November 2011

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The Mexico Diaries: Chuey and Julio

The night the lights went out.

The air-conditioning repairman, Chuey, came by yesterday afternoon. You have to understand that I live on the second floor of a five-story building and the air-conditioners are two floors below me in the underground garage. So in order to figure out what was wrong, Chuey needed to bring an assistant, Julio, whose job was to tinker with my thermostat and then run outside and yell down the stairwell to Chuey, two floors below, for instructions. It went something like this, only in Spanish:

“Julio, turn the switch on.”


“The switch…turn it on.”

“Off or on?”

“On, damnit! Now off!”

“It is on.”

“No, you fool, I said turn it off!”

“But you just told me to turn it on.”

“That was before. Now turn it off!”

Anyway, after about an hour of this, Chuey came upstairs to tell me that my air-conditioner was broken. It needed some new parts. Unfortunately, the parts were in Guadalajara (it seems that Guadalajara has all the parts to fix things in Mexico). It would take a week or so to get them. Did I want to order them?

Yes, clearly, I told him.

All right, he said. This is good. He would find out how much the parts cost and would tell Señor Rivera who would then tell me and after I gave them the approval, they would order the parts. But I’ve already given you the approval, I said. Yes, you’ve given me the approval to order the parts but you will also need to give me the approval to pay for the parts once you know how much they will cost. Can’t I just give you that approval now? I asked. No, said Chuey. That is not the way it is done. You must wait until I tell you how much the parts cost.

Fine, I told them. But in the meantime, I’ve already gone a week and a half without air-conditioning. That is not a problem, said Chuey. I can make a small fix to the air-conditioner and you will be able to use it as long as you don’t lower the temperature below 75 degrees. Why is that? I asked. Because any lower than that puts a strain on the compressor. But if you keep it at 75, it will be fine until I can fix it.

Chuey set my thermostat to 75 and then left. Twenty minutes later all the power in my house went out. I called Señor Rivera. “Bulmaro is on his way,” he said. So now the sun has set and it is very, very dark in my house. Fortunately, I have lots and lots of candles. I light about twenty or so and put them all over the house. It looks a bit like a Mexican church on Day of the Dead. I open a nice bottle of wine and get my book and I sit at my kitchen table, candles flickering, waiting for Bulmaro.

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The Mexico Diaries: El Brujo

Miss Vicky playing with Reno in front of El Brujo.

Miss Vicky came by today to see how things were going. Fine, I told her, except I had no air-conditioning and there was a small lake in my kitchen from multiple leaks beneath my sink. “I don’t think you should stay inside your condo all day,” she said. “You need to get out.” She was looking at the bloody caesar in my hand and probably mentally noting that it was not yet noon on a Tuesday.

I can’t go out, I told her. I’m waiting for Bulmaro or one of the repairmen all the time. They have this amazing knack for showing up just when I’ve gone to take the garbage out and then it takes another two days to reschedule them. Well, why don’t you come to dinner with me in Bucerias, she said. She would be dining with friends at El Brujo.

There are a number of restaurants situated right on the beach in Bucerias. They are, for the most part, indistinguishable from one another. They all have plastic tables and chairs in the sand and are shaded by frayed umbrellas advertising Corona or Pacifico and serve large but not particularly good margaritas and local seafood. The two things I like best about restaurants like El Brujo are drinking while wiggling your bare feet in the sand and watching the sun set. Also, if you have a dog, as Miss Vicky does, you can eat while throwing a stick in to the surf for them to retrieve.

So Miss Vicky played with her large mutt, Reno, and I explained to Miss Peggy and Miss Lisa the problems I was having with leaks and such in my condo. “You should just fire this guy,” said Miss Peggy. “Absolutely,” said Miss Lisa. I explained to them how Señor Rivera’s wife had died of cancer a little over a year ago and how he was raising two little boys by himself. “Well, that’s a bummer,” said Miss Peggy, “but that doesn’t excuse him from doing a shitty job managing your property.”

Miss Vicky sat back down, exhausted from throwing the stick for Reno, and we ordered dinner along with another round of margaritas. I’m going to bring my plumber over to your place to look at things, Miss Vicky said. I told her I didn’t think that was necessary since Señor Rivera had already scheduled a plumber to check things out. Yeah, said Miss Vicky, but my guy is really good. He can also hook your water purifier up to the ice maker in your fridge so you don’t have to buy bags of ice anymore.

