Picture an Italian hilltown — but with Mexican sizzle — so more colorful, more laid back, and with tequila and mezcal instead of wine and prosecco, and tamales and tostadas instead of pizza and pasta. That’s romantic, cobblestoned San Miguel de Allende, one of North America’s most historic and artistic towns. Its culinary scene has it all – street side taco stands, cafes with Mexican grandmas in charge, and an increasing number of restaurants with star-powered chefs at the helm.
Mercado Ignacio Ramirez
Before I get really serious about where to begin eating, I always head to San Miguel’s Mercado for inspiration. Here, papery-husked tomatillos, exotic fruits, cactus leaves as big as ping pong paddles and an endless variety of peppers are waiting to be transformed into something delicious by local chefs and home cooks. I buy a charcoal-roasted ear of corn-on-the cob and tell the market ladies I want the works – mayonnaise, chili powder, and lime juice. With greasy hands and pleasantly burning lips, I wander the streets to decide where to dine first. And almost always, the nostalgic, delicious old favorites with their flower-filled courtyard dining rooms are tops on my list.
Take La Alborada where I go for pozole — a hearty, flavorful hominy soup that has been Mexican comfort food for centuries. Once you’ve decided between the chicken, pork, or beef, bowls of powdered chiles, quartered limes, dried oregano, chopped lettuce, salsa, and slivered onions and radishes appear. Depending on how you customize your pozole, it can taste different every time you eat it.
Voluptuous chiles en nogada is the dish to order at El Pegaso. An extraordinary filling made of finely chopped meats, chili, apples, peaches, pears, roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic, cinnamon and more is stuffed into puffy green poblano chilis, covered in a dazzling walnut cream sauce and studded with pomegranate seeds. Since the red, white and green of the dish are the colors of the Mexican flag, it’s often considered Mexico’s national dish.
It’s hard to recommend just one dish at The Restaurant since the creative chef changes the stellar Mex-fusion menu constantly. But my tandoori taco was inspired by Indian cooking, with curried chicken, cilantro, mint, thin coins of cucumbers and jalapenos and a light tahini yogurt sauce — fresh, flavorful, and just the right amount of heat.
The Restaurant also creates a mean michelada — a beer-based cocktail made with lime, hot sauce, Worcestershire, spices and sometimes tomato (or Clamato) juice, served with a chili-powder/salt rim. It’s like a Bloody Mary, but with beer and more complex spices. The Restaurant’s version is minus the juice and big on spices — a cleaner, leaner amped-up version.
A molcajete is a stone mortar and pestle caved out of volcanic rock, and that’s what you should order at Los Milagros. The dishes comes to you bubbling, steaming hot served in a molcajete.
Be on the lookout for the bottled creations of two passionate new local craft breweries – Cervecería Dos Aves and Cervecería Allende. They supply San Miguel’s restaurants and shops with IPAs, porters, and ales that are much more flavorful than traditional Mexican beers.
Tequila is still king in Mexico, but mezcal is like tequila’s bohemian brother — you need to dig deeper to understand it. Made from a close relative of the agave plant using a rustic production method, the more you drink the more you appreciate its smoky complexity.
To sample a few, visit La Mezcalería with its chalkboard list of mezcals to try. Pair one with their creamy avocado ice cream decorated with pumpkin seeds or the fried grasshoppers, which are the surprisingly perfect savory and salty snack. Then, like those in-the-know, follow each sip of mezcal with a bite of an orange slice sprinkled with chili powder.
In recent years internationally renowned chefs have raised the bar in San Miguel by presenting creative Mexican cooking with a particularly artful twist – and reservations at their restaurants are a must. At
Moxi, Chef Enrique Olvera, one of the country’s foremost chefs is in charge. Standouts dishes include pescado al pastor – fish of the day with pineapple and serrano peppers- and a kick-ass cactus salad. Áperi’s culinary magician, chef Matteo Salas, welcomes guests with a multi-course tasting menu that glorifies local farm-to-table and elevates it to haute cuisine.
His second restaurant, Jacinto 1930, is a tip-of-the-hat to traditional Mexican cuisine but amped up and especially creative. I liked his nopales (cactus leaf) salad so much that I ordered a second one instead of dessert.
Rooftop bars and restaurants are popular in San Miguel for good reason, especially at night when the city’s old buildings sparkle and glow. Azotea is a favorite with locals and tourists alike – don’t miss their jicama tacos, where a paper-thin circle of crisp jicama cradles the ingredients rather than a corn tortilla. The views from Luna, the Rosewood’s rooftop bar, and Quince, a relative newcomer, are perfect for pre-dinner cocktails. For a long view of the city, head to Zumo at sunset so you can admire the golden glow of the Parroquia’s spires; its bartender makes a mean drink and the small plates and dinner menus are delicious.
Mexico loves its desserts, and the town’s signature candy, tumbaron, is deliciously sweet. If something chocolate and sophisticated is more your cup of tea, head to Dolcenero, a newcomer making fine chocolates with Mex-influenced flavors like mole, mango, corn, and mezcal.
Churros San Agustin
For an even more serious sugar fix, stop by Café San Agustín for churros and Mexican, Spanish or French hot chocolate. Take one of the warm, cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted, crispy-soft churros, dunk it into your chocolate and swoon.
Hecho in Mexico’s cochinita pibil; the pastor tacos at bargain-priced Taquería Brasilia; La Parada’s exquisite Peruvian ceviches; Cumpanio for baked goods as fresh and tender as you’ll find in France – there are so many more places to check out. And that’s just what you’d want in this chic, gourmet getaway: quantity, quality and incredible taste.