Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Keg – Vancouver, Canada

On the Road…

The Keg has been a Vancouver institution for over 20 years and it is encouraging to see a Vancouver restaurant chain that has lasted this long and is still doing well.

On one occasion, after work on a payday, the Critic and several co-workers of the now defunct-Sheraton Villa Inn in Burnaby visited the Keg and spent practically the whole paycheck on dinner, shots, and wine… the days of youth and irresponsibility!

The Critic hadn’t visited the Keg for the same amount of time and it was a pleasant surprise to find the food still good, the ambiance friendly and a little more sophisticated than the rustic Canadiana of yore and the food was just as the Critic remembered it.

Mushrooms Neptune are STILL on the menu, as are the scallops wrapped in bacon, a perennial Keg favorite and classic. Stuffed with cream cheese and seafood, the mushroom caps are good in that comfort food kind of way and the scallops are tender morsels with the bacon giving them the needed kick, flavor wise. The Spinach and Crab dip was also tasty, again featuring cream cheese and the baked Goat Cheese was excellent, served with a cooked salsa that had just a little bit of picante.

Also (the Critic was accompanied by the MiniCritic) the Caesar Salad was ordered and a French Onion soup. The salad was so good that the MiniCritic, who detests salads, devoured half of it in record time – would that the Trotters could try it! The soup was hot, savory and covered in crouton and swiss cheese.

Good food, albeit a little heavy on the cheesy-creamy-thick side, with decent service and relaxed surroundings including several fireplaces along with a glass of Merlot made for a pleasant cool Vancouver evening.

Pappadeaux – Houston Airport

On the Road…

If you have a layover at the airport in Houston, as the Critic did just a little while ago, of any considerable time, one option besides sitting around in those uncomfortable chairs with your eyes glazed over is to have a meal at Pappadeaux, the seafood restaurant owned by the Pappas people who also run a great steakhouse and a Greek restaurant as well if the Critic is not mistaken.

The service is fine, in that chirpy I’m Ricardo and I’ll be your server today kind of way and the food while expensive is very good especially when one considers the myriad and mediocre fast food options available.

The Critic had the Blackened Redfish which came smothered with a shrimpy creamy sauce and was absolutely delicious and a very large portion too. Coconut shrimp were simply alright – you can get better at La Pigua in Campeche or Merida and the lobster bisque was satisfyingly rich but you wouldnt write home about it anytime soon.

There was no room for dessert, although they all looked delicious.

A good way to spend an hour or more in a pleasant setting enjoying some good food before getting on the plane and having to eat a tasteless microwaved sandwich, if you are lucky enough to get even that these days.

Regarding Service

In response to the long comment on the Carreta Cubana II post, the Casual Restaurant Critic thinks it may be pertinent to answer this in ‘post’ form.

Service in Merida’s restaurants is alright; it’s just not professional in the gran mayoria de los casos and often a result of no one training anyone – there is no waiter’s training program anywhere that the Critic is aware of. Too often personnel is hired with only minimum requirements: that they live close by, that they have a white shirt or something similar. Niggling details like not sticking your arm and the inevitable armpit in front of a restaurant patron while serving a plate (with the inevitable whiff of BO – really a horrible thing to have happen to you – or their Mennen Speed Stick – equally disagreeable) are rarely passed on to service personnel.

How do locals handle it? Well, in many cases people are not particularly concerned and have become accustomed to lackluster service. Merida is not Barcelona or Manhattan, so the dining options as well as the patrons do not have that level of sophistication or neuroses. Go with the flow is definitely the way to go.

To the Casual Restaurant Critic it is part of the charm of living in the Yucatan. You don’t expect professional Smith and Wollensky service for the most part. (You do however expect professional service at Joe’s Stone Crab and when they treat you like crap you let ’em have it and they try to make nice). Here waiters try, and usually do, a passable job. What is most upsetting to the admittedly neurotic foreigner is when hundreds of thousand of real dollars are invested in lighting, landscaping, architecture, menu printing, table linens, glassware, cutlery, kitchen equipment and advertising; and the owner hires a mediocre manager who hires even more mediocre service staff, some apparently culled from the garden staff, who have absolutely NO knowledge of gastronomy, what a Caesar salad might be, the difference between a salad and a dinner fork, white and red wine glasses, etc etc. And they don’t train them either! That is unforgivable, in those particular cases.

