Month: March 2014

Achiote Paste – You can make your own

Every single Mexican restaurant where we ate  in Mexico had Yucatan specialities, marinated in or cooked with achiote paste – pork, fish, chicken all featured the bright red marinade. The day before we came home, I went on a search. What better souvenir than the flavor of a region? I found a stash at an upscale grocery store at La Isla shopping mall in Cancun. I cleaned out the shelf.

But it turns out that it’s not hard to make your own or find authentic achiote paste right here in rural Virginia. The key ingredient is annatto seeds, which I hadn’t heard much about, but the other spices are readily available. This food.com recipe for homemade achiote paste seems like it would work well. Our local grocery store even has ground annatto seed in an achiote-type blend of spices. I am wondering why I searched Mexico for souvenir achiote. Now I’m going to have to do a side-by-side comparison.

The other ingredient that I have read quite a bit about is Seville orange juice, a sour version of the orange. It’s featured in this Chow recipe for achiote paste. Other recipes add the orange juice to the achiote paste when you start marinating. Alternatively, a combination of regular 1/2 cup orange juice and 1/4 cup grapefruit juice seems to be a substitute, perhaps with an extra tablespoon of lime juice. Again, our local grocery store – not known for a gourmet selection – had sour orange juice, no doubt a close relative of Seville orange juice.

The availability of seemingly exotic ingredients right at home here in the good ole USA points to the interplay of the global marketplace and the strong Mexican culture growing in the United States. As a child, Mexican food meant tortilla chips with guacamole. Now, it can mean so much more.

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The happiest of happy hours

La Buena Vida – $$
Akumal, Mexico

Expansive open-air sea views, soft sand floors, a live mariachi band and a bar lined with swinging seats make happy hour oh so happy at La Buena Vida.

The only downside was the very American clientele. Very American. We met a group of six from Nebraska at our first happy hour. They were regulars. They knew our condo and its very efficient manager. They offered travel tips, snorkeling suggestions and even demonstrated the bar game – trying to swing a string to get a ring onto a nail. When my friend tried the game, they cheered him on. While I usually like to travel like a local (thanks for that description, Rick Steves), it was a comfortable place to kick off your shoes and try some of the mixed drinks. The margarita was a little bitter for my taste and the strawberry daiquiri was a tad sweet; but the pina colada was a home run – the perfect mix of fruity and sweet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe real upside was that food was prepped according to American standards – even the salads and fresh fruit were completely edible. That just added to the comfort of an end-of-day beverage. A friend of mine gave me great advice about eating in Mexico. He said to eat with other gringos and don’t eat at places that aren’t clean looking. That simple advice really struck a cord. La Buena Vida won on both counts.

After our first evening – where we opted for a table under the stars only ten steps from the ocean – we shared an appetizer and a couple entrees. Our favorite appetizer was the shrimp patties/fritters, followed closely by the chicken mango empanadas.  The  Botanero Dish, listed as an appetizer, was really more of an entree, similar to our fajitas. It was tasty, but maybe just a little conventional.

The entrees that really hit the spot were the Mayan specialities. Part of what I love about traveling is the new culinary adventures; in my mind, the new flavors are forever associated the people, the views, the feel of a place. On the Riviera Maya, the Mayan and Yucatan foods cemented the experiences in my memory. At La Buena Vida, the regional specialties that hit the spot were the Cochinita Pibil and the Pollo Maya.

The Cochinita Pibil was a Mayan pulled pork, shredded and served with tortillas and sides. The pork had a distinct Mexican flavor that I have come to associate with achiote paste made from ground annatto seeds. The Pollo Maya had similar flavors, but was cooked in banana leaves (yes, we have already visited the Winchester, Va.,  international market to buy banana leaves). The result was a moist, flavorful chicken. The accompanying fried plantains rounded out the Mayan experience. Almost every meal started with a basket of chips and salsas. Every entree (or at least the ones we tried) came with a basket of warm corn tortillas.

