Rick’s Travel Guides

If you follow Rick on Twitter, you know that he’s always moving. He’s in Mexico several times a year, of course, but he’s also everywhere else: Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, New York. He returns from these trips full of stories (and Instagram pics); find them below, and use them for inspiration for your next trip.

Lima, Peru

After I arrived home from Mistura, the huge food festival in Lima, Peru, I kept asking myself the same question: Why isn’t Peru at the top of every foodie’s must-visit destination list? I mean, just think about all it has to offer: Peru has one of the most complex, varied and ancient cuisines on the planet; Peruvian ingredients—from the tropical Amazonian, to the cloud-brushing Andean to the seafood-abundant coastal—are as good as you’ll find anywhere; and the restaurants—from traditional to cutting-edge modern—are the equal of those in any of the world’s great food cities. After eating at CentralMalabarAstrid y GastónÁmazEl Mercado,Huaca Pucllana and Maido, I imagined them being plunked down in the middle of New York City or Chicago or San Francisco. They’d be the talk of those towns.

Great markets and restaurants notwithstanding, the most memorable part of the trip was Mistura, purportedly the largest food festival in the world with hundreds of food stalls stretching along a mile-and-a-half of beach. And in spite of headliners like Rene Redzepi from Noma, Andoni Aduriz from Mugaritz, Alex Atala from D.O.M. and Albert Adria from a host of great restaurants in Barcelona, what kept drawing my attention was the food. Especially the chancho en palo, boned-out pigs roasting on huge wood fires (pictured), the ceviches with their leche de tigre, the quinoa tamales in the huge quinoa pavilion, and the pork sandwiches (sandguches there) from El Chinito and La Lucha. I have only one piece of advice: Go.

Istanbul, Turkey

Until I stepped foot on Turkish soil, Istanbul had always represented one thing for me:  the pivotal spot across which all spices flowed from Asia to Europe during the Middle Ages, the same spot that was closed in 1463 by the newly conquering Turks, cutting off Europe’s access to the spices they’d grown very accustomed to. The spot that sparked Columbus to ply uncharted waters in search of another route to spice and wealth.

Now, having spent a week exploring the lokantas (small, family-style restaurants), markets, baklava bakeries, cafes and candy stores, I have a different perspective: It’s a remarkably vibrant, cosmopolitan spot spilled over the meeting place of Europe and Asia, exuding over 2000 years of still-palpable history—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, high art, everyday crafty craftsmanship, spices (though fewer than I’d expected) and the most perfect exchange between old world and new. The street vendors press bucketsful of pomegranate juice, bulgur gets cooked as we would rice, flat breads wrap delicious lamb seared over open flames.  All of that could have easily been eaten before Columbus’s voyage.  The rest could not:  the tomatoes and chiles that weave their way through so many of the beautiful mezes (appetizers) that start practically every meal, the beans that are simmered to delicious tenderness, the pumpkin that is everywhere, often cooked with that beautiful honey Turkey is so famous for.

This is the year to visit Istanbul.  The people are so generous and helpful, the place is so historic, the food is so easy to fall in love with, especially everything cooked over live fire. Like me, you’ll ask yourself while it took you so long to get there.

Mexico City

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Quintonil highlight: perfectly ripe mamey, mamey pudding, mamey pit ice cream
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Quintonil: chilacayota squash with homemade mole & calabacitas.
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Quintonil: A tamal of Swiss chard with vegetable ribbons, herbs and crunch.
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Breakfast at QueBo! with José Ramón Castillo. Some of the best chocolate in the world:
Mexican beans, cool flavors.
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Nico's: Classic bean soup with nixtamalized runner beans & Chiapas cheese

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Yuban: Chocolate cake w Oaxacan chocolate ganache, butter cake with caramelized pineapple,
fresh corn cake with chocolate-prickly pear
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Contramar: Pacific-style fish a la talla
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Went with Pedro Abascal & chefs from Kaah Siis to their organic chinampa, an eco-part of Xochimilco, to harvest & be inspired
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Breakfast at El Hidalguense for succulent lamb barbacoa.
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Cárdenas market Del Valle: Passmar (yes, in the vegetable market!) is one of best coffee bars I've ever been to.

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The black bean tamal at Amaranta in Toluca.
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Los Insurgentes, one of Mexico City's popular pulquerías.

