November 30, 2006

Figonzola sandwich

Phew! All that travel writing has left me famished. It's not easy trying to remember the details and trying to do justice to the experience. But I try. Now I feel I deserve a little break. :) And what better way to recharge than with a simple yet delicious sandwich.

I'm going to pre-empt this little travelogue of mine by saying that while I was in Phoenix, the friend I was staying with took me the most gorgeous gourmet supermarket I've ever seen! AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods. AJ's is many things, it is a sophisticated grocery, an indoor farmer's market bursting with beautiful produce, a bistro, deli, wine cellar, sushi bar, salad bar, a butcher's corner, a seafood grotto, a flower shop and a pastry shop. The staff was friendly and helpful, the atmosphere luxurious yet warm and cozy, and the items on the shelf, they were fine indeed! I don't think I could live in a place that has an AJ's, I'd go broke for sure.

So anyway, this is where I bought the lovely Provençal Fig Jam I used in my sandwich as pictured above. (BTW, yay! My first box has arrived! :D) The jam is heavenly, it is made from the freshest red figs simmered with just the right amount of brown sugar. Some of you may already know that I have a love affair with the combination of fig and gorgonzola. So intense is this love affair that I even gave it my own term of endearment: Figonzola. Sigh...doesn't it sound so romantic? ;) Even more so when said with an Italian accent.

So as soon as I had the chance I popped open the jar, spread a a nice amount of the jam on whole wheat bread, layered it with gorgonzola cheese and then topped it all of with some apple slices for a nice crunch. Oh my my! It was good. Seriously. I've already enjoyed the jam on a toasted and buttered bagel, and as a topping for my yogurt. I'm quickly running out though. Must order more!

November 28, 2006

Mexico: Xochimilco & Hacienda de los Morales

On Friday, the day before the wedding, Sergio drove us south to Xochimilco, a district of Mexico City which lays claim to the last few remaining canals of Lake Texcoco and its pre-Columbian floating gardens or chinampas built by the Aztecs.

Xochimilco is touted as the Mexican Venice. Its 180 km. tree-lined canals are plied by brightly colored and flower-decked trajineras, the local equivalent of the gondola and the amphibious cousin of the Philippine jeepney, complete with female names and the occasional religious praises distinguishing one from the other. We boarded one which had a long yellow picnic table and yellow chairs. There were 12 of us but it could have accommodated a few more. We were provided with a big tub of ice packed with beer and assorted sodas and juice for the journey.

As the boatman expertly guided us out from the crowded dock and into the waterway, I sat back and let the experience delight my senses. We glided gracefully past private houses along the banks which reminded me of those homes along the canals near Camden Lock. We were approached by vendors on their own punts selling everything from jewelry to candied apples, corn, toys, ponchos, and of course flowers. Xochimilco does mean “place where flowers grow” in the Nahuatl language. We cruised past other trajineras carrying picnicking families, tour groups, couples on dates, and marimba musicians. And then there were the mariachis! We were serenaded by 2 different groups. They attach their boat to yours and then entertain you for $6 per song. The first group did just that, and played for us from their boat. It was fun but not as fun as the second group! There were more of them, 7 to be exact, 6 men and one lady. They go by the name “Mariachi Mexico Juvenil de Luis Alberto Bustos”. (Yes, exactly that. I have their business card. J ). Talk about fun! They jumped onto our boat and their leader (Luis Alberto, I’m guessing) proceeded to introduce himself and his group with much pomp and pageantry. We couldn’t resist this young bunch of energetic musicians. They had us on our feet dancing, singing along and screeching as they shook their booties at us. By request, they played old favorites like Guantanamera, La Negra Tomasa, La Cucaracha and my personal all-time favorite Cielito Lindo, aaaaaayayayay!

And then without warning the strangest sight appeared before us. There on the bank was a vision that would have spooked even Stephen King. Dolls were hanging on the trees, some with limbs torn off, mostly naked but many in ragged clothes, limply hanging by the neck, heads of dolls lodged onto ends of branches, all in various states of disarray. No one had an explanation for it, not Sergio, not the boatman, not any of us. We were stumped. I thought maybe it was a Halloween thing, it was Oct. 13 after all.

But as I was typing up this post, I decided to google it. Who knows right? Well, lo and behold I found an explanation! Apparently, it’s called La Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls). The story goes that the island was haunted by a spirit soon after a little girl had drowned nearby so Don Julian, the previous caretaker, hung a doll on a tree to appease her ghost. News of the island spread and more dolls were sent by people from around the world. Don Julian's family is carrying on the tradition at present.

