A cooking adventure at home: Beef Empanadas

I have been a fool. I have been passing the pandemic in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, counting the days until I can return to my food adventures around Mexico. There is still so much to learn, and time is wasting. Even as I delight in the bounty of land and sea that we enjoy on this peaky spit between shores, I have yearned for something new. As I work through a dozen fleshy oysters sweet with Pacific liquor, I wonder what treasures await me in Veracruz, Hermosillo, or San Luis Potosi. While excavating chocolate clams from their sandy enclave to make molten stuffed clams, I fixate on pre-Hispanic treats I have only read about in books. While grilling monkfish tail over mesquite coals, I imagine the food stalls of Oaxaca heaped with vibrant fruit flesh and seemingly innocent looking chiles, each waiting in turn to titillate and torture my taste buds. I impatiently take solace in the fact that these far away jewels in the culinary crown of Mexico have remained through millennia, so another year out of reach is not likely to see their extinction.

It took only an invitation and one afternoon to completely correct my misplaced longings. My friend, Ariel Ruiz, is the son of a long-established Todos Santeño family. On occasion, he has raved about his mother’s empanadas being unmatched. So, when I heard that she would be making them, I hinted and prodded in a shameless spectacle of wanting until he graciously invited me to join them. Sure, I have made empanadas before and they have always been well received. What is not to like about a hot pocket of meaty goodness? But I have always felt that they fall close to the line that divides “worth the effort” from “meh” because the effort is substantial. I would learn that the empanadas of the Ruiz home, although not for the casual cook, are miles from meh.

I have luxurious kitchens, well-equipped and custom-designed to my cooking preferences. But, in recent months, I have become deeply envious of the outdoor, wood-fired kitchens common in Todos Santos. I find myself wanting to trade in my Viking stove for an expansive brick-based grill. What can my granite composite sink accomplish that a bucket with hose water cannot? Spilled something, not a problem! Dropped food, it matters not! Not to mention the obvious advantages for outdoor social distancing in the times of COVID. While we worked in the open air kitchen, children circled, snatching bits of chopped beef from their grandmother’s cutting board. Three curious cats, Guantes, Panchita, and Simon, patrolled the patio assessing the physics of scraps falling to the concrete floor. And Toey, a burly black lab mutt, hoovered his way past our legs on regular intervals, lifting his vacuum snout only to sniff into the air for a hint of what was yet to come.

When I arrived, the fire was high on the grill and the matron of the family, Esperanza, was well in motion chopping chunks of the beef that had been cooked in a large pot of water over the fire with bay leaves, cloves, garlic, and salt. I could see by surveilling the scene that she has already charred chiles, prepared the meat, and sliced peeled potatoes into thick sticks. I admired the tiny woman, standing only a few inches above her 10-year-old granddaughter. A shock of pure white hair tied up in back, framed a kind face lined with the topography that only comes from the joys and trials of raising children. She wasted no time finding a job for me. I peeled, seeded, and cut the poblano chiles that had been blackened on the fire and were resting in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, Esperanza liquified California chile peppers with a little of the beef stock (jugo) still simmering over the coals. This produced a brilliantly colored red-orange sauce that, to my surprise, did not taste like much.

Next, an immense sauté pan blacked from use but with a shining metal interior went on the fire. Esperanza scooped in a large glob of lard which melted in seconds. An eyeballed amount of flour went into the hot oil as she continually stirred the mixture. Ahhh, I thought, we are making a roux! As it thickened and bubbled, giving off a toasted cracker scent, she stirred ceaselessly, the shush of the metal spoon on the slick bottom of the pan offering a rhythm to the sporadic crackling of the fire.

Suddenly, with no perceptible change that I could report, she declared the roux ready to receive the blended chile mixture. In it went, reserving a bit for some future undisclosed mission, with a healthy amount of black pepper, two cubes of beef consume, and ample salt. We can debate the culinary merits of powdered consume but, in my experience, few favorites of the Mexican home cook reach the table without its savory embellishment. Feeling too much the spectator, I took over the relentless stirring duty until it was deemed the right moment to add the chopped beef. The result was a thick and richly flavorful filling unlike any of the empanada fillings I have ever concocted.

Esperanza’s daughter, Zonia, arrived just in time to take on the dough. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is where we separate the wheat from the chaff. If you are not willing to engage in 30 minutes of relentless hand-to-dough combat, better to leave this to those who have the necessary stamina. Into a large bowl of flour went the better part of a large tube of lard, which was rapidly cut into the flour by Zonia’s lightning fast fingers. The mixture was moistened and tinted orange by the addition of some remaining chile liquid. Then the fun began.

Zonia worked that dough like a boss! The 4-pound mass was stretched, turned, folded, and beaten into submission, slowly becoming perfectly consistent and elastic under her command. I studied Zonia’s technique as she tore through the dough like it was pillowy ciabatta. Esperanza felt I should have a turn. In hindsight, it is possible that she needed a chuckle after several hours in the kitchen. So, I stepped up to the counter ready to rumble, my chest puffed, and hands poised like bear claws at the ready. However, I severely underestimated my adversary. Its stubborn gluten fought my futile efforts. After 10 minutes, I was sweaty and panting. I stared at my opponent and I knew I had been beaten. The blob’s break was over, and it went back into the ring with Zonia where, after one last thrashing, she put it down for the count.

As the defeated ball rest in peace under a dish towel, I saw that Esperanza was bellied up to the fire, frying the potatoes in oil. Batch after batch, golden brown fries emerged from the oil until, at last, everything was ready for empanada fabrication!

Esperanza began to squeeze little globs of the dough up through her two fists, pinching off a perfectly sized (think racquetball) orb of dough and placing it in a large metal bowl. One ball after another lined the bowl until the parent mass was gone. The next task was to convert these tense little balls into thin 6- inch rounds. How hard could that be, right? But damned if that dough, now strewn about in 50 pieces, was not as strong as ever. Zonia relied on a small rolling pin to achieve the aim. Esperanza did little more than pinch the ball into a disc and then slapped the disc back and forth between her open palms to form a perfectly proportioned crust. I stared at the immutable ball in my hands that would neither roll, pinch, nor slap substantially from its present shape. The minute I stopped rolling over the dough, it shrank to half its prescribed size, defiant and mocking. Having been beaten once already by this foe, I did what any sound cook would do. I left the task to the experts and turned my attention to sealing empanadas.

