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Acapulco puts its money where its mouth is: The Foro Mundial de la Gastronomía Méxicana

Acapulco bay, the "pearl of the Pacific"
“They’re trying to bring back ‘the Pearl’,” quipped my friend B. skeptically. Poor Acapulco was once referred to as the “Pearl of the Pacific.” It’s now like a beauty contest winner who didn’t age well.  
As the greedy “they” (the politico/business cartel) developed the hell out of the divine bayside paradise, Acapulco, once the most beautiful spot in Mexico, decayed. High rise towers block neighbor’s views both inward and out. Convenience stores scar nearly every corner. The development is “not just ugly, it’s stupid!” B. opined.  Then the tourists stopped coming. First the narco violence, then the floods kept them away.

But tourism is the town’s cash cow, and local and federal governments are trying to do something to lure it back. One high rolling telecommunications tycoon has donated some pocket change in order to  spruce up the old pearl.

What do you do after drug mafiosos sully your reputation for safety, floods leave your airport under six feet of water, and mudslides devastate your surrounding communities?  As any Jewish mother would say..."Eat!"
Less than three weeks after the floods had subsided, the state of Guerrero held a food fair to bring some culture back to the former playground of the rich and famous.

An expert from Michoacán
The Foro Mundial de la Gastronomía Méxicana, (World Forum of Mexican Gastronomy) took place over four chow-filled days in a large, generic expo hall, the Expomundo Imperial. Chefs, cooks, students, and the food-loving press frolicked about, tasting, sniffing, exchanging culinary thoughts and generally celebrating the marvels that our country’s cooking has to offer.

The forum was loosely based on the paradigm laid out by Peru’s Mistura, the enormously popular food event held every year in Lima, which draws hundreds of thousands of hungry locals and visitors. We’re a little embarrassed that a country with less recourse can get something like that together well ahead of us--so it’s time to compete.

A series of lectures, round tables, and demonstrations took place while stands dedicated to feeding the crowds were staffed by extraordinary regional cooks. Star Mexican chefs were on hand. I spotted most of the reverable “Great Ladies of Mexican Cooking” : Alicia Gironella Di Angelis, Patricia Quintana, Mónica Patiño, Martha Chapa and Margarita Carrillo de Salinas circulated, and vying cuisine kings Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and Enrique Olvera attracted their adoring fans. Royal Brit foodie Tom Parker-Bowles lauded his passion for Mexican food.

Alicia Gironella, owner of El Tajin in
San Angel and godmother of Slow Food
in Mexico, reigns.
The event was divided into several didactic themes, each led by an expert. Cocina de ida y vuelta, was organized by local restauranteur Eduardo Wichtendahl Palazuelos. This lecture/demo tried valiantly to tie Mexico and its cuisine to the South Asian countries once served by the Nao fleets. Thai, Philippine and Malaysian chefs expounded and compared. But, other than the obvious “we gave them chilies, they gave us mangos”, the presentation was more academic than fruitful.

La Cocina Avanzada, coordinated by Enrique Olvera studied important trends in global culinary arts. Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant Pujol seems to be on everyone’s must-do list, appeared to a SRO crowd. He walked his adoring fans through a visual tour of his most recent ten-course tasting menu. Olvera’s done much to bring Mexico to the attention of the gastro-world and its serious students – toques off to chef Enrique.
Chef Olvera elaborates

But the sleeper event, relegated to the half-mast last day, which saw many fewer visitors, appeared as more dessert than the main course it should have been. Margarita Salinas de Carrillo presented La Cocina Tradicional, giving us the soul and essence of the Mexican kitchen.

An affable chef and gastronome, Carillo is recognized for her work in promoting Mexican cuisine throughout the world. She has campaigned for the UNESCO proposal to designate Mexican Cuisine as ‘Intangible Patrimony of the World’. She is a notable cooking teacher, and has written about the regional cuisines of Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chihuahua amongst others. Her restaurant Don Emiliano in Baja California won umpteen awards, and her book ‘Tamales y Atoles Mexicanos’, was just published by Larousse. Currently she operates San Angel’s Turtux, one of the best traditional Mexican restaurants in the city.

In true Oprah style, Carillo presented and interviewed a group of indigenous ladies who cook. These, the true heroines, from whom our soulful cuisine emanates, are the ones without whom there would be neither chefs nor high-falutin’ Polanco eateries. Six cooks, all from far-flung pueblos and all renowned for preparing one or more dishes, told their stories, many heart-rending, of how and why they started to cook. Several spoke of how absent husbands necessitated ingenuity.

