Monthly Archives: July 2016

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

Picking Your Wedding Music – The Dinner

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If you have been to a production-quality wedding in Merida, you know that it is a blow-out event, and in many cases, it seems that no expense is spared; the sheer volume of guests, tables and accoutrements making the “large” wedding North of the Border (NOB) of 80 people or so seem like a children’s party in comparison.

Besides the catered meal (in Merida, Rigel is your best option), the photography, the flowers, and the ‘hall’ which in the Yucatan is much more than that: a former plantation or hacienda could be the venue or perhaps one of the social clubs like the Campestre or Libanés which are also popular for those who don’t feel like driving out into the countryside in the dark.

The music, which is the topic of today’s article is also a make or break part of any wedding event and you can choose from a DJ or a live band, of which there are many, some better than others. At the time of this writing, Grupo Crack (honest, that’s their name) is among the latter group with vocalists that not only have great range and sing in tune, but also featuring an almost limitless range of musical genres from the ever-popular tropical cumbias to reggaeton and even – gasp – classic rock and disco numbers.

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Before the band or DJ swing into action, however, dinner is usually served and during that time, which is ideally suited to conversation and getting to know or reacquainting yourself with the folks around your table, the music ideally should be at a volume conducive to the aforementioned activity.

Options for this musical interlude include:

  • recorded music played at a moderate volume thus permitting one to converse without screaming across the table, with the ensuing potential for projectile food particle dispersion;
  • a juggler (kidding – this is not an option at a wedding)
  • a string quartet or similar acoustic and unamplified musical option, again allowing not only the all-important table conversation (you will leave your iPhone with these people after all when you hit the dance floor), but also enabling you to actually digest in a manner becoming civilized human beings, the food you are partaking of;
  • a saxophone player. Unfortunately the saxophone player, who plays with himself and his previously recorded background tracks, is the worst of any option, as I can attest to personally, having just suffered through an hour of over-amplified alto sax wailing that reminded me of Monty Pythons cheese shop sketch (“shut that bloody bouzouki player up!”), or perhaps an afternoon at the local goose farm, where gaggles of geese incessantly honk while you are trying to have a meal.

It was, in fact, a rather unpleasant musical sax intervention during dinner at an otherwise delightful wedding that  prompted this article. Fellow guests and I (and Better Half) could not believe that the screeching, out of tune and random notes being played at eardrum-piercing volume along with pre-recorded backing tracks ranging from Metallica (really) to Celine Dion (naturally) was intended to make the guests dining experience more pleasant. The effect of this musical masturbation, a term I invented for musicians who play and receive enjoyment themselves at the expense of their audience, is mind numbing and heart palpitation inducing. You will want to get up at some point and stuff a floral centerpiece into his instrument or simply shoot him.

If you are planning a wedding and have the usual large production in mind, please think of your guests and do not, I repeat, do NOT include a sax player for your dinner interlude music. Your guests will love you and thank you for it.

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