Monthly Archives: September 2010

Guest Restaurant Critic Mark Makers – Rosas y Xocolate

Our last dinner in Merida at Rosas and Xocolate

Overall, our last meal in this magical city was very very good. We got plenty of personal attention from the owner Carol; he spent a lot of time translating the menu for us, and at one point poured me a shot of amazing mescal from his personal collection (El Cortijo). Yummy!

At the same time we arrived, two other events were in progress. One was a wedding dress show (which took up the main restaurant space – so we ate at tables setup in the tequila lounge area); the other was a fashion shoot involving a number of very pretty, young and flirtatious Mexican models. I was able to survive both inconveniences.

I found it interesting that Carol made such a point of importing most of his ingredients. I can see why this may make sense when targeting discerning locals, but it was a bit disappointing for tourists looking for high end food made from quality local ingredients. For example, Mrs Makers and I think that US pork is substandard to pork from just about anywhere else, with an odd, chemical flavor. I wanted to try the pork dish reviewed positively by the Casual Restaurant Critic, but changed my mind when I found that it was imported from the US.

Mrs. Makers had the hearts of palm salad and the duck. The duck turned out to be a bit pink (which Carol had assured us would not be the case) so I ended up trading her for a portion of my dinner. I had the shredded duck salad and the octopus main course – and ate plenty of both main courses – generous portions! Other than the pink duck (which Carol offered to replace – but we declined), we loved everything.

But we liked Panuchos de Kanasin at least as much J

Carol has clearly invested a lot of time and money in his establishment, and it shows. He mentioned that he will be in this month’s issue of Condé Nast! He asked us to tell our friends about Merida. This is something we will do, and expect that this wondrous city will continue to attract more travelers every year.

Mark Makers

Morning Musings

When the power goes out, as it invariably does here in Merida, you are left with contemplating life without electricity, which we (or at least I) take for granted every day.

Making my morning coffee, I am lucky enough to have a little French press that makes coffee for one and a half; a perfect morning starting size for me, what Starbucks might call a venti. Also, like most Yucatecans, I use gas in my kitchen which facilitates the heating of the water for said coffee, coffee harvested from the highland plains of  Costco, sold under the brand name Gila and already ground and stored in my freezer.

Speaking of freezer – and fridge – these must be opened and shut quickly, so as to conserve whatever cold temperatures are inside because one never knows how long these power outages are going to last.

Having charged the laptop throughout the previous night, I am able to write this morning without the distraction of the internet, as the modem is powered, again, by electricity and that little WiFi icon on my screen is blocked by a bright red cross, kind of like one of those AIDS ribbons. As I am typing this, and this is so coincidental as to be downright weird, Microsoft Works (with ads) pops up an ad for National AIDS fund with, as luck would have it, a red ribbon.

For a few days now I wanted to write about some of the wildlife one can see in ones garden if one doesn’t opt for the popular method of slashing and burning all local vegetation on ones property in order to build ones house.  This morning is a good opportunity to do so.

Leaving local trees and plants like the dzidilche, jabin, chaka and even the spiny, twisty catzin, can reward you with a cornucopia of local fauna that will frequent your garden and make sitting at your kitchen window a National Geographic moment, without the ads.

Besides several species of local birds, most prominent among them the k’au, or grackle which delights in surrounding our homes indoor (open to the sky) patio and diving in to the dogs dish to scoop up dog food nuggets and taking them to the pool where they are dipped in water to soften them up before swallowing, there are a few larger animals as well. How the heck do they learn this complex physics concept of a liquid softening up something hard? I have probably mentioned this before so forgive me if I am repeating myself but these birds blow me away with their smarts!

Occasionally, herds (for lack of a better term and without the internet where shall I look to find the correct name) of squirrels invade the treetops, jumping from branch to branch, scurrying along the edge of the roof and leaping great distances to traverse the entire back yard in about 5 minutes, chattering loudly and excitedly. The tree branches rustle and bounce, the dog goes crazy trying to get at them and the show is over in a very short time indeed.

