Mexico City – Your Food and Culture Guide

I know, I know. Some of you are angered by that title.

No avocados?! How could I go to Mexico and not eat copious amounts of avocados?!

You totally should! My point is there’s more to Mexico City than guacamole. I got to explore this recently when the Le Meridien Mexico City invited me to come shadow the brand’s James Beard award-winning pastry chef, Johnny Iuzzini. He would be visiting from Brooklyn, searching the city for inspiration for his locally-inspired Le Meridien eclair recipe, part of Le Meridien’s Eclair Diaries series. Also in tow was world-renowned coffee connoisseur Esther Maasdam, in charge of training Le Meridien’s food and beverage staff on the art of coffee making and turning them all into Master Baristas (a program by Le Meridien).

Basically, I was in good hands to explore cuisine, coffee and culture in Mexico City.

The Stay Experience

The first thing I noticed when entering the Le Meridien Mexico City was the festive holiday decor (my stay was in December). A winding staircase allowed for fun shots of a giant Christmas tree accented by bulbous lights, not to mention a holiday tree crafted from books near the open bar.

My 13th floor room was even more spectacular, with aerial city views, free Wi-Fi, a full mini bar, unique Malin + Goetz bath products (cilantro conditioner, anyone?), and a big comfortable bed showcasing a plush robe which I lived in for my stay. Being a Starwood rewards member — Starwood owns Le Meridien — I also got a free drink in the bar, which I sipped in the deep soaking tub while reading a book (a simple luxury I never seem to have the time for at home).

Expert Tip: Signing up for loyalty programs is one of many ways to save money and earn travel points. Here are 34 more.

LE MÉRIDIEN MEXICO CITY MOMENTS

A Delectable Mission: Mexico City Market Exploration

I didn’t spend all my time in the hotel room, though. Remember, one reason I was there was to explore Mexico City flavors with Chef Iuzzini, and see how the destination influenced his latest eclair recipe.

The eclair is a traditional French pastry typically filled with chocolate or fresh cream and gowned in chocolate icing; until Iuzzini gets his creative hands on it. We headed to Central de Abasto, the world’s largest wholesale market with over 2,000 vendors and 500,000 visitors per day, to look for ingredients and inspiration. We also brought along husband and wife chef duo Jared Reardon and Sonia Arias of Mexico City’s Jaso Restaurant to help give context to what we were looking at and negotiate with vendors.

Love Mexican cuisine? Check out these amazing #food & drink experiences in #Mexico City. CLICK TO TWEET

Still, it was up to Iuzzini to craft a dessert that provides guests with a traditional taste of Mexico that’s also atypical. Explained Iuzzini on the way to the market, “Picture a traveler that comes to the Le Meridien and wants to experience all the flavors and textures of Mexico without leaving the hotel. I also want to get away from the typical ingredients like avocado. Maybe we can’t get every Mexican state in the eclair, but maybe five very special ingredients, including vegetables and spices.”

As we wandered through the market’s 16 kilometers of walking areas, we smelled, touched and tasted an array of ingredients. These ranged from tangy Oaxaca cheese to produce I’d never heard of before, like zapote negro and mamey sapote. There were also giant barrels of mole powders from various regions, which Chef Iuzzini thought would work well on the shell, the spice tamed by a cooling fruit filling. Each time our senses interacted with a new local ingredient, Iuzzini scribbled into his notebook like a hungry mad scientist.

CHEF JOHNNY IUZZINI HAVING A COCONUT BREAK AT CENTRAL DE ABASTO

A Traditional Mexican Meal

After four hours exploring the market, I couldn’t wait to see what Iuzzini had come up with, though the final recipe wouldn’t be unveiled for a few days. In the meantime, we had hungry stomachs to fill. And so we headed to a late lunch/early dinner at Restaurante Nicos. Sonia described the Claverai neighborhood venue as “casual, but the food is extraordinary,” while Jared commented that “it’s all in the sauce, and Nicos has great sauce”.

As soon as our waiter came over to prepare our table-side guacamole — okay, so there’s a few avocados in this travelogue —I was immediately hooked. And my palate’s happiness only continued with dishes like river fish steamed in a corn husk followed by tender barbecue rabbit. There was also delectable plates of organic pork and organic turkey — each topped with different mole sauces. I’ve had mole before, though never realized you could travel Mexico through the palate sampling all the regional moles.

A DELICIOUS LATE LUNCH AT RESTAURANTE NICOS

Desserts ranged from the traditional Mexican Buñuelos to a quirkier bowl of popcorn gowned in pumpkin gelato and zapote negro sauce, spiced with anise, mandarin and cinnamon. Table-side Mexican coffee was the perfect ending, and watching our server use his entire body to stir the natural cane sugar-laced java in a clay pot was like seeing a Broadway show. Like mole, the spices added depend on the Mexican region you’re in, ranging from sugar and cinnamon to cacao.

I went to bed fat and happy.

Exploring Mexico City Culture & Coffee

The next day, while Iuzzini was holed up in the kitchen to experiment, I met up with the lovely Esther Maasdam, Le Méridien’s coffee connoisseur extraordinaire visiting from the Netherlands. Together we spent the day partaking in Le Meridien’s Destination Unlocked program. In each city they operate in, Le Méridien partners with a local cultural institution to provide free entry to their guests.

In Mexico City that partner is Museo Tamayo, located within the expansive Chapultepec Park. The leafy green attraction is home to picnicking, paddle boating, splash pads, cycle paths, a free botanical garden, outdoor movies and really interesting al fresco cultural performances. I mean, check out this Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) performance below, which includes grown men falling from a 30-meter pole and flying through the air attached to bungee cords. A fifth man stays at the top playing the flute and drum.

