An Appetite for Mexico

written by | Posted on July 2nd, 2012

chefs tell the story
The festival is not only a celebration of the region but also of the many flavors and gastronomic options in Mexico, from street food to fine cuisine, with even notable U.S. chefs such as Michael Symon coming down to sing the praises of the country’s cuisine. Mexico’s own culinary superstars were front and center, of course. Chef Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain, who hails from Ensenada, has several top-rated fine dining restaurants in Monterrey, including Pangea, La Catarina and Bardot; his own wine, Mariatinto, said to be superb; and even his own cooking school. During the festival he offered his own take on Monterrey’s famed cabrito or baby goat—it must be milk-fed, he warned, as he prepared it in a dark beer sauce. According to the chef, the area’s popularity with this dish has to do with the area’s heritage—the Jewish population that moved there long ago had trouble maintaining their sheep due to the area’s arid landscape and thus introduced the goat. In another shout-out to land-locked Monterrey, he turned the popular Mexican seafood ceviche on its ear by offering a beef version with sea salt from the state of Colima.

Chocolatier extraordinaire Jose Ramon Castillo had crowds in a frenzy with the intoxicating fragrance of chocolate. “I only use Mexican chocolate,” he explained, adding that he adds nothing else to it except for water or tequila, and assorted local fruits and flavors. As he tempered the chocolate he would use to make tiny candies and Day of the Dead skulls, he talked about Mexico’s long history with the delicacy and his interest in reviving the local industry. Castillo has a shop in Mexico City’s Polanco district named Que Bo! Chocolateria Mexicana Evolutiva, filled with hand-painted bonbons. His next venture in the capital’s historic district, he said, seeks to bring back many of ancient Mexico’s chocolate-based beverages, which have practically been lost over time.

One of the more popular stops was the cooking demo from restaurateur, TV host and tequila and mescal producer Daniel Ovadia. He wrapped a fish fillet in slightly roasted banana leaves, then covered the whole thing in red clay to let it bake in the oven (“asado en piedra,” he called it—baked in stone, which is what the mud looks like after it’s been in the oven for about 20 minutes), and served it with a mole made with plantains. The clay technique, he explained, dates back to the Aztecs and although he used some bought from a market in Mexico City, one could just as easily use mud sold for facials from a drug store. For dessert, chef Ovadia whipped up sugar-crusted chicken quesadillas—yes, chicken—with a chocolate mole “floating” in a martini glass.

going troppo
As divine as all those dishes sound, our favorite meal of all was the juicy shrimp tacos with itty-bitty pieces of mango we had at La Quinta Troppo, although the hotel’s guacamole is a close second. La Quinta Troppo is the quintessential stay in Zihuatanejo, as laid-back as the town itself. It’s a 9-room boutique property with “no ambition at all to grow,” says Lee Kraft, who’s in charge of the hotel. “It’s like staying at a rich uncle’s beach house.”

Enrique Zozaya, a famous local architect who built some of the most iconic hotels and mansions in the region, is responsible for this one as well—a place of wide, open terraces that let the outdoors in, with palapa-thatched roofs and ample spaces made for bare feet and very cold margaritas (which, incidentally, the staff at the hotel also prepares expertly). No outside customers are allowed for meals so they don’t bug guests, and a devoted staff is always ready to assist. Each morning, guests will find a hot pot of coffee at their door. Our room, Las Gatas, is only one of two “open” rooms, meaning there was no wall between the outdoors and us—the “indoors” spilled out onto the terrace with just a wire mesh to keep the bigger flying critters away. Each of the accommodations is different, each charming and comfy and filled with Mexican and local touches, some with ocean views and some with garden patios. From the hotel, it’s less than a 5-minute walk to La Ropa, but even that beautiful beach was little match for the wiles of La Quinta Troppo, which kept us trapped in mosquito-netting-and-margarita-heaven for a long, breezy day.

According to Kraft, most of their guests come to revel in the beach activities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, including the top deep-sea fishing in the area. And as confidence in Mexico returns, bookings, including for weddings and honeymooners, are continuing to pick up. This area of Mexico, says Kraft, is “as nice and peaceful as ever, and nothing is prettier than this.”

This month, La Quinta Troppo is launching its new website with a special travel trade section and a “flash sale” for agents and their guests. Rates start at $190 per night, which includes a “tropical” breakfast and complimentary airport pick-ups for those staying at least four days.

cook it up
Tell clients they can cook up some culinary delights of their own by taking a cooking class while in town.
One option is with chef Edgar Navarro, one of the featured chefs at this year’s FOOD & WINE Festival and executive chef at Zi Restaurant, overlooking the beach of La Ropa Beach. This hands-on culinary experience, limited to 12 persons (no children), not only takes participants to the local market, they’ll also find out the exotic and fresh ingredients that chef Navarro uses in his own contemporary culinary creations. The class, with rates of $130, takes place every Tuesday at 10 a.m. Participants meet at the lobby of Club Intrawest-Zihuatanejo. For reservations, e-mail pmancilla@clubintrawest.com or enavarro@clubintrawest.com.
Another option is the The Cooking School at Villa Casa Luna (310-272-9022; zihuatanejocookingschool.com), held in an elegant private residence surrounded by lush tropical gardens. The group (eight persons max) or private cooking classes begin at 10 a.m. and are led by local chef Santiago Camacho and host Patsy Cummings. Participants will prepare a sumptuous 3-course meal that is then served in the dining area overlooking the lovely garden. The school offers three different menus during the week, all of which reflect the rich diversity and flavor of regional Mexican cuisine.

getting there
Clients can fly to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo (ZIH) nonstop from Los Angeles on Alaska Airlines or direct from Houston on United. If traveling through Mexico City, they can fly with Aeromexico.

La Quinta Troppo in Zihuatanejo offers culinary treats.