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 farm-to-table restaurants with star-powered chefs at the helm. When you’re looking for the best restaurants and bars in San Miguel de Allende, there are definite stand outs.
But before I get really serious about where to begin eating, I always head two blocks from the main town square 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 – lime juice, plenty of chili powder, and mayonnaise. With greasy hands and pleasantly burning lips, I wander the streets to decide where to dine first.
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 in trendy modern Hotel Matilda, Chef Francisco Ibañez is in charge, fresh from his duties as executive chef at Pujol in Mexico City – a restaurant that has been rated the best in Mexico and among the best in the world. His culinary approach takes classic Mexican influences and reworks them with a contemporary, international edge. You can opt for the tasting menu or try standouts dishes à la carte, like the red mole with pork belly, game hen and wild rice; or the huitlacoche tamale with tatamada sauce, a type of charred salsa. Huitlachoche is a traditional Mexican delicacy –a fungus that grows on corn kernels and is often referred to as the Mexican truffle.
Marsala’s chef Marcela Bolaño, a former candidate on Top Chef Mexico, goes for Mexican and Mediterranean influences originating in France, Italy, Greece and beyond to inform her dishes. Her chayote, apple and jicama salad with avocado and basil dressing was so fresh and delicious that I wanted several more. But I’d spotted a dish on the menu that seemed so out of place in Mexico that I had to try it – schnitzel. Chef Bolaño’s tasty version is coated in crushed pretzels, panko and Mexican-spices and topped with crisp greens, tomatoes and melted queso that kick it up far beyond its German roots. Other main courses like lamb ragu pappardelle and rib eye tacos are standouts. Calle del Dr Ignacio Hernandez Macias 48.
In an artistic town where chefs continuously inspire each other to reach further and dig deeper, don’t miss eating in the gracious courtyard at Áperi so you can graze your way through the tasting menu created by culinary magician, Franco-Mexican chef Olivier Deboise. He believes that gastronomy begins where the product reigns, so naturally the bold menu glorifies local farm-to-table and raises it to haute cuisine. Pork, duck and seafood are menu stalwarts that constantly change depending on the chef’s ingenious caprice. Quebrada 101 in the Dos Casa Hotel.
It’s hard to recommend just one perfect dish at The Restaurant since creative chef Danny Masterson changes the stellar Mex-fusion menu constantly. He calls it global comfort food but the words brilliantly imaginative should be added to that description. His successful matchmaking skills are found in many of his dishes, including exotic tandoori tacos that are inspired by Indian cooking, with curried chicken, cilantro, mint, jalapenos, thin coins of cucumbers and a light tahini yogurt sauce — fresh and flavorful and with just the right amount of heat. He makes use of huitlacoche, too — that prized savory corn fungus that you taste in his corn risotto with squash blossoms, the Mexican herb epazote and parm cheese. Thursday burger night is crazy-popular here, when plump buns are filled with a dozen different flavorful spins on the classic palate pleaser. Diez de Sollano y Dávalos 16
Masterson’s inventive cooking can also be seen in his Taco Lab in the food court area of Doce 18 Concept House, a collection of boutiques, design shops and restaurants under one roof. As you might guess from the name, he experiments with various ideas for taco combinations and offers a specialty menu every week. I’ve had everything from a cochinita pibil taco, which is pork braised in achiote paste, OJ and lime to a Greek taco with shawarma, red quinoa, tzatziki, and yogurt as well as a spicy potato number in a warm salsa slurry. Calle Relox 18
San Miguel de Allende may have more dazzling rooftop bars and restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world. But the “best newcomer” trophy should definitively be handed to Fatima 7, with its views of the Temple of San Francisco and bell towers and church spires beyond. Luckily its food matches the quality of the view. Here Chef JJ Castaneda’s (and creator Donnie Masterson’s) passion for dishes inspired by Moroccan Mediterranean cuisine create a dynamic dining experience that emphases fresh, sustainable, local, and seasonal organic practices. The perfectly cooked line-caught salmon we tasted was flown in that morning from Ensenada, and the grilled asparagus with carrot top pesto and burrata cheese tasted like the asparagus had been harvested that day, too. One companion was nursing a sore throat, and a glass of smooth and silky mezcal from their expansive spirits list was just what the doctor ordered. Inside the Hotel Casa Blanca 7 at Juarez No. 7
Bovine is a glamorous high-end steakhouse from admired Australian chef Paul Bentley. Its plush emerald velvet chairs and tufted black leather banquettes atop a graphic black and white tile floor set the mood for inspired cuisine focusing on locally butchered meats, like the côte de boeuf, which is aged for 45 days. Appetizers like steak tartare, homemade potato chips, mustard aioli, and capers drive home the meat-focused menu and main courses are flanked by classic sides such as creamy spinach, roasted cauliflower and mashed potatoes.