I have loved Mexico City since I was 14 years old.  Never been there that
my heart didn¹t beat a little faster (and not just because it’s at nearly
8,000 feet!).  I love the pace, the stew pot of culture from high to low,
from traditional to modern.  I love the serendipity that floats in and out
of every visitor’s experience, as though they’ve been thrust for an
unexpected moment into a different dimension of reality.  That’s all
Mexico in a nutshell, though.  It’s just packed more tightly in Mexico
City, under what seems like the lid of a pressure cooker.

Though I’ve spent most of my adult life delving deeply and relentlessly
into the traditional kitchens of Mexico City and beyond, right now I’m
intrigued by what Mexico (and its cuisine) looks like through the eyes of
the talented and young band of movers and shakers in the food world—chefs,
restaurateurs, cheese mongers, wine and beer makers, mixologists, bakers. Every time I look at DF through these young people’s eyes, I have such enthusiasm for the future. And as the photos above attest to, there are a lot of places to be enthusiastic about.

A shortlist of the restaurants mentioned (and some not mentioned) in the slideshow:

Amaranta – Fine dining in Toluca
Contramar – A DF classic, famous for its tuna tostada
El Califa Taqueria – One of Rick’s go-tos for tacos al pastor
El Hidalguense – Perhaps the best barbacoa in the city
Limantour – Classy, creative and cool cocktail spot
Los Insurgentes – Here, it’s all about the pulque
Mercado Roma
– A new kind of market, this one with all manner of artisanal food shops (and a rooftop beer garden).
Nico’s – A major player in Mexico City’s slow-food movement
Que Bo! – Exciting (and gorgeous) chocolates by chef José Ramón Castillo
Quintonil – The home of chef Jorge Vallejo, one of the most talented chefs on the planet
Rosetta – Beautiful Italian food in a beautiful space
Panadería Rosetta – The bakery/cafe across the street from Rosetta; a must-stop for breads and pastries
Pujol – The flagship restaurant of master chef Enrique Olvera
Yuban – Oaxacan food in a hip room

Rick's Top-Line Must-Taste Oaxaca

In Oaxaca, my first choice is Casa Oaxaca (the restaurant, not the hotel) and its sister Casa Oaxaca that’s in Colonia Reforma away from downtown (though the more remote one isn’t quite as exciting as the downtown one).  The chef-owner is Alejandro Ruiz and he’s the father of the modern movement to make great Oaxacan food.  It’s a beautiful place with great food.

Rodolfo Castellanos is the chef-owner of Orígen.  He has worked all over the world, mostly with Traci DesJardin at Jardinere in San Francisco.  His food is a little more international, but made with great local product.  Very nice place.

The best cocktail program in my opinion is at Los Danzantes.  The food has been really good there for the last several years—modern Oaxacan but casual—but the chef recently left so I can’t vouch for it.  The place is very beautiful, designed by the broth of Hugo D’Acosta, Mexico’s most famous wine maker.  They have a wonderful mezcal list and wonderful wine list.  Their brand of mezcal—Alipus—can be found all over New York City.

Speaking of mezcal, the two bars most famous for the impossible to find regional stuff are In Situ and Mezcaloteca.  The first is easily accessible; the second needs a reservation and serious interest.

Out in the villages, the most notable restaurant is Tlamanalli in Teotitlán, the famous rug-making village.  Set menu of Zapotec village cooking.  Worth a trip, especially if you’re going to go out looking for rugs (Isaac Vazquez is my favorite rug maker there).

In town but in the near-by Colonia Reforma, La Teca serves food from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  Really good, homey cooking and so different from the cooking in the central valleys. The woman who owns the place is a really good cook.  Sit in the patio in the back (the restaurant is in her home).

In the 20 de Noviembre market downtown, the famous fonda is Abuelita (great for a breakfast of chocolate, pan de yema, enfrijoladas and chorizo!) and the adjacent “taco corridor” is a must.  At the corridor, you buy your meat from one of the vendors (cecina, tasajo, chorizo) and have them grill it.  The other vendors sell you the go-withs and you make these rustic tacos that might be the best things you eat on your trip.

