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A Week’s Worth of Good Eats in Puebla

A sampler plate at La Casita PoblanaIf 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.

Backstage at the International Mole Festival with Pablo, chefs Lopez and Bayless, and Adam GoldbergThey 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.

Sunday

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!

Monday

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.

Tuesday

Mark Bittman takes a turn grinding ingredients on the metate.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.

Wednesday

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.

Salsa de chicales with pork, a specialty in Pahuatlán2:15 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.

Thursday

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.

Friday

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)!

Lesley and Gloria make mole truffles with chef Angel Vázquez5 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.

Saturday

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

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11 Responses to “A Week’s Worth of Good Eats in Puebla”

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  1. Clare says:

    Incredible – just incredible!! And to think a few years ago, you were wondering what you’d do in Mexico…now look at you!? Hanging out with Bitty and Bayless and eating homemade mole and turning down Marc Anthony for a multi-course dins at a fab restaurant (can’t say I blame you!). You are an inspiration, Rebs :) xo

  2. Kate says:

    It was, indeed, a week to remember. I can’t wait to get back to Puebla!
    Much love,
    Kate

  3. Dave says:

    “Verdolagas” aren’t fancy microgreens but the more than common purslane.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Clare: Thanks! The feeling is mutual.
    Kate: We can hardly wait for you to come back. :-)
    Dave: Micro = tiny, not fancy. And, believe me, this salad was not “common” by any stretch of the imagination.
    Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone! XO

  5. Helen says:

    Wow, whatta week! I’m glad I was eating while I read this, even if it was only a salad! I loved the pics you posted the other day of you guys making the truffles — they sound mouth-watering. Can’t one of your new friends help you turn that into a nice article in the NYT or someplace like that? It’s a no-brainer, especially since obviously, Puebla is the new black!

  6. Rebecca says:

    LOL. I’m glad you liked the truffle pics! (Anyone else who’d like to see them can find them on our Facebook page, http://on.fb.me/KMmBpq.) Meanwhile, I spent yesterday running around with an editor from Saveur, and I’m hopeful that Mark will write about his mole experience at some point for the NYT. We’ll see! And I agree: Puebla is the new black. I feel very fortunate to be here right now.

  7. mama_g says:

    Rebecca, what a great post. Your role may have been minor, but what a role! Hanging with and learning from some great chefs from both sides of the border. Fantastic!

  8. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Gabrielle! I learn something new every day that I’m in Puebla … it’s part of what keeps me here.

  9. Hello Rebecca,
    I really enjoy reading your reports, but I really envy you. I guess you love Puebla more than I do. You have been eating some strange foods most Americans won’t touch with a 10′ pole, and I’m very proud of you.
    Puebla is my favorite city besides Los Angeles, Vancouver BC, and Seattle. … My American Express won’t allow me to venture far these days, but I miss my dear city of Atlixco, Metepec, and San Juan Tianguismanalco, but I got to see the festivities on Univision. Please enjoy Puebla, its culture, and the people.
    I’d be back in Puebla rather soon maybe next year, my wife, and my daughter are awaiting my arrival, but money always seems to be an issue in our lives.
    Anyways, please keep traveling and enjoy my city — oops, I meant our city — and I look forward to reading your reports as often as time allows me.
    Sincerely,
    Giovanni Magana

  10. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Giovanni! I hope that you are able to make it back to Puebla very soon.

  11. Christoph says:

    I like your blog really much as your reports made me decide to study in Puebla for a semester abroad.
    Cheers to that!

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