Monday, June 4, 2012

Local Food : Scratching the Surface



Chapala malecon

I'm posting this blog in answer to numerous requests I've had over the years for a list of local restaurants and food options here at Lakeside. Considering that we've only lived in the area for a few years and have only rudimentary Spanish it feels highly presumptuous to do this, yet I continually hear from people who sincerely want to explore local Mexican food but don't know where to start, so here goes. I can't emphasize enough that the places mentioned here are just a small sampling, particularly when it comes to taco stands and other street food options, where some of the best places pop up only at night and are known to (and patronized by) folks in a particular neighborhood.

A bit about my tastes and background: I'm a semi-retired professional coffee and tea taster and buyer and serious home cook. I spent quite a bit of time in México and Central America during my coffee buying days, but am by no means an expert on the cuisines of these countries. My first loves, food wise, are Italy, France and India, places I've spent a fair amount of time and whose cuisines I know much more deeply. When you have spent 3+ decades tasting hundreds of cups of coffee and tea everyday, the habit of tasting, comparing and remembering - be it a loaf of bread, a dish in a restaurant, a bottle of wine or cup of tea or coffee - grows very strong. This may help to put the posts about coffee and Tequila below in context: the tasting "bug" doesn't stop at coffee and tea!

We've lived from Chapala to West Ajijic and currently are back in the U.S. as our home base but visit Lakeside for several months most years and are car-free when we do, so my focus in this blog is on that quite narrow subset of the north shore of Lake Chapala from West Ajijic to Chapala. There's a ton of good food in Jocotepec and several well-known restaurants on the highway into Guadalajara, but you can read about those on TripAdvisor or the like.

As you'll learn if you browse the listings below, Ajijic, for all of its reputation as a gringo enclave, is still a very Mexican place, but I know that for some specialties, such as birria (the famous goat stew of Jalisco, which Jocotepec is famous for) or real spit-roasted tacos al pastor (available at night in Chapala from a stand near Soriana and I hear in Joco as well) our chosen location puts me at a culinary disadvantage. 

A copy of Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico (available locally at a stiff price or brought down from N.O.B.) will keep you exploring local cuisine for a lifetime, supplemented by a couple of choice selections from Rick Bayless or regional cookbooks from Susana Trilling (Oaxaca) if like me you are a glutton for recipe options. Also essential is this great food blog written by the knowledgeable Cristina Potters: 
Mexican eating hours: This is important to know, and to adapt to, at least to some extent in order to do well eating here and get into the flow of the culture. Think in terms of a cup of coffee and piece of fruit or toast if you rise early (bearing in mind that Jalisco, which geographically should be on Mountain time, is on Central time which means the sun rises far later here than most anyplace else!). A substantial breakfast (desayuno) - say huevos ala Mexicana (scrambled eggs with tomato, onion and serrano chile) with coffee and tortillas, around 10, then comida, the main meal of the day, sometime between 2 and 3:30 p.m. Cena (dinner) is typically light and late: a couple of tacos or a tamale, or perhaps just hot cocoa and a sweet, after 8 p.m.
We deviate a bit from this, often having breakfast early, some fruit around 11 if we're hungry, and then lunch on the early side of the Mexican range, around 1:30 or 2. We really try to keep to this schedule because we feel so much better not being laden down by a heavy meal at bedtime, and because keeping within shooting distance of real Mexican meal times means we can travel outside of this gringo enclave and get fed. Insisting on eating your meals at 8, 12 and 6 means you'll be foerever trapped in a "gringo bubble" and will never know which Mexican eateries are popular. In Guadalajara, for example, which is a very traditional and conservative Mexican city, many restaurants don't even open until 1:30 or 2. 
Many of the best restaurants aren't restaurants: Mexican food falls into two broad categories: food from places we gringos would recognize as restaurants, and street food. Mexico has some of the best street food in the world, and by far the best in Latin America, so those who avoid it out of fears about sanitation are really missing out (and operating on the assumption that food handling in closed kitchens in gringo places with, often, slow turn on their food is somehow safer!).

Except in a handful of places (Mexico City and Morelia come to mind) there really isn't a high-end restaurant culture per se in México, and that is because the best cooking is at home! People go out for tacos at night, or grab a torta (Mexican sandwich) during the day, but the complex stews, laborious tamales and other gems of Mexican cuisine are never better than at one's mother's or grandmother's place. The other thing to bear in mind is that Lake Chapala is in Jalisco, which is, so to speak, the Iowa of Mexican cuisine. It's pretty basic meat-and-potatoes (more accurately, birria, pozole y carne en su jugo) cooking, at least in restaurants (the diversity of dishes cooked at home is of course another matter entirely. Plus it remains true that the truly great cuisines  of México are found in the places with large indigenous populations: Oaxaca of course, followed by Chiapas, Puebla and Michoacán. 
Common sense advice on street food: look to make sure the people making the food and those handling money are not one and the same. In a truly small place like a tortilleria the person may indeed be doing both, but they'll invariably put a plastic bag over their hand when handling money. There may be trash in the street and dogs running loose, but sanitation in even the humblest food places tends to be quite good. Look for places that are busy, bearing in mind that Mexicans don't patronize places where they get sick!

At Lakeside you can generally assume that aguas frescas (fruit flavored waters) are made with purified water and sanitized fruit, but outside of the area it pays to ask, and to avoid raw salads and drinks with ice in them.
Tipping: round up a few pesos for street food take out, leave 10% for table service. At places patronized exclusively by gringos 15% may be expected.  Please don't over (or under!) tip.

Note:  (SE by a listing = "Some English" for places where the owners or staff have some commmand of the language.  At the others, you'll have to be brave and try your "restaurant Spanish," or simply point to what looks good! I've also rated places from * (decent) to **** (excellent) based on my personal assessment of food quality (alone - i.e. service and decor excluded). I should also say that these are relative assessments within the context of what is available here at Lakeside and in Jalisco generally. The cusine here, while it can be delicious, is pretty much "meat and potatoes" cooking and even at its best can't really compare with top regional cuisines in places such as Puebla or Oaxaca or the world-class alta cocina cooking found in places like Morelia or México City. 
Restaurants: Ajijic
These are places with table service, seating and printed menus and are a good place to start. 

