The Casual Restaurant Critic re-visits Peruano

Quick update on the Peruano restaurant – don’t go on a Sunday afternoon, or at least give them some time to get the kitchen up to speed.

Today the Critic returned with Better Half, this time with the Mini-Critic and there was almost an hour between the time the last appetizer was finished and the main courses arrived at the table.

Peruvian waiter was sincerely apologetic and offered a round of drinks and it wasn’t a tragic situation, but it did dampen the enthusiasm from the previous visit just a few days ago.

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Peruano

The Casual Restaurant Critic and his lovely Better Half were celebrating. It was an anniversary and that dangerous time of the year was coming up (pib season in the Yucatan) and so, the Critic thought, something light, but special. He had seen the Peruano on the occasional drive-by near Santa Lucia in el centro de Merida, but had never stopped in.

What a pleasant surprise!

A colorful, beautiful little restaurant serving all things Peruvian with a few local touches. The famous ceviches are very present, as well as other combinations that have put Peruvian cuisine on the map in the last decade or so.

The house drink, a Pisco Sour, was absolutely fantastic. It was necessary to repeat the drink order as the first round went down far too quickly.

The ceviche trio – a sampler, and perfect for two people – makes for a great appetizer. They are fresh, zesty and refreshingly cold. Critic liked the tuna ceviche best. Fried yuca was great. The little bowl of crispy but not rock-hard corn, lightly salted and with that smoky flavor of the fire, was a nice touch.

For a little bit of carbohydrates, some coconut rice was ordered which was delicious and accompanied perfectly the ceviche.

Service was great, from the on-site Peruvian waiter who seems to be in charge of things. Make sure you get him to help you with your menu choices as he knows what he is talking about. Air conditioned and beautiful little room.

The bill, which you must find in one of the drawers of the little piece of furniture brought to your table, was completely acceptable, given the level of food, the location and the service.

Another – thankfully great – addition to the Santa Lucia restaurant scene.

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El Crítico Casual Restaurantero visits Oliva/Enoteca

Unsure if the Critic had posted a previous review of Enoteca/Oliva (which fell into the ‘meh’ category), he is putting this latest visit up for your perusal.

Everyone knows Oliva and Enoteca so there’s not much to add to the general knowledge base. Located on the corner of 47 and 54, Enoteca/Oliva is a slightly larger version of the original Oliva everyone raves about. Great Italian food, extensive wine list and, on this occasion the service by Maria was outstanding. She was so pleasant that the Critic forgot about the previous visit some time ago where the server was snooty and somewhat presumptuous in his handling of the Critics’ party.

Hopefully Maria will stay (and get a raise) and whoever the other waiter was will remain where he was on this occasion – happily absent.

Here are a few photos of the food, which was not only excellent but also beautifully presented.

Homemade breadsticks

Homemade breadsticks

Merlot

Merlot

Wine rack overhead

Wine rack overhead

Tuna tartare

Tuna tartare

Burrata with grilled asparagus

Burrata with grilled asparagus

Grilled 'escolar' fish from northern Mexico

Grilled ‘escolar’ fish from northern Mexico

The always unphotogenic but delicious gnocchi

The always unphotogenic but delicious gnocchi

A stupendous carbonara

A stupendous carbonara

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Casual Restaurant Critic, sans new pants, reviews Petit Delice

The German part of the Casual Restaurant Critic feels it is important to have an afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen. If you have traveled to the land of the kraut (sauerkraut that is) you know what this custom is all about.

After a heavy meal the other day, the Critic wanted a good cup of coffee and Petit Delice has one of the best coffees in town, bar none. Along with their excellent coffee and tea selections, they feature some real French-style pastries that are out of this world.

The local bible, el Diario de Yucatan, did an article on them a while back, for those of you capable of reading en español:

Abren un rincón de estilo francés

The café, a little piece of France in Merida, is located on that awful and congested avenida that runs from El Pocito to City Center (Walmart) near the periferico, with it’s hundreds of small L-shaped plazas full of businesses that will probably fail sooner than later, due to the sheer volume of commercial offerings.

Enjoy the photos – this place is highly recommended!

Pastries that taste as good as they look

Pastries that taste as good as they look

Calm, subdued atmosphere

Calm, subdued atmosphere

The lamps are beautiful

The lamps are beautiful

Pavlova

Pavlova

The best coffee (this is a latte) in town

The best coffee (this is a latte) in town

Perennial favorite - lemon tart

Perennial favorite – lemon tart

Yum

Yum

 

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The Casual Restaurant Critic is buying new pants – Hermana Republica reviewed!