DANZA DE LOS VOLADORES

The park is also home to 17 museums and galleries, including the Museo Tamayo contemporary art museum. Here art ranges from Oaxaca-born Rufino Tamayo’s well-known painting of watermelons (an ode to his childhood selling fruit) to multi-media works and even a peaceful vacant pink room with bird sounds playing.

While I loved perusing the pieces, my favorite experience was playing on the modern outdoor playground.

Gringo Tip: Adults are apparently not supposed to climb the jungle gym below, as was shouted to me in Spanish by a security guard.

CLIMBING MUSEO TAMAYO’S “JUNGLE GYM”

Actually, my favorite museum experience may have been lunch at their eatery, Restaurante Tamayo. While the previous day introduced me to traditional Mexican cuisine, this exquisite venue provided a modern take. A few playful dishes on the menu included hibiscus flower and cream cheese tacos, chicken stuffed with cuitlacoche and goat cheese over pinto beans, and a ribeye with a four chilies crust.

Oh, and I can’t forget the huauzontle cakes — batter fried huazontle (like quinoa) with Chihuahua cheese in a black Oaxaca mole sauce and green tomatillo salsa. The dish was also laced with chipilin, an edible legume typically used as a spice. I saw huauzontle cakes on a few menus in Mexico City, so if you see it during your stay definitely order it.

RESTAURANTE TAMAYO.

Within the park we also visited Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), the very place where Mexico City started. If you’re into history make sure to hire a guide to really understand what you’re looking at as you tour the many 19th-century furnished rooms of Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Empress Carlota. Here you’ll also get excellent aerial views of the city from 2,325 meters (7,628 feet) above sea level.

An Elevated Coffee Break

When we finished with the park it was 3pm, and neither Esther nor I had had a coffee since 8am. For me this wasn’t ideal, but for Esther this was plain madness. I mean, the girl lived for coffee. And because I was with the queen of coffee we weren’t settling for just any java.

That day we’d learned an amazing local tip. Some of you may have heard of Pujol, a trendy restaurant in the Polanco neighborhood with a waiting list of over six months. Getting into this eatery was Esther’s #1 goal in Mexico City, though she couldn’t land a reservation; however, what we could do was head to Eno Petrarca, their attached counter culture coffee shop.

SIPPING JAVA CONCOCTIONS AT ENO PETRARCA

If I didn’t think Esther was a celebrity before, the fact that she was recognized from her Facebook page by the barista in Eno Petrarca — who came up to our table and eagerly asked her to do an impromptu guest barista session — proved it. We were also provided a few extra speciality coffee beverages along with our latte art-adorned orders. The most interesting drink was an iced Infusion Fria de Cafe with almond milk and lemon. They also offered everything from frozen lattes to atole with amaranto, a boiled Mexican drink featuring  milk, amaranth seeds, cinnamon and sugar.

Wandering Mexico City’s Roma Neighborhood

With caffeine flowing through our veins, we happily headed to Mexico City’s hip Roma neighborhood, located next to the also trendy neighborhoods of Juárez (where the Le Méridien is located) and Condesa. In Roma, we simply wandered without a plan, making fun and delicious discoveries along the way.

ARCHITECTURE IN MEXICO CITY’S ROMA NEIGHBORHOOD

A few of our favorites stops included:

  • Libreria Atico: A cozy weathered store that looks like a professor’s dusty attic. A cute black cat roamed the venue as we perused everything from The History of Man in comic book form to business help books (in Spanish). Prices ranged from about 15-60 pesos (~$0.75 to $3 USD).
  • Aurora: I’m obsessed with single spirit focused bars, and Aurora offers a ultimate gin experience. Pair your gin cocktail with a tasty pizza and live music.
  • Folk Diseno Artesenal: This fun artisan market allowed us to practice our Spanish and learn about Mexican products from mescal and coffee to hand-woven ponchos.
  • Alvaro Obregon & Insurgentes Sur Cross Streets: There’s an entire block off these cross streets (on Alvaro Obregon) showcasing numerous street vendors and locals eating at makeshift sidewalk bars. Local Tip: Esther and I were shown the proper way to eat a street stall taco. You’ll get double shells to catch any spillage, and as you bite you should stick your butt out to avoid splatter on your shirt. If you can picture a high class Brit drinking a cup of tea, you should also keep your pinky out to maneuver the taco as it gets smaller.

STREET FOOD IN ROMA

  • Bizarro Cafe: We didn’t drink at this fun-looking dive bar, but one of the bartenders noticed us gringos and excitedly pulled us inside to show us the decor. The table tops and walls are covered in classic rock posters, while the wall behind the live music stage showcases fake skulls.
  • Licoreria Limantour: After consulting with a number of Esther’s local contacts in the food and beverage industry about where to go for cocktails, it was an unanimous Limantour. Aside for upscale restaurants, Mexico City apparently doesn’t have many craft cocktail bars, though this place is a standout. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, almost every drink on the menu comes with a beautiful photo and recipe card. You can also order a custom creation. Gringo Tip: Don’t use the word “caliente” to mean “spicy” or you’ll be given something akin to a hot toddy. Lesson learned.

A “VICUNA” COCKTAIL AT LICORERIA LIMANTOUR

  • La Bodega: This restaurant is actually in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, though from Limantour we walked there in 15 minutes. Along with fantastic Mexican food and superior service, the super quirky decor turned the eatery into a maze of fun exploration. What To Get: Anything with mole Poblano sauce, as well as any of the seafood. The “camarones gigantes” are not lying when they say gigantic shrimp! Afterwards, dance it off to their live music.

