Grabbing the Bull by the Horns: Eating Well in San Miguel ~ for Less
You are guaranteed many things while visiting the picturesque 16th century Colonial village of San Miguel de Allende. Regardless of how sensible your shoes, you will stumble on the ancient stone cobbled streets whether or not your lips have yet to make contact with a cold cerveza; you might very well find yourself wonderfully intoxicated before noon by the sensuous aromas of roasting corn and chipotles, succulent meats sizzling from neighborhood grills, wafting on a gentle breeze the scent of tender homemade tortillas, the buttery sweetness of freshly baked pastries, breads and custards; and you will most assuredly find a rich variety of affordable fare that is both delicious and wholesome, no matter how few pesos you sport in your fanny pack.
If you’re dining out, grabbing a quick bite para llevar (to go), or cooking at home, now is not the time to count carbs, deny yourself the sinful indulgence of afternoon Mexican hot chocolate and melt-in-your-mouth churros, or embark on a futile search for the ugly sister “slimcado,” the tasteless, lo-cal version of the real McCoy. So treat yourself and indulge in some of the fantastic food that San Miguel has to offer. Whether in an outdoor café, a romantic candlelit hacienda, a rooftop terraza, or in your own Mexican kitchen, embrace the flavorful and colorful bounty, seize the day ~ worry about your expanding fanny pack manana.
Rest easy and enjoy, keeping in mind that San Miguel de Allende is a major tourist destination and recently awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. What this means is that the locals make their bread and butter on serving, and serving well, the tourist trade. Restaurants are diligent in ensuring that produce is disinfected, food fresh, clean and healthy. Ice cubes, too, are safe but if you prefer, drink bottled water which is readily available. The tourist-driven trade coupled with the exuberant pride the Mexican people take in their establishments is almost always guaranteed to offer fear-free dining and healthy cuisine at every turn.
By and large, all restaurants and cafes listed will get you delightfully fed, satiated, and out the door for around $20, including drinks and tip. Most places will be well under, others slightly above depending on how thirsty you are, how many calories you claim to have burned stumbling your way up and down the steep cobbled streets, or how stressful your day might have been people-watching from a shady park bench in the jardin while serenaded by mariachis. Feel free to use any excuse for ordering a second margarita, a velvety smooth flan resting in a pool of creamy caramel, or both. While adopting the mantra “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” might not do wonders for your waistline, it will become music to your ears and in perfect harmony with the rhythm and beat of magical San Miguel. Just don’t attempt the Funky Chicken on the cobbles.
(Key: $ <$10>, $$ <$20>)
Calles Canal, Hidalgo, Reloj, Mesones, Insurgentes, Loreto, Correo and Sollano
Olé Olé (Loreto #66, 152-0896, no credit cards, $)
If you are a steadfast vegetarian and not particularly fascinated by the art of taxidermy, you might very well want to pass by the sign of the bull. But, if you like good food, generous portions, cheap eats, and camp, this place is for you. Upon entering this small neighborhood café, you will be greeted by a life-sized stuffed bull and find yourself surrounded by additional mounted heads. However, the framed vintage posters, photographs and other memorabilia of matadors and bullfighting are wonderfully colorful and downright campy and you can’t help but crack a grin when you look up and into the cocoa colored eyes of El Dandy, a large framed poster of a legendary bullfighter whose suave smile and ill-fitting cummerbund will make your platter of sizzling fajitas all the more tantalizing.
The menu is limited but the specialties are truly delicious from the beef or chicken fajitas, to the juicy grilled shrimp or vegetable brochetas, or my favorite, the sautéed garlic mushrooms served with your choice of homemade corn or flour tortillas or a combination of both. If you never believed you would entertain indecent thoughts about fungi, think again. You may order a small or large size of their mushroom dishes – the small is plenty for two people as an appetizer, enough for one as an entrée. The small portion runs around $4. Alongside the succulent, garlicky mushrooms which taste like they’ve been kissed with a hint of sherry, comes a lovely variety of condiments. Before you wrap these tender fungi in a warm tortilla, top them with the spicy salsa, a generous heaping of the dark, creamy sauce that is smoky and reminiscent of mole, and a healthy dollop of créma, a squeeze of lime, and indulge. With a glass of vino tinto, you’ve reached nirvana. The shrimp, too, is plump, tender, sweet and perfectly grilled. For meat eaters, the fajitas are some of the best in town. This place is no frills but the real deal. It’s frequented by locals and tourists alike. Upon leaving, and no matter how smitten by El Dandy, do not pull a Debra Winger and mount the stuffed bull. You are not an urban cowboy.
Mercado Ignacio Ramírez (east on Mesones at Plaza Allende)
The most well known of the Centro markets and a treat for the senses. Whether purchasing produce, fresh ranchero cheese, dried goods, an armload of fragrant flowers, or just strolling through to marvel at colorful mounds of perfectly smooth mangoes, fresh avocados, chilies, nopales, or bucketfuls of calla lilies, treat yourself to the visual extravaganza. It is worth your time. Sheer eye candy.
La Media Naranja (upstairs, Hidalgo #83 at Calle de la Luz, $)
Vegetarian friendly. Great place to take a load off and enjoy good, wholesome, healthy fare. Fantastic fresh fruit smoothies, fabulous tortas and goat cheese omelets, fresh bagels, soups, salads. Their specials are highly recommended; the salmon cakes with mango salsa were plump, tender and bursting with flavor, and the tangy salsa was the perfect acidic bite of both sweet and tangy that gently cut through the richness of the fish. Casual, bohemian atmosphere, great lunch stop with friends or solo with a good book. One of my favorites.
Café Etc.(Reloj #37, $)
Small neighborhood café, great for breakfast or lunch. Inspired menu, creative specials board - an often intriguing, if not perplexing mix of herbs, spices, and other flavors that initially sound funky and yet somehow seem to work, delightfully surprising the palate. Laid back atmosphere, small outdoor patio, nothing fancy. The daily specials are consistently delicious. Great smoothies, omelets and salads. You can buy whole coffee beans to go or have coffee ground at the front counter. A good place to start your day, or slip into if you’ve been walking beneath a relentless afternoon sun and need a no frills place to grab a cool liquado or bite to eat.