As a foreigner thinking of moving to Mexico, one should definitely go with the flow, reduce expectations and learn to relax. It’s not that important in the general scheme of things. And certainly not worth getting one’s panties in a bunch.

And if you thought that last post was fun…

Here’s another one!

When filing your business’s annual tax declaration, you make out the onerous paperwork – well, your accountant does because the Mexican tax system is so complicated that it is virtually impossible for anyone to understand what the hell it is you are supposed to actually put in the scores of little boxes and what to deduct or declare – and you file it, paying at the bank via internet since Mexico is such a modern country. Once you have paid and received/printed your receipt, and have verified that your money has been removed from your bank account in order to help promote a comfortable lifestyle for Mexican politicians once they have retired and live in France, you think you are done right? Wrong.

It turns out that there is a little-known and never-used (up till now) in the marvelous taxation laws of this advanced democracy that states that besides filing your declaration and paying, you have to (or your accountant has to) LET HACIENDA KNOW THAT YOU HAVE PAID by means of an official letter or notification. Failure to do this will result in a $50,000.00 peso fine! Can you believe this? You pay and they already have your money, but since you didn’t tell them you paid, you automatically get slapped with a fat fine which will presumably cover the cost of Mr. Carstens weekly lunch bill.

This is nothing less than outright highway robbery and a wonderful incentive for investors to come to Mexico to subject themselves to this abuse. Perhaps the Mexican government should consider promoting the country to the International Masochist Businessmens Association, whose members might enjoy this kind of pain.

I am not making this up. I have first-hand knowledge of such a case right now. The accountant alleges that while it is technically his fault because he is supposed to be watching his clients’ back, he prefers to fight the fine legally (with the clients money of course).

Meanwhile, for your enjoyment, look for a photo of Mr. Carstens, Mexico’s Minister of All Things Taxable and believe me as you will see, he needs the money.

More on the $2000 Peso Rule for Small Business Owners

This note is of interest for those considering coming to Mexico and starting a small (or large) business…

In their infinite and constantly increasing wisdom, the powers that be at the Secretaria de Hacienda y Planeacion (SHCP) known simply as ‘Hacienda’ established a rule that said you can not declare as a legitimate expense any expense that reaches or exceeds $2000 pesos if you paid for it in cash. This ingenious little rule will somehow make the country less prone to tax evasion and help the 30% of Mexico that pays taxes pay more taxes either directly or in fines and therefore support the other 70% that pays no taxes whatsoever.

Let’s say you are buying something in Costco and the bill comes to $1999.99. That’s OK, you can pay in cash. But if it comes to $2000.01 then you must pay with a company check.

There are a couple of ways around this little rule, none of them particularly illegal (check with your accountant though, don’t take my neurotic word for it):

  • Let’s say you have $7000 pesos worth of goods you have bought for your business. You ask the cashier, or the person who is making up your invoice, to split the purchase into several separate purchases with each invoice totaling less than the $2000 peso total. This way you can pay for them in cash (petty cash) and then issue a check later for reposition of petty cash. This helps because if you want to pay by check in some of these places, it’s a pain in the butt since you will need to have extra paperwork done in the case of Sam’s Club or Costco, for example.
  • The other way is to pay your $7000 in cash; then make the check, and it’s accompanying poliza* out separately. Make the check out to yourself, but on the poliza make it look like the check was paid to the company in question.

This ‘petty cash’ rule is one of the rules that business owners must abide by and that make doing business in Mexico such a downright pleasure, especially when you see so many people not paying any taxes at all; it makes you feel proud to be part of that select group that pays for all the rest of the population.

The poliza is the copy of the check that must accompany each and every check in your accounting records and contains all the information on the check. It’s usually green which is another bit of completely useless information.

La Carreta Cubana II

From the sublime to the ridiculous might be the title of this post, in which the Casual Restaurant Critic, after visiting La Recova the other day, along with the BH and the MC dropped by La Carreta Cubana II for some Yucatecan food in the form of botanas which are served (as they are in Heladios and a million other cantina crossover restaurants in Merida) along with a drink order.