Café in Alcalli**/**: 16th de Septiembre #6A, about a half-block West of LCS. M-Sa, 9-5. Small, family run place with good Mexican breakfasts and simple, classic versions of such staples as enchiladas, carne asada, quesadillas and the like for lunch. It's a one-person kitchen for the most part so definitely not the place to go with a group. 
Café Grano Café ***: Marcos Castellanos 15-C in Ajijic, just east of the plaza and across the street from the main church). By far the best coffee beans at Lakeside; try the medium roast Chiapas. The best espresso drinks as well (though barista expertise is certainly not up to the level of a top U.S. or Italian bar), and excellent pastries. All the coffee is fair trade organic; the staff is a treasure. Free high-speed (for México) wi-fi. 

Chile Verde*** SE: On Colon, just across the street from the plaza. A bustling, friendly place with reliably good breakfast and comida. Try the pozole, pork in chile sauce or any of the daily specials. Excellent homemade tortillas, fair prices, exceptionally kind and competent service. 

Chimi's/El Rinconcito de Chimi**: 16th de Septiembre #27, across the street from the Lake Chapala Society. 9-3 weekdays, 9-1 on Sunday. Very basic, tiny place for Mexican breakfasts with a daily lunch special as well. The location is the main draw. 

Fonda Doña Lola**: on the Carretera, #36, at Alvaro Obregón across from the Waffle house. 8 to four or five p.m., closed Thurs. Good carne en su jugo (local specialty of tender beef in its juice with bacon, beans, onion and fresh tortillas), decent mole, good breakfasts. Slow service, rustic atmosphere. Popular with the Guadalajara crowd for weekend breakfast and comida. 

Cenaduria Memo's**: Hidalgo about 2 blocks W. of the plaza. Open only in the evenings. Good pozole and other basic fare, but pretty simple and the food doesn't compare to Chapala's cenadurias


menu at Tepalo on the Ajijic zocalo
Tepalo: south side of the Ajijic square, a few doors East of Bancomer. Open 9-5 everyday. A good basic place for Mexican breakfast or comida. A quarter of a roast chicken with good slaw, rice and tortillas is around 45 pesos, there are frequent daily specials, good tacos and a large selection of fresh juices and liquados
Street Food: Ajijic

In addition to these long-standing places I'll point out that one of the delights of México are the impromptu "restaurants" that pop up like mushrooms in the evenings only to disappear without a trace the following morning. There are neighborhood taco stands like this all over Ajijic and all of the other villages that offer fare that's often as good or better than any of the more permanent restaurants. If a place is clean,  busy at 8 p.m. or later and has happy customers milling around don't hesitate to ask what they have and give it a try. 
Lupita's**: just east of Colon, north side of Carretera. Long-standing rotisserie chicken place, with good chicken and side dishes and good tortas (sandwiches) as well. Reliably good rice and potatoes. For tortillas you should go to the tortilleria just across the street, which has the best in town. Please support this local place rather than the Pechugon chain place just down the street. 
Tacos Don Vic****: south side of Carretera almost to Juarez. Open Th-Tu 8 a.m.-2 p.m. though you should be forewarned that tacos de barbacoa are breakfast fare locally and they often sell out before noon. Tiny take-out only place with the best tacos de barbacoa (tender, delicious braised beef) anywhere. Tacos 10 pesos; two make a meal, three a feast. Order them con todo with salsa aparte and take them to the square for a cheap, fantastic al fresco lunch.

Taqueria Jessica***: north side of Carretera about two doors west of the Oxxo. Open evenings only, roughly 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., closed Tuesday. Long-standing taco place with handmade tortillas and very good quality. All the meats are worth a try.  For drinks try the Jamaica (hibiscus agua fresca) and horchata (agua made with rice, very sweet), or grab a beer. Eat in or take out. Very basic ambiance but friendly and bustling if you show up late enough (prime time for tacos in México doesn't begin until 8 p.m. or later). Also has a small outpost in San Antonio Tlaycapan open from 12-5 during the day (see below). They get an extra * for being the only taqueria in these listings to always use just-made tortillas, as well as for their consistent food quality. 




Tacos Don Fransicso***: On the corner of Fco. Madero and the carretera, very good tacos de barbacoa right by a major bus stop. 
Food Shopping Ajijic
The small fruterias and grocery stores on both sides of the Carretera between Galeana and Juarez (with the preponderance being west of Colon) offer some of the best fruits and vegetables at the lowest prices around and great service. One of the stores specializes in spices, seeds and beans; there are also two excellent seafood shops. If you live in Ajijic this is the place to do your day-to-day food shopping, with far better quality and lower prices than the supermarkets or the weekly Wednesday tianguis.
Surtidor de la Ribera, a local grocery chain with a small store in Ajijic and a much larger one on the main drag in Chapala, has great prices on bulk staples like beans, sugar and cereal and is more than competitive with the chains on other items. Of the two big box stores, Soriana in Chapala is a far more pleasant overall experience than the local Wal Mart, though both in turn are poor substitutes for the mega stores in Guadalajara. As one tunes into local foods, quality, seasonality and service the need for visits to the big box outlets diminishes to virtually nothing, while one's appreciation for the value and service at the tiny tiendas increases.

Super La Montaña: south side of the carretera between Juarez and Colon. This is the former location of Surtidor (now a couple of blocks East) and has a decent selection of all the basics. 

Frutas y Verduras Gabriel***: mountain side of the carretera, about halfway between Juarez and Colon. A consistently excellent place with better-than-the-tianguis prices and fruit quality. The refrigerators are worth poking around in, too, for green beans, nopales and much more. Shop here once and you'll never waste money on produce at Super Lake again (passable but expensive, or Wal Mart -- horrible). 

"no name" fruit, chile seeds, grains and spices store
No name fruteria and semilla store: Lake side, in between Super La Montaña and the bus stop. Tiny place with many useful spices, a great selection of dried chiles and produce. 

Pablo's Fruteria***: Lake side, next to the decent Tortilleria La Montaña and across the street from Lupita's. Another reliable fruit and vegetable place with fair prices and a surprisingly large selection of dry goods staples, cheeses and cold cuts. 

