I’ve been traveling to the quaint city of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for quite a few years. Whenever we visit, we always rent the exact same house that’s located close to the city’s historic district, also referred to El Centro. The house is a couple of blocks from “La Parroquia”, the historic church that lies in the main plaza. The church formally known as, “La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel", has beautiful and dramatic pink towers that rise above the main plaza known as “El Jardin” (the garden).
It never fails that with each and every trip I get to discover more fantastic restaurants that offer inventive, sometimes simplistic but always tasty and satisfying creations. There are several new and upcoming chefs that totally blew me away on this trip. I’m still also impressed with some of my old tried and true restaurants and their incredible chefs.
San Miguel de Allende is located in the mountains of central Mexico. It has an elevation of close to 6,500 feet, which can take a day or two to get acclimated to after first arriving. It has a population of close to 140,000 with about 10-15% being American or Canadian expats. The city is built on several hills that are steep and breathtakingly beautiful. Taking a cab ride throughout some of the steep hills in the city is always an adventure. But the real adventure is to challenge myself to walk some of those hills and take in all the sites. It being such a walkable city is another reason why it’s my favorite place to visit. San Miguel is full of charming cobblestoned streets.
San Miguel is a tranquil town, unless there happens to be a festival going on. Then there might be fireworks, church bells ringing, Mariachis playing, parade participants dancing or other small celebrations throughout the city.
There isn’t a night that goes by that we don’t visit the Jardin for a stroll before heading home for the night. I love watching the battle of the Mariachis that occurs most weekends as they compete for everyone’s attention strolling throughout the Jardin.
The Jardin is where you will see vendors selling anything from balloons, toys, straw hats, tacos, candies, hot dogs, elotes (Mexican grilled corn) and snacks of all kinds. But what I always look for are the Helado vendors. Helado is Mexican ice cream that is made with varying ingredients, using tropical fruits as well as some of the most interesting and unusual flavors, such as Mole or shrimp.
Another one of my favorite things to experience while strolling through the Jardin is the Mojigangas, or giant puppets. You'll see Mojigangas made to resemble the bride and groom in wedding processions now that San Miguel has become the wedding capital of Mexico.
This recent trip was our first time visiting around Christmas so I got to experience Mexican Posadas, which are an important Mexican Christmas tradition. They take place on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas from the 16 of December to the 24th. The word “Posada” means “inn” or “shelter”. People hold candles and sing carols as they travel through the neighborhood. Sometimes the procession includes individuals dressed as Mary and Joseph who are carried. They make their way to a particular home and sing a special song so that the innkeeper agrees to let Mary and Joseph in. Everyone goes inside for a celebration, where there are usually tamales and a hot drink such as “ponche” or “atole” is served. I especially loved it when some of the homes along the route would open their doors and toss into the crowd bags of candies called “Bolo”, which are usually for the kids who are walking along the procession route.
Dinner for our first night in San Miguel is always at La Posadita. It’s a rooftop terrace restaurant that offers Mexican food with a wonderful view of the Parroquia, great margaritas, delicious food and wonderful service.
Me and Fernando at La Posadita
One of the first new restaurants we tried was Marchanta Comedor. It’s manned by a couple of young, inventive and extremely talented chefs that wear some of the coolest chef aprons. We each had a craft cocktail that had a gazillion ingredients. It took a while for the bartender to create them, but they were definitely worth the wait! We shared an appetizer of “tostadas with salsa macha”, which is a traditional Mexican sauce of several toasted dried chile peppers, spices, olive oil, nuts, seeds and garlic, pureed in a blender or mashed into a paste using a Molcajete (a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle made from volcanic lava rock). We also shared a salad of Cured Cactus, heirloom cherry tomatoes, farmers cheese, charred avocado, served on a bed of green seeds from the amaranth family, called “huazontle”. The star of the meal was the chef’s version of Vietnamese Pho, which consisted of several vegetables, homemade noodles, large strips of sirloin cooked to a perfect medium rare, in a rich beef broth that was slowly poured into the bowl at tableside.
The Pho at Marchanta Comedor
We finally made it to chef Donnie Masterson’s restaurant Birdie’s Burgers. Donnie is the owner and chef of one of the premier restaurants in San Miguel called “The Restaurant”. He’s known for his inventive approach to seasonal ingredients as well as a fantastic food, served in a great atmosphere and with impeccable service. Every Thursday is Hamburger Thursday at “The Restaurant” and it has become a huge success for Donnie. So, a couple of years ago Donnie opened up the burger joint Birdie’s Burgers. The burger is not a huge behemoth of a burger, which I think is great! It’s small and the hamburger patty is made with beef from a cattle ranch that is on the outskirts of San Miguel. The beef is 100% organic, grass fed and grass-finished. It was perfectly cooked, the right size, with simple condiments and toppings and served with French fries. Chef Donnie also has another restaurant right along side of Birdie’s Burgers called “Taco Lab” and the tacos are seriously as the logo spells out “tacolicious”!
