An Italian in Cancun. Making the worst of a great situation.

Compare every element of the fabulous meal you ate the other day . . . let’s say, give them a 5. Now rank the experience of tonight’s meal that you just ate. On a 0-5 ranking system, what would you give them? Say the number you come up with is 3.5.

Using the same grading scale 0-5, now rank the same restaurant comparing them to a meal you ate at Denny’s . . . Denny’s is now given the 5. Now, how would you rank them, or what number would you now give? Remember you can’t give them any higher than a 5. Take into account every element . . . location, price, value, quality, consistency, customer service . . . everything. Don’t forget to add the element of expectation. Were your expectations met? ‘Cause, isn’t that the true test of fine hospitality? Meeting or exceeding the customer’s expectation”.

Now compare all of the numbers . . . was it any good?, . . . really?

Dolce Mente Pompei Ristorante Italiano IMG_0236was refered to us by several folks we had talked with while staying in Cancun. They all said it was really quite good, especially for being right next door, having an Italian owner and an expansive and impressive menu. Well, that night, we were attempting to eat something that we haven’t had over the last week, since almost everything was Mexican or South American/Caribbean. We kinda decided that Italian might be a good choice and had compared several reviews and write-ups on the internet . . . and this place seemed as though it may be hidden gem. It actually had a higher overall average ranking than many of its competitors in the area. When we walked in, hardly any seats were full on this Friday night at 6:30, but most of the tables were reserved. They still had room outside but it was a very windy and rainy day in Cancun so we wanted to be inside. We were seated conveniently near the semi-open kitchen. Once we were seated we were followed by streams of customers about another 30 minutes later that filled most all of the tables. Boy, I guess we just got lucky to still being able to get a seat at this hidden secret. Well, I’m still looking for what was hidden. Some of the reviews identified it as messy, dirty or unkept. Well it certainly wasn’t the most impressively decorated and spit-polished.

The menu looked potentially impressive, with items like carpaccio, gnocchi, several risotto, several fish entres and home-made gelato. Claiming that all of their pasta was hand-made on site got our interest. The first order of business was to get a bottle of vino flowing and we let our vintner-savve friends make the choice. The bottle arrived and was immediately identified as being chilled, or refrigerated by the condensation forming on the outside in the warmer and less arid climate. About the same time we were given a flat-bread of sort with olive oil and cheese sprinkled atop . . . but we were also served a basket of tortilla chips and plain mayonnaise and also a mayonnaise mixed with cilantro . . . WTF is this???  Ok, maybe the Italians are into “maize” or mayo”naise” also. Dunno, . . . kinda throwin’ me off here. So, the others at our table decided to allow the wine to be poured and air up to room temp. Not a bad bottle once allowed to set. Kinda odd that the bottles of red were chilled in an Italian restaurant . . . not that it’s completely wrong, . . . just odd; and the chips . . . not necessarily wrong, just takin’ us all by surprise . . .  all of this culture-shock shit. I guess I need to get to Italy soon to check out the trends. Sheesh!

We ordered a couple of appetizers because they sounded good on the menu, and the apps would be an initial test of the food to help us overlook the red wine blunder . . . oh, did I just say that? As I was saying about the apps; we ordered the carpaccio and a charcuterie dish that had prosciutto, salami, cheese and some other stuff, smothered . . . I mean drizzled with olive oil. The carpaccio was a beautiful plate complete with a very tender and thinly sliced beef filet, capers and shaved romano. They also had a salmon carpaccio that I didn’t order . . . sounded too much like lox to me. Well, the carpaccio was wonderfully delicious . . . melted in your mouth, but what is that . . . ? It had a tang that we identified as being lemon juice squeezed over it. Not typical, . . just again odd. The remaining meats and cheeses for our appetizer got us pushed to the next course, even if the salami was a mild and conservative Genoa style.

I had to try some items on the menu so I ordered the ‘ol stand-by, the meal I compare all Italian fare as being equalled across the board. I ordered the linguine and clams. Wait, no linguine? Only spaghetti and clams? Ok, I’ll try that. I’ll also have a plate of the Porcini Risotto. My wife will have the Fettucine Alfredo and our other guests, the Pork Tenderloin Porcini.