Night had fallen over the patio as family members began to arrive and align around the outer edge of the patio in plastic chairs. Ariel placed a shop light over the work area to keep the process moving. Bathed in fluorescent light, we placed a large spoonful of meat mixture, a potato stick, a slice of roasted chile, and one green olive with pimento atop each round. One side of the round was lifted up and over the mound to meet its mirrored edge. With a deftness of hand known only by vascular surgeons and concert pianists, the ladies demonstrated the proper technique to press and twist the edge into a tight yet decorative seal. While I admit that my first effort lacked sophistication, I defended its virtuosity on a purely functional basis. But soon, my fingers learned the pacing and path to a perfect corded edge. I welled with pride, much to the amusement of my seasoned cooking companions.

The fire was stoked with wrist thin limbs to bring a large shallow pan of oil to deep frying temperature. Three at a time, the empanadas slid into the bubbling oil, billowing up to a thin, golden, crisp crust. There was not a hint of doughy-ness left when the hot packets were lifted from the oil into brazen, eagerly-waiting hands of the hungry crowd. One might think of the filling as the star of an empanada but, now having experienced the perfect crust, I think not. At the highest level of the art, crust and filling offer a duet of melodious textures and flavors punctuated, not penetrated, by a lone green olive. It was empanada perfection.

That night, surrounded by family, albeit not my own, and partaking in as authentic a Mexican meal as can be found across the country, I realized the error of my ways. The culinary wonder of a place is not defined by its markets, nor dictated by restaurant menus but rather, it is held within the hearts and minds of excellent Mexican cooks who learned at home and continue to delight the people they love with mouth-watering hospitality.

When a quick bite becomes a bottle of mezcal.

What was supposed to be a quick lunch before hitting the International book fair, turned into a 6-hour Oaxaqueña feast at Casa Nela in downtown Mexico City. Passing through the little market at street level, my friend Chef Carlo Melendez, led the way up a steep spiral staircase into the cozy dining room/kitchen of this homey establishment. We snagged a table in the window, perfect for watching the Sunday afternoon crowd passing by with ice cream cones on family outings.

The first order of business was to try tejate, a pre-hispanic cold beverage made with corn, white cocoa beans, mamey seeds, corozo palm fruits, cocoa flowers and sugar. As is the case with many pre-hispanic preparations, this one is a labor of love that involves grinding corn, toasting the seeds and fruit on a comal, pulverizing the toasted ingredients, and slowing mixing with water by hand  to achieve the ideal texture and foamy cap. Kept ice cold, the tejate is served in jicara, hand-painted gourde cups. The oils from the cocoa solidify and float on the surface. It is delicious, not too sweet, and very refreshing.

Next up, we shared the “Tlayuda del Patron” stuffed with tasajo (dried beef), enchilada (chile marinated pork), chorizo and cheese between thin crisp, charred tortillas. It was the largest tlayuda I have ever seen and especially impressive for $115 pesos (<$6 USD). We ordered some chapulines (grasshoppers) to add extra tang and crunch. And, because you should never pass up a mole in a Oaxaqueña restaurant we enjoyed the pork spine and vegetables in green mole. Not a drop remained.

For proper digestion we ask about the mezcal options and in the ecstasy of eating, the $300p bottle seemed the prudent choice over a mere caballito (shot glass) each. Indeed, as we ate and talked, the bottle seemed to evaporate. We watched the workers begin closing down and cleaning up making us realize how long we’d been seated in our little perch. We capped the bit of remaining clear liquid in the bottle so as to depart with a shred of respectability.


Alaia: Where Mexico City Indulges in the Flavors of Spain

As I stepped into the atrium dining room of Alaia, the creation of chef-entrepreneur Alberto Ituarte, the memory of my one previous visit—more than 6 years ago—washed over me. The restaurant is formal by definition, with white linens and coated servers, but it felt like coming home. It is neither hipster nor avant garde, but rather the sort of restaurant where well-to-do families and groups of elder friends gather for special occasions. A steward of the cuisines of the Iberian Peninsula, for the past 17 years, Alaia has maintained an exacting standard when it comes to the traditional flavors one expects from the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Castile. Presentations are thoughtful and memorable but the success of the establishment rests in their flavorful, quality ingredients and highly talented kitchen led by Chef Israel Aretxiga.

The Alaia dining room.

This meal calls for celebratory bubbles.

On this particular evening, a light rain spattered on the glass beside our table. Wind sent the lush greenery outside undulating and a gray sky accentuated the warmth within the restaurant. Just as a bottle of cava (Torello 225 Brut Nature Gran Reserva) arrived at the table, Chef Israel emerged from the kitchen to greet my dinner companion, Carlos Ramirez Roure, and me. We sat together sipping the extraordinary bubbles from a small production family vineyard near Barcelona as the men caught up on recent happenings. Before departing, Chef Israel asked if I was hungry and if I eat everything. Carlos’ laughter was enough to answer the question.

And so it began with three small bites: a Serrano ham croquette, molten inside and seated on a perfect aioli, a classic pan y tomate (tomato toast) with bonito and anchovy, and a brioche topped with foie gras.

Serrano ham croquette

Pan y tomate.

Brioche topped with foie gras.

To accompany the next dishes, Chef sent us a bottle of Alonso de Yerro “Maria”. This 100% Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero is everything I love about Spanish reds. The aroma jumped from the glass with this full-bodied beauty, teeing up the next dish, piquillo peppers stuffed with a brandade of crab and smothered in a thick, velvety pepper sauce. Especially for my Catalan companion, we received grilled octopus in Romesco sauce with confit potatoes.

Stuffed piquillo peppers.

Grilled octopus in Romesco sauce.

For the next course, Chef Israel appeared to grate a bit of white truffle over our savory oxtail raviolis. Yet no dish demonstrated the immense talent of the Alaia kitchen better than the rice in ink with lobster. The ink sauce was impeccable and the rice held a satisfying firmness at the center, as it should but rarely does. Though we could have stopped, I could not pass up the opportunity for a final entree of roasted suckling pig. The meat, soft and unctuous, hid under a golden lacquered skin and a green salad in simple vinaigrette balanced the richness. Nothing remained but a scattered pile of clean rib bones.

