Food Adventures

BY HELGA BOGUE

Tucked away on Calle Paseo de Malvarrossa in San Jose, is a small, charming 7-table restaurant, Las Cazuelas del Don, but I’ll get back to that shortly. Charlie and I first discovered Alberto and Elizabeth’s cuisine at the Organic Market in San Jose several years ago. We were attracted to the beautiful clay pots simmering over charcoal and what seemed like a very informed clientele waiting in line to enjoy their tasty treats.  Alberto was sprinkling cheese on tortillas that were crisping on the grill and once melted, Elizabeth would top them with a choice of treasures from the clay pots – chicken, portobello mushrooms, or cactus were the offerings.

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At first bite, you are rewarded with the beautiful earthy flavors of these wonderful fresh foods, savoring all the flavors and spices. We tried them all, couldn’t decide what we liked best, and continue to go back for more every Saturday. Alberto and Elizabeth are fun and engaging to everyone who comes to their booth, and we enjoy just hanging out and listening to conversations from people who keep returning for a tasty treat every year. 

In our conversations with them, we discovered they have a small restaurant and decided we would check it out with a few friends. Alberto and Elizabeth are originally from Mexico City, and their philosophy about cooking is “we are creating Friends Food”.  It all started when they would gather together on weekends with friends to BBQ, and one day, some unexpected friends showed up – as is typical in Mexico, and they were short of food. So they brought out a Cazuela or casserole dish and decided to experiment, checked all the ingredients in the fridge, chopped some beef, onions and spices, and created one of the beginnings of their signature dishes. Each time they got together they would invite friends to bring a secret ingredient and would create a new dish. When they first decided to open a restaurant after being at the market for a few years, they weren’t sure what kind of food they should serve. Since there are a variety of taco restaurants, as well as asada restaurants, they decided to stay authentic to their mission of making “Friends Food” and only serve their Cazuelas. 

The Cazuelas take several hours to prepare, and everything is made fresh each morning. The menu is themed on the “pleasure of sin”, as dishes are named after the 7 deadly sins: Pride, Gluttony, Greed, Envy, Lust, Sloth and Anger. Each dish is offered in a variety of different ways to enjoy it, either as a taco, torta, tostada, stuffed potato, or casserole to fix your own. All the salsas are homemade daily as well as their chips. When you go with a small group of friends, you have the opportunity to order several cazuelas to share, as each small casserole is enough for about 5 tacos. The environment they have created is all about sharing with friends in a comfortable, almost home environment. Alberto and Elizabeth do all the cooking and serving, and you really get a feeling of being in their home. They offer the opportunity to learn to cook at their restaurant on Tuesdays and Thursdays with advance booking. We decided to gather a group of 6 so we too could learn to create these sumptuous dishes ourselves. Our day started at 9:30 a.m., when we were each provided with an apron, bandana, sharp knife and cutting board, and instructed to please go and wash our hands. 

The first step before the cooking begins is to prepare the BBQ – mesquite charcoal was very carefully placed into the grill, and since Alberto does not believe in waste, he uses the grease from the chorizo as an ignition tool. He wrapped the grease inside a napkin, put it in the center of the charcoal, lit it, and like magic, we had an amazing fire with no artificial fluid or smell. We roasted nopales, mushrooms and chicken, chopped onions, cactus, mushrooms and chicken, seasoned as we went along, and before we knew it, several hours had passed. 

Our hosts provided us with some delicious freshly made Mexican coffee and empanadas filled with cajeta – our mouths were watering from this wonderful “coffee break”.  Back to work to stir, render bacon, grill and wait patiently while the casseroles were simmering. We had the experience of making our own tortillas by hand – not an easy task, and then learned to grill the ingredients in order to blend the homemade salsa. Once completed, we were able to enjoy our fresh tortillas with the salsa we just learned to make. 

Did I mention we had not even eaten the food we were preparing yet?  While we waited for the cazuelas, Elizabeth taught us how to make traditional sweet cornbread – oh the wonderful aroma of it baking as we were dining!

Alberto served us each a taco with chicken and one with mushrooms – the chicken was prepared with cactus and onions, and the mushroom with bacon, panela cheese and onions. Why did it taste so good? Was it because we all participated in making this wonderful food together, or was it because Alberto and Elizabeth have taught us to create this food with love and friends in mind?  I think it is the latter, and it doesn’t really matter because everyone was very satisfied at the end of the meal. I must say, we did manage to save some room for the creamy, sweet delicious cornbread we enjoyed for dessert! 

Las Cazuelas del Don is open Monday through Friday, and on Saturdays, they are at the Organic Market. They focus on fresh quality ingredients, and the prices are very reasonable. They serve wine, beer, tequila, and the traditional digestive “Carajillo” made with cold brew coffee.  They open at 1 p.m. and will stay open as long as the food they prepared that day has not run out. Alberto mentioned that they have had to close the restaurant early a few times because they ran out of food. They are happy to close the restaurant for you if you bring a group to fill it up.  Check them out at the Organic Market for your first taste, and then bring a group of friends for a “homey” dining experience at their restaurant.

Helga Bogue lives with her husband Charlie in San Jose del Cabo.  She is a former restaurateur and wine buyer from the Bay Area of California.