It’s hard to separate the food from the pleasant surroundings. Clay light shades and a huge fish skeleton graced the ceiling with backlit bottles of all variety of beverage created walls. Outside, the atmosphere was only slightly less alluring. Our first night we walked back to our condo along the beach, mere steps from our dining table with the glow of Cozumel lighting the horizon. Later, we joined bikers and walkers along the only road leading into the depths of Akumal. The dim lights – subtle at least in part to help the sea turtles maintain a sense of direction  – gave the jungle plants a warm ambiance.

While the food was good, the atmosphere was spectacular. At times, I would slide off my sandals, wiggle my toes in the sand-covered floor and think about all my friends back home in near-zero temperature in Virginia.

Perfect presentation gives hint of fantastic flavors

Oscar & Lalos – $$
Soliman Bay, Mexico

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe hunger was overtaking us. Lunch was some fruit and tortilla chips, eaten while standing next to our car outside Gran Cenote – very little sustenance after a day biking at Coba and climbing Nohuch Mul. The cave snorkeling used up that energy and started dipping into our energy reserves. It was time for an early dinner.

We’d seen signs for Oscar and Lalo on the drive down from Cancun, and the guidebooks said it was definitely worth a trip. But the entrance appeared to be just a break in the jungle. It was as though the vines and trees had paused to let diners slip into the civilization behind. The path leading to the restaurant entrance had a couple wonderful Mayan-looking statues in a pond, adding to the ambiance. It was quiet when we arrived at 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, even in the height of the tourist season on the Riviera Maya.

The maitre’d led us outside to an expansive palapa, tabletops decorated with palm fronds. The menu offered so many great choices. My husband wasn’t drinking, since he was driving – the Mexican authorities are hard with those who mix alcohol and cars – so I decided to stick with non-alcoholic beverages. Usually, I try to stick with water, but really want a little pick-me-up after the high energy day we’d had. I looked to our waiter for suggestions, but with his limited English and my practically nonexistent Spanish, I wasn’t sure what I ordered. Natural mango water?

It turned out to be a thick smooth mango beverage served in a heavy glass wine glass. It was a much smoother consistency than a smoothie. The owner/manager came over later to check on us; she said that she doesn’t serve anything she wouldn’t eat, and she’s very picky about what she eats. The natural mango water is made with mangos and a vitamin powder without added sugar. It was delicious.

To start, the waiter brought us homemade chips with several sauces, which offered a flavor variety and came with a “very hot” warning – accompanied by a hand waving in front of a mouth, which was clear in any language. We had to try the blackened peppers, even with the warning. The flavor was wonderful, similar to a habanero pepper, but blackened to intensify the flavors.

For our entrees, my husband tried chicken mole, which came with a thick mole sauce, our friend tried the fish fillet with mango sauce (no doubt partly inspired by the drink) and I picked the Yucatan chicken, a regional specialty cooked with achiote paste and wrapped in banana leaves. The mole sauce was too chocolately for me, but my chocoholic husband thought it was the perfect savory dish – bordering on a dessert experience. We usually swap dishes, but after a couple bites, we swapped back. I loved the achiote chicken. The presentation in the banana leaves was elegant, and the sauce set me on a search for achiote paste to bring home.

(Grocery stores have often been my source for souvenirs. I eventually found a grocery store with the achiote paste – known in some circles as a poor man’s saffron. We used it last weekend in a paella in place of saffron, and it worked well.)

We passed on dessert. The owner/manager stopped by to check in again – and to make sure that the local monkey hadn’t dropped onto a table for a bite to eat. I regretted that we didn’t get to see the monkey; maybe next time? We explored the restaurant a little on our way out. The tables were spread out and surrounded by jungle. A big playground formed the centerpiece. Oh how I would have coveted that when our children were tiny. Great food AND a kid diversion – quite the step up from Chucky Cheese. The owner walked us out telling us about the early 1980s when her father (Lalo) and her uncle (Oscar) started the restaurant, partly as a venue for family reunions. She asked how we heard about it; I explained the signage followed up with the guidebook.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I started wondering later if there was more to her questions than just friendliness. Was she getting all the business she wanted? In the era of TripAdvisor and online restaurant searches, perhaps being a restaurant in the countryside – not a part of a major city’s TripAdvisor restaurant list – made it just a little harder to compete.