For several years we have always thought about going to the restaurant “Aperi”, but could never get reservations. “Aperi” is considered one of the finest restaurants in San Miguel and one of the most exclusive. When we’re in San Miguel, it’s usually all about feeling comfortable and relaxed while out dining. Although we always wanted to dine there, I was always a little hesitant about doing so. The chef Matteo Salas is a legend when it comes to fine dining in San Miguel. His menu is very inventive, whimsical and he wants his kitchen to excel in honest cooking with a freedom of expression.
We were extremely lucky to have been invited to dinner at Aperi by friends of friends in Chicago. Bob and Mary were visiting San Miguel for the first time and their visit just happened to coincide with ours. They offered to treat us to dinner at Aperi, and we were floored! It was such a kind and generous gesture. We each selected the chef’s tasting menu with wine pairing. The superb meal began with each of us having a wonderful cocktail, followed by a delicious “amuse bouche” followed by the 6-course dinner.
Amuse Bouche at Aperi
Every course was remarkable and also paired with some remarkable wines. The highlights for me were the beet salad served with beet foam, another one of my favorites was the butter-poached squid as well as the “pork belly” entrée. But the highlights of the meal were the desserts! But the best thing about the entire evening was meeting Bob and Mary and getting to know them and the start of what I’m sure will be a great friendship.
Aperi's Beet Salad with Beet Foam
Centanni Trattoria is a restaurant that we always wanted to try but for some reason or another never made it there. Top Chef filmed their season 12, three-part finale in San Miguel where Centanni Trattoria was prominently featured. The restaurant had some of the best Burrata that I’ve ever eaten and the plating and presentation were spot on! For dessert we shared a Panna Cotta that was served in a repurposed ceramic olive tray. I’m definitely going to steal that service idea for one of my next dinner parties.
Burrata Salad at Centanni Trattoria
On one of our long walks, we stumbled upon the restaurant El Rinconcito and saw a friend having lunch there so we joined her. The restaurant is in the home of this really sweet couple, and the chef/owner does everything, from cooking and serving to bussing. I never would have thought that an entire plate of grilled veggies could be placed in front of me and that meal would be one of my absolute favorites in San Miguel. Every veggie on the plate was perfectly cooked and grilled, with the just right amount of char and smokiness. The veggies along with grilled pineapple chunks were placed on a bed of rice. The juices from the grilled veggies and pineapple chunks soaked into the rice, making it almost like a sauce in consistency, due to the starchiness of the rice.
Grilled Vegetable Plate at La Riconcito
I’ve become addicted to the restaurant Mi Bistro 300! The chef/owner had our waiter bring out an appetizer plate of Marlin Tostadas to our table on the house each and every time we were there. That’s probably the main reason why I’m addicted to that restaurant. They also have a grilled octopus entrée that has potatoes, chili peppers, tomatoes, in a peppery broth and topped off with a drizzle of chipotle mayonnaise that was outstanding.
Another one of our new finds was the restaurant Nomada - Cocina de Interpretaction. We decided to go there to celebrate my birthday with our good friend Michael who lives in San Miguel. For someone who dislikes celebrating his birthday, I couldn’t have been more pleased, surprised, delighted and fed so well.
Nomada is a fairly new restaurant that is owned and operated by the same owners of Marchanta Comedor. Marco is the savory chef and his wife Sofia is the pastry chef. I read a review where the person said that after their meal, the entire table stood up and gave Marco and Sofia a round of applause. Yes, Nomada is that great!
Nomada is definitely a feast for the eyes! Every dish is perfectly plated and presented to the table. The dining room is small, and I think that there might be probably no more than 10 tables in the whole place. It has an open kitchen where you can see Chef Marco and his sous chef and cooks perform their magic. The service, food, cocktails, food presentation and wine were the best! They had some of the most incredible wines from Mexico featured on their wine list.
We shared everything which was perfect, because it gave us the opportunity to sample most of the menu. We started with a seared tuna appetizer. The tuna was buttery in texture, light, delicate and cooked perfectly. I love mussels that are cooked in a rich flavorful broth and there was everything to love about the mussels we had for dinner at Nomada.
Mussels at Nomada
We also shared a beet salad, a wild mushroom risotto and a seared pork belly with a sauce that was unbelievable. The first dessert we had was a banana bread pudding, but not like your everyday bread pudding. Sofia took her grandmother’s recipe and put her own twist on it. It wasn’t custardy like most bread puddings; it had a dense richness, not too sweet and almost cake like in appearance, with the simplest of garnishes. The second dessert was a prickly pear sorbet and chocolate cake and ice cream creation, topped with chopped nuts.
Well that covers just a few of the new places that we discovered on this trip. Now I need to mention a few of the old, tried, true and tested places that still have my heart and stomach.
