Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Savoring Regional Delicacies in Monterrey, Mexico

The nebulous sky at twilight, thick with Monterrey’s ever present white dust and yellow smog, glowed orangey as I left the hotel on my first night here to walk to a new restaurant nearby. Although there was no humidity in the air and the last of the day’s oppressive heat was dissipating, the heat still felt sticky on my skin.

Los Fresnos Bar and Grill, squeezed in between the Hampton Inn and the Marriott Courtyard on your way to the aéroport is a man’s world, or so it seemed. Most the waiters are older gentlemen, some I have to guess in their late 50’s or early 60’s. The role of women is strictly reduced to cleaning.
Even the recepcionista, usual a lady in Mexican restaurants was a male.  The décor also contributed to the sense of machoism with stuffed deer and goats on the walls (Cecil the lion would have felt at ease here after his demised by that American dentist) and American football on the TVs at the bar, but I am not for one minute bashing the culture of Nuevo Léon. This part of Mexico, just south of Texas, is after all ranchero country where "real" men wear ten gallon hats, expensive cowboy boots and is judged by how big and silvery his belt bucket is. Only the strong survive here.  

Initially I thought fresnos, which means "ashes" in English, refers to dead embers since most of the menu’s dishes are prepared on the grill. But upon my asking the waiter told me it refers to the many ash trees one finds in this region. That immediately made me felt at home since I have tens if not more than a hundred ash tree on Lily Rose Ranch. 

The menu was regional. Whenever you see cabrito on a menu you know you are in Monterrey. A cabrito is a kid goat that is less than 3 months old and still a suckling, thus, before it starts to eat solid foods. In Monterrey, cabrito dates back to the founding days of the city and some of its Jewish settlers. Prepared al pastor is the way they do it here. The whole carcass is opened flat and impaled on a spit. The spit is then placed next to a bed of glowing embers and roasted slowly without any spices and turned often. I have eaten it on several occasions because it is very tender but I always missed the traditional dry rub spices of South African or American grilled meat.

But I didn’t ordered cabrito on my first night. I saw something very rare and unusual on a Monterrey restaurant menu. Lamb! Nuevo Léon is more cattle and goat country. Although I have tried to discover which kind of cut it is they offered, the waiter was either purposefully vague or he simply did not understood my questions.

Loin chops? I asked. Si, he said.
Leg? I asked, Si, he said.
He eventually sighed and said, plato, plateful.

I guessed that meant you could get anything, even some cuts you would not generally expect on your plate. I decided to order blindly. What the heck, in this region were grilled meat was the equivalent of Le Gigot d'Agneau a la Francaise I could not expected gourmet food from a non-Michelin star restaurant and the chef in the kitchen behind a glass partitioning was most certainly not Gordon Ramsey either.

With my meal I ordered a bottle of locally produced vino tinto, a Vinos Demecq XA Cabernet Sauvignon from Baja California. Not too bad, lots of tannins, thus a bit dry, definitely full bodied in the usual Mexican style and without the pretentious or artificially enhanced subtle hints or, in some cases strong suggestions, of chocolate and coffee and over ripened fruits that are so prevalent these days from American cabernet producers. Although not the best in class by any stretch of the imagination, it was classic, old time cabernet. Robust and full-bodied.  

Well, I got what I sort of expected. Lamb-all-sorts with a few potato fries and vegetables. A leg chop, rib meat, a bit of loin, more rib meat and even a kidney still surrounded by its fatty protection. And it was a plateful alright. All in all, it was not bad though, a bit too fatty for my taste and it lacked spices. But there was enough red and green chili salsa on the table to compensate for the lack of spices.

Dessert was Flan (what else?), the quintessential Mexican dessert. The age old dish was invented by the Romans as a savory cake topped by peppers. It sounds like it was more a quiche than a flan in its infant days. As the recipe moved westwards with the Romans to the Iberian Peninsula the dish was adapted and became sweeter and the Spanish began to top theirs with a caramel sauce. The conquering conquistadors of the 16th and 17th Centuries carried it across the Atlantic with them to the Caribbean and Latin America and so it reached Mexico, where the Mexicans took the simple custard pie to new heights in the kitchens of the rich and poor alike.   

On that night I chose Flan Napolitano with a thick caramel sauce topped by nuts.

Upon leaving Los Fresnos, Pedro, the waiter, who must have been in his sixties, and who all night long was so careful to pour my cabernet just the right way, complete with cotton napkin around the neck of the bottle to prevent any spilling, came over a last time to shake my hand as if we were old friends that got together for a long overdue evening of drinks, good food and even better company. He was very surprised and gave me a broad smile when I shook his hand in the local Nuevo Léon way, four fingers around the thumb instead of the usual western way. That really sealed the newly formed friendship that will probably last no longer than this single visit to Los Fresnos.

However, I returned to Los Fresnos on two additional occasions over the 10 day period I was in Mexico to also savor other regional dishes like the pescado Vera Cruz, tilapia fish in a mild tomato, onion and sweet pepper sauce served on Mexican rice, and especially the “Death on two legs” as I like to call it, (in honor of the Freddie Mercury and Queen song), Camerones Brochette, cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped shrimps. I have eaten this dish on many occasions in Monterrey over the past 10 years of coming here and have always gone back to it because it is sooooo good. Los Fresnos’s version was a bit dry (shrimps was too small, I presume) and not as good as I have tasted before, especially at Mariscos La Anacua on Tauro Street in San Nicolas de los Garza, a real hole in the wall, frequented almost exclusively by locals for its cheap, no frills, but excellent seafood and Mexican beer by the liter.

Later, while I sat in my hotel room to write this, a sing-along to the accordion tunes of Mexican country music drifted through the open balcony door from the garden below. Since early evening a large group of people were barbequing downstairs and I guess the beer that flowed so freely has loosened the vocal cords and their inhibitions.  

If I can make any suggestions, I would say they shouldn’t give up their day jobs, at least not yet…

Adios! Monterrey.