El Granero****SE: The place to go at Lakeside to buy, and learn about, spices, local chiles, honey and much more. Bilingual staff, excellent service, many hard-to-find items (from basmati rice to non-fluoridated, no-iodized sea salt to hazelnuts). They will special order for you from the Guadalajara abastos as well. A treasure of a shop. Located next door to Gossip's (not Mexican but one heck of a restaurant) near the corner of the carretera and Javier Mina. 
With respect to the weekly markets called tianguis, the Wednesday one in Ajijic is small and manageable in size but with limited selection and higher prices than many of the small shops. It's for tourists. The Monday market in Chapala is huge, bustling and much better value - worth going to at least once and a great place to take visitors to see the bounty of Mexico. Ditto with the huge wholesale market in Guadalajara called the abastos. 

The Tuesday organic market is another new and welcome phenomenon, but please don't forget that the folks selling nopales, herbs, beans, tuna cactus, berries and much other truly local food on streetcorners, sidewalks and the weekly markets are often selling de facto organic foods that are traditional and truly local. Look around and see and ask, about tuna cactus fruit, nopales (the super-healthy, tasty prickly pear cactus paddles), camote (delicious mountain sweet potato) and much more. Wealthy gringos phobic about pesticides do not an agricultural or culinary revolution make. Humble expats trying to learn what the locals eat and supporting their efforts do. 

San Antonio Tlayacapan
"Dusty Chicken"****: Not its real name, as you might guess, (it's Pollos El amigo Don David) but this is the grilled chicken place on the Carretera immediately west of the Coca Cola plant before the traffic light. The best grilled chicken in the area, with excellent roast potatoes and onions and fresh tortillas. They've been here since 1990! 

Take-out only, gets going around 12:30 p.m., comida business only, open every day. The tamarind-based marninade, uniquely cilantro-y salsa verde  and hardwood charcoal give this chicken and others like it you will see all around Mexico a wonderful flavor.  Addictive and with the excellent service and consistently skilled cooking, these folks really deserve your support. 

Right next door to Dusty Chicken on the carretera is a new (7/13) taco stand run by Jessica's Tacos, theoretically open from noon-5 every day but Sunday. Excellent quality as always. 

Lake Taco ***SE: located in Interlago Plaza, the large shopping center directly across the carretera from Wal Mart. Consistently excellent fish tacos, good service. Open 9-5. 
Tony's (SE) ***: Next door to Superlake. Lunch and dinner, closed Wednesday. Caters to the gringo crowd and, to a lesser degree, wealthy weekend visitors from Guadalajara. They have a few specialties that are especially worthwhile: the best arrachera (grilled marinated skirt steak) in the area, well-regarded barbecued ribs and, on Sundays, lamb and an especially fine chamorro (pork shank slow-cooked in a mild red chile sauce that is truly "Mexican osso buco"). They are also among the very few places that offer fresh, hand-made tortillas with your meal, but you'll have to ask (some waiters don't think gringos want them!) and come for lunch/comida as the tortilla lady doesn't work at night. Toned-down (gringo-ized) salsas (but with picante available on request), English-speaking waiters, high-ish prices, pleasant atmosphere, consistent quality. 



Mario's (SE) ****: Ramon Corona #132 (1/2 block W. of the square). 9-5, closed Monday. Full menu of meats and seafood. The pollo deshebrado ala Mexicana (chicken with chile, tomatoes and onions) is a favorite but you can't go wrong: excellent fish, exceptional smoked pork chops (chuletas ahumadas), good daily specials, the best aguas frescas in the area. 

Family run with great pride, excellent service. Indoor and outdoor seating and the best atmosphere of any local Mexican place. Overall probably the best sit-down Mexican restaurant at Lakeside - reflected in average prices in the 75 peso range, high for the area. Do pay careful attention to the daily specials board, as over time you'll be able to try reference-standard versions of such classic dishes as pollo en pipian, carne en su jugo, pozole and on occasion an extraordinary birria made from veal rather than the usual goat. 


El Comal Expres, San Antonio - don't miss it!


El Comal Expres Taqueria****: northwest corner of Independencia and Ramon Corona, across from the plaza. Open evenings only, roughly 5 p.m until midnight or later, but as with any taqueria best to show up after 8. Lengua, adobada and much more, with a full range of toppings. Don't miss the caramelized onions sitting on the grill!  Beer and aguas frescas, for here or to go, friendly service, consistently a cut above and well worth the trip.  Spotlessly clean.
Chapala


Unbeatable food prices at the Chapala tianguis: over 8 pounds of tomatoes for about $1.25 U.S.
For Mexican food lovers, this is paradise. It's a big village and though we lived here for quite some time we truly only scratched the surface.
Around the mercado: this is comida central and one is spoilt for choice. On the south, exterior side of the market is long-time favorite José's**** with great ribs, pollo ala Mexicanachuletas ahumada and much else. Run by a hard-working husband-and-wife team (she runs the front of the house, he's the cook), this is one of the most consistently excellent places at Lakeside. 

Just across from them is Cucumber's**, well-regarded for breakfast.

A couple of doors from José's, on the Southwest corner of the market, is Chapala's Fonda ***, another consistently good restaurant. Try the pork in red chile sauce, chuletas ahumada (smoked pork chops - the flavor is more like really good Canadian bacon), the daily special, or anything else from the small menu. 
Just north of the front entrance of the mercado is a young lady selling the best ensalada de nopales in the area (go early - she's usually sold out by noon). 

To the left of her is a place called Los Portales*** (SE), selling tacos de barbacoa that are second only to Don Vic's in Ajijic. They of course also have the famous spicy pork sandwich from which they take their name,  as well as tacos de adobada, bistec, chorizo, chicharron, carnitas, lengua, buche plus quesadillas. Hours are 8-3 everyday, some English spoken.

Around the north side of the mercado on the outside is a wonderful dairy shop selling fresh yogurt and local cheeses, and next door to them is a tiny, nameless place with seating for about 8 people that has excellent daily specials. The mercado itself is a shopper's paradise, with excellent produce and meats everywhere (seafood upstairs).
El Zapote (SE) ****: This place is a cenaduria (dinner place) that just (January, 2014) changed it's opening hour to 12:30 p.m. from 2 p.m. to accommodate the gringo crowd! Open until 10:30 p.m., closed Tues. and Wed. . Address is Morelos #185, 1.5 blocks east of the main traffic light. 

