Pujol: La Experiencia

If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s convincing myself that I need things. Once a seed has been planted, my brain instinctively showers it with water and sunlight until I can’t fathom it not blossoming into fruition. It’s no surprise then, that upon discovering Restaurant Magazine’s 17th “Best Restaurant in the World” (sitting pretty between Per Se and Le Bernardin) was located in Mexico City, dining there became not a desire but a necessity. Throwing our backpacker budget to the wind we called to book an incredibly last minute table at Mexico’s finest and after 45 minutes of searches and transfers and “imposible”-s, we were in. Pujol (Catalan for “pork”), here we come.

It was our first night in Mexico City and we were ecstatic to be there. Intoxicated by the sights, smells and sounds of the dizzying metropolis, in addition to the nice tequila buzz we had going, the prospect of our first dinner made us downright giddy.

Upon entering Pujol we were greeted by several smiling faces and escorted through the main dining room to a private table for two tucked in a windowed alcove. We had definitely snagged a last minute cancellation, our server informed us with a wink – these tables were booked at least two weeks in advance, even for a Thursday. The interior of Pujol was like a nice suit – dark, sleek, simple and just plain sexy to be inside. I scanned the room, noticing we were the only white people in the restaurant; an assuring sight in any foreign eatery.

Our server greeted us with cucumber-mint infused water while warmly introducing us to the 9 course tasting menu (all in Spanish, much to Nick’s confusion). After making several selections and popping a Cab Franc blend from Baja, we were fully equipped to feast.

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After igniting our palates with an ice of juniper, fennel and lime, we were presented with what was arguably the highlight of the meal. A hollow, aged gourd was placed at the center of our table and as the lid was removed, a fragrant smoke pillowed out. We peered in to find two skewered baby ears of corn sitting atop a bed of charred husks, slathered in a mayonnaise of ground chicatana ant, coffee and chili. Delicious is not the right word to describe it; “moving” does it better justice. My eyes instinctively shut as I was transported away – the unique blend of flavors evoking memories that laid just beyond my grasp. It defied classification. At once wholly Mexican and strangely personal, after three bites it was gone. My eyes reopened to see Nick across the table with a similar expression of wonder on his face. Whoa.

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Next followed a vibrantly fresh broccoli mole topped with cauliflower, romanesco and cabbage curls that sang with green color and playfully delivered my vegetables for the meal. I squirmed with anticipation for the taco course to come.

What arrived in front of us were unlike any tacos we had ever seen. Snapper ceviche laid artfully across a blue corn tortilla pressed with “hoja santa”, topped with a micro-herb salad then finished with fish skin “chicharrones” and dollops of black bean emulsion. Paired with a custom smoked salsa, it was a celebration of both earth and sea complemented by acid, salt and that essential “crunch” factor. The brother taco was equally handsome. Cacao rubbed pork loin slow-cooked to perfection sidled by avocado purée, wrapped in a poblano tortilla and paired with salsa verde. The flavors were classic Mexican and yet eating this taco transcended time and place.  It was tender beyond belief, it was creamy and ripe, it was spicy in all the right ways and it sang with a modern timelessness many cooks strive for and few achieve. This was the type of taco that will haunt your dreams. I yearned for, needed, more but it was gone. That first bite of taco would cross my mind multiple times a day, every day for the next week.

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At this point the red wine had fully enveloped me in a fuzzy blanket of warmth and my level of satisfaction was through the roof. The server could sense how much we were enjoying ourselves as he delivered our next course and immediately befriended us – wanting to know everything about who we were, where we were from and how we happened to find ourselves at his table. I loved him – not only was he incredibly personable but he was also changing my life for the better every time he delivered our next course.

I excitedly examined my entrée of pan fried pork belly on salsa verde with leafy purslane and potato confited in egg yolk – the kitchen’s play on ham and eggs. It’s sister entree – the “pesca del día” – was lime-infused, seared yellowfin tuna paired with purée of eggplant and a smooth habanero sauce; an unexpected combination of flavors that delighted us with their compatibility. We couldn’t decided which we liked better – it almost seemed irrelevant – at this point we were just surfing the wave of gastro-fun that had been so carefully generated by the platoon of 26 chefs out back.

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After more wine was poured we were presented with a traditional mole that had been aged for ten months and topped with crispy chicken skin, accompanied by hand-made tortillas. Complex and interesting as any good mole should be – my only complaint was that it wasn’t slathered over a delicious slab of meat.

