By Jude Waterston
My sister Janet and I recently returned from a trip to Oaxaca and Puebla, Mexico. We had been to Oaxaca eight years ago and stayed at a lovely and reasonable hotel, Las Golandrinas (The Swallows) and were looking forward to a return visit. We decided to first go to Puebla to experience some place new on the initial leg of our vacation, and we were able to fly there directly.
Our hotel, The Royalty, was anything but. We simply made a bad choice, having picked it at random from a guide book, which can be hit or miss. It was a total miss. There always seemed to be some workmen hammering or otherwise making a racket just outside our disappointingly small room, which smelled rather musty upon first sniff. The key, which was like a credit card, often didn’t work, and I’d have to go down to the concierge desk, where only one person (who was rarely on call when I stopped there) spoke English. When we showered in the standing stall in the bathroom, the water filled the tiled room, stopping at the door where a four-inch-high cement lip had been installed to keep the water from seeping into the bedroom. Naturally, I tripped on this annoying feature every time I entered or left the bathroom.
When we arrived in Puebla, in the late afternoon, a woman at the desk indicated that we needed to pay for the first night’s stay and gave us a voucher for a complimentary breakfast the following morning. The Royalty was situated directly across from the Zocalo, or main square, and like many hotels on the avenue, had a large sidewalk café behind which was an indoor dining room with a floor to ceiling window open to the street. It had been a long day of travel and though I was physically tired, I felt hyper and so we decided to go downstairs and have a beer.
To our surprise, the young waiter spoke some English and was sweet and accommodating. Still, when I travel, I make every effort to speak the language of the country and ordered, ”Dos Coronas con limon, por favor.”
We took in the cool night air and people-watched while we waited. And waited. The café was not particularly busy at that hour, so we were mystified by the amount of time it took our small and simple order to arrive. Having bartended for many years, I would’ve popped the caps off those beers and delivered them within seconds to my customers. Luckily, we had nowhere to go but bed. When the beers finally arrived, we were surprised to find that instead of a lime pushed into the top of the bottle, the Coronas were set down aside tall glasses rimmed with salt, at the bottom of which was a half inch of lemon juice When in Puebla …
The following morning we walked into the indoor dining room and took seats near a half dozen men sitting around a table. There was only one other occupied table, half-way across the room. A straight-faced waiter with no discerning charm brought us menus, and we showed him our voucher. He pointed to a tiny selection of choices from which we were to pick our freebee meal. He walked away. We made our decisions fairly quickly, but the waiter was nowhere to be found. After some time, he sauntered back into the room without giving us as much as a glance and puttered around with some glasses on a shelf. After another ten minutes, I was able to get his attention and ordered Janet a hot chocolate and a café con leche for myself. We were informed that hot chocolate was not part of the deal. We said that was fine; we’d pay extra. I also asked for an orange juice, a fruit platter, and two orders of fried tortilla strips topped with fried eggs, one in a salsa verde and the other in a red sauce.
Janet and I always have plenty to talk about and had a day to plan, for which we were grateful because we were to be in for the long haul. One hot drink materialized, and there was about a five minute wait for the next one to be set down. Fifteen minutes passed. I motioned for our server to come over and inquired, “El jugo y la fruta?” Expressionless, he turned and headed to what we presumed was the kitchen, returning with a glass of juice and a plate of cut fruit. After a half an hour passed without any signs of other food coming our way, I once more hailed our waiter. “Donde esta el desayuno?” I asked. Had our breakfast been sitting around getting tepid all this time, we wondered. Indeed, when we finally tucked into our food, the tortillas were soggy and limp, and there were a couple of strips of shredded chicken atop the mess rather than eggs. Starved, we ate a few bites, and then pushed the plates away. I asked for the check, but not before informing our good man that he’d gotten the order wrong. No apologies were forthcoming, nor was a tip.
We soon found that one disappointing experience was not a precurser to the rest of a much anticipated vacation. As we made our way through the streets of Puebla, and later Oaxaca, we discovered many wonderful places to dine, and only in a couple did our stomachs grumble in anticipation of a long awaited meal. In Puebla our favorite breakfast destination was in the midst of a boutique hotel a half a dozen blocks from the Royalty.
We immediately fell in love upon entering the cozy, quirky Meson Sacristia de la Compania. There were several dining rooms of various sizes, and we were seated in a brightly painted one with many interesting details, such as an antique typewriter, old-fashioned scale, folk art figures, and lush plants.