Chef Israel Aretxiga

Savory oxtail raviolis.

Rice in ink with lobster.

Roasted suckling pig.

Because eating more was a near impossibility and Carlos knows my stance on dessert, we finished with a small plate of young Idiazabal cheese from the Basque country and two glasses of Patxaran on ice.

Cheese course.

When we finally relinquished our seats to depart, the rain had passed leaving a calm, cool night. The flavors had triggered great longing for a stroll along the river in San Sebastian. I could imagine the street lights reflecting on the calm surface of the water. But, in my profoundly satiated state, I gladly settled for the constant stream of Mexico City traffic.

Eloise Chic Cuisine: A Romance

Before I relocate from my high-class accommodations in San Jose Insurgentes to a more bohemian existence in San Miguel Chapultepec, I needed visit one of the gems of the South, Eloise Chic Cuisine. Often lauded for its comfort food, Chef Abel Hernandez has a knack for creating unpretentious continental cuisine true to its roots in concepts like Loretta, Eloise, and Margaret. I visited Loretta last March with Chef Carlos Gaytan, so my expectations were high.

Arriving at Eloise Chic Cuisine.

Within Eloise, the space is warm but sophisticated in a palette of black, gray white, and dark wood. Dining alone, the charming maitre d’, Norman, greeted me warmly and seated me in the alcove to the left of the main dining room. Positioned under the restaurant’s only chandelier at a table for four, I felt a bit the spectacle. But, the vantage point provided me with a view of the service in action.

I asked for a glass of Cava and while waiting for the bubbles to arrive, I enjoyed the restaurant’s soundtrack. It was a toe-tapping collection of singable remakes by jazzy female artists. “Tainted Love” was being crooned in a smokey lounge voice. It hit the spot and set a relaxed tone for the meal.

Beside me, a young couple celebrating a birthday were completing an early dinner. A bouquet of flowers rested on the table and Norman arrived with a dessert for the occasion. The couple smiled and blushed at the fuss. It was a sweet reminder the role restaurants play in the celebrations of life.

Moments later, his well-wishing duties complete, Norman returned with my bubbles. In fact, he served most of my courses throughout the night, kindly engaging me in polite but not forced conversation. As we chatted, a server placed the bread basket before me. I’m certain that neither man had ever encountered a more enthusiastic reception of sliced bread. Eloise is one of many restaurants that serve the bread I have been learning to bake at Sucre i Cacao. I gleefully tested the wares of the day’s work with keen appreciation for the perfectly elastic crumb and crisp crust. There was a composed butter with peppercorns, hazelnuts nut, and orange but in this rare case- I indulged proudly in the purity of the well-crafted bread.

A sampling of breads baked at Sucre i Cacao by yours truly!

I began my meal with a ample portion of beef tartare. The seasoned beef, packing flavorful notes of mustard and capers, with just a hint of truffle oil, was presented with a custard-like low temperature egg yolk, micro-greens, and grilled bread.

Beef tartare with low-temperature egg yolk.

Next, I ordered the cream of mussel soup to see how it would compare with my all-time favorite from Dobson’s in San Diego. Indeed, the recipe was superb, with just a sprinkle of fine herbs and the faint flavors of fennel and Pernod. I had asked for the smaller portion anticipating the coming food coma, but I regretted my prudence with each spoonful of the delicious bisque.

Cream of mussel soup poured table side.

My finale was duck breast with lentils. It was the homiest of homey preparations. The duck was perfectly rendered to a crisp and laid on a bed of pureed potato loaded with butter and cream, Robuchon-style, and surrounded by lentils prepared in a savory red wine sauce to the ideal consistency—truly a talent, as anyone who cooks with lentils knows. Pea shoots and potato crisps completed the dish.

A soul-satisfying dish of duck breast, potatoes, and lentils.

Between ecstatic bites, I noticed another patron enter carrying a dozen red roses. He judiciously turned down two possible locations before settling in the main lower dining room and awaiting his companion. Clearly, Eloise has a reputation for romance, one which this gentleman had carefully selected by design. Indeed, although unaccompanied, I was compelled to make eyes at my dishes, cherish the wine on my lips, and was aware of the rosy flush of my cheeks after such a wanton indulgence.

As I finished my final dish, I contemplated a digestif. As if clairvoyant, Norman arrived with the gift flute of Cava. It was a lovely gesture to end a beautiful romance.

The Eloise lower dining room.

Fonda Fina: A Paradox Perfected

I have been feeling blue since I had to skip my flight home and remain in immigration purgatory. But, for me, there is one sure cure for the blues. So after several days of laying low, I headed for a restaurant that I have been wanting to try since it opened, Fonda Fina. The name implies a paradox. A fonda is a cheap place to eat, but in this case, elevated in a fina (fine) way. Indeed, relative to the neighboring restaurants in Roma and Condesa, Fonda Fina’s $10-15 US price per dish is reasonable and, if reputation holds, it is known to deliver in a truly fine fashion.

Backed by Chef Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil fame, Fonda Fina was created to showcase for the talent of Chef Juan Cabrera Barrón. Cabrera could never be accused of casual success. He is a graduate of Gastronomy from the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana in Mexico City, and graduated as a Pastry Chef from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Along the way, he also picked up his Sommelier credentials from the University of Tepeyac. Although he had worked in some of the world’s finest restaurants and appeared on Top Chef Mexico, he first caught my attention with his restaurant, Los Compas, in Tijuana.

But, feeling a prisoner of my own sentencing, I decided to lift my spirits with a visit to the North Roma restaurant. My Metrobus card was burning a hole in my pocket, so I dolled out the 7 pesos (37 cents) and headed North. By my calculations, I saved approximately $8 on an Uber ride so I was entitled to an extra beverage with dinner. Sadly, I learned that Chef Cabrera would not be at the restaurant because he is opening a new place in Queretaro, Fonda Independencia. Via text, I teased him that the best time to evaluate a restaurant is when the chef is away, and he agreed whole heartedly with a laugh but exuded confidence in his team.

The warm and welcoming dining room at Fonda Fina.