Turning Food & Drink Into Art, Literally

On my final day in Mexico City, Chef Iuzzini unveiled his final Mexico City eclair recipe.

Explaining the concept, he said, “You don’t have to speak the same language to understand the food. All the flavors in the eclair will be those you understand, but the combination is what makes it different. These ingredients were all unfamiliar to me, so I experimented with different combinations and forms. I wanted to deliver something unexpected, and you may think I’m a bit loco with this recipe.”

What Iuzzini said next did sound loco, but also absolutely delicious. Picture this: A hollow Pate a Choux dough base flavored with Oaxaca mole powder, which gets injected with a filling of mamey and Veracruz vanilla, then gowned in a tamarind and lime glaze. This is garnished with sweet and crunchy crystallized huitlacoche, creamy red banana, and a Mexican-inspired peanut brittle caramelized with local piloncillo sugar and spiced with mole powder.

Not only is the unexpected flavor combination a work of art, but so is the presentation. I love a dessert that’s so beautiful you feel bad eating it (but hey, that’s what Instagram is for).

Washing down the sweet masterpiece was an equally artistic latte made by Esther. Not surprisingly, her grandfather was an artist, so she grew up drawing and painting. Since she wanted to practically apply her creative skills, she was educated in graphic design; but when she became tired of sitting behind a computer, Esther decided to apply her skills to her passion for coffee through latte art.

ESTHER’S AMAZING LATTE ART

Not only can Esther time your espresso and craft your foam to perfection, but she can make intricate designs — sometimes even using food coloring — to bring the drink to life. While visiting the Le Méridien Mexico City, she used local inspiration to etch cactuses, wrestling masks and even the national emblem onto delicious java drinks.

A foodie guide to exploring #Mexico City & local #culture – check it out! CLICK TO TWEET

Farewell For Now; But I’ll Be Back

I left for the airport with tight pants, as well as a desire to return. By hanging out with Chef Iuzzini and Esther Massdam in Mexico City, I was able to explore cuisine from the traditional to the modern, and really see how local culture can influence what we eat and drink.

If you enjoy culinary and cultural travel, Mexico City should be on your list. Sure, there are safety issues to think about (more on that below), but it’s not as dangerous as it once was. And if you use common sense you can have a really great time; on a budget, too, as even a ribeye at a nicer place like Restaurante Tamayo costs only $15 (and that’s on the high end of what you’ll pay for food!).

PINK TAXIS FOR WOMEN IN MEXICO CITY

Logistics:

Le Meridien: Starting rate is $120 per night.

Currency: Mexico Peso. As of January 2017 the exchange rate was about $1 USD to $20.74 Pesos.

Airport Transfers To/From The City Center: Along with taxis, you can book a round-trip airport shuttle for $19.99 (recommended). There’s also a metro station at the airport, though this only makes sense if you’re traveling with little luggage.

Airport Tips:

  • Coming in, customs lines can be very long (it took me over an hour). Just be patient and bring a book. Also, do not lose your customs card or you’ll have to pay $42. Your airline will collect this when leaving Mexico.
  • Leaving was much quicker — you don’t even need to take off your shoes at security. To maximize comfort and budget, I highly recommend Priority Pass (10% off with this link). Even at the lowest tier, you’ll pay $99 per year and $29 per lounge visit (plus $29 for a guest if you have one) to have access to Wi-Fi, free food and booze, comfortable seating, showers and sometimes even spa treatments. It’s accepted at over 1,000 airports around the world, so you won’t have any issues finding a lounge that accepts your pass.

Public Transport: Public transport in Mexico City isn’t the best, and Mexico City is huge and spread out. Other than renting a car or hiring a driver guide (you can contact the tourism board for this), Mexico City has Uber (get a free ride with this link) and a bike share program called EcoBici (90 Pesos/~$4.42 USD per day; here’s a map)

Of course, you can also walk. Neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa and Juaraz, the neighborhood of Le Méridien Mexico City, are easy to explore on foot.

Safety (For Women): Along with recommended safety gear like a ROBOCOPP Personal Alarm ($6 with code “JOURNEY10”) and Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments, Mexico City has a number of women’s safety initiatives in place. There are myriad pink taxis for ladies driving the city, women-only cars on the subways and front seats on buses reserved for women, disabled and seniors. My guide also told me that men with feminist ideals wear pink to show women their support.

~ By New York city based award-winning travel blogger, Jessica Festa. Find her at Jessie on a JourneyFacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest

7 trips that put families in close contact with local wildlife

Snorkel with Whale Sharks in Cancun

Fulfill your family’s ultimate once-in-a-lifetime bucket list adventure by taking a dip with whale sharks – the biggest (and most friendly) fish in the world! From May to September, families staying at sister properties CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort and JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa can embark by boat to snorkel alongside these magnificent gentle giants where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico. Though they measure up to 40 feet long and weigh in at 15 tons, whale sharks feed exclusively on plankton and are totally harmless to humans. Added perk: guests at the Cancun Marriott Resorts can check out a GoPro HER04 for the day to capture unbelievable underwater family photo ops.

Book your stay now with TripAdvisor
JWCM_Cancun_WhaleSharks

Explore the Costa Rican rainforest

For an unforgettable nature-filled vacation, families should head to Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, spread across 900 acres of natural rainforest reserve in Costa Rica’s northern region — an area responsible for 6% of the entire world’s biodiversity. With more than 500 species of local plant and wildlife on property, kiddos just might spot a coatimundis, toucans or howler monkeys. Families can have nearby animal encounters with activities like horseback riding, ziplining through the trees, rainforest tours and more. As an added bonus, the carbon neutral resort offers an eco-friendly environment that teaches kids about sustainability and how to protect the area’s natural resources.

