In a part of the world where meat reigns supreme, we have had a lot of very mediocre vegetarian food - bland pasta-pestos and bad burritos. Approach the average Mexican taco stand hopefully requesting a light bite sin carne and you will either be met with blank looks or offered chicken.
Having just spent a week in Oaxaca, the foodie capital of Mexico,we thought our tastiest culinary delights may be behind us for a good few months, with Andrew now fantasising about the steaks in Argentina and Emily hoping to find the next hippie-centric beach town for a tofu fix. We certainly didn't expect to have some of the best food, anywhere in the world, in San Cristobal.
Situated on a nondescript street behind a nondescript door with no sign, exist the best quesadillas in Mexico, and therefore possibly the world. The above picture is the only hint you'll get that this place exists, it is quite literally the place sin nombre (with no name). Despite having an excellent write-up in the Lonely Planet, due to its clandestine nature, this small, quaint eatery remains relatively undiscovered.
On the guide book's advice, we begin our search early but meandering along narrow cobble streets in search of the place with no name or sign proves more than a little difficult.
At 7.20 pm we spy the 49B, and hover for a while outside what could quite possibly turn out to be someone's house, hoping our less than perfect map-reading skills have not failed us (again!). We tentatively knock on the door, and through a little hatch pops a lady's head. Apparently, we are early.
Forty minutes later, after a very slow walk around the block, we return to find a small queue has formed, and dutifully perch on the kerb. Minutes pass with no sign of movement behind the giant wooden doors so we knock again. Out pops a familiar face - "Five minutes more. Or maybe twenty". We are after all on Mexican time, she informs us with tongue firmly in cheek.
Thirty minutes later, with the queue having more than doubled, the doors swing open and we are invited in. From such an understated entrance, it is hard to imagine that such a cosy grotto exists beyond its doors: an abundance of candles, distressed furniture, and a melange of wild flowers all add to the ambience of this hidden restaurant that would not be out of place in London, Berlin or New York.
Due to the finite portions of fillings prepared during the day, you are served in order of arrival and, thankfully, our early appearance has not been forgotten. After deciding on pina atoles (a traditional masa-based hot corn drink with pineapple - think of pie filling in a glass and you're pretty darn close) we are ushered to the front of the restaurant. In a place with no name or reliable opening times, it is unsurprising that there is also no menu, but rather customers are taken up - table by table - to have the day's options explained.
The choices are as varied as they are inspired. We choose mushrooms in a chocolate-flavoured mole with caramelised plantain, a Mexican-influenced potato daupinoise delicately flavoured with fresh oregano, an eclectic mix of julienne-sliced potatoes with mushrooms and chipotle and perfectly seasoned zucchini with manchego cheese chile de arboles.
When our quesadillas are delivered to our table, we are immediately reassured by our choices. Perfect hand-made corn tortillas are folded over generous portions of marinated fresh vegetables and cheese, and served alongside a trio of superb and original salsas. Although hot sauce is ubiquitous to every table in Mexico, these truly unique nut and seed-based accompaniments provided spice in addition to, and not at the expense of, flavour. Our favourite, the salsa de cacahuate, paired particularly well with the sweet mole and oregano seasoned potatoes, and the zucchini with the less spicy salsa de pepita. But do go lightly, a heavy-handed application will leave you frustrated that the only drinks on offer are hot.
In a country clearly not accustomed to catering for the non-meat eater, the chefs at sin nombre go beyond being great cooks to a deep understanding of flavours and ingredients, and never once leave the diner with the belief that the dish would be that little bit better with the addition of chicken. Having lived in London for a number of years, this is skill that even some exclusively vegetarian chefs in the Western world haven't mastered to the same extent.
The food here is not only the best vegetarian food that we have tasted in Latin America, but some of the best food we've ever tasted; and we're obviously not alone in this thought.
Starting from a small cart selling basic antojitos (snacks) ten years ago, due to demand, the owners have been forced to upgrade to larger premises four times in the last ten years. The original small cart has clearly has been a lucky charm, as although there is a large kitchen on-site, your quesadillas will still be cooked on its well-worn hot plate.
As one would expect, you will pay a little more here than at the average road-side stand, but a meal for two with drinks will still not break the bank. Four quesadillas with drinks cost $180 pesos, providing a tip of $20 pesos that we were more than happy to leave.
Although vegetarian fillings are the most frequently prepared, meat eaters are not entirely ignored. Sunday - Tuesday are the days for veggies, with seafood served on Thursday, meat on Friday and Saturday catering for all.
With the abundance of Mexican-themed and tourist friendly eateries lining Real de Guadalupe, it would be easy to avoid venturing down side-streets for dinner, but it would a great shame to visit this beautiful city without sampling some of its greatest food.