Paella laced with epazote instead of saffron. A sauce of green olives, capers, and pickled jalapeños. Cake flavored with almonds, raisins, sherry, and coconut. Where am I? The state of Veracruz. Mention Veracruz to almost any Mexican, and he'll smile and say, "Oh, the food there is very Spanish." Well, yes and no. But it is inventive, gutsy, and unlike anything else I've ever eaten in Mexico. I went to Veracruz to rekindle a culinary love affair.
Years ago, in Austin, Texas, Mexican food was part of my coming-of-age as a cook. I moved to France in 1981—lived, wrote books, developed a passion for Mediterranean food—but I never got over Mexico. When I returned to America, I headed straight for the border, searching for Spain and Mexico on the same plate.
Founded in 1519 by Hernan Cortes on Good Friday, and named for the True Cross, the city of Veracruz is the spot where modern Mexican history began. Veracruz was a cultural crossroads for hundreds of years: It was the only port to handle trade with Spain until 1760—and, up until this century of the airplane, Mexico's only significant point of entry from Europe.
At this narrow gateway blossomed the open, spirited Afro-Mestizo culture called jarocho. The word once meant "peasant"; it now describes a sensibility fired by centuries of intermingling between Mexican Indians, Spaniards, Cuban immigrants, and African slaves brought to work the sugar plantations. The Africans rebelled, winning the first victory against slavery on the North American continent in 1609, and settled in the coastal marshes. The plantains, coconuts, peanuts, and rum that flavor Veracruzano cooking are part of their gastronomic legacy.
My guide to Veracruz was Carmen Ramirez Degollado, the owner of El Bajio, one of the best restaurants in Mexico City, and a native of Xalapa—capital of Veracruz State. Lucky me. Carmen loves to show off her home state, and her energy is boundless. She met me at the Mexico City airport, and we set out for Xalapa at once, driving along progressively smaller roads through cool, foggy, pine-covered mountains. I could as easily have been in the Pyrenees as in Mexico. Cows grazed near pitch-roofed houses with signs advertising cheeses and cream. Shops in the mountain towns of Perote and Banderilla, famous for their Spanish-style charcuterie, displayed hams and strings of enticing sausages. Developed by Spanish merchants and coffee and sugar producers in the 18th century, the area was once traversed by practically every European who came to Mexico. Many chose to stay.
Xalapa's graceful colonial buildings, narrow sloping streets, and famous botanic gardens swept past my window as Carmen made a beeline for one of her favorite restaurants, an unassuming fish place called Nico's. As soon as we sat down, we were served tortilla chips with the aioli of Veracruz: homemade mayonnaise flavored with garlic and salsa chipotle. Jalapeños are a local specialty, named for Xalapa—and smoke-dried jalapeños, which we call chipotles in the United States and Veracruzanos call chilpotles, are ever-present on the region's tables, whether in thick shiny salsas or the smoky soups and stews called chilpacholes or as tiny chiles rellenos.
We ordered empanadas de jaiba, lightly fried masa turnovers filled with a Spanish sofrito of onion, garlic, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil, sweet shredded crabmeat, pickled jalapeños, and oregano. The taste was remarkable, the grainy softness of masa contrasting with spicy, moist crab. Then we went through all the paper napkins on our table eating crab claws slathered in tearjerking mayonesa de chipotle, and finished the meal with sopa de mariscos, Nico's crowning glory, a soup of medium and small shrimp (Veracruz shrimp, especially the tiny river shrimp, are incredibly juicy and sweet), octopus, conch, red snapper, and crab—served with lots of hot, hand-patted tortillas. The broth was an aromatic, tomatoey, masa-thickened fish stock, rich with chewy field corn and the earthy-musty herb epazote. It was as if the sea had come to the highlands in my bowl.
The next day, we drove about five miles south to the town of Coatepec, through vast groves of glossy coffee plants. Coffee has been a mainstay of the highland region since Juan Antonio Gomez de Guevara imported the crop from Cuba in the 18th century. Coatepec is famous for its fruit and herb liqueurs, produced by Licores Finos de Frutas Bautista y Galvez, and for its ice creams, sold from a kiosk in the town square. But Carmen had something more substantial in mind: namely, lunch at Parador Real, about two miles down the road, near the village of Xico.
Parador Real is one of those simple country restaurants where families and groups of businessmen come for lunch and linger for hours. We sat outside and did just that. Here we found hearty food exclusive to the highlands: a savory black bean soup enhanced with masa dumplings and a silky native green called xonequi; and chicken in mole de Xico—a dark, sweet, nutty sauce made with mulato and pasilla chiles, plantains, prunes, raisins, almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and sesame seeds.
Dishes were quite correctly described on the menu as riquisimo(most delicious) or MMM (as in "Mmm!"). A selection of antojitos—the little whims that are far more substantial than amuse-gueules—included empanadas de minilla: shark in a sofrito of olives, capers, currants, onion, tomatoes, and pickled jalapeños. These seemed even more, well, Med-Mex than the crabmeat empanadas I had eaten the day before. At Carmen's urging, I added a thin film of thick, spicy salsa negra. Next we tried gorditas de frijoles, puffed fried tortillas filled with a thin creamy layer of black beans—a local favorite for breakfast or an evening snack. We also nibbled on chiles rellenos made with both fresh jalapeños and chipotles, each stuffed with a luscious picadillo of pork, raisins, chopped almonds, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and parsley, then battered and fried. I loved their complex flavors and their delicate proportions. Tacos de camaron MMM picositos—which means shrimp tacos "mmm a little picante," were a subtle preparation—closer to what Americans call enchiladas than what we think of as tacos—corn tortillas softened in a thick red chile sauce, topped with small shrimp bathed in the same sauce, rolled, and heated in banana leaves.
We saved dessert for Coatepec, returning for a scoop of rich, and justly renowned, coffee ice cream—but couldn't resist a visit to the Panaderia El Danubio Azul in Xico first. We loaded the car with an array of the bakery's traditional breads and pastries, among them cochinitas—chewy, anise-flavored cookies cut into the shape of pigs. Carmen also pointed out pambazos, the flour-dusted rolls used for one of her favorite Veracruzano sandwiches from childhood—itself also called pambazo, filled with pureed beans, canned sardines, thin avocado slices, pickled chipotles, lettuce, and tomatoes.
We took off for the city of Veracruz, a 67-mile drive from Xalapa, the next morning. The road dropped quickly from the hills to the steamy coastal plain, through stands of mango trees, coconut palms, and dense sugarcane plantations. Carmen pointed out huge ripe pineapples for sale at roadside stalls. Plastic water bottles hung from the tops of their frames, filled with the mild pineapple vinegar used throughout Mexico for the delicious fish, chile, and vegetable marinades called escabeches.
Bustling even on an average day, Veracruz positively explodes with energy at Carnival, an occasion Veracruzanos celebrate with unqualified gusto, and which was in full swing when we arrived. But our mission was to eat, so we shunned the parade and sped south, past ugly new hotels crowding the shore, to Boca del Rio, home of a restaurant called La Choca.
Carmen's mother used to take her to La Choca when she was a kid, and the restaurant was just a palapa, or thatch hut, by the beach. Now it's a proper building—but the food is as good as it ever was, she assured me. The chilpachole de jaiba was excellent, to begin with, its smoky chipotle and tomato broth contrasting nicely with the sweet Veracruz crabmeat. Arroz con platano—white rice topped with fried sliced plantains and a tart cream sauce—reflects the region's Caribbean influences. Here, I also ate the Veracruz version of paella, arroz a la tumbada. La Choca's is dry—Carmen says it should be brothy—but it's packed with seafood: clams, shrimp, red snapper, conch, and squid. Like paella, the dish begins with rice cooked in olive oil with tomatoes, lots of garlic, and onions, but instead of saffron, the seasonings are jalapeños and epazote. My favorite dish at La Choca, however, was the light, refreshing camarones en escabeche—Gulf shrimp, carrots, onions, and jalapeños in pineapple vinegar.
After dinner in Veracruz, you do what everyone else in the city does: You sit in a crowded, brightly lit cafe on the Plaza de Armas, also known as the zocalo, watch people dance and flirt, and listen to music. The city pulsates with son jarocho, a joyful, seductive layering of Spanish and African rhythms, whose best-known example is "La Bamba." At the always busy cafes along the zocalo and at places like the city's famous Gran Cafe de la Parroquia, on the waterfront, the drinks of choice are beer, tequila, and menyules (mint juleps!), and waiters scurry about with steaming kettles of milk and strong, syrupy coffee, answering the din of spoons on glasses, the signal for more of the tall, milky coffees called lecheros.
The best breakfasts in town are served up at the Fonda El Cochinito de Oro, a simple, sunny restaurant run by the women who work in its open kitchen. In addition to gorditas de frijoles, they serve outstanding gorditas dulces, filled with dark brown sugar and anise, and the picadas are simple and satisfying. These are small, thick tortillas, crimped around the edges and lightly fried, holding fillings of salsa or pureed black beans, topped with chopped onion and crumbled queso fresco.
After breakfast, we visited the Veracruz Central Market. Once I saw the fish stalls there, I understood why local seafood dishes are so varied and fresh. Bright red snapper, porgy, grouper, pompano, whiting, sea bass, mackerel, squid, and octopus were heaped in shiny piles on clean tile counters. Soft-shell crabs tied together with strips of palm leaves hung above the fish. Shrimp of all sizes nestled against crayfish from the mouth of the Papaloapan River to the south. And that's exactly where we were headed for lunch, to the town of Tlacotalpan.
Situated on the left bank of the river, Tlacotalpan is not only breathtakingly lovely, its porticoed buildings as chalky-pastel as Necco wafers, it's also home to the wonderful Restaurante Doña Lala. We began our outdoor meal with a light fish salpicon—firm, white sea bass that had been cooked, shredded, and tossed in a green tomatillo and avocado salsa with minced carrot and serrano chiles—delicious. But the sea bass served in an emerald pool of acuyo sauce was a revelation. Acuyo, also called hoja santa or hierba santa—and used in any number of preparations throughout Mexico—is a big, heart-shaped leaf with a flavor somewhere between tarragon and anise. Here, it was simply pureed with water and aromatics, then spooned over poached fish.
Next came calamares rellenos de mariscos, squid stuffed with a heavenly mixture of crab and tiny river shrimp. The squid was the most tender I've ever bitten into, and bathed in a luxurious squid-ink and red-wine sauce. Finally, we ate langostinos al mojo de ajo, crayfish with olive oil and garlic—lots of it. A head of sliced garlic cloves is cooked in an abundance of olive oil with the crayfish, then served with fresh lettuce, tomato, pickled jalapeños, cooked carrots, avocado slices, and fried strips of guajillo chile. If it hadn't been for the jalapeños and chiles, I could have imagined myself eating this dish on a hot summer day in the Camargue.
We needed hammocks at this point; we had dessert instead, a high-proof sweet called sopa borracha—cake soaked with a sherry syrup mixed with almonds, raisins, and coconut and topped with meringue—more echoes of Spain.
After lunch, we strolled through the quiet town to the Salvador Ferrando Museum, where we stumbled upon a jarocho dance class. Little boys in cowboy boots and bandannas lined up facing girls in flounced white Spanish skirts, clicking and tapping their heels in the intricate steps of their Spanish-Indian-African ancestors. They held their small frames with a mixture of dignity and joy.
I wanted another week—to see the ruins at El Tajin, to taste the tamales and green masa-thickened soups of northern Veracruz and the Caribbean dishes of Los Tuxtlas. But that is for another trip. Carmen is ready any time.