Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Feb. 26
Mexican in Chinatown? Cheese, chorizo, Cetto, Candelas!
Top Mexican chef cooks for...Ed?
Martin San Roman has cooked for princes, presidents, and now, uh, me.
How come? Serendipity. Always believe in it. Specially this time of year.
So I’m in Chinatown, wandering down 3rd, thinking I may as well hoof it to 12th and Imp. Pass the Chinese Benevolent Association, and then…wow. Candelas...
...the expensive place where they cook à la Mexico City, with a French accent, from what I’ve heard.
Been to the Coronado Candelas (1201 First Street #115, 619-435-4900). Guerr-reat happy hour there.
Remember Four-Cheese soup, going for $4.50. And that happy hour stretches from eleven to eleven.
But this has to be the original Candelas.
Ancient little brick place at 416 3rd Avenue (619-702-4455) that used to be a house of joy, back in Stingaree days. Huh. See it’s only open in the evenings, 5:00 – 11:00 p.m.
We’re talking seven-ish right now. Wonder if they have a happy hour too. In the dark it looks muy seductive. Dark, woody, giant candles…
“Oh sure, we’re in happy hour till nine,” says this gal, Christina, when I ask. “Half off everything on the bar menu."
I’m sitting at this clubby bar with a couple of totally glam ladies on the left and a suavecito guy on the right. Thing I notice about the bottles of wine filling the backboard...
...a lot are L. A. Cetto, from Baja California.
Huh. Normally, you never see Mexican wines up here.
So the bar menu has eight items on it, starting with guacamole and chips, $10. Must be some guac.
But it gets more interesting. They have a cheese platter for $18, tuna carnitas tacos ($12), Taco Gobernador (3 shrimp and cheese fried tacos, $12), 3 fish tacos for $12, a little casserole of cheese fondue with Spanish chorizo ($12), a small pizza with eggplant, artichoke, crabmeat, tomato sauce, blue cheese and mozzarella (which sounds delicious at $12), and a burger for $13.
Now, of course, we cut all these prices in half for happy hour. While I’m thinking I ask Christina about that bottle right in front of me: L.A. Cetto. Cabernet Sauvignon 2008.
“Is that in happy hour?" I ask.
“Of course,” says Christina.
So, great. Get a $10 glass for $5. It’s what you’d call robust. Guadalupe valley. You can taste the earth in it.
Christina says the tacos are pretty famous here. But for me it’s down to the pizza or the fondue.
Fondue wins out, this being a cold night and all. And it comes in a cool little dish, bubbling away.
“It’s just typical Mexican cheese from Oaxaca,” says chef Roman, when he comes out to check on his guests. “And the chorizo is hard, Spanish-style.”
He's right. They're little disks of dry, salty sausage, much different from the oozy stuff we're used to in our burritos.
But Chef Martin knows what he's doing. He turns out to be a famous chef. Has cooked for two Mexican presidents, been a Mexican culinary ambassador in 14 countries, had his own TV cooking show. You’d never know, from the relaxed way he just comes and chats. He came here a year ago, changed 80 percent of the menu.
“This fondue with chorizo is a dish all Mexico eats,” he says. "The rich, the poor, everyone. It’s great for cold weather like this.”
I like it. And the two salsa dips that come with it, green and red. Fresh. And how the wine fits right in. “But Mexican wine?” I say. “I thought you couldn’t get it here. You never see it.”
“Oh you can get it here,” says Chef Roman. “In fact it’s 40 percent cheaper than if you buy it in Mexico.”
“The Mexican government slaps a 40 percent tax on its own wines. Down there good French imported wines are the same price or cheaper than our own wines. It's crazy.”
Governments making it difficult to produce home-grown wines seems to be a tradition, ever since, like 400 years ago, when some Spanish king made Mexican wine growers pull up their vines, so the Spanish would have a guaranteed export market for their wine.
Total price for this beautiful little meal: $11.47, including tax. Next time: Gotta try that pizza.