Well, I didn’t know about that. I’d resisted doing that after buying my fridge because it seemed like there were always plumbing problems involved with automatic ice makers. Still, it would be nice not to have to keep a 10-lb. bag of ice from Oxxo in the freezer. It made it so difficult for finding room for the vodka.

As we were eating our chicken poblano, she made a call and it was all arranged. Her plumber would be over at my condo tomorrow morning. Now I just have to break the news to Señor Rivera.

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The Mexico Diaries: Bulmaro

Bulmaro works on the pipes beneath my sink.

Friday morning Bulmaro was back at my door with his screwdriver and pliers. He’d come to disconnect my water purifier and take it to the water purifier repairman. Later that day Señor Rivera called me to say that the water purifier was broken and a part needed to be replaced. The part was in Guadalajara and wouldn’t arrive until Monday. You’d think that with a population of over 250,000 people that you could find a part for a water purifier in Puerto Vallarta but you’d be wrong. You must go to Guadalajara to get the part.

So this morning, there was Bulmaro again, standing at my door holding the water purifier out in front of him as if it were a baby he was handing back to me. It’s all good now, he told me. An hour later he’d connected it to the labyrinth of pipes and hoses under my kitchen sink. “It’s okay now,” he said.

Are you sure? I asked him. Last year when he’d replaced a filter in my water purifier, he’d also told me it was okay but it had leaked after he left.

He smiled and nodded. “Es perfecto.”

Bulmaro left and I went back to my office where I was working on a story. An hour later, I went in to the kitchen to make myself another cup of coffee and noticed a small puddle on the floor. I opened the cabinet beneath the sink. The whole area was flooded. A couple of hours later, Bulmaro was back. He had his screwdriver and pliers with him. He poked around at the pipes and flexible tubes under the sink, made an adjustment here and there, and proclaimed the whole thing in perfect working order. I thanked him profusely. An hour later the puddle on my kitchen floor was even larger than before. I called Señor Rivera who informed me that, according to Bulmaro, there was a problem with the pipes under my sink which is why there was water leaking. Yes, I said, I know that. So I think, said Señor Rivera, that what we should do is get a plumber. Would I like him to do that? Yes, I said, that would be good. “Perfecto,” said Señor Rivera, “already we are working on it.”

An hour later he e-mailed me to tell me that he had gotten ahold of the plumber. He would be here by Wednesday if not earlier. In the meantime, Bulmaro would regularly check in with me. So stepping gingerly around the ever-expanding puddle in my kitchen, I made myself a large margarita and went down to the pool, confident in the knowledge that already Señor Rivera and Bulmaro were working on things.

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A good margarita is one of those things that seems easy enough to make—like an omelette—yet so few people do it well. So let me tell you the key to making the perfect margarita: balance.

Have you read Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio? If not, you should. It’s illuminating. Ruhlman posits that if you know the simple proportions of things like biscuit dough (3:1:2—3 parts flour, 1 part fat, and 2 parts liquid) it will, as he says, “unchain you from recipes and set you free.” Ruhlman doesn’t have a ratio for cocktails, but I do: 2:1—2 parts base to 1 part modifier. For instance, to make a Manhattan, dump 2 ounces of bourbon and 1 ounce of red vermouth in a shaker of ice, shake, and strain into a martini glass. What could be simpler?

For a cocktail like the margarita, which has more than one ingredient, you just expand the ratio. Here, you have a double base, tequila and lime juice, and two modifiers, Cointreau and simple syrup, so the ratio is 2:2:1:1—2 parts tequila, 2 parts lime juice, 1 part Cointreau, and 1 part simple syrup. (Another way to think of it is that the 1 part Cointreau is modifying the taste of the 2 parts tequila while the 1 part simple syrup is modifying the tartness of the 2 parts lime juice. So it’s still a 2:1 ratio.) This ratio alone would give you a margarita as good or better than any you’ve ever had. But now let’s make it even better. To do that we need to focus on our ingredients.