This is the place to experience the full range of classic pre-Hispanic cuisine, from pozole to burritos cochinta pibil to sopes. Best carne en su jugo at Lakeside, wonderful pozole, superb handmade tortillas, and much more.  Clean, nice atmosphere, cheap prices. The first place to take out-of-town guests. 



El Rinconcito Cenaduria****: Juárez 512, just south of Morelos, open 2-11 p.m. Tue.-Sun. This very popular place is a worthy rival to El Zapote and seems to be if anything even more popular. Tacos, pozole, tortas, huaraches, gorditas and more. Prices are fantastic: 40-50 pesos for a full meal, or you can "splurge" on arracherra with beans, the most expensive item on the menu at 100 pesos. They have aguas frescas and basic beer (Corona and Victoria) but no bar. Friendly service, fast, great local ambiance, clean.

Cenaduria Elba***: on Calle Zaragosa just around the corner and a bit north of El Zapote. Open from around 7 p.m. in the evenings. This place has been around for decades and serves wonderful pozole. You'll see the locals come in with their empty containers to be filled. Also does a good job with antojitos
El Árbol de Café/The Coffee Tree***: Hidalgo #236, south side of carretera 2 blocks W. of main traffic light. Excellent breakfasts and the best coffee in Chapala and second best in all of Lakeside, with great service and prices. The coffee is truly local, from farms in Jalisco, but you'd better like dark roasts,  as that's all they offer. 
Cozumel**: Paseo Ramón Corona #22-A (far east end of malecon). One of the more reliable of the many seafood places along the promenade, with free margaritas or white wine with meals. Average quality.
Gelateria Romeo y Julieta ****, Ramón Corona 8A, north side across from the malecon, between 5 de Mayo and Zaragoza. Open 12-9:30, closed Tues. Not Mexican, but noteworthy as the only authentic Italian gelato anywhere at Lakeside, and by far the best ice cream of any sort you are likely to find in México. Try the avellana (hazelnut), dark chocolate or, really, anything. Also has a branch in San Antonio Tlayacapan about a block east of Super Lake. Try the dark chocolate and above all the avellana (hazelnut). Ice cream of this quality is almost unknown in México and very rare in the U.S. 
More Chapala options: further north on Madero (east side) there is a great seeds and spices store where you should buy all your beans, spices and sweets. Another block or so later you'll be drawn in by the irresistible aroma of churros, just-made deep-fried cinnamon sugar fritters. Heading further north towards the bus station is a grilled chicken place whose name escapes me that is a worthy rival to "Dusty Chicken" in San Antonio and even more popular. A few doors past the bus station is Tacos El Doc **, a humble but good place for comida with many guisados (stews) and good tacos.


San Juan Cosalá

Viva México/Tio Lupita **** Porfirio Diax #92) Good simple place that is deservedly popular with the expat community. Open Fri-Wed. 12-8. Chiles in nogada or their signature chicken in rose petals are worth trying. Worth the trip, and there's an excellent butcher shop across the street that specializes in aged, local grass-fed beef. 

Beer, Wine and Spirits
Two giant breweries control 99% of the Mexican beer market. Most of the beers are insipid lagers that will only seem like an upgrade to Coors or Budweiser drinkers. The best readily-available beers are Negra Modelo (a dark amber Vienna-styler lager) and Bohemia. The former comes in returnable bottles from Modeloramas along the carretera; the latter is best bought at Oxxo or Wal Mart and is a very good Pilsner. Seasonally, from mid-November through early January there is Noche Buena, a dark ale that is Mexico's best mass-market beer, available at Oxxo (owned by the brewery), Wal Mart, Soriana and Paz (see below). Despite overwhelming obstacles (poor access to raw materials, heavy taxation, etc.) there is a nascent microbrewery movement in México and some of the beers are quite good (albeit three or four times the price of already-expensive mass market beers).

In recent years there's been growing availability of microbrews from local producers. Keep you eye out for beers from Baja Brewing, a new Ajijic brewer whose name escapes me at the moment, and Berber from Guadalajara, as well as more established Minerva, whose excellent India Pale Ale and decent Russian Imperial Stout are even available at Wal Mart.  

Mexico is not a wine-drinking country and wine goes poorly with most traditional foods. Wine is heavily taxed, including, sadly, some very good Mexican wines made in Baja Norte. Wines from Chile, Spain and Argentina are subject to reduced taxes and are better values. Paz liquor store next to Super Lake has the best selection of wines and spirits in the immediate area, but nearby La Playa is also worth checking out for spirits. Storage conditions for wines at Paz, in particular, are atrocious, so buy only the most recent vintages (nothing more than two years from its vintage date).

Recently opened Viñas Americas on the carretera in Ajijic just West of El Serape restaurant has much better storage conditions than Paz and a small but well-chosen inventory of wines and spirits. Wal Mart has also become a "must" stop for wine drinkers as they bring in numerous good-value wines that are often from more recent vintages and have the best storage conditions in the area. 

Serious wine and spirits enthusiasts will want to venture into Guadalajara to La Europea (at Galerias Mall and several other locations), which has an outstanding selection heavily skewed towards the superb Spanish wines preferred by wealthy Tapatios. Costco also has an excellent selection of these wines, as well as well-stored bargain everyday wines from Spain.  
Tequila is the spirit of Mexico and goes very well, straight up, with spicy antojitos as well as being the key ingredient in the gringo cocktail the margarita. I've written extensively about Tequila elsewhere on the blog so please look for that post. There are some good dark rums available here that also suit the food and climate (try Flor de Caña Centenario or Matusalem 18)   and one can also find the superlative Spanish brandies Gran Duque d'Alba and Cardenal Mendoza, among the finest, as well as best value, brandies in the world and the perfect end to a more Spanish-style meal of steak or chops. The new Torres 15 at around 325 pesos is great value, while their 20 year old at around 600 competes with cognacs costing double the price. 


