The Casual Restaurant Critic Has Breakfast – A Puro Pan / Merci

In the company of the charming and always gastronomically adventurous Better Half, the Casual Restaurant Critic mustered up the strength to shower, get dressed and go out for breakfast on this fine Easter Sunday morning. Two restaurants were visited, in the interest of coming up with some new options for the 11 constant readers of this column and to take advantage of a lazy Sunday (and the fact that the Critic was freshly showered)

A Puro Pan

This is a new restaurant, in yet another small shopping plaza, this one called “Luxury Plaza” on that stretch of northern Merida road that starts at the “pocito” roundabout and ends where CityCenter meets the periferico. It never ceases to amaze the Critic at how many shopping plazas there are along these few kilometers – at last count there were more than 20, of varying styles, sizes and all sporting the same L shape so popular among Merida plazas. It is also amazing that all these luxury and exclusive and VIP places still have clientele; there are so many offerings for this tiny market segment.

A Puro Pan is all about bread, hence it’s name. Freshly baked bread and plenty of sandwich options are on the menu and for breakfast, some egg items as well. The Critic chose the Spanish baguette on Parmesan bread while the Better Half ordered Eggs Benedict.

Now you can’t go wrong with jamon serrano (unless you are unlucky enough to order it at the Viejo Molino – ugh) and so here, the Spanish baguette was just fine, a smallish baguette-like bread with plenty of jamon, some inexpensive local cheese. Nothing to write home about and the accompanying salad – some lettuce of varying styles possibly of the pre-washed plastic bag variety – showed signs of browning around some of the leaves and so was a little less than appetizing and the Critic did not finish his vegetables.

The Eggs Benedict however, were about as Benedict-y as the Caesar salad is Caesar-y at Trotters. In other words, not really Eggs Benedict. Eggs were baked in what appeared to be little muffin cups; not poached. Accompanied by some breakfast potatoes and atop something that looked like an English muffin and some salmon, there was no evidence of any hollandaise sauce lurking under, among or on top of the eggs, so not sure what the restaurant is trying to do with this menu item. It is not unattractively presented but, call it Puro Pan Eggs or something else, por favor.

Service was extremely nice and attentive. The room itself is dark, with low lighting which is fine for mornings when the Critic is less than presentable and doesn’t want to be in the harsh glare of the lights. Air conditioning was minimal and the place was cool but on the edge of a little warm, if you know how that feels.

After breakfast there, Better Half suggested checking out another new spot called Merci.

Merci – HomeMade Food

photo 3 photo 1

Merci is located in the San Angelo shopping (more luxury of course) plaza, which is near the soon-to-be-finished San Angelo condos, yet another housing development in northern Merida defining itself as – yawn – exclusive, and located parallel to the periferico in the area between City Center and Sodzil.

It is a bright, airy restaurant with a decidedly French feel, not only because the waiter is indeed French but also because the Yucatecan chef studied in France and has come home to feed her fellow Meridanos. By this time, the Critic didn’t mind the bright airiness of the place and was delighted to see French Press coffee on the menu.

Indeed, the freshly pressed coffee is very tasty and served with tiny ceramic cups that are too cute. A bread basket was ordered and it contains what appears to be a scone, a pain au chocolat and a little muffin. Served with tiny bowls of butter and jam and all very good. The pain au chocolat is not flaky and light, but heavier, denser and delicious. Very buttery.

The kitchen is in plain view, the tables are close together European style and the overall impression is that this is a place worth re-visiting, to try some of the other breakfast offerings which range from homemade banana pancakes and oeufs any style to granola and more. Prices seem very reasonable and the air conditioning is perfect.

Final verdict for breakfast? Merci, hands down. The Critic will be back.

6 Cool Places to Escape the Heat in Merida

Damn it's hot!

Damn it’s hot!

At this time of the year, the hottest season in the Yucatan with temperatures in the high 90′s and low 100′s (fahrenheit) there are brush fires everywhere and the city of Merida, with all it’s concrete and asphalt, is an inferno.

Real health issues can result from extended exposure to this kind of oppressive heat and so, in the interest of assisting visitors and locals alike, I am presenting a list of my favorite places to cool off in (and around) Merida.

Please, if you have favorite places, let me know to include them in this list for others to enjoy.

1. The Vegetable and Fruit Refrigerated Room at Costco

Costco is air conditioned and that is all fine and good, but if you are really wanting to cool off, I suggest you go to the patio furniture area, pick out a nice lounge chair and carry it into the vegetable and fruit cooler at the back of the store, where temperatures hover just above the freezing mark. A good 10 minutes in there and your body temperature will be restored and your brain will contract back into the available space in your cranium, relieving you of your heat-headache.

