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September 30, 2010

Mexico City - Day II

Tamalitos en salsa de achiote Dominic Armato

Don't let the photo fool you. Day two was a big bust.

Particularly given that it's so rare I get to leave the country these days, a lost day is incredibly frustrating. But that's just how day two worked out, despite quite a bit of early promise. The early part of the day was consumed with work, which meant a brief breakfast in the hotel -- a buffet with both Mexican and American items, neither of which were prepared with the greatest care. But this was to be expected.

Not to be expected were the circumstances that kept us from our lunch. After finishing our business for the day, our hosts offered to take us out for a late lunch, and knowing that I was equally interested in downscale food, one of them mentioned that one of his favorite taquerias in the city was right by the hotel. Getting back required a crosstown cab ride, and though it was a time of day that wouldn't ordinarily present an issue, a large organization of electrical workers had designated that day to protest wages, which rather effectively snarled traffic around the Monumento a la Independencia, where we were staying. With a plane to catch, they were forced to divert to the airport, planning to get something to eat in that area. As it turned out, our cab driver, a retiree who apparently had just started driving a cab a few days prior, didn't know where the airport was. You read that correctly. So by the time we were within spitting distance, time was short and we were forced to hit a perfectly edible but unremarkable steak joint in the terminal itself. And after waiting out the ruckus back in the Zona Rosa, we cabbed it back to home base. Fantastic Mexican eats? 0 for 2 on the day.

PapadzulesDominic Armato

But dinner, I was jazzed about. My experience with Yucatecan is pretty limited, but as one of the more distinctive regional Mexican cuisines, it's one about which I'm intensely curious. While I don't anticipate getting to Yucatan anytime soon, Mexico City is certainly known for restaurants that represent cuisines from all over the country. So we opted to hit one about which I'd heard quite a bit, Los Almendros, also in Polanco. But the moment we walked in the door, I feared we'd made a mistake. First clue? Mariachis. A dozen of them. In full sequined garb. Blaring music that while fantastic in the right context, was just ear-shattering in the space. Trumpets and enclosed spaces with hard walls don't mix. Unless you're really into hearing loss, I suppose. Second clue? Streamers and banners and tequila carts and everything they could possibly throw at you to create a fiesta atmosphere. Experience tells me that when a restaurant spends that much time overdoing the decor, it usually means they aren't that focused on the food. Final clue? From our vantage point, I could see perhaps thirty or forty other diners, and not a single one looked local. Not that there's anything wrong with places that attract tourists. I'M a tourist. But places that exclusively attract tourists... let's just call it suspicious and move on.

Crema mestizaDominic Armato

So we ordered a small assortment of Yucatecan classics as well as a couple of other dishes, and tried with limited success to carry on a conversation over the band. When dishes started arriving, the first were the papadzules. Papadzules look like enchiladas, tortillas wrapped a filling and doused with a sauce, in this case hard-boiled egg in the interior and a pair of pumpkin seed and tomato sauces. It's a simple dish, and there really isn't anywhere to hide if it isn't on point. This wasn't. The tortillas weren't especially tender or fresh and the pumpkin seed sauce wasn't terribly distinct or flavorful, so simply having nice hard boiled eggs wasn't about to save the plate. It was just flat. Ditto our second dish, tamales with an achiote salsa. The tamales were passable, but nothing to get excited about. The salsa was a typical tomato/onion/jalapeno, blended with achiote. But the one distinctive feature -- the achiote -- didn't particularly come through. It was the second dish to elicit an unenthused response.

Cochinita pibilDominic Armato

The kitchen totally exposed itself with my soup. Up until this point, since I have so little experience with Yucatecan, I was forced to question myself -- are some of these dishes kind of drab by nature? Simple can and should still pop, but... well... I've never had Yucatecan in Mexico and I wouldn't call this a realm of expertise. But the soup made it absolutely clear that this was just mediocre food. I ordered their crema mestiza, mixed cream, which was a pair of soups -- squash blossom and huitlacoche -- separated by crispy tortilla strips and queso fresco. And both were pretty terrible. Yes, they're cream soups. But cream soups shouldn't taste exclusively of heavy, heavy cream. The primary ingredient needs to be first. The cream supports. Here, despite their intense color, both soups were largely flavorless and almost completely indistinct. If you blindfolded me and had me taste them side by side, it'd be tricky to determine which was which. They were just very, very heavy and didn't convey any of the life of their theme ingredients.

Huachinango a la tallaDominic Armato

When the cochinita pibil hit the table, I figured this would be the last chance. If you're running a Yucatecan restaurant and can't make a killer cochinita pibil, you might as well pack it in. And while it wasn't bad, it certainly wasn't killer. The meat was a little dry and could've been more tender, but the flavor was nice, if not exactly a flavor riot. And though it was served on a perfectly cut circle of the same, I certainly didn't get the sense that it had been roasted in banana leaves. Plus, the usual accompanying onions were scarce bordering on nonexistent. Mostly, it was just that I've had so many wonderful, vibrant stewed and roasted Mexican meats that this seemed like a pale imitation -- the kind of Mexican dish I'd expect to get in the United States rather than in Mexico. Serviceable, but significantly less than exciting.

Chile en nogadaDominic Armato

Unsurprisingly, that was their best shot, and from there we pretty much ran out the clock. I might've found the snapper okay, split down the middle and roasted with a guajillo chile sauce, but I had scale issues. And I realize that even careful kitchens might occasionally let a couple slip through, but by the time I was done eating a quarter of the fish I had a pile of about 15-20 scales on the side of my plate. I was too busy dodging and picking scales to pay much attention to the fish. Maybe that was a good thing, I don't know. And though we were completely setting ourselves up for disappointment after the amazing chile en nogada we had at Izote last trip, we gave it a shot anyway -- and were completely disappointed. Weak sauce, soggy chile, poor texture and bad balance on the picadillo... exactly the sort of thing I fear people will end up with when I tell them how incredible of a dish this can be. But on this last one, we probably only have ourselves to blame. After all, the cart with a pile of chiles and a punch bowl full of sauce sat untouched on a cart right in front of us through our entire meal. I don't know when they put it there, but the beginning of dinner service seems like a good bet.

0 for 3. Bummer. We walked out of the restaurant less than twelve hours before our scheduled departure, and I still hadn't managed to score any street food. Day three would have to be an early one.

Los Almendros
Campos Elíseos 164
Colonia Polanco, Del. Miguel
Hidalgo, C.P. 11560, México, D.F.
(55) 5531-6646
Mon - Sat7:30 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun8:00 AM - 10:00 PM

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So, you had to sit through a progression of unsatisfactory food courses like a condemned man AND you had "hosts" hanging over you. (Trapped!) AND your space was occupied by damn trumpets blaring at fff-ffff.

Great post!

Sorry you had a bad day of eating. I always tell myself that one has to have the disappointing meals every now and again in order to appreciate how much of a blessing or blast of good fortune the good meals are. Hope tomorrow is better.

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