Buying & Brewing Good Coffee at Lake Chapala


For many from the U.S. and Canada, living in Mexico is their first experience of life in a coffee-growing country. Familiar brands from home are hard to find, but Mexican coffee is everywhere, in a wide range of quality and price. Lake Chapala is at an elevation of 5000 feet, and here as everywhere in Mexico water for drinking and coffee making is invariably bottled or specially filtered. All of these factors have important effects on the flavor of your morning cup. In this post I'll discuss what's available, and how to make the most of it.

Mexican Growing Regions

Your degree of satisfaction with Mexican coffee depends on what you're used to in terms of origin, roast and freshness. Having worked in coffee for many years I naturally compare Mexican coffee with top-quality beans from every other origin country, and by that standard the very best Mexican coffee is pretty good, but not great. This isn't to say it can't be delicious, but if you're looking for Sumatra-style creamy earthiness, the citrusy blackcurrant zing of a top Kenya or the lemony perfume of Ethiopian Yergacheffe, you'd better get online and buy your beans from a top U.S. mail order roaster. 

I should also say that while there are some superb Mexican coffees, they are exported to Europe (especially Germany) and the U.S. specialty market. Mexico is not unique in this regard: every producing country except Ethiopia (coffee's motherland) exports all its best coffee and keeps the dregs (or, if you're lucky, Nescafé) for domestic consumption. This reflects the colonial nature of the crop. In Mexico coffee has only been cultivated for about 200 years, as an export crop only, and its flavors and uses have nothing to do with the indigenous peoples who do the lion's share of the backbreaking work involved in its cultivation.

While coffee is grown in many parts of Mexico there are two growing areas that produce all of the top coffees: Chiapas and Oaxaca. High-grown (altura and estrictamente altura) coffees from Chiapas have good acidity and tangy milk chocolate flavor notes when the heirloom bourbon and typica cultivars are used. Some old farms in this state founded by pioneering German growers also grow quantities of a giant bean called maragogype, which must be lightly and carefully roasted and has a subtle flavor. Oaxacan coffee is similar to Chiapas but milder and more subtle. Veracruz is another important growing region, but at its best this is blending coffee, not something to drink straight. 

Both Oaxaca and Chiapas produce large quantities of coffee that is certified organic and/or fair trade. There is much to say about these certifications, and I've written extensively about them elsewhere. Certainly the intentions behind the creation of these programs (which are charitable aid programs, not market-driven economic initiatives) is noble, but while "certified organic shade grown fair trade" makes a great sound bite and assuages a lot of liberal guilt, such certifications have nothing to do with the flavor or quality of the coffee, nor do they guarantee a sustainable situation for farm workers or farms. I mention this not to discourage buying such coffees but rather to point out that very often equally good or better coffees come from farms with long histories of success based on the inherent deliciousness of their coffee. In the U.S. "direct trade" or "relationship" buying from such farms, rather than purchase of certified commodity-grade coffees, is now the norm among top craft roasters.

Where to Buy

Much as I believe in supporting local roasters (see below), I'll come right out and say that the whole bean House Blend offered by Costco at 135 pesos per kilo (so less than $5 U.S. per pound) is the most consistently fine Mexican coffee that I know of in Mexico (they also have a French Roast) and it comes from carefully-sourced, Rainforest Alliance certified farms.

At Lakeside proper you can buy decent quality organic coffee from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz at Café Grano Café in Ajijic, as well as "direct trade" Jalisco beans from The Coffee Tree in Chapala. Quality is higher and there's more choice of origin and roast degree at Grano, with their "medium roast Chiapas" (still plenty dark) a personal favorite.

The Coffee Tree's roasts range from very dark to pitch black. In both cases the coffee is roaster fresh (a term that means within one week of roasting, but in their case more likely means within hours or perhaps a day of roasting), and this is vitally important - and very different from, say, supermarket whole bean coffee, much of which is staler than the preground stuff in cans. Prices are less than half what you'd pay for coffee of such quality NOB, and the service is invariably friendly as well.

Unfortunately I can't recommend the Veracruz coffee sold off the back of a truck on the carretera and at the Wednesday Ajijic tianguis. Freshness is the biggest but by no means the only reason: unprotected (non valve-bagged) whole bean coffee stays fresh for only a week from roasting and pre-ground is stale within 24 hours, so coffee from these otherwise admirable and certainly hard-working vendors doesn't compare to either Costco's carfully vacuum-packed valve bags or just-roasted coffee from Grano or Coffee Tree.

Grano sells their coffee at Super Lake as well but freshness isn't guaranteed. In a pinch the whole bean coffee from Cafe Punto del Cielo sold at Wal Mart or the preground, valve-bagged Cafe Garat brand sold in most supermarkets will do. 

An aside: French Roast

A further word or three on degree of roast:  there is no standardized roast terminology, so one roaster's "French" might equal another's "Italian."  In the U.S. and, to a lesser extent Canada, Starbucks and its many imitators have done a good job of conditioning people to associate high quality - or, at the very least, a high price - with incinerated beans buried in steamed milk, but professional tasters like yours truly have no interest in dark roasts, which taste like process, not product (a really dark "West Coast" French roast is about 20% carbon).

French Roast is bitter but light in body, and though many consumers think of it as strong coffee, it's actually lower in caffeine than lighter roasts that have more soluble solids remaining in them.  The good news if you're a French Roast fan is that you can be very happy drinking Mexican coffee, much of which is very darkly roasted for the simple reason that such roasts mask the flavor defects typical of lower quality beans.

Whatever your preferred degree of roast, please be aware that even if you are a French Roast aficianado that's not the roast to be using to brew espresso.  Espresso machines are unique in that they use pressure rather than gravity to brew, and that extraction greatly amplifies both acity and bitterness.  Classic espresso roasts (even at Starbucks and Peets) are no more than a deep medium chestnut brown.

Storage and Grinding

With freshly-roasted beans so readily available here at Lakeside the best habit to get into is to buy your coffee fresh each week, keeping it in whole bean form in the bag it comes in on our counter or in a cool place away from spices, grinding it fresh each morning.  If it's imperative to store coffee longer, transfer it to an airtight container and keep it in the freezer for up to a couple of months, grinding the frozen beans (never thaw and refreeze) as needed.  (This is a Mexico-specific recommendation:  freezing of beans from other origins with more fragile and complex aromatics isn't recommended.)

