As we wrap up our final days here in San Miguel de Allende, we wanted to pass on a few of the great restaurants we have enjoyed here. It is not a complete list, but it is our list which means affordable and flavourful.

CHEAP EATS:

Taco stand at Hidalgo and Insurgentes: If you are willing to give street food a try, it doesn’t get any better than this. The stand is up and running by around 7:30 or 8:00 most evenings. We have tried tacos at other places, and nothing can hold a candle to this place. Our favourite choice is an order of Gringas al Pastor. They slice off bits of marinated pork and cook it up on the griddle with a handful of molten Oaxacan cheese all put in a flour tortilla with a sliver of pineapple. The tacos al pastor are excellent, as well. In addition to tacos al pastor, they serve bistec, costilla (rib meat), chorizo and lengua (tongue). I’m sure the other choices are good too, but we are hooked on the gringas al pastor. A gringa al pastor will cost you $15 pesos, and the tacos are about $8 pesos apiece.

The Asador on Potranca on Salida a Celaya: Potranca 4. As with the tacqueria, this place has no name but you can’t miss the huge black grill sitting in front of the restaurant. Arrachera is their specialty, and the hamburguesa de arrachera is very flavourful. Arrechera is a thinly cut, marinated flank steak. I also like their hamburgers and the baked potato con todo: bits of arrachera, cheese and sour cream. We haven’t been there on the weekend, but I believe they offer grilled rib-eyes on Friday and Saturday. The arrachera burger is $40 pesos and the baked potato con todo is $30 pesos. Open for dinner (maybe lunch, too, but we’ve never tried).

Burritacos on Mesones between Hidalgo and Reloj: Once again, not sure of the name of this place, but it is the only place I know of that makes fresh flour tortillas here in San Miguel de Allende. Corn tortillas are far more common in this part of Mexico. You order the number of tacos you want at the counter (I usually get two or three), and then go to the back to choose from about 12 fillings. My favourites are pollo con mole verde (chicken in a green sauce) and papas y chorizo (potatoes and sausage). There are a few tables out front, but we often get the tacos to go and eat them while sitting in the Jardín. A burritaco costs $8 pesos. Open for lunch and (an early) dinner.

BREAKFAST AND LUNCH OPTIONS:

There are loads of options for breakfast and lunch here in San Miguel. The places listed below tend to run between $30 to 70 pesos for a meal.

Cafe Contento: Hernandez Macías 72. The terrace is shady and pleasant and the food is consistently good. Try the crepes with fresh fruit and cajeta (caramel sauce). A scrambled egg breakfast, one of their sandwiches, or the Sopa Azteca are also good options. As a bonus they have a basket full of old New Yorkers and other magazines to browse while you wait for your food. Free wi-fi is available and there is a small collection of paperbacks for sale or trade. Their bread comes from the Buena Vida bakery which is just down the hallway. Stop by Buena Vida to get a cinnamon roll or donut for dessert.

Cafe Buenos Dias: Reloj 64. This place is filled with loyal customers with good reason. The bacon is (almost) always crisp, the cafe latte is the best in town, the waiter is a perfect gentleman, and the owner, Elisa, is always welcoming and friendly. Pat always gets the scrambled egg breakfast and I am very fond of the French toast and the fresh fruit smoothies.

Via Organica: Calle Margarita Ledesmo 2. For breakfast, try their French toast or tapas de huevo (scrambled eggs, beans and cheese served in a puff pastry). For lunch, they have excellent salads. We also like the chicken salad torta and the ham and cheese torta, which come with a small side salad and cost as little as 30 pesos. In addition to the restaurant, Via Organica has a shop with fresh organic produce, handmade local cheeses and other items for sale.

Media Naranja: Hidalgo 83. Another great place for breakfast or lunch. Their salads are excellent (especially with the extra chicken). I recommend the falafel salad with tahini dipping sauce.

Bagel Cafe: Even though it is the Bagel Cafe, our favourite dish is the club sandwich. They also have good chilli. Try the naranjada here. It is a very refreshing drink on a hot day.

Cafe Etc, (or Cafe Juan): Reloj 37. Most people agree that Juan makes the best cappuccino in town. The club sandwich is excellent too. A friend of mine tells me there is a Spanish conversation class that meets here on Monday and Friday at 11:00. The cost of the class is 20 pesos.

