Enjoy the Best of Mexican Art, Architecture and Food in San Miguel

November 15, 2018

The first time Alma Luz Villanueva wandered into Mama Mia’s in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico a decade ago, “I felt instantly that I had journeyed home,” she says. A central fountain was filled with flowers. Birds fluttered from branch to branch in the old growth trees inside the restaurant. (Sometimes a bird swooped down for a tidbit of food.) During the day, the restaurant’s top floor, which looks out on the city’s innumerable, crenelated church spires rising over low-slung houses with famously colorful doors, was open to the sky. At night, if it was clear and warm, the canopy stayed open so you could look up at the stars.

Today, Mama Mia’s is very much the same and Villanueva eats breakfast there most Saturday mornings. For 10 years, the same waiter, Jorge, has allowed her to skip the buffet line. As soon as he sees Villanueva, he makes up a “Big Plate” for her: scrambled eggs in green chili sauce with onions, peppers, cactus, a pot of spicy beans, a pot of rice with onions and peppers and freshly made corn tortillas hot from the griddle. And Villanueva never misses the cinnamon coffee. Served in a clay cup, it’s “my absolute favorite,” she says. “Everyone I bring to Mama’s has at least four cups of it.”

Villanueva eats at Mama’s every Saturday because she loves it so much, not because it’s one of the only restaurants in town. Yes, 10 years ago, Mama’s might have been one of a few options, but that has changed.

Nearly 500 years old, San Miguel was named the world’s best city to live in by Condé Nast Traveler in 2013. Long treasured
for its eclectic population of artists and writers as well as its colonial architecture—its historic center is a World Heritage Site—the city is now the burgeoning hub of a different art form: food. Although it’s one of the latest hot spots on the international food scene, long-time residents know the city has always been a place where dining out with strangers often feels like dining in with family, and where there’s always been good, simple food. That hasn’t changed.

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What is changing is the arrival of celebrity chefs, who long- time restaurant owners and the area’s farmers, many of whom have grown organic produce for decades, are welcoming with open arms. This summer, all of these groups came together at the city’s historic Instituto Allende for the first San Miguel de Allende Food Festival. The idea was to showcase the city’s new culinary culture, whether it was high-end cuisine or street food. Producers from around Mexico were invited to exhibit and cook. Cocineras traditionales from Oaxaca and Puebla came as did guest chefs from around the world: Carlo Mirarchi (Roberta’s/ Blanca, NYC), Ted Torrado (Drake Hotel, Toronto) and Lily Jones (Lily Vanilli Bakery, London), among others. It was like the famous writers who come to give presentations at the city’s annual (February) San Miguel Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival, but with food. Instead of books, it was ingredients such as edible flowers, insects, pork belly, chocolate and octopus. There were mezcals from Oaxaca, cheese from Puebla and wines from Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine country.

There were also chef ’s table lunches and dinners, and, on
the final day, a brunch. Each of these meals, in keeping with the town’s low-key, intimate vibe, was limited to 20 people. Also keeping with the town’s personality was diversity: next door to a five-course meal, which included champagne and wine pairings by top regional chefs Juan Emilio Villaseñor, Armando Prats and Enrique Farjeat, was a laid-back Argentinian barbeque
by Monterrey chef Dante Ferrero. The city’s charm, like its cobblestoned, sun-dappled central plaza, el Jardin Principal, is the same as it ever was. Now there are just more ways to taste it.

In the last two years, the dining has become “as diverse as the population,” says Patricia Wynne, owner of Abrazos, which sells all manner of kitchen and cooking goods. At Casa de Cocinas, bite into chef Michael Coon’s Okonomiyaki pancake—cabbage and shallots topped with crispy pork belly, bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, bull dog sauce and toasted nori—and tell us you don’t feel transported to Japan.

Recently, Italian-born, French-trained Matteo Salas opened Áperi here. It’s not unusual for residents of Mexico City to make the nearly 200-mile trip for a meal at this warm, woody spot, especially if they can reserve the chef ’s table in the kitchen. Latin for “open,” Áperi’s seven-course tasting menu (four courses at lunch) constantly changes but always uses the region’s freshest ingredients. It is “really important to make simple food with a great taste and flavors,” Salas says. Fresh ingredients are one
of the many reasons chefs are drawn to San Miguel. “We can
get crayfish, pigeons, goats, suckling pig, beef and any kind of vegetable,” he says.

It was 2008 when American chef Donnie Masterson, formerly of Bice in Beverly Hills, The Hay Adams in Washington D.C. and Manhattan’s Tavern on the Green, opened The Restaurant. (He had moved to San Miguel several years earlier for the lifestyle.) There guests dine on what Masterson calls “global comfort food”—shaved Brussels sprouts and kale salad; duck confit tacos—served in an 18th-century flagstone courtyard.

Wynne, who moved here 15 years ago from north Berkeley, says The Restaurant “exceeds anything you will find in Berkeley or Mexico City for a fraction of the cost.” (Masterson also chairs San Miguel’s largest annual culinary event, Sabores San Miguel, another summertime festival.) His newest venture, Tacolicious, opens in November.

Ten kilometers outside of the city at B’ui, restaurateur Daniel Estebaranz, one of the founders of the San Miguel de Allende Food Festival, tapped Mexico City superstar Marko Cruz to be executive chef. In the Otomi Equestrian Center, B’ui is ranch-to- table: think whole artichokes in creamy goat’s milk mozzarella and roasted chicken.

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Don’t expect to have to make reservations months in advance for any of these though. The only place you’ll likely have to
wait is at Andy’s Taco Truck. (But it’s worth it. Wynne says Andy’s serves the world’s best al pastor tacos.) Another one of the busiest places is the city’s Saturday morning market. In el Jardin Principal, purveyors sell produce alongside traditionally prepared foods. Nicholas Gilman, the author of Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining and a writer for the New York Times says he recommends the market for those looking for authentic Mexican food. Don’t be surprised to find yourself picnicking next to local families and some of the 10,000 strong expat community. San Miguel now has celebrity chefs and “Top Chef ” might have filmed three episodes here in January, but there’s still no pretension.

This being Mexico, tequila rules. Müi Bar inside the boutique Hotel Matilda is one of the few places in town offering Casa Dragones, a small-batch, limited-edition tequila created by Mexico’s only female master tequilera, Bertha Nieves. If you’re not into tequila, Müi’s mixologist Alberto Morales Perez Riesler’s cocktail menu is as creative as the dining menu at the hotel’s Moxi Restaurant. In 2012, Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol, which is currently ranked as the 16th best restaurant in the world on San Pellegrino’s annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, took over the menus at both Moxi and Müi. Olvera had no problem finding local purveyors that met his exacting standards for organic herbs, vegetables and fresh goat cheese. With as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, Olvera creates traditional Mexican dishes, but uses the latest techniques and cosmopolitan concepts. The end result is a changing menu with a Mexican soul and an international palate.

Susan York, a San Miguel food blogger, also recommends La Azotea for drinks. The sleek rooftop bar off the Jardín doesn’t just have phenomenal people watching—the fashionable Mexico City set, sporting Mexican designers like Alejandra Quesada and MíTu Calzado—but also extraordinary views of the pink, spired Parroquia church. Come here at sunset, order a jicama taco “they’re a truly authentic experience,” York says—and watch the sun set over the Guanajuato Mountains.

“I saw [Chicago] evolve into a major food powerhouse,” says York, who lived in that Midwest city for 25 years. “San Miguel is fast becoming a new culinary center in Mexico and it is so exciting to watch.”