Two days ago, cleaning the leaves and debris tossed into the pool by Karl, the blowhard who didn’t stick around and made his way to Veracruz, I noticed a snake near the edge of the water. About a meter long, it was reddish brown and looked perfectly harmless. As I considered my options, it moved very quickly and sinuously into the pool itself and, head raised triumphantly, slithered-ly swam to the opposite end where it popped out without any effort and disappeared under some rocks. I think about the times I have swum in the pool at night, in the dark without a care in the world.

Yesterday, sitting in this very kitchen and typing on this very computer, a movement caught my eye. Straight ahead of me, perched vertically on the bougainvillea trunk beside the kitchen window, was a very large iguana, dressed in a shade of gray (as usual) and bright green (very unusual) as it had been sitting in the bright green branches above. As I looked around for a camera, it continued downwards and made it’s hip-wiggling way across the lawn to yet another set of rocks where it vanished.

The power has returned and the silence has been broken by the hum of fans, motors, compressors and the neighbors mozo vacuuming their vehicles. The good news for me is that I can upload this post as well as take a shower and get on with my day.

Have a great Sunday, everyone!

How Mexicana Changed My Travel Plans

Because people asked.

So there I was, happily esconced at a friends place in Vancouver, enjoying the cool, sunny weather of a British Columbia fall, when I got the news that Mexicana went from the suspending a few flights (Vancouver-Houston had been un-affected up to this point) to a complete shut-down, due to, as their website blurb pointed out, a failure in reaching agreements with certain sectors (nudge nudge wink wink; read unions).

I returned my rental vehicle to the Vancouver airport on September 2, as scheduled and looked for the lonely Mexicana counter, tucked in forlornly among the myriad Cathay Pacific and China Air counters, where I found about 4 people standing around, all Mexicans, waiting on someone to help them. When asked, the Vancouver airport information desk person stated that she had received word that no one would be in from Mexicana that day but, the Mexican in me said, let’s go have a coffee and think about this and someone will probably show up. And they did.

Two non-uniformed employees of Mexicana, who make up the backbone of the airlines operations in Vancouver I was told later, helped the 4 Mexicans get flights home via Air Canada and American Airlines, who were the only companies helping Mexicana out. When it came to my turn, I was informed that there was an option via Air Canada but that would mean flying to Toronto and then on to Mexico somewhere. Toronto! Flying across the continent was not appealing to me at all and I mentioned that I was in no rush (it was still sunny in Vancouver after all) and so I got a voucher for American Airlines to fly Vancouver-Dallas/Ft Worth-Mexico City on September 4, 2 days later. I was to be at the airport at 8:30, 3 hours before the flight. OK. I went back to my friends place to enjoythe sun.

On September 4, I arrived at 9:00 AM at the American Airlines counter to find it closed. What? Asking again at the information desk, the nice lady told me that the flight had already left at 10:00. Now I was confused. Had it left early or what? There was no time on the travel voucher given to me and so I trundled off with my very overstuffed, overweight luggage to the Mexicana counter which, this time, was closed. After considering my dilemma, I asked the nice folks at China Air where the Mexicana people were and was told that no, they were not coming in today but did I know that they had an office right behind the counters, just over there? No, I did not. In I went, luggage in tow and found the man who had helped me on September 2.

“Que le paso?” he exclaimed upon seeing me again.

I explained and he said no, no, no, he had told me that the FLIGHT was at 8:30 AM and to be 3 hours before that. Obviously I had misunderstood him and MISSED MY FLIGHT.

Was there another option, I asked. No, we are quickly running out of alternatives and even Air Canada has pulled the plug on us. You will have to go to American Airlines and see if they can accommodate you on another flight using that voucher.

Off I go to American Airlines to see what they can do. After standing in line for a while (they were checking in their afternoon flight now) the counter lady tells me “Well, that voucher is good for 24 hours only and today is completely booked and it looks like tomorrow is as well”.

Mussing my hair up discreetly, I tell her that I am really getting exhausted from sleeping at the airport and could she please pretty please check again, I would really appreciate it. Lo and behold, a spot comes up and she tells me to come back tomorrow at 10:45 AM to check in for their 2:05 PM flight to Dallas and then on to DF. After making her repeat the time I needed to be there about seventeen times I get on my knees and thank her. Not really, but I was extremely grateful and told her so.

