San Miguel d'Allende: where time stops, art flourishes

San Miguel d’Allende, the artsy, calm, colonial town nested in the El Baijo lowlands about a three-hour drive from Mexico City, can be best defined by its warm colors. The brush of nature was generous on its romantic canvas, while human hands painted the walls of its tiny historic centre with pastel and bold colors as well as depictions of the daily strugles of millennial life. Emotions gush from its mature heart affecting the locals and visitors alike.
Mexican colonial town
The romantic movie set of sun setting beyond the horizon continually reveals coral, light peach, butterscotch, ochre and pink rose shades, visually warming even the white washed facades. Such tranquile beauty captivates deeply spiritual souls as well as travellers seeking the charms of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you come from Europe, the town may feel somehow familiar. The spiking Parish church of San Miguel Arcangel surrounded by cupolae of the adjoining Catholic buildings and cafes under the main square’s arcades recalls a scene from a Southern Spanish town. The historic centre with its clumsy cobbled narrow roads were indeed adapted from the Old Continent by the colonizing Spaniards. Mind your step as here only sturdy sneakers will save you from sprinking your ankle. Imagine if the Prague’s Charles Bridge was not repaved from the 14th century, welcome to the rustic walks around San Miguel!
Buildings in San Miguel d'AllendeMexican Street art
The colonial architecture is the lungs of its walls, breathing with sights of remorse asserting its bloody legacy. One of the most important battles for the Mexican Indepence from Spain married into its last name. Ignacio Allende, a native of the town, was one of the leading figures of the insurgence that fired up in the surounding state of Guanajuato.
What you find here today though is that most of the art is locally conceived and authentic. As street art has become respected by the authorities, its blooming beauty can be now appreciated across Latin America more than anywhere else. The Mexican muralists are globally recognized as the maestros of connecting their work to the public emotions. Often politically elloquent, their depictions of violent reality as well as fantasy, are powerful.
Mural by Mexican artist A Castro
You will get lost as if diving into a deep ocean cave when looking at the mural by David Leonardo Chavez [pictured above] at the local Public Library. Mystic love and warmth in his colorful paintings depict complexity of life. If you seek beauty in art, not artists’ depresive outpourings, then you will find plenty of joy in San Miguel d’Allende.
This small artistic quake, has spurred a tsunami of contemporary public art found across the country. From the late Diego Rivera, Orozco to the politically charged appeal of the murals by Siqueiros, today art is better nourished in Mexico than anywhere else South of the US border.
Many galleries here support local talent. The B’Nai Or Art Gallery inside the Instituto Allende, a working art school, organizes regular exhibitions. The owner himself is a musician and his electric guitar inspires the creative expression of David Leonardo, the resident artist I mentioned earlier. Great music sends vibrating shivers all over your body and can well out creative work in sensitive individuals.
Another building nurturing artistic creativity, where many world renown artists taught (Siqueiros) or studied (Pablo O’Higgins), is the former College of Fine Arts. Now the Ignacio Ramirez Cultural Center “El Negromante, is a must visit attraction, where many magnificent murals adorn its interior.
Mexican muralContemporary Mexican food
Contemporary street art found its way from the public walls to the local restaurants plates. The chef Matteo Salas at Áperi, located inside the boutique Hotel Dos Casas prepares a gastronomic feast every night for his tasting menu. The new hotel is a more personalised option for lodging in town, yet by far the best in the region is the Rosewood Hotel. This sprawling property offers the best panoramic views from its rooftop bar Luna as well as from some of its rooms. Unfortunatelly, the tapas served there is nothing special, so for a better meal head downstairs into the hotel’s 1826 restaurant, that over the years proved itself as one of the finest dinings in town.
For a more sustainable and healthy meal the community run organic cafe and market Via Organica might be more appealing. During a very slow food breakfast or lunch savor the chemicals-free local ingredients and become the part of the local mostly expat supported eco-friendly lifestyle.
Coffee in MexicoMexican street art
With so much inspiration around, let your inner muse pour out of the mind’s bottle by engagin in a painting, sculpture or any other art class. Many artsits here share their experience of art with anyone interested. Find them either at their workshops or get recommendation from your hotel concierge. I painted in the garden of the Rosewood hotel and enjoyed it so much that I did not want to leave my agave unfinished, but as time flies seing other people’s art was more important than my amateurish indulgence.
Most of the artists workshops are crammed into La Aurora, a former textile factory in the North of town. Although much of the merchandise there is rather commercial, you can still find serious galleries and even artists working on a new canvas inside.
To refuel, hang out or to find a talkative companion, sit down and dive into the slow cloud of the local coffee shops and cafes. Considering its compact size, San Miguel has highly addictive coffee culture, dotted around its hilly cobbled streets. I find the rustic ambiance of Lavanda Cafe attractive as one of the most precise coffee experiences in town.
Types of Mexican peppers
Vist of the local covered food market or the weekend organic fair outdoors is also a colorful affair. There you will find typical Mexican produce, such as the hot, mild and distinctively colored peppers, from bright yellow, spring green, sexy red to a moody black. The most common sightings on the autumn market are nopales (cacti fruit), tamarind, corns and the green chayote gourd.
