Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Local Restaurant Reviews

About Chef David Sterling

Los Almendros de La Mejorada ****

Reviewed Sunday, 21 October, 2007Regional specialties. Open daily, 10:30am – 10:30pm. Calle 50-A between Calle 59 and Calle 57, Colonia Centro. Information: 928.5459.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, before I moved to Mérida, I went with some friends to Los Almendros. Shortly thereafter I wrote a rather snippy review that I posted on this Web site. The criticisms had to do primarily with the ambience – fluorescent lighting, modest furnishings, a cramped feeling, and a rather gloomy if panoramic view of the restaurant’s parking lot. None of those things have changed. As for the food, I seem to remember thinking that it was somewhat uninteresting, occasionally even bland. I can’t be certain that the food has changed, either. But one thing is certain: I have changed. On that first visit to Los Almendros, I was still barely conscious of what Yucatecan cuisine is. As I ate there today, pondering that long-ago meal, I seemed to recall being disappointed at not finding enchiladas and mole on the menu. (For those of you still learning about Yucatecan food, those dishes are not from this region.) There weren’t enough sauces, not enough flavors to excite me the way Mexican food could.

By now, Yucatecan food is my “home cooking.” It warms my heart as much as it fires my lips with habanero! I understand it. I even long for it. One thing I may have skipped in that first visit was combining our wonderful pickled onions (Cebollas Encurtidas) and habanero table sauce (Chile Tamulado) with every bite. As they say, those two condiments are the salt and pepper of Yucatán. And as such, they round out and complete the flavors of most of our dishes. Now I know better. I liberally douse my plate with both, for therein resides much of the flavor of the Yucatán table. You should do the same.

So on this visit, I was much more attuned to the nuances; I have eaten and prepared enough of the same dishes that I was able to weigh the skills of the Los Almendros chefs on a level playing field. And they scored very well. Regarding the ambience, our lunch companion – who brings a lot of her out-of-town visitors here – protested my earlier review by reminding me that the place is spotlessly clean, the service efficient and attentive, the waiters well-trained and many English speaking, and the location on the lovely Parque de La Mejorada, although it is not visible from indoors, offers a charming stage set for entering and exiting – in short making the restaurant a great introduction to Yucatecan cuisine for the foreign tourist. Los Almendros was starting to look better to me.

The point of our visit today was to sample the many specialties of the restaurant’s annual Festival del Venado. Venado, or venison, is much beloved by the Yucatecan people, and has been a staple of the Maya diet since their earliest days in a hunter/gatherer society. In fact, so popular is the little white-tailed deer unique to the Yucatán peninsula that it has been overhunted, resulting in government restrictions to avoid extinction. Los Almendros clearly explained in their promotions that this is not the indigenous cola blanca, but rather the ciervo rojo – the red deer that has been so successfully domesticated and farmed in New Zealand and now here. Our meal was guilt-free, as long as those at the dinner table avoided any mournful Bambi references.

Several dishes that define Yucatecan cuisine feature venison as the focus: venado en pipián rojo, tsi'ik de venado, venado en sackool, not to mention the standard regional tacos known as panuchos and salbutes substituting shredded venison for the chicken or turkey. All of these and more were on the menu for the festival, and we sampled as many as we were able.

First course: the panuchos. We make these in almost every class at Los Dos, so I have become both an aficionado and a snob. Not to worry – the deer panuchos at Los Almendros were exceptional. A fresh tortilla when properly prepared is hollow; we fill the hollow with frijol colado – our delicious strained black bean paste – then quickly fry it in vegetable oil or better yet, lard. Top with a piece of lettuce, some shredded meat (in this case the venison), a slice of tomato, and always finish with a generous clump of Cebollas Encurtidas. The tortilla base at Los Almendros was hot, crisp, freshly fried, not soggy, in other words perfect. And the chefs had done something I occasionally do: top with Tsi'ik– sort of a salad of shredded meat, with chopped onion, cabbage, radish, tomato and either vinegar or naranja agria – instead of the separate ingredients listed above. They had used vinegar, which was a nice foil for the gamey richness of the meat.

Next, we shared the venado en pipián rojo and the venado en sackool. Pipián is a popular sauce used throughout Mexico. In central Mexico, it may be made of sesame seeds instead of pumpkin seeds, and acquires its color from dried red chiles; here, Mayan pipián (óom sikil) is traditionally made with pumpkin seeds and is colored a deep red with achiote. It can be served as a rich sauce with turkey, pheasant, deer or virtually any other meat. The pipián of Los Almendros was indeed rich and smoky, with perhaps just a bit too pronounced a taste of the achiote, which can be bitter when overused. The venison was fall-apart tender. Sackool, as explained elsewhere on this site, is stock thickened with masa to make a savory gravy or white sauce. Served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon, or ladled onto fresh tortillas as a do-it-yourself taco, sackool is also garnished with a bright red cooked tomato sauce (Salsa de Jitomate Yucateca) which adds both color and zing. The Los Almendros version, with the venison, also included bite-sized bits of white onion and green bell pepper, which gave a nice crunch and herbal flavor to the sauce. The real joy was making a taco with a spoonful each of the pipián and the sackool. And with the fresh, handmade tortillas served with every meal at Los Almendros, the experience was enough to wipe that first dining memory right out of my mind.

A Culinary Expedition