Mexican food the old-fashioned way at El Bajío

Chef Carmen “Titita” Ramirez walks a straight, firm line when it comes to Mexican food traditions. She scoffs at chefs who think carnitas can be made with Coca-Cola and milk. Or any chef (even if he is American and famous) who promotes such a thing as “Mexican chimichurri.”

Mexican food has a base and that base should be followed, says the chef, who runs the El Bajío restaurants in Mexico City.

“This idea of fusion, it’s confusion,” Ramirez said in Spanish, while hosting a four-course meal at her restaurant’s Polanco location. “Yes, I’m a purist. Yes.”

Ramirez learned her recipes from her mother and her nanny, while growing up in a small town in Veracruz state. I was lucky enough to try some of the food last Sunday, as part of the Ruta Aromas y Sabores tour. The tour runs through June 10 and is specifically for food writers, chefs and photographers from all over the world. It’s sponsored by various arms of the Mexican government, and organized by Izote chef Patricia Quintana.

The idea here is to show off Mexico’s culinary history and culture, and its wide variety of regional dishes and flavors. The tour started in Mexico City on May 29; today it moves onto the state of Mexico, and then Guanajuato and Michoacán.

I was originally scheduled to attend the whole thing, but unfortunately I had to cancel. My health hasn’t been top-notch lately and I’m dealing with our recent move. But it was really neat to attend even one event. At El Bajío, our group of about 10 included writers and photographers from Mexico, Spain and Germany. Titita sat with us the whole time and answered any questions we had.

I’d eaten at El Bajío once before and thought the food was okay. Guess I ordered the wrong thing back then, because this meal was among the best I’ve had in Mexico. Everything tasted like it had been prepared carefully and lovingly, from the homemade corn tortillas in the basket (Maseca has been the downfall of tortillas, Titita says) to the sweet potato pudding with pineapple, to the agua de guayaba speckled with bits of pulp. I really wished I could follow Titita for a day, watching her prepare some of these things that she’s so passionate about.

Some photos of the meal…

Chicken with mole Xico, named after a village in Veracruz state. It has 35 ingredients.

The antojito plate, containing (clockwise from top-right): A garnacha orizabeña topped with potato; a gordita filled with black beans; a panucho yucateco topped with cochinita pibil; an empanada de plátano; and lastly, in the center, a tostadita michoacana with a mound of powdered, pulverized chicharrón.

I loved the gordita and the empanada the best. The gordita crunched just perfectly in your mouth, leaving little beads of oil on your tongue before you got this onslaught of soft, anise-scented beans. (They’d been cooked with avocado leaf, which gave them that flavor.) The empanada was a fun surprise — the wrapper had been made from plantains, not the filling. Comforting and just delicious.

Huazontles, formed into patties and stuffed with cheese, then draped with a light tomato sauce:

The huauzontles might have been my favorite of all. They have this spongey, springy texture that’s almost like eating the tops of broccoli. (Quite fun to chew.) Ramirez said the patties didn’t contain any egg or flour to keep their shape. Instead, the green buds were boiled and pressed together to release them of all water, then stuffed with cheese and shaped, and then dunked in an egg batter so light that I didn’t even know it was there.

Usually I’m not a fan of this egg battering-and-frying technique, which is called “capear” in Spanish. Along with huauzontles, chiles rellenos are often served capeado. In the few times I’ve had this, the fried shell overtakes the dish and turns it into an oily mess. But this fried shell — this one was just a whisper. The huauzontles were on center stage, just like they should’ve been. The shell gave the patties just the right amount of give, just the right touch of oily goodness. I thought: Wow. I really should learn how to capear.

Here’s a final shot of Titita herself. El Bajío has six locations all over Mexico City; the original restaurant is in Azcapotzalco.

11 Responses to “Mexican food the old-fashioned way at El Bajío”
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