Monthly Archives: March 2008

Thou Shallt Not Speak Against the Hallowed Institutions or the Duly Elected Official

On Friday, March 28th there was a little article at the back of the Diario de Yucatán (page 10, sección Nacional) which reported on the declarations made by the Cuban-American mother and aunt of a Cuban man recently shot in Cancun.

I do not pretend to know the details of the shooting of this man, whether it was a narco thing or an immigration ring thing or just a random drive by. What I do know is that I actually laughed at the declarations made not by the obviously distraught Cuban-American mother of this individual, but at the lofty declarations made by the local assistant prosecutor, a one Luis Raimundo Canché Aquino.

Apparently the two women came to reclaim the body of their son and nephew, and made some declarations to the press in which they described the state authorities and their instalaciones (offices etc.) as dirty and and incompetent. They also said that Mexico is a country “lleno de miseria“. If you are the assistant prosecutor for the state of Quintana Roo, them’s fightin’ words.

This pompous ass of a public servant issued a statement himself, saying that he would be informing the Secretaria de Gobernación about these terrible things being said by these awful women. He also said that it is a crime for a foreigner to make declarations against ‘duly established authorities’ and that at the very least they should be declared ‘personas non grata‘ and that he would include a recording of the despicable things said by those two hysterical women.

I can only imagine the nightmarish mess of trying to recover the body of your son (whatever he may have done he is still your son) from a Quintana Roo government facility, with the added bonus of him and you being foreigners and the additional on-top-of-that bonus of having a crime investigation going on around the death.

Can you see the empathetic, professional government official walking the hysterical mother and aunt through the process and to the different departments, where they are greeted at every turn by more empathetic, professional and courteous government officials who move the case along in a clear, transparent, easy-to-follow process that is recorded for posterity on a several
sheets of clear, easy-to-read official documents. Come on, you can see it. Try harder!

Perhaps the idealistic Mr. Assistant State Prosecutor with far too much time on his hands is right. Us foreigners should shut our mouths if we don’t know what the hell we are talking about. Why, everyone knows that the state government officials could not possibly be inept and are a model of efficiency, transparency and several other ‘cy’ words. As for their instalaciones; why, they are the Swiss banks of police-dom and the envy of police departments around the world.

Overreaction! Hello?

HSBC – The World’s Local Bank – Ha!

This little neurotic rambling is about the wonderful service you can expect should you happen to open an account or have an HSBC account related question in their Gran Plaza location! I have no idea how good or bad their service is at some of the other branches around town, but, knowing full well how foreign the concept of customer service is in Mérida, I can imagine that it’s not much different. Of course you would expect better from the world’s local bank, but then again maybe not. Service at the HSBC Gran Plaza location is absolute shite.

Fight your way to the two people in charge of clearing up customer inquiries (there’s always a crowd) and you will meet two of the most customer-service-challenged persons you may have met in a long time. If you are beyond 1 meter (three feet) from the edge of their desk, even if they are not with another customer, they will not see you because you are in their ‘invisibility zone’, kind of like wearing an invisibility cloak like in the Harry Potter novels. Great if you want to sneak up on them, not so much if you want them to look up and actually provide you with some kind of service, like an answer to a question perhaps. They will poke away on their computer or write things on those important papers they have in front of them and make a supreme effort NOT to acknowledge you.

After some hemming and hawing (throat clearing works occasionally as does a good, loud Buenos Dias or Tardes) they will look up with a bovine expression bordering on disdain – imagine if you will the look on a bored, disdainful cow – and will look at anything but your face, preferably studying the paper you have in your hand to judge how much time and effort dealing with you is going to cost them.

If they are with someone, well, all the better to ignore you, standing impatiently behind the person seated in front of you.

There will be no friendliness at all, unless of course you already know and get along with these fine service-oriented (not) individuals.

When they get up from their chairs to walk through the bank they will not acknowledge anyone in the interminably long cashier lineup – this is not part of their job description.

The cashiers, for the most part, are much friendlier and customer-service oriented than these higher-paid “executives” are, proffering smiles and actually trying to provide some level of service to the exasperated clients dripping in one by one from the long lineup.

