Postcard from Tlaxcala, Mexico: Daytripping through Mexico’s smallest state

"birdman" of Cacaxtla

A birdman caged underground for more than 1,000 years, Cacaxtla’s powerful priest of Quetzalcoatl now can be viewed in an archaeological site outside the town of San Miguel del Milagro, Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state. Dressed in the guise of an eagle and surfing atop a feathered serpent, the priest was not uncovered until the 1970s.

The pyramid containing the best-preserved pre-Columbian murals recovered to date in this hemisphere is still undergoing restoration. The beehive of archaeological activity involves backbreaking labor seemingly not much different from that involved in the original construction. Yes, wheelbarrows are used, but they only cart the workers’ heavy loads to the bottom of the first step. Close to 100 men and women were scurrying on site in what must be a major public works boon to the small town’s economy.

The peaceful, hilly town of Tlaxcala City itself is a refuge for those from Mexico City, meaning tony shops and restaurants are tucked behind some of the humble-seeming facades.

But we pressed on, a lunch destination in mind. We headed to Apizaco to find Chef Francisco Molina’s Evoka, a restaurant many hail as among the most outstanding in all of Mexico. The chef is known for elevating regional ingredients and traditional dishes of Tlaxcala to new heights, and he did not let us down.

Pleased by a trio of amuse-bouche and emboldened by a mysterious mezcal margarita and a mojito de toronjil (melon liqueur, ancho reyes and lemon balm), we decided this was the place to experience one of those insect dishes we had yet to try. Yes, we’ve consumed grasshoppers and chicatanas numerous times, but never escamoles. The caviar-like delicacies prized since the time of Quetzalcoatl are eggs stolen from venomous giant ants inhabiting the root systems of agave plants. The volcan de escamoles emerging from the kitchen is a chaulpa layering the large eggs with beans, wild mushrooms harvested from the slopes of the nearby Malinche volcano, artisanal cheese and avocado. Quite a refreshingly tasty combination.

Our main courses were chicken with cilantro pesto and robalo with adobo sauce steamed in mixotes, packages of agave skin, with an assortment of vegetables harvested from the restaurant’s garden. We finished the feast with a quartet of nieves, scoops of house-made lemon balm and strawberry sorbets and hoja santa and dried corn ice cream.

Definitely worth a detour.



Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Architectural excellence heightens flavorful experience

raspberry and blueberry terrine

Somehow it seems like cheating. The food offered in a restaurant inside a former industrial structure sculpturally rehabilitated by an internationally acclaimed architect seems destined to taste good. And it does.

La Purificadora Hotel and Restaurant inhabit a former purified ice factory dating from 1884. Architect Ricardo Legoretta left industrial touches intact, playing with the interactions of light, open spaces, water, recycled wood, black and white punctuated with accents of “bishop purple.”

We enjoyed two meals at La Purificadora during our month-long stay in Puebla: one to see if it was special enough for my upcoming birthday celebration and again because it was. While not expensive at all by American standards, the tab can add up because the setting makes you want to linger from cocktails through dessert. Chef Enrique Olvera created a menu that balances the traditional heavy chile poblano with some almost-spa-like dishes.

The presentation of most plates is as artistic as the surroundings. My mouth takes great pleasure in amuse-bouche openers: a bright fresh caprese and a piece of seared chile-encrusted tuna among ours. Fried zucchini blossoms filled with goat cheese are not to be missed among the appetizers, but decadent nibbles can be offset by something refreshingly light, such as the fresh watercress salad with mango and watermelon.

The only dish that did not work for us was the combination of appetizers jumbled atop a plate too small to house them. All the elements taken individually are appealing, but not in such close company with one another. Piles of meat infringing on the space of seared ahi tuna is not neighborly, particularly with fried squash blossoms thrown atop the mound.

Grilled asparagus are wonderful as a side dish for the robalo (sea bass) or salmon. Instead of chicken smothered with an overdose of mole poblano prior to serving, a generous pitcher of the rich, nun-invented sauce is provided on the side, freeing up more than enough to share with a side of roasted vegetables.



How could you possibly save room for dessert? By ordering a luscious light palette of color, a raspberry and blueberry terrine with puffs of meringue and a scoop of coconut sorbet.

Yes, this all would be order-worthy in a lesser setting, but the surroundings contribute much to the pleasurable experience.

All this makes me hungry for even a casual café right here in San Antonio in the gallery space under the shimmering Dale Chihuly sculpture in our Legoretta-designed Central Library. Imagine, taking a break from research in Texana to pleasantly partake of something delicious, flavor-enhanced by inspiring architectural surroundings….

Of course, close to home as well, I still need to experience Chef John Brand-developed restaurants of San Antonio’s Hotel Emma, adapted by Roman and Williams and opened this past week at the former Pearl Brewery.

It’s a long way until my birthday, but maybe we need to do a test-run to see if it’s good enough for the next celebration.

Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Saints to answer any prayer


Not only is there a church on almost every corner in Puebla, but they are filled with saints to meet almost every need imaginable.

One often reads about the fall in the number of Catholics in Mexico, but maybe many simply don’t have time to devote attending a full Mass. Leave a church unlocked during the day, and there is always someone dropping by for a quick prayer for help with some difficulty encountered in life.

Catholicism in Mexico, or in all of South America and Europe, is a totally different animal from the religion of my childhood. I find myself mesmerized by the magical mysticism permeating their churches.

Sure we had incense wafting about at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Star of the Sea, but, beyond that, things were pretty tame. There were Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s offered aplenty. But, when we were growing up, we pretty much missed out on the more than 10,000 saints hovering above waiting to answer our prayers.

If I’d only known. I mean, how many times would I have turned to St. Anthony with help locating that lost homework or to St. Jude when I totally missed the teacher telling us about a test? Gladly, I would have parted with every charm on my bracelet if I’d known leaving them as milagros might improve outcomes.

So many people in Puebla pin their hopes on saints, tuck photos of loved ones near their favorites, leave flowers as thanks and light candles to brighten the chance their prayers will be heard.

Miracles might not always arrive, but maybe comfort does. Time alone thinking calmly in a pew might be what’s needed to face life’s everyday challenges.

Certainly viewing a statue of a saint in flames or Jesus suffering from his wounds diminishes the size of one’s own troubles.

Lest you jump to conclusions prematurely, the red guitar balloon was not left by the Mister. Although perhaps that presents a far less dicey alternative to going down to the crossroads.

But, if one is going to place faith in a balloon, of course there’s a saint for that. Bluesmen would best be served by leaving their tributes floating near the harp-bearing hands of Santa Cecilia.