Assuming that you buy truly roaster-fresh coffee, the two other factors that will make the biggest difference in the quality of the coffee you enjoy are grinding just before brewing and using the correct coffee:water ratio (see below).  Burr grinders that actually cut the beans are best, but an inexpensive blade grinder works just fine for any brewing method except espresso.  The reason why this is important is very simple:  oxygen is coffee's biggest enemy, and whole beans expose very little surface area to air compared to ground coffee.  At room temperature, it's a difference between staying fresh for a week or being stale in 24 hours.

Finding a grinder in Mexico can sometimes be a hassle, but it can be done. At Lakeside look at the "everything" store (housewares of every description) on the south side of the Ajijic plaza and its sister store in Chapala on Madero (the main drag) about a block north of the plaza.  Also check Wal Mart, and if all else fails a trip to Liverpool in Guadalajara or a quick perusal of Mercado Libre (Mexican eBay) or Amazon Mexico is sure to yield results. 

Grind size is a function of brewing time.  The faster the brewing method, the finer the grind, and vice versa, in order to extract just the desirable "heart" of the coffee without wateriness (too coarse a grind) or bitterness (too fine a grind and/or too little coffee).  For the most popular brewing methods, here are approximate grind times in a blade grinder:

French Press (plunger pot) and "open pot" or cowboy coffee (including cafe de olla - see recipe elsewhere in this blog):  10 seconds - coarse grind

Manual or electric drip, vacuum pot:  15 seconds, medium grind

Finer grinds than drip are only appropriate for commercial espresso machines, which in order to function properly require a specially designed doser-grinder capable of very fine gradations in particle size.  Using finely ("espresso") ground coffee in a drip brewer (a classic error called "grind finer, use less") results in bitter, over-extracted coffee every time.

Water Type and Temperature

The best water for brewing coffee or tea is fresh spring water free from off tastes and odors with a low mineral content (around 3 grains of hardness).  At Lakeside what's commonly available is bottled water that has been through carbon filtration, ultraviolet (UV) radiation to kill bacteria, and reverse osmosis or, less commonly, water from sink-mounted or whole house systems that use carbon and UV only.

Commercial bottled water here varies quite a bit depending on how frequently the company changes its filters, but it's generally flat-tasting and very low in minerals (RO essentially takes out everything, including the modicum of mineral needed for good flavor).  If bottled water is your mainstay, try pouring the required quantity back and forth between two pitchers a few times to oxygenate it (greatly improves the flavor).

If you have a sink or whole-house UV system your water probably tastes good thanks to all the minerals in it, but it's way too hard (high in minerals) to brew good coffee.  For coffee making purposes you'll want to mix it with 1/2 to 2/3 bottled (garrafon) water.

For all brewing methods except espresso optimal brewing temperature is 195-205 degrees F. (90-96 C.).  At Lakeside we're at 5000 feet, and the boiling temperature of water decreases 2 degrees F. for every 1000 feet of altitude gain, meaning that a full rolling boil here is 202, not 212 as at sea level.

Typical home electric drip brewers (including costly designer brands like Krups, Braun and Cuisinart) don't get the water nearly hot enough to brew good coffee - at sea level. Up here, they're a disaster. For most people the most dramatic improvement in their coffee will happen just from ditching the electric drip maker,  boiling water in a kettle on the stove and using a basic pour-over manual drip pot. I should also mention that when brewing by hand the contact time between grounds and water is also optimal: 4-6 minutes. Any longer than that (the average home electric maker takes 11 minutes or more to brew a full pot) and the result is bitterness from over-extraction. While all commercial coffee makers meet the required temp. and time standards without difficulty, but only a handful of home units do - and none of them are available in México.

Otherwise, save yourself a ton of money and hassle by brewing by hand in a Melitta cone, using a French Press (plunger pot), or, best of all, an Aeropress, Clever Dripper or Behmor Brazen Plus (see below).

Proportion

How much coffee do I use?  For any method other than espresso, optimum flavor is achieved at 60-70 grams per liter (about two dry weight ounces per quart). Weighing is by far the best method, but the volumetric equivalent is one heaping standard coffee measure (2 heaping Tbs) of beans or grounds for every 6 fl. oz. of water (a coffee "cup" is based on a fine china cup - half the size of a typical American mug).

Cup markings on home drip brewer carafes vary greatly, so in order to calculate the dose for your particular brewer it's necessary to fill the container with water, pour it out into a measuring cup and divide the fluid ounce total by 6. Another rule of thumb that may help is that a full blade grinder's worth of beans is about 2 ounces by weight - enough coffee to brew a liter (quart).

Freshly roasted coffee releases a minimum of 3 times its volume in CO2 gas, which accounts for the large amount of frothing and foaming in the brew basket you'll notice if you switch to roaster fresh coffee. This can really wreak havoc in typical home brewers, which are, naturally, designed to work with small amounts of stale coffee. Using a pourover drip brewer where you can watch the proceedings, or a plunger pot where they can be contained, solves this problem; otherwise, try grinding the night before.

Many newcomers to great coffee (and some cheapskate old timers, too) are used to using a couple of teaspoons or maybe a tablespoon of coffee per cup, often very finely ground, which results in a very bitter, over-extracted brew. Coffee brewed at the upper end of the recommended ratios above and then diluted to taste with hot water to whatever strength is preferred is smooth as silk.

Recommended Home Brewing Methods

For more information on all of these brewing methods head to the single best source of coffee information of all kinds on the web, the wonderful Sweet Maria's site. While they primarily cater to home roasters (something that's unfortunately not worth doing in Mexico) they also have the most carefully curated selection of home brewing devices of all kinds with fabulous information on each.

I'll list these brewing methods in order of preference based on both cup quality and appropriateness for use at Lakeside, factoring in the altitude, durability (anything glass is destined to break on its first encounter with a Mexican tile floor) and local water situation.

The Aeropress

1. The Aeropress: this compact, ultra-portable $30 device is a unique hybrid of manual drip and French Press brewing and it makes the best cup of coffee of any home brewing device. It is also incredibly versatile, able to make both espresso-strength "shots" for homemade cappuccinos and caffè lattes and the best drip-strength coffee you'll ever taste.