Book your stay now with TripAdvisor
Tabacon_wildlife

Swim with sea turtles in Barbados

SUP dude? For an unforgettable animal encounter, families will love Colony Club‘s stand-up paddle board (SUP) and turtle swim excursion. Starting out on the white, warm sands of Barbados’ renowned beach, families will paddle out to The Lone Star Restaurant, one of the local, turtle hangouts, and dive into the crystal blue waters to get up-close-and-personal with the island’s friendliest marine animals – the once-endangered population of hawksbill and leatherback turtles.

 

Hangout with reptiles in Curacao

Situated on a 27 acre plantation of rare natural preserve, the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort in Curacao offers an island-within-an-island feel with some of the most varied and exotic flora and fauna in the Caribbean. Through the resort’s eco-friendly, locally inspired Camp Arawak program, kids will love the chance to feed the resort’s resident iguanas. Plus, in between watersport adventures like snorkeling and paddleboarding, families can observe hawksbill turtles nesting along the resort’s private beach every July through September.

Book your stay now through
TripAdvisor

SBBGR_Beach

Paddleboard with Dolphins in Jupiter, Florida

Hotel guests staying at the oceanfront resort can head to the nearby Blueline Surf & Paddle Co., and work up a sweat navigating the mangroves of the Intracoastal Waterways on a 90-minute paddleboard eco tour, where you might see manatees, dolphins and sea turtles. Complimentary beach cruisers are also available for resort guests to get the heart pumping as they explore the charming, seaside town’s iconic landmarks, including the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and the Loggerhead Marine Life Center.  

Encounter sea lions, blue footed boobies and penguins galore in The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most unique species in the world, and Ecoventura’s fleet of eco-friendly cruises brings families face to face with daily excursions through the archipelago’s diverse islands. From swimming alongside sea lions (and plenty of curious sea lion pups) to watching the Blue Footed Boobies shake their feet in a mating dance, snorkeling with penguins off the islands of Santa Cruz and Isabella. In a destination as pristine and protected as the Galapagos, wildlife wanders freely and fearlessly in the islands, meaning parents and kids are in for the trip of a lifetime.

Ecoventura_Galapagos

Kayak through a bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico

A kayaking tour through the mangrove forrest of the Laguna Grande takes families to a secret hideaway — Fajardo’s bioluminescent bay. A short drive from San Juan, the magical waters are filled with millions of prehistoric organisms that when touched, leave a breathtaking glow in the moonlight. The excursion, organized by the family friendly San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, invites families to learn the history and science behind the twinkling trail in the bio bay while enjoying a ride under the stars.

Book your stay now through TripAdvisor

Feed alpacas and llamas in Cusco

The colorful city of Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley of the Incas is the perfect destination for adventurous families looking for a rich dose of culture. A short drive from the city center, Awana Kancha – a llama, alpaca and vicuña farm — brings families face to face with the region’s most loved furry animals in all shapes and colors. Upon arrival, guests are greeted by the resident animals eagerly awaiting to be fed giant handfuls of grass. The interactive feedings are followed by textile weaving demonstrations by the local women keeping the tradition alive. After a day long day of adventure, families can relax in  the historic JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, a 16th century convent turned hotel whose lobby is frequented by alpacas and llamas.
AwanaKancha_Cusco
~ Contributed by Julia Cavalieri, account coordinator at Diamond PR. Follow Julia on Twitter @diamondpr

6 Tricks to Get 86% More Chipotle Burrito (for free!)

It’s basically a universal truth that the only thing better than Chipotle is…more Chipotle. I’m no religious scholar, but I’m pretty sure heaven is just one big Chipotle restaurant where the guac and chips are ALWAYS free and hell is just some Taco Bell. So when one of my co-workers at Apartment List brought up the question of how to hack Chipotle to get the most burrito for your buck, I was intrigued. If ever there was a noble intern task, this was obviously it.

Through a lot of burrito research and even more company write-offs and office burrito donations, I’ve discovered these 6 tips that can increase the size of your burrito by 86% without spending any more money.

You’re welcome, world. Please send the Nobel Prize to my mom’s house.

The Experiment

apartmentlist-ordering-burritos

So I took my geeky love of data and my black hole of a belly to Chipotle for several days and ordered 5 burritos each day (35 burritos total), then returned to the Apartment List office to meticulously separate out and weigh the ingredients. Finally, I combined all the best methods to confirm the total burrito size increase. Additional methodology footnotes are below, but for now – on to the meat of the experiment (pun intended).

Tip 1: Get a burrito bowl  with a tortilla on the side

Tip 1

At its onset, Chipotle introduced the innovative burrito bowl that combined its authentic Mexican cuisine with the ease of knife-and-fork dining. Burrito legend has it that the bowl’s lack of tortilla constraints influences servers to give burrito bowl customers huge portions in general. In my experiments, I found that this method alone gets 15% more ingredients across the board, without changing anything else about the order. Still craving that full burrito experience? No problem – you can easily ask for a tortilla on the side. Which leads to our next tip…

Tip 2: Double wrapping (asking for two tortillas)

Tip 2

This method of calling in tortilla reinforcements was initially introduced by Chipotle to save burritos that busted open their first tortilla, but Chipotle sometimes lets you ask for a double wrap for free, which adds another 4.25 ounce tortilla to your burrito (ask for the tortillas at the end, when the staff just wants you to go away). Congratulations, your burrito just became 25% bigger. Ordering tortillas on the side and wrapping it yourself may be a daunting task for some, but if you value the time it takes you to wrap the burrito at $0 per hour (hey, burritos are worth your time), then you should add this method to your burrito maximization arsenal.