On September 5, my dear friend once again drove me to the airport,luggage and all and this time I was first in line at the American Airlines counter at 10:00 AM sharp. At 11:00 AM, there were many folks behind me, all coming from the Alaska cruise (which departs from Vancouver) and all with some sort of respiratory infection they caught on the ship. Another reason to stay away from cruiseships, I thought.

The counter person, to whom I explained my sad (sort of) situation (again) took pity on me and did not charge the $100 USD overweight baggage charge, saying only that he would tag it as ‘heavy’ and that I had been through enough grief. The truth is that I had not really been at all stressed; what with no where to go, no where to be and a very comfortable bed at my friends place and did I mention that it had been sunny up to that point? Nevertheless, I appreciated the gesture greatly since it left some room on the credit card which I immediately put to good use in the fancy-pants restaurant and my long-suffering friend and I had a great breakfast.

Once on the plane, aisle seat, emergency exit with lots of leg room (!) I texted home to say I was finally on my way.

In Dallas, a two hour layover allowed me to sample Cousins Barbeque before getting back on the plane to DF. I missed the free WiFi that Vancouver International Airport offers it’s visitors however; call it socialism, you Republican freaks of nature, but it is very comforting to be able to communicate with loved ones from the airport and is just a NICE gesture. In Dallas/Ft Worth, no free WiFi thank you very much.

Finally, after bumping along for 2 hours or so in the midst of a cloud bank that never went away, the plane touched down in Mexico City. Mexicana of course had no one at their counters since it was after midnite and so I checked into the hotel across the way, the Camino Real with the intention of heading over first thing in the morning to see about getting to Merida.

At 7:30 I was talking to a Mexicana rep who told me that there was nothing they could do for me and to go to Aeromexico, who were offering a special rate for passengers affected by the Mexicana debacle. The Aeromexico counter person informed me that no, there was nothing going to Merida that had any space on it. What about Cancun, I asked hopefully, crossing my fingers. Yes, there was a flight at 8:30 AM and I could go on that. Do it, I said.

Rushed back to the hotel, combed my hair, got the luggage, and checked out. Terminal 2 was quite a hike the receptionist informed me – would I like to take the shuttle? It was standing outside, ready to go. OK.

Arriving at Terminal 2, a spectacular new building, I rushed to the gate. The wheelchair person (all the ticket checkers at the entrance to the secured areas are in wheelchairs it seems) asks me “Are you planning to take that suitcase on board?” Shit! With time running out, I race back to the check in counter where I find a long lineup for Aeromexico flights. I will never make this, I think to myself and text home saying that I may be coming home soon but then again, maybe not. Suddenly, an announcement comes over the PA system indicating that passengers on the Cancun flight are to report to a special window set up just for them as the flight is about to begin boarding. Rushing over, I am helped quickly enough, only I need to get in this other line-up to pay for the grossly overweight luggage I plan to take with me. Once this is done, I am issued a boarding pass and run back to my wheelchair friends who look me over and wave me through.

As I arrive at the gate, the boarding announcement is made and once I am actually on the plane, I phone home to say that yes, I will be getting there – almost – soon. Almost because I will be arriving in Cancun, not Merida. Aisle seat, emergency exit, lots of leg room. Coincidence? Who knows.

In Cancun, I am assaulted by the humidity and heat as I drag myself and my luggage outside to consider my next move. There is the ADO bus to Merida which is comfy but which means I need to move my heavy junk to the shuttle to downtown and then negotiate the lines downtown to get my Merida ticket. OR, I could take the ADO shuttle from the airport itself which goes straight to Altabrisa mall in Merida. I decide on the latter. I will be taking the Sprinter, I am informed upon paying my 450 pesos or so, in cash: thankfully I have saved a $500 peso bill for whatever reason.

