A Week’s Worth of Good Eats in Puebla
If I had to describe my life last week in Puebla in a single sentence, I’d say that I died and went to some sort of foodie Zion. Seriously, my experience was that divine: I spent seven whole days sampling a smorgasbord of regional cuisine, from humble street foods to elegant restaurant fare, crafted by talented cooks and chefs from around the state. I wish that I could eat so well on a regular basis, but alas neither my waistline nor my pocketbook would support it. That said, for one glorious, mouth-watering week, I ascended to gastronomic heaven in Puebla de los Angeles, the original city of angels.
What made it so great? Everything from preparing mole poblano on a traditional metate with cookbook author Mark Bittman to savoring the contemporary dishes of chefs Angel Vázquez and Pablo Salas paired with small-batch Mexican wines. My schedule was jam-packed with eating, drinking, cooking, listening to experts, and having close encounters with a few of my favorite food bloggers and celebrity chefs.
Want the juicy details? Proceed with caution. This post is likely to make you hungry.
They had all convened in Puebla for the first International Mole Festival, one of the many festivities commemorating the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo. Indeed, my culinary bliss was made possible, at least in part, by the state’s international affairs office, which recruited me last fall to help organize and promote the event. Unlike previous mole festivals in Puebla, this one not only celebrated Mexico’s most iconic dish, but also demonstrated its influence on a global scale.
My role in the mole festival was relatively modest, but being involved left a big impression on my mind, my heart, and my stomach. So, I thought I’d share the highlights of my week’s worth of good eats — and food-related activities — in Puebla, in the hopes of enticing others to visit and attend future events.
April 29, 3 p.m.: My in-laws and I descend upon Texas B-B-Q (29 Sur 722, Col. La Paz) to celebrate my husband Pablo’s birthday a day early, given the busy week ahead. Although foreign visitors may bristle at the thought of eating brisket in Puebla, carnivorous locals can appreciate meat cooked to fall-off-the-bone perfection, Lone Star State-style — and this is arguably some of the best barbecue south of the Texas border. The restaurant, which opened in early March, marinates its brisket in a special dry rub, smokes its own sausages and beef and pork ribs for hours, and makes its own secret barbecue sauce. It also carries a nice selection of imported beers (although, sadly, not Shiner Bock). We capped off our meal with an off-key rendition of “Las Mañanitas” and passed a complimentary Texas-shaped waffle, topped with berries and whipped cream, around the table. Our stomachs were primed for the rest of the week!
April 30, 7:30 p.m.: Angelica Bravo Gutiérrez, owner of La Casita Poblana (41 Poniente at 16 de Septiembre, Col. Huexotitla), arranges for a special tasting menu of some of Puebla’s more exotic delicacies at her restaurant. She and I had previously chatted about the fact that I often want to try certain dishes but feel too ashamed to order a huge plate of something that I may not enjoy. As an alternative, she serves up small plates of what seems like half her menu: gusanos de maguey (edible caterpillars), escamoles (ant larvae), tacos de sesos (pig brains), tostadas de pata de res and tinga (pickled cow jelly and chicken stew, respectively), guajolotes (sandwiches of fried-bread and shredded beef), huazontles capeados (deep-fried greens similar to goosefoot weed with panela cheese and an egg coating), chalupas (fried tortillas topped with salsa, onion, and shredded pork), sopa de médula (bone marrow soup), huazontles en salsa roja (the same goosefoot smothered in a tomato-based sauce), huitlacoche (corn smut), pipían verde con pechuga de pollo (chicken breast in a green pumpkin-seed mole) and, of course, the house mole poblano. Whew! Angelica paired each “course” with various Mexican wines, our favorite being a 2009 bottle of Equua, a blend of Grenache and petit Syrah from Baja California.
May 1, 10 a.m.: I return to La Casita with writer Mark Bittman. Mark, a featured speaker at the mole festival, was putting together a new presentation for Puebla and wanted to make mole poblano the old-school way. I tag along as his Spanish interpreter. We meet with veteran cook Doña Ramona in the kitchen. Flanked by a small team of helpers, she explains and demonstrates the process of charring, toasting, and/or frying various ingredients. She then slowly, laboriously begins grinding everything to a smooth, glossy paste on her metate, a 45-year-old slab of volcanic rock that her family in San Pablo del Monte uses to make everything from basic masa for tortillas to elaborate sauces like mole and pipián rojo. Mark and I take turns learning to press the well-seasoned mixture of fruits, nuts, and chiles into a fine paste, which is later brought to a boil and finished with chicken stock. Our version comes out a bit spicier than the restaurant’s recipe. Although this probably has to do with the chiles, I imagine that somehow the fire in Popocatépetl’s belly (which long ago created Doña Ramona’s kitchen stone) has somehow ignited our dish.
May 2, 9:30 a.m.: I pick up celebrity chef Rick Bayless — who’s traveled overnight from Chicago to get to mole festival on time — at the Mexico City Airport. He’s accompanied by Amado Lopez, his chef de cuisine at Xoco in Chicago. As if Rick’s culinary prowess and love of Mexican cuisine hadn’t won me over long ago, I become a fan for life during the two-hour car ride to Puebla when we start chatting about politics and agree that Jon Stewart should moderate a U.S. presidential debate. I’m further impressed when he spends what little time he has in Puebla (like 15 hours) visiting a friend’s new bakery, eating tacos árabes, and tweeting about a street vendor’s five flavors of potato chips. Later, during his talk, he shares personal notes that he took during his first visit to the state capital decades ago.