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Hola!

Just when you thought it was safe to visit a restaurant without some idiot snapping photos of every single dish, the Critic strikes again, camera in hand, to review the Hermana Republica on the Merida-Progreso highway.

If you haven’t seen it, you have been spending far too much time in El Centro de Merida, where admittedly the offerings have been improving and where the Critic does not often venture, what with the dearth of parking and the enormous amount of time it takes to get there from his casa.

The Hermana República (sister republic) is an affectionate term for the Yucatan, employed by long-time fans of an independent Yucatan and the occasional jokester who understands that the Yucatan is a different place from the rest of the República Mexicana.  The restaurant that bears this name is located just after the Xcanatun exit on the afore-mentioned highway and features a very large, very in-your-face Yucatecan flag flapping proudly. This flag was the actual flag used when the Yucatan was an independent state back in the day, separate from the hated waches and other foreign meddlers (except for International Harvester – that was alright)

But, and in the keeping of this long-standing blog, the Critic digresses once again.

You want to hear about the restaurant and the Critic can tell you without hesitation that the food is great! While Better Half had pork cooked with mushrooms and a delicious gravy that warranted ordering the excellent (really – excellent!) french fries to soak up the juice, the Critic ordered the pork ribs cooked in smoky adobe. To the side of the ribs was sour and crunchy esquite corn, sans cream thank god. Both dishes were fantastic. Five stars on the food. Again, just to be clear, the french fries are disturbingly delicious – the Critic had to have them removed from the table in order not to devour the entire generous helping.

Appetizers included the guacamole with chicharron and sikil-pak, which is a must for any restaurant flying the Yucatan flag so proudly. That was really the only ‘typical’ dish on the menu. No queso relleno, no poc chuc, no relleno negro. The truth is, no hacen falta. No need to duplicate what others are already doing, in some cases well.

There was also a trio of very fresh salsas: tomate verde, chiltomate and habanero. It’s been a while since the Critic had such fresh salsas; they literally dance on your tongue and don’t just lie there like a tomato-flavored piece of sock as is so often the sad case in many Merida restaurants. The tostadas too, deserve special mention. They are baked apparently, thick and smoky tasting, like in some pueblo – and anyone who appreciates such subtleties can not stop eating them.

Service is adequate and friendly with the usual quiet/shy/unsure component shining through ; the room is essentially a box but a tastefully decorated and well air-conditioned one so it feels cozy. The furniture is real, no plastic.

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Skip dessert; the apple pie with vanilla ice cream was the choice but the pastry is too dough-y, which is overbearing and those poor apple chunks (and there aren’t that many of them) get lost in their heavy casing. It is warm though and potentially could be good with the ice cream on the side. Perhaps switch to a crumble? No photo because by the time the Critic remembered, the poor tart had already been jackhammered to death.

It should be noted that this is (out back) the actual brewery where Patito beer is made. You have heard of Patito beer? It along with Maneek and Ceiba are the microbreweries that are putting Yucatan beer making back on the map where it should be. So of course beer is highlighted on the menu also and one can order 2 samplers with four beers each (5 ounce glasses – you can do this) to try all eight varieties of local, microbrewed cerveza.  From stout and porter to Weizenbier, there is surely a cerveza for you here. Critic’s choice? Vanilla Porter and Belgian Blonde. Take a chew of a tostada between each beer to cleanse the palate.

Outside, there is a courtyard with wooden picnic tables and a row of food trucks that start up in the evenings, creating a biergarten atmosphere, hidden just a few meters from the busy highway. No retenes either out this way!

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El Casual Restaurant Critic visita Ahumadero

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Ahumadero

Ahumadero means ‘smoker’ in English and that is the premise of this taco place, located at the glorieta in Francisco de Montejo where the ‘mestiza’ statue is.

Parking is a challenge, but if you drive around the block where the OXXO is, you will find plenty of street parking.

The menu is simple, a few cuts of pork, served in tacos or in tortas, and all smoked. The BBQ sauce is delicious and everything is home-made. There are regular and blue corn tortillas that accompany the melted cheese aka queso fundido, which is made with a tangy cheese and not the bland tasteless glop that so often passes for queso these days at other taco places. The frijoles appie is also delicious, hearty and on the sweet side like you would find at a BBQ kind of place.

In keeping with the September, mes de la patria theme, there will be pozole, also featuring smoked ingredients, available from today on and possibly to the end of the month if the demand is there. The Critic got to sample this pozole and it is fantastic, thick with chunks of meat and hominy corn and a tasty, satisfying broth.