The 32 oz. Espro Press French Press







2. The Espro Press French Press: Sweet Maria's carries the "mug" (12 fl. oz) size for travel and you can get the gorgeous 1 liter size from both Amazon and Williams Sonoma. This is truly the only plunger pot/French Press to buy anymore, as its construction makes traditional glass plunger pots into  fragile anachronisms. The double-wall stainless steel construction will last for a lifetime, the coffee stays piping hot for hours, and best of all no grounds or grit and virtually no sediment due to the patented filter mechanism.

The Clever Dripper

3. The Clever Dripper: A great invention that like the Aeropress combines the best of French Press and drip brewing but in a more familiar way. It's basically a Melitta filter holder with a trap door on the bottom. You insert a #4 Melitta filter, pre-wet it, boil your water, put the grounds in the filter and then infuse the grounds and water on your counter top for 4 minutes. You then place the Clever on a sturdy mug or thermos and the trap door opens, allowing the coffee to finish brewing in under two minutes.

Behmor Brazen Plus

4. The Behmor Brazen: this is the only home electric drip brewer that will work properly at our high altitude. A beautiful rig but schlepping one down to Lakeside will mean devoting a good part of a checked bag to the brewer and additional paper filters.





Tequila beyond frozen margaritas & shots




updated 6/17

In the U.S. most people's images of Tequila have to do with drunken episodes or wicked hangovers caused by one too many fishbowl-sized margaritas or shots of Cuervo Gold accompanied by lime and salt at some bar. Alternatively, self-styled connoisseurs may have bought an ungodly expensive bottle of dark-colored Añejo in a fancy handblown bottle at the duty free. None of these experiences have much to do with real Tequila appreciation, and it's a shame, because this spirit at its best is one of the most compelling and complex in the entire world of distillates.

Tequila comes not from a cactus but from one particular species of agave, which like aloe vera is a plant in the lily family. The giant blue agave, agave azul, is the species used, and it takes 8-11 years for the plant to reach maturity - one key reason that good Tequila will never be cheap. As for the reason that cheap Tequila will never be good, it's very simple: any Tequila not labeled "100% blue agave" contains a large percentage of alcohol distilled from corn or other grains, along with caramel coloring and other additives. Such Tequilas, called mixtos, are the standard ingredient in margaritas and other mixed drinks, and their flavor and aftereffects have nothing to do with the real thing. Steer clear.

Genuine Tequila comes in 3 primary forms: blanco, which is unaged;  reposado, which has spent a few months in oak barrels, picking up a light straw color and some wood notes in the process; ejo, which spends from a year or two up to five years or more in special cases in oak, and which is intended to compete with brandies in both price and use. Invariably the more age (not to mention the fancier the bottle and/or larger the marketing budget) the more costly the Tequila. And while Tequila has been around since the Spanish introduced distillation in the 16th century, the first aged version offered commereically was only introduced in 1989.

Now one thing that really sets Tequila apart from other distillates is that mature, freshly-fermented and distilled agave juice has a great deal of inherent flavor. This is not true of grain distillates like Scotch or Bourbon, nor grape products like Cognac or Armagnac, all of which depend on lengthy exposure to wood for their primary flavors and are not something you'd want to taste out of the still.

With Tequila maximum flavor complexity and taste of place (terroir) are found in the blancos. Aging in wood makes for a bit less fire, but it also muddles (in reposado) or masks (in añejos) many of the inherent flavors and even more of the aroma of the agave. As with any generalization there are exceptions, and the really great producers (about which more in a minute) have a light touch with the wood and preserve a remarkable degree of agave character in their older products. Still, it is very much worth knowing that the clearest flavors and most complexity are found in the pure unaged spirit. In short, that which many think is only fit for mixing is arguably the only Tequila fit for drinking - and the more you pay, the less you get!

In Mexico the traditional lengthy midday meal called comida, at least on a Sunday when people aren't working, often starts with a few sips of Tequila to accompany such antojitos as taquitos, guacamole or quesadillas. Blanco and even some resposado Tequilas are very friendly to the flavors of authentic Mexican food, and they stand up to assertive flavors such as chile and lime surprisingly well. Blancos are best sipped from a straight-sided shot glass and served at cool room temperature (60 degrees F.), while aged Tequilas are best served in the specialized glass made for them by Riedel, or served in snifter at 65-70 degrees. During the warmer months here at Lake Chapala I'll often pour a shot of blanco into a small glass with an ice cube in it, agitate for about 10 seconds, then pour the Tequila into a proper shot glass. The difference in the aromatic and flavor balance vs. our ~80 degree room temperature is dramatic.

Margaritas are most people's idea of a Tequila experience, but sadly what's commonly served is far removed from the original recipes. A real margarita is served straight up in a small martini glass and is nearly as potent. It is a cocktail, not a long drink intended to wash down a meal.  It will contain only excellent blanco Tequila, real Cointreau orange liqueur, and the juice of the small, perfumed lime known in Mexico as a Mexican lime or limon but sold in the States as a Key lime, in roughly equal proportions. That mixture, with no sweet-and-sour, limeade or other additives, is to be shaken with crushed ice and strained into the salt rimmed glass. Needless to say, such a margarita is even harder to find in the U.S. than Mexican food a Mexican would recognize. Instead one usually gets a large dose of cheap mixto Tequila combined with sugary sweet-and-sour mix - a lethal combination that means guaranteed hangover if consumed in any sort of quantity. The worst-case scenario is of course frozen margaritas: freezing anesthetizes the taste buds and inhibits the perception of sweetness, making it all-too-easy to ingest huge amounts of (untasted) sugar and alcohol.

In Mexico Tequila is almost invariably drunk straight, as a shot, with blancos and reposados being the most popular (and añejos an item to make money on by exporting it to gringos). The "big two" distillers, Cuervo and Sauza, produce a few high-end artisanal products as image-builders to compensate for the oceans of awful mixtos they make their living with, but as with most things vinous or spiritous smaller producers make the reference-standard products.

Even if you ultimately prefer reposados or añejos it's best to start your Tequila appreciation journey by tasting a range of blancos from top producers. That way, you experience first hand the astonishingly wide range of flavors of pure agave from different microclimates distilled in subtly different ways - a skill that will serve you well as wood flavors make their presence known.