Mexican cacti fruitMexican street food
For a snack, in Mexico called antojito, bite into boiled corn or have some freshly made tortilla with endless toppings. Chapulines, the protein rich and almost fat free grasshopers, larvas and other insects make any casual taco a gourmet experience. If chewing the bugs raw or plain grilled is too adventurous, mix these weirdly looking animals with plenty of creamy guacamole and enjoy this sustainable food of the future!
Tortillas from different types of cornMexican antojitos
Local style gelato is also much loved, especially during the hottest months (May and June) when daytime temperatures can reach over 35degrees. Luckily for the area the dry mountain air and cool winds turn at least the summer evenings into a delightful soirees outdoors. From December to February, when many Mexicans arrive for the holidays, it can get cold in the night, but mornings are again pleasantly warm. During the rainy season from June to September is the least desirable period for visit.
Mexican ice cream in San Miguelcorn
San Miguel d’Allende might incide patriotic pride of the Mexicans, yet today many of its residents are foreigners seeking the safe heaven in the crime rigged country. Historically, the American expats arrived after the World Wars to create freely in its amicable ambiance, most of them are older now, and their children took the bohemian reigns of artists life.
The region is quite immune to violence and the all too common robberies in the Districto Federal (the capital city) and by drugs infested North. Still, better be alert in particular in the dark alleys once the sun ceases to light up the exteriors.
Many Mexican celebrities and politicians found a refuge in this charming town, and it is likely that you will fall for it as most of the visitors did in the past. Let your creativity flow, if at least for the time spent in San Miguel d’Allende.

Quintonil: Mexican herbs deeply seeded in contemporary cuisine

Pure, unpretentious and wood craving Nordic design meets local ingredients at Quintonil. As one of the most groundbreaking restaurants in contemporary Mexico, the Noma and Pujol experiences of the chef funnelled into an unconventional blending of regional Mexican cuisines.
Set in the posh Polanco, on a leafy street off the luxury-gleaming Avenida Presidente Masaryk, a discrete entrance secures comfort in the wildness of the 21 million maze of Greater Mexico City. Inside the restaurant wears a casual cloak of simplicity, allowing a room to a display of Mexican warmth and curiosity through its friendly service.
Jorge Vallejo, a youthful force behind Quintonil, is the rising culinary star of the moment. Personally sourcing from small farm operations to wield ultimate control over quality, and tweaking the home cuisine of his nation into more elaborate yet clean presentation, is smartly aligned to the current dining trends. Quintonil is a wild green herb native to the gastronomically abundant Oaxaca region in Southern Mexico. Since local herbs widely define the restaurant’s creative dishes, this name aptly captures its spirit. Locally sourced, native ingredients showcasing Mexico’s culinary diversity inspired by its resources.
Flowers, powders and miniature herbs highlight the visual artistry on each plate. The chef’s learning curve spiked when he joined the team (as the head of catering) at Mexico’s most lauded restaurant Pujol, while brushing through the kitchen of the then World’s Best Restaurant Noma in Copenhagen awakened his creative spirit. With Pujol’s chef Enrique Olvera flying more often to launch new restaurants, the three-years-young Quintonil remains more focused on its kitchen and it shows in the precision of the food. The chef’s wife, a trailblazer in the international hospitality management, perfects the experience by bringing a family warmth into the trendy yet cold contemporary austerity.
Mexican tostada
Distinctively Mexican ingredients such as poblano amaranth, avocados, beans, corn, sharp Cotija goat cheese, a rainbow of chilies, huitlacoche fungus infesting corn, all shades of green herbs such as epazote and huauzontle (green herby part of the amaranth), nopales from the prickly cacti as well as turkey (native to Mexico) are used by the chef.
By using the Mexican names of the star ingredients in each dish, Vallejo confuses as well as educates. The menu thrives through its patriotic language, and an outsider can find herself like Alice in Wonderland. Unless your dining companion is a well-read Mexican chef or the staff is willing to dive into the depths of your uncertainty, you will brace your dining experience at Quintonil with my well-researched highlights from the chef’s favourite ingredients, that he often incorporates into his seasonally changing menu. Here are the leading autumn flavours through the palate of Jorge Vallejo.
To warm us up to the Mexican culinary fiesta, a welcome compliment from the chef arrived in a crystal cup of refreshing cold nopales soup. My first ever slurp of this green been resembling, but thicker and more succulently textured paddle-like outlier of the cactus fruit. A good introduction.