No alcohol, just homemade regular and in-season fruit horchatas, jamaicas and the usual assortment of refrescos embotellados.

Prices are very reasonable and a filling meal can be had for a couple hundred pesos, for two to four people, depending on your appetite.

Queso fundido

Queso fundido

Regular and blue corn tortillas

Regular and blue corn tortillas

Smoked pozole

Smoked pozole

The crew

The crew

Working the plancha

Working the plancha

Casual Restaurant Critic at Zamna, in Izamal

The Casual Restaurant Critic had the opportunity to spend a Sunday afternoon near Izamal and so it was only logical that lunch should be had there. Instead of the usual and 99% excellent Kinich it was decided, with the Better Half’s acquiescence, that the newer Zamná, which has somehow appropriated the entire serving staff originally working at Kinich (how did THAT happen?) should be given a chance.

Located just near the edge of town, where the ‘paint your place yellow’ memorandum somehow failed to arrive, the Zamná restaurant is an attempt to recreate the same atmosphere as Kinich, with mixed results. There are artesanias for sale, there is a giant palapa roof, there is an hipil-clad Mayan lady making tortillas in a separate hut along with a young man grilling the poc chuc and the servers are all women, able to maneuver giant trays of food and drink to their guests.

But somehow, the atmosphere is lacking. There is something missing here and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is – maybe a lack of interaction with the friendly-enough staff, who are mostly efficient, but not particularly charming. The actual space is a long an unremarkable rectangle and the music is all trio but the overall feel is… meh. If you are going to copy or emulate the already very successful brand that is Kinich, you are going to have to try to make it better, not just the same or almost the same.

The food you ask?

The food is fine. Better Half had the pipian de conejo, served only on Sundays which was quite good and the Critic had the queso relleno, which his go-to dish to evaluate Yucatecan restaurants, due to its complexity and the facility with which one can get it wrong (like at the over-rated Hacienda Ochil, where the dish is quick to arrive at your table and has seemingly been microwaved) and here, the platillo tipico was very good, but not better than, Kinich. Or Teya, where it is excellent.

Sikil pak dip was excellent, as were the empanadas, crunchy on the outside and melty cheesy inside.

Here are some photos of the food and restaurant and in the Critic’s opinion, visitors to Izamal are well-served by sticking to Kinich.

The restaurant Zamna

The restaurant Zamna

Hammocks make up part of  the decoration

Hammocks make up part of the decoration

Empanadas w chaya corn stuffed w edam cheese

Empanadas w chaya corn stuffed w edam cheese

Sikil pak and chaya limonada

Sikil pak and chaya limonada

Pipian de conejo (rabbit) only on Sundays

Pipian de conejo (rabbit) only on Sundays

Critic's choice - queso relleno

Critic’s choice – queso relleno

The End of the ‘Temporada’ in Yucatan

If you have lived in the Yucatan for any length of time, you know that every good Yucatecan looks forward to the summer vacations at the beach, known simply as “la temporada”. While the term “temporada” literally means ‘season’ a word that is of special significance to hunters when combined with the word rabbit, duck, deer or moose; or that special time of the year when those of us past a certain age used to play marbles. In the Yucatan, the word has a special meaning and that is: summer vacations. Plans for what one is going to do during the upcoming ‘temporada’ can be started as early as January, when looking at the upcoming year on the calendar; it is a big deal here.

And, at the end of August, when Sams Club and Costco in Merida have already set up displays with plastic made-in-China Santa Clauses and inflatable snowmen, the temporada comes to an end and the locals pack everything up and head back to the city.

No more afternoon sunset-watching, cool drink in hand, while the kids walk the beach for kilometers on end. No more afternoons of entertaining visitors from Merida or beyond with fresh fried fish from the local fishermen and junk food galore to snack on. No more morning jogs on the beach, lazy afternoons with the kids on a boat or pre-dawn wake up calls to go fishing. The beginning of another school year means that Moms – and the occasional enlightened Dad – will be lining up at Merida papelerias like Burrel to buy their school supplies and books if they haven’t already done so for their children and you can’t do those things if you are still at the beach.

For the well-off, who have vacationed in Chicxulub, Uaymitun, Telchac and points further out, jet-skis and motorized beach vehicles are hosed off (by the help of course) and stowed on trailers, to be towed back to Merida behind luxury pickup trucks and minivans where they will be stored in the garage until the next beach break, usually Easter in April the following year. Boats of all sizes are taken to marinas to be taken care of by someone else. Leftover food, alcohol, hammocks and clothing will be loaded into the aforementioned minivans by sullen muchachas to be unloaded by same once they arrive back in the city.

