand. "To make mole is a ritual," Sandre's sister-in-law Maria del Refugio said as she stirred. "It's so complicated, but it's special."

    She explained that she knew the mole was done "when the oil on its surface forms a mirror." As if when she looks at it, she sees her own face: partly indigenous, partly European, proudly Mexican.

    See the recipe for Pollo en Mole Poblana (Chicken with Puebla-Style Mole Sauce) »

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: On The Backs of Crabs
  • Two friends eating Jaibas Enchipotladas-photo
    by Carmen Boullosa
    One of my first memories is of the sound of crabs being crushed by the wheels of our moving car. I was less than five years old. It was late at night. For three days we had been traveling-my parents, my mother's siblings, and my maternal grandmother-from our home in Mexico City east to Comalcalco, in Tabasco, where my grandmother and mother were born. We'd crossed five rivers on rough-hewn ferries, little more than rafts. We'd left good roads behind and were driving on an unpaved one, steps from where waves were crashing.

    I was snoozing in the backseat. The noise woke me up. I asked what it was. "They're crabs," said my uncle Gustavo, who was at the wheel. I didn't understand his answer. I knew what crabs were. My grandmother cooked them at her house in Mexico City. The legs and claws were steamed and served cold as an appetizer. The bodies, stuffed, came piping hot as a main course. Both were delicious. But what were crabs doing here?

    My uncle and my grandmother explained that this was the time when crabs returned to the sea to lay their eggs, and that we were rolling over a carpet made of marching crabs. Our Goodrich tires were decimating them by the hundreds. The noise went on for what seemed an eternity.

    My grandmother's stuffed crabs were one of my favorite dishes. From Tabasco her siblings sent live crabs packed in cardboard boxes, and I watched her unpack them and put them in the metal tamal-maker on the stove. I heard the crabs scratching inside, but I never saw how the stuffing was prepared. I only knew it tasted earthy and pungent, salty and sweet at the same time.

    I spent many mornings watching my grandmother work in the laboratory in the back of her home-another sort of cooking. Her business was mixing ingredients, primarily herbs, for the pharmaceutical industry. That was how she earned her living (and not a bad one) after the death of her husband. There were big cans of alcohol, filter paper, oils, extracts. Sacks of herbs and seeds were kept in the courtyards. The smell was complex and, to me, attractive.

    I saw her perform culinary miracles, too. She milled chocolate from cacao pods, also sent from Tabasco. She made tamales wrapped in banana leaves, walnut and almond sweets, a pork sausage perfumed with spices. I watched my grandmother cook, but she was not interested in teaching me to do it. She used to say, "My granddaughters were not born to clean floors." Her wish was that I would go to college and have a career.

    I only learned how she made the stuffed crabs later, after my daughter Marèa was born, when I was pregnant with my Juan. I was returning to Mexico City from Villahermosa on a plane, with my little girl in my arms. My carry-on bag was stuffed with crabs. When the flight attendant came looking for the origin of the pungent smell, I put on an innocent face.

    Arriving home, I parked the crabs in the bathtub and phoned my grandmother. I wanted to cook them exactly the way she did. Their smell permeated the house; some thought it more stench than smell. But I took pleasure in it, just as I enjoyed the peculiar odors from my grandmother's laboratory.

    I followed her instructions closely. First, I steamed the crabs, hearing the familiar scratching in the pot. Then I emptied their bodies and claws, extracting every bit of meat. For the filling, I chopped onion and a bit of garlic, and fried them in olive oil. Once the onion changed color, I added green olives, capers, raisins, almonds, salt, fresh herbs, and finally the crabmeat. I stuffed the bodies, sealed them with egg whites and bread crumbs, and fried them just long enough to make them golden and beautiful. And yes: The taste of those crabs, like the sound of them under the wheels of our car, was something unforgettable.