There are two main areas where the best Tequilas are produced, so you have the broad brushstrokes of regional character and then the finer distinction of the individual house styles. The area in and around the town of Tequila proper tends to fuller-bodied spirits that are unctuous but not often perfumed or subtle. Much higher up, in the Los Altos area above Jaliscos's capital city of Guadalajara, you have the highland Tequila flavor profile, which tends to be lighter bodied but more complex aromatically, and it is here that the lion's share of the best Tequilas are produced.

It's sometimes possible to buy miniatures of various Tequilas for tastings; otherwise one has to find a well-stocked bar.

Here's a concise list of top producers, as well as a few warnings on things to avoid. It's only a starting point and of course is just one knowledgeable taster's experience. As they say, "your mileage may vary."

From Tequila and environs

Herradura: one of the pioneers, and, refreshingly, a large company with high standards. They produce two blancos: the 92 proof Mexican bottling with the blue label is only one worth drinking, in my opinion,  but it's harder to find in the U.S. than their export-oriented suave, which has seen a bit of wood as well as being watered down to 80 proof and is much the worse for it. A distinctive high-octane blanco with high-pitched aromas of ripe agave and cocoa. Highly respected in Mexico and my go-to Tequila from this area.

Los Abuelos (sold in the U.S. as Fortalezza): a micro-scale labor of love made exactly as Tequila was two centuries ago by 5th generation members of the Sauza family. Hard to find (their web site at http://www.losabuelos.com has a list of retailers) but well worth the search. The aroma on opening the bottle is a precise duplication of the full range of freshly-roasted and pressed agave. In the glass, ideally poised between suave sweetness and macho power, with a complexity and depth I have not found in other Tequilas. The standard by which all others are measured. I tasted their reposado in the town of Tequila and thought it was the best of this style I'd tasted; my amigos on the Tequila forums report the añejo is just as good. Expensive.

Casa Noble: a state-of-the-art producer that spends (and charges) too much for packaging but the quality of their products is indisputable. Famous for their spectaular and costly añejos but makes a very good blanco that has a pronounced agave aroma and very refined flavors. Recently certified organic.

The Highlands

Siete Leguas: A very traditional producer whose blanco is a more-than-worthy replacement for the now scandalously overpriced El Tesoro (see below). Just the right balance between fruity aromatics, minerality and fire.

El Tesoro: In my opinion and that of many others, the greatest of the Highland producers, and certainly the most traditional. They still use old stone mills called tahonas, ferment in old wooden tanks (only Los Abuelos follows suit), and are so fanatical they insist on rinsing out the bottles prior to filling them with the same Tequila they will be filled with rather than filtered water! Slate-y, citrusy and herbal/roasted green chile nose that is all agave with a flavor that is truly velvet in steel and plenty of heat.

Unfortunately in just the past couple of years El Tesoro has raised their selling price in México to nearly double what it was, meaning it can sometimes be found cheaper in the U.S.! Those living in México do have al alternative: buy the company's Tapatio brand,  which is a nearly identical product that costs only a bit more than half of what they now ask for El Tesoro. In the U.S. the El Tesoro blanco is sold at "Platinum."

Centinela: A complex and perfectly balanced blanco that deserves everyone of the 95 points it receives on the useful Tastings.com review site. "Balanced" here means it's perfectly poised between the more macho style of El Tesoro and the too-soft but alluring sweetness of Don Julio. At around 300 pesos a bottle in México it's my go-to choice. 

1921: Too much money spent on the packaging and you pay for it, but the product is excellent, with pure ripe agave aroma, a delicate natural sweetness and some fire. Clearly an artisanal product, and for those with a sweet tooth they make a Tequila liqueur that gets raves.

Don Julio: Along with Herradura the most ubiquitous 100% agave Tequila in Mexico. Both companies are family firms now owned by megacorporations, and this fast doesn't endear them to the cognoscenti. Don Julio also has the perhaps dubious distinction of being the first to market aged Tequilas: they kept a barrel of the stuff in the office for years and in 1989 had the bright idea of marketing it as an upscale competitor to brandies and single malts.

Their blanco has one of the purest agave aromas to be found, and though it's a standard 80 proof product it tastes so sweet you'd think it was lower in alcohol than it is. Personally I find the sweetness a bit cloying and it's certainly not a complex Tequila, but it is very consistent and worth tasting.

New discovery: Tequila Chamucos Blanco Especial: Tasted on a trip into Guadalajara to buy Los Abuelos at one of the two specialist stores there that carry it. This is kind of an oddball producer known for their fanciful graphics and excellent reposado but there is no doubt this is a world-class blanco, with great complexity and a perfect balance of agave sweetness and minerality. Right up there with Los Abuelos, and drinking far better than anything else at the moment. Available in Mexico at La Playa and locally in the Lakeside area at La Paz.  Limited U.S. availability.


Outside of Jalisco

Chinaco: from the state of Tamaulipas in Eastern Mexico this is a superb Tequila that's fairly easy to find Stateside but difficult in our area of Mexico. As with my other choices, complex and classic agave flavors abound, with a firm minerality that makes it close to El Tesoro in style. 


Tequilas to avoid

Cuervo and Sauza products are poor value-for-money across the board, though in a pinch Sauza Hornitos will do if margaritas rather than straight drinking are the order of the day. To be avoided at all costs is Patron, a pure marketing-driven brand invented by the Paul Mitchell hair salon folks. Their blanco is actually passable, but you can buy two bottles of far better stuff from El Tesoro and others for the price of one of theirs. Patron now has its own distillery, but it earned its reputation when it was produced by a far better, storied producer in the highlands called Siete Leguas, all of whose products are superb value-for-money, though none are among my absolute favorites.

There are a zillion other brands out there. Avoid any that don't clearly say "100% [Blue] Agave" and have their NOM (producer's ID) on the bottle. Rule out any that have gussied-up handblown bottles or other such silliness.

If this isn't info overload enough, you can learn much more at this excellent online forum. Ian Chadwick, who runs the site, has a wonderful booklet on Tequila available that lists all the producers and covers the basics of Tequila and Mezcal: