Sunday, April 7, 2013

La Parroquia

La Parroquia is our favorite restaurant in Campeche.  First of all, it's open 24 hours a day which is nothing short of a miracle here.  Most restaurants that cater to local people close by 7 p.m.  Food stands in the market close by 2 p.m.  There are a couple of places that cater to tourists and stay open til 10 p.m. so I was having trouble believing in this promise of 24 hours.  But remember in December when the world was coming to an end because of the Mayan calendar?  Here dawn events were staged in the main square in Campeche to mark the end of the thirteenth baktun with fire ceremonies, shamans and a procession through town with everyone dressed in white.  Basically a whole lot of New Age hooey.  But Bruce & I rose before sunup and went down to catch the show.  And, as you can see, sure enough, at 4:45 a.m. La Parroquia was open!  Not a soul inside but later by 7:30 - after the planet didn't explode - it was jammed.

The restaurant is open to the street with ten ceiling fans going continuously.  They have metal roll down gates to cover the doorways but if you're open all the time when would you ever use them?  The walls of this old colonial building are decorated with murals the like of which you see all over Mexico.  I call it "the curse of Diego Rivera".  Large allegorical, quasi political, faux naive extravaganzas.  On one side of the room is a wall length piece showing the idyllic world of the Maya pre-conquest and on the opposing wall this one depicting the apocalyptic result of the arrival of the Spaniards.

The cuisine is Mexican and includes a lot of regional specialties from around the Yucatan. Here's a local breakfast dish called huevos moluteños which is basically huevos rancheros with ham, peas and fried plantains.  There are two words used for the meal eaten in the morning, desayuno and almuerzo.  The translation for both of these in English is breakfast.  But desayuno seems to be eaten earlier than almuerzo although it's all the same food.  Nobody, even gringo friends who've lived here for years, can explain this to me.

Here's my favorite egg dish, it's called huevos tibios which translates as tepid eggs.  Very, very soft boiled eggs served with salt and, yes, a squeeze of lime.  In John L. Stephens book from 1840 "Incidence of Travel in the Yucatan", they employ a local Mayan woman, Chia Chi, as a cook while they're staying in Uxmal but cannot get her to cook their eggs any longer than these so she is re-assigned to just making tortillas - her forte.  Another young boy who follows the egg cooking directions to their liking is substituted.  Probably most of you would feel the same.

Some of these breakfasts are pretty hefty but the big meal of the day is comida corrida which is served starting at 2 p.m.  La Parroquia serves a different special of the day every day but it's always the same on that day of the week.  So, for instance, Monday is black beans with pork and on Saturday it's albondingas - meatballs.

Here's what your set price meal includes.  First of all a fruit drink - either jamaica (made from hibiscus flower) or tamarind, although another fab thing about this place is that - unlike most eateries - they also have a full bar so you can order a beer. Yippee!  Next comes a kind of appetizer called a sope which sounds like soup and sometimes is but it can also be a small plate of overcooked, overdressed espaguetti.  Sorry, that's the Italian snob coming out.

Then comes your main course.  Here's Wednesday’s plate of chicken pibil which is a classic Yucatan dish.  In theory it's chicken marinated in a paste made with ground achiote, local oregano, cumin, black peppercorns and allspice.  Then it's wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven - the pibil - kind of like a New England clambake.  But you have to be out in the country in a Mayan village to accomplish that so this version was cooked in the oven.  As you can see it comes with rice, black beans, habanero salsa and tortillas.

Your desert choices are the ever popular flan or a fluorescent colored gelatine or fresh fruit.  After all this - even in the cool months - you can see why the siesta is still honored here.

Mexicans don't seem to eat large meals in the evening.  Antojitos - masa snacks - are usually all that's consumed.  These are panuchos.  Hands down the number one Yucatan antojito.  Small tortillas fried til they're puffy and then smeared with refried black bean paste topped with chicken, lettuce, tomato, avocado and these fabulous pickled red onions that everyone either makes at home or buys.  Salsa on the side. 

Here's a truly wacky choice.  Stuffed cheese.  Do not try this at home.  Perhaps the strangest recipe I've ever read in Diana Kennedy's Mexican canon.  It goes on for almost as many pages as Julia Child's instructions on how to make baguette in your home kitchen.  It is - I kid you not - a hollowed out gouda cheese stuffed with chopped cooked meat that has been flavored with a tomato mixture which includes green pepper, onion, capers, green olives, raisins, allspice, cloves, and cinnamon.  After you've filled your cheese halfway you embed a layer of whole hard boiled egg yolks then finish filling it up.  This whole shebang is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until the cheese is gooey whereupon it is napped with two sauces. One made of beef stock, saffron, and a local fresh chili and another made from some of the reserved tomato mixture thinned with tomato juice.  Serve with tortillas and habanero sauce.  This is considered an appetizer.  I'm still trying to figure out how gouda cheese got to the Yucatan.

The late night crowd comes for the mondongo.  That's tripe and calves foot soup.  I have been told on more than one occasion that there are enzymes in tripe which ease a hangover.  So after an evening of drinking one has a bowl before bed.  I don't know if that's true.  I do know that I love tripe but when I ordered it my waiter was very concerned that I didn't know what I was getting myself into.  "Pancita, no?" I said patting my tummy.  "Oh, si, si señora" he said with relief.

It was so good I resolved to try and make it myself while I'm living in a place where the ingredients are easy to find.  At least I thought so.  Getting the cow's foot wasn't hard and the butcher in the market cut it up into nice pieces.  But getting the tripe was an ordeal.  Everyone I asked kept telling me to come back the next day or they'd have it on Thursday and then I'd go again and they'd tell me sorry not today try tomorrow.  I was about ready to go to the supermarket and buy a packet of pre-cooked honeycomb tripe imported from the United States.  Since American's don't eat that stuff it all gets shipped down here in packets with the stars and stripes on it.  Finally, after almost a week of searching I managed to score some fresh stuff. 

The first three stomachs of the cow are: 1) rumen (known as blanket tripe and in Spanish as toalla - towel);  2) reticulum (honeycomb);  3) omasum (book/bible/leaf tripe) which I'd never seen before.  Here's the omasum which really does have leaf-like folds that you need to rinse really, really well.

The recipe I made is called Mondongo In Kabik - which is Mayan for Tripe in a Spicy Broth.  I had to marinate the tripe in Seville orange juice overnight to tenderize it while cooking the calves foot for hours with garlic and local oregano.  The next day I added the tripe to the calves foot and cooked it for another couple of hours.  Then I seasoned it with a sauce made from tomatoes, green pepper, onion, epazote, grilled fresh local chili and that achiote seasoning.  Serve in large bowls with more fresh hot chili, chopped onion, chopped local chives and squeezes of key lime.  It was so good I haven't had a hangover since.