Epic Montreal-Monterrey Trip #7 (!Viva Monterrey!)

Jan 11th, 2004, 06:31 AM
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Epic Montreal-Monterrey Trip #7 (!Viva Monterrey!)

Despite my initial negative impressions of the city, in retrospect, given how much the city and surroundings offer and its proximity to the USA, I'm amazed how few people have even heard of Monterrey, a city larger than Houston. While it may have less history than other places in Mexico, the city WAS founded by Diego de Montemayor in 1596, which makes it older than any lasting settlement to my knowledge north of the Rio Grande. Some Mexico guidebooks don't even *mention* Monterrey at all, kind of unbelievable in my eyes, for a city that has as much to offer as this one does. Given its proximity to the US border, it was amazing to me how few white, black or Asian faces I saw! Many of the restaurants here I found to be of exceptionally high quality, museums interesting and well-presented, the Zona Rosa and Centro teeming with people strolling and enjoying life, a clean-and-efficient Metro system, beautiful mountain vistas in many directions (except when there was smog) and streets in the Barrio Antiguo I found to have a unique charm that I haven't seen anywhere north of the Rio Grande. To top it all off, it was a great opportunity to practice my Spanish, expose myself to another culture/history and open my eyes generally. Monterrey get my vote for underrated North American city!

I ate at Casa del Maiz on Abasolo/near Dr. Coss in the Barrio Antiguo. This restaurant specializes in pre-Hispanic Mexican food; I loved this place so much, I went twice. Casually hip Mexican crowd, this place served up some delicious dishes: Quesadillas with Flor de Calabaza (squash leaves, I think) and Huichacotle (?) (no idea what this is!) were good as Entremeses; for main course, I had their Memelas with Pinga de Rez (a spicy beef?) which looked kind of like an oval pizza but with more Mexican flavours (poor description I know). Upstairs, there's a bar...of the beers I tried (I prefer lagers), I especially enjoyed the Tecate Light. Red curtained, very branche ambience!

Cafe del Paraiso also in the Barrio Antiguo is a good place to go for drink and dessert. Bands play, talented Regiomontano artwork showcased here.

Las Monjitas in the Zona Rosa was also quite good. Nuns (or women in nun outfits?) served dishes. My friend ordered the Queso Fundado and some nachos! One thing I'll say is that all the tortillas, hard or soft, were of incredibly high quality and tasty everywhere I went. Fantastic experience.

Highlights architecturally were the Palacio del Gobernio (Monterrey is the capital of the state of Nuevo Leon), the peaceful, beautifully-sculpted Fuente de la Vida, the Catedral de Monterrey, the beautifully-designed gardens and sculpted bushes of the Macroplaza, not to mention the original facade of the Obispado (chirrigueresque,my guidebook says describes the facade, whatever that means...) and the beautiful Castillian homes near the Obispado. Parque Fundidora was also a respite from some of the noise/bustle of city with interesting structures celebrating the city's industrial history as well as some modern art, fountains, many benches and a lake. (Metro: Parque Fundidora or Y Griega) People were out rollerblading, kids on electric scooters and picnic tables were available.

Of the museums I went to, the MARCO (35 peso entry) had an incredible exhibit of Maestros Mexicanos. There were two paintings I especially appreciated, one of birds that were trapped in ribbon (speaking of environmental destruction inhibiting their freedom I think) and one of a woman with many different poses (with a cut, with dandruff, sad, neutral, etc...), which spoke to me of the real vicissitudes of humanity.

The Museo de Historia Mexicana (only in Spanish) was also fantastic; I could have spent a day here, but only spent an hour! The computer interactive museum offered much insight into Mesoamerican Prehispanic society. I found fascinating all the symbolism, advancements in science/mathematics, agriculture and architecture that were made in these ancient civilizations prior to the arrival of the Conquistadores! Interactive screens allowed museumgoers to learn about the history of the Mexican forefathers by pushing a computer button, one can make queries. Super!

Outside the Museo de Historia Mexicana was the Paseo Santa Lucia, a canal-like real water river (lots of fishes swimming inside!) where romance was in the air! Outdoor theaters, lots of places to sit, charming statuary, couples making out, best friends strolled arm-over-arm, unagressive street vendors sold their wares.

Incidentally, I ended up changing hotels and staying at the Gran El Paso Autel which was ideally situated (3 blocks north of the Macroplaza on Zaragoza/near Aramberri) for exploring el Centro of the city by foot. For 470 pesos (ca. US$45)/night, with breakfast included (choice of huevos rancheros, huevos revueltos con papas, chilaquiles, among others...quite good! tortillas always top-notch!) and a comfortable room with excellent room service, I was very very satisfied. I checked out the rooms this time to make sure they mostly insulated me from all the hubbub of poor-mufflered cars/trucks/buses on the street outside. I slept very well here!

Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 11th, 2004, 02:58 PM
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A very unfortunate typo I noticed in re-reading this entry: the Memela had "Tinga de Rez" not the other word I wrote! I've got to learn to edit!
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 12th, 2004, 04:01 PM
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Daniel,

I replied to one of your messages from a year ago, when you were looking for information on Monterrey. I'm really glad that you had a nice time here.

Oh, and you've written an excellent report! First time I heard there's an Irish pub at the barrio antiguo... Need to go there. And your description of a Memela is perfectly accurate. The only difference is that the "pizza" is made with corn flour, not with wheat. And tinga is indeed a dish of shredded beef slowly cooked in spices (mainly dried chiles and a bit of vinegar).

A funny thing... "memela" is a word that is dangerously close to a slang word for "suck", and "pinga" is slang for male privates...
Jean_Valjean is offline  
Jan 12th, 2004, 04:28 PM
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Bravo!

I'm SOOOO happy to hear about people taking the time to explore and soak up some of Monterrey's fabulous sights and flavors. Casa de Maiz is a real gem, though I think most gringos might be better off *NOT* knowing what huitlacoche is ;-)

Have fun!
Mark
www.tiogringo.com
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Jan 12th, 2004, 07:22 PM
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Thank you, Jean Valjean and Tiogringo for all the advice you gave in planning my trip down to Monterrey! It was in large part due to both your words (and verbose advice on e-pinions & other sites, Tiogringo Mark) that helped convert a travel idea I had into a concrete reality.

It really was an amazing eye-opening trip. Feliz ano a ustedes dos! DAN

PS I DO want to know what huitlacoche (I knew I didn't remember the name properly) is. Maybe the words will gross me out, but I will say this: that quesadilla de huitlacoche sure was delicious! I also enjoyed their tlacoyos as well, although I forgot what meat my friend got inside...I'll have to ask.
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 12th, 2004, 08:03 PM
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Well, you asked for it...

Huitlacoche is corn that's infected with a fungus commonly known as "smut fungus". And as you found out, Casa de Maiz sells some GOOD SMUT!

Buen viaje amigo,
Mark
www.tiogringo.com
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Jan 13th, 2004, 11:57 AM
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Just to be a little bit more precise, huitlacoche is just the fungus, not the corn. It is amazingly delicious, but it does take a bit of courage to eat it after looking at it. For those who've never seen it, it is pitch black. It has a very unique taste that goes wonderfully with cheese...

A friend of mine started mixing a can of huitlacoche with one of those boxes for cheese fondue and a bit of diced tomato over low heat. While it cooks, you hollow a large loaf of bread (preferably round) and then you pour the mix inside. You start eating the bread and soaking it in the "huitlacoche fondue". Very nice.

Oh, and "Churriguresque" is kinda like extreme barroque.
Jean_Valjean is offline  
Jan 13th, 2004, 04:53 PM
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Thanks for all the clarifications! I'm glad I just ate the quesadillas with huitlacoche without asking questions, so as to prevent any unnecessary hesitation on my part...I thought it was spinach before I bit into it and my friend who ordered it didn't make any explanations. I knew it wasn't spinach, but I did think it was yummy!

And unrelated, here's a BEEF on my part... the few guidebooks I read talk about Monterrey as not having much history. Perhaps compared to certain other European or Mexican destinations MTY has a younger/more modern flair, but I found the city *exuded* history throughout the Centro (the Obispado and environs, Barrio Antiguo in particular) with the narrow streets and historied homes/businesses...particularly coming from north of the Rio Grande (where founded in 1596 is older than the historied east coast settlements)! Santiago to the south as well.

Thanks again to all of you!
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 13th, 2004, 07:29 PM
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You're absolutely right. Monterrey has *NOTHING* to be ashamed of, though most of the travel book writers somehow manage to just bypass the city with blinders on (the one exception being Joe Cummings).

There are definitely some colorful tales of the past for anyone with a bent towards history, and IMHO, the best place to find out about them is by touring the informative state museum that's on the lower level of the Obispado. There you can see exhibits that show early Spanish settlements, the rise in power of the Catholic church, the occupation by U.S. army troops during the Mexican-American war, the role of Nuevo Leon during the Mexican revolution, and of course, the city's role as the nation's industrial engine with its big steel, concrete, and glass factories (not to mention beer). Yep. Cool stuff abounds...

I've heard it said that Monterrey's history is less colorful than some other Mexican cities because the people are too busy working and making money to be bothered with things like wars and politics. Don't know how much truth there is to such a theory. I think it's just that other places with even longer pasts and the added dimension of Aztec or Mayan influences, have a little more sex appeal.