First of all, it’s imperative that you use a very good 100% agave tequila. That’s what we want to taste—that agave spirit. You can make a valid argument for using either a blanco or reposado. Thomas Schnetz of Restaurante Doña Tomás in Oakland, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, insists on using a blanco tequila, El Tesoro, and I have no argument with that. Personally, I think a reposado brings out more of the roasted agave flavor, so that’s what I use. Centenario is my go-to tequila, but I also love El Tesoro or Siete Leguas when I can find it.

The lime juice is almost as important as the tequila. First of all, it can never come out of a bottle. If you have some sweet and sour mix in your fridge, like the unnaturally radiant green-colored Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix, I want you to go pour it on your blueberry bushes (they’ll appreciate the acidity). What you want are fresh limes. And not the big ol’ honking store limes the size of baseballs but the little Mexican limes (also called Key limes or bartender limes) the size of golf balls. These smaller limes are sweeter and not as acidic (and remember, it’s all about the balance). To get two ounces of lime juice, you might need to squeeze four or five limes, depending on the time of year they are harvested and the freshness of the limes.

Next comes the orange liqueur. Forget about Grand Marnier. It may make the “Cadillac” of margaritas, but do you drive a Cadillac? You do not. So don’t make a Cadillac margarita. Also avoid the cheap crap like Gran Gala. It’s yucky and will make your margarita taste yucky. Cointreau is great although I personally prefer the Mexican version, Controy. But you can’t buy Controy in the U.S. (the makers of Controy have a licensing agreement with the French producers of Cointreau which prevents the Mexican version from being sold in the U.S.—but next time you’re in Mexico, bring home a bottle of Controy and try it).

Finally, you will need some simple syrup. When in Mexico, I use a commercially produced version called Jarabe (which just means “syrup” in Spanish). It can’t possibly taste better than simple syrup you make yourself, but it does. Sort of how like Mexican Coke tastes better than U.S. Coke, I guess.

So now we’re ready to make the best damn margarita you’ve ever had. Get a martini shaker and fill it 2/3 with cubed ice (not crushed). Add two ounces of your most excellent 100% agave tequila, two ounces of fresh-squeezed Mexican lime juice, one ounce Cointreau and one ounce simple syrup. Shake. Strain into a margarita or martini glass, salted or not, as you prefer, and sip.


One last secret: The only way to make this cocktail better is to add a scant teaspoon of Princesa brand tamarindo jarabe de pulpa. You’ll have to sleuth around to find that, but if you get it, oh-my-god—you will have created la reina de margaritas. Now if it was only possible to get one this good in Mexico….

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My father's Mad Men cocktail shaker. Photo by David Lansing

My father's Mad Men cocktail shaker. Photo by David Lansing

Today is Thanksgiving and, like everyone else, I’m busy trying to burn a turkey and ruin the gravy so rather than a new blog, I’m running a post that originally ran on Thanksgiving in 2009.

My father was more Jackie Gleason than David Niven, more Walter Mathau than Fred Astaire. Sort of the blue-collar Frank Sinatra, I guess you’d say, a man’s man who loved T-bone steaks, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and playing ping-pong with my mother. He admired Steve McQueen, didn’t own a suit, and always won a free turkey around Thanksgiving in his bowling league. Always.

Oddly enough, his drink of choice was a Manhattan. Which, even as a kid, I sort of admired and was embarrassed by at the same time. I’ll tell you a story: When I was 10, maybe 11 years old, my dad would take me with him to a bowling alley on Thursdays, league night, where I’d get paid a buck plus all the cokes I could drink to keep score for my father’s team. All these guys—most a little younger than my dad—would down beer all night, but not my father. He’d order a Manhattan from the gum-smacking bar girl and she’d bring it to him on the rocks, in a plastic cup. At which point my father would pull out this ridiculous cocktail shaker, with drink recipes on it, from his shoe bag, and, after dumping the contents of the cup into it, strain it into a ribbed martini glass, which he also kept in his shoe bag. Then he’d pull out an old jam jar full of brandied cherries he’d made himself, and plop one of the scarlet bombs in his glass and another in my coke. He called my drink a virgin Manhattan—“which, as you’ll discover, is a very rare thing”—chuckling as he clinked my glass of cherry coke. This is the part that always embarrassed me: the clinking of glasses, the lame joke. This is the part I admired: his bowling buddies always treated him like a bon vivant, and me like a young prince. It left an impression.

