Guanajuato, Mexico

August 30, 2013

Our trip through the Mexican colonial highlands brings me and my two sons to Guanajuato, Mexico. The city is built using all three dimensions; underground streets, mysterious tunnels through mountains, houses built upon other houses, built over streets or sidewalks, or simply suspended in mid-air. With few drivable streets, Guanajuato is mostly a collection of small, interconnected alleyways built at impossible angles.

At its core, Guanajuato is an old silver mining city dating back to the 1500’s. At one point, Guanajuato’s mines were responsible for 80% of the world’s silver production.

But life in colonial Mexico centers around the town’s tree-lined plazas, and because most tourists to Guanajuato are Mexican, those plazas are tremendously lively places. One of my favorite memories was my son eating a bowl of Sopa Azteca (a version of tortilla soup) surrounded by ten mariachis singing (off-key) and strumming at full-volume.

Oddly, the world’s best sandwiches are in Guanajuato. A sandwich al pastor (sheppard-style pork), with fresh, Mexican cheese and guacamole sauce cost just $1.65.

After 6 days in the colonial highlands, we took a break at the beach in Puerto Vallarta. While I typically avoid resorts, I know my sons wanted a nice pool, and the hotel included a kitchen. I was able to buy whole, fresh fish for only $1 each.


San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

August 23, 2013

I first heard of San Miguel de Allende more than 20 years ago, but its legend goes back to the 1930’s as an artist colony and literary haven, like Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s Paris of the same era.  Luckily San Miguel has remained a loosely-kept secret, partially protected by its relative remoteness. It took me over 16 hours to get here, broken up into 6 distinct segments. Each segment becoming less and less comfortable; more and more rustic.

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But setting aside its gallery-filled, Bohemian roots, simply from a restful, touristic perspective, San Miguel continues to be one of Mexico’s greatest treasures. Its cobblestone streets, picturesque Cathedrals, colonial-ruins-turned-boutique-hotels, perfect 72-degree weather, and peaceful plazas filled with roving mariachis; make this the perfect first stop on my swing through the Mexican colonial highlands.

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The food has been amazing, although so far we’ve mostly eaten tacos; beef, pork, shrimp. My eldest son Matt loved the Churros we bought near one of the plazas, and after a bit of searching I found a nice panedaria with a huge variety of beautiful bread, about a 10 minute walk from the plaza principal. I still have not found Mexican Street Corn, though I saw a Mexican couple eating some. It can’t be too far.


Blackened Red Snapper

August 20, 2013

While I was very excited about trying “typical Dominican food”, the truth is that it left me a little disappointed. Fortunately, I booked a hotel with a kitchen in Las Terrenas; a small fishing village turned low-key beach destination. I bought the fish right on the beach where the fishing boats haul up, and cooked up an amazing blackened red snapper. An entire snapper cost me just $5.50. An amazing 5-stars dinner.

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I adapted Chris Kimball’s 2007 recipe for Blacked Snapper on the grill, and used the traditional stove-top cooking method. While I didn’t have a cast iron skillet for this recipe, I used the heaviest pan that I had available and it turned out fantastic. By far my best meal in Dominican Republic.

My final destination in Dominican Republic is Bayahibe, a small town bordering the National Park Del Este. Bayahibe is the best place to catch a boat to the island of Saona (part of the national park with amazing beaches), but to snorkel it’s better to drive the 10km into La Romana and catch a daily boat to Catalina Island. Bayahibe has me breaking my self-imposed rule to avoid “all-inclusive” resorts. Normally, I vastly preferring to stay in small hotels where I am “Mr. Mark”, and not “Room 1428”. Also I prefer to look for my own restaurants with individually cooked meals rather than mass-cooked, catering-style meals that are specifically formulated to appeal to non-adventurous palates. But the independent hotels here all looked a bit shabby, and it’s only for a few days.

Rating: 5-star.
Cost: $6.
How much work? Medium
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time: 5:00 PM. Dinner time 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here, and the descriptions of how I prepared the fish today is as follows:

2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 red snapper fillets, 3/4″ thick

  1. Mix together paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, coriander, salt, and peppers in a small bowl. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 10″ to 12″ non-stick skillet over medium burner. When the foam begins to subside, bloom the spice mixture for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently until the spices become dark rust in color. Allow the mixture to cool on a pie plate for about 10 minutes. Break up any large clumps of spices using a fork.
  2. Use paper towels to pat the fish dry on both sides, and make shallow diagonal slashes on the skin side of fish with a sharp knife every 1″; but be careful not to cut into the flesh of the fish. The slashes will prevent the fish from curling during cooking.
  3. Working with the fish on a large plate or rimmed baking sheet, rub spice mixture with your fingers in thin layer on both sides of the fish. Put fish in refrigerator until ready to cook.
  4. Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil to a heavy skillet, and pre-heat until very hot, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add fish filets, meat-side down and cook until very dark brown and skin is crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully flip fish and continue to cook for another 4 to 5 minutes until the second side becomes dark brown. The fish should begin to flake, and center is opaque but still moist, about 5 minutes longer.
  5. Serve immediately.

Santo Domingo

August 15, 2013

Traveling to the Caribbean in summer is a crap shoot. Last year, I was caught by Hurricane Issac in Puerto Rico, but this summer in the Dominican Republic the weather was amazing every day. While most tourists skip the capitol city of Santo Domingo, it does offer a beautiful colonial center worthy of a few days. I stayed in a 16th century convent one block from the main pedestrian artery; Calle el Conde. Here are a few of the architectural highlights.

In many places the old city walls of Santo Domingo have been rebuilt using modern cement. Still, a lot of what remains in the Zona Colonial remains original. My first meal of Chivo en linea al fuego was on a beautiful colonial plaza; Plaza Colon. My second dinner was at Adrian Tropical. After reading rave reviews, I was a little disappointed with both the restaurant (for lack of authentic cuisine) and my dinner selection of Guinea Fowl. My dinner had too much sauce and not enough fowl. By the way, If you ever find yourself eating Guinea you should eat it with your fingers no matter how messy things get.

Those who know me know that I am never an alarmist, but I was pretty disappointed with the security situation of Boca Chica. First, the road into Boca Chica had a police roadblock (a la shakedown). And while the police eventually let me go sans bribe, they were still pleading how “thirsty” they were; meaning I was supposed to buy them something to drink.  Second, after stopping at the beach for about 5 minutes in a heavily populated area, some trim on my rental car disappeared in plain sight of dozens of people; an insurance headache more than anything.


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