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The Casual Restaurant Critic at Santiago Market – Itzalana

The Critic knows for a fact that many of the 19 readers of his ramblings have been – probably repeatedly – to eat at the market in Santiago, so he will just post a few photos of the delicious breakfast enjoyed recently in the company of the always charming Better Half and a group of amigos.

Salbut and panucho ‘especial’ which means a ton of turkey meat

Salbutes de asado

Torta Cubana, the only one with no eggs. The Critic is not a fan of things eggy

Torta cubana with agua de watermelon and chaya in the background

‘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!

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic – Luciano’s Ristorante Italiano

Lucianos Interior

A Gaggle of Teens

The Casual Restaurant Critic – hungry and celebrating with Better Half the recuperation of a lost item which will be explained at some point but not right now – decided on lunch at the new Italian restaurant called Lucianos, located in that bastion of fashionable Merida mall-ness, Plaza Altabrisa.

There was only a table of young kids celebrating a birthday or something with pizzas and giggles in the entire restaurant which is huge, covering the corner second level of the mall, directly over Chili’s restaurant. About a hundred waiters abound and one is immediately struck with the thought that it is a lot like Italianni’s (Gran Plaza) and the now defunct Contenti’s (remember that one adjacent to and a part of Friday’s?). A hostess takes a name and leads you inside.

The noise level will probably be too high for many of my readers, who often prefer something a little more tranquilo, but on this occasion at least, a Ricky Martin concert on all the restaurants video screens accompanied by the ‘music’ on the sound system drowned out the possibility of any conversation but a word to the waiter changed that. Actually, the exchange went something like this:

Better Half  – “Excuse me, but I think we are not going to stay because we really can’t talk here”

Waiter – *grin*

Better Half – “Is that OK then, if we leave?”

Waiter – *grinning* “um, OK”

As Better Half turned to the Critic incredulously, Waiter disappeared and magically, a moment later, the volume went down to a more normal level. Loud enough to make the place seem more exciting than it actually is, but low enough that you can actually talk to the person sitting across from you.

The Critic and Better Half both ordered pizzas; 4 cheese with anchovies and pepperoni. Both were fine, but it was not an OMG moment featuring groaning and mouthgasms. No, it was a decent pizza, but you can do better at Rafaello’s downtown or Boston around the corner or Bella Roma out in the sticks.

All in all, the Critic might be back to try the pastas, but for the time being, is not in any rush to do so.

 

 

A Casual Critic Revisits Elio al Mare (for lunch)

All the Critic can say to begin this review is what the hell happened?

That would be a great way to describe what was going through the Critics mind the other day when he visited the famous Italian seaside eatery outside Progreso in the company of distant relatives from the Sofia Vergara family. Are you now thoroughly distracted, dear reader? Well, don’t be, because what the Critic is about to write is important and will save you gas money if you are coming from Merida with the intention of enjoying a good Italian meal.

Let the Critic preface (some more) by saying that this is what most people would call an ‘expensive’ restaurant for Merida; pasta dishes are in the $150 to $200 peso a plate range and there are Italian wines that are truly Italian – not from Costco – and priced accordingly. That, and the rave reviews previously expressed not only by the Critic but also others who have loved this place in the past, was one of the reasons the Critic wanted his guests to try this restaurant.

While they loved it, the Critic was appalled.

It was just after 1 PM, and the sign said they were open. However, no tables were set up and the little trio (Critic plus two) was greeted in a casually uninterested way by two individuals of the male kind, while two more of the female variety sat in the kitchen eating a meal of pasta and bread. Two schoolchildren were sitting at a small table in the restaurant, presumably somehow related to the women in the kitchen, also eating their lunch. They later provided sound effects and background noise in an otherwise empty restaurant.

Gone are the days of the charming Italian host, the sangria, the restaurant set with white tablecloths. Gone is background music, any ambience whatsoever or any feeling of being welcome. A meek, unsmiling individual with the personality of a sea urchin – a traumatized sea urchin that has suffered parental abuse as a baby urchin and moves like it expects a whipping any minute – set the one table and proceeded to take the order. Two of the dishes ordered were not available due to the absence of gorgonzola in one case and basil in another. This is an “upscale” Italian restaurant, you will recall. Orders were modified and eventually arrived at the table. The food was fine, in fact it was pretty darn good, especially the fish, a robalo in a tomato and black olive sauce that was succulently flavorful, albeit raw on the inside. The Critics pasta was tasty but non-descript and the other pasta dish, fetuccine carbonara, apparently was decent enough also.