2. OXXO Convenience Stores

The thing about OXXO convenience stores is that they are located everywhere in Merida (except south of 63 street as it seems that the people down that way do NOT fit into the OXXO demographic) and they are all air conditioned and most even have a small table and chair setup where you can enjoy something from the large selection of processed junk food available. Take your time; there is no apparent set amount of time you can stay there. If you are feeling considerate, you can give up your spot to the next overheated Meridano or turista waiting to cool off.

3. Galeria Mall

At the Galeria mall, you can grab a bench seat in front of the ice rink (yes, I said ice rink) and watch the kids – and some adults – do their imitation of The Walking Dead on skates. Of course there are some really talented skaters out there along with the zombies which begs the question “how the hell did THAT happen?” Where did they learn and practice skating before this mall opened? Interesting.  After sitting there for a while you will notice your body cooling off and the desire to throw yourself on the ice naked will thankfully go away.

4. Altabrisa Mall

At the Altabrisa Mall, you can just hang out along with everybody else and their perro who is in from the heat. I mention this mall and not the Gran Plaza mall as it seems the Gran Plaza mall has air conditioning issues and so is not nearly as fresh and refreshing as Altabrisa is, the mall of the moment. There is a Starbucks and also a Haagen Dazs café if you are feeling the need to be seen spending an inordinate amount of money on a beverage.

5. Starbucks

Speaking of Starbucks, there are several of these around Merida now and are a somewhat more cozy option than the OXXO convenience store concept discussed above. It’s like being in someone’s (someone well off) living room: nice music, nice people, nice temperature and good coffee. You’ll spend money on your coffee but you will be guaranteed a good cup of coffee. To the people not from Merida – you know who you are – who whine that Starbucks is killing the local coffee culture, I laugh out loud at your ignorance of the crap we had to drink before Starbucks came to down.

6. The Casa Montejo Museum

If you are in dire need of a blast of ice all over your body and are on the main square, you can pay a visit, ostensibly to get a little culture, to the Casa de Montejo museum. Unless it’s a Monday, you will be able to visit the former home of one of the Franciscos de Montejo and while pretending to enjoy looking at furniture and wallpaper from the 1500′s and 1600′s, you can be sucking in icy cool air. That place is kept as cool as a Pappa’s Steakhouse meat locker and it feels great. Afterwards, pop across the square for a sherbet at the Sorbeteria Colon, where you can frost your insides with a creamy scoop of coconut ice cream.

Some Thoughts on Progreso

A recent post on TripAdvisor from someone who visited Progreso and didn’t like it, prompted me to write an answer, but the answer became longer and longer so I am posting it here instead, as a little article that should fit nicely into the neurotic rant category that my website/blog has become famous for.

The original post:

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4. Re: Day trip from a cruise, need advice on what to do

Feb 13, 2014, 11:05 PM
 

Just got back from there today. Was not impressed with progreso as a port in general. Not really a “tourist” port in my opinion.

First thing u see is military people with guns and dogs. Very few shops. No beaches or any typical fun stuff.

I did go see the ruins and really enjoyed that. But if your not interested in ruins there’s not much else to do.

Drove thru Progreso and it didn’t look very nice. Didn’t look like a place u would want to be after dark. Lol

I got to see some of the ruins, took lots of pics and learned some history but will not go back to that port again.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g668864-i12892-k7128551-Day_trip_from_a_cruise_need_advice_on_what_to_do-Progreso_Yucatan_Peninsula.html#postreply

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While I am no lover of Progreso and agree it needs help, I should point out a few things:

1. It is not a postcard beach resort for tourists but it is a beach and thousands of Yucatecos and others from around Mexico enjoy it every weekend and holiday, and especially in the summer. Physically it is similar to the beach in Galveston; both are on the Gulf of Mexico with sand that is off white, waters that range from turquoise to green-gray and the potential for seaweed in certain areas. To say that there is no beach is ridiculous and might mislead some readers to think that Progreso is somehow inland and not where the water meets the land, which is the definition of a shoreline which in this case is sandy, which is the definition of the term “beach”.