This local hangout, kind of run down and a little on the dirty side is tucked away in a neighborhood between Plaza Fiesta area and Prolongación Paseo de Montejo and is not worth seeking out. It may be a local favorite (at least for some locals) and it is cheap, but the food is nothing to write home about, the service is mediocre at best and the ambience is nil, a few notches below the point where charming becomes just plain ugly.

A round of beers means that you get a sampling of botana (snacks or tapas) which consisted of the following (more or less):

  • pickled beets
  • runny sikil pak (pumpkin seed and roasted tomato dip; it’s not supposed to be THIS runny)
  • salsa
  • sliced white bread aka ‘frances
  • a mayonnaise-y dip
  • boiled and possibly pickled pigs ear, chopped
  • cold tortillas
  • other mysterious little plates of things

Are you smacking your lips yet? OK, admittedly this is not Nectar but still, the whole experience was less than satisfying. The plates are the beig colored plastic ones, some with cracks and chips along with a few porcelain cup saucers.

An order of relleno negro and cochinita came but it was completely un-exceptional and the cold machine made or store bought or whatever tortillas were a complete turn-off.

There are a billion places like this in Merida where the biggest draw is how cheap it is. This lunch was about $100 pesos. Cheap doesn’t have to be synonymous with this however. Look at La Susana in Kanasin. It’s ridiculously cheap but is nowhere near the dumpiness of this place.

If you want to try this traditional Yucatecan lunch, go to Heladios or Los Henequenes.

On a scale of one to five, this place rates a solid 1.

CFE Makes Your Life Easier Again – NOT

The CFE (Comision Federal de Electricidad) whose slogan is “for the progress of Mexico” is once again asking that any payments made on your electric bill by check be made with a certified check.

This provision was relaxed a while back and one could pay their electric bill either with cash or a check (not certified). A few days ago I sent an employee to pay the business’ electric bill which came to a whopping $8000 pesos for the 2 month billing period and the employee returned saying that the check had to be certified. This was news to me since that particularly onerous provision had been waived. No, the CFE person told my employee, and it was right there on the sign, didn’t you read it?

For those of you unfamiliar with the burocratic processes that maintain this country firmly and irrevocably in the ‘third world’ category, the Mexican version of the IRS, Hacienda, insists that any payment made in a business environment to a supplier that is at or over the $2000 peso amount must be made by check. Since the CFE bill was well over that amount, a check must be used. But the CFE insists that a check is no good unless it has been certified by the bank that issued the check, which means you incur an additional charge (for the certification) to be able to pay your electric bill. No other supplier does this, but the CFE is the only game in town when it comes to powering your electric equipment, lights and air conditioning so they can (and do) pretty much whatever the hell they want.

So a special salute to all my friends at the CFE and the Secretaria de Hacienda y Credito Publico: a big Thank You for making life so much simpler for the small business owner!

I hope you all rot in hell.

La Recova – Argentina Meets Montejo

La Recova is a new Argentinian restaurant on Mérida’s Prolongación de Montejo, smack dab in the middle of what the Casual Restaurant calls Taco Alley. You know, that part of street where you can find the taquerias El Cacique, Gabbos, Tacos PM, as well as the Yucatecan hold-outs in all their flourescent 75 watt tubular lighting splendor La Rosita and La Terracita Azul and where on a Friday or Saturday night when it’s not temporada time, you can’t find a parking space and traffic is crazy.

However, it is – at present – not temporada time for the Casual Restaurant Critic, since he cannot get away for 2 months just because the weather and tradition dictates it. Neither was it Friday or Saturday night and the destination was not tacos but to sample the new La Recova restaurant which looks quite modern and inviting from the outside in that new, taking-Merida-by-storm, minimalist way.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the Critic was accompanied by the ever-lovely Better Half and of course the MiniCritic as well and although the mission was to reach Trotters for their Steak Au Poivre, it was decided – as La Recova appeared on the left – that you can’t really go wrong with Argentinian beef.

If you, dear reader aka querido lector are saying “shut the hell up and get on with it!” you will have to be patient because the CRC woke up this morning feeling all inspired to write something and this is the result.