We had to cut the 2 hour boat trip short because we were anticipating heavy traffic back into downtown. That night was the rehearsal dinner to be held at Hacienda de los Morales and we couldn’t afford to be late. My first Mexican hacienda! I was giddy with excitement.

This Mexican insitution lived up to expectation, it was spectacular! It exudes old style glamour and elegance from every corner of those terra cotta walls. Torches in the courtyard and along the driveway lend a rustic and romantic atmosphere to the place. The original land title of this hacienda was a gift from Hernan Cortes to Isabel, the daughter of Moctezuma in the 16th century and was converted into a restaurant in 1967. It was bigger than I had pictured it to be.

There was no way I could have taken pictures of the food, it would have seemed too crass in such a place. I had the duck in raspberry sauce which was superb! For dessert, I opted for strawberries and cream drizzled with chocolate which I chose from the dessert tray, a luxurious indulgence befitting the setting. The prices of course are steep and a strict dress code is imposed, keeping this establishment (it feels almost blasphemous calling it that) exclusive.

La Hacienda de los Morales,
Vazquez de Mella 525, col. Polanco
(52) 5 281 4703

November 22, 2006

Mexico: Basilica de Guadalupe & Teotihuacan

Mexico is not ranked as the 8th most visited nation in the world for nothing. It is a traveler's paradise, crammed with a myriad of destinations for everyone.

If you have a keen interest in archaeology or ancient civilizations, Mexico has much to offer you: the Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula, the pyramids of Teotihuacan or the pyramid of the Morning Star in Tula.

Are you a colonial history buff? Stroll around time-warped colonial towns such as Taxco (ever popular for its abundance of silver), the valley of Oaxaca dotted with tiny colonial villages or San Miguel de Allende with its charming cobblestone streets and colonial-era mansions, to name just a few.

Or maybe a glitzy resort or lonely beach is more your thing. Mexico's coastline boasts of some of the most beautiful sea & surf destinations: Los Cabos in Baja California on the western peninsula or over at the Yucatan peninsula is Cozumel one of the world's premier dive destinations. And who has not heard of Acapulco, the country's original resort town or Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. You can also opt to throw back some margaritas in the tourist city of Cancun where you might even do some celebrity sight-seeing.

The options are endless! You need at least a couple months to see and enjoy everything. I consider myself very blessed to have had the opportunity to visit the places that occupied the top two spots on my 'Mexico musts' (must see, must do, must try) list: the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Basilica de Guadalupe.

Katia thoughtfully arranged a day trip for all of us. We met our very amiable Mexican guide, Juan Carlos (right), at the lobby of our hotel from where he led us to the waiting van. As we made our way from the city center to the Basilica de Guadalupe, Juan Carlos pointed out the many landmarks that dotted the landscape and explained their significance in Mexico's history. He regaled us with countless factual tales and amusing legends while patiently answering all our questions.

We drove by two famous plazas. The Plaza de las Tres Culturas which gets its name from the mix of modern, colonial and pre-Columbian architecture that have developed around it. This plaza is the site of the ruins of Tlatelolco, the twin city of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the most imporant commercial center of its time. Further along is Plaza Garibaldi, home of Mariachi music since the 1920s. Musicians can be seen here waiting to be hired (like those pictured below) to play a song or three or more depending on how much you are willing to spend. A mariachi band may be hired per song or per hour and rates vary according to number of musicians and experience.

Plaza Garibaldi

As we continued towards our destination, Juan Carlos recounted the familiar story of Juan Diego, the humble native Mexican who the Virgin Mary appeared to on Tepeyac Hill during his daily morning walk to what is now Mexico City. She asked him to tell the Bishop that she wanted a church built on the site where she stood. But when Juan Diego told the Bishop about what he saw and of the Virgin Mary's request, the Bishop was skeptical and told Juan that he needed a miraculous sign. When Juan went back to the hill, there he saw Castillian roses never before seen in Mexico.