Now I understood that the Sprinter meant the actual Sprinter, a small bus made by Renault, Peugeot or one of those French companies that is actually called a Sprinter. Alas, no such animal awaited me; rather it was a Nissan Urvan van, which seats 2 comfortably and 9 really uncomfortably. On this trip there were 11 of us, not counting the driver. “But you will stop in Valladolid”, the fellow at the airport says “for a bathroom stop”. I look forward to having a Donia Tere taco and a decent coffee at the Italian Coffee location on the way, as I accommodate my knees up around my ears and settle in.

The driver, unfortunately has no such plans and two hours later zips by the Isla de Servicios on the way to Merida. I wistfully look back at Donia Tere and hunker down for another hour and a half of this fun ride.

Finally, I arrive at the Altabrisa ADO mini-station where the driver pops the trunk and leaves us. We are to unload the luggage ourselves which we do, rather stiffly, in the wet heat of a sunny Merida afternoon.

We are home.

A Novel Costco Promotion

So there you are in Costco, checking out the beautiful books on display, one of which is opened and on top, because it is the Mexican way to shrink-wrap all books for your enjoyment. Really.

If you go to Merida’s “leading” book stores, Dante and Ghandi, you will see what I mean. ALL the books are – besides being unceremoniously crammed into every available space with no room left for a nice display – shrink wrapped so as to prevent people from opening them. If you are polite, you can ask to have one opened and perhaps you will not get the frowny acquiescence from the “sales” person as she removes the plastic enclosing the literary treasure.

No wonder people don’t read.

ANYWAY.

The cookbook illustrated above features recipes and is supposedly directed at somewhat culinarily (yes, I make these words up) sensitive audience, which would probably be NOT really that interested in their fabulous promotion.

Sor Juana and all that? Sounds a little more sophisticated than a freakin’ hot dog and refresco.

Los Barriles, Chicxulub, Yucatan

Back in the Yucatan and away from all that Vancouver pan-asian-ness, the Casual Restaurant Critic had good reason to be in Chicxulub at 5 in the afternoon and found Los Barriles open for business. The owners were lounging about and the waiters were entertained by new flat screen TV´s hanging on the walls.

While enjoying the National Geographic Channel in Spanish and learning all about municipal cowboys in Delhi that are charged with clearing the bovines from the streets, the Critic enjoyed a crispy and deliciously white-meat tender boquinete – which is called hog fish on the menu in English (no idea if this is correct) – in the classic ‘pescado frito’ format, where they clean the fish, cut a few diagonal slashes on either side and throw it, head and fins intact, into a vat of bubbling oil. The result is pure fish-lovers heaven. Highly recommended, even if you can only get the more readily available grouper aka mero which is a bit dryer.

Before the fish arrived, and while the Nat Geo channel was still in Bangladesh, the Critic had a refreshing Modelo Especial michelada accompanied by 3 botanas; a crab/fish mayonnaise salad, minced shark cooked in a tomato sauce and a cold rice that resembled a paella, Chicxulub style. All good and served with tostadas that were actually crispy.

Cost of a meal like this – plus a Coca Cola for dessert – for one person? $155 pesos before tip. It’s good to be home.

Quick Restaurant Critiques – Vancouver, Canada

A recent visit to Vancouver by the curmudgeonly Casual Restaurant Critic featured a lot of restaurant visits, as is to be expected in a city as restaurant-filled as Vancouver. It is truly amazing how many places to eat there are – does no one eat at home? There are of course a lot of Asians in Vancouver and it is only fitting that there be a huge amount of Asian restaurants; everything from Cantonese to Vietnamese to Thai to Northern Thai to Japanese to Malaysian to…

Here are a just a few of the Critic’s notes:

Hon’s Won-Tun House

Located smack dab in the middle of Robson Street, on the West End side, Hon’s has been airlifted out of Chinatown and dropped on the most expensive piece of Vancouver real estate. The Critic went here for lunch and had a plate of BBQ duck, along with some rice and a Alexander Keiths Pale Ale. A great meal for 15 Canadian dollars. Be aware that the duck has been brutally hacked with one of those Chinese cleavers and there are bone fragments throughout. Also, the duck could have been a little hotter. But the flavour (Canadian spelling) was fantastic, the rice was hot and sticky (like a Merida afternoon in late August) and the beer cold. All plates and cups and glasses are made of that plastic material typical of picnic dinnerware.

