A few weeks ago I was eating breakfast at Nicos, one of my favorite restaurants in the city. It's been owned by the same family for more than 50 years, and the chef, Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, cares deeply about using fresh ingredients and promoting traditional Mexican recipes. I had only ever eaten lunch there, but breakfast turned out to be top-notch. A friend's cecina was about as tender as I'd ever tasted. My eggs with chile pasilla Oaxaqueña left me scraping the bowl with my fork to eat the last crumbly, smoky chile bits. The concha couldn't have been better unless we'd plucked them ourselves straight from the oven. The roll was airy, lightly sweet, butter humming a little tune in the background. The Nicos concha made Bondy's version seem like a hippopotamus. (I've never blasphemed Bondy before, so you know this is a big deal.) Chef Vázquez happened to be there that morning, so I struck up a conversation with him. Actually, I exclaimed, “Cuéntame de la concha!” Tell me about the concha! He explained that his concha derived from a French-style dough, made with butter. He talked about how Mexican conchas were originally made with lard and how there were now numerous types of conchas in the city, some heavy with butter, some fluffy, some with a crispy crust, some not. I could’ve sat there all day, listening to him and wiping sugary crumbs from my lips. Then he said something interesting: “The variety of the conchas is what makes the experience so rich." I pondered that for awhile. Later, I asked him: Are you saying there is no such thing as one specific, authentic Mexican concha? He nodded. That's when I realized -- what if my concha search has been flawed all along? What if there is no best concha in Mexico City, no authentic concha recipe that I'd been struggling to find? What if the beauty here is in the search? I’ve been in a bit of a funk recently, as you might have noticed from my less-than-regular blogging. I don't want to go into specifics, but suffice to say that some intricately laid plans I had didn't work out. I told myself that God/the universe has a plan for me and perhaps that plan isn't exactly on my desired timetable. But when Chef Vázquez started talking about the conchas, I realized I had been looking at this experience the wrong way. The end result was crappy, but what if that wasn't the point? The beauty could've been in the búsqueda. I was so busy thinking about the bigger picture that I missed the little moments of beauty along the way. The concha taste test will continue, but it’s no longer a contest, so to speak. More of an exploration of all the different types of conchas. Think my next one will be from Damiana in Condesa -- I heard it's stuffed with refried beans. I plan to write about Nicos again, but here's the address, in case you'd like to stop by: Av. Cuitlahuac 3102, Esq. Claveria, Col. Clavería, Azcapotzalco. They're open for breakfast until about 12:30 p.m., and for lunch until about 6 p.m. They're closed for dinner and on Sundays.
The Best Concha
Let me blow your mind for a second. In Mexico, there exists an item known as the whipped-cream filled concha. One concha. Two halves. Whipped center. It's a concha sandwich. With sweet sugared cream for the filling. I found these conchas at Pastelería Suiza, a bakery in Condesa known for its Rosca de Reyes cakes. The place is charming -- it opened in 1942 -- but I hadn't been a fan, due to a mediocre pan de muerto I bought there a few years ago. Recently, a local chef saw one of my business cards, which are printed with pictures of conchas. She mentioned that one of her staff members adored Pastelería Suiza's conchas. I tried twice, and failed, to arrive at Pastelería Suiza when the conchas were coming out of the oven. Finally today around 10:30 a.m., there they were: a tray of conchas lined up in a row, bellies bulging with cream. I bought one cream-filled and two plain, and waited while the cashier wrapped the package carefully in paper and twine. Taking it home, I felt a little bit like bursting into song. She even wrapped the conchas with strips of cardboard -- anti-smoosh protectors, if you will, ensuring that the rolls remained fluffy. These conchas got an A+ for presentation alone. And I really, really wanted to like them. However... the cream-filled conchas were too sweet. Mixing the whipped cream with sugar was overload -- I felt like I was eating a Hostess cupcake. Plain whipped cream would've allowed the bread and topping to shine. (And not make me feel like I need to brush my teeth afterward.) The plain conchas were the lightest I've tried in a long time. The roll sliced easily with my serrated knife, and it had just a whisper of orange blossoms, probably from the addition of orange-blossom water. Unfortunately the crumb was too dry. A bit more butter -- not Matisse amounts, but just a wee bit more -- would've been nice. I'm still conflicted about whether adding more butter is true to the concha's original history. I'd love to research early concha recipes, but I'm not sure they even exist. My copy of the Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano, originally printed in 1888, mentions conchas only in a savory context -- the word referred to oyster shells and various ways to fill them. Here's my final rating on Pastelería Suiza. I'd eat the plain ones again, but they wouldn't be my first pick. Appearance: 5. Taste: 3 Overall: 3 So where should I go next? Anyone have any ideas on where I can research panaderías in Mexico?