Arriving in Fonda Fina I was struck by the warmth of the space. Wooden tables and thatched chairs create a farmhouse feel. The rain had started and I settled into the coziness, perusing the drink list. Wanting to celebrate of my maiden solo voyage on public transit, I ordered a tequila cocktail with lime juice, mint, and Damiana (a liqueur from Baja). It came with a whimsical pinwheel of celery and pear slices. Decorative vitamins, in my book.

“La Perla.” A pinwheel of pear slices propped up on a celery stick, embellished a cocktail common in Baja California Sur.

The menu read like my sweetest dreams. There were, of course, seafood options and salads but the bulk of the offering veered toward savory, slow cooked meats. You name it, it was there. Lamb barbacoa, confit chamorro (pork shank), a stew of beef tongue, rabbit and, of course, steaks and chicken dishes. I reviewed the provided details of the preparations and I admit that I began to grow skeptical. Often, when a chef tries to incorporate multi-regional influences in a single menu, the execution falls flat. On the menu, I saw a recado negro sauce from the Yucatan, multiple preparations from Oaxaca, a Sinaloa-style aguachile, and an adobo in the style of Hidalgo, among other elements. Still, hardly able to contain myself, I started with a small basket of tacos de canasta de lechon (steamed tacos of suckling pig), seasoned with adobo (a thick sauce made from ground chiles and spices) and accompanied by a Yucateco-style pico de gallo of spicy, pickled red onion. The rich meat and piquant topping delivered a spectrum of flavors in the way a symphony delivers sound.

Sudados de Lechon. Small tacos de canasta (steamed) with suckling pig and a red adobo sauce.

Spicy pickled red onion completes the perfect bite.

Next up, one of my favorites, bone marrow. Three huge roasted marrow bones, planed through the middle, arrived at the table with a thin crackling across each surface. Breaking through with a small spoon, I found molten marrow begging for a tortilla ride to my mouth. But, better than a tortilla, Chef accompanied the bone nectar with tetelas (small triangular blue corn cakes) topped with a rustic pate of beef cheek. With a spoonful of marrow, and a bit of fresh herb, the bite was spectacular.

Oven roasted bone marrow with tetelas of blue corn topped with beef cheeks.

I ordered a mezcal and, in honor of the classic Mexican dish that I have only recently come to know, tostadas de pata, I asked to try Chef Cabrera’s version. It was vastly different than the common pile of cubed beef foot, lettuce, cheese and cream. Presented like an aquachile, thin sheets of marinated foot and cueritos (pig skin) mingled with fresh verdolagas, radish, mustard seeds, and a few individual beans resting like black pearls on the plate, in a clean vinaigrette of lime and garlic. The dish was perfectly timed in my self-directed tasting menu as a palate cleanser after the unctuous marrow bones. Not a bit remained on the plate, but for a few mustard seeds too unruly to trap with my fork.

Mezcal with orange slices and grasshopper salt.

“Tostadas” of vinegar and chile-marinated beef foot and pig skin. Tostadas were provided but utterly unnecessary.

The anchor leg of the meal was a cazuela (stew) of silky rabbit meat slow cooked in an intensely flavored broth similar to barbacoa. It was scented with avocado leaves, pluque (a fermented, mildly alcoholic beverage made from the sap of the maguey plant) and toasted garlic. The stew included large kernels of hominy, hearty bites of cauliflower, and soft threads of onion. It should not have been physically possible after my earlier indulgences, but I finished the stew with ease.

Cazuela de conejo (rabbit stew) in a rich barbacoa-style broth.

As I drained my mezcal cup, I watched a group of Millennial Americans take the long table by the door. They read over the menu excitedly asking each other questions. One of the boys asked provocatively, “Should we try grasshoppers?” to which the girls replied in unison, “Ewwww, no!” They had no idea the wealth of gastronomic opportunity Chef Cabrera has created in this one menu. In an evening, they could taste the flavors of Mexico, in exceptionally well executed interpretations of the traditional dishes. I wanted to coach them with a wikipedia-like crash course in all things delicious, but I refrained. Instead, on my way out, carrying a small container of tacos and tetelas, I stopped briefly at the head of their table. They looked up at the stranger quizzically and I said, in my most encouraging voice, “You SHOULD try the grasshoppers.”

Walking through the neighborhood, satiated and still turning flavors around in my mind, I saw a dog, soaked through by rain, shivering in the bushes of a small park. She had a rope around her neck, which she had obviously chewed through to achieve her sad state of freedom. Although she was far to timid to come to me, the aromas wafting from my leftovers lured her out of the bushes. She was cold, wet, and alone but she ate like a queen until nothing was left and I was all too happy to share the experience.

An unlikely dinner companion who is, no doubt, a huge fan of Chef Cabrera now.

Two heads are better than one

As they say, two heads are better than one. So, imagine the goodness derived from dozens of heads each contributing their best assets to a cause. Powerful, right? In this case, I’m talking about decapitated riches contributing mouth-watering, slow-cooked, morsels of cheek, tongue, brain, and, yes, even eyes. If you aren’t feeling the love, you are not alone. Until the 1930s, the love affair of Mexico’s people for the Spanish gift of beef ceased above the neck. Mexicans had long embraced the offal gems of bovine anatomy, finding delicious uses for hearts, livers, intestine, lungs and even testicles. But, they showed little interest in the meaty bits on and in the animal’s skull.

According to historian José Ascensión Velázquez Hernández, an industrious young man from Santiaguito de Velázquez, Jalisco, changed all that, turning waste into a modern-day treasure, tacos de cabeza (head tacos). While his countryman found little charm in tongues and brains, the market for bones was booming. So, José Hernández Villalpando, known as Chapo, was laboriously ridding cow craniums of meaty bits to sell the bones until, in a fortuitous twist of fate, these bits became taco filling. In that moment, surely sonorous harmony could be heard as the angels in heaven sang on high.

By 1936, Chapo and his buddy Funda, established the first known outlet for tacos de cabeza in Mexico. From four or five heads a day, the men sold 200 tacos at five cents each, forever changing the value proposition of cow heads in Mexico. For the past 80 years, the inhabitants of Santiaguito de Velázquez, the cradle of tacos de cabeza, have taken their babies throughout Mexico and the United States. I would like to credit Chapo for having inspired the owner of San Diego’s new head-centric eatery, De Cabeza in Chula Vista.

A brave concept in Chula Vista is bringing back the wasted bits.