Capers Market

Also on Robson Street, just down from Hon’s towards trendy Denman Street, is the Capers/WholeFoods market, a mecca for anyone wanting organic and free range and whole grain and gluten free. You know who you are. A great place to stop for dessert or a fresh peach when they are in season. At their bakery on this visit, they had the most scrumptious fresh cherry pie ever. To Die For. Check out their website and if you go, take a bag because that’s the green thing to do.

Sushi Mart

Almost across from Capers Market, on Robson Street, is Sushi Mart which looks interesting from the outside because of the reviews posted in the windows and the one giant table inside. It seats about 14 people and is a kind of communal sushi experience. The fish is fresh, the rice perfect and the service fast. The Critic thinks that to survive in the Vancouver sushi restaurant competition, you have to have something that will make you last, besides fresh fish. This place is just fine for a quick lunch. The Critic had a lunch special which was a large bowl of sushi rice on top of which were about 6 different types of fish sashimi aka Chirashi Bowl. Great stuff and not at all expensive or pretentious. The Critic would like some of that sashimi right now.

Memphis Blues

Finally getting away from the Robson Street/West End area, the Critic had a fantastic early dinner (early by Yucatecan standards anyway) at one of the few southern (US) style barbeque places in Vancouver, on Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. Nestled among the funky shops, the Pakistani-run groceries, the Portuguese Social Club, Italian cafes and trendy bars is this restaurant (warning – website has sound) which on the day the Critic appeared at the door, was featuring an All You Can Eat special on ribs and fries for about 20 dollars. B

eers were ordered and the Critic and his Funkified Guests chowed down on enormous ribs with extra bbq sauce all tangy and delicious and cripsy fries, washed down with cool cervezas. Not cheap, but good. Lunch for three as mentioned came to a whopping 90 dollars Canadian which is definitely not the cheapest meal one can have in Vancouver but that one meal lasted the Critic at least 24 hours.

Bon’s

Every town has it’s hipster hangouts; run down diners that appeal to the cheap, the frugal, the hip and the trendy. Bon’s, on Nanaimo Street and Broadway in East Vancouver, is such a place. There is a lineup for their 2.99 breakfast special, a price that is unheard of in Vancouver.

And it is a filling breakfast too, not some pansy-ass continental menu that passes as breakfast at so many places. And it’;s available all day, too. There is bread; 3 kinds to choose from and you get two slices, 2 eggs any way you want ’em, sausage ham or bacon and a big smackdown of breakfast potatoes that you will not finish. Coffee is extra and you may have to get up and serve yourself, it’s that busy. Same thing if you want water. Take a seat, look around at the crowd around you and enjoy. It’s the place to be, whatever time of the day that might happen to be. Check out the write-up on Urban Spoon. Photos too.

Nao Sushi

A newer sushi place, on Kingsway in sunny Burnaby is Nao Sushi. Like the Critic mentioned before, the sushi competition is fierce and there was not really anything about this place that stood out. Service was only average, not slow or unfriendly, but not OMG what great service either. And the sushi was very good, but not OMG this is SO good good. Some of the rolls actually fell apart as one picked them up with the chopsticks, something that the Critic had never experienced before. Is this a good thing or a bad thing as far as sushi goes? No idea.

The Critic suspects that it is not a good thing. It was cheaper than some of the downtown options; lunch for two came to about 27 dollars and the Critic and his Italian Cohort had quite a bit of sushi. Notice also the crudely written ‘specials’ notices haphazardly taped to the wall. Why spend all that money decorating the place and creating some sort of ambience and then plastering the mauve walls with signs that obviously were hand-lettered by a 5 year old? And the TV with the news and a toilet bowl cleanser commercial don’t help either. Don’t bother with this one, there are so many more options for sushi in Vancouver! It might be Nao but it won’t be Then.

The Critic is sure there are more reviews, but it is late and time for some rest. Thanks for reading this far and hopefully this will help on your next visit to Vancouver, providing you were not planning to fly Mexicana, which is another story in and of itself which may get a write-up soon. Stay tuned!