I really knew next to nothing about Guanajuato before I went there last October. I knew the state also included San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful colonial town chock-a-block full of ex-pat Yankees. I had several clay pieces from the small town of San Felipe and I knew that the food was supposedly no big deal. That's about it.
I don't remember how I came to decide on trip there but having my friend, food historian Rachel Laudan, invite me to stay with her certainly helped seal the deal. Rachel is fascinating, lovely and a wonderful hostess. Her husband, Larry, is just as great. The first thing we did was visit Las Mercedes Banquetes y Restaurante where her friends Jesus and Luz are making a real mark on the local food scene.
You will hear over and over how the food in Guanajuato is not particularly good. That is somewhat true. There are a lot of tourists coming through and most of the restaurants serve a more generic Mexican menu, despite the rich food heritage the region enjoys. The best regional food is served at home, and thankfully now at Las Mercedes.
I don't want to oversell the meal, but I really think this feast was one of the top ten meals of my life. I'm still haunted by several of the dishes and would go out of my way to enjoy them again.
This meal was back in October, so I may be off on a few details and I'm hoping Rachel will chime in and correct me if I get something wrong.
The meal started off with a bowl of hot sauce, I believe from de Arbol chiles. none of the dishes were particularly spicy so the bowl of heat was fire things up should a guest need it.
A plate of various chalupas. You will note these have zero in common with the Taco Bell version. These were with huitlacoche, guacamole (wtih pomogranate seeds) and a third type I can't remember.
Throughout the trip, I noticed a love of chicharrones and the sour tuna called xoconostle. This soup, capon, makes use of both and was delicious. In fact I liked it so much, I think this is the dish that inspired me to try and grow the xoconostle here in Napa.
This was the Guanajuato version of the Italian favorite, pasta e fagiloi. Sopa de fideo con frijol negro. The fried tortilla bits were a perfect addition.
Chef Luz made several salads and of course the highlight for me was the salad with nopales.
A green salad was also served, the highlight being the pickled beet slices.
At this point, the lovely meal went from being very good to a little slice of heaven. Jesus brought out Luz' next dish in a huge clay cazuela and it was Pollo en nogada al antiguo. The nuts were described to us as nuez criollo, which ended up being a fresh, red pecan. This sauce was like nothing else and I get a little weak just thinking about it now. I believe this normally would have been made with walnuts, but an uncle or cousin had brought over the pecans from San Luis Potosi and Luz wisely included them in her masterpiece.
Just when it seemed the fun was over, out comes chamorra, another regional favorite. My memory is that Luz slow cooks it in a chile sauce from anchos and guajillos and then pops it with a little dry sherry. The meat is pork shanks and it was fall-apart wonderful and succulent. I ended up eating this dish again in the town of Leon but there was no sherry and while it was good, this version sets the standard.
There was also a dessert made with the sour xoconostles and and another cactus fruit, which was excellent but my goal was to have the more savory flavors stay with me.
Afterwards I waddled back to Rachel's home and marveled at my good luck for being served such a meal. Luz and Jesus have such obvious pride, which is nice, but they also have talent, which is nicer, especially for those of us lucky enough to enjoy this fare.
Please do yourself a favor and make the trip if you find yourself anywhere near Guanajuato.
Las Mercedes Banquetes y Restaurante
Calle de Arriba, No. 6
Reservations: 413/ 733 90 59
If you're intrigued by the food in Guanajuato, there's an excellent book called Guanajuato: Sabor e Historia that is out of print but not impossible to find if you do a little research.