2:15 p.m.: I’m hungry. I wander among the International Mole Festival food stalls operated by cooks from 10 different municipalities around the state, from Chignahuapan to Huejotzingo. Everything looks and smells divine, but I gravitate toward the Pahuatlán booth. This small town is Puebla’s newest “pueblo mágico,” known for its natural beauty, artisanal goods (such as papel amate), and salsa de chicales (giant ants ground up with chiles served over pork). How could I resist? I’m so glad I couldn’t, because the spicy, savory dish was to-die-for.
May 3, 10 a.m.: A series of talks about mole poblano by Puebla-based chefs begins, with Alonso Hernandez and Rodrigo Ibañez discussing its origins, Liz Galicia and Carlos Zorrilla sharing its traditions, and Angel Vázquez and David Fuentes tackling innovation. For me, this is the most exciting part of the festival. After all, it’s said that Poblanos are among the most talented cooks on the planet — and we’re finally getting to hear from some, on their home turf. They explore the legends surrounding the dish’s invention and subsequent evolution, agreeing that conflicting stories merely add to its allure. “No one has the ‘authentic’ recipe,” notes Carlos (a.k.a. Zorri). “Everyone can vary the ingredients.” Alonso refers to mole poblano as “the king of all sauces,” one versatile enough to combine with anything from beef ribs to lasagna, which Angel and David later underscore by passing out a chocolate truffle with mole poblano ganache that leaves festival attendees begging for more (see Friday).
“The best mole is the one served in my house. Right, Mom?” —Chef Liz Galicia
5 p.m.: A group of foreign friends and restaurateurs are interested in a market tour, so we head off on foot to Mercado de la Acocota in Barrio de la Luz. En route, we stop at a molino to see where busy cooks (who don’t have time to use a metate) go to get their masas and moles processed in large batches. We stop at a grocer to buy chiles and find cured goat preserved from last fall’s traditional slaughter in Tehaucán. We search for a lady inside the market who makes a mole with this meat but come up empty-handed. We console ourselves with a sandwich from Cemitas Beto and a pineapple soda.
7:45 p.m.: We cap off a spectacular day with dinner at El Mural de los Poblanos (16 De Septiembre #506, Col. Centro). After admiring the brand-new Cinco de Mayo-themed painting in the entrance hall, we sit down at a table for nine to enjoy a flight of mezcal (with expert tasting notes from foodie Lesley Tellez), a couple bottles of Barón Balché, grilled panela cheese, and assorted salads and entrees, including an exquisite ensalada de verdolagas (microgreens mixed with local cheese, tomatoes, nuts, and avocado) and arrachera (flank steak) grilled to perfection and served with crispy sweet-potato chips. Tip: You know you’ve picked a good restaurant when Mexico City-based chef Monica Patiño and her entourage are dining a few tables away.
May 4, 3:30 p.m.: Pablo and I head over to foodie Adam Goldberg’s part-time digs in Cholula, where he’s promised to make us “the perfect cup of coffee.” Adam is a connoisseur of the caffeinated brew and owns the gear to prove it (which he lugs all over the world). No kidding: His coffee-making rig is worthy of a how-to article in Wired. It comprises tools for calculating, measuring, and testing whether any given beverage has the proper water-to-coffee ratio. Or something like that. In any case, the man knows how to whip up a strong, well-balanced cup of joe at high altitude (7,000 feet)!
5 p.m.: Back to those mouth-watering mole truffles. When the chef himself offers to teach Gloria Dominguez, a California restaurateur, how to make them and then invites you to join the class — and bring a few friends — how do you say no? You don’t. So, I turn up at Intro Restaurant (Calzada Zavaleta #5624, Col. Zavaleta, San Andrés Cholula) with my other half and foodies Lesley Tellez and Kate Blood. We watch Angel Vázquez deftly put together a chocolatey ganache filling with mole mixed in, and then we get our hands “dirty” while piping, rolling, and dusting the chocolate-coated candies with pulverized baked tortillas. We sample our work with a bottle of Aborigen winery’s Tinto de la Casa.
May 5, 8:30 p.m. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, we could have attended the free concert by Marc Anthony at Cuauhtémoc stadium. But rather than fight the elements and hordes of people, we opt to splurge on the special menu back at Intro Restaurant, where Angel Vázquez and visiting chef Pablo Salas put together a contemporary six-course dinner with Mexican-wine pairings just for the occasion. The experience is world-class. Carp-roe tacos with cilantro foam. Snapper sashimi with fava-bean purée, warm butter, crispy artichoke bits, and preserved lime. Pork “meatloaf” with almonds, raisins, and epazote. Oxtail with cactus paddle, cauliflower, and grape tomato salad. Braised beef rib in mole poblano with a bean tamal, baby carrots, and chayote.
Did I mention that I died and went to foodie heaven? Many thanks to all of the cooks, chefs, friends, and colleagues who made my week so unbelievably delicious.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd