¡Qué nostalgia! Tacos al pastor at Borrego Viudo in Mexico City

tacos al pastor¡Vamos a los tacos! was what my Mexican friends used to say back when we were in high school together in San Diego. Just like the midnight spaghettata in Italy, a late-night taquería after an evening of drinking was and is a cherished ritual.

It’s hard to imagine — at least in my life — a dish that inspires greater nostalgia than tacos al pastor.

On our friend Mai Pham’s recommendation, I visited the classic Borrego Viudo last night on the earlier side of the evening (after all, I’m not 17 anymore!).

There’s really no other way to say it: this place was simply awesome. From the way the parking attendants cheerfully greet you to the polite, dutiful service of the tidy waiters who carry literally ten plates at a time, this joint is one that continues to stand the test of all time.

Those are the tacos al pastor above (see the carver in the video below).

taco de cabeza mexico city ciudadThis was a taco de cabeza, two tortilas de maíz filled with head.

It’s not hard to understand why Mai insisted that I visit this place. It was joyful and brimming with all kinds of people, young and old, families and friends.

I was there on the early side, around 7:45. But by the time I left, there were so many people that the parking lot was full of people eating in their cars (the servers will wait on you in the parking lot as well).

I adored this place. Go there…

Fantastic seafood at De Mar a Mar in Mexico City

quesadilla de pescado receta ciudad mexico cityWhen I reached out to our friend Houston-based travel and food writer for Forbes Mai Pham for her recommendations for Mexico City, she got me on the line with Eduardo García, affectionately known locally as Lalo, one of the country’s rising celebrity chefs and owner of Maximo Bistrot Local.

He’s currently in Rioja, Spain, but he swiftly connected me with Alejandra Soto, owner of a wonderful seafood restaurant in the city’s Zona Rosa called De Mar a Mar, where he consults on the menu.

The dish de rigueur, he told me, was the quesadilla de pescado, the fish quesadilla (above).

I split the quesadilla before photographing it to show the filling, btw.

It was served with a tomatillo salsa, a dollop of creamy guacamole, and lemon wedge.

What a fantastic dish! The creamy texture of cheese and the flakiness of the chunks of fish and they way they combined really took it over the top.

ceviche blanco receta ciudad dfEven though I knew I had a lot more eating in store, I couldn’t resist the ceviche blanco.

Alejandra’s chef uses oregano in this dish, an unusual but truly brilliant ingredient. I loved how it played against the cilantro.

The other thing that I loved about the dish was that it was served over a thin spread of creamy guacamole. Again, it was the way the textures worked together that took the dish to another level.

Another thing that impressed me about this restaurant was how knowledgable my server was in Mexican cookery. My Spanish is good enough to carry on a foodie conversation and as I peppered him with questions, I was rewarded by his insights into the regional origins and ingredient combinations in the platos he delivered at my table.

And on a technical note, just to put this in perspective, my bill, with two beers (Bocanegra, clara) and a generous gratuity, was around $30 (American).

My recommendation: RUN DON’T WALK.

On deck: tacos al Pastor at the classic Borrego Viudo (the Widowed Lamb)…

See you tomorrow in the Ciudad de México

xochimilcoHeading out today for Mexico City where I’ll be pouring Franciacorta and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi tomorrow for my client Barone Pizzini (click here for event details).

It’s never easy to say goodbye to my girls but I have to admit that I am really looking forward to this trip. I haven’t been to Mexico City since I was a teenager and am really excited about my eating itinerary there (thanks again, Mai!).

See you on the other side…

Image via Alejandro.

A new and brave culinary language at Oxheart in Houston

sunchokes recipe houstonAbove: “roasted and charred sunchokes with salted cream, jasmine tea, honey, and Meyer lemon.”

Last night, I finally made it to Oxheart in Houston, one of the most talked about and lauded restaurants in the city.

And my retard wasn’t just due to my busy travel schedule: Oxheart is a small restaurant with roughly 30 seats and because of its overwhelming popularity among Houstonians and visitors, it’s extremely challenging to get a table there.

japanese roots recipe houstonAbove: “Japanese roots and a soffritto of dried gulf shellfish, with steamed crawfish, and fragrant herbs.”