Tip 3: Order both kinds of rice

Tip 3The next time your server asks if you want white or brown rice, request both types – you’ll get almost 93% more rice, at no extra cost. This carbo-loading method increases the overall weight of the burrito by 23%. As an ancient American proverb puts it: more burrito, more food, more happiness.

Tip 4: Order both types of beans

Tip 4Just like rice, there are two different types of beans we can choose from: black and pinto. If you really want to maximize burrito weight, asking for both kinds gets you 92% more beans (another note: we aren’t responsible for the gas you’ll be having afterwards). With this method, you get a 16% burrito weight increase.

Tip 5: Half/half meats

Tip 5

In theory, asking for half chicken, half steak should yield one full serving, but our tests showed that you actually get 54% more meat – basically 3/4 scoop of each. This increase in meat grows the burrito’s weight by around 9%. You must note, however, that you’ll be charged for the more expensive of the meats, but we’ve put the many finance and accounting degrees here at Apartment List to good use and determined that it’s still financially worth it.

Tip 6: Ask for fajita veggies and corn salsa

Tip 6

Hidden away and rarely mentioned by servers, the fajita vegetable mix and corn salsa are free to add, and taste good to boot. These underappreciated ingredients will cure any feeling you might have that your burrito might be lacking in terms of a balanced Food Pyramid. Grilled veggies and corn not only add more color and flavor to your burrito, but they also add around 2.55 ounces, increasing the weight by about 15% (vs. the standard burrito). Not only do you have more burrito, but you can also tell your friends and family that your burrito is totally 100% healthy.

Add it all together and you get….

apartmentlist-maximized-burrito-on-scale

Doing all the tricks together (you’ll have to double-wrap the burrito yourself) gets you a giant burrito that weighs almost 32 ounces, at no additional cost! You’re going to need a course to learn how to wrap all that. Don’t worry about finding one: we got you covered.

See below for the change in weight, by ingredient:

TableSo, in a nutshell:

There you have it. By using each of the six tricks I suggest, you may end up with a little less cheese and salsa (that comes at the end, when your bowl will already be pretty full), but you get a lot more rice, beans, and meat. My final burrito weighed 86% more than the control. Sounds like it’s time to go to Chipotle! 

Methodology:

I ordered a lot of burritos.

Every day for about two weeks, I, the intern, set off to the same Chipotle around 3 P.M. to order five of the same burritos from the same shift of workers. The control burrito I compared everything to was a white rice, black beans, chicken, mild salsa, and cheese burrito. I excluded guacamole and sour cream from all burritos so that separating ingredients wouldn’t be such a hellish nightmare that would make me cry into the burrito and mess up the data. The weights I use are an average across these five burritos. Yes, that does mean I ordered 35 burritos.

It’s okay, though, it was all a write off.

 

writeoff

There was no need to worry about wasting food afterwards because after I was done with the burritos I left them on the office kitchen counter and they all mysteriously disappeared within a few minutes. For some, my five burritos per day offering didn’t fully satisfy, so some coworkers and I had a contest to see who could get the biggest burrito (that we’d get to eat). The winner didn’t even use Tip #1 and got a 30.25 ounce burrito!

Overall, I worked quite a few hours to gather all this data and consequently received funny looks from coworkers. It was then that it hit me how strange it was to be separating burritos at an apartment marketplace company. I have this irking feeling that my boss just didn’t know what to do with me and let me pursue my passion, but that would never happen to an intern. Though, with these astonishing results and all those dirty looks, I’d say it was totally worth it.

~ By guest blogger  at Apartment List. Click here to see original post. 

Five Reasons to Visit Merida

If you have visited the eastern part of Mexico, you may be familiar with the beach towns of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. Inland the state of Yucatan, is a magical city called, Mérida. With a population of 828,000 (2010 census), Merida is the capital of Yucatán, and a cosmopolitan hub of the region. It is relatively easy to get to (only 2 hours from southeast US) and offers a very different vibe than the rest of Mexico.

Here are 5 reasons to go to Merida, right now…

1. Merida is the safest place in Mexico. The country has developed a negative reputation for safety, but just like any other place in the world, there are good and bad areas. The state of Yucatan is open to educated, wealthy, and open minded people. Merida has a very strong culture that has historically been cut off and well preserved. Therefore, the people have maintained integrity when it comes to neighborly friendliness.

2. It’s like Europe, only cheaper. The cobblestone streets of the old town are surrounded by Spanish architecture. Street artists, ongoing exhibitions, families walking in the park square, lovers dining al fresco listening to live music – all gives the feeling that you are in a romantic city in Europe. But you are just south of US, where the Mexican Peso goes a lot further than the Euro.

merida2

3. There’s lots of culture. The famous avenue, Paseo de Montejo, is dotted with sculptures that are commission to artists around the world. Walking down the street you will also pass by museums, restaurants, boutiques, theaters and lovely mansions. Jarana orchestras and vaquero dances can be enjoyed at some restaurants. Listen to Yucatan Symphony Orchestra, watch a live performance at Teatro José Peón Contreras, or spend an afternoon at Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. It is noted that there is at least one free cultural event happening every day in Merida and weekends are dedicated entirely to the enjoyment of arts.

merida1

Click here to see list of cultural events happening in Merida. 