In the adjacent market (Benito Juarez), which is primarily a produce and meat market, you’ll find the hundred-year-old Casilda Nieves (fruit ices) and Casilda Aguas Frescas (fruit “waters”/soft drinks).  Both are amazing, memorable and historic.  You can trust the water in these places.

Lots of people love Biznaga for its good, contemporary, casual Oaxacan food.  I’ve enjoyed it many times, but the service can be gruff.

And, should you find yourself out late, one of the most famous street eats of Oaxaca is a tlayuda from the place on Libres.  A huge, leathery tortilla that’s toasted over the coals, drizzled with beans, saucy guacamole, salsa and grilled meat, and folded over.  Again, very memorable.

There are so many places I love in Oaxaca, but this list should get you started!

My Latest Trip to Baja (2015 Edition)

Having just returned from a research trip to northern Baja after having been away for a couple of years, I am amazed at what has happened. Tijuana continues to evolve as a major place for great dining (if your image of Tijuana is still that ’80s hideousness that pandered to ugly American tourists, you won’t recognize anything). You have to go to the super-upscaleMisión 19 and to La Querencia, Verde y Crema, Cebichería Erizo. And that just scratches the surface; my time was short and I’m sure that list is woefully incomplete. Taco culture in Tijuana continues strong, but it’s been matched by a great craft beer movement, too. Though I have to say I dream of the shrimp tacos from El Masateño and the carne asada torta at Tortas Wash Mobile, if I only had one meal, I’d go to the collection of outdoor taquerías called Las Ahumaderas where you can find some pretty fine traditional flavor. Friends in Tijuana are enticing me back with descriptions of newer taquerías that they say are unforgettable. (Stay tuned for another round of Tijuana taco crawl notes.) The best place to get an orientation to the great craft brews of Tijuana is at BCB (across the street from Jair Tellez’ wood-fired Verde y Crema restaurant). They have dozens of delicious libations on tap and in bottles and cans.

When you’re heading south toward Ensenada, if you’re up for an adventure, stop off in Popotla, a rough little fishing village. There are a bunch of restaurants that make a lot of wood-fired specialties like fish zarandeado. I’m sure they’re good, but that’s not what we opted for. We went to the stalls on the beach and had the large white pismo clams “preparados.” Just the raw clam (the only raw clam I really like) cleaned, chopped and mixed with salsa, lime, red onion, tomato and cilantro. That was one of the most memorable dishes I had on the whole trip.

I didn’t get to spend much time in Ensenada on this trip. Just a quick classic Baja fish taco at the original El Fenix (done SO right, SO classic) and a sea urchin tostada from the internationally famous Sabina at El Guerrerenseseafood cart (dreamy). I needed to get to the Valley de Guadalupe to taste wine and eat in places everyone is raving about.

The first meal was at the beautiful Malva restaurant, outdoors on the grounds of the small winery Mina Penelope. Chef Roberto Alcocer is making some delicious food that reflects the valley’s terroir, climate and cultural diversity. The dish I’ve not stopped thinking about is a coarse-cut tartare of beef, part of it simply raw, part seared on directly on the embers, and part aged. It was topped with a fermented salsa that edged toward kimchi. Another standout was escolar (from the waters off Ensenada) in a creamy sauce thickened with a puree of the restaurant’s namesake green, Malva. The plant is in the geranium family and used pretty extensively in Puebla and Oaxaca. I have no idea why people everywhere don’t eat it. The wines of Mina Penelope are lovely, especially the white we drank (not something you often say in Baja): affordable, lively, well-made, food friendly.

The next morning we started with a substantial super-traditional breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela. Some cooks just have the gift for understanding food and knowing just how to get the most deliciousness out of it. I would drive for hours to eat Esthela’s machaca con huevo. She thin slices the meat, salts it, dries it, pounds it to a fluff, then cooks it with onion and chile before scrambling in some eggs. It’s one of my favorite dishes in the world and almost no one makes it with as much care or talent. The gorditas are great (make sure to get the espinacas — spinach — and chicharrón ones.) They make hand-crafted flour tortillas that will be a revelation to you. Rolled around (burrito style) with sautéed vegetables and nopales was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. Though we were there too early, she agreed to make an order of her borrego tatemado, a tender-cooked lamb that’s seared in a hot pan before serving. You’ll thank me for the recommendation.