Our first morning there we shared a stack of pancakes, a fresh fruit plate, and perfectly cooked sunny-side-up eggs served with deliciously seasoned refried black beans and a handful of crisp tortilla chips. A large basket of bread, unbidden, was placed on the table and a flaky roll tasting of coconut was a favorite. We returned to Meson Sacristia the next evening for dinner and again, the following morning for another relaxing, satisfying breakfast.
A couple of days later we arrived in Oaxaca and Las Golondrinas, and were led to a wonderful suite on the second floor. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so headed for the zocalo and had good, strong margaritas and a wonderful meal at El Asador Vasco, a restaurant we’d remembered from our previous trip. Situated a floor above the plaza, we were afforded wonderful views of people strolling, chatting, and playing with their kids in the bustling zocolo below. Too exhausted for dessert, we made our way back to our hotel and were under the covers by 8:30.
We awoke at 6:30, showered, and went down to the stunning flower and plant enclosed patio dining area. As we awaited cafe con leche for me and hot chocolate for Janet, I couldn’t resist walking around, photographing the lush surroundings, often focusing on a single, brilliantly colored flower. Janet motioned me over as the abundant and beautifully presented food arrived. We shared a huge fruit plate of bananas, mango, watermelon, papaya and pineapple topped with lots of nutty, crunchy granola. Janet had fried eggs with the requisite creamy black bean puree served at Las Golandrinas, and I ordered an unusual salad of avocado, tomatoes, logs of semi-soft cheese called queso blanco, crisp bacon bits, and a sour cream-based dressing. Sesame seeds were scattered over the salad, lending a nice visual note. Naturally, I felt compelled to photograph our breakfast, and Janet was nice enough to pause before digging in, knowing the chow was right in front of her, and we wouldn’t need to ask, for the rest of this glorious trip,“Donde esta la comida?”
Serves 2 – 3
We returned to a fondly recalled seafood restaurant, Marco Polo, which offers a variety of seafood cocktails, utilizing various fish and shellfish. When we got home I developed this recipe to remind of how much we love Mexico, particularly Oaxaca.
I use canned scungilli (conch) in this recipe because the La Monica brand is excellent and I find conch difficult to cook properly. Certainly use fresh if you have a knack for preparing it. You can leave it out altogether or substitute the same amount (¼ pound) of medium shrimp boiled for a minute or two until cooked through. I serve the seafood salad in cocktail glasses, garnished with ripe avocado wedges. You can eat it with a fork or use tortilla or plantain chips for scooping.
½ pound mahi-mahi (or other semi-firm fleshed fish such as snapper, sea or striped bass, sole, flounder, or orange roughy) fillet
¼ pound (5) sea scallops
1/3 pound (3 small-medium sacs with tentacles) squid
¼ pound (6.5 ounce can) scungilli (optional)
½ cup fresh lime juice (split into two ¼ cups)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup bottled clam juice
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 ½ teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon fruity hot sauce (preferably one by Tropical Pepper Company, which makes them with mango or papaya, or use one made with jalapenos)
1 small red onion, peeled, halved, and sliced thinly
½ red bell pepper, cut into thin strips, stacked, and sliced into tiny cubes
¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small, firm ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and sliced lengthwise into wedges
Wash and dry mahi-mahi fillet and carefully remove skin with a sharp knife. Cut into small bite-size pieces and place in a shallow bowl. Wash and dry scallops and cut each into four quarters. Add to bowl with fish. Pour ¼ cup of the lime juice, and the orange and lemon juices over the fish, cover and chill in the refrigerator for 3 – 4 hours, until opaque. Drain and discard liquid.
Meanwhile, fill a small pot with water, add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Slice squid bodies into thin rings. Trim any long strands from tentacles and cut tentacles in half. When water comes to a boil, add the squid rings and tentacles and boil until firm, about 15 – 20 seconds. Drain and place in a shallow bowl. Drain liquid from scungilli can and slice scungilli into small bite-size pieces. Add to bowl with squid and pour the clam juice over fish. Cover and refrigerate.
When scallops and mahi-mahi are ready, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the citrus juices and place them in a large bowl. Discard juice. With the same spoon, scoop out the scungilli and squid and place in the bowl with the other fish. Same ¼ cup of the clam juice and discard the other ¼ cup.
In a small bowl, combine ¼ clam juice, remaining ¼ lime juice, ketchup, honey and hot sauce. Stir to combine. Pour the marinade over the seafood, toss, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the bell pepper cubes, red onion slices, and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes to an hour. Remove from refrigerator and check for seasoning. To serve, use a slotted spoon to lift the seafood salad from the marinade. Pile into margarita or martini glasses. Lightly salt the avocado and slip a few wedges into one side of the glass rim. Serve immediately.