He quickly gathered these up in his cloak and hurried back to the Bishop. As the flowers fell to the ground, there emblazoned on his cloak was a glowing image of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary, who later became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. That was all the Bishop needed to order the construction of the Basilica de Guadalupe, now the second most visited church after St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is now recognized as the patron saint of Mexico. She appeared during a dark time in Mexico's history, during the struggle of the Old World and the New World. Her dark-skinned mestiza image mirrored that of the Mexican people, and her apparition brought them renewed hope and unity. She was immediately given the highest form of reverence. Her magnitude is unmatched even by Jesus Christ. She is the mother of the Mexican people, their queen. Juan Carlos tells us proudly: " the three most important things to a Mexican are Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Flag and Football, in that order." I found that highly amusing. :)

A circular modern church (the New Basilica) was built when the original one started to sink making it unsafe under the weight of the 10 million people who make the pilgrimage to her shrine every year. The Old Basilica is still open to the public. As you enter, you are greeted by a bronze statue of St. Juan Diego whose cloak is engraved with the famous image. Hanging from his left arm and pinned to the red board behind him are rosaries, letters, pictures and prayers of all kinds.

It is in an unassuming hallway of the new church though where you will find hanging the cloak of Juan Diego framed in gold. It was transferred here from the high altar to allow more people to view this sacred image without obstructing the mass. As I stared at it in awe, passing it slowly on the walkalator and almost forgetting to take a picture, I felt the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand. I felt her presence. It easy to understand how this vision has captivated both believers and non-believers alike. I felt unworthy to be in her presence and I was humbled before it.

We piled back into the van and headed northeast towards the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Just 20 minutes later,we arrive at Teotihuacan, the "birthplace of the gods". I couldn't believe I was here. Like the time I saw the Egyptian pyramids or when I made the approach into Venice in a motor boat, I had to literally pinch myself. Yes, this is that amazing!

the Avenue of the Dead and Pyramid of the Sun on the left

Just to give you a little background... Teotihuacan was a colossal urban center in ancient times that dates back to around 100 BC. It dominated life in the region for 500 years before being destroyed and abandoned around AD 650 and soon after discovered by the Aztecs. What really happened to it though is still shrouded in mystery.

Mooners on the Pyramid of the Moon

This awesome site is dominated by two enormous pyramids which the Aztecs called the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun which are linked by a wide avenue called the Avenue of the Dead. So dubbed because the Aztecs believed that the structures that lined it were royal tombs. The Pyramid of the Moon, although smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun, offers the best view from its peak because it is on higher ground. I read somewhere that the base of the Pyramid of the Sun is similar in size to that of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, though shorter in height.

We entered through the Quetzalpapalotl Palace Complex, a maze of structures and temples built around the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl (bottom left on the collage below), named for the mythological creatures carved into its courtyard pillars that have obsidian eyes.

Those of us brave enough made the obligatory climb up the Pyramid of the Moon. It was tough, a painful reminder of how out of shape I was! (note to self: make a beeline for the treadmill and boxing ring upon landing in Manila!). As I was sucking in huge amounts of air with each step, I scoffed at the website that said: "It's not the going up that's hard, it's coming down from the Pyramids". I remember thinking then as I did now, "yeah right!"

When I got to the first level of this four-tiered structure, I stopped to rest and take in the view. But before I could appreciate the spectacular vision before me, I looked down at the steep incline I had just climbed and ...GASP! I teetered backwards, I could actually feel my eyes bulging out of its sockets, holy crap! It was so steeeeeeep! How the heck was I supposed to make it down there?! I never had issues with height before, I used to climb water tanks in our village when I was a kid and even read while I was up there. How can acrophobia just creep up on you like that?

I decided I wasn't going any higher. The view from here was breathtaking enough so I contentedly sat there and drank it all in. Contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Ok not that deeply, but I was mystified. Who were the original residents of this vast complex? Who destroyed their home? Where did they run off to?

The voice of Juan Carlos shook me out of my reverie. We had to hurry along if we wanted to see the Pyramid of the Sun before the complex closes, he said. This was it, I had to face my fear of going down. I considered my options: crawl down backwards on my hands and knees, go down step by step on my butt and look stupid, descend backwards while gripping the cable that runs down the middle of the steps. I chose the latter. This way, I couldn't see how steep it was and feel like gravity was just going to suck me down. Phew! Good choice. It turned out easier than I thought.

While we waited for the rest in the Plaza of the Moon, we were approached by the requisite locals selling souvenirs and postcards. I was struck by how kind and gentle they were. A world away from the market in Aswan, Egypt where they harassed you to buy stuff with shouts of "I pay you to look!" and "Baksheesh!" (how they ask for 'tips' for any and every reason). The Mexicans have a way about them that was so affable and mellow, from their demeanor to their accents. A demeanor also exhibited by our guide who, I swear, had the patience of an angel. It wasn't easy keeping our group together.

We ran out of time and sadly we never made it to the Temple of Quetzalcoatl on the other end. Yet another reason for me to return. :)

Up next: Xochimilco and Hacienda de los Morales

November 15, 2006

Mexico: Centro Historico & the murals

After our lunch at the Casa de los Azulejos, we walked down the cobbled streets lined with hotels and shops to the historic center of Mexico where the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan once stood on an island in Lake Texcoco before Hernan Cortes and his men razed it to the ground. Legend has it that when the Aztecs first arrived here they were advised by their tribal god Huitzilopochtli (phew, had to look that up to make sure I spelled it right) to pitch their tents where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake in its mouth. The omen was seen seen here on what was once an island in the middle of a lake. They named the island, Tenochtitlan, which means 'place of the prickly pear cactus'.

When we reached the Zocalo, the main square which is also known as the Plaza de la Constitucion, I stopped in my tracks to take it all in. The Zocalo, marked by a giant flag flying proudly from its center and framed by massive colonial structures in varying architectural styles in all sides, made me feel so small. In an online news magazine, I saw a picture of the Zocalo filled with protestors taken just weeks before. This is not unusual, as the Zocalo is the venue for many protests, traditional rituals and ceremonies, national festivities and concerts bringing together people from all walks of life but who march to the same drumbeat.

Catedral Metropolitana

On this day, however, it was the picture of peace. The sun-drenched square was covered in tents under which a grand booksale was being held. Tourists mingling with locals as they browsed through the selections, all penned in the local language. The baroque and neoclassical façade of the Catedral Metropolitana looms overhead, a stark reminder of its honor as the first and largest Catholic church in the Americas.

Another prominent building beside the Zocalo is the Palacio Nacional. This renaissance building stands on the site of Moctezuma’s palace which became the residence of Hernan Cortes after his conquest of Mexico. The building, which is reminiscent of the Palacio Real in Madrid, features the amazing murals of Diego Rivera, including his grand mural by the staircase which depict his views of the country’s turbulent political history.

From Conquest to 1930, Central Arch Detail, 1929-1935

Epic of the Mexican People - Mexico Today and Tomorrow, 1934-35
Can you spot Frida Kahlo?

Totonac Civilization, 1950

The courtyard of the Palacio Nacional

The Templo Mayor built by the Aztecs in the 14th and 15th centuries is now a massive archaeological site beside the cathedral. Unfortunately it was already closed when I got there so I missed seeing the many levels of excavation as well as the museum inside.

Not too far from the Zocalo, is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, arguably the most beautiful building in the Historic Center. The exterior of the building is clad in Italian marble and its cupolas are covered in tiles. The walls of the second and third floors are covered in murals by Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

The Centro Historico is the heart of Mexico which pulsates with life every minute of the day, almost threatening its visitor with sensory overload. The smell of steaming tamales permeates the air mingling with the smell of exhaust from the traffic. The sweet smell of coffee brewing form a nearby café. The sound of senoritas chattering as they peddle their wares on the sidewalk, pierced by the occasional burst of laughter or squeal from children playing nearby. A cumbia or marimba beat emanating from someone’s portable radio. The taste of grilled corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, chili, salt and cheese or a torta stuffed with meat, avocado, cheese, sour cream, tomato and jalapeno. Little boys playing their accordion for some change, taxis whizzing past in a green and white blur, Aztec ruins blending with churrigueresque architecture. We have barely scratched the surface of this wondrous city that has seen so much.

Street food vendors with the Palacio Nacional in the background

Up Next: Basilica de Guadalupe & Teotihuacan

November 14, 2006

Mexico: Coyoacan and the Blue House

Mexico City is divided into 16 delegaciones or boroughs. The hotel we stayed in is located in Polanco which is in the Miguel Hidalgo borough. This is also the same borough where you will find the Bosque de Chapultepec, the National Museum of Anthropology and the Paseo de la Reforma. The Reforma is a 12 km. long avenue which links the city center with Chapultepec and which is dotted with landmarks such as Monumento a la Independencia, the bronze figure of Diana Cazadora or Diana the huntress, Monumento a Cuauhtemoc, Monumento a la Revolucion and the statue of Christopher Columbus. Driving down the Reforma past all the hotels, embassies and office buildings took me back to Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid which I have no doubt it was modeled after.

Another important borough in Mexico is Coyoacan whose name means “place of the Coyotes” in Nahuatl. This atmospheric neighborhood has retained much of its colonial- era charm and is an ideal place for a stroll, what with all the pretty homes and quaint cafes that line its shaded streets. We headed for Coyoacan to visit the houses of three of its most famous residents: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky.