I wonder what the powers that be at HSBC head office would think if they had to suffer through the crappy service at this branch?

Trotters Revisited

The Casual Restaurant Critic has reviewed Trotter before (in 2005 and 2006) and so it’s about time for an update.

Last night the CRC and his BH (you should know what the initials stand for by now) had a late, after work dinner at Trotters.

Turns out that Mondays are pretty quiet and you can get a table quickly and the waiters aren’t rushed and… there is a wine special on. You get a discount of $200 pesos on any bottle of wine on their ‘regular’ list, which has some good ones, and $500 off per bottle on their short ‘Gran Cava’ wine list, which contains names like Chateau Jenesaisrien and others that are completely unfamiliar to the uneducated palate of the Critic.

In a nutshell, dinner was very good. A bottle of shiraz; cooked-to-perfection Steak au Poivre with hot, seasoned pommes frites; a refreshing watercress salad; steak medallions with an espresso crust (interesting but not as good as the steak au poivre) with creamy broccoli and roasted asparagus.

Desserts were of the oversized, cakey, heavy variety and after a steak dinner, it would have been just too much, so no desserts this time. Besides, on the one occasion when the desserts were sampled, they were not at all up to par with the rest of the menu.

A great night out in a spectacular room for $90.00 Not cheap, but a very agradable way to spend a couple of hours with someone you enjoy being with.

El Fogoncito – Altabrisa Mall, second (and third) visit

Friends called up and said ‘hey let’s meet at Altabrisa mall for dinner and gossip – we can have dinner at Chili’s’. With much trepidation, hesitation and consternation (considering the Critic’s only-too-recent frozen experience with Chili’s Liverpool) the Casual Restaurant Critic accepted, only for the chance to catch up with friends he hadn’t seen in a while.

Lo and behold, upon arriving, the gods smiled on the group in the form of a darkened Chilis! But then the Critic realized that the gods have a sense of humor and that the smile was sarcastic, because directly in front of Chili’s, the Fogoncito was all lights.

The Critic had been to the Fogoncito on a previous occasion or two and was still willing to give them the benefit of the opening-blues doubt. On this visit, the group of 7 was looked after in a timely fashion by a friendly waiter who seemed earnest, as did one of the managers who inquired as to how was the service, were orders taken, that kind of thing.

The food at the Fogoncito, as the Casual Restaurant Critic’s 17 readers know by now, is in the Mexican taco genre, with meats, melted cheeses and red and green tomato salsas. Try the Sopa Azteca, which is a thick, savory, tomato-y broth with melted cheese, sliced avocado, crispy fried tortilla strips and a poblano chile floating on top. Bite into this chile at your own risk. It is by no means a challenger to the King of Chiles, el habanero yucateco, but it can be spicy. The Fogoncito’s guacamole has been consistently excellent; fresh, green and chunky – the only caveat is the freshness of the tortilla chips that accompany the guacamole. There are always two (or more) chips that are noticeably soft and as the Mayans would say, sat’s. Again, for a taco restaurant, soft tortilla chips that are supposedly crispycrunchy is unforgivable. The Critic had, on this occasion, something whose name escapes him at this writing but was a tortilla made of fried cheese, wrapped around a chopped pork chop with bacon. After eating this the Critic popped a vein and had to be taken to the Star Médica hospital nearby for a thorough artery cleansing. Kidding.

The margarita – on the rocks, not frozen – came in a highball glass, about two thirds full but was extremely heavy on the sweet syrup and the Critic couldn’t finish more than a swallow or two. A Michelada (Sol, Tecate etc . no Coronas at the Fogoncito) was ordered instead, and that was very refreshing. Their horchata, with a dash of cinammon on top, is also the best in town.

So far so good. And it was. There was nothing to bitch about on this visit and the Fogoncito seemed well on the path to redemption in the Casual Critic’s aging eyes.

* * * * * * *

But alas, all is not well in the land of the soft tortilla chip and the excellent horchata.