Abigail Mendoza prepares
'espuma de chocolate'
One cook, Serafina Clara Vega from Oaxaca, had tried selling fruits, then clothing, but didn’t find her niche until her mother suggested she start to make simple antojitos, whose recipes she already knew. While telling her rags-to-, well, comfort, story she, as well as several other women, broke into tears, as did the crowd. This was the essence of the history, tradition and passion that imbues Mexican cooking. It was the highlight of the event.

The Foro Mundial was a start. Our hope is that it will evolve into an event that, like Mistura, reaches the general public but doesn’t compromise the integrity of its participants. And we all hope to have as much “Fun in Acapulco” as Elvis once did.
Margarita Carillo does Oprah


Nippon noshing: Rokai brings a little bit of Tokyo to the D.F.

Bijou sushi at Rokai
    “It makes me want to cry!” exclaimed Nanae, a chilanga of part-Japanese descent. “I haven’t had sushi so good since Tokyo” she explained, wiping away a tear. We were feasting at Rokai, the new spot for eclectic and extraordinary traditional Japanese cooking. Seated at the house's two tables, pushed together, were this reporter, the chef of one hot corner Roma bistro who knows a thing or two about fish, and a group of very professional diners--all of whom had been to Japan.

Master chef Hiroshi at work
 Rokai, situated on a quiet street in the formerly gastronomically sparse Colonia Cuauhtemoc, is a venue for master chef Hiroshi Kawahito’s fine-tuned cooking. The judiciously brief  menu features an omakase,  which translates as “leave it to you”, i.e. what the chef wants to serve: it's a multi course Japanese feast. I’ll leave it to this chef, L.A.-born of Japanese ancestry, who moved to Tokyo where he learned the fine art of sushi cutting. New to Mexico, he’s a master of raw fish. His menu that includes a soup, a karaage dish (miso marinated and sauteed), a katsu (breaded and fried), as well as plates of fine sushi and sashimi, is creative and intriguing. But this simple description doesn’t do the menu justice. Each plate, arranged with a savvy designer’s eye by assistant Daisuke is a work of art unto itself.

 Pulpo (octopus) appears in various guises, but always takes a starring role. As “carpaccio”, sliced razor thin, it’s buttery, and complemented with a sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds, so that its delicate flavor is never trumped. A deep fried morsel works less well, as the texture becomes a bit rubbery, but graceful aromas still tickle the nose.

 Katsu is a huge category in the Land of the Rising Sun and is one I usually avoid, as these deep-fried milanesas seems more about crunchy fried-ness than anything else--but not here.  A katsu lamb, served with a little bowl of tartar sauce, is crusty without, juicy within, a perfect balance – and the delicious ovine umami survives; the mundane is transcended.

carpaccio de pulpo
A karaage-style bacalao has been expertly baked; the simple, intense but gentle fishiness of the cod is winningly complemented by the caramelized miso and mirin sauce – the bistro chef approves, downing the last bite with a knowing smile on his face.

Finally, I feel like Audrey Hepburn at Tiffany’s when the most gorgeous plate of nigiri sushi I’ve ever seen is unceremoniously set at the table. Each adroitly crafted morsel sparkles jewel-like and defies the eater to touch. But we do, again and again, because the supremely fresh fish, along with its bed of rice, seasoned just so, is too good just to look at.

Rokai’s hand-printed menu also offers three a la carte categories. Five Nigiri, the previously mentioned hand pressed sushi, four rolls, none of which contain that most vulgar of adaptations, cream cheese, and seven or eight special cooked dishes, such as the aformentioned cod karaage and lamb katsu.  

Kasaage bacalao
The clean open space, designed by Diego López, features white-on-black aquatic images on the walls and lots of wood.  An open kitchen and a sturdy sushi bar spotlights the chefs at work.

The omakase at $490 for 2 people (lunchtime a bit lower) is a good deal. But such good Japanese food should be priceless.

いただきます - ¡Buen provecho!

Rio Ebro 87, between Rio Lerma y Rio Panuco
Colonia Cuauhtemoc
Tel. 5207 7543
Open Monday through Saturday from 2 - 5 and 7 - 11 p.m.