For those of you who have not heard of Frida Kahlo, she is a Mexican painter whose famous works include mostly self-portraits which reflect her troubled life filled with physical pain (from a childhood bout of polio and a tram accident when she was 18 which broke her back) and heartaches as well as her devotion to her husband Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most celebrated muralist. Her problematic yet passionate life inspired a movie starring Salma Hayek who played the role of the uni-browed and moustached artist.

Her cobalt-blue house is open to the public, though no pictures may be taken inside the rooms. In this Casa Azul (blue house), as it was often referred to, where she was born in 1907 and lived until her death in 1954, one can see not only her artwork on display but also glimpses of the life she left behind. There are letters and diaries, easels and paintbrushes, pottery and ceramics, jewelry and other everyday artifacts associated with her life and that of Diego.

My favorite room in her house was the kitchen, it was very Mexicana with large earthenware pots arranged on top of bright blue and yellow tiled countertops, under which coals were once lit to whip up home-cooked meals. In the middle of the kitchen is a bright yellow wicker table and matching chairs. What I found most striking about this room are the tiny clay jars that are artfully arranged in intricate patterns on the walls and which spell the names Frida and Diego. I was so tempted to take a photo but there were cameras and sensors everywhere it seemed!

There are many haunting scenes around the house which give the visitor a sense of the despair Frida must have felt as a prisoner in her own body. There is her wheelchair, the stiff corset she was obliged to wear after the accident that broke her back, and a very freaky death mask on her bed. Beside the bed is a door which leads to the garden, which I imagine she must have left open while she continued painting from her deathbed.

The property on which the house sits is dominated by a beautiful, airy garden awash with the same vivid colors found around the house. On one side is a terra cotta-colored pyramid displaying various pre-Columbian idols on its steps and a gift shop on the other. I highly recommend a visit to this museum which is as unforgettable as the walls are blue.

A few blocks away from the Blue House is the Casa/Museo Leon Trotsky, the house where the Russian revolutionary lived in exile before he was murdered by Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist. Leon Trotsky played a leading role in forming the Red Army to fight the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920. After Lenin’s death however, he was forced into exile by his rival, Joseph Stalin and later granted political asylum in Mexico, thanks to an initiative by Diego Rivera.

Trotsky's tombstone and bedroom

He first lived with Frida and Diego before moving into his own house with his wife Natalia during which time he was rumored to have had an affair with the painter. This does not come as a surprise to those who knew of her notoriety for affairs and her public admittance of her bisexuality.

Trotsky’s death was the result of a second attempt at his life, as explained to us by the museum's guide. The first attempt was an assault on his house by Mexican Stalinists led by the muralist David Alfaro Siquieros, which left his bedroom riddled with bullet holes and his grandson Seva wounded but stable. They had managed to find a corner of the house away from the line of fire.
The kitchen at the Trotsky residence

Though the interior of the house is stark, austere and depressingly dark, it is hard to imagine as you stand by Trotsky’s tomb in the tranquil garden brimming with cacti and fig trees that this place had seen so much violence.

Museo Frida Kahlo
247 Londres St., Coyoacan
Open 10am to 6pm, Tues-Sun
Phone: 55 54 5999
Admission $2.00

Casa Leon Trotsky
410 Av Rio Churubusco, Coyoacan
Tel. 56 58 8732
Open: 10am to 5pm, Tues to Sun

Up Next: Centro Historico and the Murals

November 13, 2006

Mexico: Casa de los Azulejos

Casa de los Azulejos

This was by far my favorite restaurant in Mexico City and I felt it deserved it's own post. :)

Seeing the Casa de los Azulejos (or House of Tiles) in person did not disappoint. It was every bit as beautiful and as grand as the guidebooks and travel blogs promised it would be. What they did not warn me about was just how breathtaking it's interior is. This structure, which is entirely covered in blue and white tiles from Puebla called talavera , was originally built in 1596 and decorated by the Count and Countess of Orizaba 150 years later.

From 1881 it functioned as a men's club and then finally in 1917 it was converted into a soda fountain (the present layout seen in the photo below is reminiscent of this) which later evolved into Sanborn's, a large restaurant and department store chain in Mexico.

Casa de los Azulejos sits on an entire block and you can enter the building from either Avenida 5 de Mayo, Av. Madero or Calle de la Condesa. Passing through the doors from Av 5 de Mayo will take you into the diner-style eating area (below) which has a long winding counter and several booths. This is a popular meeting place for locals and tourists alike.

