La Estancia del Centro
Avenidas Morelos and Juárez Veracruz,
L and I have had something of an obsession with molcajetes, particularly their usual short stocky legs and animal faces, since we saw them used as salsa bowls at a Chicago restaurant last year. Last week, while I was in Veracruz, Mexico for an academic conference, I discovered that while there I would actually be able to eat molcajete the food, a pre-hispanic dish made with a heated mixture of salsa, spices, and nopal, ground together to form a sauce, then used to cook meat and vegetables inside the molcajete pot.
I read in my Lonely planet book that La Estancia del Centro (the Mexico lonely planet guide misprinted the name as La Estancia de Boca) was the best and only place in Veracruz to eat molcajetes. La Estancia del Centro so publicizes its molcajetes, in fact, that they use the iconic image as the symbol for their restaurant. With reviews and a kitschy logo on my side, I knew I had to try this place.
It was 7pm when I made the short walk from Veracruz’ zócalo to La Estancia. I was the only diner in the restaurant at the time (7pm is far too early for dinner for most Mexicans), but was served promptly and courteously. I ordered quickly – a molcajete of enchilada meat, cooked in a green salsa base. The server took my order, and then immediately brought out my complimentary appetizers: a strangely crumbly piece of bread (as opposed to the typical tortillas) served with three different dipping salsas. The bread was completely incompatible with the salsas, full of holes that let the sauces fall through, but as the only things on the table I had no choice but to put them together. I picked away at the bread and the salsas, testing out their different flavor combinations, when my molcajete finally arrived.
The large stone bowl, decorated with animal legs and a pig head front, had been used to prepare all the food and then heated in an oven until sizzling. One needs to be careful, as one touch of the heated stone bowl is just as dangerous as a boiling pot of water. I mixed around the contents: the salsa base (which looked much more red than green to me), the meat, and two small onions. The dish came with an endless supply of corn tortillas (I’d take advantage).
One thing I have always appreciated about Mexican cuisine in general is the way a number of different sauces and spices are incorporated that allow the eater to experience a variety of different flavor combinations inside the same meal. This was no different. The molcajete, by itself, was absolutely delectable. The nopal gave the meat and sauce an acidic finish, leaving your taste buds tingling just enough to get more. But with that, one could combine any or all of the three salsas, which seemed to take on different flavors than when eaten alone. One made the molcajete almost unbearably spicy, another gave it a cooler, lime flavor; and the third (a disappointment) didn’t seem to do much at all. All in all, the meal was large, hearty, and outside the weird bread, a fantastic culinary experience. The best part? The price – a meal easily large enough for two people cost a total of 90 pesos (around $9 US).
A final thought – this seemed to be a meal you can get in very few places in the world, and one I am very anxious to try some different versions of. Chicago has a great selection of Mexican regional cuisine, so perhaps there is a good spot in the city to find some. Until then, La Estancia del Centro was far and away the best food I had in Veracruz, and any return trip I have to the city will definitely include another molcajete.