There are 151 wineries in the area now, ranging from tiny to huge, so any visitor has to make a plan of which to visit. We chose five. Here’s my summary:

  • Magoni: Though this winery is just getting started, Camillo Magoni is the grandfather of winemaking in the valley, having worked with the very large L.A. Cetto for 50 years. Yes, 50 years. He knows every piece of terrain, every technique, every twist and turn of Baja’s wine making. There’s no tasting room yet (so you’ll have to look for it on restaurant lists), but I can tell you that they are some of the most well-made wines I’ve tasted in a long time. Camillo was raised in Italy where wine is made to go with good and he follows that tradition. Beautiful stuff. And affordable.
  • Adobe Guadalupe: How is it that these wines just get better and better? Uriel, a complex rosé that’s one of my house favorites. Miguel, a Tempranillo that’s so easy-drinking. Kerubiel, an echo of a great Rhone wine. Gabriel, a wine with the structure of a Bordeaux. Syrah, a Cabernet with the richness of Syrah. And Rafael, Cabernet with the suppleness of Nebbiolo. There are mezcales now, too (all made for them in Oaxaca), and a craft beer in a wine bottle. And a food truck by their shop that serves great snacks in a Spanish tapas tradition. Oh, and they have a small bed and breakfast, too, so you can stay there and taste wine, ride horses (!) and have lunch and dinner. This place is amazing.
  • La Lomita (right across from Doña Esthela) has some pretty delicious wines and a simple wood-fired restaurant (you’re picking up on the main theme of Baja cooking) that turns out really delicious tostadas that were perfect with the wines. We especially loved their Págano (Grenache) and Sacro (Cabernet-Merlot), in square bottles that make a beautiful pair side-by-side.
  • Torres Alegre is probably the most unusual winery in the valley. It’s a family operation with Victor Torres, who received his Ph.D. in wine making in Bordeaux, at the helm. His approach is meticulously hands-on and the result tastes of his unique vision. Some I liked more than others, but the 2005 (!) Zinfandel they were pouring was really, really delicious.
  • Vena Cava, owned by Eileen and Phil Gregory and located on the grounds of another beautiful bed and breakfast, La Villa del Valle, is a wonder to behold. Designed by Alejandro D’Acosta, who has fomented a style of architecture that has become emblematic of the area. It focuses on found objects and earthy elements that reflect this desert landscape. Vena Cava is built in a cross — Alejandro says it’s like a church where grapes are transformed into wine — and the roof of each point of the cross is an upturned fishing boat, echoing the reliance of the region on the sea. And the wines are beautiful and appealing. I really LOVED their Brut Rosé sparkling. And their Tempranillo. You really can’t go wrong with these wines.

Dinner at Corazon de Tierra on the Villa del Valle property is a wonderful experience. It’s a tasting menu that changes regularly, but chef Diego Hernandez has gained a tremendous following for his use of local product that shines in the simple elegance of his food. Food and wine come together beautifully in the space designed by Alejandro D’Acosta’s wife.

I could go on about the outdoor restaurant Finca Altozano from Chef Javier Plascencia, perched above an expansive vineyard. Simple foods from the wood grill that people drive from San Diego to eat. Or Deckman’s en el Mogor, where chef Drew Deckman has created an incredibly loyal following for his wood-fired cuisine on the property of the prestigious Mogor Badanwinery (why wasn’t it open when we were there?). Or Laja, the original great restaurant in the valley, where Jair Tellez has been turning out great cuisine for years. I will never forget a suckling pig from a wood-burning oven I had there three years ago.

And the wines of Hugo D’Acosta (Casa de Piedra, Paralelo) revolutionized wine making in the valley. While you’re there, you need to stop by his school, his escuelita, officially titled Estación de Oficios del Porvenir, where many of the winemakers in the valley have trained. You can taste and snack there, too, and get a beautiful perspective on his brother Alejandro’s architecture. All of the buildings are made from found or discarded items.

So little time, so many wines. Montefiori, Pijoan, Maria Tinto, Monte Xanic, Las Nubes, Norte 32, Vinistera. And those just scratch the surface of the best.

You really need to plan a trip to Tijuana, Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe. It’s desert-stunning, rustic (most of the roads aren’t paved), elemental and superbly delicious.