The diner/soda fountain at Casa de los Azulejos

If you opt for a more leisurely meal in an ambience fit for a condesa (countess), continue along through the door at the back which leads you into the mansion's charming courtyard where you can dine surrounded by its original Mudejar interior. Natural sunlight streams through the glass ceiling softened by the warm glow of antique lanterns. It is said that Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa dined here during the Mexican Revolution.

Diners in the Casa de los Azulejos courtyard

After we were seated and I placed my order, I excused myself to wander upstairs via the famous winding staircase which is decorated with wasit-high tiling and boasts of a mural by Jose Clemente Orozco called Omniscience on the landing.

I chose to have some
sopa de tortilla and tamales for lunch that day. The sopa de tortilla now ranks up there with sopa de ajo (garlic soup) and french onion soup among some of my favorite soups. It has as many variations as there are cooks and this one from Sanborn's was spiced just right. The strips of tortilla lend an interesting texture to this spicy tomato-based soup garnished with avocado slices, cheese, creme fraiche, chicharron (pork cracklings). I'm definitely going to try to make this at home.
Don't you just love how everything is served in blue and white plates and bowls to match the facade?

Clockwise from top left: Various bread and pastries from the restaurant's bakery,
Sopa de Tortilla, Huevos Sanborns and Arroz con Leche

The enticing smell of tamales from vendor's tamaleras permeating the air in the main plaza was too much for me to ignore. But because I was wary of Montezuma's Revenge, I begrudgingly tried to stay away from street food. Normally, I would throw caution to the wind with a muttering of "life is too short, live it to the fullest", but I was at the onset of my trip and didn't want to ruin it by getting stuck in the hotel bathroom nursing a bad tummy.

The tamale was on my 'list of food to try while in Mexico' so when I saw it on the menu I ordered it. Tamales are dumplings made of cornmeal or corndough called masa stuffed with your choice of meat ( in my case chicken) doused with chili sauce, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and then steamed. It was served with frijoles and tortilla chips on the side with extra sauce. It was good! The masa reminded me of the maize Mamaita (my paternal grandmother) would make instead of rice.

Sanborn's may be a restaurant chain, but it sure didn't feel like it with it's fine food, unpretentious menu and excellent service. After our meal, we strolled the aisles of Sanborn's drugstore and department store where one could purchase anything from bandaid to chocolate truffles, a CD player or expensive jewelry. We exited the building on Av. Madero and found ourselves in front of the
Iglesia de San Francisco which was once part of the largest convent in New Spain.

On the day of the wedding, everyone was free to do what they wanted until the ceremony which started at 4pm. Some chose to have their hair and make-up done in the salon, others stayed at the hotel to rest for the big night, I opted to bravely venture out on the metro to do more sightseeing. It was my last day in Mexico and there were still a couple of places I wanted to visit. When I was satisfied with all that I had seen and done, I decided to reward myself with brunch in what had become my favorite restaurant in Mexico City - Sanborn's at the Casa de los Azulejos.

This time I chose to sit at the counter of the diner where I was later joined by an elderly gentleman in a suit and clutching an umbrella who came for his mid-day coffee. By the familiar greeting he received from the senorita behind the counter and how she took his umbrella from him without a word and kept it behind the counter, I got the impression that he was one of the regulars. He noticed I had a map of the city so he sweetly offered to answer any questions I had about his country. I thought this was very nice of him so I did ask him some questions and this led to a most interesting and educational conversation which I thorougly enjoyed as I feasted on Huevos Sanborns, the restaurant's version of huevos rancheros, and sipped on my capuccino.

The time had passed so quickly and I panicked when I checked my watch. I wish I could have chatted with him some more but I had to say goodbye to my new friend if I were to have enough time to get dressed for the wedding. I never got his name, but I will always remember this sweet and wise man who inspired me with his love for country and touched me with his kind eyes.

Casa de los Azulejos is located on Av Francisco Madero 4 and can be easily reached by foot from the Zocalo and is also just a few meters away from the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Up next: Coyoacan and the Blue House

November 9, 2006

Mexico: No quiero taco bell!

Ok I was going to do this post last, but I get the hint, you want it now hehe. Well, I am only too happy to oblige. :)

If you have an adventurous palate, you will be rewarded in Mexico. Mexican cuisine is considered by many to be one of the world’s most creative. Here, the kaleidoscope of color that is such a treat to the eyes, can also be found in its dishes. Like it’s culture, Mexico’s food blends the influences of the Old and New Worlds.