2. Military and guns are on the federally controlled pier, yes. Unfortunately, due to demand from the societies to Mexico’s north that for some reason are so unhappy and miserable that they need to get stoned just to get by, there is a drug war going on, as suppliers rush to fill a demand; real capitalism at work. Ideally, this should make certain more strident elements of US politics happy, as unfettered capitalism is the goal, but no, not in this case. So, soldiers are needed to make sure that drugs are not moving in and out of these entry points. I understand that it is unusual for citizens of the land of the free to see soldiers and guns, but other places around the world see them all the time, and in this case you can blame your crack smoking neighbors back home.

3. Typical fun stuff. What does that even mean? If it is typical fun stuff you are looking for, don’t leave the ship (or the all inclusive), where things are predictable, experiences are typical and will not challenge your sense of how the world should be.

4. Visiting the ruins is exactly why Carnival stops at Progreso. The idea is to get people to see something truly magnificent, like Uxmal or Chichen; or Dzibilchaltun even. There are however, more things to do in the area, from exploring cenotes to exploring markets, sampling food, visiting the colonial center of Merida, over 450 years old and so much more.

5. Progreso definitely needs a facelift and a major one at that. The town is dusty and dilapidated and very rough around the edges, which might give one impression that you would not want to be there after dark. I can personally vouch for the safety of anyone in Progreso after dark, where your biggest danger – unlike getting shot or mugged in a port city north of the border – might be getting hit on by a drunken old man who wants to both flirt and practice his limited English, or twisting an ankle on the uneven sidewalks. Progreso is very safe, in spite of its run-down look.

Friar Diego de Landa’s Poem a la Dr. Seuss

Diego_de_Landa

I am Xiu

Xiu I am

That Xiu I am,
that Xiu I am!
I do not like that Xiu I am

Do you like our Chilam Balam?

I do not like it, Xiu I am
I do not like your Chilam Balam

Would you like it here or there?

I would not like it here or there
I would not like it anywhere
I do not like your Chilam Balam
I do not like it, Xiu I am

Would you read it in a choza?
Or have it read you by a moza?

I would not read it in a choza
nor have it read me by a moza
I would not like it here or there
I would not like it anywhere
I do not like your Chilam Balam
I do not like it, Xiu I am

Would you read it in a cave?
In a cenote? With my slave?

I would not read it in a cave,
in a cenote or with your slave!

Would you read it, in Mani?
It’s all about us, don’t you see?

I would not read it, in Mani
it isn’t Catholic,
so it’s not for me!
I would not like it here or there
I don’t want to hear about it, anywhere.
I don’t want to read it in a cave
or a damp cenote and not with your slave!
I do not like the Chilam Balam
Be very careful, Xiu I am

Would you, could you,
take a chance?
It makes us happy; watch us dance!
Try to read it,
you’ll get quite far;
our culture, traditions,
it’s who we are!

I would not, could not
take a chance,
it’s sinful, pagan,
that you all dance.
Your scripts are evil;
you’ll go to hell!
But I can save you,
and make you well.
Just tell me where
is this Chilam Balam,
and I will save you,
Xiu I am!

Mani! Mani!
Mani! Mani!
Come read it,
read it,
and you will see!

I’ll come to see you,
Xiu I am
I’ll come to read
your Chilam Balam.
If you’ll come forward
and show your face
I’ll come to see you
and save your race

I see it now,
the Chilam Balam
I’m reading it, amazed
oh Xiu I am
But I really must tell you
that from what I can tell,
that you really are
going to burn in hell!
So to speed up the process
and to save all your souls,
I’m burning your books,
your idols, your bowls
and you must burn too,
Xiu, by the way
and for history’s sake
it’ll be an auto de fé.

(silence)

PostScript:

1) The Chilam Balam, is one of several books of Mayan writings and does not necessarily coincide with the event in Mani. It is meant as a general reference to the Mayan culture

2) In 1561-62, Friar Diego de Landa, incensed that the Mayans were secretly worshiping their Mayan gods and idols all the while professing to be catholics, ordered all their writings, idols and anything he could find, to be burned in a huge bonfire in Mani.

“Among the many ‘bad guys’ in the history of sacred texts, the Friar Diego de Landa has to occupy a special circle in hell. In 1562, de Landa conducted an ‘Auto de fé’ in Maní where in addition to 5000 ‘idols,’ he burned 27 books in Maya writing. This one act deprived future generations of a huge body of Mayan literature. He culturally impoverished the descendants of the Mayas, and left only four codices for scholars to puzzle over.”

from http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/maya/ybac/

3) The Xiu were one of the areas Mayan families, the descendants of which are/were the genesis for the restaurant El Principe Tutul Xiu, in Mani.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at El Tovar

At the recommendation of the now departed Mini Critic, the Casual Restaurant Critic took her to the fishy taco place called El Tovar, which has a seafood menu along the lines of El Pez Gordo; shrimp, fish and other seafood tacos prepared in a sort of Tampico/Monterrey way.