Another visit, a few nights later after a hard days’ labor, resulted in a backslide for the Fogoncito, the Critic and his better half decided on a quick taco there. The table was greeted with a half-covered yawn by an exhausted waiter who commented that he was working a double shift. Nice of him to share that tidbit of information. The service went downhill from there. The food came out in shifts, with the arrachera accompaniments served along with the other people’s main dishes, with the actual meat appearing several minutes later. Salsas were running low at one point and another waiter took the entire salsa structure (the multiple little bowls contraption), never to return. After much hand waving and trying to get the attention of a hearing-deficient head waiter (you can tell the difference by the color of their shirts) another, different waiter was convinced to provide fresh salsas, all the while the food waited since you can’t enjoy a taco without salsas, right? Terrible service and again, the Fogoncito slipped down a couple of notches in the Casual Critic’s humble opinion.

Why Most Mexicans Don’t Read Signs – A Theory

While I don’t profess to be an expert on anything except neurotic ramblings on this particularly blog anyway, I did want to throw out there my theory on the troubled relationship between Mexicans and signage in general.

From my observations, I have noticed that Mexicans pay little or only cursory attention to signs of any kind, be it in a restaurant (no smoking sign), a store (closed sign) or on the highway (construction zone signs) and little by little have come to understand why, or at least to develop a theory on the subject.

My theory is this: Mexicans have become so accustomed reading misleading, incorrect or just plain wrong information, that on a sub-conscious level, they dismiss written indications outright. Signs have no authority – they carry no weight. I know because I have lived here for 20 years now and it’s happening to me.

  • On The Road Again

    Take the SCT. Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes. An important-sounding name that means the (federal) Secretary of Communication and Transportation. These are the experts on communication and transportation, right? As they build and rebuild Mexico’s highways, siphoning off large portions of the budget allotted to the project for injection into personal bank accounts, they use signage to indicate to the motorist what is happening on a particular stretch of highway.

    How many times have I slowed down when seeing an orange (warning color, right?) sign that says “Workers Ahead – Slow Down” or “Construction Zone – 500 m.)” followed by more orange and red signs indicating some sort of slowdown ahead. But they mean NOTHING. There may or MAY NOT be workers ahead, the road might be fixed, the road might have a hole in it the size of the Chicxulub crater. They may be working now or they may have gone home last week and left the signs there because it wasn’t their job to remove them. Everything from Men Working to Loose Gravel to Narrow Road signs, all red or orange, are used to indicate that something, anything, is going on up ahead. No need to pay attention to what the signs actually say, because it’s probably not really true anyway. It’s kind of an ambiguous, haphazardly flashing warning light, that something is different about the next stretch of road.

    So no wonder you start to ignore the signs and play it by ear using your own judgment and relying on your own quick reflexes if indeed there is a crater awaiting you around the next bend. I mean, look carefully at the photo above (clicking on it will open it up so you can have a closer look) and notice how the sign says Retorno while the retarded (no offense to the legitimately mentally challenged) powers-that-be have decided that they no longer want people to retornar at that point, and have applied a low-tech solution to people actually using this exit in the form of… rocks. They have no ladders at the Secretaria de COMUNICACIONES to take down the sign or cover it up? Sporting a typical gray color, they blend in nicely with the highway itself. Imagine you are new to town, driving along at night and want to turn here, at the last minute you see the rocks – they are not lit up at night, being the low-tech barrier they are – you apply the brakes and come to a screeching, sweating stop.

    The tragedy is that this is the Secretaria de COMUNICACIONES y Transportes we are talking about, on federal highways. If they can’t communicate, what chance in hell do the rest of us mortals have.