If you’re reading this it’s more likely than not that you don’t need me to tell how wonderful owner/chef Justin Yu’s cooking is. He began racking up national accolades and media attention as soon as he opened the restaurant three years ago or so.

And two years ago, Pete Wells gave the restaurant a glowing review in the Times.

Justin, wrote Wells in his envoy, is one of the chefs who is “helping to make [Houston] into one of the country’s most exciting places to eat.”

And Justin, his kitchen staff, and his waitstaff delivered on every level.

gerard duplessisAbove: a brilliant pairing for the gulf shellfish and crawfish (previous photo), recommended by our waiter and authored by Justin Vann, one of the city’s leading wine professionals.

Scores of other writers — local and beyond — have written about the originality and vibrancy of Justin’s locavorism and his boundless world view. It seemed that every dish spoke to his approach in fusing readily available wholesome ingredients with cosmopolitan cooking techniques and combinations. The smoked pork with porc thailande (below), for example, was brilliant.

smoked porkAbove: “lightly smoked Red Wattle pig warmed in pork fat, with porc thailande, turnips, and fermented mizuna.

But the thing that really turned me on about his restaurant was the utter absence of affectation.

The staff was so polite and so gentle in explaining the complicated and unusual dishes. They never talked down to our table nor did they make us feel the burden of privilege (there is no à la carte dining there but the prix fixe was very reasonable at $74 per person).

Their attitude was so refreshing: in a world where tongue-piercings and haughtiness seem to go hand-in-hand with haute cuisine, the Oxheart staff made us feel at ease and comfortable. I was really impressed by this.

The other thing that I loved was the wholesomeness and transparency of flavor in Justin’s dishes.

In so many “high-concept” restaurants like this, chefs seem to tend to transform the flavors of the ingredients. On one level Justin’s cooking is extremely complicated with combinations that would seemingly drag the diner in multiple directions (even geographically).

But Justin’s food championed the materia prima without masking or morphing it. I loved that.

In the same way that a great poet forges a new language by combining the words in the dictionary in a unique and newly meaningful way, Justin has — in my view — forged a new and unique culinary parlance.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that. It just took me a little longer than most to get to the party…

Italy is so much more than wine

galleria milan photoAbove: a view of the Galleria in the historic center of Milan. The city is so much more than just “art and amazing churches.”

“Should I spend an extra day in Milan after a wine trip?” asked Houston-based sommelier Vanessa Treviño-Boyd on her Facebook the other day. “So far the savvy say ‘not worth it.'”

A number of wine tradespeople weighed in, with varied responses.

“If you like art and amazing churches, yes,” wrote venerated Italian wine critic Levi Dalton. “If not, no.” (Please accept my apologies in advance for the Google alert, Levi.)

It’s disheartening to see exchanges like this. But it happens all the time: wine professionals head to Italy for winery-funded trips and they head straight to wine country and then back to the airport without experiencing Italy’s immeasurable cultural treasure.

In many cases, especially for young people, it’s their first trip to the country.
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As ministers gather to discuss EU alcohol policy, FIVI president Maltide Poggi previews grape growers’ concerns

matilde poggiAs European Union ministers prepare to gather in Riga on Monday for meetings on Health and Consumer Affairs, including a discussion of EU alcohol policy, Matilde Poggi (above, president of the Italian Federation of Independent Grape Growers [FIVI]) has previewed a brief she plans to send to send to Italian health minister Beatrice Lorenzin.

According to a post published today on the Slowine blog, which paraphrases but does not quote the document directly, there are three major points covered in Poggi’s letter to the minister and her colleagues:

1) Paraphrasing Poggi’s brief, the author of the post writes that restrictions on interstate sale of alcohol would counter current agreements between member states.

2) In a document published by the European Commission’s Committee on National Alcohol Policy and Action, there is a proposal for minimum pricing requirements for wine. Minimum pricing regulation would give large producers of commercial wine an unfair advantage, the author writes.

3) A proposition to reduce alcohol levels should not be applied to wine. While it can be applied to industrial products like beer and liquor, wine should be exempt because it is an artisanal product that “depends on climate, grape ripeness, and grape health, etc.”