I can’t say I had any authentic Mexican cuisine prior to this trip because the food that we associate with Mexico is most likely not traditionally so. For instance, there is no such thing as a hard taco shell 'south of the border'. Also, the dishes are not as spicy as they are made out to be in popular Tex-Mex Cali-Mex or Southwestern restaurants. A quesadilla (from the word queso which means cheese) is a tortilla filled with cheese. That’s it, no chicken, no meat of any kinds are found in authentic quesadillas.

What Mexican food lacks in presentation, it makes up for in bold flavors from unique spices. The basic ingredients are corn, tomatillo, chili, beans, Mexican oregano, chocolate and vanilla. And what is a cuisine without the staple carb? Naturally, for Mexicans, this would be the tortilla which are flat pancakes made of flour (more common for the northerners) or maize (which is more common in Mexico city and the south). Tortillas are usually served alongside most meals as bread would be but they are also rolled, fried, grilled, and baked and transformed into full meals.

Oh and the Mexicans love their salsa! They normally serve a variety of salsas on every table, regardless of what's ordered. The most common are salsa cruda (chopped raw vegetables), salsa verde (green tomatillos, cilantro and chilies), salsa de jitomate (cooked tomato sauce), salsa de chipotle (smoked jalapeno chilies in tomato sauce) and guacamole. They are great for enhancing the flavor of the dishes or giving it a "kick".

Top: Chilaquiles and Huevos Rancheros
Bottom: Mole Poblano and Flan

For my first ever Mexican breakfast or Mexican meal for that matter, I asked Katia as we sat in a booth in Vips what she recommends. And without blinking, she answered: Chilaquiles! So that's what I had. Chilaquiles is a favorite breakfast dish of tortilla chips layered with crumbled cheese, salsa, chicken, and topped with a fried egg. Now, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and I can really consume freakish amounts of food in the morning but this plate was huge! I did, however, enjoy it immensely and almost wiped my plate clean. My chilaquiles had salsa verde which made me an instant fan of tomatillos, a tart vegetable (or is it a fruit?) that is native to Mexico, also called husk tomato because of its papery outer skin or jamberry. They are green in color but should not be confused with green unripe tomatoes.

Another popular breakfast is huevos rancheros which are basically fried eggs on fried tortillas, smothered in a tomato sauce that is usually heated up with some chili. At this point, I am already loving the combination of egg, tortilla and salsa so I enjoy this breakfast just as much. Sometimes, like in the picture above, it may be accompanied by a serving of frijoles or beans which I adore! The Mexicans like to crumble cheese over soups and many of their dishes (as you can see in most of the photos above). Mexican cheese is soft, white cheese very similar to feta but not nearly as salty. What you are most likely to have crumbled on your dishes is cojita or panela.

Since I first read about mole sauce, I made it my mission to try it. A sauce made of chocolate and poured over turkey or chicken?! I was all over it. So when our guide took us to Pyramide Charlie's across from the pyramids of Teotihuacan for "the food that made the Aztecs great", I ordered the Mole Poblano which is Mexico's national dish. Mole sauce is a rich, dark sauce made with chilies, spices, nuts and bitter chocolate. The most famous mole sauce comes from the state of Puebla and thus called mole poblano. It is usally served over chicken or, more traditionally, turkey. So how was it? I really liked the sauce but I would have liked it better if it wasn't too thick. I would definitely order it again, but this time maybe try it in the enchilada form. By the way, did you know we have the Aztecs to thank for chocolate? It was regarded as the drink of the gods, and then brought to Europe from Mexico by the Spaniards.

In Mexico, the most common restaurants are called taquerias where tacos are the main fare. Not to be confused with cantinas which are casual bars that serve tequila with some antojitos (appetizers). El Lago de Los Cisnes (left) located on Prado Norte is one of the bigger taquerias in the city.

This is where I finally had my first taste of authentic tacos and the most amazing cheese appetizer ever! It was like a sheet of rolled paper made entirely of cheese, very thin and sooooo good! Unfortunately I don't know what cheese it's made of and how it's prepared. All I can tell you is that it was wonderful, the perfect crispness and sharpness and that it is called Chicharon de Queso. (thank you for that info, Katia! :) )

Yummy chicharon de queso

chicken, beef and pork tacos: the real deal

We had chicken, pork and beef tacos and prepared them with the condiments and different salsas that were laid out on the table. It was a glorious Mexican feast! I loved experimenting with different combinations: salsa verde with salsa chipotle, guacamole with salsa roja, salsa cruda alone, etc. They all complemented and enhanced the already flavorful meat fillings.

