This review is for Monica Perez's Mexican cooking class, not the restaurant (which was closed when we visited in late August 2012). My husband, 8-year-old son and I took a 3-hour market & cooking class with Monica, and it was a wonderful experience. The class is literally on a patio (which I should have realized from the name of the restaurant, but didn't really think about it) - she has a fully functioning outdoor kitchen set up in a shady courtyard near her home. Monica met us there and explained what we'd be cooking for lunch (nopales - cactus leaf - salad, charros beans, cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers, homemade salsa & homemade tortillas) and led us a couple of blocks to the Zihua famers' market. It was fascinating to see the market through the eyes of a local - watching her interact with the various vendors, hearing her explanations of the uses of various herbs, cheeses, etc. She obviously knew the vendors well and with their permission she made the shopping trip very multi-sensory, crumbling herbs for us to smell, giving us little samples to taste, etc. She also pointed out a few interesting shops along the way, like a family shop that made and sold pinatas, and several places that sold local handicrafts.
After the market we headed back to the patio, enjoyed several cold glasses of homemade hibiscus flower juice, and got into the cooking. It really reminded me of a cooking show -- she had done exactly the right amount of prep work, like pre-soaking the corn and beans and pre-roasting the vegetables for the salsa, while still leaving plenty of hands-on activities. Monica did most of the work, cooking in front of us while explaining what she was doing, but we did grind our own salsa in molcajetes, grind corn for the tortillas in a traditional grinder and then make some tortillas by hand and some in a tortilla press, stuff zucchini flowers, and chop some of the veggies for the salad and beans. That was plenty -- it was fun just to watch her work, as she's clearly very experienced, and enjoys teaching and sharing.
Monica was delightful the whole time - friendly, accommodating, educational, and very patient. Our 8-year-old son was not initially interested in doing this activity (we drug him along anyway) - but Monica was able to engage him and by the end he was having a blast making his own tortillas and playing with one of the cats in the courtyard. The food was absolutely delicious, and I picked up some tips that I'll definitely apply in the future, like adding roasted garlic to salsa and only boiling nopales (cactus paddles) until they start to change color. Also, Monica was very careful to use bottled (purified) water for everything - the hibiscus juice, cooking, etc. - so no worries about potential problems with tap water.
We were also very appreciative of Monica's flexibility. Typically, the classes that involve a farmers' market visit begin at 9 am, but due to logistical issues we knew wouldn't be able to get to Patio Mexica before 10 or 10:30. I called Monica a couple of days in advance and asked whether it would be possible to do a class at 10:30, and she was very obliging. Of course, we were there in low season and we were the only participants that day, but still we appreciated her willingness to accommodate us. Also, after the class was over we expressed an interest in seeing the beach, as we were not staying in Zihua. We really only expected directions, but Monica not only walked us to the beach but took us on a little tour of the town for about 45 minutes, pointing out various sights, etc. Again, I'm sure she was only able to do this because it was low season and very quiet, but it certainly wasn't necessary, and was much appreciated.
A couple of *very minor* suggestions for improvement: it was a little difficult to reach Monica by phone because the main number listed on her website is apparently for a phone that frequently dies (a battery problem perhaps?) In any event, we got cut off a couple of times, and she gave me a cell phone number that was different from the number on the website - which didn't seem to work from my end. Obviously, we made the connection eventually, but I'd recommend only listing reliable numbers on the website. It was tricky enough to reach her that I might have given up, if not for the excellent reviews on this site. It might be easier to reach her by email. The other suggestion is to format the takeaway booklet a little better -- Monica gave us a very short booklet about Mexican cooking at the end of class, which is a great idea, but when I looked at it later I found it difficult to follow because the formatting is off. Paragraphs and recipes seem to stop in strange places and continue in another column, but unpredictably so -- I keep finding myself looking all over the page trying to figure out which chunk of text is supposed to be the rest of the recipe I'm reading. I think if she could have someone format the booklet a little more professionally it would be easier to read and to use. Just a couple of small details -- but because they contribute to the first and last impressions, I think some attention to them would make a big difference.
But, those are just minor details. Overall, I'd highly recommend Patio Mexica as a very authentic introduction to Zihuatanejo and to Mexican cooking. Monica is very knowledgeable, skilled, warm, and personable --and a fantastic cook AND teacher. Muchas gracias, Monica!
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