4. This isn’t the Mexican food you know of. Yucatecan food is its own genre of cuisine and very different from what most people consider “Mexican” food. It includes influences from the local Mayan culture, as well as Caribbean, Mexican, European and Middle Eastern cultures. Try local dishes such as Sopa de Lima, Queso Relleno, Poc-Chuc, Papadzules and Panuchos. In Merida, you can find traditional restaurant, hole in the wall taco joint, as well as international bars and restaurants.

Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion
Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion

Click here to read more about the food from Yucatan.

5. It is is saturated with Mayan history. Mérida has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico with approximately 60% of all inhabitants being of the Maya ethnicity. The ancient Mayas left behind many cities with buildings, pyramids, and temples, and new discoveries are being made all the time. Located nearby is Chichen Itzá, Mayan pyramid known as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

merida

10 Essential Dishes of Yucatecan Cuisine

It is located in Southeastern Mexico, on the north part of the Yucatán Peninsula. Yucatecan food is its own unique style and is very different from what most people would consider Mexican food. It includes influences from the local Mayan culture, as well as Caribbean, European (Spanish), (North) African, and Middle Eastern cultures, as well as from the cuisine of other parts of Mexico. Key ingredients in this area are farm raised turkey and pork, spices such as oregano, habanero and xcatik, corn tortillas. Here are the top 10 must try dishes when you visit Yucatan…

1. Sopa de Lima – Whole turkeys are simmered for hours to make a delicious broth. It is then seasoned with with garlic, onion, tomatoes and dried oregano and lots of lime juice. The result is a sour yet refreshing lime soup. It tastes especially good when topped with fried tortilla strips.

Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion
Sopa de Lima at Restaurante La Tradicion

2. Panuchos – An appetizer of handmade corn tortillas topped with refried black beans and shredded chicken or turkey. The chicken is marinated in annatto past (peppery achiote seeds) dissolved in juice of sour orange. It looks colorful when garnished with pickled red onions, avocados and chopped lettuce.

3. Salbutes – Looks very similar to paunches, but in salbutes the tortillas are made of corn and flour combined, and are fried till crispy. They are topped with shredded chicken (like above), onions, tomatoes and avocados, and served as appetizers.

yucatan food salutes
Salbutes at Hotel Mayaland

4. Longaniza Asada – Spicy, long, skinny sausage is similar to the Spanish chorizo. In the Yucatan it has a darker color because of achiote and venison (deer meat) instead of pork. It is smoked on charcoal grill and served with beans, tortillas, white cheese and sour orange.

yucatan food longaniza
Longaniza at Restaurante La Tradicion

5. Cochinita Pibil – Shredded BBQ pork is one of the delicacies of the region and can be found at practically every restaurant. The pork loin is traditionally marinated in annatto paste and sour orange juice overnight, then wrapped in banana leaves and gently cooked over charcoal for hours. It is always served with refried black beans and pickled red onion relish. Alternatively, you can get it with chicken instead of pork.

6. Queso Relleno – Probably the most globally influenced dish in the Yucatan. A round block of Dutch Edam cheese is hollowed out and stuffed with ground pork cooked with onions, bell peppers, olives, raisins, capers, and almonds. Hardboiled eggs are added to the meat mixture before it makes its way into the cheese dome. The entire thing is wrapped with banana leaves, baked for 30 minutes, and served with tomato salsa and a cheese sauce. Despite the calories, it is to die for!

yucatan food queso rellenos
Queso Rellenos at Restaurante La Tradicion

7. Poc Chuc – Sounds like pork chop, and it basically is grilled fillet of pork loin. The meat is beaten till thin (Milanese style) and marinated in sour orange, salt and pepper, then grilled over charcoal.

yucatan food pork chuc
Pork Chuc at Hacienda Sotuta de Peón

8. Dulce de Papaya Con Queso – An interesting dessert recipe that can take 3 days to prepare. A whole green papaya is candied by leaving outside (only at night), soaked in lime water, then caramelized with sugar for few hours. The result is a sweet and gummy piece of fruit which is served with shredded Edam cheese.

9. Flan – A common dish found across Central and South America, and at practically every meal in the Yucatan. Flan is made with condensed and evaporated milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla. The carmel custard is delicious when light and creamy.

10. Xnipec – Roasted habaenro peppers are used to make all kinds of sauces that can taste anywhere from mild to burn your tongue hot! Xnipec is a fiery hot chunky salsa made with habanero chiles and Seville orange juice, eaten in small quantities.

Living With Art in the Yucatan

During my recent visit to the colonial city of Velladolid in the state of Yucatan, Mexico, I had the privilege of visiting John Venator at his home. Venator is a retired American executive who fell in love with Mexico few years ago. He visited the Yucatan area with his wife on vacation, and eventually made it home. In Velladolid, John and his wife, Dorianne purchased a home that was in ruins and renovated it for 10 years. They designed every feature of the house very carefully and then converted it into one of the largest private Mexican art collections in the world.

john venator

Casa de los Venados translating to House of the Deer, is an 18,000 square foot private home/ folk art museum located near the main square of Velladolid. An unassuming sign outside the main door doesn’t give away much to whats inside – over 3000 pieces of museum quality Mexican folk and contemporary art.

John shows me around the hallway, patio, bedrooms, kitchen, backyard and dining room, pointing out to several of his favorite pieces. Everywhere I look, there is a sculpture, painting, pottery or furniture that was either commissioned by the Venators or acquired from art shows, flea markets and competitions. There are no names or descriptions, but John himself remembers each artists, and goes on to tell several stories of how he brought them to his collection. The pieces are from all over Mexico and represent traditional Mexican elements such as wild animals, everyday people, skulls, devils, etc. There is even an entire guest suite dedicated to the famous legend, Frida Kahlo.