I couldn't resist ordering the Chile en Nogada (chile in walnut sauce) which looked very festive and inviting. It is another national dish usually served during Mexico's independence day, that proudly boasts the flag's colors of green (the stuffed roasted pepper), red (pomegranates) and white (creamy walnut sauce). All these ingredients came together in a very interesting and unique flavor and texture, which some found too sweet for their taste but enjoyed by those who, like me, enjoy sweet/savory dishes.

Chile en Nogada

Another dish unique to Mexico is pozole, a favorite of Katia's. I could have sworn I took a picture but can't seem to find so I guess I didn't. Anyway, pozole is a wonderful soup which originated in the Jalisco region of Mexico. It's main ingredient is hominy, or whole maize kernels, and is cooked with pork, chili (of course!), other spices and served with a garnish tray of fresh ingredients which one can add to the soup according to his taste.

Finally, where would a post about Mexican food be without some mention of mezcal? We were given a free lesson about the agave or maguey plant (from which mezcal and tequila are made) during our trip to Teotihuacan. It was very interesting to learn about the multiple uses of this plant such as how the natives derived paper from it's leaves as well as natural needle and thread.

Aside from the mezcal (can you see the worm?) we also got to sample different types of tequila which were all surprisingly much smoother than the spirit I am familiar with and have a very strong aversion to and which conjures terrible memories of embarassing actions and painful mistakes, not to mention hangovers. The tequila is a type of mezcal but distilled specifically from the blue agave.

this sap from the agave is distilled to make mezcal and tequila

Up Next: Casa de los Azulejos (with more food photos)

November 8, 2006

Mexico: Bosque de Chapultepec

City folk need a pleasant place to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, somewhere where they can reconnect with nature and hear they’re own thoughts. Fortunately, in most major cities urban planners and officials recognize this need and maintain public parks for residents and visitors alike. Many of these parks are world famous such as NY's Central Park, SF's Golden Gate Park and Barcelona's Parc Guell and London's Hyde Park or Richmond Park, to name a few.

Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without Hyde Park in London to keep me sane. I loved bringing a book, my portable CD player and some fruit and finding my quiet spot by the lake, spending hours reading, people-watching, and even dozing off as the breeze and the sound of birds lull me to sleep. When I travel, I like looking for these spots because it is usually here where you see locals in their most natural state doing what it is they like to do when they’re out on a pleasant day.

In Mexico City, this sanctuary in the city is called Bosque de Chapultepec or Chapultepec Park, a 1,600 acre haven of lakes, centuries old forest and outdoor cafes. It is also home to a zoo, a castle and at least 3 museums including the Museum of Anthropology. It has been a public park since the 16th century when Spanish King Carlos V declared it a national reserve.

Graceful Voladores

Across the entrance to the Museum of Anthropology, you can watch the Voladores (flyers) perform an ancient ritual where five men in colorful traditional costumes and headdresses climb a 150 ft. pole, tie their ankles to ropes wound around the top of the pole and then throw themselves backwards into the air.

While the rope unwinds and they slowly “fly” upside down and in a circular motion towards the ground, the 5th man who is left at the top plays the ceremonial flute until the voladores reach the ground. The rope unwraps itself 13 times for each of the four flyers, symbolizing the 52 years of their century.

It is almost hypnotizing to watch them circle the pole in a kaleidoscope of color accompanied by the haunting tune from above. I watched the whole "dance" twice, once before entering the museum, and again before continuing on to explore the rest of the park.

A volador in traditional garb accepting donations

After we watched the voladores, we strolled around the park in search of the Castillo de Chapultepec, an 18th century castle which sits on the summit of a hill which was once the home of Emperor Maximillian of Hapsburg and now houses the Museo Nacional de Historia. Along the way we passed vendors selling all sorts of stuff: food and refreshments, balloons, toys, cotton candy, souvenirs, tiny potted cacti and even flip-flops.

We watched boaters on the lake and munched on cheese puffs with chili sauce. The locals love to squirt chili sauce on everything, even popcorn. There were stands that offered munchies that came in all shapes and colors (see bottom right pic on the collage below), which were popular among the young folk. The climate couldn't have been more perfect, it was sunny with a crisp cool breeze. The park was abuzz with people but there were also many quiet pockets here and there. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we didn’t notice the time and when we finally reached the Castle, it was too late go in. Again, something left for the next time. :)

Castillo de Chapultepec

Up next: No quiero taco bell! (the food post)