The last time I wrote about my concha taste test, some of you recommended Matisse as a good next stop. I hadn't known, but the Condesa cafe is reknowned for its conchas -- they're highlighted pretty much anytime anyone writes about Matisse, on TripAdvisor, Chilango, Twitter and Four Square. Last month I was finally able to go for breakfast. Matisse is a charming, cozy spot set in an art deco building on Amsterdam. Tables lie scattered about the house, tucked into nooks and small rooms. We dined on the patio next to several men in business suits. The waiter delivered the sweet bread on a simple white platter. The vanilla concha embarrassed all the other pieces with its girth, which is exactly how I like them. (You show that puny oreja, concha!) When I picked the concha up, though, it was heavy. Like fruit-cake heavy. Took a bite and it tasted almost as dense as it felt -- chewy, doughy. And it shouted of butter. I love butter, but I wanted something light and fluffy. This was the concha equivalent of a guajolota. I was planning to eat a real breakfast at Matisse, so I couldn't fill up on the concha roll. So I only ate half. And then I enjoyed my eggs with nopal and orange juice. Here’s my rating (on a scale of 1 to 5, the latter being the best): Appearance: 3 While big and plump, the roll didn't have a defined sugared crust. It looked like one smooth cap, instead of having pretty stripes, or even lumpy spots. Taste: 3 As I mentioned, too dense. Overall: 3 I loved Matisse's ambience, and I'd definitely go back for breakfast. Just not specifically for the conchas. To all the Matisse-lovers, I'm sorry I don't agree with you. I am willing to go back and try again... but later, after Rosca de Reyes season is over. Here's a quick wrap-up of the concha taste test so far: Leaders: Bondy, DaSilva and Cafe El Popular. Other conchas tried: Maque, Sak's, Snob Bistro, Pastelería Gran Via, Panadería Elizondo, Casa de Pan, Sanborn's, bike-riding pandulce guy, various other street conchas. Next on the list: Panadería at Centro Comercial Las Lilas, a recommendation from a woman I met recently. She was kind enough to tell her friends about my quest and they told her: "Before, the best conchas were at Bondy. Now they're at this place." You can see why I might be excited by this news. I'll also be trying out Pastelería Suiza in Condesa, which I hear has amazing conchas. I tried to go there once but missed my window -- the conchas weren't coming out of the oven for another hour. I'll also be trying all of the leaders again, just for calibration purposes.
Hey! Speaking of conchas, I have a post up about my concha obsession on The Eaten Path, an international-ish food blog that covers everything from barbecue to Thai food. Take a looksie if you've got a few minutes. The photo above is of my most recent favorite concha, from El Popular in the Centro Histórico.