Located near the Cumbres school and that avenue that runs from El Pocito to the Monumento a las Haciendas, El Tovar was opening for lunch when the Critics arrived and as the weather was cool, the sliding glass door was open and once seated, the owner asked if it was OK that the door was open, or would the Critics prefer it closed and the AC? Open door was fine, the Critics agreed, and some drinks were ordered while the menu was looked at.

A waiter-type person arrived and proceeded to close the sliding glass door until the owner told him that the door open was fine, whereupon the glass door was opened again.

Fishy tacos were ordered and the drinks arrived, along with a third person who, you guessed it, started closing the sliding glass door, until informed to leave it open.

The food arrived and, the Critic kids you not, a fourth person started on the door. Apparently there is some confusion about whether or not this door should be open or closed.

Now, the tacos were fine. In fact, they were pretty darn good. In particular, the queso fundido con mariscos, with its’ seafoody cheesy gooiness and the spicy broth of the pozole de mariscos, were outstanding and both meals in and of themselves. What really makes El Tovar amazing was the completely indifferent service. Each move on the waiters (and here the term is used lightly and generously) part must be provoked by the client as the personnel at El Tovar on this occasion seemed far more concerned with the exciting distractions of their cell phones than they are with perhaps serving another drink, clearing away dirty plates and heaven forbid, checking on the clients to see how everything is. Another reason cell phones should be banned in the workplace.

In short, the food is great, the room is not unattractive and the service is absolutely awful to the point of making one wonder what the owners are thinking in keeping these useless carriers of trays around. Is it that hard to find and train people? Come on. You already have the food, the presentation and the flavors are fantastic. Take a moment to get some real servers!

MiniCritic informed the Critic that there is an attentive wait person of the female variety but she was not working that day.

So, if you want tasty seafood tacos and don’t mind the abysmal service, El Tovar is a good choice for a satisfying mid-day lunch.

IMG_1958 IMG_1959 IMG_1960 IMG_1961

Seidy Spills the Beans

Seidy stood in the living room, her eyes wide and darting from face to face, somewhat akin to the desperate flapping of a bird trapped against a glass door, having flown into the house and not able to distinguish why it can see the outside but can’t get there. She looked at Betty, then Pat and then at the mestizo couple that had barged into Pat’s centro home, all of whom were looking at her with expressions ranging from the mildly concerned and questioning (Pat, her patrona or boss and Betty, Pat’s Merida friend and ex-pat mentor) to angry and accusatory (the formidably alpha mestiza and her compliant husband, the latter unable to make eye contact with anyone and who studiously examined his feet).

Finally, unable to stand the pressure, Seidy spoke, directing her comments to the mestiza woman who was adjusting her hipil in preparation for a position on the sofa.

Quienes son?” she asked the mestiza in a soft voice.

Sabemos que tuviste que ver con nuestro hijo Marco” the mestiza replied in an indignant tone, while her husband looked at his tattered sandals “y él nos dice que se van a casar. Es cierto eso?

Pat looked at Betty questioningly. Her Spanish had not yet developed beyond the Tarzan and Jane phase and she was clearly not understanding what was being said. Betty glanced at her. “It appears that this lady’s son has asked Seidy to marry her” said Betty.

“But she is only 15 years old!” exclaimed Pat. Betty shrugged, looking back at Seidy. She wanted to hear more.

As the exchange continued between Seidy and the mestiza, it became apparent what had happened. The son, Marco, and Seidy had struck up a relationship at some point in the trajectory between Pat’s house and the bus stop where Seidy went on Saturdays to go home for her one-day weekend and apparently there had been some kind of hanky panky which had led to the declaration on the part of Marco that he was in love with Seidy and wanted to marry her. Furthermore, it soon became obvious that the hanky panky had surpassed the usual flirtations and had gone into the more serious territory of sexual relaciones. Marcos’ mother, the mestiza, had been shocked and wanted to know more about this harlot who had claimed the heart of her youngest son. She was the mother of 8 and Marco was her baby, her favorite among all her children and she was not going to let go of him lightly.

Soon, under the pressure of the questioning and accusations, Seidy, who was now staring at the floor, confessed to having had relaciones with young Marco and that a few weeks after the deed had been consummated, she had gone to the seguro alone, where, after waiting in line for several hours the indifferent nurses had performed a blood test and informed her on a subsequent visit that she was probably pregnant. When she shared this revelation with her young lover, he had optimistically insisted on marrying her and told her they would then live together at his parents home in nearby Tecoh.

