I’ve been traveling to the lovely colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for 13 years now, and with each trip, something remarkable happens. That’s the magic of San Miguel, which you always hear about from residents and visitors alike.
My partner and I normally go twice a year for a month. But due to the pandemic, our trip had to be postponed/cancelled three times. The first time was the hardest! That was when The Chopping Block and Onward Travel had to cancel our Food and Wine Cultural Tour, which had been in the works for almost a year. I was hosting the tour, so it was a complete gut punch when it had to be cancelled. The other cancellations came while the pandemic was still raging. So, it was with a lot of apprehension after all the travel bans were lifted and things seemed to be slightly getting back to normal, that we finally made the decision to make the journey once again.
I’ve always said that San Miguel is the one city that always makes my heart smile! I was weary about whether that smile could actually occur again after the pandemic and a two-year absence. I was worried that the festive atmosphere that always dominated the area called “El Jardin” and the city in general would no longer be there, as well as several of the restaurants, waitstaff and chefs I’ve grown to know and love. But after Travel and Leisure magazine once again bestowed the honor of number one city in the world to San Miguel for 2021, I had hope that my heart would once again smile, and smile it certainly did!
We flew into the city of Leon, Guanajuato and were whisked off to San Miguel by a shuttle service. We arrived at the house that we’ve been renting since we’ve been traveling to San Miguel. My feet finally hit the cobblestones that line practically every street of the city. At that moment, I knew I was back and that I had returned to my home away from home!
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… this visit it took me close to two weeks. At the time when I wrote one of my first blogs about the city, it had a population of close to 140,000. Now that population has increased to close to 175,000, still with about 10-15% being American and Canadian expats. It has become one of the most Instagrammable cities in the world. I couldn’t believe how many people I saw using professional photo equipment, while posing for photos and selfies, that I’m sure were destined for Instagram.
The city is built on several hills, giving it remarkable views. One of my most favorite things about the city is its walkability, although the hills can be quite challenging. With a two year break and being two years older, the challenge was a bit more difficult this trip. Very seldom do we ever hop in a cab, but to do so can open up a great adventure with the cab navigating through steep hills of the city, or winding down tiny narrow streets. It’s one of the things I love showing friends or family who visit.
I was so happy to find that San Miguel was still the tranquil town I’ve always loved. That’s unless there happens to be a festival going on, which it seems there always is. We arrived a couple of days after all of the Mexican Independence Day festivities were done. As much as I love being there for those holiday festivities, we thought that it might be best to forgo them this time until we knew first-hand how the city was dealing with COVID precautions. There were still numerous celebrations. The most prominent was the Alborada and the Celebration of the Feast Day of San Miguel Archangel, patron saint of San Miguel de Allende. Not only does San Miguel love celebrations of all kinds, but the city loves doing so by celebrating with a rousing display of fireworks.
San Miguel is known for its historic central district, referred to as “el Centro”. It primarily encompasses the city’s main plaza and surrounding area and which also contains the city’s central garden, or the jardin. It’s directly across from the city’s historic church, la Parroquia. The church is formally known as La Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel. The church is known for its beautiful and dramatic pink towers, that rise above the main plaza of the city.
Our trips to San Miguel have always been amazing culinary adventures, so it was nice to find that those culinary adventures still existed. This trip, we decided to stick with a lot of the tried and true restaurants that we always loved, appreciated and could count on and definitely had missed after our two-year absence. But, of course we had to try at least a few new restaurants!
We were very lucky to have our good friends Andrea and James join for this trip and their first time in San Miguel. We visited a local wine/vineyard where we got to learn, explore and taste some very impressive wines. It took place at the Tres Raices vineyards, about a half hour northwest of San Miguel. It was a very enjoyable tour and introduced us to wines that are made and produced in this central part of Mexico. The grounds of the vineyard are beautiful!
700 year old door leading to wine tasting room
They also house an amazing hotel on the property, a wonderful restaurant, a wine tasting room, an event space, and an enormous wine cellar, with vast selections of wines. We enjoyed a private tour of the grounds, wine cellar and event spaces, which was capped off with a wine tasting in their elegant tasting room along with a charcuterie platter that highlighted food pairings that enhanced the wine. This was truly one of those San Miguel moments that I’m so glad I got the chance to participate in.