  • No Smoking (Yeah Right)

    In a sushi restaurant a while ago, I watched incredulously as a client waiting for his to-go sushi order (what a loser proposition by the way, sitting in a sushi resaurant, waiting for a to-go order that you could be eating there… what, is the person at home so goddamn lazy they can’t get dressed?) lit a cigarette right at the sushi bar, directly in front of the admittedly discrete NO SMOKING sign. The waiter approached him and, while the smoking client was distracted by something else, quietly and quickly removed the No Smoking sign. This was either an extreme example of empathetic customer service, or an overwhelming desire to avoid confrontation. You decide. In either case, the sign served absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

  • No Parking – Handicapped Only (Hey My Leg Hurts so it’s OK)

    No parking areas, particularly those reserved for the handicapped are easy picking for the driver in a hurry whose needs are infinitely more important than anyone else’s and so he or she will park there, “only for a moment”. The sign or yellow paint on the curb means nothing at all to him or her.

    Now examine certain areas of the city like streets around the Gran Plaza mall or Paseo de Montejo in front of Tequila on a Saturday night and you will see hundreds of cars parked along the yellow curb, which supposedly means No Parking.

    So, what is the message? Park if you can get away with it! Again, signs have little or no authority. This all changes around Christmas, when the local police must fill their cuotas for everyone’s Christmas bonuses and fines are handed out liberally; the law is a little stricter during the month of Peace and Love.

  • Signage Overload on the Highways

    Highways have so many signs, that reading them all would literally bring you to a standstill in many areas! Leaving the City. Maximum Speed 60 kph. Hacienda Whatever. Keep our Highways Clean, Amigo Visitante (like we locals are so concerned about keeping our state spotless). No Left Turn. Glorieta Ahead. Etc. Etc.

  • It’s Closed!

    How many times have I seen people approach a store, its door closed and a CLOSED sign hanging in plain sight, rattle the door or tap on the glass and asking, with hand signals “Are you closed?” The same sign will remain hanging on the door throughout the day, when the store is actually OPEN, thereby generating confusion and the general feeling that the sign again, means nothing.

I state again that I am not a student of anthropology or human sciences or urban development even so I really don’t know what I am talking about when I speculate on what goes on in someone else’s mind, but my observations have led me to the conclusion that we Mexicans (and I include myself here) have no respect for signs in Mexico.

We do when we travel elsewhere because we know that they are there for a reason and will be enforced and are reliable sources of information.

But not in Mexico. We have been conditioned to believe that signs are meaningless, carry no authority, contain outdated or useless or untrue information and are no more than landscape-polluting visual distractions that serve no purpose whatsoever.

Chilis – Galería Liverpool Mall

Oh what fun, it is to find, such a lousy place to trash!

Chili’s with the Mini-Critic. She was hungry, the Critic was not. The Critic asked for a Margarita, not a regular one mind you, but a “Top Shelf Margarita”. The photo showed a frosty glass mug, salt rimmed and the margarita with ice. Perfect for thirst quenching after a nice MSG-infused lunch at Win Fa in the Gran Plaza!

The waiter came back after an eternity with the naranjada for the Mini-Critic. A while later, the margarita appeared, slushy as a 7-11 Slurpy. Not what he ordered, the Critic took one sip and then called the waiter. You can’t quench your thirst with a slushy, thick Slurpee.

The Critic waved his arm to get the attention of the waiter who was busy talking to one of the eight other waiters and waitresses in the barely-occupied restaurant. “I wanted this on the rocks, like in the photo. Not ‘frozen'”

A puzzled look came across the waiter’s face. “Asi vienen” he said. (this is how we make them). No, the photo indicates otherwise and the description reads ‘frozen or on the rocks’. So he took the drink and was gone for a while before he came back, with the same drink and said that that was how they were made (yes, already said that) and if the Critic wanted another one, he – the waiter – would have to pay for that one.

So whatever. The Critic, still thirsty ordered another one, on the rocks, and said to charge him or not, whatever. “Can I take this one then?”. “Yes, please do.” A long while later, another margarita appeared, this one on the rocks and delicious.

More hand waving to get the order for food.

The Mini-Critic’s sandwich arrived; unfortunately the fries were from earlier as demonstrated by their soft texture and luke warm temperature. The Critic had already given up on Chili’s by this point, so no further complaining was in store for the absent minded, nervous and completely clueless person masquerading as a waiter.