Seidy did not know Tecoh; only that it was about an hour from Merida in the general direction of Mani - she had looked it up on the fold-out map of the state in the Yucatan Today magazine that Pat kept on her coffee table – and she really did not know how she was going to live with Marco’s mother who, from what he had told her, was a firebrand of a woman with very definite ideas on what needed to be done around the house and who had no qualms about making sure that those who lived in her house did what she needed to have them do.

She looked up.

The mestiza stared at her from her perch on the edge of the sofa, arms crossed in the classic body language of rejection and with an unlikely mixture of satisfaction and dismay on her face. Her husband continued to look at his sandals, obviously wishing he was far away, perhaps in a field planting corn or cantina in Tecoh with his friends, discussing local politics or something else less embarassing. The talk of relaciones and pregnancy had made him uncomfortable; this was women’s talk and he resented having been dragged to witness it all. The girl seemed pretty enough; if Marco wanted to marry her, so be it. In any case, the wedding would have to be paid for by the girls parents, so it didn’t affect him that much, he though to himself.

Pat and Betty remained seated, unsure of what would happen next or what to do if something happened or if they were expected to do something. Finally Betty spoke up.

“Creo que esta bien por ahora. Vamos a regresar a nuestras casas por el momento, mientras pensamos que vamos a hacer” she said, and got up to open the front door.

The mestiza said nothing. She got up and, flipping her scarf-like reboso over her shoulder with a violent gesture, gave a last glare at Seidy who looked away guiltily and, mumbling something that sounded like gracias to the two gringas, left the house. Her husband followed, making eye contact for the first and only time in the whole visit – with Betty – to whom he nodded and walked through the open door and onto the sidewalk, into the sweltering Merida afternoon to follow his wife, who had already made it half way down the block and seemed not at all concerned that her husband had not caught up with her. She had more important things on her mind.

Seidy, as soon as everyone had left the room, turned abruptly and headed for her room. From where she stood in the living room, Pat thought she heard sobbing.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Apoala

The Apoala Oaxacan fusion restaurant in Santa Lucia’s newly revamped square has only been around for about 2-3 months but the Casual Restaurant Critic has heard the name come up again and again and so yesterday, after a meeting downtown, decided to check it out. Better Half being away, this was a lunch for one but you, dear reader, can be sure that the Critic will be back with Better Half sooner rather than later, as this restaurant is true gem.

(interior)

As mentioned, the Santa Lucia plaza has been spruced up and the most obvious addition there as it is most visible from calle 60 as you drive by, is the Tratto restaurant, run by the Trotter family who are very good at what they do here in Merida and offer some great upscale dining options that have raised the bar for restaurants in the formerly white city. But once again, the Critic digresses. You can park behind the Santa Lucia square, turning left off 60 into a modern and very pretty parking lot. Yes, you just saw “pretty” and “parking lot” in the same sentence; go check it out, you’ll see what the Critic means.

Approaching the restaurant, located under the arches next to the Ki Xocolatl store and chocolateria, the Critic was greeted not by an indifferent and bored individual but a smiling young man who offered a greeting and seated the Critic inside. There are tables outside but on this occasion the Critic wanted to both see the interior and check out the air conditioning.

So far, so good. A very pleasant waiter then approached the table and asked if the Critic would like a cocktail or beverage. “What do you recommend?” asked the Critic. Now normally this question is answered either with a question or a blanket “everything is great” statement that is both not true and just plain lazy. No, this waiter responded immediately and said that the house speciality was the Mayahuel cocktail. “Fine,” the Critic responded “I’ll have one of those”.

Mayahuel signature cocktail

Mayahuel signature cocktail

In a few moments, the drink, which features mezcal, sour orange juice and agave syrup among other exotic things was brought to the table and the Critic suddenly smelled something burning and quickly checked his pockets to see if he had put a still-lit cigarette butt away. But no, it was the drink! A small twig of what looked like fir from a Christmas tree was the garnish and it smoked aromatically as the drink was placed on the table.

OK, now the Critic is impressed.

The menu is a mixture of traditional Oaxacan food and modern preparations and ingredients with a nod to the Yucatan in passing as well, as exemplified by the cochinita on the menu which, the waiter claims, is organic.

When you order, you are presented with a tray of Oaxacan tostadas (hot) and two salsas, mildy spicy and home made. Deliciosas.