De Cabeza is making the gutsy move of showcasing the succulence of peri-cranial carne for an American audience, albeit largely Mexican immigrants and Chicanos. The menu features tacos of head meat (maciza) not to be confused with another offering, seso (brain). There is also cachete (cheek), lengua (tongue), ojos (eyes) and surtido (a mixture of these meats). You can opt for an “alambre” presentation of your head booty sautéed with onion, peppers and bacon. And one would be remiss to overlook the rich consommé broth or to pass up at least one quesotaco in which the tortilla is replaced with a wrapper of crispy grilled Monterrey Jack cheese.

A simple head-forward menu also offers treats such as green chorizo.

The classic combo of tacos and a bowl of consommé.

I ordered up a sampler platter of five tacos: mixed-meats, brain, eyes, tongue and cheek. The mixed meats were savory and rich. The brain was mildly flavored and the perfect conduit of a delicious green salsa. The eyes, which are in short supply for obviously reasons, were similar to bone marrow in texture and flavor, melting away in their corn blanket. The tongue was meaty, dense, and begging for an onion and cilantro confetti reception. Lastly, because one must always save the best for last, the cheek was beefy perfection, so rich and yielding that I was forced by uncontrollable impulse to order a second cachete quesotaco, an act of sheer gluttony washed down with savory consommé.

Left to right: Mixed meat (maciza), tongue, brain, beef cheek, and eyes.

Head nectar (a.k.a. consommé.)

There are crude jokes too easily made about good head which I will leave to baser folks. Instead, I will contend that cows have more than just a pretty face, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and soon your endorsement of tacos de cabeza will not be made tongue in cheek but, rather, of tongue and cheek.

The Making of Lamb Barbacoa: Superstition, Sacrifice, and Suspense

[Friends, if you are at all sensitive about the preparation and consumption of meat, I respect your position and encourage you to skip this story.]

As a child growing up in Central Michigan, I was raised on a diet of venison, lake fish, and produce from our family farms. We foraged for berries and mushrooms, and cracked walnuts free of their pithy outer bodies on a flat, cool rock with a ball-peen hammer. (Tip: It helps of you drive the tractor tires over the walnuts first.) So, unlike many Americans who live far removed from agricultural production and outdoorsman activities, I never questioned where our food came from.

Still, despite being surrounded by a family of hunters, I have never personally initiated the demise of a creature without scales or shells. Happy to let others hunt, I would eagerly await the arrival of recently departed deer, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys, pheasants, quail and the like. The bagging of a buck, in particular, was an exciting time. From the comfort of my grandparent’s farmhouse, a shot could be heard ringing out across a distant field. Based on the direction of the crack, we would bet on which hunter would soon emerge from the lane to get the tractor and go retrieve their already field-dressed deer.

I close my eyes and can conjure the sensation of passing from the biting cold November wind, into the barn where my father and uncles hung the animal up by the neck and began the laborious task of skinning the hide. The air was thick with the minerality of blood, as sharp knives carved away the loins, rounds, heart, and lesser cuts that would be ground with pork suet to become “hamburger”, homemade sausage and jerky. The deer killed in those mid-November months would nourish our family for much of the year with delicious, lean protein.

Here in Baja California Sur (BCS), hunting is not a common activity for people in the more populated regions, but the ranch-born connection to domesticated herds is elemental across Mexico. Cattle, goats, and sheep roam the arid but plentiful ranchlands beneath the high peaks of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Their unique flavor can be appreciated daily in the form of tacos, tortas, or rich bowls of consommé served in shops and by street vendors. And, for special occasions, slow-cooked, whole-animal dishes such as barbacoa and birria set the bar for Mexican hospitality and celebration.

Lambs corralled with a view on a small family ranch east of Todos Santos, BCS.

Wanting to understand the culinary tradition and process of making barbacoa, I enlisted the help of Alfredo Sargento and his wife, Rosa. Oaxacan-born and a long-time resident of Puebla, Alfredo began my education by explaining that the creation of Barbacoa is not a spectator sport. He said that morbid curiosity without proper respect would taint the meat. So, if I wanted to learn, I would have to participate beginning with selecting the animal. You can’t argue with superstition so I readied myself for a difficult cooking task long overdue for a meat lover like me—we would sacrifice a lamb the next day.

Early in the morning, my cooking companion and translator, Chef Marina Garnica, and I drove to a small ranch home where we were greeted by a canine welcome crew and a very curious goat family.

A curious kid and his suspicious parents.

We selected a black, 45 kg, short-haired lamb on the sheer basis of size. The rancher’s young son expediently roped and hog-tied her feet so that she could be weighed and placed in the back of Alfredo’s truck. I watched her closely, empathy seeping from my every pore. She was stressed but not struggling or bleating. Her quiet, resigned docility tugged at my unprofessional heart strings.

We arrived at a small ranch in the small village of Pescadero outfitted with an open-air makeshift kitchen under a shady palapa. A 3 feet deep, brick-lined “pib” or underground cooking pit resided just to the side of the small structure.

Our kitchen for the day offered water from a hose, a stone wash basin, a wood fire, and a couple small surfaces for cutting.

This is where the magic happens. One of the earliest methods of ancient cooking, an earth oven, or pib, as the Mayans called it, was the choice method for cooking wild game, iguana, crocodile and the like. It certainly keeps people from sneaking bites before the meal is ready!

Knots had formed in my stomach as the ultimate task drew near. But first, Alfredo showed us how to prepare a large bowl with diced onion, garlic, habanero chile, salt and mint. This aromatic basin would receive the blood from the lamb during the sacrifice and become the foundation of our pancita, a traditional preparation of the organ meats cooked within the animal’s stomach (also referred to as machitos here in BCS).

The time had arrived. Alfredo brought the lamb into an abandoned chicken coop where a wooden pallet rested on the ground under a large shade tree. Still tied at the hooves, he laid her on her side. While he went to retrieve the basin and knife, he asked me to keep a hand on her so that she wouldn’t spook. I squatted by her head and stoked her neck. Her breathing slowed and she relaxed a bit. She was still calm when the knife cleanly entered her neck and pierced her heart. I would like to report that it is a fast process but it is not – it felt like an eternity. She slowly slipped away as the basin filled and we stirred the warm blood to prevent clotting. Then she was gone.

