The Joy of Eating In San Miguel
San Miguel de Allende casts a sensuous spell: the local colors, sounds, fragrances and tastes have long captivated visitors. When you arrive, your senses attune to the world in a new way. And the tastes—of a fresh-cut mango, papaya dripping in lime juice, aromatic café de olla brewed with cinnamon, the slightly smoky richness of enchiladas del portal, the peculiar soft acidity of a xoconostle fruit—enliven the palate. San Miguel has long provided culinary surprise and delight, though today, one could start the day with a traditional plate of tangy, creamy chilaquiles and end it with a 15-course Japanese omakase.
Photos by: Susan York Photographer/Writer of CupCakes and CrabLegs
There are at least 300 restaurants, cafés and bars in San Miguel and they offer everything from falafel to burgers to coq au vin to ceviche. There is also a vibrant and beloved street-food scene: “Mexico has one of the best street food cultures in Latin America and San Miguel is no exception. You meet the most interesting people when you eat on the street here; a food or language lesson is often had for the price of a couple tacos,” says Susan Knight York, a food writer and photographer who has been living in San Miguel since 2013. “The food scene here drastically changed in 2016 -2017 when over 40 restaurants opened in SMA,” she explains. “Two important things changed in 2017: with a whole new category of fine-casual dining spots emerging, locals were dining out more often. Restaurant owners were also making important changes to improve the quality and consistency of the guest experience.”
Setting the stage for the explosion of restaurants in 2016-17 was the earlier arrival of some innovators in town: starting with chef Donnie Masterton and The Restaurant, opened in 2008. “The opening of The Restaurant really elevated the food scene,” says Nancy Howze. Masterton brought a dedication to fresh yet sophisticated cuisine that has set a high standard ever since. “I feel truly blessed to have made it this far. I believe opening The Restaurant helped to make San Miguel the culinary destination it is today, and I consider that one of my biggest triumphs,” says Donnie. What inspires him fourteen years later? “Seeing what’s available in the weekly markets and on the farms is a great source of inspiration. I love going out to eat to new restaurants and traveling to place like Oaxaca, Mexico City and Baja. What excites me most about the food scene here in SMA is the new young chefs opening their own restaurants and doing really beautiful and delicious food. Food that is grounded and focused."
Ann Dolan felt that San Miguel’s food scene had truly arrived when hotels like Hotel Matilda, Rosewood and Dos Casas opened restaurants with top Mexican chefs. “Matilda has hosted their elegant ‘cena negra’ every year around Día de Muertos, bringing in a guest chef and creating a beautiful experience,” she adds. “There are so many outstanding food experiences here, but honestly, simply being able to enjoy eating outdoors and to relax, not be rushed, surrounded by beautiful bougainvillea: that’s just everyday life in San Miguel.”
While San Miguel’s place in Mexican history was forged in the War of Independence (1810) and previously, as a gem of the silver-mining heyday, the town and larger region surrounding it (El Bajío) also have centuries of history in farming and viticulture. In 2019, El Bajío was responsible for 22% of national agricultural production. In San Miguel, there are abundant farm-to-table dining experiences and access to fresh, organic and biodynamic foods at local stores and markets. “When we started there were only a couple of small organic farms producing a small variety of produce. Now there are at least a dozen producing almost anything you want, from bok choy to sunchokes, twenty different varieties of salad greens…not to mention grass-fed beef and free-range eggs and chickens,” notes Donnie, who has long supported local, artisanal producers.
“As a chef, the greatest satisfaction here has been living close to the production of so much chemical-free food. Being able to go to farms, know the people who plant and grow the food, to even smell and eat the soils it's grown in, choose ingredients for freshness and ripeness has by far been the greatest joy to cooking professionally in San Miguel,” says Alicia Wilson Rivero, a natural foods chef/nutrition consultant and owner of local favorites Deli Q and Pura Vida Kitchen. “In addition to this, I've loved the closeness to many local craft food makers who are pickling, jarring salsas and jams, raising sheep and cows, cultivating honey…It's a joy to create in such a food enthusiast community.”
While dining out is certainly one of the favorite activities for tourists and locals alike, the “access to quality, fresh food that’s not expensive” as noted by Alicia, makes San Miguel a wonderful place for home cooking as well.
“I love that San Miguel has so many fresh, organic options,” says Amber Nieto. “I like going to local fruterías, like Frutería Lupita and Mercado Sano is also great. There really is nothing I can’t find between what is available here and with occasional shopping in Querétaro to do the cooking I like to do at home.”
Nancy, Ann and Amber all agree that their typical weekly meals at home are made special by the availability of such diverse and fresh ingredients. “Most of my meals I eat at home. I have a wonderful cook, so whenever people ask me what my favorite restaurant is, I say it’s my house,” jokes Nancy.
From street food to intimate neighborhood restaurants to expansive countryside settings to food festivals, San Miguel has no shortage of memorable eating experiences to offer. “Some of my fondest memories are from when our kids were little and we would get esquites (corn cobs with mayonnaise, lime and chile) or hamburgers in the Jardin,” recalls Ann. “To us, seeing how the restaurant scene has blossomed over the years is amazing, but the street food is still such an integral part of it all.”
Amber and Susan both reminisced about the excitement of Sabores San Miguel, a food festival in Parque Juárez in 2015 and 2016 (organized by Donnie Masterton and Angela Lewis Serrano) that “gave you a broad look at San Miguel’s food scene, showcasing everything from street food to the fanciest restaurants,” as Amber described. “It seems like just about everyone in the city went to that food festival. We definitely need to bring it back,” says Susan.
“I love that we have a lot of options,” notes Amber about eating out in San Miguel. “We enjoy going out to Mama Mia Campestre or other big outdoor places with room for the kids to run around on the weekends, but also my husband and I enjoy going out for a date night at places like Ryoko (Japanese) or Tostévere (Latin/International).”
What makes San Miguel unique as a world-class food destination? “We have a great group of chefs and restaurant owners who are 100% committed to SMA. They are constantly changing it up to make it interesting. They are not afraid to take risks and are always searching for new vendors and products. They travel and bring back a fresh perspective,” says Susan, who feels privileged to have witnessed this boom in San Miguel’s gastronomic offerings after years of food blogging in Chicago and around the world. “Suddenly, San Miguel was the place to eat in Mexico and I was lucky enough to be here writing about it.”
“I never cease to be amazed about the connection of the Mexican people to their native foods,” says Alicia, contemplating what continues to inspire her as a chef. “It's a connection to real food, to the endemic ingredients from the desert and to recipes rooted in hundreds of years. I learn from this and have a deep appreciation for the unbreakable bond between culture and food. ¡Viva México! I'm excited for all that's to come.”
To see a complete guide of restaurant recommendations from Nancy, Ann and Amber click here .
Kathleen Bohné Lowenstein, Writer and Health Coach
Photos of Nancy, Ann and Amber:
Lander Rodriguez, Photographer and Designer