Roadside America: El Paragua Restaurant, Espanola, New Mexico

The little city of Española lies just 25 miles north of Santa Fe. It sits on the crossroads of SR 68 and NM 76 (aka the Taos Highway), which leads to the village of Chimayo, famed for its handwoven blankets, Santuario, and chiles. Española is also surrounded by some of the region’s famous Indian pueblos. Until about five years ago, I never saw any reason whatsoever to stop there, aside from filling up my gas tank. When you’re a dusty town located between some of a state’s biggest tourist attractions, you tend to get overlooked.

It’s my obsession with New Mexican cuisine – and posole (a dried hominy soup) in particular – that led the owner of a Santa Fe street food cart to tell me about El Paragua. I can’t recall our conversation, but he basically told me if I wanted to taste some of the best food in New Mexico, I should hightail it up to Española.

So that’s what I did. I pulled up to a large, imposing hacienda constructed from massive blocks of hand-hewn stone, located all by its lonesome on the corner of NM 76 and Highways 84/285. Inside, it was dimly lit, all rustic wooden beams, (vigas), terra-cotta floor tiles, and those same stone walls. El Paragua looked like an old-school Mexican restaurant and to a certain degree, that’s what it is.

El Paragua started out as a roadside food stand in 1958. Brothers Larry and Pete Atencio, the sons of plumber Luis Atencio, decided they were going to sell their mother Frances’ tacos and tamales. They added a table, and opened for business. Luis provided the boys with a multi-colored beach umbrella (paraguay) for shade, and El Paragua was born.

In 1966, the Atencio family converted their tack room into a restaurant, and continued to add expansions over the years (including converting Luis’ plumbing shop). Today, El Paragua is legendary for both the quality of the food (the Atencio’s are still actively involved in the daily operations, and use Frances’ recipes) and the service, which is unfailingly warm and friendly.

Let’s get to the important stuff, shall we? Never have I tasted posole or carne adovada that comes even close to touching El Paragua’s. Every dish is an explosion of flavor. The posole is a rich, well-seasoned, porky broth brimming with hunks of fork-tender meat, chewy morsels of hominy, and a goodly amount of chile (I prefer mine Christmas); eat it with greaseless puffs of sopapilla drizzled with honey. The fiery adovada sauce is brick-red and earthy, the pork succulent. The plate comes with a side of whole frijoles mixed with chicos (smoky bits of dried, then cooked, corn). The tortillas are made in-house. If you’re in a hurry, there’s also the parking lot taco-stand, El Parasol, a tribute to the original El Paragua. What’s not to love about quarts of green chile to go?

I now plan my New Mexico visits around El Paragua, to maximize the number of meals I can have there. If food is love, then El Paragua is a long-distance relationship worth staying in.

[Photo credit: Flickr user alasam]

Why Do I Continue To Patronize Crap ‘Mexican’ Restaurants Around The World?

I love Mexican food. In fact, I love it so much that I keep getting suckered into eating at “Mexican” restaurants with about as many Mexicans as there are Peugeot dealerships in Alabama. I’ve patronized “Mexican” restaurants in places like Newfoundland, Big Fork, Montana, Budapest and Macedonia in order to have a break from the monotony of the local cuisine and because I love Mexican food. But my experiences have ranged from appalling to mediocre.

Yet somehow I never learn my lesson and yesterday I found myself having lunch at Picasso, a Mexican restaurant on the Greek island of Naxos that claims to cook “extraordinary Mexican food.” After nearly a month in Greece, eating out at Greek places almost every day, I practically have skewers of souvlaki growing out of my ears, so when I read in the Lonely Planet Guide to the Greek Islands that this place had “world class” Mexican food, I wanted very much to believe it.The place also has rave reviews on Trip Advisor, though in fairness, most of those folks are European and, let’s face it, most Europeans wouldn’t know a good burrito if it smacked them in the face. Folks, we’re talking about a “Mexican” restaurant that plays flamenco music, is named after a Spanish painter and is owned by a Greek guy. I should have known better.