After a small course of guayaba and sweet potato spheres to assist our transition from savory to sweet, we had arrived at dessert. Preserved papaya on a yogurt foam with crystallized lemon and a scoop of honey ice cream delighted. The toasted brioche with tropical fruits, crumbled cheese and a tomatillo-mint marmalade reminded me of the breakfast I should eat more often.

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Unable to take another bite, our last course was thankfully in liquid form. A soothing cup of corn tea brewed with star anise and lime peel was the final salute to the culinary heritage of a country who truly knows how to feast.

It was an unforgettable experience; a trifecta of impeccable service, unbeatable company and a truly outstanding meal served with a twist of modern whimsy. I wobbled from my table drunk on wine, food and life, nearly hugging everyone in my path on the way out. A tray of truffles appeared out of nowhere and after a profusion of thanks and compliments we cruised into the warm night air. We had made it almost two blocks when I heard feet pounding behind me. I turned to find an out-of-breath employee with an outstretched arm handing me the moleskin in which I had taken notes from the meal and left behind. Shaking away the tip Nick tried to offer him and wishing us a good evening, we continued on our way knowing that we had found a friend in Mexico City.

http://www.pujol.com.mx/

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“Don’t Eat the Street Meat” Advice Ignored

As we cruised through the winding roads that lead from Tijuana to the port city of Ensenada, teetering on cliffs that dropped dramatically to the open sea below, my stomach began to rumble. Upon hitting the border my taco fantasies became more vivid than ever and I was ready to make them a reality.  Commence feasting: Mexican style.

The first stop was my brother’s roadside taqueria of choice, El Paisa, where large chunks of meat were roasting on spits and a symphony of salsas and pickled vegetables danced before our eyes.  Lunch was prepared by a masterful taquero who pumped out an impressive nine in under a minute; a display of auto-drive at its finest.

They were exceptional.  Smoky carne asada perfectly balanced by creamy guacamole, garnished with pickled chiles and every available salsa blended together in a fiesta of flavors that set the precedent for future feasts.  The advice Nick had been given before departure, “Just don’t eat the street meat” was ignored entirely and life was all the better for it.

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The next day we set out on a mission to eat as much street as possible.  Upon entering the city, we landed in the heart of the gringo district where cruise-ship passengers wandered the streets in search of tacky sombreros and Viagra prescriptions.  Pushing through the swarm of vendors promising us the best “junk” in town, the signs switched from dollars to pesos and we found ourselves in the true Ensenada of friendly locals, festive music and eats galore.

Wafting aromas of grilled meat drew us to the first stand we could find where we hungrily ordered a taco and quesadilla.  The dish that arrived, however, was far better than anything we could have imagined; the quesotaco. Two grilled corn tortillas oozing with melted cheese folded around roasted pork to create the ultimate fusion of Mexican comfort foods.  Que rico.

Next we headed to “La Guerrerense,” a ceviche stand that had won awards at L.A.’s street food festival two years running and had accrued an international following.  We ordered one of each of the winners, sea snail and urchin ceviches piled high onto a crispy tostada topped with avocado and dressed with hot sauce.  Fresh, slightly chewy and nothing like the uni we have back in Maine, we crossed it off our lists and foraged on.

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Nothing marries more perfectly with street meat than cerveza, so after putting away a liter in a parking lot, we set out in search of Ensenada’s infamous fish tacos.  We went to two stands – one recommended by an American blogger and one by Forrest’s Mexican wife Rubi – it’s easy to guess which won.  The fish was heavily battered and fried to perfection, then piled high with pico de gallo, shredded lettuce and an array of fresh salsas.  We annihilated ours, did a lap and came back for seconds.  The lady that served us laughed knowingly.  If there is one thing that can be said about the people of Ensenada, they know good street food and they also know that theirs is worth crossing the border for.

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A Maiden Voyage

Any trip to California, no matter how brief, requires a trip to the cult burger chain In-N-Out. This is especially true when your travel buddy has never had an encounter with the Double Double before. Four beef patties, two mounds of fries and a strawberry shake later, Nick was devirginized and Forrest was revved up about launching the rip-off Mexican franchise “Adentro-Y-Afuera.”

In-N-Out defies all stereotypes of a fast-food chain. Family owned, with fries cooked to order and an incredibly friendly staff that almost make you wonder if everyone is on something (seriously, why are they all beaming like that?) – any trip to In-N-Out is the perfect embodiment of breezy SoCal living. Whether familiar with the secret menu or not, it’s hard to walk out not feeling like life is better animal style.

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