Mare Nostrum is still one of my all-time favorites and has been since the very first time I walked in the door and had Chef Giulio’s Pappardelle with Bolognese. This time it was all about his pizza! I’ve been so enamored with his pasta dishes for so long that I completely forgot about his incredible pizza. Now I’m just as much enamored with his pizza! Giulio and his wife Brenda have become a part of our ever-increasing San Miguel family that continues to grow with every visit.
Pizza Capri at Mare Nostrum
A trip to San Miguel also wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Mi Vida. Chef Greta and her staff always make us feel so welcome whenever we dine there. Her menu is seasonal and takes full advantage of whatever that season’s bounty might be. This visit we ended up having one of our most memorable dining experiences there. We were joined by friends who have become our San Miguel family; Marty, Jeff, Megan and Alex. It was the perfect way to celebrate our arrival in San Miguel!
One of my favorite breakfast/lunch places is always Café Contento. Chef Jose Bossuet Martinez and his remarkable waitress Marta, are the very best at what they do. Fernando had the duck enchiladas in mole sauce for the first time and I have to admit that they were some of the best enchiladas I’ve ever tasted. I had the grilled veggie fajitas, and I couldn’t have been happier.
Duck Enchilades in Mole at Café Contento
Speaking of enchiladas! A few years ago we happened upon a group of women selling enchiladas just outside of the Parroquia as a fundraiser for the church. We discovered that they sell the enchiladas on most Sundays and that they run out very quickly. So we always try to make an effort to arrive there before afternoon mass lets out. They are simply, corn tortillas that are fried in a red sauce in a “comal” (a large and heavy concave shaped metal pan) then filled with a crumbly Mexican farmers cheese, topped with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cooked diced potatoes, carrots and finished with a topping of crumbly farmers cheese and are called “enchiladas del portal”. There is always a variety of salsas and cilantro available to add if you like. The first time Fernando’s mother are them, they brought tears to her eyes. The enchiladas and the way they were made, reminded her of the enchiladas that she ate when she was a young girl growing up in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Eating them while sipping on a large glass of “agua de jamaica” (hibiscus flower water) is the ultimate!
We love to have with our coffee with “Pan Dulce” (sweet bread), which is quite addictive. A couple of visits ago we discovered a new bakery called “Maple”. It has become my favorite place for Pan Dulce and they also do a wonderful job with savory breads, cookies and a few pastries. Maple has some of the best “conchas’ (sugar topped buns made to look like sea shells) I think I’ve ever eaten. Panio and Petit Four are also on my list for pastries and breads.
When it comes to the classic Mexican pork soup made with hominy, we are never disappointed with the pozole at La Alborada. When you order a bowl of the rich, spicy red broth, pork-filled soup, there is always a huge array of fixings placed on your table to accompany and add to your soup.
La Posadita is still the go to for casual roof top terrace dining. They serve a really tasty Chicken in Mole sauce. They also serve some fantastic margaritas!
La Posadita's Margarita
There really isn’t a place in San Miguel that doesn’t serve a fantastic margarita. They are always fresh, not too sweet, tart from the freshly squeezed lime juice, with just the right amount of tequila.
Hecho en Mexico is a great choice for a consistent, casual meal. The menu features several Mexican dishes and quite a few American choices as well. It’s always our go to for a hot bowl of spicy lentil soup or an appetizer of tasty guacamole and they also do a pretty mean margarita.
You can find some amazing little taco stands that offer some of the best simple, delicious tacos you’ve ever bitten into. But the restaurant La Azotea has taken the taco to another level. La Azotea is a great rooftop terrace restaurant, with great margaritas, guacamole, duck tacos and several other offerings. But it’s their “jicama taco” that they’re known for. The taco shell is made from jicama that is sliced into very thin perfect rounds that look just like a tortilla. The jicama taco shell is topped with fried shrimp, leeks and topped with chipotle mayo.
Of course, I can't not mention Lavanda Café. I’m a sucker for a great Eggs Benedict and I think that Lavanda offers one of the best: perfectly poached eggs topped with a silky, rich hollandaise sauces, along with toasted brioche, two very thinly sliced crispy strips of bacon and with a side of either steamed spinach or blanched asparagus.
Eggs Benedict at Lavanda Café
Other highlights of our time in San Miguel were a day trip to Guanajuato City with our best friend Dian who came to visit us for a week. We toured the Diego Rivera Museum, took in several sights of the city, walked through the huge Mercado and ate some of the best “bolillo” (Mexico’s version of the French baguette). I got to make Fernando’s mother’s fideo soup for lunch one afternoon. We were invited to dinner parties at our friend Michela’s house. We even got to meet a couple from Chicago!
After nearly 10 years of traveling to San Miguel, the people, experiences, surprises, food, culture, restaurants, the house that we rent and the city itself, never seem to get old. There is always someone or something new to experience and a new adventure that I look forward to the moment my feet hits those cobblestoned streets of the city.
If you are feeling the travel bug after reading this post, check out The Chopping Block's just-announced new international tour to Italy this fall with Onward Travel. You'll learn to "Cook Like a Tuscan" in this once-in-a-lifetime culinary adventure!