Category Archives: Fabulous Food in Unlikely Places

Estampas de Mi Ciudad – Saints and Superheroes at Mercado de San Juan

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“El Santo” (The Saint)
Mercado de San Juan, Mexico City, Mexico
Photo credit: Brenda Storch

The supernatural and the secular, the old and the new, the exotic and the mundane converge at Mercado de San Juan- a collection of food so eclectic and extraordinary as the imagery that frames it. Mercado de San Juan offers a gateway into what would be the equivalent of anthropological “Cliffs Notes” on Mexico. In less than four aisles, visitors can walk 500 years back in history and choose from  a wide array of pre-Hispanic sources of protein including  chicatana ants, grasshoppers and other insects.

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Grasshoppers on display at Mercado de San Juan
Mercado de San Juan, Mexico City, Mexico
Photo credit: Brenda Storch

Walk a few aisles and a couple of  centuries forward, and discover hundreds of varieties of cheeses at “La Catalana”. Walk a few steps more and find anything from duck to wild boar, ostrich and crocodile in the meat section. Plus, the market has its own fonda, a little food bar with fresh, rustic-yet-extraordinary flavors, in case you want to stay and eat like a local.

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Fonda Dish at Mercado de San Juan
Mercado de San Juan, Mexico City, Mexico
Photo credit: Brenda Storch

I have spent most of my life in Mexico City, and it was not until a recent trip home that I decided to visit Mercado de San Juan. This market has attracted shoppers for hundreds of years, and more contemporarily, celebrities, up-and-coming chefs and food enthusiasts. If you are in D.F. and close to the Centro Histórico, have a taste of Mexico in one of the aisles of Mercado de San Juan. Here, food is sustenance, food is love, food is sacred. Missing it, a sin.

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“San Juan”(St. John)
Mercado de San Juan, Mexico City, Mexico
Photo credit: Brenda Storch

Address: Antiguo Mercado de San Juan Ernesto Pugibet, No.21 loc.162 Centro Historico, Mexico D.F.

Phone:+52 1 55 3101 7290
Hours: Mon- Sun 9:00 am–5:00 pm

Estampas de Mi Ciudad – Comunión y Comida (In Food, Communion)

Photo credit: Magali Gómez – Ciudad de México, México                       Published with the author’s approval

The legendary Mercado de La Merced (La Merced Market) in Mexico City, was named after a Monastery of the order dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy, which was established in the homonymous Barrio de La Merced in 1594.  Among locals, the name  La Merced  will today evoke images of a monumental market, the second largest in town, and perhaps the most iconic. In the halls of this shopping colossus, the bizarre and the ordinary collide into the most fascinating explosion of colors, sounds, aromas and flavors.

I find it so fitting that, as in the case of La Merced, many large mercados in Mexico are named after saints or other religious figures. While I understand these names were assigned for practical purposes in colonial Mexico, I find there is something powerful about food, something almost spiritual. Like its people, Mexican food is mestizo- an amalgam of ingredients transformed by fire and knife into a colorful, flavorful, complex creation. As an art form or a cultural artifact, food provides the ultimate level of interactivity – communion.

Mercados are living museums, and a fun and delicious way to sample everyday life including the local fare. Wherever I go, I always make a point to add them to my list of must-see places.

Sadly, La Merced has declined a bit in recent years, and if you are not in the mood for an adrenaline-fueled adventure, a wonderful alternative to get a taste of Mexico is El Mercado de San Juan.

Have Dinner in the Caribbean and Bake your Own Souvenir

Conch Fritters at Bahama Breeze

One of my dearest friends loves palm trees and the beach. When my work relocated me to Memphis, she and I would often escape to her favorite local “island retreat”. I moved to Santa Barbara 12 years ago, and a few years later, to Chicago. The memory of this neighborhood tropical getaway got lost in the shuffle until, by chance, it found me.

A few weeks ago, a group of local friends and I embarked on our own brief “staycation”. This time, we had been invited to try some of Bahama Breeze´s legendary island cocktails.  I am rarely up for re-exploring a chain restaurant, but the idea sounded like fun, so I accepted. I am so glad I did!

As soon as we arrived, we were directed to the eatery’s deck. The weather was perfect, and the live music along with a fanned breeze, immediately whisked us away from our corporate mindsets. Our business casual attire suddenly seemed to clash with our surroundings.

Next time we will wear our guayaberas.

As our friends gathered, the food also began to arrive. Plate by plate we were treated to Caribbean-inspired dishes that included staples such as plantains and pork.