Here’s a socio-cultural aside: most muchachas hate the temporada as it means much more work than usual what with all the sand being tracked in on an hourly basis and the constant arrival and departure of relatives and friends. Plus they can’t get back to their pueblos as easily from the beach on their (few) days off and don’t enjoy any of the beach activities as these are completely foreign to them, never having learned to swim or to appreciate a good ceviche or pescado frito.

For the less economically blessed, plastic chairs, remaining food items and TV’s will be crammed into and onto smaller, less-luxurious vehicles and will, with their owners holding onto rooftop items with their fingertips, also be transported back to Merida.

Both socio-economic groups use the same garbage disposal system, which involves throwing supermarket bags of accumulated trash on to roadside temporary “dumps” which make for a delightful visual treat for many weeks to come.

At the beach, restaurants and businesses that had moved their operations to the coast for the duration will shutter doors, unplug refrigerators and return everything movable back to Merida. The futbolitos, those popular tables with little plastic soccer players that every Yucatecan teen and pre-teen spends an inordinate amount of time at during the evenings to flirt with the opposite sex will be packed up and moved to an upcoming fair or put in storage. Local businesses, the ones that are on the beach year-round, will reduce their staff and count the pesos they made during the temporada, which will probably be just enough (but not quite, they will assure you) to tide them over until the next group of vacationers – the notoriously frugal snowbirds from Canada and the northeastern states – arrive in the fall to spend their winters in warmer climes and spread around what little money they bring with them. Beach houses themselves are closed up in preparation for long term emptiness, unless they are on the rental market for the afore-mentioned snowbirds, in which case they are only partially stripped as a caretaker will probably remain on site to keep things up and running.

All that packing, storing, towing and hauling activity comes democratically together in a sea of vehicles on the Progreso-Merida highway, thankfully now 4 lanes wide most of the way.  Traffic to Merida, in the last daylight hours of the last Sunday of the last weekend of the temporada, is usually a nightmare, especially on the stretches from Uaymitun to Progreso and Chelem to the Progreso-Merida highway as there are only two lanes and one lane, respectively, as the upper class and the middle and lower classes converge. 23 years ago, when there was one lane out to Progreso and one lane back to Merida, this last day’s traffic was literally bumper to bumper for the entire 20 kilometer drive with exasperated drivers looking for free asphalt on shoulders and passing dangerously at every opportunity.

Upon arriving in Merida, temporadistas are welcomed by the flashing blue and red lights of many police patrol vehicles and face the final hurdle of getting into the city and home, where washing machines and empty refrigerators stand ready to process sand-encrusted towels and receive plastic containers of leftovers.

A sense of relief mixed with nostalgia washes over many. But, the temporada has officially ended and it’s time to get back to the regular routine of life in Merida.

Casual Restaurant Critic – Houston, Texas

Once again, it’s time for a visit to Houston which is becoming quite the culinary destination and the Critic has had the opportunity to visit and revisit some great restaurants. Here’s the latest:

Tiger Den
The Casual Restaurant Critic didn’t even know that such a sprawling “Chinatown” existed in Houston, or that is was stuffed with small and large eateries of all Asian types, from Korean BBQ to Hunan Chinese with Thai and of course Japanese thrown in the mix as well. It’s not really a “ChinaTown” but more like a large commercial area with several shopping centers, all Asian themed and with more foot massage places than you shake a set of toes at.

The destination was Tiger Den, on many lists of the best places to get ramen, the soul satisfying, mouthgasm-inducing broth that takes hours or days to get just right. The Critic and Better Half were joined by two other, younger and local diners, both male, who agreed to share a table of four and cut the waiting time by at least 10-15 minutes. Yes, there is a lineup every night and the owner, is not shy about warning smartphone-game-playing teens that there is to be no game playing once seated – you are there to eat. If not, “I throw you out!”

While the Critic, BH and friends talked about the latest news (guns, Texas, Dallas) everyone enjoyed a their ramen soup. BH and Critic had the tantan-men soup, with ground pork garnishing a hearty broth and with large, thick melt-in-your-mouth mini-slabs of slow cooked pork belly floating among the noodles. It was, according the Better Half, the best ramen ever, surpassing last years Momofuko which itself was outstanding.

There are other things on the menu like ribeye skewers and chicken hearts too, but stick to the soup and you will be one happy camper.

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Tantan men soup – courtesy Yelp

9889 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036

The Critic had been to this award winning sushi destination alone, and so was eager to share the find with Better Half, who, to make a long story short, proclaimed the evenings meal as one of the top three… ever. High praise indeed from a lover of great food and exotic locales.