Perhaps the most exotic appetiser for a Westerner was the “Salbute” with glazed mushrooms, “escamoles” and chile. Curious, I had to order this by Yucatan inspired antojito (snack). The Salbute is made with corn masa (dough base for all tortillas), that is cooked on a dry, hot cast iron skillet until slightly puffy. A delicate cut into the salbute for stuffing is then sealed and lightly fried. They are typically topped with tomatoes, lettuce, a slice of cucumber, ground beef or chicken, avocado and pickled onions. At Quintonil through the escamoles (ant eggs), mushrooms and spices were stuffed inside, while the crispy tortilla lid was dotted with caper-hued dollops of sauce covered by herbs. The firm egg-white texture of the ant eggs is nothing to worry about, its straight-forward and simple taste though calls for spices or a sauce, and the chef did a brilliant mix for the stuffing.
Escamoles ant eggs
A hearty String cheese soup with fried pork belly and plantain is another re-imagination of a typical Mexican staple. Often a backbone of lunch, the main meal of the day, this stew-rich “sopa” draws from the popular Queso Oaxaca, also known as string cheese quesillo (used in quesadillas), ubiquitous in the Southern Oaxaca region. The coastal state of Veracruz adopted plantains from Africa while pork sailed once from Spain, so this creation reminds of the Mexico’s historic influx of foreigners and their native ingredients since the 15th century, changing its prehispanic cuisine forever.
The main courses also pick from both the indigenous pre-Hispanic and the colonial know-how as in the Octopus in its ink with potatoes and “longaniza”. Longaniza is a chorizo-style Spanish sausage, in this dish adding spicy richness to the succulent tentacles of the octopus. Potatoes are the closest import (Peru) featuring in this high-profile tasting plate. Served cut and roasted with their skin with shavings of white turnips, red radishes and grilled green cherry tomato, the balance between rich and fresh flavours was cast perfectly.
With the Duck in “recado negro” sauce, pickles and kohlrabi, the chef applied the Eastern fermented foods vibe to a traditional Mexican spice blend recado negro, also known as chilmole or black chile paste based on burned hot arbol or ancho chile, vinegar, annatto seeds, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, garlic, onion, oregano, epazote and salt.
Mole is a complex sauce of spices, herbs and other regionally distinct ingredients such as fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables or cocoa. There are as many moles as there are families in Mexico, but their regional name is strictly related to the type of chile used. That is why I was attracted to a vegetarian plate of “Chilacayotes” in homemade mole, charred tortilla, basil and lemon thyme sprouts. Chilacayote is a type of squash, its harsh and thick skin brings to mind a pale watermelon. While, its taste tends to attract sweet preparations in Mexico, the chef used it instead of meat in a harmonious friendship with his mole sauce. Comal, the flat griddle is used for cooking tortillas was surpassed by the chef, who charred it to an effect of a sexy smokey eye, deep and addictive.
Ocosingo Cheese Flan, Celeriac Ice Cream, sugar-coatet cocoa nibs and toasted almond tile
A cactus sorbet was served complimentary to clean our palates prior to our dessert feast. The convent nuns from Europe introduced many sweets to Mexico, but there are plenty of native local fruits as well as vanilla, the noble pod plucked from orchids, that bring the triumphs to the table.
As in the Mamey pannacotta, sweetened corn crumble and mamey seed ice cream, where the orange-tinged thick-skinned Mamey sapote fruit native to the Meso-America took the main stage. A truly contemporary dessert, light and multifaceted with icy texture through smooth pudding of mamey to crunchy corn crumbs.
Spain met the local cocoa, a flower garden, and the modern infatuation with the vegetable desserts in Ocosingo Cheese Flan, Celeriac Ice Cream, sugar-coated cocoa nibs and toasted almond tile. Almonds were a Spanish import as much as cheese while nobody can dispute the origins of the cocoa obsession, here you taste the sweet marriage of the Old with the New Worlds.
To accompany the desserts, the Mexican high elevation coffee, herbal infusions from the restaurant’s own garden as well as, upon request, the Mexican speciality of spiced up and by unrefined rapadura cane (Piloncillo) sweetened Café de Olla prepared in clay pots are offered. Following the advice of our Mexican chef companion we chose the latest, a cinnamon flavoured caffeinated treat on its own. A must try!
Mexican mamey fruit dessert
If your appetite allows, and to shortcut your decision process, go for the best of the season in a ten-course tasting menu. For less than 70 US$ it is a bargain.
The wine selection is appropriate, but we were ravenous for Mexican wines. The trio of red Cabernet and Merlot blend in Unico Gran Reserva by Santo Tomas as well as the Gran Amado and Icaro, left us gasping for more Mexican wine during our inaugural trip to the country. The best red wines in Mexico are made in the long thin strip of Baja California. The Spanish brought the grapes with other plants and animals during their conquest and catholicism sustained its demand in a tequila dominated country.
Whether you are infatuated with “entophomagy” aka insect-eating, traditional in Mexico or more curious about a more appetising fusion of the adventurous local fare, Quintonil is the ideal initiation. Not too shocking, but rather refined Mexican gourmet odyssey served on unpretentious artisan pottery. Buen provecho!
🕗  Mon-Sat: lunch 1-5 pm, dinner 7-11 pm; Closed on Sundays
✉  Newton 55, Polanco, Mexico DF
 +(52) 801 660; +(52) 800 254; +(52) 802 680

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