But I came of age in a time of Harvey Wallbangers, tequila sunrises, and California wines hawked by Orson Welles. The first time I had a real Manhattan was the day my father died. I liked it immensely. I liked the way the rosy hue of sweet vermouth deepened the amber color of the whiskey. I liked its smoky sweetness, the way just the slightest sip filled my mouth with lubricious lushness. Most of all, I liked the way it comforted me at a time when I felt inconsolable. My father’s Manhattan immediately became my signature drink.

Here’s what I believe: The Manhattan is the Cary Grant of cocktails. The most charming, the most elegant, the most sophisticated of libations you can order. And this isn’t just me talking. Gary Regan, who wrote The Bartender’s Bible, says, “Quite simply (the Manhattan) is the finest cocktail on the face of the earth.” It is, he wrote in The Joy of Mixology, “the drink that changed the face of cocktails.” It’s the grandfather of the martini, pre-dating it, and the sine qua non of all French-Italian cocktails. It’s also inherently sexy (though I’ve yet to meet a woman who could actually tie the cherry stem into a knot using just her tongue).

There’s no exact record of who created the first Manhattan, but the most popular story revolves around a reception hosted by Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mum, for her father’s good friend, Samuel James Tilden, the governor of New York, at the Manhattan Club in 1874. Legend has it that Churchill asked the bartender to come up with something special for the evening, in celebration, and in a New York minute, the Manhattan was born. Not the Manhattan my father drank, of course, since in those days the whiskey of choice was rye and the maraschino cherry had yet to come along.

In fact, the Manhattan has gone through a number of permutations over the decades—from rye, originally, to Canadian whisky during Prohibition to my father’s preference, bourbon, in the 60s. And there’s always been disagreement over the type of vermouth to use—and just how much. The story goes that the original Manhattan was made with equal amounts of both dry and sweet vermouths, and this is still called a Perfect Manhattan, though in my mind there’s nothing perfect about it.

My father made his with Italian vermouth, as called for on the recipe of his goofy cocktail shaker. Back then, people referred to dry vermouth as French and sweet vermouth as Italian because that’s where they came from. These days there are all sorts of vermouths out there, including sweet whites, so you have to be more specific.

Now about the whiskey. Hardly anyone makes a rye Manhattan these days, largely because hardly anyone makes a rye whiskey (which, by law, needs to be made with at least 51% rye grains). But if you order a Manhattan back East and don’t specify the liquor, most bartenders will use a Canadian whisky—usually Canadian Club—which they will tell you is a rye whiskey. Which is nonsense. Almost all Canadian whiskies are simply blended, which means they come from a number of different barrels (Crown Royal, for instance, uses up to 50 whiskies to create its blend). Using a blended Canadian whisky to make a Manhattan is like using surimi to make a crab salad—please don’t do it. Order a straight bourbon. I prefer Maker’s Mark but Knob Creek is just as good.

When my father died, I inherited two things: his old cocktail shaker, which I still use, and his recipe for what truly is the perfect Manhattan. First of all, use orange bitters instead of the more popular Angostura. Shake exactly two drops into a martini glass, swirl it around, and dump out any excess that doesn’t cling to the glass. In a cocktail shaker half-filled with crushed ice, add two shots of Maker’s Mark and one shot of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth (I find Cinzano a little too robust and Noilly Prat too cloying—you want to taste the bourbon, not the vermouth). Swirl the mixture around but don’t bruise it; you don’t want a cloudy Manhattan. Strain into a martini glass and add a maraschino cherry—or, like my father, a brandied cherry you’ve made yourself by dousing pitted, fresh cherries in a jar of brandy.

So today, before I put my brined, organic, free-range turkey in the oven, I’ll pull down my father’s Mad Men martini shaker from the top shelf in the dining room. I’ll add a couple of ounces of Maker’s Mark, an ounce of sweet vermouth, and lightly swirl my father’s concoction. Then I’ll take that first bracing sip and smile. And at dinner, I’ll make a Thanksgiving toast–to my father’s Manhattan. 

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