Below are some photos from Casa de los Venados… but truly, they don’t do justice to actually seeing the place in person.

casa de los venados casa 2 casa 3 casa 4 casa 5 casa 6

While the Venators continue to live in this house museum, they offer daily tours at 10am in English and Spanish for a $5 suggested donation, through which they support local charities. A visit to Casa de los Venados is not to be missed! Watch video of the home or visit their website for more information.

Driving Into Mexico, by Accident!

The beautiful city of San Diego, California is located only a few miles north of the Mexico border. In fact, I was driving on Interstate 5 and noticed highway signs that read “Mexico exit is coming up.” My plan was to drive to the end of the US border, park my car at San Ysidro and walk over to Mexico. It is much faster and convenient to go this way especially if you are doing a day trip. There is a pedestrian bridge that one can take into Tijuana, the first town, an important financial and industrial center of Mexico, and the largest city on the Baja California Peninsula. After arrival, buses and taxis are available that take you into the center of town which is bustling with shops and restaurants.

Unfortunately, the exit on I-5 that I was suppose to take had no sign stating that “this is where you need to get off to park your car if you are going to Mexico” so, I accidently drove into the border.

I thought there must be a place to park at the border crossing, or at least I can turn around somewhere. But no, an unmanned check post said “Welcome to Mexico!” and there I was. Nobody checked for identification or stamped my passport but I’m sure there were cameras all around.

crossing US border into Mexico

The moment I crossed international borders, my GPS went out of service and cell phone switched to roaming. I didn’t bother to print any maps of Tijuana beforehand since I wasn’t planning to arrive there by car. I had not notified my car rental company that I was going to take it to Mexico. Neither did I have a phone number to call in case of an emergency.

Here I was in Tijuana, supposedly one of the most dangerous places in North America. People later warned me that its famous for kidnappings, gangs and drugs.

There were well maintained highways and people seemed to be following some laws. Exit names were nicely labelled, although very confusing and inconsistent. I wasn’t sure where I was suppose to go even though I wanted to see the city. So I just kept on driving wherever the roads took me, which in this case was to Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.

Rosarito, located only 30 minutes south of Tijuana, seemed like a quiet beach town with lots of newly developed homes. There were margarita and taco shacks dotted all along the ocean which was waiting to alive once the sun went down. A few tacky souvenir shops sold shot-glasses, sombreros and t-shirts. It didn’t take very long to drive through the stretch of the main street, which was also heavily guarded by Mexican police.

Rosarito beach Baja California

I stopped at a gas station to pick up a map, only to realize I didn’t have any Mexican Pesos. The lady at the cash register accepted my US Dollars but returned the change back in Pesos. There was no prior understanding of the prevailing currency exchange rate as I got the “take it or leave it” look from her.

Thankfully, I was able to find my way back into the city (mostly through trial and error) and see the main attractions of Tijuana. By this time, I gained enough confidence to park my car and step out. I visited Tijuana Cultural Center, Avenida Revolucion, Amigos del Artes, churches, food markets, shops and plazas. Downtown area was overwhelming with lots of cars, pedestrians, street hawkers and everyone trying to sell me something. It didn’t feel unsafe, although someone who is not use to traveling in third world countries may perceive otherwise. In any case, Tijuana was not the sort of place I would like to spend more than a couple of hours at.

Amigos del Artes Tijuana

After paying the parking attendant with the rest of the Pesos I had, I made my way back north towards USA. The 6-lans drive-through immigration was perhaps the most chaotic border patrol I have ever seen. Separate lines for US citizens, permanent residents and visitors were non existent. There were no signs for wait times, documentation or anything whatsoever. The lanes kept shrinking, so we had to merge every few minutes. Then there were street hawkers who set up shop in the middle of the highway, making it a marketplace. It was easy to do so since we were virtually in a “parking lot” situation for many hours.

Mexico immigration crossing

The Mexican vendors walked around selling everything from souvenirs, furnishings, cold drinks, fast food to puppies and medicines. There were men wearing t-shirts identifying themselves as “pharmacy” who sold antibiotics without prescriptions, ladies taking orders for fresh tacos and burritos, handicapped citizens begging for money, young men washing cars without permission hoping for tips, and kids running around collecting anything American tourists would give them. It was a grave sight while I waited 2.5 hours in line to cross the border.

puppies sold at Mexico immigration crossing

 

medication sold at Mexico immigration crossing

Once I reached the immigration counter, the office asked me what I went to Mexico for, and I explained the whole situation of “driving there by accident.” He didn’t seem amused, as if this happens all the time. Truly, next time I will be careful not to blink while driving, or end up in Tijuana. The officer looked at my passport, inspected my car, asked a few questions and allowed me to re-enter California.

Difference between Spanish and Mexican paella

If you missed my presentation at Taste of Travel stage at the San Diego Travel Adventure Show, you didn’t get to taste my delicious paella. But all is not lost. You can still watch some clips from the show and follow along the recipe below.