IMG_0237Well, the Pork Tenderloin was fine and since it wasn’t my plate I had only a bite to make my assumptions and analogies. The spaghetti and clams was a nicely presented plate with ample amounts of freshly cooked clams surrounding the fresh spaghetti . . . or was it? The spaghetti had a look and palate that of dried spaghetti. The clams seemed to be seasoned appropriately with lots of my favorite “GARLIC”, but perhaps a bit over cooked. They were just a bit on the chewy side. The pasta was fine but again, didn’t seem fresh. Both, however, began to draw a significant pepper aftertaste once I began to taste the risotto.

IMG_0238The Porcini Risotto was way over peppered, the consistency was too stiff and ruined my palate enough to have to stop eating the remainder of my meal because everything became too spicy with pepper. I even  had to wait until I got a glass of fresh water in order to finish due to the pepperiness in the wine.  Wow !!! Not a good risotto, even plated poorly with the used prophelactic-like looking strips of romano across the top. Enough already!!! It was pissing me off that they screwed that up so bad.

We did however encounter fresh alfredo pasta in a light alfredo sauce. I didn’t think this was a bad plate, but my wife was unsatisfied due to its lack of cheesy prowessness (if that’s a word . . . ). I actually thought this was one of the better plates and used the creaminess of the alfredo sauce to calm the powerful pepper from the risotto. I think the Alfredo plate may be why some of the gringos praise Dolce Mente. Friggin gringos!!!

As we ate . . . and we watched. And, as we watched . . . they got busy . . . SUPER BUSY. This was now a kitchen being challenged with the staff they had available. I may have this wrong; but what we calculated, was the wife of the owner trying to keep things alive both up front and in the back . . . then they got busy. We then saw the Mother of the owner, in a dress or blouse, in the kitchen helping out the back of the house. Then we saw the owner appear momentarily then head off somewhere else. Then we saw the service staff struggling to keep up with larger and larger orders. We saw them trying to get several plates out at the same time with no place to get them ready for delivery (i.e. no landing zone). Some of them under lamps and some of them covered . . . and some of them out in the open air cooling off. It seemed really out of control. Then we saw plates come back because they were cold. You know the ol’ cook sticking their finger in it test to see if the server is really telling the truth. Touch it again . . . yup, feels cold. Then we saw it!  Then, the last thing anyone getting a cold plate wants to see, especially a plate that has a protein meat on it, is to see your plate go in the microwave . . . THE MICROWAVE??? To fix an order??? On several plates??? Then we saw the same plate that went into the microwave for 5 minutes unmonitored, come out so hot, it was too hot for the server to handle. The server had to use a service tray to carry it out. Yikes!!!

Well ,I felt bad for the staff of Dolce Mente. The service was not bad, yet definitely lacked far from that of any four . . . or marginally, any three star joint. I even had to ask for a spoon to use for spinning the pasta and an extra plate for my clam shells; and I was never offered additional grated romano or parmesan cheese to top my pasta. At that point I was just into eating and watching. I was really hoping for a gem to rise out from some of the critical reviews I had read . . . but I think all of the good reviews were from all those Alfredo-ordering gringos.

So now I have to ask again, “what rank would you give them?”

Old nunsToday I’m giving Dolce Mente two very old nuns and a Pope. The Pope retired . . . maybe it’s about the same time for this place, leaving them with just the old bitties to pray for better! 

Ciao

retiring pope

Foodie

Cambalache – Cancun’s fine Argentinian dining.

CambalacheCambalache – means “bazaar” or “junk shop” . . . according to Wikipedia. Not quite sure how this relates to this fine-dinning restaurant that is part of 6 additional restaurants with the same name and also part of a restaurant group that has a couple other restaurant names. Nonetheless, it was one pretty bad-ass Argentinian restaurant that has put all that I’ve been to in the past, in their rightful place . . . well below Cambalache.