    See the recipe for Jaibas Enchipotladas (Pan-Fried Crabs in Chipotle Sauce) »

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  • 08/01/12--09:00: In Full Bloom
  • A parade in Juchitan, Oaxaca-photo
    by Beth Kracklauer
    I'm told things are going to get a little wild later on. But the day begins quietly, under a palm-thatched palapa at the edge of a lagoon. It's a restaurant called Las Tres Tecas-"Tecas" being short for Juchitecas, the famously hard-bargaining women of the nearby market town of Juchitán-where the Teca in charge, Marcelina Rosado Guerra, cooks the seafood that her husband spends the nighttime hours hauling from the water. Wood-roasted striped mullet stuffed with tomatoes and chiles; a lime-drenched shrimp ceviche I scoop up with totopos, corn tortillas baked to a crisp in an adobe oven: It's a meal run through with the brash and saline flavors they favor here in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a windswept strip of land at the southeastern corner of Oaxaca state, buffeted by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Having tasted Isthmus-style cooking years ago at a restaurant in the capital city of Oaxaca, I knew I'd make my way here one day. What I didn't know is that I'd arrive in May, fiesta time, a monthlong party that's part Roman Catholic ritual and part pre-Columbian pantheism, but mostly a lot of dancing, drinking, and feasting.

    I fall in step with the festivities at a regada de frutas, a parade complete with brass bands and floats carrying regal Juchitecas tossing out prizes of candy, toilet paper, kitchenware. It's in honor of Santa Cruz de los Pescadores and the bounty the sea provides. A woman in traditional ankle-length attire of black velvet emblazoned with floral embroidery smiles and hands me a plastic mixing bowl as the float she's riding on drifts along; close behind, resplendent in lamé and peacock feathers, a beautiful muxe-the name for a man who lives as a woman, the "third sex" traditionally recognized in the Zapotec Indian communities of the Isthmus-dances by on foot. Each of these celebrations lasts two or three days: first the vela (party), then a parade like this one, then the lavada de ollas, a traditional "washing of the pots" that in practice is just another party. For the next several days I'm constantly confused about which holiday I'm actually celebrating.

    The next day, I'm on a residential block collectively observing the vela of Guigu Dxita, a celebration giving thanks for the eggs laid along the region's rivers by iguanas and turtles, cherished delicacies here. Headquarters is the home of the mayordoma, or festival sponsor, Martina Rasgado Orozco, a lady with the brisk and benevolent air of a fairy godmother. In a courtyard, over wood fires, she and her female crew are cooking up crowd-size quantities of the botanas (snacks) we'll eat later.

    As the sun sets, the street erupts in a rollicking block party. A band plays soulful Isthmus songs as the ladies in their velvets and satins dance together. The men, some in traditional long-sleeve guayaberas and red neckerchiefs, file in hoisting cases of beer on their shoulders; at the party, they largely observe while their wives and sisters and daughters dance. It's a challenge to manage my plate of food while continually accepting beers I'm informed in no uncertain terms I am not permitted to refuse. There's a pico de gallo bolstered with dried shrimp; tostadas topped with an intense and addictive shrimp paste; empanadas filled with jalapeño-spiked shredded chicken-all of it powerfully savory and spicy. "When you're drinking beer, you want chile!" cries the mayordoma, as she takes my arm and hustles me into the street for the first of many dances that night.

    The following morning, I'm late to meet Martha Jimenez Martinez, a fruit seller from Juchitán's main market who's agreed to show me how to make her specialty, oven-roasted chicken. "La fiesta," she says, with a knowing smile. She lives in an outlying colonia of rough wood structures along the Pan-American Highway. Her 12-year-old, Pedro, appears with a live chicken, and Martha efficiently beheads it, plucks it, and cuts it up. While parboiling the chicken, she blends guajillo chiles with garlic, achiote, and mustard to rub on it before roasting on embers; broth from the pot goes into the jalapeño salsa served on the side. I sit still for what seems like the first time in days, under a canopy of mango branches bending with fruit, and focus on eating smoky chicken off the bone. "It's good," Martha says. It's not a question.

    See the article on the Juchitán's market »
    Read the web-exclusive article Behind the Scenes: Juchitán »

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    SAVEUR Mexico Issue-photo From the refined restaurants of Mexico City to the country's regional cooking, from the foods of the desert to those of the sea, the flavors of Mexico are some of the freshest, boldest, and most delicious in the world. It's all here: singular burritos from Juárez; the intense moles of Puebla; the soul-satisfying dishes of the Yucatán. But it's the people of Mexico who bring these foods to life - from the authority Diana Kennedy to the home cooks and chefs from all over the country who opened their kitchens to us. In this issue, discover recipes for the salsas, grilled meats and fish, soft tortillas, slow-simmered stews, and more, that define the cuisine. The time has come to celebrate Mexican cooking for all that it is. Join us.