Alfredo was right, sacrifice adds a sanctity to the experience that heightened my desire to learn every step in the greatest possible detail. She had died so that I could learn. I owed her my full attention from skinning her hide to cleansing her meat, preparing her stomach and head, layering flavors, and applying smoky heat until she could be resurrected from the pit in full glory. She should be held on high, as she deserved, by dozens of grateful guests.

We lifted her by a rope to hang from the tree and Alfredo removed the hide in one perfect piece. If I had a place to properly clean and stretch it, I might have kept it. But, alas, her hide went into a small deep hole in the ground with the few parts that would not be eaten: hide, entrails, udder, hooves, esophagus, bile duct, etc. Her lungs, liver, heart and kidneys were placed in a silver bowl.

Nearly every step of the Barbacoa process benefits from multiple hands. It was evident how the communal process of the meal came to be a special ritual for families in which all participated.

With deft hands and years of experience, Alfredo skinned the thin hide from the lamb in just minutes.

We reserved the edible organs for our pancita/machitos.

As Alfredo excised the massive stomach from the lamb, we began the odiferous task of emptying the contents into the waste hole. We thoroughly rinsed the pale yellow, multi-chambered sac, taking special care to clean as much partially-digested food as possible from the terry cloth-like inner lining. Alfredo took exceptional care to grip the wet tissue, explaining that a drop into the dirt would be impossible to fully correct. Still, the disembodied organ in his hands still emitting a distinct funk, didn’t yet resemble anything one would willingly eat. But, where there is a will (and hungry mouths), there is a way.

Preparing the stomach to make pancita/machitos was the single most laborious task in the entire barbacoa process.

Alfredo placed the deflated organ into a bucket with a white slurry of “cal” (chalky white calcium oxide or lime). I waited to see what possible effect a product that I best knew from drawing the base lines on baseball diamonds, could have in de-funking a tummy.

While the stomach bathed in cal, Alfredo thoroughly scrubbed the leg quarters and ribs and placed the pieces into a separate bucket with water, salt, and fresh squeezed lime juice, saying that this process further cleans the meat and removes any foul smells.

Well cleaned quarters of the lamb.

The pieces were submerged for further cleansing.

He then began the tedious task of preparing the head. He explained that the entire first layer of membranes need to be removed from within the lamb’s mouth and tongue. To facilitate this process, the head was parboiled and then scraped, several times. The technique was painstaking and I wondered if it was worth the effort for the small amount of meat rendered from the head. (Spoiler alert: it is worth it.)

Parboiling helped to loosen the membranes for removal.

Painstakingly scraping the mouth and tongue.

Meanwhile, we began to dice up the organ meats, half to go into the stomach to make our pancita and the other half for the consommé. Rosa was busy chopping the ingredients for the large consomme pot: tomato, choyote, cilantro, green beans, carrot, garbanzo beans (previously soaked), and habanero chile.

Heart, lung, liver and kidneys were cleaned and diced.

The vegetable base of a rich consomme.

Checking back on the stomach, I found that indeed, the thick terry cloth lining had turned to mush and could be scraped away from the smooth stomach muscle. After an hour, it was clean and white.

After an hour, the stomach was transformed by col (lime), labor, and patience into a perfect casing.

The stomach was rinsed and than a little lime juice (this time the citrus sort) was added for additional freshening until it was ready to receive the diced organ meats that had been combined with the preserved blood and seasonings. I watched Alfredo dip his finger into the mixture to test the seasoning. I couldn’t imagine how seasoned, uncooked blood, lung and liver would taste so I followed suit, much to the amusement of Rosa. It tasted surprisingly clean, with only the slightest hint of iron. The mint seemed to have worked miracles.

The pancita/machitos ingredients await their transfer into the lamb’s stomach.

Rounding third base, after nearly 5 hours of work, Alfredo started the fire in the pit with some large pieces of wood, giving them plenty of time to become a mound of red hot coals.

Creating the coals.

While the fire raged, he fished the meat from the citrus bath and salted each piece liberally. Next came the critical rub: a loose paste of onion, garlic, and black pepper.

Finally, as the last of the large logs shattered into gray black chards in the bottom of the pit, a flurry of activity began to get the meal into the ground. First went in the consommé pot, directly on the coals. Above the pot, Alfredo placed a metal grate then a layer of banana leaves. Around the edges of the pit he inserted palm leaves. Then he carefully stacked the legs, head and ribs into the center of the leaves directly over the consommé pot – placing a dozen or so fresh avocado leaves among the pieces. In theory, as the meat slowly steam roasts, its juices will drip through the banana leaves into the soup. Lastly the pancita was carefully placed on top of the meat pile.

More banana leaves were piled on top before a corrugated steel cover was placed over the pit, topped with a large piece of cardboard, and buried in dirt. When the shoveling stopped and the dust cloud subsided, it was impossible to know that a culinary transubstantiation was taking place below ground.

And then we waited… for 6 hours.

At 7:00 pm, with a little more than an hour of day light remaining, we brushed the dirt aside and carefully resurrected perfectly cooked, heavenly-scented lamb dripping with juices. So tender, Alfredo struggled to gingerly lift the pieces before they fell to shreds into our awaiting cooler. Unable to contain our enthusiasm, one by one we plunged our fingers into the much too hot meat and reveled in the unctuous goodness while soothing our burning fingers in our mouths. The avocado leaves had permeated the lamb with a perfume that reminded me of tarragon and a hint of anise flavor. Bright white bones could be pulled from the mound, clean as a whistle. The tongue, about the size of a Snickers bar, rested in the lower jaw, goading me. It lifted effortlessly from the bone and became a ranking member on my “most succulent bites in life” list – without salsa, toppings or tortilla.

The last thing to emerge from the pit was the large pot of consommé, transformed into a dark pool. The brightly colored diced vegetable that had been afloat when interred, reemerged as soft conduits of rich, savory stock. Alfredo dipped a spoon into the dark broth for a sip. A quiet and very satisfied expression, “puta madre” escaped his lips. This colorful, but affirmative expletive was a very good sign.

Alfredo tests the consommé, pleased with his results.