Puebla of the Angels: Angelopolitano

The essential cemita
The most exciting thing that’s going on resto-gastronomy wise here in the capital isn’t fusion, isn’t so-called cocina del autor. It’s the back-to-basics celebration of tradition. Remember when Rosemary Clooney stopped trying to make the hit parade and recorded a series of jazz/standard albums, continuing to do so for the next 30 years? (Well I do.) Traditions are deep-rooted, trends evaporate. New venues that pay homage to the past are opening and that’s a good thing.

So it’s with open arms that we welcome the latest house of mirth, the tongue-twistingly named Angelopolitano. Housed in the shell of an old residence on the hipster-free Roma/Condesa border, this smartly appointed but unpretentious establishment offers Poblano cooking with a modern touch. By that I mean that generations-old, family-tested recipes are artfully prepared.

Young Puebla-born chef Gerardo Quezadas respects grandma’s wise ways. He freshens flavors and presentation, bringing his food into the 21st century while maintaining the integrity of the 19th, from which most of these preparations emanate. Puebla, whose grandeur reached an apex during the late colonial and early independent eras, is steeped in both the indigenous and Euro styles. But lumbering sauces, laden with nuts, cream and a myriad of chilies and spices can overwhelm the contemporary diner used to more fine-spun fare.

The menu at Angelopolitano is anchored in Puebla standards such as mole, both the chocolaty poblano and the nutty verde varieties, but the anchor isn’t stuck in the mud. There are also rich green and red pipianes, and that classic, fruit-studded dish elusive to most D.F. menus, manchamanteles.  And a few more modern, creative dishes such as salmon with a mescal/tamarind/chipotle sauce.

Mole poblano is emblematic of the area and perhaps Mexico itself (mas mexicano que mole is the local version of ‘as American as apple pie’). But the amalgam of sugar, spices, seeds, chilies and chocolate, when unbalanced, can mute the palate. This kitchen’s version, from “Godmother Clotilda’s own 19th century recipe” is done right, no mean feat given that over 30 ingredients need to be juggled. The same expertise is brought to manchamanteles, once common on bourgeois tables. Dried and fresh fruit sweeten a spiky but light chili/tomato sauce and highlight the tender morsels of pork that rest in it. Bravo.

Start with that most traditional of antojitos: chalupas, topped with picante green and red salsas.

Soups are excellent, the seasonal flor de calabaza shines: this sunny flower’s delicate perfume is so often elusive – not here. And that most standard sopa de tortilla is exemplary –hearty and redolent of corn.

Cemitas, Puebla’s version of the torta, are served on their eponymous and very fresh buns, dotted with sesame seeds. That of mole verde is the best I have sampled anywhere. Chicken bathed in this nut and green chili based sauce is blanketed with shredded Oaxaca cheese and avocado. A hint of the perfumy cilantro-like but distinct herb pápalo can be detected. At $55 pesos, who’s complaining?

Also worth mentioning are the two pasteles, savory lasagna-like concoctions that should be on every Mexican cooks to-do list. The champandongo purposely resembles a chocolate layer cake. Tortillas are stacked with chicken, mole, sweet cream and queso Oaxaca, baked and ‘iced’ with more mole. The beautiful presentation turns the meal into a birthday party.
The prize- winning chile en nogada

And last but not least, chef Quezadas' chile en nogada, that quintessential independence day stuffed chili. is a feast for the eyes - winner hands down for the Miss Mexico prize.

The dining areas, two smaller at ground level and a larger, older-fashioned space above, are light, airy and sleek – walls feature contemporary black and white photos. But a welcoming old-time ambience pervades. And the familiar feeling is reinforced by the fact that as a matter of policy, the family employs people of the tercera edad. So if you no longer have grandparents, you will be well taken care of here by someone elses.

A small shop offers house made products such as salsas as well as mezcals.

Prices at Angelopolitano are reasonable – a light lunch can be had for under $130, a complete dinner with drinks will average $250. Pesos that is.

While the restaurant scene in Puebla itself has exploded in recent years, making our neighbor a worthy culinary travel destination, el D.F. itself suffers a dearth of good restaurants featuring this important regional cuisine. Angelopolitano fills the gap.

Puebla 371, near the corner of Sonora
Colonia Roma Norte
Tel.  6391-2121 / 6391-2020
Open Tuesday – Thursday 1 – 10 p.m.
Friday, Saturday 1 – 11 p.m., Sunday until 7 p.m.

Closed Monday