We started out with a plate of chips and salsa, which cost the equivalent of $5.35, or about what I’m used to paying for a burrito at home in a hole-in-the-wall type place. Chips and salsa should be free, but if you’re going to charge for it, it had better be damn good and this wasn’t – it was just a big blob of massive chunks of tomato with some other stuff thrown in.

My wife and I both ordered enchiladas and the first thing I noticed when it arrived was that there were no enchiladas; there was just an enchilada, as in one, which looked suspiciously like a burrito. It had no sauce on top, but rather just some hunks of tomato inside the thing. It was completely dry and flavorless, and cost the equivalent of $15. It came with a tiny side of rice and beans that was actually a pile of rice with about six or seven lonely little black beans sprinkled inside.

But as aggressively mediocre as that experience was, it wasn’t my worst Mexican meal ever – not by a long shot. In fact, I’ve been to at least three other “Mexican” restaurants around the world that were significantly worse. Once, my wife and I convinced ourselves that we should try a “Mexican” restaurant in St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the whitest, least Mexican places on earth, based on the strength of a magazine article posted outside the place.

The place had been named the best Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland by a local magazine, but we later found out that it was also the only Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland, which, at least in my eyes, diminished the stature of the award just a touch. We had to explain to the waitress, who, in fairness to her, said it was her first day on the job, what the difference between nachos and chips and salsa was.

After about an hour wait, she brought us a couple of burritos that looked like someone had vomited on them, and for all we know, perhaps someone had (likely another diner).

We lived in Macedonia for two years, about a decade ago, and there was a sad little “Mexican” restaurant in a strip mall in the Kapistec neighborhood that served Doritos and had no real tortillas or anything else resembling “Mexican” food. I’m quite certain we were the only patrons they ever had and we only went there occasionally just to have a laugh.

But if I had to give an award for worst Mexican restaurant it would go to a place I was almost thrown out of a couple years ago – an all-gringo “Mexican” place in Big Fork, Montana, near Glacier National Park. I ordered an enchilada-style burrito with red sauce on it for takeaway and it was easily the most revolting dish I’ve ever seen in my life.

It was absolutely swimming in a nasty ketchup-like red sauce, and even after I drained the Styrofoam container into the toilet, the tortilla itself was disgustingly wet and soggy. The chicken was grisly, dark meat and after two bites, I just couldn’t do it. I brought it back, more just to let them know how bad it was than to secure a refund, but when the young lady gently insisted I try something else, I acquiesced.

I sat and waited a half hour for them to make me some fajitas and then when they were ready, the young lady wanted to charge me for both the burrito and the fajitas, albeit with a 50 percent discount on the burrito. I took one look at the dodgy looking fajitas and told her no thanks, and then the owner came out and berated me.

“We’ve been in business for seven years and you’re only the third person that’s sent a dish back,” he yelled. “Now if you don’t like our food you can just get the hell out of here!”

And he was serious too! I left a negative review for the restaurant on Trip Advisor, and the owner sent me a private message stating that he was “sorry, very sorry.” It was an interesting approach to customer service, to say the least.

Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m a hardcore foodie snob, who only likes the very best, most authentic Mexican food. I’m actually not that picky; in fact, I love eating out in Mexico, but I also like the chain burrito joints like Baja Fresh, Chipotle and so on.

After this latest Mexican food debacle in Greece, I have a new rule of thumb: if you’re looking for good Mexican food, take a look around. Are there any Mexican people within a 100-mile radius? No? Well then, why they hell are you eating in a “Mexican” restaurant? There are some non-Mexicans capable of making great Mexican food and there are some Mexicans who can’t cook to save their lives, but from now on, I’ll stick to the local cuisine wherever I am – no matter how tiresome it may be.

UPDATE 6/21: Today I passed a “Mexican” restaurant in Santorini called Senor Zorbas, which advertised All You Can Eat BBQ Ribs. And I didn’t even stop, except to take this photo. Now that’s progress.

A Taste Of Mayan Cuisine In Playa Del Carmen

On Playa del Carmen‘s main drag, you have a world of cuisines at your feet. Falafel? You’ve got it. Bagels? Right around the corner. Cuban bars, French patisseries, Italian pizzerias … the tourist districts of Mexico‘s Mayan Riviera certainly don’t lack for international options.