As night fell, our guests began to arrive at “Dos Bajas”, the unique property of friend and gourmand, Wicho Poncho Lopez. We prepared an al fresco dining room beneath the lacy leaves of a tree. In true family style, we plunged fresh corn tortillas, still warm from the shop, into the steaming meat, pinching off a taco load and drizzling it with salsa. Guest after guest cocked their heads to the side to taste our day’s labor. The tacos were accompanied only by a tangy nopal salad studded with crumbles of cotija cheese and the consommé. Oh, the consommé, puta madre indeed! I would not be exaggerating to say that it was among the best I have ever had—more complex than the common cup of clear stock harboring a few drowned garbanzo beans. Ours was smoky with a complex flavor stolen from the vegetable menagerie, heated by habanero, and punctuated by the sweet and mineral essence of the offal. We ate to the point of “mal de puerco” (Mexican food coma), enjoying local microbrew from Baja Brewing and Mezcal los Siete Misterios late into the night.

More than 18 hours after arriving at the ranch to collect the star of our barbacoa lesson, I found myself in bed feeling weary but satisfied. Rather than count sheep to drift off to sleep, I gave thanks to just one short-haired, black ewe and I counted the many invaluable things she taught me that will remain with me always.

Discovering the Twin City Taco Trove

Approximately 18 percent of the American population is Hispanic, with about 11 percent being specifically of Mexican descent. As a result, every major city in the US is harboring a taco-trove. Some are brightly adorned, mariachi-infused tourist destinations but others are low-key neighborhood collectives sharing century-old family recipes from every corner of Mexico. In either case, a day of exploration is a day well spent.

This weekend, visiting a dear friend, Christine, from St. Paul, Minnesota, we put my taco-trove theory to the test across the Twin Cities. To start our taco tour, Christine wanted to revisit her childhood taco benchmark from Boca Chica, a landmark with more than 50 years serving the people of St. Paul.

Boca Chica founded in 1964.

The “deep fried flour taco” is a perfect embodiment of the not-so-authentic but coveted tacos of my youth. A flour tortilla is filled with ground, seasoned beef, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and cheddar cheese before a quick frying transforms the tortilla into a crunchy, flaky shell. I grew up with a similar understanding of “taco” in Michigan. However, my family recipe included frying flour tortillas in oil and – believe it or not – dressing the lettuce, tomatoes and cheddar cheese in Wishbone® Italian dressing. Boca Chica was a less tangy, yet delicious, return to my earliest Mexican food memories.

Deep fried flour taco with ground beef.

Next up, Taco Libre delivered a more authentic menu including lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (head meats), tripa (tripe), tinga de pollo, pastor, rajas con crema, and huitlacoche. Owner Adrian Ramirez brought the flavors of Mexico City street food to the Twin Cities in 2015, and has grown the family business to include 4 locations. The signature dish is an 18-inch fried corn tortilla taco called a “machete.” We took the opportunity to do a half-and-half combo of cabeza and barbacoa and loaded up on pepper-packed toppings at the salsa bar while admiring the artistic wrestling motif throughout the store. Discussing our taco mission with an enthusiastic server, we were tipped off to two more taco shops in Minneapolis.

Taco Libre in St. Paul

The 18″ machete with head meats and barbacoa.

First, we made a stop at Nico’s Taco bar on Como. Nestled in a picturesque neighborhood, Nico’s hipster-friendly décor includes Frida Kahlo-inspired art and colorful concrete tiles. Our server was friendly and instrumental in selecting our next 3 victims: Puerco in salsa verde, chipotle shrimp and mixed mushroom. The menu featured 7 salsas alongside its 19 tacos, empowering a plethora of tempting taco pairing possibilities. Unfortunately, the festive décor, attentive service, and flashy toppings couldn’t compensate for underwhelming taco fillings.

The interior of Nico’s Taco Bar creates a festive, casual atmosphere.

A taco trio: Chipolte Shrimp, Puerco en salsa verde and mixed mushrooms.

Lamenting the tummy space lost in vain, we headed to the heart of Minneapolis’ Latino community to peruse Lake Street eateries. We found a cultural melting pot embellished with vibrant street art. We entered Taco Taxi, a small bright yellow shop founded in 2005 by brothers Carlos and Hector Lopez. Family recipes include tacos al pastor and Jalisco-style goat birria so we ordered 2 of each and marveled at how easily they passed our lips into our already satiated, yet doggedly determined bellies. The Lopez brothers delivered intense flavor with quality ingredients at authentically affordable prices.

Taco Taxi on Lake

Goat Birria Taco

Taco al Pastor (marinated roast pork)

A late entry in the taco tour line up was a recommendation from a Mexican chef friend, Dante Vargas. Tacos El Primo is a modest food truck parked in the lot of Lake Laundry. Stepping up on a plastic pallet that barely brought me head-height to the order window, I succumbed to pure gluttony. The day would not be complete without a lengua (beef tongue) nibble and an ice cold Mexican Coca Cola. We sidled up to the sole picnic table under a shade tree, shared with a couple men from the neighborhood, and hashed over the aromas, colors, flavors and hospitality of our expedition.

Tacos El Primo located at Lake Laundry.

Tongue and Coca Cola – a classic combination.

The finale: slow cooked, succulent beef tongue.

I am certain that we only scratched the surface of the Twin City taco-trove. Where there are sons and daughters of Mexico, there is surely succulent meat, fresh herbs, fiery chiles, and warm-hearted service. Explore sabor.

Touchdown at My Mariscos Mecca

I have been remiss. Truly negligent. We often place more value on new experiences, than on the tried and true joys of everyday life. No mas! Few things bring me greater joy than savoring the bounty of the rolling blue expanse surrounding the Baja California peninsula with a cold beer. How have I not told you about this?!

We can debate exactly which altar of Baja seafood is the Cathedral of Mariscos. But in truth, any palapa-style establishment born to proud Paceños in La Paz, BCS, will deliver a sweet-fleshed, still-animate clam to your table in its roomy chocolate brown, half shell home. There is little discernible difference because the ocean prepared the bite with exquisite seasoning, leaving little left for the chef to do. The establishment has only to pry it open, slice the flesh, and provide a wedge of lime.

