There are 450 restaurants listed in San Miguel. That number doesn’t include the small food stalls found on many corners, or home kitchens from which cooks sell and deliver their specialty dishes like smoked salmon, Japanese dumplings, wantons and perogies. I became addicted to Danny’s rotisserie chicken a few blocks away, by far the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever tasted. Home-made mole sauce can be bought at a health food market, and freshly baked breads, cakes and cookies are readily available at amazing bakeries. Jack is in heaven.
In the States at our house I did most of the cooking, except for quick dishes that Jack made.
But when we moved to Mexico, I wasn’t interested in making the recipes I used to
prepare. I wanted to sample new ingredients and dishes. It felt presumptious of me to attempt to make Mexican dishes at our house when I was surrounded by real Mexican cooks who used traditional recipes that had been handed down to them from past generations. Candida gave me my first lesson in making pesole, but nothing was written down, and all explanations were in Spanish, which meant I understood only smatterings of what she said. After watching her make it, I never tried making pesole on my own, although my friends Sheila and Sara tried many of her recipes. They lived with Candida and her husband Jose for three months went shopping and cooked many meals with her. Day by day they truly learned the techniques that I merely observed but never helped prepare. Sara, an architect by training, and an artistic creative person, made illustrations of every recipe Candida taught, so every ingredient was captured without necessarily knowing its name as she learned
Now that I’ve eaten at many of San Miguel’s restaurants and eaten at Candida’s home several times, I know the meals that most appeal to me, and I have now made them at home: chilaquiles for Jack, chillies rellenos for lunch or dinner, and a delicious chicken and farm vegetable cazuela that I love. I am back having fun in the kitchen.
But there are some dishes that are beyond me and that I will never try to make. Yesterday, for example, Candida and Jose introduced us to barbacoa. Barbacoa can be found all over Mexico, and though the root word for the dish is the same as the English word bar-b-que, there is no similarity in taste between those two dishes. Our first experience of the dish was at a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant with only two tables that is next door to our friends’ house. It is so non-descript that it doesn’t even have a sign out front or have a menu for you to look at once you sit down. People go there for one thing only. Barbacoa. And now I know why it’s so popular and such a specialized item. Barbacoa is a style of slow-cooking meat, sheep or goat wrapped in maguey leaves, placed in an underground oven, then steam-baked for eight to ten hours. It was served to us yesterday family-style, with a heaping portion of the meat on a piece of aluminum paper set on the table next to bowls of hot salsa, lime, cilantro and onion, and stacks of tortillas, plus a side order of consomme. We made our own individual tacos, adding as much of each ingredient as we liked.
The restaurant is one of several others owned by the Rodriguez family, the parents and their nine children and grandchildren. When the restaurant closes at two o’clock they go home and begin to prepare the meat wrapped in marguey leaves, which will cook all night long. In the morning they’ll bring the tender meat, shred it and put it into into an enormous vat of sauce with herbs and spices, cooking it until it is ready to eat. Everyone in the family works for the restaurant, even the youngest grandchild who is four years old. She is the dish-washer and she takes her work seriously, doing each step as she has been taught. When she finishes the last dish, her father hands her a few coins and some ice-cream on a stick, which is her pay. She gladly eats the ice-cream, but seems most happy just to be part of the family enterprise, I’m delighted to know where to find them. We’ll go back to the restaurant when my son, Stephen, comes to visit in two more weeks. He won’t even have to wash the dishes.