Tostadas

The Critic decided on the arracheras which sounded very interesting what with the ajillo chiles and Oaxacan cheese au gratin and a salad of arugula. It was not disappointing in the least. The salad was perfect and the meat exquisite, cooked to perfection and tender without achieving that horrible hammy, dissolve in your mouth texture that some local restaurants have the nerve to call arrachera steak and that would be better suited for a meal at a mental institution for toothless lunatics.

The arrachera plate

Afterwards, dessert was offered and the Critic, completely intrigued by now and with an urge to try as much as is possible for one person to try, ordered the mostachon which is a cake with pecans, features a banana cream frosting as well as raspberries, strawberries and nestled beside the cake, a dollop of homemade nieve de canela ie cinnamon sherbet.

Mostachon Mostachon

The cake seemed a little on the hard side but the sherbet was delectable.

After asking for the bill, the Critic wandered around a little in the restaurant, exploring the fabulous bathroom (you MUST go wash your hands here!!) and at the bar, looking at the bottles and beautiful backdrop made of antique doors, a manager offered the Critic a sample of mezcal, cortesia de la casa.

IMG_1749

Someone will undoubtedly ask about the price so it is the Critic’s obligation to let you know that Apoala is not the cheapest place to have lunch in the world. The lunch as described was $400 pesos, mas o menos, with tip. And while you can certainly fill up elsewhere for 40 pesos and enjoy a unique, “charming” location while lounging in plastic red Coca Cola chairs, what this restaurant offers is of a quality that is truly world-class.

All in all the amazing and beautifully presented food, the sublime decor, and most importantly the impeccable and gracious SERVICE, makes Apoala a serious contender for the top restaurant in Merida spot, in the Critic’s never humble opinion.

 

‘Twas Two Nights Before Thanksgiving; United Cancels its Flight

Merida airport, November 26th, 2013

The lineups this morning
were moving quite well
United was full
but soon all went to hell

At the door of the plane
we were stopped in our tracks,
first class settling in
sipping drinks, eating snacks

The security man, flustered
for a moment or two;
then a woman came running
she said to us: “You

must stop here and wait”
while I see what’s the matter;
the captain and crew
are raising some chatter

Then I heard it myself:
about windshields and cracking,
this wasn’t so funny
and I began backing

up the ramp to the gate
where, sitting dejected,
fellow passengers waited
feeling specially selected

and that their god was not,
as benevolent this day
so perhaps they should turn
to the good book and pray

Alas, it was not
to be, as they say
and reservations be damned
we were all doomed to stay

When windshields do crack
on an airplane you see,
It’s not like Home Depot:
buy one, and get three!

In fact my dear reader,
what it means essentially:
is you’re stuck here in Merida
but WILL get out eventually

Another day in this city
and we wanted to go
we’d had enough tacos
de cochinita and so

We changed well-made plans
to make up for that crack,
some of us knowing, that
tomorrow we’d be back

and a fresh plane would come
and whisk us away,
to eat turkey with loved ones
and celebrate the Day

Of Thanksgiving and then,
with our bellies quite round
we’d embark on some shopping
as discounts abound

Twas two nights to Turkey Day;
United canceled our flight,
be thankful and grateful
you avoided a fright.

A crack in the glass
is a pain, on the ground
but at thirty thousand feet…
… we would most certainly not be having this conversation today.

Happy Pre-Thanksgiving!

 

The Full Story

Getting up at 3 AM is no fun for anyone, but if you are flying to Houston via the only American airline still operating a direct flight from Merida to the United States, you need to be up early to make it with plenty of time for its 6:50 AM scheduled departure, especially if you are anything like me and finish packing on the morning of the flight.

Although the french press – which admittedly is missing a part – did not produce the rich coffee I had hoped for but one that turned grey when milk was added to it, I was able to finish packing and get everything in the car. I even remembered to leave food out for the dog, whose full dish I put in the kitchen where only he can get at it, as he has learned how to open the screen doors and the black, squawking x’kaues with their insatiable appetite for protein filled dog kibbles, have not. I drove the police-ridden periférico without rushing for once and with the windows open, enjoying some cool morning Merida air. I had even planned ahead to have someone pick up the car later. No worries.

And yet, airport check ins are always a little stressful, what with the foreign passport, the residency card, the timing. Before the flight I think sometimes that I must be forgetting something important, like the expiration date on my passport or the actual date of the flight, and obsessively check them to calm my nerves.