Everything was delicious. The conch fritters and the coconut shrimp were particularly memorable, though. I was snapping pictures as fast as I could, but the food kept disappearing!

The coconut shrimp disappeared before my eyes. I was barely able to snap this picture.

The crowd’s favorite drink was the Painkiller, a delicious mix of rum, cream of coconut, orange juice  and a touch of nutmeg. The name definitely resonated with this group of overworked professionals, so I ordered a round for the entire group.

These amazing Painkillers, made me feel that I was on vacation.
¡Salud!

I went back on Saturday, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that service on a busy weekend was just as remarkable as the attention we experienced on a Wednesday night.

I had the grilled tilapia with lemon and butter, which was perfect, and just because I already know what the locals do, I got a Painkiller to blend in. I had little room for dessert, but I got this Key lime pie recipe for you as a souvenir.

Grab a few friends and check out your neighborhood Bahama Breeze. Your own escape to the islands might be closer than you think!

Bahama Breeze on Urbanspoon

When Life Imitates Art – A dish inspired by Roy Lichtenstein

If you are in the Chicago area or plan to visit soon, The Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Art Institute in Chicago is definitely worth your time. When I first heard about it, a few of the artist’s cartoon-inspired pieces immediately came to mind.

For those of us who love Lichtenstein’s ability to speak to us with a surprisingly fun clarity (brush strokes representing grand gestures), as well as his knack for making art of the quotidian, the depth and breadth of the exhibit is a real treat. With more than 160 works, this is the artist´s largest exhibition to date.

For those who are not familiar with Lichtenstein’s work, the introduction to the artist is fun and easily relatable.

The exhibition thoughtfully spills into the food  served at  Terzo Piano, one of the eateries at the Museum, and a must-stop for lunch during your visit. I was happily surprised to find a dish inspired by the artist, which I decided to order. The meal hinted at the work of Lichtenstein in a delicious plate complete with the artist’s signature yellows and reds, lines and dots.

Let the magic of Lichtenstein make a true work of art out of an ordinary weekend . If you cannot make it before the exhibition ends on September 3, you can still stop by the restaurant for lunch. If weather allows it, consider sitting at the terrace. The views of Millenium Park are extraordinary.

If you have the opportunity to check it out:

Terzo Piano is open for lunch daily  11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. and open for dinner on Thursdays 5-8 p.m. You do not need to pay admission to the museum to enter. Reservations: 312.443.8650

Tip: If you are a Bank of America® customer you can visit this museum and exhibition for free the first weekend of each month through the company’s Museums on Us Program®Just show your credit or debit Bank of America card at the ticket counter.

Terzo Piano on Urbanspoon

Everyday Food with a Hint of Celebration

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Tomatillo Soup at Nordstrom Café. Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg, IL

I was recently delighted to find that tomatillos, the main ingredient in salsa verde, were creatively used to craft this delicious soup at my local Nordstrom Café. This glorious bowl knows how to please crowds while giving a secret handshake to Mexican food fans- the soup brilliantly merges both the everyday salsa and the celebratory pozole. If you know what this means, I am sure you are nodding in agreement.

The chef at this hidden gem is a curator, an artist, an interpreter. This dish captures some of the most representative ingredients of Mexican cuisine,  pours them into a glorious cup and serves them with a side of memories- both special, and deliciously quotidian.

Nordstrom Cafe on Urbanspoon

Pura Vitamina T – Estampas de mi Ciudad

La Dosis Nuestra de Cada Día.

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Tamalero. Photo Credits: Lissette Storch. Mexico City, Mexico.


Tamal-stuffed tortas or guajolotas are quite ubiquitous in Mexico City. These delicacies are served street-side, usually accompanied with atole, a corn-based drink.

The Best of Two Worlds: Mariano’s Fresh Market

Have you ever wished you could get the Whole Foods experience minus the price tag? After picking up your fresh-from-the-oven pizza, have you like me, ever experienced a little pang of angst knowing that instead of a Diet Coke you will have to get a bottle of green tea to wash it down?

Sure, no one disputes the benefits of antioxidants, but if you have dreamed about a perfect balance, a hybrid offering the best of both of worlds-  specialty foods, extraordinary in-store dining and your favorite brands under one single roof, your dream is a reality. It is called Mariano’s Fresh Market.