That said, one such mariscos restaurant in La Paz, Mariscos El Toro Güero, has worn a deep groove in my culinary routine over the years. It is my homecoming parade each time I land on Paceño soil. Every day from 10 am to 8 pm the expansive palapa shades hundreds of locals and few strays like myself. Families celebrate, business men escape the burning sun, and a constant rotation of musicians squeeze their instruments through the narrow aisles soliciting an eager ear.

El Toro Güero, La Paz, BCS

The everyday crowd at 3:30pm.

Along the back of the palapa, the kitchen staff slide heaping helpings of seafood through the pass to more than a dozen waiters who never cease to be in motion. Behind the pass, adept hands, worn and marred by constant battle with spiny, unrelenting ingredients, pick snow-white crab meat from pencil thin legs, negotiate resistant bivalves, peel the thin skins from electric blue shrimp, filet a technicolor assortment of fish, retrieve sea snails from deep recesses, and clean a boat load of octopus, squid, scallops and more. Peppers, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce are the humble flavoring elements used to add texture, brightness and heat to the star attractions. All of the evacuated shells find their way into a giant stew pot of what can only be described as the essence of Baja. With each order, a piping hot mug of this consommé lands on the table, instantly making one’s mouth water.

At the pass.

The intensely flavored seafood consommé comes with every meal upon request.

The menu is an anthology in Baja basics. There are dozens of varieties of tostada, empanada, taco, salad, soup, fried seafood, grilled fish, pate, ceviche, and even pasta, steak and burgers. Yet, I veer little from my groove opting for the Tostada Especial, a hard corn tortilla mounded with fresh diced crab, shrimp, octopus, and scallops mixed with the tiniest bit of sweet onion and cucumber. The mound is anchored to the tostada shell with a thin smear of mayo. I break off a loaded piece of the tostada and drizzle a salsa from the Pandora’s box of hot sauces on my table. In that moment, savoring the sweet flesh, fresh toppings, and kick of spice, I am home.

Tostada Especial piled high with fresh seafood.

Select a sauce from Pandora’s box.

When in season, the next move is to order chocolate clams (almejas chocolatas), a creature unmatched in its sweetness and striking to the eye with its deep coral center. On cooler days, I pair the seafood stew, which arrives with assorted mussels and shells including crab legs reaching out from below the surface of the mahogany-colored broth. On any day, I am likely to splurge on a single fried smoked marlin empanada oozing with melted cheese. All around me, throngs of local patrons wash down their treats with vibrantly tinted fruit juices and sodas. But, I opt to celebrate my arrival with an ice-cold Modelo Especial.

Almeja Chocolata (Chocolate Clam)

Smoked Marlin empanada.

Despite the quality of service and opulence of ingredients, I step out of the deep shade into the heat of day with a dent in my wallet no larger than a Starbucks breakfast because… it is Mexico.

Gastro Bar by Martin Berasategui – Baja Basque?

Among my favorite restaurants in San Sebastian is Bodegón Alejandro. When you descend from the masses of pintxo seekers stomping like zombies through the narrow corridors of the Old Town, into the calm, cozy den of Bodegón Alejandro, it is immediately apparent that you are among locals when the Basque mother tongue, Euskara, percolates around the dining room. At the age of 25, the now iconic Basque chef, Martin Berasategui, earned his first Michelin star in that modest subterranean eatery, an appropriate environment to nurture deep roots in traditional cuisine.

Now, after more than 30 years of professional growth, Chef Berasategui demonstrates just how far those roots can travel—all the way to the desert oasis of San Jose del Cabo, BCS, Mexico. Tucked within the Paradisus Hotel, with a view spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez, Gastro Bar by Martin Berasategui is raising the bar for Baja dining.

The 6-course menu is decidedly Berasategui but with persistent respect for local flavors. House-made bread with butter 3-ways mimicked the same dish served in San Sebastian but veered from the original with avocado and jitomate. An amuse bouche from the kitchen was a delight with smoked cream, salmon, and a crumble on topping.

A marinated tuna with black garlic and beets sparkled on the tongue when paired with Italian rose bubbles. Three petite truffle cream raviolis peeked out from beneath Parmesan foam and made me giggle at a flavor association with Annie’s Mac n Cheese.

A seared foie was elevated by a red onion compote—invoking an acidic staple common to taco bars across Mexico. The star dish for me was the sous vide Totoaba, a fish of lore in Baja. The crisp skin would have been treat enough on its own, but when complemented by the subtle herbaceous notes of fennel and watercress, the fish was incredible. In a nod to Ferran Adrià, three explosive “olives” added a well-placed punch of brine to the plate.

The last dish pulled my revelries from Basque Country to Asturias. Seared Black Angus sirloin cozied up with pearls of Camembert cheese and a sauce of Iberian ham.

Finally, a pineapple palate cleaner signaled the shift from savory to sweet. My usual indifference toward dessert was mitigated when the coffee chocolate mousse arrived with an iced Carajillo [RECIPE] (espresso with a Liqueur called 43), one of my favorites after dinner treats when I have no interest in sleeping. A cinnamon ice cream melted into the rich chocolate pool and brought to mind a mug of Mexican hot chocolate and churros. Two final tiny bites, one cheese cake and one a crisp cookie completed the feast. Without exception, Chef Luis Armando delivered on the Berasategui name and vision, no small feat.

But there is more to this story. While Michelin quality food in BCS is a surprise, Michelin quality SERVICE is jaw-dropping. The experience from the greeting by Karla at reception, to wine discussions with the soft spoken, but highly knowledgeable sommelier, Omar, to the entertainment of watching synchronized course changes, every detail was well attended. Reynold, Max, Rodolfo, Oscar, Orlando, and Alberto demonstrated a command of the finer points of service rarely seen in these parts. All the while, the general manager, Ricardo Gomez Raviela, looked on quietly guiding his young team, as if by telepathy. Some of these young men had only recently arrived in the dining room from dish washing and minibar stocking positions. Yet, they conducted themselves with such refined grace, I would never have known.

Knowing my penchant for the kitchen, Ricardo and Chef Luis Armando Mukul, warmly welcomed me back to see where the magic happens. The kitchen was compact, orderly, and operating with an astonishingly small team. We discussed their hopes for future expansion and the very tempting plans for the fall tasting menu to come. I never thought it would be an option, but I am delighted to add the Gastro Bar’s seasonal tasting to my BCS merry-go-round of mariscos, tacos, and late-night hotdog indulgences.