There is valet parking available for those too lazy to look for a spot themselves or to walk the distance necessary once they have found that spot. Or it’s really busy and there really is not anywhere to park. Or you drive a pink Hummer and have to make an entrance.

But, on this Saturday afternoon with everyone at the beach working on their crowd management skills there was room nearby on Montejo and since the Critic as a rule does not employ the services of ‘valet parkings’ this time was no exception; it should be pointed out though that the guys at the valet parking stand actually acknowledged the presence of the Critic’s party which was a hopeful sign being as it was the very first contact with the restaurant.

The hostesses (there were two) dressed in black were welcoming and friendly and quickly showed us to our table. Air conditioning was cold and welcome since it was extremely hot outside.

Drinks were ordered; nothing exotic or alcoholic and the Critic quickly ordered grilled asparagus with Parmesan cheese and Fontina cheese, melted. There are two options for the Fontina appetizer; smoked and regular, the Critic had the regular. These were very good; the Critic thought the asparagus was a little bitter but the melted cheese, served on a tomato slice and topped with a sweet red pepper, was outstanding.

The steaks, which was the whole purpose of the venture were ordered. There is a selection of Argentinian cuts on the menu that is actually quite extensive and incomprehensible but the waiter does a fine job of explaining everything. The Better Half was concerned that the waiter emphasized that her selection of steak had a lot of grasa, but the Critic thought he was friendly and courteous about it and it was a good idea since one can imagine the typical diner getting his or her steak and then exclaiming ‘but it has FAT’ like fat in beef was a bad thing. What did the Better Half order: Tira de Asado. The Critc will attempt to upload photos from a new phone. The Critic had the Bife – the quintessential Argentinian cut – while the MiniCritic ordered a pasta, the raviolis stuffed with goat cheese.

So how was the food? The Tira de Asado, besides being so huge that it lounges self-confidently on the plate like Tony Soprano in a bathtub with a cigar and scotch, is in the Critic’s opinion a little chewy but that is the nature of that particular cut and there isn’t a whole lot to be done about it. The Better Half was in heaven as were the dogs back home when the bone arrived! The Bife was outstanding, extremely tender and cooked perfectly. Accompanying both steaks was a garnish consisting of a zucchini slice, grilled, topped with some mashed potato, a cherry tomato and a sprig of romero. The raviolis came in a large bowl, in a generous portion that would make the Trotters blush and the sauce was so very delectable that the Critic had to savour it to the last drop it after the MiniCritic had devoured her pasta.

In spite of better judgement, desserts were offered and two were chosen, all in the name of research for this blog. Tiramisu, a gigantic cheesy concoction (made with real mascarpone cheese, the party was informed) that would have easily fed an entire refugee camp in the Sudan; and Flan Napolitano. There are photos of these two desserts, hopefully you are seeing them and not reading this! The Tiramisu lacked ladyfingers which the Critic believes are part of the original recipe and was just toooooooo much. Mascarpone or no, the cheese was too cheesy and the party of three soon had their arteries screaming in protest and could not be brought to finish it. The Flan was excellent and received a warmer reception from the party’s cardiovascular systems. After dinner, the manager, whom the Critic knows, offered a dessert wine which was sweet, chilled and refreshing; much like a German Eiswein. Excellent.

Other notes: Service throughout is friendly (without being overly familiar – ie: Nectar where the waiter unfortunately feels the need to talk about how your business is coming along) and attentive (think Campay on those occasions when the waiter feels the need to prove his efficiency by pulling the plate from under your chopsticks as you pick up the last piece of sashimi).

Bread on the tables is warm and made in-house. Crisp white tablecloths throughout. Great air conditioning.

Large spaces set off by smaller spaces for groups and a great bar featuring a zillion types of alcoholic concoctions, a view of Montejo (the view is nothing to write home about but the Critic suspects that the idea is to be seen, rather than to see anything) and Mercer cigars as well as an ozone machine that sucks up the cigar smoke for those who just have to be there but are allergic to smoke… (hellooo?)

All in all, the Critic gives this place a solid 4.5. It could become a new all-time favorite!

Link: if you read Spanish, this will explain about Argentinian cuts of beef