I was itching to get out of the house last weekend, so on Sunday morning I told Crayton: "We're going to breakfast." Didn't feel like taking a cab anywhere, and I wasn't in the mood for Sanborns or Bisquets Obregón. So we settled on Snob Bistro, an upscale-ish breakfast and lunch place in the Zona Rosa, about a 10-minute walk from our house. The online menu sounded appetizing enough -- it had the typical Mexican chilaquiles and huevos, plus a yummy-sounding eggs with goat cheese in a pasilla chile sauce. Plus, it was just kind of funny to visit a place called Snob. The website proclaims, "Are you a snob? Us too!" (The Zona Rosa, incidentally, has quite a few of these oddly named shops. I've also noticed a lingerie boutique called "Mom.") At around 11 a.m., Snob was empty, except for one table of about six people. (Bad sign?) We ordered coffee, and I asked for a concha roll, which was presented in a small basket with a croissant and a cinnamon roll. Wasn't expecting much, since it was 11 a.m. and past the normal concha-baking hour. But the roll was surprisingly good. The breakdown: Crumb: Above average -- moist, but not so saturated with butter that it leaves an oil slick in your mouth. Sugary crust: Decent. Stayed on the roll nicely (no loose-sock effect), and tasted faintly of orange blossom water. It seemed like it was missing something, though. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. Or maybe I just prefer chocolate. Overall: Three stars out of four. I'd buy conchas here if I was organizing a brunch party, and needed to pick up something quick from the neighborhood. Still haven't tried the rolls from Sanborn's, though, which is technically closer to my house. On Snob's food: It was fine. I got the eggs with goat cheese, and they were tasty enough. Crayton got the huevos divorciados and liked them, too. I'm not sure I'd go back though -- the service was quite slow, even for Mexico standards, and the juice didn't taste fresh-squeezed. (I sound like a yuppie, but seriously: if you cannot get fresh-squeezed juice at a place that calls itself "Snob Bistro," then what kind of world are we living in?) The food also needed to be a bit more fabulous for the prices. The corn tortillas that came with my meal had the bitter taste of too much slaked lime. The goat-cheese eggs cost 70 pesos (~$5.50 USD), which is on the high side for one breakfast plate in Mexico. On the way there, we walked past a restaurant advertising an entire paquete -- juice or fruit, roll, plato fuerte and coffee -- for 54 pesos. Think we may try that place next time. Snob Bistro Londres 223 between Praga and Varsovia tel. 5207 8963 Other branches located in Polanco, Interlomas and elsewhere
Slow Food Mexico is part of the larger, international organization Slow Food, which supports organic, sustainable eating around the world. Yesterday one of the Mexico chapters sponsored a gourmet food fair in Coyoacán. Local restaurants and small-business owners from all over the country had set up dozens of items under a white tent: artisan mescal, Mexican wine, Querétaro and Jalisco cheeses, tamales with various fillings, fruit jams, dried and candied xoconostle, heirloom beans, seeds, fresh fish from Michoacán. I wanted to eat it all, ALL ALL. But I settled for 60 pesos (about $4 USD) to taste three dishes. My friend Emily did the same, and we decided to share. First up were the tamales, made by
El Tajin Chef Adriana of Cafe El Popular in the Centro. The filling contained quelites, a dark, hearty leaf; nata and requesón, a type of mellow Mexican ricotta. It was served with a little olla of salsa. I took a picture before I got to the quelites, because I was too hungry to wait. Then we tried a strawberry tamale, which had strawberries mixed directly into the masa, and a few bits of gooey strawberry pulp. Yum. We tried trout from D.O., an upscale Mexico City restaurant. It came with a citrus syrup dotted with orange rind, a toss of pepitas, and a scoop of lentil-wild rice salad. Utterly divine. Then there was the decadent gut-bomb, in a good way, of a turkey tamale wrapped in hoja santa leaves, doused in tomato sauce and topped with a dollop of nata. God. Can you imagine? It tasted as rich as it looked. I loved the idea of serving it in a cornhusk. Update: Ruth of Alegria in Mexico says these were made by Gerardo Vazques Lugo of Nico's restaurant. He's also the Chapultepec Slow Food convivium leader, and one of the Sunday event's main organizers, along with Alicia Gironella De'Angeli of El Tajin. We also tried a wonderful selection of cotija cheeses, aged and crumbly, each sitting in its own little pool of marmalade. (The pineapple marmalade speckled with vanilla bean outshined them all, and I wanted to spoon it into my purse and take it home with me.) In another aisle, a soon-to-open Condesa bakery called Acento had set up a basket brimming with concha rolls, muffins and chocolate croissants. I watched two people in a row walk by, gaze at the bread and murmur, "Qué bárbaro. Qué delicia!" Bought a chocolate concha, and it was fine. A little dry. (I'm sticking to my belief that conchas must be tried within an hour or two of baking.) At the end of the day, I came away with a package of fresh trout, a jar of tecojote marmalade from Michoacán, a bag of heirloom pinto beans, and my favorite, a lead-free clay bean pot, which I bought after being inspired by this refried beans post on Mexico Cooks. I'm in love with my new pot, which is now sitting on top of my kitchen cabinets. It's round and chubby and so cute. I plan to make some beans on Saturday, so I'll definitely have to take a few pictures and show you. Update: Forgot to mention that the beans and bean pot came from Xoxoc, a husband-and-wife team based in Hidalgo state that make wonderful xoconostle products, and also seek out small-batch bean producers in Mexico. They've provided beans to Rancho Gordo, the well-known heirloom bean producer in Napa, California. (Check out the New York Times article on Rancho Gordo here.)