He then had a flash of inspiration gleaned perhaps from a moment when he was paying attention during the training process and came to the table to ask “Is everything alright with your sandwich, Miss?”. This was so contrived that the Mini-Critic almost lost her mouthful of food, trying not to laugh outright.

More hand waving for the bill. The bill one gets at the table has a space for adding the tip, before they take one’s credit card and that bill to run it into the cash register. This is different and since the letters are so small, the blind Critic can no longer read and so was told by the waiter that if he wanted to leave a tip then that was the time and the place to put it was on the bottom of that little bill. He waited patiently at the Critic’s side while a 10% amount was filled in. On this bill is a note regarding comments and an email address. Great! The Critic can write to someone about the wonderful service!

Off he went and soon the receipt was on the table and the ordeal was over. On the receipt that they leave you, there is mention of comments and no email address, that bill stays in the restaurant. They must really be interested in your opinion, so be sure to whip out your laptop in the time you have between them taking that bill and you getting your other receipt.

And yes, they charged the Critic BOTH margaritas, although they did take the frozen one away.

Clueless waiters (they can however, spin menus and bill holders on one finger, always impressive), formulaic gringo food that is served lukewarm and a terrific policy on handling waiter’s screwups (charge the client!!) makes Chili’s a place to avoid. The Critic gives it a solid 1.

Casa de Piedra restaurant – Hacienda Xcanatun

After a long hiatus, the Casual Restaurant Critic had the opportunity to re-visit the restaurant at the luxurious Hacienda Xcanatun, located in the village of, you guessed it, Xcanatun, just off the Merida-Progreso highway.

The restaurant is still beautiful, the chef is relatively new (at least since the last visit by this Critic many moons ago) the food is both exciting in it’s combinations of flavors and textures, and the service is still hugely deficient, taking into consideration the quality of the room and the cuisine.

Why is the Critic such a rag on service? Because it seems that it is that one elusive detail that restaurants in Merida just can not get right. The owners of many a Merida restaurant spend good money on decorating, menu-planning, lighting, getting a great chef, even hiring valet parking in some cases. Then, when it comes to probably the most important (ok for some neurotic people like the Critic) detail, the human interaction between everything just mentioned and the guest, there is little or not enough effort made to ensure that the concept comes full circle.

In the case of this visit to Xcanatun, the Critic’s lovely better half had arranged a reservation asking for a nice table. Upon arrival, one of the wait staff consulted with the reservation book at the entrance and there was indeed a reservation; however, no table was offered. Instead, the waiter asked ‘where would you like to sit?’ which, when the table was chosen, turned out to be a table that was not ready and so the party stood around the table as the waiters changed tablecloths and set the table. Imagine this happening in a good restaurant someplace else? You make a reservation and then are told to sit wherever you like? The Critic doesn’t think so.

Service throughout the meal was adequate, but the lack of professionalism was further highlighted by the truly spectacular food promised by the menu and delivered by the chef and kitchen staff. On the one hand you have food truly worthy of accolades and groans of satisfied pleasure, while on the other you have to suffer the distraction of inferior service; service that could be found in any where in Merida, from Friday’s to El Fogoncito.

The Critic would like to stress that the service is not horrendous, but it is at a a level so much lower than the food that this creates a real clash. Of course, there are people to whom this is not important, but it seems a shame that Merida can not seem to boast at least one completely first-class restaurant. Another great and innovative restaurant, Nectar, suffers the same problem, as does the showy Trotter’s, the other night’s Casa de Frida, and these, along with Xcanatun, are among Mérida’s best culinary experiences.

But the food! Still reeling from the delectable duck with mole sauce at La Casa de Frida, the Critic asked for Magret de Pato, which was a meaty duck breast, crunchy, succulent and sliced and, as a friend would say, to die for. Accompanied by perfectly sauteed onions that still had their bite, a sweet fruity reduction and some shredded meat which the Critic cannot place (was it duck or pork?). Blame it on the wine.

Before that main dish, there were some appetizers ordered, of which the Critic sampled and can highly recommend the deep fried won tons and their accompanying dipping sauce (a special that day), the ceviche de atun with sweet potato chips adding crunchy texture, and the chicharrón soup with a hint of tequila, which was like sipping the delicious gravy of the best roast leg of pork you have ever had; thick, savory and satisfying.