Monte Negro: On Correo very close to the Jardín. The food here is always fine, although not spectacular, so it’s not usually our first choice, but it’s always a safe one. The prices are reasonable, the ambience is comfortable, and the salsas are tasty.

Sappos Restaurant: Paseo del Parque 10. The terrace is very pleasant, and the chilaquiles are the best I’ve had in town.

Cafe Rama: Calle Nueva 7. Come here for a special lunch. It is a bit more expensive than some of the other options, but the quality of the food is worth it. Try the Asian Chicken Salad, and make sure to leave room for dessert. The truffles are superb and I hear the lemon cheese cake is a revelation.

Posada Corazon: Aldama 9. Come here to splash out for brunch in a beautiful setting. They have a set menu which is $140 pesos. It is includes 2 cups of coffee, hot chocolate or tea, fruit salad or juice, a main dish such as eggs Benedict, and a buffet of homemade granola, yogurt and artisan cheese. Reservations are recommended.

DINNER IN SAN MIGUEL

Ten Ten Pie al Carbon: Sterling Dickenson 5. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it. This place has the best arrachera we have tasted since being in Mexico. Perfectly seasoned and always tender. The chicken kebabs are also excellent. You will not be disappointed. Margarita, the manager, is always gracious and kind. The last time we were there, she plucked pomegranates off of a tree in the courtyard and shared them with the customers for a refreshing dessert.

Longhorn Smokehouse: Salida a Celaya 6. This is the place to go in San Miguel for Texas-style barbecue. The grilled ribs are quite good, but our favourite choice is a cheeseburger and a side of fresh cut fries. Thursday is steak night. They also have key lime pie that is worth saving a little extra room for. As a bonus, the waitress there (Jimena) is very friendly and charming.

Burrito Bistro: Correo 45. We love the fresh roasted salsas, and they make a delicious naranjada. We have liked everything we have tried on the menu, but our favourites are the grilled chicken salad, the thai chicken soup, and the grilled chicken burrito.

Gombo’s: Tata Nacho 2. Come here for the pepperoni pizza.

Fenicia: Calle Zacateros 73. Great Lebanese food. The chicken shawerma wrap is especially good.

Mare Nostrum: Umaran 56. Run by a Sicilian couple, the pastas are handmade and delicious. The last time I was there I had mushroom-stuffed ravioli with a sweet potato sauce. It was wonderful. Rumor has it the pizzas are good too.

Chinese food: DondayinSMA has a great post about the two Chinese restaurants here in San Miguel.

BITS AND BOBS

Ice Cream:
On the corner of San Francisco and Reloj is Dolphy’s Ice Cream, a Mexican ice cream chain. They use real cream and have about 20 flavors to choose from.

As you head south on Ancha San Antonio, you’ll find Santa Clara Ice Cream, another high quality creamy ice cream. Menta con chispas in my favourite.

For a taste of real Mexican ice cream, go to the ice cream stand at the corner of Canal and Hernandez Macías. I highly recommend the sorbets. Limón and Mango are my favourite. If you are feeling adventurous they have queso (cheese), mamey (a fruit with a sweet potato-like flavour) and rose flavours on offer.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetables: My favourite place to go to for fresh fruit and vegetables in San Miguel is in the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez. DondayinSMA is also fond of this particular stall. See his post for details.

We have a great deal on our apartment here in San Miguel, and cable television is thrown in for free.  As much as I may complain about the offerings on TV here, it is nice having something to watch occasionally.

Our cable system has about 70 channels, and it’s a mix of Mexican stations and U.S., with many stations devoted to movies, several to science (this is one of our greatest frustrations – that the National Geographic and Discovery channels are invariably dubbed into Spanish, and between my still-fledgling Spanish skills and my ever-worsening deafness, it’s not worth the effort to watch them).

The not-so-good is that most of the shows are crap, and most of the movies repeat about seven thousand times each month.  Dances With Wolves, for example, seems to have played every day or so since we first arrived in October.  Sometimes the movies are so bad they’re good, like Plan 9 From Outer Space, which we enjoyed a couple of weeks ago, and if you like good old movies, it’s fairly common to find Humphrey Bogart or even the occasional Hitchcock movie.  Most of these are subtitled in Spanish, but some are dubbed, and it’s not uncommon to see a movie with English audio and Spanish subtitles on one station, then see the same movie start an hour later on another channel, but this time dubbed into Spanish.

