San Miguel de Allende is a quaint, small city, a Unesco world heritage site which is scenically nestled into the Sierra Madre mountains about a 3 hour drive from Mexico City. Unesco gave San Miguel its world heritage statues in 2008 because of its: its well-preserved Baroque colonial architecture and layout as well as its role in the Mexican War of Independence. Indeed the historic center is Disney perfect.
It has a pretty little church that was inspired by Gaudi’s Sagrada de Familia in Barcelona. It’s also where Neal Cassady (friend of Jack Kerouac who was the inspiration for the main character in On The Road). He had a fondness for barbiturates and ended up dying on the railroad tracks just outside of town from a combination of exposure and drugs.
Currently SMA is a big destination for expats and well-heeled Mexico City residents who like to come here for the weekend to relax, or in the case of the expats to live far from home, for cheaper :-).
SMA has the reputation as being the next big food town of Mexico. It has several very fancy restaurants, the most notable being Moxi which is in the design hotel Matilda. The executive chef is Enrique Olvera the most famous chef in Mexico who runs the #1 restaurant in Mexico Pujol in Mexico City and if often touted as one of the top 20 chefs in the world.
The other high-end dining room in town is Aperi Restaurant, which we did not go to, but looks very nice, and has New York prices to match its culinary aspirations. Speaking of fancy, the only 5 star hotel in town is The Rosewood. A massive piece of property that seems to have been created with one thing in mind: weddings. Owned by the same company who owns the very posh Carlyle on the upper east side of Manhattan these folks know a thing or two about how to cater to the rich and fussy. And those who aspire to be. One of the best afternoons I spent on their rooftop enjoying the view snacking and sipping a Michelada. Certainly at any of the above restaurants or hotels you could just as easily be in Paris or London or NYC or Sydney. They have the generic look of high-end designer rooms created for the rich. When I looked how much the rooms were at the Rosewood for the time we were there nothing was available for less than 1300 ish. Of course they have cheaper rooms, but they were all sold out. Still a basic room is going to set you back about $400 (a weekend in June is $363.33 plus taxes and services). Certainly these are not your basic room at Holiday Inn Express, they are large, with fireplaces, views, security and lots of comfort (and a beautiful boy area and spa).
For such a small city there is a disproportion amount of nice accommodation and upscale dining. For me it did not have the vibrancy, life and authenticity of Oaxaca. It’s not a town centered around its market and food, it’s a town with a market and restaurants. The market is enclosed and includes several stalls to eat at and then at the back sprawls out into a craft market. A lot of the crafts, especially the weaving, comes from Oaxaca. My favorite part of the market was the vast selection of flowers. One of my favorite places that we ate at was The Restaurant. A comfortable dining room in an enclosed courtyard, it had a smart, but casual vibe with good food and great service. Local sourcing and organic ingredients are placed front and center. The menu itself I’d characterize as international with Mexican touches. I’d recommend it if you find yourself in SMA.
The other two places we went to that we both liked were Cumpanio which has the best bakery in town and a few small tables next to the bar which are perfectly located right by the window. They also have a large dining room in the back.
There seems to be a lot of Italian food here. We had Christmas Eve pizza at a place around the corner from our hotel called Antigua Trattoria Romana. A small rustic Trattoria with bright lights, solid food, the best pizza we experienced (which was limited) and was packed every time we passed by. We had to wait 30 minutes for a table.
The only place we ate at that was a disappointment was Casa Chaquita which seemed to be getting a lot of good word of mouth as the “best pizza in town“. I would beg to differ. It seems to me like what they are trying to do is fuse Italian Pizza with Mexican ingredients and sensibility. In theory should be a good idea, the reality, for us at least was not so successful. The crust was like hardtack, personally I like a chewy, raised bread type crust with the odd charred bit that has a distinct yeasty quality. None of that here. Neil had the straight up Margherita pizza and I had the Polpette with: meatballs, Arrabiata sauce, pepper and mushrooms. There was no spice or kick to the arrabiata and the meatballs were served on top of the pizza, lonely and without sauce. They don’t list the cheese selection they put on it but one of them was very reminiscent of cheese whiz. I couldn’t finish it and politely asked for it to go. Neil, ever the pizza trooper, did finish his – but was less than enthusiastic about it. The description sounds perfect, but the reality was less so, it’s not fresh mozzarella, the sauce was lackluster and then there was the hard crunchy crust. The room where you can sit at night is right by the oven and very cozy, they have a great selection of local beers and the waitress couldn’t have been nicer. Sadly none of it could save the almost inedible pizza. The most redeeming aspect of the menu is their great selection of local microbrew beer.Neil and I stayed at the amazing Hotel Nena in a huge room with a 20 ‘ceiling that was just perfect. We got very lucky to get a room as they only have 6! Set in a posh hacienda with lots of modern art, a rooftop bar, a small restaurant and a lovely reception area. Had I been able to stay here for the rest of my 8 days I probably would have been very happy and stayed however they were sold out and I was challenged to find another place, which I did. However, I guess it’s too much to ask to be twice lucky in one trip. The highlight of which was finally meeting Chris and Skip from Asheville. Who have been Urbanfoodguy readers for years. They were visiting San Miguel and renting a house with some of their family and this was the perfect opportunity to meet.
Chris Bryant is also the man who published my recipe for Lotus Chips and Red Curry Peanut Curry Dip in his recently published book: Chips: Reinventing a Favorite Food.We met on Christmas day, then gave them a tour of our hotel and headed over to the roof of the Rosewood for pre dinner cocktails. After drinks (apparently you shouldn’t try to order a Manhattan in Mexico) we went to Moxi for dinner. Three of us had the tasting menu and Neil ordered a la carte. It was a lovely night and so nice to finally get to meet these guys who I have been interacting with on-line for nearly 8 years!
The following night Chris and Skip rescued me by inviting me to their home for dinner with their family. I was less than thrilled by my new accommodation at Casa Chaquita which was funky and very, very, very noisy at all hours. There were many other issues I had, but I won’t bore you with the details, other than to say that this isn’t a hotel it’s a few funky, noisy rooms in back of a pizza parlor and not even a very good one.
At the end of the day I was very happy to get out-of-town. I’d had enough, maybe the bad hotel experience helped motivate me, but I think really I was just ready to leave. I had a nice mini vacation with Neil, I spent two great nights with Chris and Skip, I saw a new place in Mexico and learned that for me, if I go to Mexico to escape the holidays, in order for it to be a success it needs to end on a beach. At the end of the day I found SMA boring, there it is I said it. At most I’d say it’s worth 2 nights 3 at the most. I have been very lucky to explore Mexico in these last 6 years, I have loved every place I have been. Have found so much to explore and discover in each place, Oaxaca and Mexico City in particular. San Miguel is pretty, its touristy and western in a way I’ve never experience in Mexico before. And after all the hype about it being such a food city I was let down. It can’t even be compared to Oaxaca on any level what-so-ever. I just found no vibrancy there at all. And the food is more international than anyplace else I have ever been in all of Mexico. My advice is that if you want to go and have a Mexican experience, go to Oaxaca. Go to Mexico City. SMA is interesting in that most of the tourists were mostly wealthy Mexicans from DF. If you are passing through by all means stop in for a few days to relax. I’m glad I went, but after day 4 I was ready to tear my hair out.
Sometimes you just have to know when to get on your horse and get out-of-town!