Tacos on the Mesa

My children have all attended our local community school — Flynn, now 15, is in high school, his sister Willa, 13, is in middle school, and Imogen — the youngest at 8 — is our last kid at Topanga Elementary.

Vaquero Colgin on the Mesa

Each year, there is a fundraiser to raise money for the school, in the form of an event/dinner/auction. In the past, themes have included “1970s (roller girls and disco),” “1980s (hairspray, lots of pink and purple),” with live bands to match, “Totally Topanga” in which you were supposed to dress up in hippy garb, I suppose. One event was held at a spectacular mountain-top midcentury modern with views of city, ocean and islands, and Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes performing; another particularly unsuccessful version was held in a Marriott ballroom near the airport.

I provided food for two of these events — the decades ones, in fact — turning out pizzas and cowboy ribeyes from a wood-fired outdoor oven at the 70s event, and fancy small plate courses for the 80s. This year, after a decade being asked and politely declining, I finally joined our school’s version of the PTA. And was promptly asked to produce the entire event.

 

Don Schneider at the Santa Maria grill

Having attended nearly a dozen such fundraisers in the past, I was able to consider what I liked and didn’t like about previous events, and what I might do we’re I the one in charge (which I now was). One thing I didn’t so much enjoy about the past events was what often felt to me like rigid scheduling by a Type A event producer — cocktails at 5:45, dinner at 6:15, live auction at 7, dessert at 8… etc. At the prior events where I had cooked, I could tell I was causing great anxiety with my general indifference to schedules. (“I’m not serving dinner yet, it’s not done!”)

I’m decidedly Type B. And I host pretty good parties. So I simply decided to throw a great party. The date was already set at May 4. A day before Cinco de Mayo. And so we would jump the holiday and do Quatro de Mayo. I had a theme!

Our event would take place on a wild and remote plateau in the canyon called “The Mesa,” where my friends Sue and Martin have a ranch where we had once done a very successful pop-up restaurant fundraiser.

The very first, most important thing to do was to find and hire a good mariachi band. I called some an amigo, was directed to one band but they were busy. So a whole lot of internet research later, I hired Mariachi Mexico de Sylmar. They looked great in photos in their matching mariachi garb, the band’s leader was named, “Nacho.” I was hopeful.

Next was to secure a Santa Maria grill belonging to a Topanga old timer, and plan my menu. In terms of people pleasing, there are few certainties in life as solid as the taco. For two days prior to the event, I drove around the San Fernando Valley with the school credit card, made salsas, slow roasted a cochinita pibil, delivered several large briskets to my pal, Desmond, a Texan with a nimble finger at the smoker. The food gods were smiling and the stars were aligning.

When hosting, as opposed to simply cooking, there are many things to consider besides tortillas and salsas. Toilets, for example. How to get the deluxe VIP restroom trailer I rented up the twisty road and onto the uneven event site. What to do when it is delivered to the wrong part of the event site. (Because we didn’t want our toilets right in the middle of the dining and auction area.) How to get lights to the event. How to get WiFi so we could check people in and swipe their credit cards. What to do when your friend who has graciously donated her ranch decides she doesn’t want drunk people driving back down that twisty road and so you must figure out another way to get your guests there. Now I’m an artist, mind you — this is not my comfort zone. But it was good to stretch my logistics muscle and realize that I was capable when pressed into duty.

I assembled my A-team of helpers — including pal Katy, my don’t-drink-too-much-while-you-cook minder, who’s daughter Lucy produced a lovely assembly of Mexican sweets for dessert. (A portion of the meal I usually don’t devote too much thought to.) A mountain of mesquite set ablaze promised good things to come.

It was a perfect evening on the Mesa — a Western sun warming the sandstone and sage as it settled toward the ridge, the horse stables and dusty corral area where we held the event decorated with piñatas, papel picado and hay bales covered in colorful Mexican blankets. Trumpets and violins set a decidedly festive atmosphere as Nacho and his band of eight struck up the nostalgic sound of mariachi, and the first shuttles began delivering guests

Behind the grill, we poured ourselves some Pacifico from the keg, sipped a little mezcal and got to work. And the tacos? Even after Katy accidentally spilled two thirds of my key salsa, the results did not disappoint. Desmond’s brisket never fails to elicit lustful sighs — and there was some talk of taking the Colgin-and-Burrows taco show on the road. Crispy tlayudas, a specialty of Oaxaca slathered with lard and black beans, was another hit.

*    *    *

The evening’s reviews were extremely positive — the venue was enchanting, the band fantastic and the food unforgettable. How about the hosting? Well, I suppose if you do your job correctly, people don’t even notice the hosting…

La Ruta

I was recently in Mexico — again. (My brother when he later saw me asked, “Do you have your Mexican citizenship yet?”)

This time, it was with the family — and two of my favorite other families. My birthday this year happened to coincide with the kids’ spring break. So what better opportunity to rent a beautiful beach house half an hour south of the border to relax, cook, eat, sip tequila and celebrate?

The girls in the Valle de Guadalupe

One of the main attractions of the trip was going to be a visit to the much heralded Valle de Guadalupe — Baja Mexico’s buzzy wine region, extolled in publications from the New York Times to Wine Spectator. I’d been reading about the valley for years, had tried many of the wines, and was looking forward to a visit. More

A Roundabout Route to Baccalà Mantecato

My local Vallarta Mexican grocery store never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

First of all, it’s just darned cool to have a market that actually feels — smells, sounds, visuals — like you are in Mexico. And in that regard, I have yet to need a Mexican cooking ingredient that I can’t find there.

Secondly, I find countless ingredients I need for other cuisines — the fine tripe they have, for example, that I need (yes, need) for trippa alla Romana, and a dazzling variety of fresh herbs.

Newfoundland salt cod illustration from the 1700s

A recent happy discovery was baccalà, also known as bacalao, also known as salt cod — not something I ever associated with Mexican cooking. In the past, I’ve had to travel to a Spanish purveyor in Harbor City (a heck of a drive to non-Angelenos) or wait until I’m in San Francisco to visit North Beach’s famous deli, Molinari, to get some. Not only does Vallarta have beautiful European baccala, but it’s considerably less expensive than at either of those other places. More

Eating Oaxaca

Oaxaca, they say, is the culinary capital of Mexico. I was eager to put this to the test.

I am still digesting Mexico City tacos when we arrive and check into our hotel. But my pal Mike rouses me from a brief respite on my bed that could’ve easily turned into an evening in, and we are soon walking the beautiful historic streets of the old center of Oaxaca city. More

When Mike Goes to Mexico

My pal Mike likes to taunt me with photos and videos of his business trips to Mexico, which are frequent. See, if you haven’t been paying attention to previous posts, his business is Mexico — mezcal, that is: Del Maguey, the best in the world.

Mike in Mexico

Mike in Mexico

His provocations are most often in the form of eyewitness video accounts of parades in Oaxaca, where there seems to always be a parade in progress, or photos of voluptuous window mannequins with whom he is certain I am a perfect romantic match. More

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