This was the sunset from Cozumel Wednesday night when I decided to take Stacy on our very own ladies’ date night to one of my favorite places on the island: Casa Mission.
There are three mission restaurants in Cozumel: La Mission, Parrilla Mission, and the flagship Casa, complete with a tropical lawn, caged parrots, and ornate, colorful furniture straight from a Frida Kahlo biopic. It’s a bit touristy, but it’s the quintessential Mexican experience: mariachi, margaritas, mágico. Soon you’ll see why.
We donned black dresses and lipgloss, and the humidity even complied for a while — our individual manes enjoying an hour of glory each before molting into Mariah Carey and Farrah Fawcett (me).
After dinner, we stepped outside to take a tour of an on-site tequila factory. Alvaro led us through the process of digging the root of the blue agave plant, called a pineapple because it resembles a giant piña. The leaves are steamed, then Alvaro got all scientific and my head started spinning. Anyway, something special happens … and then TEQUILA!
The distilling process is really cool, because the tequila drips down the plant leaf and into a bottle on the floor. It doesn’t get more rustic and tempting than that. I was ready for a tasting.
It was honestly some of the best tequila in my life and, according to Alvaro, beat out all other tequilas in taste tests held in Chicago and San Francisco two years in a row! The aged bottle will run you around $100 USD, but it was so smooth I really considered dropping the coin.
As if I’m not using enough superlatives, just to prove how delicious and special that tequila was, I even spoke Spanish with the taxi driver the whole way home!
Imagine what I can do with a whole bottle!
Gracias a Casa Mission y nuestros meseros por una experiencia especial!
There are two grocery stores within walking distance from my condo: Chedraui and Mega. Chedraui is crowded, maybe a little more down and dirty, but in a pinch it does the trick; Mega, on the other hand, is a modern supercenter, and the locals liken it to Wal-Mart.
I headed out to do some hardcore shopping on Tuesday — the island has amazing food options, but I’m a gringa on a budget (and a diet), so I needed to re-center myself after a weeklong bender, and re-enter my arsenal of recipes and acquaint myself with the pristine stove in the ‘ol condo.
But even in a place like Mega, I’d be one naive girl to expect to find the same food in a USA grocery store. But what was I do to with a hankering for hummus, of all things? I prefer to make my own using drained canned garbanzo beans, but the frijole aisle — yes, there is a bean aisle — was devoid of canned beans. I knew it — nothing in Mexico is ever that convenient, which makes me appreciate the little things, and the Mexican way of life, even more. While I’ve been cooking for years, I’m a self-confessed shortcut lover, so I’d never actually soaked my own beans — until this week. Wednesday morning, I cooked the beans down, used half for a pasta salad, and will save the rest for hummus.
And of course I attempted my own pico de gallo. Not bad.
There’s also not a lot of options when it comes to milk. There’s no cold white jugs frosting in open refrigerators; instead, there’s boxed Parmalot. Luckily, I found myself some rice milk to use in coffee and cereal. And yogurt here? Let’s just say you can forget the tang and health benefits; Mexican yogurt is two molecules away from ice cream.
But on the upside of Mexican life, you can find amazing ingredients not common back home. Whole squid, octopus, head-on prawns. Prickly pear leaves called nopales look amazing, not that I’d even know where to even begin with those; real key limes, which, as we speak, a frozen key lime pie is setting in the freezer; and all sorts of fruit. Did you know there’s no lemons in Mexico? And that oranges here are green? It’s true. The mangoes and pineapples are fantastic, though.
And can you believe that somewhere in Mexico, my enterprising distant cousins founded a sugar substitute company? It makes sense though, us Sween(e)ys are totally sweet.
Even more fascinating than trying to find one’s country comforts is Latin American advertising. So much drama, so much flair. Behold.
After a rooftop brunch at Prima on Sunday, we decided on a whim to hit the highway and headed out to Cozumel’s San Gervasio ruins. The island interior is a parched, windless stretch of roadway, lined with fraying buildings resting against jungle, and a rest stop that was actually called the “Pee Pee Station.”