I have shopped and dined quite a few times at two of the five Mariano’s Fresh Market stores in the Chicagoland area, the Arlington Heights and the Lakeshore East locations. Whenever I visit, I feel like pinching myself  to make sure I am awake.  See for yourself. Aside from choices, you will consistently find live music at the register and an impeccable service. The depth and breadth of assortment covers anything from groceries to deli, bakery and flowers.  If you like food, Mariano’s Fresh Market makes it difficult to believe that you have not entered an altered state of consciousness.

What’s even dreamier, prices are very reasonable.

Aside from visiting the store to do your shopping, if you have the good fortune to be a local and want to run in for a quick bite,  you will find quite an array of options – sushi, guacamole and a variety of salsas (my favorite is the pineapple salsa), as well as seasonal dishes. Today, for example, a good selection of fish choices was available for those observing lent.  There is also a great variety of drinks and dessert, freshly-squeezed juice, Italian prosecco, beignets and even gelati.

I found my bakery and deli foods and even my favorite Mexican staples at Mariano’s Fresh Market.

Mariano’s has a nice casual indoor dining area that is equally suitable for families with small children, hungry teenagers or busy time-crunched professionals. In its downtown location, the store also has a patio with umbrellas.

The quality of the food is superb. I had the best rice pilaf I’ve had in years, baked chicken, grilled vegetables and for dessert, hazelnut gelato.

And yes, I had a Diet Coke.

Mariano's on Urbanspoon

Fabulous Food in the Suburbs and Other Unlikely Places

Schaumburg is definitely not known for its collection of boutique restaurants,  much less Mexican eateries. Interestingly,  an oasis in an otherwise food chain-dominated town is Nordstrom. Yes, I just found this amazing chicken torta at my local retailer. I saw this as a special on the menu and had to try it. I am not sure how long it will be featured for, but if you have a chance, swing by and try it. This is truly the best interpretation of a torta I have ever had outside of Mexico.  If you don´t happen to see it on the menu, usually the daily specials are a good way to go.

Nordstrom Restaurants give the concept “boutique restaurant” a completely new meaning.  This gem awaits you on the third floor of Nordstrom at Woodfield Mall.

Nordstrom Cafe on Urbanspoon

¡Échele Mariachi!


Gaetano´s in Forest Park is one of 600 restaurants in the world to have been acknowledged with the “Ospitalita Italiana” award for having an “Authentic” Italian restaurant.  Consider México Vivo for your own serenata, call  (312) 510-6011.

I really miss serenatas. I especially miss how my friends celebrated their mothers on Mother’s Day. They would pitch in to pay a mariachi to accompany them while they criss-crossed our neighborhood singing. The young troubadours would flag down a mariachi band nearby, and would then go door to door singing for each other’s moms. I miss hearing birthday serenatas, engagement ones, or those that happened just because. The Doppler effect of a mariachi in the distance is a cultural vignette that I am sure I share only with a lucky few.

Although mariachi is often portrayed as “comical” in many movies, in reality, mariachi music is an important part of our celebrations. From festive to solemn and romantic, these bands are a staple of events of any size. Pretty much any mariachi band holds a repertoire that touches on anything and everything that is sacred to us, except for fútbol. Playlists are learned as part of an unspoken social etiquette of sorts. Mariachi trumpets, regardless of the quality of their sound, have the uncanny ability to make me cry.

Knowing this, and wanting to distract me from my doomed battle against gravitational pull, my wonderful, wonderful husband hired a mariachi for my birthday. OK, he asked me to hire one, and to negotiate with them in Spanish for a really good rate. I know it sounds funny, but mariachi bands or at the very least tríos románticos are quite ubiquitous in Mexico. You just call them or flag them down. I didn´t realize what a luxury that was until I tried to find one in Chicago that did not require a notice way in advance and a formal contract.

I finally landed one. How to go wrong with a mariachi named “México Vivo”?  We agreed that we would meet at my favorite place. Wait. My husband reminded me that we had to make sure the venue I had chosen was OK with the idea. My favorite restaurant, Gaetano’s in Forest Park, is a culinary heaven that sits only 60. There were 12 elements in the band alone. Plus, If the name has not given it away, Gaetano’s is an Italian restaurant. It would have been difficult to make an argument for the band being representative of Italian folklore.

Enrico called Chef Gaetano DIBenedetto, the talented and gracious owner of this gem to share with him our plan. Gaetano welcomed us mariachi and all. The food was magnificent, as usual. And the mariachi did not disappoint!

Gaetano's & Ristorantino Mediterraneo on Urbanspoon