Most of the shows seem to be either telenovelas (soap operas) or shows from the U.S.  I am fully convinced that some anthropologist exploring the jungles of Papua New Guinea will stumble across what she believes to be an undiscovered tribe, but will that night find the village gathered around a TV watching CSI Miami.  CSI, CSI Miami, and the Simpsons are on TV everywhere we’ve travelled.

What surprises me are the movies on the Mexican stations.  There seemed to have been a period in Mexican moviemaking (from the clothes and the colors, I can only assume it was during the ‘70s and ‘80s) when there were only three plots available, all of which involved men in suits making goofy faces around women in lingerie, or less.  The fairly common nudity from decades ago in this extremely conservative Catholic country never fails to surprise.

It is great, though, to flip through the channels and catch a movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which was filmed largely in San Miguel and the nearby town of Guanajuato.  It’s fun to see Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp in places we’ve come to know so well.  Rumor around town has it that Banderas owns a house in town, though no one we’ve spoken to has actually spotted him.  Until he shows up in person, we’ll have to settle for watching him on TV.

I hate the laundry.  In America I didn’t hate doing the laundry; in fact, it was a reminder of the luxury of life in the United States.  Every time I did the laundry I was reminded of just how easy life was for us there.

We mentioned in a long ago post how our first apartment in Ireland had a washer/dryer in the kitchen, and it sounded like a jet plane about to take off.  The washer and dryer in our second apartment was out in a separate building, and was shared with two other properties, so it was less noisy but often occupied and not always convenient.

Here in Mexico, though, and often when we’re on the road, we simply have to turn our wash over to someone else.  Our apartment doesn’t have a washer we can use, and there are no self-service washers in town that we know of (actually, they seem pretty rare in every country we’ve visited), so we go to a lavanderia.  It might sound nice not to have to deal with the laundry but it isn’t. Let me use our current situation to explain why.

When we drop off the laundry, it’s usually ready the next day, but it can take up to two days before it’s done.  With last week being Semana Santa (Holy Week) many shops, including our lavanderia, shut down from Thursday on, so to be sure we got our clothes back before they left on holiday, we had to get our last batch of clothes in on Monday of last week and we weren’t able to get anything washed for a week.  For many of you a week without washing clothes is no great inconvenience, but we travel light — I own five pair of pants, about that many t-shirts, and two button-up shirts.  Since I can’t exactly deliver the dirty clothes naked, at least some of our clothes are not able to go for a wash at any one time, and so a week without being able to wash is a problem.

I dropped off clothes Monday morning, and miracle of miracle, they promised they would be done that afternoon.  Unfortunately, when I went to pick it all up, the smallest bill I had was a 200 peso bill (about $16) and they couldn’t make change for the 72 peso charge.  So, our desperately needed clothing was done, but I couldn’t get it because I didn’t have the right size bills.  Luckily, when Amy got home she had some smaller bills and was able to pick up the clean clothes.

Today, though, when Amy went to pick up another load, she had a 50 peso bill and the charge was 42 pesos.  The 8 pesos in change is about 65 cents.  The woman working at the lavanderia laughed as she looked at her till, because she barely had enough change, with Amy cleaning her out.  We discovered upon Amy’s return home that she was actually short-changed one peso, however, so the lavaderia wasn’t actually able to make 8 pesos in change.  Our earlier post about the difficulty of making change is applicable here in Mexico – one store is so averse to giving change, the owners have a sign saying they won’t accept bills, which means the largest denomination they’ll accept is a 10 peso coin, or about 80 U.S. cents.  It can be maddening to be in a country that often requires exact change but by that same token never gives you any.

This year, Pat and I celebrated Easter in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico.  Although I don’t know much about the Catholic religion, I am certain that they incorporate more ceremony and pageantry around the Easter season than what I grew up with as a Southern Baptist in Texas.

Although we were traveling with our friend during the first few days of Semana Santa, there were still many processions and events to experience.  As a matter of fact, there were so many events that there was a formal talk with flow charts and maps to help the everyday gringo navigate all the celebrations.  There were events and processions every day.  In addition to the large processions through centro, many of the neighborhood churches had their own processions.

Here are some images of this past week’s events.

A procession on Tuesday in our neighborhood, Colonia Guadalupe.

This procession is known as the Sacred Encounter.  On Good Friday, this 18th Century statue was taken to the Parroquia, a very ornate church in the main square, and when facing a statue of the Virgin Mary he lifts his head and acknowledges her.

