COMAL Mexican Table Dinner wrapped up its winter series a couple of weeks ago and I had an amazing opportunity to attend as a guest at the last pop-up event of the season. Headed by local chefs Israel Alvarez (previously Sous Chef at Pujol in Mexico City, currently ranked #16 in San Pellegrino’s The World’s Best Restaurants) and Matthew Marcotte (currently Sous Chef at Canteen), the six-course experience showcased the diversity of Mexican cuisine like no other in Edmonton. Think you know Mexican? Think again. Read on for a recap!
With Cinco de Mayo coming up just around the corner, Mexican food is probably on your mind more often than usual this week. Much like me, you’re probably thinking, “Where can I get the cheapest taco?” or “How many tequila shots and margaritas can my liver (and wallet) take on?” Although there’s a part of me that enjoys the cheap taco or quick burrito, the epicurious side of me has always wondered what else I’ve been missing. What is Mexican food? I decided to start my research with the familiar: the taco. How do the tacos differ as you travel throughout Mexico? Where would I even go if I escaped the all-inclusive grips of a resort? Thank goodness for books like Tacopedia and Tacos to kickstart the answers to my questions but it wasn’t until my dinner at COMAL’s latest pop-up did I realize that I had no clue about Mexican food. Zip. I think that’s what COMAL Mexican Table Dinner really strives to do: to educate and to show Edmontonians how different Mexican cuisine can be from your standard fare.
The dinner, the third of its kind, was held at Get Cooking at MacEwan. A large communal table welcomed ticket holders and once seated, a warm mug of Chocolate Atole (unpictured) started off the night. The hot chocolate-like drink was made from Mexican dark chocolate, masa, cane sugar, cinnamon and clove spices and is popular during the Christmas season (or Las Posadas). Although dairy-free, the drink had a great richness to it, the thick consistency coming from the masa (ground corn). I loved that you could really taste the corn flavour! I highly doubt the drink will be served in the upcoming summer menu but I would welcome its return when snow hits the ground again. Is it too early to be thinking about snow?
Easing our way into the menu, a hummus-like traditional, Mayan dip was next. Ha-Sikil-Pak is usually made of roasted vegetables, charred tomatoes and Habanero in this case, and toasted pumpkin seeds. Despite no nuts in the dip, there was an incredibly nutty flavour and creamy consistency to the dish from the pepitas. A bright cilantro oil and onion ash created another fantastic level of flavour. Served with housemade corn totopo, this was such a great snack prior to the main entrees. I could have used a half a dozen more totopo chips to scoop everything up but licking the bowl seemed to be a common idea at our table!
A mix of dried Peruvian white corn and Mexican blue corn came out in the form of Esquites next. Soaked in an alkaline solution to loosen the skin and then hulled (a process called nixtamilization), the kernels were then mixed with a lime mayo, chile powder and some queso fresco. This Mexico City street food was delicious and addictive! I don’t think I’ve ever had corn quite like this. It’s a different kind of sweetness, and texturally, it was amazing.
Chile Relleno is commonly made with ancho chiles (dried poblanos) but at COMAL, they use the mulato chile instead. Stuffed with refried pinto beans and white cheddar, and served over a roasted tomato salsa, this dish was a great variation to chile relleno dishes I’ve had before. A couple of my bites were a touch bitter (particularly the tip end of the chile) but as I moved to the bulk of the stuffed pepper, everything started to taste more balanced. If you served me that roasted tomato salsa in a bowl and gave me a spoon, I’d be a happy camper.
In addition to the Chocolate Atole, a Margarita of pineapple, mint, tequila, and Cointreau and rimmed with lime, chile, and salt is included in the meal. Perfect timing for a refresher.
I can count how many times I’ve had mole on one hand but that’s enough for me to know that it’s one of the most complex sauces I’ve ever heard of. COMAL’s Black Mole uses over twenty ingredients and took a week to make. Holy. Moly. I was surprised to see the mole so thick but was told that mole can come in all kinds of colours and consistencies, depending on its application. The secret to a good black mole? Apparently the Mexican chocolate, sweetened with cane sugar and seasoned with varying spices, making even dark chocolate a measly substitute. Traditionally, moles will have at least two kinds of chiles and can include ingredients that are sour (like tomatillos), sweet (dried fruits and varying forms of sugar), spices, or used as thickeners (like nuts, seeds, and tortillas).
Judging from COMAL’s picture, that’s five checks all around! The plate itself was simple, roasted carrot and toasted sesame and hand pressed corn tortillas to showcase the mole. Knowing the complexity of the sauce, I really appreciated the varying flavours that pulled through as I ate more of the dish: the chocolate was predominant and then the chile and spices after a few more bites. Yum!
The big savoury finale was a trio of tacos, served communally and in my opinion, the best way to serve food! Something about getting to know your table mates, friends or family over shared plates — it’s irreplaceable! I tried the Duck Carnitas first, done well although could have used a touch more seasoning for me. The Beef Barbacoa was a table favourite, an indication that the labour of love that went into the dish clearly showed. Marinated with Mexican Adobo (ancho, papilla, guajillo and morita dry peppers) and wrapped in banana leaves, the beef was then slow cooked for hours over low temperatures to produce a fantastic dish. Vegetable-lovers have no fear, the Poblano Rajas ranked high on my list, kernel corn, green zucchini and cremini mushrooms topped with crema and queso made for a great vegetarian option. Better yet, combining it with the duck carnitas — sooooo good! Accompanying the pans were a trio of salsas. Traditionally, salsas should be served in each application: roasted, fried, and raw. The salsa verde (roasted), chile de árbol (fried), and guacamole (raw) served me just fine! All three had their own merits but the spicy chile de árbol was my favourite. Cooled down with a heaping spoonful of guacamole and man, build your own tacos will just never be the same again.
I’ll leave you to guess at what point and time I started getting full (trust me, it was before the margarita) but there’s always room for dessert. Especially if it was the Meringue Bomba, an ancho chile ‘tatemado’ with pecans, fresh raspberries and chocolate and yogurt. It was a great way to finish off the meal, not too heavy and just the right amount of sweetness!
At $120 per person price tag, you can think of this as a “special occasion” kind of meal. I think having a lower price point that doesn’t include alcoholic drinks would fare better for COMAL in the long term but I also understand the amount of time and effort that was put into this dinner is outstanding. The meal was definitely a one of its kind in Edmonton and a great learning experience as well! I’m looking forward to the summer menu, one that I think would feature new dishes that are lighter and brighter for the season. The winter menu was well rounded and loved how a lot of the dishes were quite unfamiliar (to me at least!) and then ending with communal style tacos — something comfortably familiar to most. Hopefully one day we’ll get to see COMAL operate as a full restaurant. I know I’ll be there. To keep up to date with COMAL Mexican Table Dinner, follow them on social media — Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!COMAL Mexican Table Dinner
Disclaimer: I was invited as a guest to the April 17th, 2016 COMAL Mexican Table Dinner.