After incoherently searching the internet and speaking with several local cab drivers, bus operators, time-share sales persons and travelers on the beach; I finally came up with a short list of possible restaurants from which to help celebrate our milestone anniversary. It really wasn’t easy because most persons assumed that we automatically would target Mexican food. Well, most everything we have been eating while here in Cancun has been Mexican or South American and, not that it was out of the realm, but we just really wanted a damn good dinner.

In the heart of Cancun’s hotel district and serious young crazy party area (loud music dance/drinking clubs on every corner), Cambalache is on the second floor of the central shopping mall that also hosts Senor Frogs. The mall entrance is right between Coco Bongo and Carlos and Charlie’s. Two very loud Tequilla head shaking party monstrosities. Cambalache features elegant decor, a wide open eating area, beautiful tile flooring and woodwork that brings you into the spirit of the wonderful time you are about to encounter.

We began our evening with a bottle of Malbec that really got our palates flowing. We passed through the Empanadas (one beef, one spinach/cheese  and one Neapolitan). They were very tasty with the spinach/cheese a  real standout for flavor. The addition of garlic mushrooms finished our appetizers with tremendous anticipation of what was next.

IMG_0228The Caesar salad was hand-made at the table, as this is what I would be expecting since being created in Mexico. Although good and fresh, I instantly detected the lack of adequate salt in the dressing and the crouton was not made correctly (i.e. crispy outside, bread-like inside). I still tore that stuff up as it was only a minor setback, possibly due to our server not tasting the dressing before serving. Perhaps . . .

I think what could be said is the chimichurri was not like mine . . . again that’s like saying a pasta sauce is not like mine . . . or a salsa is not like mine. Chimis are made a billion different ways with a billion different ingredients and no-one’s as good as mine . . . or Mom’s. I hope you’re following me here . . .

We had a couple of plates consisting of a Tenderloin Brochette that was chunks of beef tenderloin intertwined with bacon, bell peppers and onions. Extremely flavorful and the meat became the standout on this plate. IMG_0229The server asked me to be cautious of the lightly grilled Serano chilis and I laughed. I don’t know if it’s the soil . . . but these were damn hot. Another plate that we shared at our table was a chicken plate smothered in mushrooms and small potatoes. I know . . . what the hell are we doing ordering chicken at an Argentinian restaurant? Trust me, there was a fair amount of controversy on that subject at the table. We also shared a hand-made potato basket full of Souffle’ Potatoes (their unique specialty). These were all puffed out, seasoned to perfection with just the right amount of salt. Carlos, our Matier D, also told us about how they were created. An interesting process of frying them three times.IMG_0230

Everything served was flavorful, cooked perfectly and presented flawlessly. Carlos also acted as our Sommelier, helped us select two bottles of wine, and provided our table with exceptional friendliness, customer service and a complimentary desert with handcrafted lettering to conclude the celebration of our occasion.

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Visit them if ever in Cancun. http://www.cambalacherestaurantes.com.mx/welcome.html I don’t think you’ll ever be dissatisfied.

Foodie

Wal-Mart, Costco, Denny’s, a dead fish . . . and a coconut bush

I recently had an opportunity to embrace the fellowship of long-time friends and life-long ‘partners-in-crime’. Traveling to foreign lands has landed us at the best kept secret since Denny’s in the United States. Without the knowledge of the language (well, maybe a little), the surroundings or having a personal tour guide, our intuition was to stay close to  home . . . to hold our cards close . . . to not trust others . . . and to stay within our realm of comprehension. cards

What I’m talking about here is traveling abroad to Cancun, needing life-sustaining supplies for the hotel room (actually a two-bedroom time share), and knowing what we know that is familiar to us in the U.S. So what do you do? Go to Wal-Mart and Costco!!! That’s where I know to buy cheap booze and chips . . . or otherwise known as our bulk supplies for an entire week.

