Seven educational courses in the “soul food” of Mexico
By W. Scott Koenig
The state of Michoacán in central Mexico is known for its diverse indigenous population. Humans have inhabited its mountains and valleys for at least 10,000 years and 38 native languages are still in use today. You can hear the tongue of the Purépechan – who settled in the region in the 14th century – spoken in the outdoor markets if you listen closely enough.
As indigenous spiritual beliefs blended with the conquering Spaniards’ Catholicism in the 16th century – effecting a number of pagan cum Christian rituals such as the traditional Dia de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) – their ancient recipes were also complemented by new ingredients and cooking techniques brought from Europe. The cuisine that resulted is hearty, rich, occasionally spicy and often referred to as the “soul food” of Mexico.
Restaurant Once Pueblo chef Sandra Vasquez, originally from Zamora Michoacán, is introducing her version of the region’s cuisine to Baja California’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe. “The presentation is very modern,” she exclaims, “but it’s really classic Michoacán cuisine, just done in my style. The traditions are all there.”
“The presentation is very modern, but it’s really classic Michoacán cuisine, just done in my style. The traditions are all there.” – Sandra Vasquez
The restaurant’s name refers to the eleven villages of Michoacán’s Purépechan plateau —where much of the native cuisine was born. As it is throughout Mexico, corn is a diet staple and different varieties are used to make dozens of regional variations on the tamal. These include corundas (dense triangular tamales wrapped in corn husks) and uchepos (soft tamales made with mushy sweet corn).
The menu at Once Pueblos pays homage to Michoacán’s lake region with dishes that include pescado blanco (white fish). The kitchen also recognizes the state’s global dominance in avocado production – Michoacán produces nearly 45% of the world’s supply – and use the green fruit to accent dishes and serve as an amuse bouche before the dessert.
The restaurant’s seven course meal may be paired with new wines from the owner’s vineyard, Sierra Vita, along with wines from nearby Vinos Martlot. Vasquez describes the origins of each dish as well as her personal influences…
“Our kitchen sprinkles vegetable ash on top of the tamal in our sopa de corunda,” she explains presenting the first course, “but traditionally ash is mixed in with the masa because we believe that when you die, you turn to ash.” The soup is an earthy tomato broth with a pleasantly sweet aftertaste and is finished with cotija cheese imported from Michoacán. The corunda, broken into pieces in the soup, provides texture.
“In Michoacán, we often eat vegetables in escabeche (a vinegar-based marinade), which we call fruta en escabeche,” Vasquez continues, arriving with the second course. “We make it there as we do here, with baby vegetables, scallops, white fish, a little bit of chili oil and guacamole.” The dish, served with blue corn tortillas and paired with a Chenin Blanc from Sierra Vita, is refreshing, light and flavorful.
One may be excused for salivating just a little as the third course is presented. It’s a perfectly grilled and seasoned filet of lenguado (halibut) served in a luxurious pool of green salsa made from the Mexican herbs hoja santa and epazote. “We use red corn dust to season the fish and add (a sprig of) verdolaga (purslane), which is very popular in the south of Mexico,” Vasquez adds.
The next course is a traditional mextlapique, based on the word the Aztecs used for wrapping and grilling food. Once Pueblos’ version presents a corn husk filled with grilled shrimp and plump mushrooms bathed in a sauce so thick, spicy and satisfying that you can’t stop eating it — but can’t quite finish either because it’s so profoundly rich. The mextlapique is paired with Sierra Vita’s 2016 Syrah, a new wine that complements the dish by not competing with the complexity of its sauce.
“This is pozole batido, which is unique to Quiroga, Michoacán,” Vasquez continues of the fifth course. “The recipe is very simple, just pork, garlic and red corn. After it cooks for a long time, we stir it for 40 minutes.” This might just be better than your abuela’s pozole. Add a pinch of powdered pinole (an indigenous grain), with chile de puya and ground sesame seeds, to taste.
The sixth course is a traditional pastel de uchepo, a tamal made from mushy sweet corn. Two of them sandwich a layer of spiced, marinated and stewed shredded pork rib. Salsas of chiles Pablano and red chili oil ring the entire affair. The mild dulce flavor of the pork marinade works very well with the sweet corn taste of the uchepos. “In my town of Zamora, you could have uchepos for breakfast or dinner,” Vasquez concludes.
The meal finishes with the avocado ice cream amuse bouche and an elegantly presented dessert of coconut ice cream surrounded by a thin layer of cocada (toasted sweet coconut) with cinnamon crumble from pastry chef Michelle Avilas.
For fans of the Michoacán kitchen, the menu at Once Pueblos is sure to delight as well as surprise. For those new to the cuisine, you can begin your education via chef Sandra Vasquez’s seven courses on the subject in the Valle de Guadalupe. ¡Buen Provecho!
Once Pueblos is located at Parcela 182 Camino Vecinal, Valle de Guadalupe, El Porvenir. Take the dirt road from Hwy. 3 at kilometer 88 and follow the signs to the restaurant, near Vena Cava vineyards. +52 (646) 162-7265. www.oncepueblos.com.
The author was an invited guest of the owners of Once Pueblos, and his dinner and pairing were complements of the restaurant. No other compensation was offered or received, and the author’s opinion remains his own.
San Diego-based food and culture writer W. Scott Koenig is founder of the blog AGringoInMexico.com, author of the book 7 Days in The Valle: Baja California’s Wine Country Cuisine and writes columns for DiningOut San Diego Magazine, SanDiegoRed.com and DiscoverBaja.com. Scott is regional expert for Baja California at ExtremeFoodies.tv (formerly FoodieHub), an international culinary site curated by over 275 experts.