I went to Mexico with my two best girlfriends from college because we were turning thirty. Over our twenties we’d shared houses, huts, and tents, we’d drunk too much whiskey, stayed up all night in Ireland and Tennessee, introduced each other to future spouses, taught each other how to cook scrambled eggs properly, worn costumes and sang loudly, slurped countless oysters, helped stretch each other into our adult selves.
Thirty had gravity. We said we were ready for a milder kind of adventure. Instead of sleeping away the morning we would get up and swim. And no longer on a backpacker budget, we allowed a few dinners to eat the way we wanted to: leisurely, a lot, and with plenty of wine.
And so, delighted with the warmth and the ocean and each other’s company, and feeling glamorous and mature, we walked to an open-air restaurant across the beach road from our cabana, a place we’d researched extensively ahead of time.
Our waiter had elbow-length hair and a surfer’s cool confidence. He stood between us, leaning in with his arms around the backs of our chairs. “Welcome, welcome, mujeres hermosas. You just arrive to Mexico? No husbands?”
“No! Estamos aqui con nuestras amigas!”
“Good! You will have a good time in Mexico. You must start with a drink and a good meal.”
Within seconds we’d ordered cucumber margaritas, so cold and refreshing I couldn’t help pressing my glass against my eyes.
Sarah fluttered her lashes. “I just have to keep saying yo quiero un esposo. Yo quiero un esposo.”
“Ah, no,” said Tessa. “That means ‘I want a husband.’”
“Try ‘Yo tengo un esposo.’”
We were easily flattered and very hungry. He guided us to the lavender shrimp, a showy dish that came out of the open kitchen in a hot blast of salty sweet steam, and caused everyone around us to look up and sniff. We ordered ceviche, singing with lime. Guacamole that had us admitting we’d never really known the potential of the avocado. Savory chunks of pork verde, and a bottle of stunningly good red wine from the country’s highlands. “Most Americans don’t know. They think Chile, they don’t know Mexico has wine. But our wines are superb. They try and can not believe,” explained our waiter.
And the final order. “The best on the menu,” he said, turning his sleepy gaze on me. “Rat chicken.”
“Raaad chicken. Pollo rojo. Cooked slow with traditional Yucatan spices. Traditional favorite. Our menu changes, you know? But pollo rojo is always on the menu.”
“Si,” I said, “That’s the one I want.”
He lingered and flirted whenever he stopped at our table. “So, what will you do on your holiday?” he asked. “A little yoga, a little massage?”
“Sure. Maybe you could give us some ideas,” Sarah said.
“We’re up for anything,” Tessa added.
He gazed beyond us, as though across the restaurant a lonely-looking swimsuit model had just sidled up to the bar.
“Uh. I don’t do much. Surf, fish, work.”
“What do you do for fun?”
“Well, after work I am meeting friends for a disco party on the beach.”
“That could be fun,” pressed Tessa. “Maybe we could meet up.”
“Okay,” he said, still scanning. “I will give you my mobile number before you go.”
I was surprised by how blue I felt, suddenly. Where had the last decade gone? We didn’t feel so different from our 20-year-old selves. We had been children recently. But to this attractive child, we were we were already a little too stale for the beach party.
But we were still together. We looked at each other and laughed. We raised our glasses.
The jungle grew dark and someone else brought out our entrees. In the dim light the red chicken was brick-dark in bubbling sauce, redolent of warm spices. The meat collapsed off the bones. It smelled like cinnamon, but the flavor went deeper; to allspice, to peppers, and then to something else. The dark meat had the game flavor of an animal that had run on the ground and scratched for its own supper. It was utterly comforting: rich but not heavy, warm but not sweet. I’d never had it before, and yet it was so familiar.
“I wonder if our waiter is ever coming back,” said Sarah after a while, looking at her empty glass.
“He’s young,” Tessa said gently.
“You guys want to go back to the cabana?” asked Sarah.
“Not just yet. Let’s to a beach club,” said Tessa.
“Not the disco one,” said Sarah.
“No, no. Let’s go find one where the old guys hang out and let’s sip some tequila and listen to the waves and just talk.”
Pollo Rojo / Red Chicken
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 limes
- 1 orange
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 kg (2 1/2 pounds) chicken thighs and drumsticks
- 4-5 dried ancho chiles
- 1 medium white onion
- 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
- 828 ml (28 ounces) can whole plum tomatoes and their juices
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon allspice berries
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne or more, depending on taste
- 1 tablespoon honey
Crush the garlic with salt and squeeze in the limes, orange, and vinegar. Marinate the chicken in the mixture for an hour or longer. In the meantime, rehydrate the ancho chiles in a few cups of boiling water (just enough to cover; weigh down the chiles with the can of tomatoes).
When the chiles are rehydrated, blend them together with the onion and cocoa and the juice from the canned tomatoes to make a paste.
Put the chicken, any extra marinade, and the paste together in a Dutch oven or slow cooker and rub together. Crush the tomatoes with your hands and add. Pour in a cup of the rehydrated chile water; reserve the rest. Add cinnamon stick, allspice berries, cayenne, and honey.
Cook on the low setting or at 149 degrees C/300 degrees F. for about 2 1/2 hours. Check after an hour and add more chile water if it looks dry. When it’s done, the meat will be dark and fork-tender and the sauce will be about as thick as tomato sauce. Salt to taste. Serve with green or yellow rice and garnish with limes and cilantro.