The “Informal Meeting of the Ministers for Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs” is to be held in Riga next week because Latvia currently holds the EU presidency (the author of the Slowine post reports erroneously that the gathering is to be held in Lithuania and that Lithuania is the current EU president).

According to a post on website of the Lativian Presidency of the Council of the European Union:

“Every year around 70-80% of healthcare costs in the European Union are spent on non-infectious diseases. At the same time, by limiting the main risk factors – smoking, unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity, and alcohol abuse – it is possible to improve quality of life and increase the number of healthy life years, thus making considerable financial savings.”

“The Health Ministers will discuss current alcohol and nutrition policies and future challenges.”

As EU policy on alcohol and Common Market Organization regulation (known as OCM in Italy) continue to evolve, there are growing concerns among Italian winemakers that European wine culture will be stifled by over-regulation and disregard for local tradition.

Poggi, who was recently elected as the vicepresident of the Confédération européenne des vignerons indépendants (European Confederation of Independent Grape Growers [CEVI]), has taken an active role in voicing concerns of independent grape farmers and winemakers.

She has served as the president of FIVI since 2013.

Click here for the Committee on National Alcohol Policy and Action’s “scooping paper” and its recommendations. Image via FIVI.

Vinitaly highlights (still wine) and an AMAZING prosciutto hybrid discovery

The following are just a few of my still wine highlights from my Vinitaly 2015 tastings. Still working on putting together my notes for the sparkling tastings…

cogno barolo raveraIt would be too easy to simply post a panegyric on Valter Fissore’s extraordinary expressions of Barolo. I was blown away by the focus and elegance of the wines he showed at the fair this year.

But the wine I can’t stop thinking about is the 2014 Elvio Cogno Langhe Nebbiolo Montegrilli.

Even in a challenging vintage, this wine delivered on every level. Great Nebbiolo with wonderful freshness and transparent fruit. I loved this wine.

rivasotto barolo bruniIn the days that led up to the fair, there was a lot of talk about the Veglio family and their Cascina Bruni’s new partnership with famed Italian enologist Riccardo Cotarella. Offline, a lot of people wondered if this meant a new “modern” approach to the wines (because Cotarella is known for his love of modernity in winemaking).

I was stoked to sit down with Cristiano Veglio and taste through the wines: the old school style hasn’t changed at all. The family has merely used Cotarella’s consulting to improve vineyard management and winemaking practices, he told me.

I really liked the 2009 Barolo Rivasotto, which is already starting to show nicely despite its youth.

best brunello 2011 brunelli gianniThe 2010 vintage in Brunello has received so much media attention, said Laura Brunelli, one of my favorite Montalcino producers, that she’s already sold-out of her wine. A lot of people told me that actually.

It’s always great to sell wine, she noted, but she fears that the 2010 will eclipse other solid vintages like the 2011.

The cask sample she shared was gorgeous.

barbi brunelloI really liked Barbi’s Brunello 2009, which showed beautifully in the flight that they poured for me. The warm temperatures of that harvest made it a challenging vintage for many growers but Barbi delivered a great wine from that crop.

But my discovery wine from Barbi was its 2013 Morellino di Scansano. The 2013 vintage is going to be such a great one for Brunello and Tuscany (and many other regions and appellations, as well).

I loved the meatiness and texture of this wine and its fantastic, electric Sangiovese character. A great wine to pair with a piece of charred beef.

best montepulciano vino nobileAnother discovery was the Palazzo Vecchio Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. This youthful winery has the growing sites and the know-now to deliver vibrant, traditional-style expressions of Sangiovese.

So much crappy wine comes out of Montepulciano these days, which is sad because even I am old enough to remember when Montepulciano produced a lot of solid wine.

It was great to chat with them — however briefly — and taste these stellar wines. Welcome, new Mohicans!

best ham italyAnyone who’s ever been to Vinitaly knows that the better winemakers always have something great to nosh on.

My friend and client Silvano Brescianini turned me on to a new — yes, new! — category from Emilian prosciuttoland: it’s a pancetta that’s cured like a prosciutto cotto.

It’s called “Giovanna” by the producer Capitelli (here’s the fact sheet; in Italian).

