Magazine article Sunset

San Miguel Modern

Magazine article Sunset

San Miguel Modern

Article excerpt

IT'S a quiet Saturday afternoon in San Miguel de Allende, a town that loves to party. The heart-palpitating celebrations that echo through the corridors have quieted. The growing number of wedding parties that parade through the streets, led by ebullient brass bands and dancing papier-mâché puppets called mojigangas, have yet to begin their processions. The only clatter is the rhythmic rumbling of cars driving over the cobblestones, punctuated by the impressive birdlike whistle of a guy peddling a bag of tortas. Even the Jardín, the town square, is tranquilo.

Less than a block away, the 18th-century mansion now known as Doce-18 Concept House has opened its 12-foot-high wooden doors for the day. In the dining area, against the backdrop of a wall that looks like it's been shot, Jackson Pollock-style, with a rainbow of oversize paintballs, chef Donnie Masterton does what I call the "taco tilt": turning his bearded face sideways to take a bite, guajillo-braised beef guisado dripping onto his plate. Long before a forearm homage to pig butchery became a chef's right of passage, Masterton was covered in tattoos; his fingers are inscribed with the letters L-O-V-ES-A-L-T.

"This town has always looked like a Mexican postcard," Masterton says, adjusting his vintage owl-eye glasses. "But until a few years ago, the donkey didn't exist." He's right. Barring the resident burro-which, bedecked with flowers, is clearly present for Instagram moments-the 24 blocks of the Centro Histórico neighborhood of San Miguel look pretty much the same as they did on my first visit 10 years ago. El Jardín, the town's heartbeat, is still where everyone ends up, gossiping and gawking in the shadow of the gothic-spired Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the most famous of the 40-something churches within this pious city. Beneath the shade of laurel trees with freshly shaved flat tops, locals and tourists gnaw on elotes, charred cobs of chewy com showered in chili powder, mayo, and cheese. Hawkers roam the square encased in balloons, trying to catch the eye of children zooming past.

Arguably the most charming of the colonial towns in the Central Mexican Plateau, which includes Mexico City, a nearly fourhour drive away, San Miguel has lured me back more than a few times recently. I've found myself repeating the journey from Del Bajío International, braking for the topes (mountainous speed bumps) and rolling onward over cactus-spiked hills until a turn in the road reveals the city, beckoning like a fiesta.

Although his mother is Mexican, Masterton is a California native. But after 14 years living in San Miguel, he knows a thing or two about this place. He opened his first local business, called The Restaurant, in 2008-showcasing a global comfort-food menu when the best spots in town were still serving nouvelle cuisine. "No one was doing casual fine dining like The Restaurant," says Angela Lewis, Masterton's fiancée, who grew up here. "No one was sourcing local ingredients."

Now Masterton has four dining hot spots, including Taco Lab by Tacolicious, a collaboration with the restaurant my husband and I own in San Francisco and an incubator for Mexican recipes straight from the source. Eight years ago, this would have been ground-breaking. But today, Masterton is just one of a burgeoning collective of international créatives who have moved here to push the envelope in areas from cuisine to art and fashion. San Miguel might still be a small town, but it's witnessing a big-citystyle reinvention.

It seems that everyone has a friend (or friend of a friend) who has renounced a previous existence in the United States, or Chile, or France-or even other fasterpaced cities in Mexico-for San Miguel's version of the simple life. When people come here for vacation, some end up staying for the long haul. On one hand, it's the same old expat allegory that's been told here for years (you'll be fantasizing about it yourself after a couple of days' immersion). …

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