San Gervasio on Sunday is free to Mexicans; but for us gringas, entry was around $3. It’s a long drive from the highway turn-off to the actual ruins. The dirt road is decorated with beautiful stone monuments and a border of rock formations, purportedly created by the aluxes (pronounced “ah-loosh-es”). Aluxes are mythical Mayan dwarfs who emerge at night from hiding to conduct their business and play tricks on humans. But they can also bring protection, if you bring them offerings; or they can bring harm, disease, and dead crops.
Once inside San Gervasio, we saw only a few other tourists — the site was very quiet. But not for long.
“The gods are mad at you,” Oscar told me, as the mosquitoes closed in.
I swatted and danced around, shaking the critters off. “You must pay in blood,” he said.
Were the aluxes out to get me? All my life I’ve been a mosquito magnet, but this was more than I could handle. This was revenge, I knew, because no one else was being attacked. A bite here and there, sure. But my arms and legs were so covered with mosquitoes that I couldn’t even walk, I was too busy swatting them away.
We made our way through the buildings, and I tried to keep my cool. We spotted several prehistoric iguanas bathing in the sun. Teams of butterflies — mariposas — and birds flitted around us from all directions. Beacons of hope, it seemed, but no: I itched and I writhed; I writhed and I itched. I was still under siege; we had to leave.
Nothing a refreshing pit-stop at the cantina can’t cure. We had tacos dorado, stuffed with chicken; ceviche; sopa de camaron; and alitas — chicken wings! We also sampled fried lionfish, which are hunted by scuba divers seeking to protect the reef from the poisonous and ravenous nonnative fish that has migrated to the island in recent years. There’s not a lot of meat to the lionfish, but they’re salty and delicious.
It’s an unassuming place, outfitted with a little screened door, draped with lace curtain. A wooden sign reading abierto. But inside, the light filters through palms overhead and long-tailed lizards eye you behind fuchsia flowers. Il Giardino, it’s called, a cocina economica just down the road from where I’m living in Cozumel.
Cocinas economicas are household restaurants dotted all over Mexico. They’re cheap, comfortable, and popular because they serve up solid, from the soul, food. Maria both lives in and owns Il Giardino and offers nontraditional fare in the realm of jerk chicken and even pasta. A bit wore out on fish, I had a hankering for the jerk chicken, rice, and potato salad; Stacy ordered a spicy shrimp pasta. Both were lovely. We had bread and chimichurri sauce before the meal, and all this, and two Coca Colas, was $200 pesos. Can’t beat that.
This is going to be one of my mainstays.
While dining locally, one never knows who they’ll meet. In this case, Nilo, an ex-Olympian sailor.
Stacy and I trekked last night to Las Tortugas, and within minutes Nilo was at our table, proposing marriage and telling us his life story. He participated in two Olympic games for sailing, and has traveled around the world. He even lived on Long Island, and likes to poke fun at people from New Jersey. Don’t we all?
It turns out, Nilo lives across the street from me. He has a boat, naturally, and maybe we’ll sail with him. Maybe.
Stacy and I ordered red snapper. Many Mexicans believe that Americans can’t handle their chiles, so when I ask for hot sauce, they chuckle, then watch me add it to my food and take a bite. “Too spicy? Too spicy?” the waiter asked me.
Just right, I told him. “I can handle my chile,” I boasted.
He disappeared briefly, and returned carrying a habanero pepper on a small plate. It was a challenge.
The waitstaff gathered around, laughing, waiting to see the American girl choke. But I didn’t. I ate the pepper, raw.
Once I was crowned Queen of Las Tortugas, Nilo regaled us with stories of seeing the Rolling Stones live in Winnipeg in 1984. We sang a drunken “Ruby Tuesday” and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
“I can’t believe you ate the chile,” Nilo told me afterward. “You know what chile is another word for here?”