    See the entirety of the Mexico issue »

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    Eating in Mexico: The Lay of the Land-photo
    by Rick Bayless
    For all its complexity, Mexican food is primordial-it speaks on a gut level. It's no wonder: Carried in its DNA are the slow-simmered flavors of the indigenous kitchen, which was little more than a fire pit, earthenware pots, and a clay griddle. Grounded as Mexican cooking is, it's also bright and transparent, having adapted all kinds of imported foods to its palette of beans, chiles, tomatoes, and corn. From the Spaniards came grilled meats; lime and cilantro were brought on galleons in the 16th century; breads like bolillo, the Mexican sandwich roll, are the legacy of the French, who came in the 1860s. Mexicans welcomed these new tastes. They melded them with their native flavors to create something new. I love the way these foods are so expressive of the specific geography, climate, and culture in which they were born. That regional distinctiveness can be astonishing to Americans who only know the food that's served in Stateside Mexican restaurants. In fact, what cooks are making in Baja California is worlds apart from what folks are eating in the Yucatán or in Oaxaca. As a chef and devotee of the Mexican kitchen, I've spent nearly four decades immersed in these cuisines, and there is one thing I've learned for certain: A lifetime is not long enough to taste it all.

    See the photographs in the gallery »

    Rick Bayless is the chef-owner of Chicago's Topolobampo and Frontera Grill and author of Fiesta at Rick's (W.W. Norton andamp; Company, 2010)

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    Wild blueberries in New Paltz-photo One of my best memories of growing up in New Jersey is stumbling across a patch of wild blueberries while on a class trip to the Delaware Water Gap. I remember devouring fistfuls of the small, sweet fruit, and how concentrated their flavor was. No blueberries have ever quite measured up to that taste-memory until this past weekend, when my family and I traveled with a friend to her childhood home in New Paltz, New York. A hiking trail atop a mountain led us to an enormous thicket of wild blueberry bushes, all heavy with ripe fruit. We stayed there, happily picking and eating berries, for hours. (If not for my daughter Aki's eventual protestations that it was dinner time, we'd probably be there still). By the time we headed down the mountain, we'd filled several plastic containers with the wild fruit. At home, we made quick work of our foraged bounty, serving up a blueberry pie for dinner, and blueberry muffins for breakfast the next morning. -Karen Shimizu

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    Mexican Feast at the Carlyle Hotel-photo
    by Eesha Sardesai and Sanaandeuml; Lemoine
    We're at the iconic Carlyle Hotel, where Chef Carlos Hannon and his team from Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel de Allende have spent the week cooking sumptuous Mexican fare for hungry guests. Chef Hannon is young and jovial, smiling as he tells us that he learned to cook from culinary school but also from "life," citing his grandmother Elena as his greatest inspiration.

    The flavors of Mexico that we've been reading about and tasting for our August/September special issue converge on our plates. We recognize the guacamole with hearty chunks of avocado; the soft tamal-like casing and smoky mushroom filling of the empanadas; the guajillo pepper oil sprinkled on sweet lobster claw meat; and the delicate zucchini blossom soup beneath crispy-skinned red snapper. Then there are the sabores that surprise us: vanilla in a cauliflower purée and a rich Mezcal reduction for the braised veal, brilliant pink and red flower petals strewn on ceviches. And then there's the crowning finish, grandma Elena's churros, thin, soft and hot out of the fryer, lightly crisped and coated in sugar. -Eesha Sardesai and Sanaë Lemoine

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    things you can only get in philadelphia-photo
    by Helen Rosner
    It was raining buckets when SAVEUR senior editor Gabriella Gershenson and I rolled into Philadelphia for a whirlwind 36-hour, 8-restaurant, million-calorie tour of the East Coast's most exciting emerging food town. This was a good thing: It meant that there was hardly a wait at all at Federal Donuts, the blazingly popular doughnut-and-fried-chicken emporium tucked away on a Pennsport side street where out-the-door lines and midafternoon sellouts are de rigueur. The sun came out for the rest of our trip, and so we criscrossed the city on foot, making our way from farmers' markets filled with jewel-like Amish produce to hushed, leafy terrace restaurants to the riotous 9th Street Italian Market, where century-old, family-run pork stores vie for space with Vietnamese produce stands and Mexican groceries. Through it all there was a continuous thread of something ineffably Philly: bright and optimistic, entirely unpretentious and yet exacting in quality. When it comes to eating, this city is operating miles beyond the cheesesteak.