Another adventure was a tequila tasting at the luxurious Dos Casas Hotel. It was held in the bar of the hotel’s four-star restaurant, Áperi. This adventure almost didn’t happen, if not for our good friend Michael Coon, who was a complete lifesaver for us on this trip. Michael, a phenomenal chef/teacher/culinary tour guide in San Miguel, phoned someone and arranged for us to have a private tequila tasting, that included small bites to go along with each tequila tasted. We’re so lucky with the friends that we’ve made in San Miguel - they always bend over backwards to help us out with anything that we might need while there.
We got the chance to sample and taste three tequilas featured on the menu along with bites specifically created for each tequila. The first tequila was a 7 Leguas, Blanco, and with this young and citrusy tequila we were served a delicious shrimp ravioli. The second featured tequila was a Casa Dragones, Añejo, and with this smooth, Armagnac-like spirit was served alongside with a Brioche toast, topped with caramelized onions and mushrooms. The third tequila we sampled was an extra smooth and etheral Reserva De La Familia, Extra Añejo from Jose Cuervo, and it was served with a wonderful dessert-like puree of beets combined with a chocolate ganache and cream… unexpectedly crazy good!
The person who led the tequila tasting was kind enough to throw in a tasting of Casa Dragones Tequila Joven, which I (who likes to think of himself as very knowledgeable of tequilas) knew absolutely nothing about. It was a complete and delicious surprise! I knew of Tequila’s four designations; Blanco, Reposado, Añejo and Extra Añejo. Joven, I learned, is a fifth designation. It is a Blanco Tequila blended with Extra Añejo Tequila!
Our friends Andrea and James wanted to celebrate their wedding anniversary while on their first trip to San Miguel. I was hoping that Michael could help us, and boy did he help in making that happen! We had never been to the restaurant Atrio, another one of those relatively new restaurants in San Miguel. I always wanted to wait for a very special occasion to dine there and there's no better or special occasion than an anniversary.
It’s a gorgeous rooftop restaurant that has some of the most outstanding views of the Parroquia and the Jardin. Michael arranged one of the best tables, that had magnificent views of the Parroquia and the Jardin for Andrea and James to look out onto. Atrio is also known for its amazing and delicious food, and it didn’t disappoint in the least! The incredibly delicious food was topped off with a special anniversary dessert.
Another new restaurant that we got to try is the new Greek Mediterranean restaurant, Bocaciega. It’s a beautifully designed restaurant, with food to match its beauty. Their pita bread is some of the best we’ve ever had. You’ll want to order more for the table, especially with the trio of dips comprised of homemade yogurt, beet marmalade and chili oil, that is served with the pita bread. My favorite dish is a whitefish that is wrapped in hoja santa leaves (Mexican pepperleaf) which provides the dish not only the most fragrant aromas but a distinct flavor of anise.
Another of the newest additions to San Miguel is the new grocery store called City Market. This place is vast! It has practically everything you might expect from a large grocery store located in the U.S. or even in Europe. It had one of the most impressive seafood departments that I’ve ever seen! It also had several restaurants including Spanish Tapas, sushi and other seafood dishes.
There were new panaderias, (Mexican bakeries), that we got to try. One had the most delicious chocolate conchas, (Mexican sweet bread), that were only available on Friday mornings. The chocolate sugar topping was unlike any that I’ve ever tasted.
We discovered and tried a new breakfast and lunch restaurant called Inside Café - a narrow building with a long staircase leads you up four levels of seating areas and finally to a small rooftop dining spot, with no more than five tables. It’s an absolute wonder how the waitstaff navigates the long narrow staircase with plates of food! The food was inventive with interesting twists on traditional Mexican breakfast fare.
We also visited some of our favorite places:
La Posadita has always been our favorite for outdoor rooftop dining.
They never disappoint when it comes to fantastic service, some of the tastiest Pollo en Mole, Carne Asada, Guacamole and the tastiest, never-too-bitter-and-never-too-sweet, Margaritas!