Paella is a rice based dish that was invented in the mid 19th century around Lake Albufera, which is in the Valencia region in the East coast of Spain. Paella means a round “pan,” that is shallow, made of steel and has two handles. You can find paella pans at pretty much every kitchen equipment store, but a wok or flat deep dish would also do.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a national dish of Spain. In fact, most people in Spain don’t even eat paella unless it’s a special occasion. It has gained a lot of popularity around the world and still considered a delicious entree. There are mainly three types of paella – Valencia, seafood, mixed and others. Paella was traditionally cooked by men over open fire fueled by orange and pine branches and pine cones.

toasted rice on the bottom, called socrarrat, was considered a delicacy

Trivia: In 2001, Juan Galbis in Spain created the largest paella that served 110,000 people.

taste of travel san diego

The difference between Spanish and Mexican paella is that the Mexican version is spicier and soupier. It also does not have saffron, so you don’t need to worry about purchasing the most expensive spice in the world. Mexican paella is cooked using parboil rice. If you frown upon cooking with parboil rice, you must not know that it contains 80% of nutrients of brown rice (as it is rice with husk on boiled). This is how 50% of the world eats its rice. 

As the Mexican paella is spicy it uses Arbol (chile de arbol) in the recipe. Arbol is a small and potent red chili that is commonly used to decorate wreaths. It is also known as tree chile, bird’s beak or rat’s tail chile. If you cannot find Arbol, Cayenne is a good substitute.

Another difference is that we use white wine in the broth for Spanish paella, whereas beer is used in Mexican paella (preferable Mexican beer). Other ingredients include seafood (Clams/ shrimp/ mussels) that must be properly washed and spicy Mexican chorizo that is mashed up into the sauce as well. 

The Mexican paella is an easy dish to prepare and makes for a great one meal dinner. It can be prepared ahead of time and served at room temperature.

Here’s our easy and authentic Mexican paella recipe that you can try out at home.

Mexican Paella

Cinco de Mayo is over now but if you still have some craving for Mexican food, here is a very special recipe for you. Created by Chef Paulina Suarez from Solario restaurant at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, this dish is authentic to her homeland. It is very different from a Spanish paella, which you find more commonly at restaurants. The Mexican paella is cooked with parboil rice (made the day before), broth made with beer and leftover meats. It does not have saffron like the Spanish paella, is spicier and somewhat soupy. Try out the recipe for yourselves….

Arroz a la valenciana (Mexican Paella)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup parboil rice
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 1/2 onion
  • pinch of dry Arbol peppers
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 8 mussels
  • 6 cherry-stone clams
  • 1/4 cup Mexican beer
  • 2 links cooked chorizo
  • 7 shrimp (uncooked)
  • 1/2 cup frozen green peas (thawed)
  • 1/2 cup frozen corn kernels (thawed)
  • 2 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 tablespoon butter

For the tomato broth: Blend tomatoes, onion, 1 garlic glove in a blender. Mix with the chicken stock and set aside.

For the rice: In a heavy bottom pot, heat half of the oil and butter. Add the rive and cook till it has a nice golden color. Add 2 cups of the tomato broth and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice absorb the leftover liquids.

To assemble the paella: In a large paella or saute pan, add garlic, butter and oil. Saute for 1 minute, then add clams and mussels. Add 1/4 cup beer and allows for the shells to open up. Add chorizo, rice and rest of the tomato broth. Use the peppers based on how much heat you like. Add the shrimp, corn and peas; salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and cook till the shrimp turns pink (if using raw). Garnish with sliced lime and green onions. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Gastronomo de Mexico

After it’s grand opening last weekend, everyone is talking about the newest hot spot in town. Located on Peachtree St, close to the Fox Theater, Escorpion Tequila Bar and Cantina is trendy, young and eclectic. The place where Escorpion houses now has seen a few change of hands over the years.

Owner Riccardo Ullio already has successes of Sotto Sotto and Fritti under his belt and a reputable name when it comes to serving good quality food. Although Escorpion offers a cuisine different from Riccardo’s Italian roots, the expectations are still high.

The cuisine at Escorpion can be described as “upscale regional Mexican.” If you are still debating to go, here is what a typical experience at the Escorpion would be like….

It will take you a few minutes to go through the extensive list of cocktails, tequilas and liquors on the drink menu. If you are an adventurous drinker, always looking for new concoctions, you won’t be disappointing. Try the El Chamuco with blackberry and ginger or Pueblo Unida, a spicy habanero salt rimmed lime margarita.

For starters order the chunky Guacamole or one of the many ceviches. The Tuna Ceviche is an interesting treat for the palate and the eyes. Cubed pieces of sushi grade tuna are lost against diced watermelon. Gently seasoned with sea salt and served in a glass, it is a perfect dish on a summer evening.

The cuisine here is described as “regionally authentic” and they truely live up to that. Even though the names would sound familiar, they are not your off-the-mill Tex-Mex dishes that you find at most restaurants in Atlanta. The Cheese Chili Rellenos is  nothing like you have tasted elsewhere. Spicy whole chilis are surrounded by a light fluffy egg meringues, melted Monterey Jack and Corija (Mexican) cheese and a savory tomato gravy. A tablespoon of the combination melts away as soon as it touches your tongue.

The Fish Tacos found here are not for the faint hearted. While the tilapia fillet is deep fried, it is drizzled with a spicy mayo made with poblano peppers that can serve as a nice compliment to one of the fruit infused tequilas.

Chicken Tamale with avocado sauce is just what it sounds like. While the Fish Tacos are on the spicy side, the tamales are bland. There is something for everyone here!

Desserts are not  strong suit here. Both the Flan and Tres Leches are nothing to rave about. Best to come here for a few drinks and enjoy some small plates to keep you nourished. The restaurant has a club feel after dark and is open till late every night (1am on weeknights, 2 am on weekends). There is a lively atmosphere with international music and festive crowds, so stay on and join the dance floor.

Escorpion Tequila Bar and Cantina

800 Peachtree St NE
Atlanta, GA 30308