    1. The Paesano Sandwich at Paesano's

    Practically every item on the chalkboard menu at Paesano's, chef Peter McAndrews' no-punches-pulled sandwich shop, reads like a call to heaven for the true hoagie lover. But of all the savory gutbusters on offer, the most savory, most busting-of-gut is his shop's namesake Paesano: a long Italian roll topped with beef brisket, roasted tomatoes, gooey provolone, vinegary pepperoncini, spicy horseradish mayo, and a fried egg for good measure. It's a high-low monster of a meal that's brilliant on its own, and even better eaten leaning against the formica counter, alternating bites with sips from a one-dollar cup of the perfectly old-school RC Cola Paesano's runs on tap.
    Multiple locations
    tel: 267/886-9556


    Chef Michael Solomonov's latest venture offers an embarrassment of deep-fried riches: Cake doughnuts and fried chicken are the specialties of the house, and both are incredibly good. One fritter that stood out among the rest, however, was the Appollonia doughnut. Part of the "Hot Fresh" menu (meaning the doughnut is served hot out of the fryer, freshly rolled in seasoned sugar), the Appollonia is flavored with baharat, the Turkish spice blend that includes black pepper, cumin, and cinnamon, and rolled in sugar enriched with a mixture of orange blossoms, cocoa, and clove, from spice guru Lior Lev Sercarz. The result is a highly fragrant doughnut, with cocoa-driven depths of flavor and unexpected savory notes, that's hauntingly delicious. -Gabriella Gershenson
    Federal Donuts
    1219 South 2nd St.
    tel: 267/687-8258

    3. Housemade Burrata at Rittenhouse Tavern

    There's a lot of good dairy to be had in Philly: the city's markets and restaurant menus are full to overflowing with the rich product of Amish-country cows, pressed into service as cream, yogurt, milk, or cheese. But the burrata on offer at Rittenhouse Tavern, a relatively young restaurant picturesquely situated in the back half of the historic Wetherill Mansion off tony Rittenhouse Square, is a pinnacle of lactic achievement. Each alabaster sphere is pulled to order, served within minutes of its making: chewy mozzarella exteriors giving way to centers filled with sweet, airy panna so creamy it verges on the obscene. A grind of pepper and a few slivers of seasonal fruit are a simple, perfect garnish.
    Rittenhouse Tavern
    251 South 18th St.
    Philadelphia Art Alliance
    tel: 215/732-2412


    Visiting a summer farmers market in Philadelphia is an experience in itself: exuberant produce, gorgeous eggs and baked goods, fresh meat from west of town and fish from just east. But it's hot work, marveling over the goods on offer with a camera slung around your neck, and a frosty swig of fresh, yeasty, naturally-carbonated root beer does a body good. A two-dollar, twelve-ounce bottle from Quarryville's Jandamp;E Homemade is fizzily herbaceous, not too sweet, and-in the grand tradition of natural root beers-vaguely medicinal.
    Jandamp;E Homemade Drinks
    Hilltop Produce Stand
    Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market
    Tuesdays and Saturdays


    This is one of the best gelatos you can eat, period. Though Capogiro tempts with dozens of flavors, many seasonal, all made fresh each morning from local ingredients ("if the ingredient grows near Philadelphia," clarifies co-owner Stephanie Reitano), the Thai coconut gelato has the benefit of being one of a few varieties available all year long. It also happens to be stupendously creamy, made from Thai coconut milk and the butterfat-rich milk of pastured Ayrshire cattle, and is so true to its flavor as to be uncanny. In other words, this is one incomparable scoop. -GG
    Capogiro Gelato Artisans
    Multiple locations
    tel: 215/351-0900

    6. Tilapia Burrito at Cucina Zapata

    It sounds like a cross between a stoner fantasy and a publicity stunt: a Thai-Mexican fusion food truck serving Cap'n Crunch fish tacos. But this foil-wrapped concoction, served up by Robert Zapata from his graffiti-covered mobile kitchen, really works. The cereal, crushed and used as breading for the tilapia, has a honeyed sweetness that lends a bright note to the pileup of flavors, and it keeps its namesake crunch even under a mountain of red cabbage, cilantro-laced pico de gallo, and avocado, all of it dressed in a spicy peanut sauce. "Remember when you were like, Damn, I could go for some Thai food in a taco," the truck asks in its Twitter bio, and then preempts your polite response: "Well, here it is. You're welcome." Seriously, thank you.
    Cucina Zapata
    Mobile location

