Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Eating It Up in Queretero

My second day in Queretero, a city of about a million souls. The historic city center is small and beautiful, designated a world heritage site by whomever does that (UNESCO?).

Yesterday, my guide was the friend at whose house I'm staying. Alex is an artist (graphic designer, cartoonist, painter, sculptor) who walked me around the entire historic district as we searched for galleries, churches -- anything open on a Monday. We did get to see a really bloody Christ and lots of statues of the Virgin Mary in the two churches that were accessible. We also took a self-guided tour of the building where a new gallery has opened. Unfortunately, they were between exhibits, so I could only envision what a nice house it would make...
We walk through several beautiful green spaces, one reminiscent of Parque Guell, Antonio Gaudi's colorful, tile-studded park in Barcelona. And we snap photos of the symbol of Queretero, the 4,199-foot-long, pink sandstone aqueduct that brochures and guidebook state was built in the 1700's to remedy the problem of scarce, potable water.
I, however, prefer Alex's version of the story, in which the Marquis de la Villa de Villar del Aguila built the aqueduct (the 18th century equivalent of a billboard?) as proof of his love for a beautiful, young nun. Whether his love was requited or un-, we'll never quite know, but a statue to the Marquis shows him to have been quite an attractive and dapper dude. And, no doubt, he had more enticements and inducements (i.e., money) under his sleeve, in his pocket, or within his pantaloons....
One of the day's highlights was lunch in a tiny (5-table), charming restaurant with yellow, rag-washed walls, blue-painted lintels, and original art. Restaurante Antigua Cocina Mexicana was jammed. As we waited for a table, the waiter informed us that one of the two entrees being offered had just sold out; no more chiles stuffed with guacamole, which was exactly what I had my eye on and exactly what I would not get a chance to have my mouth on. I don't eat pork, the other white meat and the other entree, but the smells were grabbing me by the nostrils and pulling me inside. Plus, it was nearly 3pm and my morning tamales had already worn off. The waiter ran back into the kitchen and said that there was one more chile, which he promised to save for me. (Alex had said that he'd go to the store and buy one, if necessary!)

The restaurant serves only a comida corrida, i.e., a prix-fixe menu of the day. There are fewer choices than in other restaurants I've been to, but the food's the best I've savored in Mexico. For 35 pesos (less than 3 bucks), you get soup (Monday's was a clear, delicate broth, with chunks of squash), your entree with flavorful rice, a salad of lettuce and tomato in a tasty vinaigrette, and dessert (flan -- a rich egg custard). The place is only open for lunch, but they serve breads and other baked goods out of the doorway in the evening, and you can eat their tasty cheese stuffed, onion, and garlic rolls (about 30 cents each) with lunch. Corn tortillas are included in the price of your meal, along with agua or fruit water, this time tuna (not fish, but a green oval fruit that I hate to eat because it contains more seeds than flesh).
Tuesday morning Alex and I breakfast in another lovely restaurant. We both order huevos divorciados (two eggs fried sunny-side up, one bathed in red salsa, the other in green, sitting atop fried tortillas and separated by a line of refried beans). I eat fresh fruit (papaya, melon, and pineapple), he drinks orange juice, we both order coffee. Coffee comes with a choice of powdered or liquid cream substitutes, chock full of artificial flavorings and hydrogenated oils. But who can complain? Breakfast costs less than $3.50 each.
I spend the day wandering into churches, the old theater, the regional museum, and hotels that were former homes of distinguished Queretero residents. The art museum, housed in what used to be a cloister, boasts fanciful columns adorned with half-naked, flute-playing men. Exhibits include the requisite religious-themed sculptures and paintings, but what catches my plain and my fancy are the large paintings of semi-squashed insects (I loved the mosquitoes!) and the photographs of dead ducks, pheasants, and other birds.
Alex is meeting me for lunch at the same place we ate at yesterday. We'd agreed to arrive early in order to be sure the restaurant doesn't sell out the entree we want. Problem is, I can't find the restaurant. Alex drew me a very detailed map (but without noting the street name), and I am hopelessly lost, proving that I have a problem with details and/or that I can't read maps and/or that I can't count to three (the number of blocks the Restaurante Cocina Antigua Mexicana lies from the art museum).
ve been searching for the place for about 20 minutes and it's almost 2pm. I ask directions of various people, none of whom know the restaurant but all of whom helpfully send me back- and forward-tracking around the neighborhood, without success. Eventually, an older woman says that she'll help me find the restaurant.
As we walk around the block together, she quizzes me. "Are you meeting a friend?" "Male or female?" "Mexican or American?" "I might know him. What's his name?" Luckily, I recognize the doorway of the restaurant, so I don't have to provide Alex's shoe size, IQ, or blood pressure reading -- none of which I know.
I'm the first person to arrive, but Alex pulls up on his bicycle shortly thereafter. We both choose the chicken entree, which tastes like a wonderful Oaxacan mole, but which the waiter says is a recipe from northern Mexico. The salad is loaded with nopales (cactus paddles), the rice boasts peas and carrots. We sop up juices and dressings with tortillas and rolls. We drink down a huge pitcher of mango agua. Dessert is bananas in a caramel-tasting cream. The food is so good that we are tempted to lick our plates, the pots and pans, the kitchen counters, and the cook. I want to live in Queretero, so I can eat here every day!
After lunch, we check to see if the spectacularly Baroque Santa Rosa de Virterbo church is open, but can only admire its fanciful Spanish and Moorish-style exterior. We walk back to Alex's house, hoping to nap before our respective evening activities.
Alex is meeting a group of artists to discuss an interactive show they'll be putting on in September. I'm meeting another Alex (I highly recommend this way of choosing friends; if they all have the same name, you don't get too confused) for coffee and then we'll see a movie at the museum where Alex 1 will be. Another lovely day....

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