Monday, July 30, 2007

The riches of the Yucatan at Coox Hanal in Mexico City



Oaxaca is a culinary wonderland, but other than an Italian place or two, it has too much hometown pride to move beyond Oaxacan specialities and favorites. So Mexico City was my chance to eat food from Veracruz or the Yucatan or Puebla. And Erin being a big Yucatecan food fan, off we marched to find Coox Hanal, at Isabel la Catolica 83, in Centro Historico. We walked by it almost twice, since it’s on the 3rd floor, above a billiards hall. But once you’re at the door, you know you’re there because Coox and Hanal are there to greet you.



All the words on the menu were so foreign to me! Sablutes, sopa de lima? My heart beat with anticipation. We ordered 3 plates of antojitos and sopa de lima, despite our chicken soup breakfast, and I had a Montejo, a light Yucatecan lager, nothing more or less than a middle-of-the-road lager.



But I was happy to have my beer, as the food turned out to be greasy bar food, and I mean that as a compliment. The panchutos, tortillas stuffed with beans and then fried and topped with pork and cabbage, were better at Seasons of My Heart, but I still ate more than my fair share.



The sablutes turned out to be fried tortillas, a little thicker than usual, with pavo or turkey, and they cut their grease with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and avocado. I thought the tacos of cochinita pibil were smooth with fat, though Erin with her experience of cooking cochinita pibil herself thought they were a tad too dry. (Erin, care to comment on what goes into pibil?) All of it was accompanied tartly and brilliantly by the pickled red onions that seem to be to the Yucatan as kimchi is to Korea.



But the most impresionate, para mi, was the sopa de lima. I wish I had the kind of sensitive palate to sniff the soup and say in a tone of authority and only polite doubt, “Ah! Is it cardamom?”, but I don’t. The recipes I’ve found online vary greatly, some requiring just a bit of dried oregano to add some mystery—which I find hard to believe would recreate what I had, despite the particular strengths of Mexican oregano—while others call for a battery of spices. Clearly, something unusual is going on with the “limas agrias” or bitter limes. The soup also had the look of coconut milk, if not the taste, and with its complex tartness, it reminded me of the careful balance of great Thai soups. You could also find shredded chicken and some dark green bits that were bitter when I bit down. Could they have been bits of lime rind? Like a fine wine, the flavors kept shifting in my mouth, from smooth to tart, bitter to warm.

It’s good for me, with my lack of religion, to have some sense of mystery in my life.

1 comment:

Erin said...

Re: the pibil, I thought the flavor at Coox Hanal was much better than the version I'd tried at home, but the meat was definitely more dry. When I made cochinita pibil, I followed a recipe in All About Braising which calls for packaged red achiote paste, toasted and ground cumin seeds, raw garlic, and salt to be pounded into a paste. You smear the paste on an enormous pork roast (boston butt is probably the best cut to use), wrap the whole thing in banana leaves, let it marinate in the fridge for 24 hours, then slow cook it in the oven for 6 to 8 hours. It was damn good, but after reading your Rick Bayless cookbook I realized that it would be fairly easy to make my own achiote paste, as long as I can find somewhat fresh annatto seeds. I will definitely try that next time, because I think that's why the flavors at Coox Hanal had way more depth.