Another find from our trip two years ago, Rustica is one of my favorite lunch spots in the city! The owner Eduardo is one of the nicest guys that I’ve ever met. The Milanesa de Pollo, the avocado toast and the Chilaquiles are some of our favorite things to have when we’re there, along with their delicious thirst quenching limonada with mineral water. Go for the food, but try not to leave without a smile from Eduardo. You won’t be disappointed with either!
Hecho en Mexico is the restaurant that we can always count on for a quick delicious meal. Starting off with their delicious margarita, and then an order of their guacamole with a side of diced jalapeno peppers, a generous bowl of lentil soup, and ending with a fresh and spicy Coctel de Camarones, (Mexican Shrimp Cocktail). The restaurant is always consistent. They don’t pretend to be anything but what they are - a place to get homey Mexican or American dishes with great ingredients and flavors.
My favorite breakfast place in the city is Café Lavanda because I have never had a bad meal there! The small cozy restaurant with a coffee roaster and bakery attached is one of the best. We get the same waitress every time, who always remembers us. My favorite thing is their Latte Lavanda, a lavender-infused espresso with steamed milk, topped with a sprig of fresh lavender. It’s always served with slices of bread, a pad of butter and fresh fruit marmalade, usually made from guava.
I usually get their Benedictinos, a version of Eggs Benedict with toasted brioche bread, poached eggs topped with the silkiest Hollandaise sauce, fresh avocado and crispy bacon. Fernando usually gets either the Huevos Verdes (Poached Eggs served over a tomatillo salsa and black refried beans). It’s seriously the best! But try to avoid the place on weekends. Because its located close to the center of town, it tends to get packed with visitors. That’s why we normally only eat there on Monday mornings when most of the visitors have already left the city.
When a generous walk is in the picture, we like to have lunch at el Riconcito. It’s very homey, so you might end up passing it by, but don’t. They have a grilled vegetable entrée served on a bed of rice that is unbelievable. They also have a great cheeseburger with French fries, a delicious chicken with mole sauce and wonderful Chilaquiles.
By far, our favorite restaurant and one that we were delighted to find had survived the pandemic is Mare Nostrum. It’s usually the first restaurant that we eat at after we first arrive, and always our last meal the night before we leave. The owners Giulio and his wife Brenda have become like our family. The food is top notch! I’m a huge fan of Giulio’s Bolognese sauce with any of his freshly made pastas. Fernando tends to always have Fettucine with Arrabiata sauce.
We always begin with what we have dubbed as "a Brenda Margarita”. I don’t know how she does it, but her Margaritas are always perfection. It’s the perfect blend of tequila, lime, and orange flavored liqueur.
For appetizers, we usually get grilled vegetables and salmon carpaccio. Sometimes when we’re dining with friends, we’ll order one of Giulio’s wonderful pizzas to share.
And Giulio never lets us leave without presenting a special dessert that he’s created for us. Whenever we have visitors who have come to stay with us, we always make sure to introduce them to Mare Nostrum and have them meet Brenda and Giulio.
We’ve been so lucky to have made some of the most magical connections with other guests who happened to be dining there. We happened to hear that a young lady was a celloist, and we mentioned how much we both love cello music. Towards the end of our conversation with her and her parents, she brought out her cello from underneath the table and ended up serenading us. Now that’s the magic of San Miguel!
The last magical thing that I want to share from my trip is the surprise anniversary cocktail party for Andrea and James. Our good friends Marty and Jeff’ have a gorgeous home that overlooks all of San Miguel and offered to host. Chef Michael Coon prepared the appetizers, and we invited a few of our other friends who are also like family, and it turned out to be one of the most magical and special San Miguel evenings ever!
I’ve definitely come to the realization that San Miguel is still just as magical as it was when we were last there over two years ago. Stay tuned as we try to resurrect our culinary tour there in 2022!
In the meantime, learn some authentic Mexican dishes in our Trip to Mexico Demonstration on Friday, December 10 at 6:30pm at Lincoln Square. You'll enjoy:
- Mixed Green Salad with Hearts of Palm, Avocados and Pumpkin Seeds
- Chorizo and Mushroom Queso Fundido with Tortilla Chips
- Chicken with Ancho Spiced Mole Sauce and Steamed Rice
- Lime-Coconut Cupcakes with Dulce de Leche Frosting