skewered and spit-roasted

Named after the symbol for the Santa Ana Pueblo, Corn Maiden is the fire-roasted restaurant at Hyatt Tamaya. Blending local Southwestern flavors with traditional tapas plates meant for sharing in an adobe-style home, chef Sam Reed incorporates native tradition into present day concepts beautifully with such starters as Crispy Quinoa Fritters with piquillo pepper coulis and razor-thin Buffalo Carpaccio dressed with shaved Reggiano and a chiffonade of basil. Skewered, spit-fired meats however are the specialty of the house and they, too, do not disappoint. Brought to the table on a sword, the house classic, k’uchininak’u, includes a fiery local chorizo, Fresno chile chicken, and a hunk of chile-rubbed heritage rib eye. A trio of sweet and savory sauces – mole, peach salsa, and a cactus chutney - sets off each of the individual meats, leaving barely any room for the accompanying potatoes au gratin, let alone any desert dessert.

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top 100: empellón taqueria

The best part about the Top 100 project? Simple: stuffing myself silly. Yet it’s not  as easy it sounds. With the exception of a few casual establishments my dining experiences to date have been notable for a measured degree of formality. (Perhaps that’s the true price of a $300 dinner for two.) At times you’d almost be excused for thinking the only way to get an exceptional meal in this city was to suffer through a multi-course tasting menu in a suit and tie. Not so at Empellón, thankfully – or Empellón Taqueira as it’s now called. Chef Alex Stupak’s wise and wonderful interpretation of la cocina Mexicana may be civilized down to its crunchy chilaquiles but that shouldn’t stop you from rolling up your sleeves and getting down ‘n’ dirty. Begin with a bowl of guacamole, which is studded with cashews and comes accompanied by two salsas, tangy red arbol for purists and a smoky cashew that seems tailor-made for hedonists. (Put me in the latter camp; I appreciate the red sauce, but I’d happily eat an old shoe if it was dressed with smoky cashew.) If you’re one of those folks who cringe upon hearing people wax poetic over chicharrones, chef Stupak will open your eyes to the beauty that is deep fried pork skin. Served warm with a roasted tomato and caper salsa, there is something deeply satisfying to the crackling sound which rises from the plate, like an overactive bowl of Rice Krispies. The texture is light and crunchy, yet alive with salty, porky good flavor. I challenge you to eat just one. (Unless of course, you’re like one of my dining companions and you’re in town from Rochester – in which case, you’re now wishing you could find a nice quiet Taco Bell and scarf down a gordita or two.) Eyes bigger than my stomach, a trio of appetizers arrive in quick succession: tuna with pickled potatoes and chorizo mayo, which should henceforth be packaged as a summer staple for city picnics, silky rounds of octopus with parsnip and salsa papanteca, a savory mix of pumpkin seeds and chipotle which on first glance looks overpowering but instead brings each flavor together quite marvelously, and a salad of sweet roasted beets with sikil pak, a creamy Mayan pumpkin seed dip that could easily be the new hummus, topped with a scatter of bitter sorrel leaves. In case you’re wondering, everything goes incredibly well with a neat pour of mezcal, too – notably the smoky Fidencio Madrecuixe. I’m physically unable to resist fish tacos whenever I see them on a menu, so forgive me, I didn’t get to sampling either the beer braised tongue or lamb barbacoa tacos – both of which sounded intriguing. But no worries because the tempura battered fish is that perfectly simple yet elusive combination of creamy flesh and crispy shell. Spiked with a dab of lime mayonnaise and the clean crunch of radish and cabbage, I can convincingly predict that I will order these fish tacos every time I visit – with a side of crispy yucca, please, my new favorite form of starch. As I wipe a dollop of smoky cashew off my shirt - excellent as a dipping sauce for the yucca – it occurs to me that therein lies the problem at Empellón: my utter lack of self-control. Every morsel of this meal has been not just good, but great –  in a full-but-can’t-stop-eating, bowl-licking, chip-scraping, my-palate-is-alive kind of way. I’m at capacity and yet I’m trying to convince my companions that we must have the churros rolled in cinnamon sugar with masa-enriched hot chocolate. Dining at Empellón could be a prim and proper experience if you choose to make it that way, but take it from one who’s stuffed and stained and still wants more: it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

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top 100: recette

I’d been dreading this moment since I started the Top 100 project. Mind you, I knew it would arrive; I just never imagined it would arrive so quickly, the subtle realization that as it is in the theater, each night’s kitchen performance is unique – and that remains an essential part of the thrill. Some nights the stars align, defying explanation – let alone codification – to deliver magic on a plate. Other nights – blame the full moon or just an off night – the effort is strenuous and entirely respectable, if not necessarily worth a standing ovation. The meal I eat tonight – despite a restaurant’s striving for some degree of consistency – will rarely, if ever, be the same meal you eat. So let’s just leave  it at this: the stars did not align at Recette the other night. That’s not a knock on Jesse Schenker’s food, which is urbane and thoughtful to a fault at times. (You could do a whole lot worse in this city, believe me) Yet I arrived expecting something ineffable.  What was served was pretty. But for a $300 price tag, entirely too practical.

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meet me at the mercado

The Mercado de San Miguel food market is housed in a fantastic glass and cast iron structure that dates from 1916. It strikes me as the type of building that might have once been abandoned and earmarked for demolition due to its prime location in the heart of the city – until a few savvy foodies with a vision for what it could be came along, that is.  Renovated and opened as a boutique delicatessen in 2009, the Mercado is a locavore’s heaven, with individual market stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to meat, fish, bread and baked goods.  This being Spain there’s a good wine bar, too, so you can feel free to enjoy a glass of Rioja with your shopping. Or even better, make it a lunch date and tapas hop your way from stall to stall to stall.

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