fridge

To start our adventure, we head up to Los Angeles to catch our flight. We do all the check-in crap and decide to get our morning started right by getting a couple of bloody mary’s made up at the conveniently located sky lounge . . . or whatever it was, right next to our departure gate. Terminal 6 . . . the Redondo Beach Brewing Company. We figured the name was good enough to try it out. This was the most depressing bar I have ever encountered in my life. This old bar tender (maybe 70) had a line of patrons waiting, and this guy had no desire to keep up with demand. The bartender was the only one around and he knew it. old bar tenderWe even saw him yawning while he was looking at the label of a bottle of Smirnoff. What are you looking at? . . . just pour the shit!!! I thought this guy was going to just fall over, It literally took him about 10 minutes to make 4 bloody mary’s. I guess the amount of money he could be making did not matter because he was still going home at the end of his shift, Absolutely no sense of urgency. Absolutely no bar-friendly personality. All of the people in line waiting for drinks was watching this guy die . . . right before our eyes. The guy behind us in line even changed his order from mixed drinks to just a couple cans of beer, for fear this may take another 10 minutes and he would miss his flight.

Finally in Cancun and hungry before we spend psycho money in Wal-Mart, we try an unfamiliar establishment in the Wal-Mart shopping center, yet across the street is a very familiar Applebees restaurant; and just down the street . . . a Burger King. We read the billboard menu outside the door and recognize only simple menu items like taco, sopa (soup) and cilantro. I look around the corner and peer through a window to find what appears to be Denny’s . . . only a Mexican version.

el portonEl Porton  http://www.porton.com.mx/ was to be our first, as Nacho Libre would say, “fan-TAS-tic” meal in Cancun. The previous night we spent avoiding time-share sales persons long enough to put our bags away and head down to the resort’s buffet. The buffet featured some BBQ’d meats and fish. Not bad!

Anyways back to the El Porton story. Well we ate some stuff . . . tacos, enchiladas and some sort of chicken that looked interesting from the picture on the menu . . . you know, like ordering the Lumber Jack Slam breakfast. I just wanted some fries, and that was the only picture that showed fries. Upon the conclusion of the day, I read up about El Porton to find out it is a chain of restaurants owned by Wal-Mart. El Porton was very corporately clean and polished, all the way down to the female servers wearing nylon stockings (i.e. pantyhose). The stockings were pretty obvious because none of them matched skin tone. Well, for Mexican . . . or Latin/South American food, it was fair . . . not a bad start for my culinary prowess, however nowhere close to my destined palate’s desire.

Well, into Wal-Mart to find the usual, except hyper-Americanized-Mexican market’ish. Their product shelves resembled a Wal-Mart in the U.S., but with a Mexican flair. As to be expected, the products are to be catered to the demographic. Now what is different is the SuperMercado. A fantastic array of produce, meats and baked goods. This seemed more like a farmers style market display with everything just sitting on ice and shelves of baked goods everywhere.

Walmart 4 Walmart 3 Walmart 2 Walmart 1

To my U.S. standard of sanitation and safety, it would represent less than satisfactory conditions. Nothing looked bad, the fresh whole fish had bright clear eyes . . . and it didn’t have that characteristic foul smell of the dying meat carniceria/tortillaria that can often be found in the States. I did notice that all of the service workers in the fresh food section were all wearing face dust/medical masks. Perhaps something that would help the industry prevent illness in the U.S. It wasn’t until the next day that we witnessed the same thing at Costco. IMG_0168

By the way, Costco did have almost the same U.S. menu for their fast service food area and the service staff too were all wearing the masks.IMG_0169

A big day of shopping for us so we were bushed. We decided to head back to the resort and enjoy one of their acclaimed famous wood-fired pizzas on the beach. Not the best pizza . . . and certainly not the worse. These fresh made pizzas go on until like 10 or 11pm. Perfect for the last-minute stop before heading to our room, that has a great view of, and is surrounded by extreme coconut bushes. Yeah, we got jacked with a second story view of nothing . . . nothing!

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Well the pizza at the resort are pretty darn good. No complaints. These kids cooking the pizza were great. They really seemed to be enjoying our company and showing us how it’s done “Cancun style”.IMG_0199IMG_0186 IMG_0184Thanks to Francisco and Alfredo (“hey Fettuccine”) for keeping us amused while the tequilla kept us focused.

Centinario

By the way, . . . have you ever tried to pour booze from one of these jacked-up Mexican liquor bottles . . . ? We tried to find out on the internet, but were unsuccessful . . . so we made our own. Watch for it to show up here at www.CritDicks.com.

Foodie

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