However, today all went well. Plenty of time, the reservation was there, the immigration process went smoothly and I was able to chat with one of the ladies whom I know from years of renewing permits and has chosen the Instituto Nacional de Migración as her ticket to the much-sought-after government pension. Sucking on a Hershey’s chocolate milk breakfast, I plugged in my iPhone and “checked in” on Foursquare and checked my emails.

According to the United personnel, the TSA in the US is not completely satisfied with our lax security boarding procedures here, so we were soon herded downstairs to the arrivals area where some Costco tables had been set up and there, security people went through everyones carry on luggage before sending them back upstairs to the waiting room at gate A. Some confusion resulted as late arrivals were not aware of the extra security move and mingled with their non-marked boarding passes amongst those of us who had ours marked, until they were informed that they too, had to go downstairs.

Finally, boarding began. First class passengers, as well as a few others, were on the plane when I arrived at the plane door and noticed an airport employee doing that monkey-like grimace and the hand shaking indicating a problem. You know, like the kids do when something bad happens;  the arm comes up with the hand towards the face, and then the hand shakes back and forth. Something was up. A United employee came running down the boarding ramp, disappeared into the cockpit and came running out, telling us to remain where we were and that boarding would resume in a minute. I heard someone mention the word “quemado” (burnt) and joked to the people next to me that perhaps the pilot had burned himself with hot coffee.

An airport employee wearing a fluorescent yellow vest standing next to me was watching the commotion and I asked him quietly what was happening. “Se cuarteó el panorámico” he replied. This was interesting. The windshield was cracked??

Sure enough, everyone was sent back to the waiting area and an announcement was made that the boarding process would begin again as soon as the captain had declared the coast clear. No further details were provided but I soon heard other passengers mention the cracked windshield and a second announcement acknowledged that there was a mechanical problem and that further news would be forthcoming. Finally, a third announcement came that the plane would not be flying today and that everyone would be taken care of. Luggage had to be de-planed and picked up and those who filled out immigration forms, needed to collect these vital stubs from the security people who were in charge of handing them back to the passengers. Obviously it is a very important piece of documentation that you will not be able to leave the country without, and so, again we all stood in line while two flustered airport security women, stacks of stubs in their hands, went through them all for each and every passenger. The immigration officials, who had been there moments before, were definitely NOT authorized for overtime and although you would think this would be a sufficiently important function for them to at least supervise, if not fall completely in their jurisdiction, they left.

After the lineup for the stubs, there was the lineup for the luggage and then the line up for at the United ticket counter for re-routing and alternate flight plans. Some continued on via Mexico City while others decided to continue their trip the next day and accept a hotel voucher (Hyatt – nice!)

While standing in line for about 2 hours or so, thankful for my Hershey’s breakfast and communicating the change of flight plans to all concerned, I checked my United app (yes, there’s an app for that) and lo and behold, my flight was already changed for tomorrow. However, the connecting time between flights in Houston was 1 hour, 2 minutes, hardly enough time to negotiate the immigration and customs horror that is Houston, one day before Thanksgiving, with a storm in the area and Dallas Ft. Worth cancelling up to 200 flights today for weather reasons.

So the folks at United and I explored options and settled on a later flight to a different airport that would leave a more workable 3 hour window between connecting flights at Houston.

Throughout, everyone kept their cool and the United employees are to be commended for their handling of the situation which of course, was completely not of their making.

My one, supreme overwhelming thought – a thought that rose above all the others in my head – was one of gratitude that the cracked windshield had been detected on the ground in Merida, and not at 30,000 feet!

Tomorrow, we’ll try again!

 

Sikil Pak – a Traditional Mayan Dip – Recipe and Rant!

The other day I was showing some lovely people the bustling market in Uman, when it occurred to me that I would like to buy the ingredients for making sikil pak, the traditional Yucatecan pepita de calabaza dip that I adore on crispy corn tortilla chips, to attempt to recreate this at home. Asking a vendor or two for the correct ingredients and quantities I bought the ingredients for one batch:

  • one bag (about the volume of my two hands put together) of pepita molida aka toasted and ground squash seeds
  • three ripe local tomatoes (not the round ones, the oblong ones)
  • a bunch of fresh, pungent cilantro

Today, I made the dip and to me, it turned out absolutely scrumptious and since I didn’t have any corn chips lying around that weren’t soggy from all this humidity, I used Salma brand baked corn crackers, crispy and slightly toasty-burnt.