Two of my Mexican friends, Jesica and Martha, have been teasing me about my high concha roll standards. They can't understand how I didn't like Maque's conchas. "We're going give you a blind taste test!" they said. My response: Bring it. A teensy part of me was starting to lose faith, though. How could I have only found one great concha roll so far, after so much testing? The concha gods must have felt my pain, because yesterday, they redeemed my faith. I finally tried the conchas at El Cardenal, the famous restaurant in the Centro Historico. Mexico guidebooks tout the place as having the best breakfast in the city. And some of you also recommended the restaurant's conchas in the comments. I admit, I wondered whether the hype would be justified. In my experience in Mexico, people rave about a place, I go, and half the time it ends up being just okay. But this place was different. We waited 20 minutes for a table -- which my dining companion Ruth told me was typical for a weekday -- and were given menus full of amazing-sounding breakfast items: "apporeado con huevo," or scrambled eggs mixed with thin slices of beef in a guajillo chile sauce; "hacienda de Puebla," a concoction of sunny side-up eggs on tortillas with refried beans, cheese and strips of poblano peppers; "revueltos con chilorio," or eggs Sinaloa-style mixed with minced pork, tomatoes and dried chiles. We chose three plates and decided to share. First up were the gorditas hidalguenses, a dish from the state of Hidalgo comprising tortillas soaked in salsa verde, filled with shredded meat and topped with shredded cheese. They looked like they'd taste heavy, but they didn't. The dish was light but still comforting, and brightened up by a big dose of cilantro. Then came the huevos ahogados, two poached eggs that sat in a stew of warm black beans, onions, chiles and thick chunks of panela cheese, which is made at the restaurant's own dairy. The bean broth was so good, you just had to soak it up with a crusty piece of bread. We had a tortilla, or Spanish omelet, with escamoles (ant eggs) and diced nopal. It was the first time I'd tried ant eggs, and sadly, they didn't really taste like anything. In the photo below, the ant eggs are those little white-bean looking things. Before all of it, though, we had the concha. It arrived on at tray, carried by a black-and-white suited waiter. I pointed at it and he placed it on my plate. It was still warm. Fork in hand, I cut into it and it gave easily -- good sign. The last thing you want is a concha that's so tough, it requires a knife. This roll was still soft. Pliable. I took a bite and tasted warm butter and just a smidge of yeast. The topping crunched slightly, due to all the sugar granules. It was everything you'd want a concha roll to be: comforting, lightly sweet, moist but not too dense. And actually, I almost liked the topping better than Bondy's, which tends to smother the top of the bread. El Cardenal's concha topping looked more authentic, with thin stripes quilted over the roll's crown. The best way to experience this roll is with a cup of the restaurant's homemade hot chocolate. The waiter offers it as soon as you sit down. I'm not generally a big hot chocolate fan, but the experience of the two together was -- I'm going to say it, and I don't care if it sounds overstated -- luxurious. It's one of those things that leaves you shaking your head in awe. Or at least, it left me shaking my head in awe. Can't wait to go back. I only tried two pieces of sweet bread from the waiter's tray.
Earlier this week, while pondering the ethereal concha roll (why is perfection so out of reach?), I suddenly had an epiphany. Why am I limiting myself? I could be searching for the best bakery, while I'm searching for the best concha. The best bisquet. The best cuernito. The best… pan de muerto. Yeah. The list might be longer than I thought. I'm gonna need a bigger pair of pants. Suddenly fueled up about having a purpose in life, I hit the streets on Tuesday with a taxi driver I like, Memo. We hit seven bakeries in three hours, and finished at my friend Julie's house for the final taste-test. Did anyone best Bondy, La Reina de la Concha? You'll have to find out. ...