Man, a taste of the Giovanna and a glass of Silvano’s Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Rosato is pretty much all you need in life beyond love, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll…

Please stay tuned for my sparkling tasting notes next week. Thanks for being here!

Taste with me next week in… MEXICO CITY!

jeremy parzen canteleLong before I ever dreamed of traveling to Italy to study, Mexico was a refuge from the trappings of my American dream.

I grew up in San Diego, California. Baja California (or “Baja” as it was known to me in my youth) and Tijuana were only a thirty-minute drive from our home.

It was the time of the devalued peso, when many believed that revolution was coming to the country. As a result, many affluent citizens resettled in Tijuana and San Diego. And with them came some extraordinary restaurants on the Mexican side of the border, including the legendary Puerta del Sol.

During those years — my teenage years — my family life was in turmoil. It wasn’t an easy time for an adolescent. Luckily, the year I turned 16, the family of some of my Mexican friends offered to take me to Mexico City for the summer.

“La Ciudad” changed my life forever. Xochimilco, the Plaza Garibaldi, and the many culinary adventures of that summer opened my eyes and cast my gaze far beyond the gilded prison — at least it felt like that to me — of La Jolla.

And so I was thrilled when my client Barone Pizzini asked me to pour their Tre Bicchieri-winning wine at the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri World Tour tasting on Thursday, April 23.

As with everything run and managed by the Gambero Rosso, it’s nearly impossible to find the registration info online. And so I aggregated it here on the Barone Pizzini blog (Barone Pizzini CEO Silvano Brescianini will be in Houston on Tuesday of next week to pour the wine for the tour; he just couldn’t make the Mexico date and so he asked me to attend in his place.)

If you happen to be in Mexico City next week, please let me know. And if you have any recommendations on where to eat, I’d greatly appreciate your insights. Please just shoot me an email and/or leave a comment below.

Nos vemos la semana próxima en la ciudad de México!

In an increasingly demotic wine world, there’s room under the sun for all

In a world where wine is becoming increasingly demotic, we lovers of the “new old” need to remember to be fair and gentle with our fellows.

saved wineLast week, I inadvertently accepted an invitation to a preview of an outdoor weekend “wine fest” here in Houston. I won’t go into the details but by the time I realized what kind of wines were being poured, it was too late to decline politely.

The centerpiece wine in the tasting was a California red blend by a legacy Napa grape grower and winemaker and a celebrity tattoo artist.

Curious about the wine, I looked it up on the winemaker’s site. Here’s how the tasting notes and technical info read:

A robust, powerful wine with a big personality and a generous finish. It is big, bold and rich, with pedigree sourcing from California’s finest regions.

An eclectic blend of grapes deliver rich color and full-bodied flavors: red currant, black cherry and black olive. Soft tannins balance well with distinct oak flavors – French oak for vanilla and coconut; American oak for caramel, créme brûlée and coffee.

[The wine is made using] 31% Zinfandel, 23% Carignane, 12% Petite Sirah, 11% Malbec, 10% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 2% Mixed Blacks, 1% Ruby Cabernet, 1% Syrah.

In the age of the “new California” wine and in a time when fruit bomb Merlot and oaky and buttery Chardonnay trends seem to have faded among the wine intelligentsia, it may be hard for some — like me — to believe that wines are still made and marketed like this: “Big, bold and rich… with distinct oak flavors.”

But the fact is that the “big” California style still enjoys an immense and intensely loyal following throughout the United States.

Click here to continue reading my post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant…

Chianti, a new theory on the choronym’s origins

vertine village tuscany chiantiAbove: the village of Vertine in the heart of Chianti Classico.

I’ve spent the better part of my day reading up on all the literature devoted to the origins of the place name Chianti.

Chianti is what is known in toponomastics (the study of place names) as a choronym (Greek for chorus name), in other words, a place name that refers to a number of different places in the same general area.

In the early twentieth century, two theories as to its origins emerged.

On the one hand, scholars have speculated that it came from the Etruscan clante or clanti (the Etruscans were the ancient people who inhabited Italy before the rise of the Roman Empire).

Click here to continue reading my post today for La Porta di Vertine’s blog…