But authentic Mexican food? Well, that’s a different story.

I arrived in Playa after a multi-hour journey filled with layovers and bus transfers. My body was tired and my stomach was empty. I was hungry, but not just for food; I craved the tastes of Mexico, preferably paired with radish, lime and an ice cold Dos Equis.

Instead, I found Subway and Starbucks. About 20 minutes into the food hunt, I was about to throw in the towel and settle for a slice of pizza. But then, my nose caught a whiff of warmth and spice. There, on the corner of Avenida 5 and Calle 22, was exactly what I’d been looking for – Yaxche, a small but sophisticated spot promising a “journey into Mayan flavors.”

Before the Spaniards introduced their preferences, the people of the Yucatan peninsula subsisted on a staple diet of maize, squash, beans and chili peppers. Today, it’s rare to find traditional Mayan dishes in the over-touristed resort towns of the peninsula. But a culinary revival is afoot, with Yaxche at the forefront of efforts to rescue and preserve ancient Mayan cuisine.

The restaurant menu looked foreign, and not just because my Spanish was rusty. The majority of dishes are indigenous to the region, with names unfamiliar to my Western eyes and unpronounceable by my Western lips. I was intrigued by a section titled “Grandma’s Favorites,” as grandmothers tend to know their stuff.

I settled on a sampler of her suggestions, which promised a “journey into Mayan flavors.” There was Tsotolbilchay, a Mayan-style tamale filled with a spinach-like green called chaya, boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds, wrapped in a plantain leaf and covered in tomato sauce; Pibxcatic, an eye-wateringly spicy dish of grilled Xcatic peppers filled with slow-roasted pork; Papadzul, a type of egg taco covered with pumpkin seed sauce and epazote spice; Shrimp Panucho, another taco contraption, this time with refried black beans, shredded turkey, avocado, onions and perfectly grilled shrimp; and Tsic, a ceviche variation of shrimp and fish marinated in sour orange juice, Xcatic pepper and coriander.

“Mmmmmhh!!” read the menu after the Tsic description. “Mmmmmhh!!” was right. Each mouthful unlocked new, exotic tastes: the burning spice of the Xcatic pepper, the slight bitterness of the chaya leaf, the smoky sweetness of the pumpkin seeds. Yaxche wasn’t the 10-peso fish taco stand I had pictured, but it certainly served my craving for a taste of authenticity in an otherwise manufactured corner of Mexico.

Yaxche is located at the corner of Avenida 5 and Calle 22 in downtown Playa del Carmen. The “Moloch” sampler costs 205 Mexican Pesos (about US$15).

A Mexican traveler’s money-saving tips

Headed to Mexico on a budget? Then you’re headed to the right place. In my experience, Mexican businesses and their employees are some of the friendliest and most service oriented people I’ve met, so you should take advantage of the freebies they’re usually willing to offer to visitors. A couple of years ago I started exploring the country of my ancestors, usually with a friend for company. Here are a few of the money saving tips I learned during my travels to Mexico City, Monterrey, and San Luis Potosi.

Take advantage of the free rides some nice restaurants will offer you back to your hotel
My friend and I discovered this service in Mexico City late one night after dinner and drinks at an Argentine steakhouse. We asked our server if the restaurant could call a cab, and instead he offered us the use of the restaurant’s car and driver. We gave the driver a reasonable tip and saved ourselves the cost of a cab fare. This service isn’t available at every restaurant, but all you have to do is ask to find out.

Don’t be afraid of street food
Sure, we splurged at that Argentine restaurant, but my friend and I also ate a lot of our meals on the side of the road, where you can get a hearty, delicious, and inexpensive meal at a food cart. Believe me, it was not easy convincing my friend that street food is safe and delicious. In San Luis Potosi, I finally convinced him to try a street vendor’s gorditas, which are fat tortillas that are split open and stuffed with meats and cheeses. When we were headed home, he admitted it was the best meal he had the entire trip, and it only cost us a couple of dollars!