Concha rolls are never far from my mind, seeing as I'm on a permanent quest to find the best concha in Mexico City. The subject came up again on Saturday night, when my friend Jesica urged me to give Maque another chance. We were sipping tequila at a local lounge. "They're really good!" Jesica said, as the music pumped at the bar. "I promise!" I'd banished the Condesa bakery from my list a few months ago, after tasting one concha and finding it dry and bland. But it is possible I got a bum batch. So I went back to Maque on Tuesday morning. As soon as I sat down, a waiter appeared and asked if I'd like a piece of bread. "The concha," I said, firmly. He chose a particularly large chocolate concha from his basket, and set it on my plate. It looked beautiful. (That's it above.) I took my knife and fork, and gently sliced off a piece. Took a bite, and.... The chocolate coating was powdery, almost sandy. Like they'd wiped the concha around the floor as a Swiffer. I poked away at the coating with my fork and tried a piece of the bread. It was... okay. Soft enough, but almost... papery tasting. And an off-buttery flavor lurked in the background. I declared it dead after four bites. The point is: I really trust Jesica's opinion, and Maque has a great reputation here in Mexico City. Am I missing something? Are the conchas at Bondy actually Americanized, and I just don't know it? I had them again about a week ago, and they were the stuff of dreams. A toasted-sugar, almost creamy chocolate coating lay on the bread, which was so soft, you could probably mash it with the underside of your fork and it would stick. It was like the center of a cinnamon roll. (But without the cinnamon.) Oh man, oh man, oh MAN. But maybe that isn't Mexican at all. Well. The next steps in my Best Concha of Mexico City test are visits to Sak's, La Casita del Pan in Coyoacan, Pastelería Suiza in Condesa (just because I want an excuse to go there), and on the advice of reader Alice, La Casa del Pastor. And need to make my own conchas, just so I can figure out how difficult this really is.
As you've probably already guessed, at any given moment of the day, I'm thinking about food in some form or another. I get obsessed with ingredients quickly -- panela cheese! mangoes! mamey! -- and then the obsession peters out, replaced by the next thing. Lately, hovering about it all, is my obsession with the concha roll. Bondy started this whole business. A few weeks after we moved here, we went there for breakfast, and the waiters presented us with the lushest, softest concha I'd ever seen. This was not the bland concha of my American childhood. I took a bite and felt myself lifting up out of my seat, my spirit transported to the clouds, where piles of rainbow-colored conchas frolicked in rays of God-light. Since then I've tried to find a concha that's equal to or better than Bondy. I hadn't had much luck so far, but then I heard about Maque, a Condesa café on Parque Mexico. My guidebooks raved about Maque's conchas. So we went last Sunday for breakfast. A friend warned us to get there before noon, because the tables fill up quickly. Just before noon, there was already a 30 minute wait, and the smell of baking bread enveloped the entrance and teased everyone. Waitresses in long, light-blue dresses and white scalloped aprons bustled around with trays of pan dulce, offering bisquets, cuernitos, cinnamon rolls and tiny baby conchas to the customers sitting outside. I tried to ignore the rumbling in my stomach. Finally, we got a table, and our waitress took our coffee order and rushed away. I stared longingly at a tray of bread nearby. A few minutes later, she appeared again. This time clutching the tray and a pair of tongs. "A piece of sweet bread?" she asked. I pointed at a caramel-colored baby concha. "And for you sir?" Crayton got a cuernito. She placed the concha on my little white plate, and I prepared my fork and knife. Oh man. This was it! This was it. I took a bite of the concha and... Disappointment. It was on the dry side. And bland. The crunchy, quilted crust was nice, but it was definitely not as good as a concha from Bondy. I decided not to even take a picture of it. When she came around the next time, I ordered a bisquet with a dollop of queso. It was dense and buttery, and much better. I'm not going to rule out Maque yet. Maybe our rolls were old. Maybe new ones had just came out of the oven, but a mean waitress grabbed them and served them to another table. Maybe the larger conchas taste much better, and everyone knows that but me. I'm going to give them one more chance. And the next time I'm there, I might have to sneak in a taste of their cinnamon rolls, too.