The Holy Burial procession on Good Friday had around 2,000 participants.  The young girls in all of the processions wore white dresses with purple sashes, and are supposed to represent angels.  It was a very solemn occasion.  There were crowds and crowds of people, and everyone was very serious and respectful.  No cheering, no laughing, no talking on cell phones.

After a sombre week of processions, on Easter Sunday everyone gathers in the Jardín to blow up a bunch of paper maché Judases.  There were 24 mannequins for the occasion.  According to a friend of mine, they are supposed to represent various villains and unliked politicians.  Last year they blew up George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein.  I think pyrotechnics and explosions trump plastic Easter eggs.  What do you think?

After our time in Zipolite, we headed for the city of Oaxaca.  To get there, we took a 20 minute taxi ride to Pochutla where we caught a bus north.  Unfortunately, the information at the Lyoban Hostel in Zipolite was not accurate, so we got to the bus station about an hour earlier than necessary, and the only buses available until that night were second class buses.  First class buses in Mexico are pretty plush, sometimes with only three seat across (two on one side, one on the other), with drinks, snacks, and a bathroom.  Second class buses, while generally okay (though far less comfortable overall), don’t have a bathroom.  The bus stopped only once, after about 2.5 hours, so we had nearly 6 hours on the bus without a break or a bathroom.  Bring your Depends.

This was our first trip to Oaxaca, and with only a couple of days to see it, we know we’ll be back.  Oaxaca is known for its food, especially its mole (pronounced MOE-lay), so we decided to take a cooking class at Casa Crespo.  There we were joined by another cooking student, Zack, from New Mexico, and our teacher, Oscar.  Oscar listed our choices and we settled on Mango agua fresca, salsa roja, salsa verde, guacamole, quesadillas con flor de calabaza, sopa azteca, rajas con queso y crema, fruit mole on chicken, and chocolate ice cream.  Oscar walked us to a nearby market where we bought many of the ingredients, and even tried the dried grasshoppers (very salty).

Market vendor - Oaxaca

Back at his cooking school, Oscar took us through the steps of preparing everything from our tortillas to the ice cream.  Oscar was a fantastic teacher, and the food was incredibly good, especially the fruit mole and chocolate ice cream (which was also surprisingly easy).

Making guacamole at Casa Crespo

We stayed in a hostel in Oaxaca, and there we met Jan and Elsie, two Englishwomen, both retired pub owners.  They are on a 7 month trip through the Americas and the Caribbean and have some amazing stories about their adventures.  To give you just a hint about them, just last year Elsie did a pole dance in a club in Thailand in front of an ever-growing crowd on the street outside.  This is particularly remarkable when you realize Elsie is 75, and Jan 60.  They’ve been taking these long trips abroad for 14 years.  We’re thinking of starting a fan club.

Mexico City was next on our schedule, and Amy and I had been there before, though it was Ciara’s first time (aside from arriving in Mexico City late Sunday and flying out to Zipolite early the next morning).  We saw Frida Kahlo’s former house, now a museum called Casa Azul, and well worth a visit.  We also went to the National Museum of Anthropology and the Zocalo, or main square in Mexico City.  The highlight of the trip was when Ciara took a picture of a clown performing for kids, and we ended up as part of the show.

Ciara and the clown

First I was offered two Mexican women for Amy and Ciara, and then the clown invited Ciara to join the kids.  The clown had the kids dance to either Michael Jackson or Shania Twain, and he found a dance partner for Ciara.  More than an hour later we were still there, watching Ciara and the others.  Not exactly what we expected but a memorable experience, to say the least.

Zipolite at sunset - photo by Ciara Baxter

Last week was spring break for OSU, so we took a little vacation to see some places we hadn’t made it to yet.  We met our friend Ciara in Mexico City Sunday night and flew to Huatulco the next morning.  Huatulco is the site of a small airport near the Pacific, in the Southern state of Oaxaca, and this was the first time any of us had been to an airport with thatched roofs.

The plan was to head to Zipolite, a small beachfront town about an hour away from the airport, and we’d seen on other blogs and websites that a taxi was probably the best way to get there.  One website said the taxi should cost 250 pesos but at the official taxi stand the actual cost was around 750 pesos.  Zipolite has a reputation for being cheap, but already we were paying three times the expected price even before arriving.

After a wild taxi ride (the expected hour travel time was cut to 45 minutes), the driver stopped us at the east end of the town, and we took a room at the Lyoban hostel.  At least the room was cheap, but the cost of everything in Zipolite was more than we’d been reading about.  A can of coke at the hostel cost 14 pesos (as compared to 8 pesos for a bottle almost twice as big in most stores in San Miguel), and all of the meals we had cost at least 60 pesos each.  That’s only around 5 U.S. dollars, so it’s not expensive, but it’s also no cheaper than many meals we can find in San Miguel, which is not known as an inexpensive locale, and the food in San Miguel is much, much better.

Had the food been good, it would have been fine, but we didn’t have a single good Mexican meal in our three days there.  We had an okay pizza one night, and our final meal in town was excellent, at La Alquimista, on the west side of the beach.  It wasn’t, however, Mexican.

Zipolite is a beach town that caters to a laid back, slightly hippy crowd (the beach is a nude beach, though the majority of people wore suits), so you’d think there would be at least some concessions to tourists.  Not really.  We had to go to five stores before finding sunscreen, for example, and there are no bank machines in town.  If you want something in Zipolite, you better bring it yourself.

We knew the beach had a reputation for dangerous currents and riptides (the name apparently means Beach of the Dead), but it also sounded like there would at least be days when it was safe to get into the water and swim.  Unfortunately the entire time we were there the red flags stayed up – no swimming.  It was relatively safe to splash around a bit in the swash (Ciara explained the swash is the area of the beach between the highest point the waves reach and the lowest point when they roll out, the area with all that sea foam), but we never swam near our hostel.  Ciara pointed out the irony of taking a cab to the next town, then hiking up and down a hill to a more secluded beach just so we could swim, when the ocean was ten yards in front of our hostel room.

The Lyoban ended up being a bit of a mixed bag, but we don’t recommend it.  The mattresses were poor and the linens threadbare and torn.  The hammocks were nice and the view was great, but almost everywhere had hammocks and equally good views.  The hostel’s showers were only open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., which would normally not be a problem except that on our last day we needed to catch a cab at 7:30, which didn’t leave us much time to get ready.  Worse, the man with the key strolled in at 7:10, though the management of the hostel had arranged our 7:30 taxi and knew we were on a tight schedule.  We just made it in time.

So it may sound like it wasn’t that great a time (bad food, more expensive than we thought, so-so rooms, and no swimming) but it was quite relaxing and not a bad way to start our trip.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Amy and I plan check out the Irish pub in town for the first time tonight.  We’ve generally avoided going to Irish pubs outside Ireland because we fear they won’t really be much like the real thing.  Sometimes it can be easy to tell when the pub owners really don’t have a clue, such as with the pub in Madrid that had a nice window display on Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Instead of going to a pub we could cook ourselves an Irish meal, but just what would that be?  I just read  Francis Lam’s article “St. Patrick’s Day controversy:  Is corned beef and cabbage Irish?” and the article makes clear some things we already knew:  corned beef really isn’t so much Irish as Irish-American, and food is not central to Irish culture.  When we lived in Cork, we were rarely invited to people’s homes for dinner and instead socialized in pubs.  We were invited to the house of our friends Denise and Michael for an Irish meal once, and it consisted of bacon (Americans would probably call it boiled ham), potatoes, cabbage, boiled turnips, and mushy peas.  The food was great, the boiled turnips surprisingly so, though I don’t think I’ll ever be a great fan of mushy peas.  There was no corned beef to be seen.

Food plays a much more central role here in Mexico.  During our Mexican cooking class, our Spanish-language teacher, Eli, said that the women who would be teaching us cooked in the same way as he remembered from his childhood, with love.  The cooks here really do seem to care more about the food they make, and how it’s accepted.  Last night, we went out to eat and Amy left a little soup in her bowl while I left a few scraps on my plate.  The cook came out and asked us if everything was okay, and seemed a bit concerned that we hadn’t eaten every last bite.  We know how to say we’re full in Spanish, which is useful, because cooks seem almost hurt if food is left on the plate.  This was even more true in Mexico City.

In Ireland it was nearly impossible to go to a restaurant that served “Irish food,” though many pubs had a carvery lunch on Sundays, which seemed to consist of a meat and two veg, usually boiled.  In Mexico, most of the restaurants serve Mexican food, and we eat at our favorite taqueria two or sometimes even three times a week.  That’s as it should be, though – gringas de pastor beat mushy peas any day of the week.