Keep reading for more tips below…
Visit free admission museums
They’re everywhere, especially in Monterrey and Mexico City. I couldn’t believe how many museums are gratis, while I pay to get into most museums in the U.S. These attractions are a great way to learn more about the local history and culture. You might be approached by a museum guide, but you probably don’t need to hire one. Most of the Mexican museums I’ve been to are visitor friendly, with written explanations in Spanish and English for each exhibit. A word of caution: get there early. Some museums in Mexico close as early as 4pm.

Grab a free city map and guide instead of buying one
Some cities, including San Luis Potosi and Monterrey, have great tourist information centers. San Luis Potosi has one in the town square, and Monterrey has a couple of them in the bus station. Just ask for the oficina de turismo. It shouldn’t be too hard to find one, and they offer free maps and attraction guides in English, handed out by friendly greeters.

Skip the overpriced hotel breakfast
Many hotels in Mexico offer breakfast, but if it isn’t free, then skip it. The one time I ate at a hotel the food was okay, but overpriced and not so traditionally Mexican. Instead, I suggest hitting the streets to find a panaderia, a bakery where you can buy pan dulce, or traditional Mexican sweet bread. Throw in a cup of Mexican hot chocolate or coffee and you’ve got a quick, inexpensive breakfast. Yum!

Use public transportation instead of a taxi whenever possible
When we visited Mexico City, we decided to take a day trip to Xochimilco, a borough of the city that’s known for its series of canals that tourists and locals travel by boat. We could have taken a cab, but we were told it would cost us around $30. Instead we took the light rail train, which connects to the city’s metro system. It took us a little longer to get to Xochimilco, but we took in the landscape along the way, and it cost us less than $5 round trip.

Book your flight through a Mexican airline
Okay, this tip isn’t for everyone, but if, like me, you live in South Texas or another area near the border, this could work. When I was headed to Mexico City, I had a friend drop me off at an airport near the border in Reynosa, Mexico. If you don’t have anyone to drive you into Mexico, take a taxi or a bus to the airport. My plane ticket from Reynosa to Mexico City cost less than $300 on Mexicana, a reputable airline. Compared to the fares I found on several U.S. airlines, that saved me at least $200.

Shop around for a cash exchange rate

Casas de cambio,
or cash exchange houses, are everywhere. Especially in tourist hot spots, you should look around for the best rate. Use an exchange house instead of a bank and you’ll be out of there with your cash more quickly and easily.


Cinco de Mayo: Margaritas and More

I’m thinking about margaritas. Cinco de Mayo, a little guys wins over the big guys story, is this Saturday. On May 5, 1862, when it seemed that a band of Mexican soldiers was going to be trounced by the French army double or more it’s size, the Mexican’s won. This was the Battle of Puebla, one of many struggles in Mexico to ensure freedom.

In Mexico it’s a national holiday. In the U.S. it’s a time to head to a Mexican restaurant or hit a celebration if you can find one. Last Cinco de Mayo my husband, kids and I happened to be in Talitas, a small neighborhood Mexican restaurant in Columbus, eating half-price appetizers and drinking Dos Equis. Yep, we live large. This year, I’m getting the margarita. Truthfully, Columbus, Ohio isn’t really a Cinco de Mayo hot spot. There’s not a splashy festival that I’m aware of–not like in Denver, Colorado where hundreds of thousands of people show up at Civic Center Park for food and entertainment.

Denver’s festival claims to be the largest Cinco de Mayo happening in the U.S. While Denver has a huge festival with several musical performances, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona are also Cinco de Mayo bonanzas. Utah is joining in. Every city and small town seems to have one, and many are free. There’s an assortment of parades, piñatas, and cook-offs besides a lot of mariachi bands and dancing. I’d bet wherever you can find a town plaza, you’ll find a celebration of some sort. See link. This link has links to links.

Here are some of New Mexico’s smaller town versions that caught my attention.– Artesia, Raton, Roswell and Socorro . Like I said, head to the plaza.

For Texas hotspots, here’s a link to those. Denton looks like it’s hopping and San Marcos has a menudo cook-off.

In Utah, head to Midvale and in Arizona, for a smaller city version, go to Chandler. Here, there’s a chihahuahua race in additon to the traditional fare.

For a margarita enjoyment. How about this? On the Santa Fe Southwestern Railroad, they’re serving up margaritas on the High Desert High Ball train.