The thing to do here is the omakase tasting menu, where the chef decides what’s best for you and serves nine stunning and delectable courses that range from tiny to generously large and run the gamut from fresh oysters flown in from Prince Edward Island to fresh toro from Japan. Everything is sparkling fresh and your place at the bar (do sit at the bar, not a table) is a wonderful vantage point from which to enjoy the artist Hori-san at work with his largely latino team.

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When Better Half noticed some people nearby having a bone marrow dish, she asked the waiter if it would be possible to try that as well. Chef Manabu Horiuchi (above, right) was consulted and included it – a large bone sawed in half and the marrow baked with condiments and spices – in the tasting menu.

The crab, according to our excellent waiter, was so fresh that it had been alive when we walked in. This waiter, by the way, was probably the best waiter the Critic has ever had, at any restaurant, anywhere.

Wine and sake accompanied the 9-10 dishes, including dessert. The experience lasted 2 and a half hours and was truly sublime. Extremely highly recommended.

Oyster

Oyster

Ceviche, toro tuna and watermelon, among other delicacies

Ceviche, toro tuna and watermelon, among other delicacies

Rainbow carrots

Rainbow carrots

Seafood custard, sea urchin

Seafood custard, sea urchin

Massive sashimi platter

Massive sashimi platter

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The object of desire, bone marrow

The object of desire, bone marrow

Nigiri trio

Nigiri trio

Crab, tempura style

Crab, tempura style

That is foie gras, really

That is foie gras, really

Sea urchin

Sea urchin

Toro tuna with salmon eggs on top just for fun

Toro tuna with salmon eggs on top just for fun

Our one and only noodle dish

Our one and only noodle dish

Dessert too!

Dessert too!

3600 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098
(corner of Kirby and Richmond)
(713) 526-8858

Caracol
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Have you heard of chef Hugo Ortega? You might have as he has been around for a while, has visited the Yucatan (we visited the Santiago market together) and runs a very successful restaurant called … Hugo’s. More on that place a little later.

Caracol is a seafood restaurant with a definitely Mexican twist featuring a $29 dollar margarita which is quite delicious and packs a kick. The pescado zarandeado is amazing, as are the mejillones. Better Half and Houston Cookie Baker enjoyed, along with the Critic, an amazing meal in a crisp cool room, with attentive service and the location near the Galleria makes it an easy destination for those of the shopping mindset who need a relaxing and refreshing break from the madness of retail.

Service was prompt and friendly; however, for a restaurant of this caliber one expects a side plate for the mussel shells and wait staff to not barge into the middle of a conversation with their obligatory “so, how is everything?” question. Wait until there is a break in the conversation, people.

Mejillones, aka mussels

Mejillones, aka mussels

Poblano chile relleno

Poblano chile relleno

Scallops

Scallops

Pescado sarandeado

Pescado sarandeado

Chocolate ice cream made in house, coffee

Chocolate ice cream made in house, coffee

2200 Post Oak Blvd #160, Houston, TX 77056
(across from the shopping center w DSW, Container Store, etc)
713-622-9996

Hugo’s
Famous in Houston for years,  the Critic was searching for the best brunch on a Sunday and this place always came up, so off he went, with the ever accommodating Better Half in tow.

A buffet was set up and although the seating was at the very end of the brunch schedule, not one of the steam table trays showed any signs of neglect and were promptly refilled with a delicious selection of Mexican food items, all obviously made with quality ingredients (no skimping) and prepared authentically, with dishes ranging from huevos poblanos to pan de cazon.

The desserts are not only pretty to look at, they are actually very good. Which is not always the case in a Mexican restaurant. Service was top notch.

Absolutely amazing and a must-do on your next trip to Houston. Just plan on a siesta afterwards as you will not be able to move.

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1600 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006
(lots of restaurants in this area)
713-524-7744

Dolce Vita (TripAdvisor link – website domain name expired)
This Montrose-area pizza restaurant was recommended by chef Horiuchi at Kata Robata (above) as the best place for pizza. Thin crust and officially recognized by the pizza association from Napoli, Italia as the real thing, the pizza (margherita) was good but not overwhelmingly OMG good. The crust was indeed thin and a tad soggy, but the sauce and cheese and basil were right on. Service was very friendly, prices were reasonable and the place has signs outside prohibiting gun carriers, concealed or open, to abstain from entering the premises.

It was hard to fit in the pizza after the brunch that same day, but somehow the Critic managed.

Margherita

Margherita

500 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006
(if you were at Hugo’s previously, it’s in the same area, just a little further down Westheimer)
713-520-8222