    Pictured above: Paesano's; Jandamp;E root beer; Capogiro Gelato; Rittenhouse Tavern (image courtesy of Rittenhouse Tavern); Federal Donuts

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  • 08/07/12--09:00: Introducing Room Service
  • Introducing Room Service: SAVEUR's World-Wide Guide to Hotels-photo One of the best things about working at SAVEUR is that we get to travel a lot, which has meant, among other things, staying at innumerable hotels over the years, many of which have surprised and thrilled us with their beauty, genuine hospitality, and unforgettable food. Here, for the first time, you'll find a guide to our favorite hotels all over the world, from inns in the Maine countryside to glittering towers in Mexico City to grand old palaces in Paris. (And, assuming you'll eventually tear yourself away from your room, we've also included our picks of things to do-and eat-in the area.)

    We're kicking off this section of the site with fifteen exceptional hotels that have, in the course of our travels, stood out as among the very best. We'll be constantly adding more to the list, building a database of places perfect for the food-minded traveler to rest his or her head. Welcome to Room Service!

    Go to the Room Service hotel guide homepage »

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    The women of the Tlapaltotoli Daniel family, natives of Cholula, a town near Puebla, are masters of mole, but they're also skilled in the deceptively simple art of tortilla-making. Working together, mother and daughters boil corn with slake lime to get it ready for milling; they then work fresh-milled corn into dough, form it into tortillas, and cook them on the comal to the precise moment of perfection.

    See a step-by-step guide to making fresh tortillas in the gallery »
    Read about the importance of tortillas to Mexican cooking »

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  • 08/14/12--09:00: Viva Cantina
  • Cantina-photo
    by Michael Parker-Stainback
    "Be sure to go into every cantina you can," a wise local friend advised when I moved to Mexico City in 2007. There are bars and lounges, but a neighborhood cantina is another sort of watering hole: over lit, rarely crowded, never impeccable, but nonetheless endearing. Interiors range from scratched-up mahogany banquettes and crumbling Gilded Age filigree to blaring TVs and plastic furnishings-sometimes all of this at once. Though all are welcome (boys club holdouts barred women until 1982), a laconic, masculinity permeates, at least until patrons start braying off-key torch songs. Beyond these similarities, you could say there's a different joint for every taste.

    Though cantinas are known best for drinking, one fantastic benefit is that, in the afternoon, every beer, soda, or shot you order gets you something from the kitchen-gratis. The best cantinas have a real cook who serves up three or four rotating dishes, typically stick-to-your-ribs, pyrotechnically seasoned "peasant" fare that can range from savory pork-and-hominy pozole to a chicken leg doused in tangy salsa verde, or fish served Veracruzan-style, in a tomato, pepper, and olive ragù. The idea is to ply customers with spicy, salty dishes that keep them drinking.

    My corner cantina, La Dominica, in Mexico City's ancient downtown, does not attract a soigné crowd, but receives me like a VIP. I pop in for tequila and their excellent turkey torta, a generous sandwich complete with perfect avocado and three-alarm chiles. There's another place I like, Bar Sella, in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood, for their chamorro: pork shank on the bone in caveman portions, greasy and marvelous, served to a mixed clientele of working stiffs and neighborhood families. Then there's the dive out by the bus depot, Ardalio, whose Sunday specialty is barbecued goat; or the art deco relic, Salón París, that serves an enormous plate of carnitas-pan-fried pork chunks eaten with fresh tortillas and lots of guacamole; or the lodge for Spanish exiles, Covadonga, shared by domino-slamming regulars and, lately, hipsters, who tear into runny potato omelets known as a tortillas españolas.

    For me, Mexico City's gritty cantinas are a sublime affair. With earthy grace, they weave themselves into the everyday life of this raffishly elegant, sometimes terrible metropolis, with food and drink at the ready.


    La Dominica
    Belisario Domínguez 61
    Distrito Federal

    Bar Sella
    Dr. Balmis 210
    Colonia Doctores

    Jose Maria Vigil 57
    Distrito Federal

    Salón París
    Jaime Torres Bodet 152
    Colonia Santa María La Ribera

    Puebla 121
    Distrito Federal

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