Here’s the methodology:

  • Turn on your heating element and stick a grill or iron pan on it. Set the tomatoes in the pan or on the grill and go check your Facebook timeline or something else that will allow the tomatoes enough time to properly toast, burn and smell up the kitchen.
  • Between liking photos and putting smiley face comments on your friends Facebook pages, turn the tomatoes this way and that, to get all the sides roasting and burning.
  • Once the juice is bubbling out of the tomatoes and the skin is blackened on 3/4 of each tomato, skin those suckers (I used tongs and it comes off really easily) and cut off the hard ends where the tomato was attached to the vine and toss them (the tomatoes!) in a bowl. The skins and ends go into the compost.
  • The cilantro, roots and black leaves removed, gets tossed into the bowl as well.
  • Use one of those hand blenders, stick it in the bowl and grind away (with the blender that is) until you have a puree consistency.
  • Pour in the pepita. All of it, go ahead. Now with a spatula, mix it all up until it becomes a thick, creamy, totally un-photogenic dip.
  • Add some salt to taste.
  • I also added a squirt of Habanero salsa that I had sitting around to give it some kick.

And voila – Sikil Pak! Now dip those Salma crackers in there and gobble away. Yum!

As I was eating I thought it would be interesting to see what the actual recipe is for Sikil Pak and a Google search in English brought back many results, and the following is my personal favorite weird version where something simple and delicious and easy to make is turned into a ridiculous gourmet event that in no way resembles the original.

The Tasting Table website (http://www.tastingtable.com/entry_detail/chefs_recipes/8783) is a ridiculously fun example of this. First of all the photo: the dip shown is green, and looks more like parsley-infused hummus than any Sikil Pak I have ever seen.

Second, the description states that chef Mike Isabella spent 8 years (EIGHT YEARS!) researching and that, combined with his love of margaritas, has resulted in his take on the “Aztec” dip. Aztec? Really? I guess that’s what 8 years of drinking margaritas will get you; Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, Totonacas, whatever. Hic.

The ingredients for this researched-for-eight-years take on the “Aztec” dip include shallots, garlic and jalapeño peppers, sauteed in canola oil. It gets worse as he whips in olive oil and infuses it with citrus zest. Because when you are a famous chef, you know at some point something is going to get infused.

Geez Louise – sounds like you need a Martha Stewart kitchen to whip this “Aztec” version up. Call it Mike’s Pumpkin Seed Dip; call it the Isabella Aztec Smoothie; hell, call it Frank, but for Chaac’s sake don’t call it Sikil Pak.

A Google search en español brought up this website, which is, in my never humble opinion, the real deal.

http://deliciasprehispanicas.blogspot.mx/2012/09/salsa-de-pepita-ha-sikil-pak.html

I have just finished eating my quick and easy version and I highly recommend it and thankfully, my rant has come to an end!

Happy cooking!

 

Casual Restaurant Critic visits the Santa Rosa Hacienda

On a recent trip to Maxcanú, the Critic along for the ride noticed signs for the hacienda Santa Rosa (a Starwood-run luxury hotel) and decided that a stop might be in order, to both see the hotel and if possible, have something to eat there.

Familiar with the strict entry procedure at Temozon, another Starwood hacienda, the Critic was surprised that the gardeners out front just said “adelante” when asked if he could pop in for a look. It turns out that all the guests had left and the Critic was the only non-staff person in the hotel.

In spite of this, the outdoor restaurant was set up with fresh flower arrangements and cutlery on each table, ready in case someone (like the Critic) showed up hungry. A friendly receptionist ushered the Critic to the table and a very friendly and deferential waiter proceeded to take the order. If you, dear reader, have been to the Temozón hacienda for a meal, you know that the waiters are not at all at the same luxe level as the place they are in and the food they are serving. Here at Santa Rosa, the service definitely and happily is.

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Homemade bread and butter (two kinds) were brought out and the bread, lo and behold was warm. Delicious.

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A pasta dish was ordered – spaghetti in a chaya pesto sauce with fresh cherry tomatoes and some parmesan cheese. Simple, pretty and very tasty.

Spaghetti w Chaya Pesto

Spaghetti w Chaya Pesto

The bill came to $215 pesos, which was the pasta and a glass of refreshing jamaica.

The thing that made the meal exceptional was the service and the fact that they were perfectly happy to serve just one person when they could easily have closed the place while they awaited more guests. It is a very civilized place to have a meal if you are in the area exploring and the receptionist said that meals are always available, but to check first, in case the hotel is full or there is a special event like a wedding.

More info on the hacienda Santa Rosa on the Starwood website here.