Did the Critic already mention the noisy children who were now playing hide and seek and shrieking in delight as they skidded through the restaurant from one end to the other. The waiter, if one could call him that, would hide near the kitchen and when forced to come out to set another table for yet another couple (also foreigners who spoke no Spanish) would pass the Critics table and make a determined effort to not establish any eye contact or look at the table, choosing instead to look nervously the other way lest the Critics table asked for something he might have to respond to.

The Critic can not in any good conscience recommend this place any longer, at least not for lunch. What a disappointment.

The Casual Restaurant Critic – Vancouver, Canada (Part II)

Continuing with the Critic and his neurotic reviews, here are some more notes on the restaurant scene in Vancouver which you may or may not find useful. A full refrigerator and invitations from friends for dinners and lunches have scene a drastic decline in the number of establishments visited; nevertheless, there is always something to observe, document or write about and so here goes.

VIJ

A good friend (who shall be referred to as Ms Cinci for the remainder of this write-up) of the Better Half and the Critic came to Vancouver for a brief visit and says “hey, my friend recommended Vijs for Indian food!” by way of suggestion and so the Critic and BH just had to see what the fuss was about; and were pleasantly blown away by the food!!

One arrives at Vij and sits at an outdoor terrace, where one can order an exotic drink; how does an Indian Mojito sound, with cilantro? Or a mango and masala infused dark rum cocktail called Dark Army?  Both of those were had and they were fantastic, while the little group sat outside waiting for a table in the packed, deliciously lit room. Appetizers are brought out while you wait, courtesy of the restaurant which takes no reservations and seating is on a first come, first served basis.

The food is absolutely glorious! Hearty, complex in the variety of flavors that cross your palate as you savor each and every bite. The Critic ordered the prawns, the Better Half a chicken-based dish and Ms Cinci had “lamb popsicles” which were actually little cutlets perfectly cooked – crispy, crunchy and tender chewy at the same time – in the most delectable, buttery and decadent sauce. All the dishes were served in large bowls so sharing was not only nice (inside joke) but encouraged and easy. Appetizers were fantastic as well; the Samosa with a very spicy stuffing was a meal in itself and who could resist the pork belly? Not this group!

The meal was accompanied by a bottle of crisp white wine going by the name of Joie Farm Market and was the perfect, non-intrusive complement to the outstanding food.

Service was gracious, professional and friendly by a mostly female staff who all took care of all the tables at once; none of this “my section” nonsense.

Ms Cinci picked up the bill so price information is not available, but a look at their website can give you, my dear reader, an idea.

Overall, the experience was gourmet, perfect for foodies, but not pretentious or stuffy in any way. Highly recommended!!

Website for Vij here.

Tomokazu Japanese

Tomokazu is a very popular all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant on Broadway in Vancouver. Thanks to the Mini-Critic, the Casual Restaurant and Better Half were able to experience this incredibly inexpensive sushi restaurant which is one of the few places open late in Vancouver, where you can go at 11 PM and find the place hopping.

The sushi is not the greatest in the world but for an all-you-can-eat option, and at the ridiculous price of 12.95 CDN per person, it is a bargain and you will not be disappointed. The Critic suggests ordering your limit of sashimi (there is a limit of 2 orders per person) and plenty of salmon niguiri (pieces). The fish is fresh and cold and delicious. Service is quick, with servers speaking enough English to get by. Orders are taken via a piece of paper where one marks the amount of each sushi you want and this is handed to the server. The food comes along almost instantly, so those guys at the sushi bar are really cranking it out.

Excellent value for the money.

Write-ups on Urban Spoon here.

That Mediterranean Food Store

There is a little specialty shop on Commercial Drive that has the largest selection of Lebanese and other Mediterranean food you have ever seen – the Critic and BH “discovered” this Vancouver institution while searching for lunch options to have at the vacation rental in Vancouver. If you love Lebanese food – and who in the Yucatan doesn’t – this is the place to go. The owner is there each and every day, doling out olives, humus (garbanza) and fresh-baked sweet and savory pastries and making jokes with his many customers.

Write up on Urban Spoon here.