The desserts were also very good, the pay de limón was refreshingly balanced between tart and sweet and the apple pie was delicious.

If you enjoy exquisitely prepared food, and can put aside the distraction of the service, you must try the Casa de Piedra restaurant at Xcanatun.

SSP Policeman Admits Error

Just the other night, around midnight, zipping along the periférico, I suddenly saw a pair of headlights coming up fast in my rear view mirror; then the inevitable flashing blue and red lights came on as it rode my rear bumper at 110 kms an hour.

I pulled over and the policeman from the newly created SSP (state police) stepped out of his truck and came up to my window. He looked in, put his hand on my shoulder and said “Oh, sorry, I thought this was the speeding car I was looking for. You didn’t see a white Pontiac pass you?” “Um, no” I replied. “I thought it was you. Sorry about that” And he got back into his truck. And drove away.

A real first for me!

Casa de Frida – Mexican Food in Merida´s Centro

The Casual Restaurant Critic has not eaten anywhere in downtown Mérida for eons it seems, and there is mention everywhere about the wonderful-ness of the Casa de Frida restaurant, on 61 between 66 and 66a in the formerly white city, so it was exciting to be able to try this restaurant with some Canadians who wanted to try the “chiles en nogada” that the restaurant is famous for.

After a 15 minute delay trying to find parking – the lot mentioned in Yucatan Today had a large ‘Solo Pensionados‘ sign which the Critic obeyed without question, respectful of authority as he is known to be, and forgetful of the mention of a buzzer – a spot was found on the street, about 2 blocks away, and the Critic and his ever-more-lovely Better Half was seated comfortably under a starlit sky with a boisterous group of Canadians from Quebec. The couple at the next table were assured that their quiet dinner was going to be a bit louder than they had perhaps expected.

The Critic’s overall impression of the restaurant was that it is a comfortable, welcoming ambience with details alluding to it’s namesake scattered throughout with lots of bright blue and yellow paint everywhere.

There was far too much gossip going on for any inspection of the menu, and when everyone at the table ordered the ‘chiles‘ the Critic just had to try something else. No appetizers were ordered. A quick look at the limited menu items available as main courses, the duck and mole option caught the Critic’s eye.

After a few copas of red Chilean wine and much chatter, the dishes arrived, not before several orders of camarones al mojo de ajo (garlic shrimp) made their sizzling and overpoweringly fragrant way past the table, making everyone’s tastebuds tickle with anticipation.

The chiles en nogada are exceptional. The Critic’s Better Half was in heaven and declared them the best she has ever tried, anywhere, including Puebla, from where the dish originates. The Canadians too were rapturous and cleaned their plates contentedly. Meanwhile, the Critic had before him a breast of duck, covered in rich red/chocolate colored mole sauce, served alongside a small bed of steaming white rice, perfectly cooked. It is hard to describe mole but one could start by pronouncing it correctly (MOH-lay) because when you read it in English, it sounds like a rodent thing. The Critic was blown away by this exquisite home-made mole, it’s sweet, spicy, thick smoky flavor – and the portion size was perfect. Of course the Critic shared the duck and managed to obtain in return, a bite size morsel of the chile and it was fabulous.

Afterwards, the out of towners were treated to Xtabentun, an almond tart (the sliced almonds on top were toasted and still warm as they rested atop the smooth, not too sweet tart) and got to meet the chef, Gabriela, who received a round of enthusiastic applause from the table.

As for the rest, the service was, in the Critic’s humble opinion, a little slow on the uptake; not keeping their eyes on wineglasses and the table in general. When something was needed – another glass of wine, another Xtabentun, the bill – one had to get the attention of one of the 3 or 4 waiters working the three tables occupied at the time.

The overall experience was very good and the Critic will be back, with more time to actually look at the menu, sample some appetizers and perhaps another main course. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, the Critic gives Frida’s Casa a solid 4.5 which is almost perfect. The food certainly is!