Another rooftop beauty with spectacular sunset views from its terrace, La Azotea has one of the most unusual – and delicious — tacos in town…or just about anywhere in the world for that matter. Here, a paper thin slice of jicama cradles the ingredients instead of a corn tortilla and it’s somehow tough enough to hold the ingredients, yet tender and snappy crisp to the bite. Its insides can be any number of things – but most people order the shrimp with chipotle mayo, tamarind sauce and thin ribbons of crispy fried leeks. Umaran #6.
While we are on the subject of rooftop bars and restaurants, Zumo’s new location closer to the town center looks out on the spires and peaks of some of the town’s prettiest buildings. You can order the tasting menu or opt for à la carte and sample dishes like mango habanero gazpacho, mezcal marinated foie gras with passion fruit sauce, or braised shortrib with guayaba and tomatillo salsa.
Then there’s low-key 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 on your table. Depending on how you customize your pozole, it can taste different every time you eat it – but no matter what you do, make sure to squeeze in plenty of lime. Calle 10 de Sollano.
A molcajete is a stone mortar and pestle caved out of volcanic rock – it’s like a PreHispanic blender used to make salsas and other specialties. At Restaurant Los Milagros you can order one like the Molcajete Mestizo, which includes carne asada, chicken, and nopales that come to you bubbling, sizzling hot — served in a mocajete so it never seems to get cold.
Voluptuous chiles en nogada is the dish to order on the rooftop 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 roasted 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. Casa Tres Cervezas private chef Aide Prado can teach you how to make this dish in one of her cooking classes — Aide’s version has a few special twists and is the best I’ve ever eaten.
CAFÉ SAN AGUSTIN
For a 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. The dueña, Margarita Gralia, is a beloved telenovela star and restaurant’s walls tell the story of her career. Be ready for a wait; there are always lines, especially on the weekends.
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, head to La Mezcalería with its chalkboard list of mezcals to try. Pair one with their creamy avocado ice cream decorated with pumpkin seeds or a plate of fried grasshoppers with oranges, guarana salt and Mexican string cheese, 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. If you need a slower introduction to the smoky beverage, start off with a mezcal margarita – the blackberry and cardamom version I ordered absolutely killed it, but so did the classic with its perfect smoky balance. Correo 47
San Mezcal is a new place with a vast menu of mezcals that you can admire on the wall-to-wall set of mirrored shelves behind the bar. Ask the bartender for a recommendation or select based on how much you like the art on the label. If you’re new at sampling mezcal, start with the espadin, an easygoing and popular version that is the most sustainable option, too.
Casa Dragones was started by the founder of MTV who hired one of the most accomplished tequila masters in the business to craft this exceptional sipping tequila. Visit their dark and moody six-stool tasting room in Doce 18 Concept House and you’ll feel like a big baller as you admire the thin sheets of black obsidian mined from the brand’s blue agave fields that paper the walls. It’s tequila at its finest, and San Miguel’s best bars and restaurants love to serve it too, either straight or in a mixed drink — so look for it on menus throughout town.
There are so many more places worth exploring: Rooftop beauties Atrio and Luna; La Parada for its exquisite Peruvian ceviches; Cumpanio for baked goods as fresh and tender as you’ll find in France; the tiny patisserie Petit Four; and Ki’bok Coffee featuring estate grown beans from Veracruz.