Did you get a chance to grab a cool brewski under the towering oaks in front of the old Cerveceria Cuahtemoc Moctezuma? That's always something I look forward to on a trip to Monterrey. Bet my fellow Texan, George W. Bush, is kicking back with a cool Carta Blanca in hand right about now -- it's sure the thing to do when in Monterrey!

Have fun!
Mark
www.tiogringo.com
TioGringo is offline  
Jan 15th, 2004, 05:32 PM
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No, I didn't get a chance to go to the Cerveceria...that Tecate sure was good though; I tried one other that I liked but I forget whether it was Bohemia or Indio. Ah well...reasons to go back!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who found it odd how some Mexico travel guidebooks talk as if Monterrey has no history. What was worse than these and that I found even odder were in about a third or half the Mexico guides I saw, Monterrey is not even mentioned at all, dismissed or given a measly paragraph. (I didn't even see Joe Cummins. It was only through travel reports (including yours BTW Tiogringo) on the web that the city piqued my curiosity). Frankly, in retrospect, the lack of coverage of Monterrey I found appalling!

I didn't make the Obispado museum (close on New Year's when I went) but I think the Museo de Historia Mexicana is fun, educational and frankly one of the best I've been to anywhere!

Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 15th, 2004, 05:59 PM
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Well, you can be forgiven for passing on the beers at the cerveceria if you at least tell me that you tried some good cabrito!

;-)
Mark
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Jan 16th, 2004, 07:03 AM
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Well, Daniel did go to Casa del Maiz and tried some huitlacoche...

That should give him some points...

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Jan 16th, 2004, 09:58 PM
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True enough. Anyone brave enough to eat huitlacoche (and LIKE it) deserves some extra credit.

Have fun!
Mark
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Jan 18th, 2004, 01:30 PM
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I went back to a major bookstore in Montreal to give the various guidebooks my grade on their coverage of Monterrey.

Neos Michelin Guide-- F
Frommer's Mexico 2004-F
Berlitz Mexico -------F

These 3 don't even *mention* Monterrey; not in the index even; in Neos, Monterrey wasn't even on the MAP and northeast Mexico is treated as if it doesn't exist! I find it shocking!
There may be many other great places to go that are older, etc..., have ruins or beaches, but leaving out Mexico's 3rd largest city is akin to, I dunno, leaving out San Francisco in a USA guidebook or Vancouver in a Canada guidebook. Shame on these "reputable" companies!

Guide Voir Mexico-- D
Fodor's Mexico 2004-C-
Petit Fute ---------C

Guide Voir writes 2 paragraphs that makes the city seem worth skipping.
Fodor's get some points with a few pages of details and recognizing that some restaurants are top-notch but loses a lot of points by glossing over the city's rich history. Petit Fute has informational details about the city, recognizes some restaurants and a few pages of detail with suggestions in the text, but loses out with its one sentence-intro "industrial powerhouse of the north"...certainly wouldn't make me think this is someplace worth going!

The best 3 I could find:

The Rough Guide to Mexico--B
Lonely Planet: Mexico -----B
Let's Go: Mexico --------B+

These were all respectable, with an honest take on the city that respected Monterrey's history and discussed some of its strong points. I think I preferred Let's Go since it spoke of the city with an enthusiasm that Monterrey deserves. You get a feeling that these travel writers actually *went*!

Apparently, Moon Handbooks Northeast Mexico (Joe Cummins) is quite good, going into detail about some of the lesser-known jewels in the region that the Mexico-wide books may not be able to because of space limitations. Unfortunately, I could not find this book in any of Montreal-area book retailers (*boo-hoo*).

My 3 cents.

PS Incidentally, I was not brave at all to try the quesadilla de huitlacoche, as my friend said "trate eso! es bueno!"; I didn't even know what I was eating!
Daniel_Williams is online now  
Jan 18th, 2004, 08:08 PM
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Yeah, it's amazing how bad some of the guidebooks can be.

The one that really gets me is Frommers. I have an older edition (I think it's 1996), and their section on Monterrey is short, but generally accurate and written with some wisdom and insight. Sadly, the last couple years, the city hasn't gotten so much as a whisper from them, which is why I've stopped recommending Frommers Mexico to people heading south of the border.

Buen viaje!
Mark
www.tiogringo.com
TioGringo is offline  
Jan 27th, 2004, 03:42 PM
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FYI to others looking for books recommended here: The author of the Moon Handbook is Joe Cummings, not Cummins. That one little letter makes all the difference in searching on Abebooks.com or alibris.com.

Otherwise, great info & thanks for providing it!!
skeptic54 is offline  
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