Although the name of the holiday sounds grim, The Day Of The Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) is actually a joyous celebration enjoyed by many Hispanic residents of San Diego.
The origins of the holiday trace back to the Aztec culture. The observances recognized the cycles of life and death that make up human existence. The two days of the holiday are celebrated by welcoming the dead and dead children into the home and by visiting and sprucing up the gravesites of the departed. Picnics are held and stories of the departed are told in social gatherings.
Meals are prepared for these picnics featuring meat dishes in spicy sauces, chocolate beverages, cookies and sugary confections in a variety of animal or skull shapes. Gravesites and family altars are often decorated with bright flowers with offerings of food, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. Religious items frequently are attached.
A special egg-batter bread ("pan de muerto," or bread of the dead) is baked and exchanged between family members and friends. Sometimes a toy skeleton is hidden in the bread and it is "good luck" to bite into it and find it. Small skeletons made of sugar are also often exchanged.
The Aztecs celebrated the holiday in July or August but Jesuit priests made them move the holiday to the beginning of November to coincide with "All Hallows Day" or Halloween.
To observe the holiday locally, Bazaar Del Mundo Shops in Old Town will display sugar skulls and other items Oct. 26-Nov. 4. The shops have been relocated by Diane Powers, the businesswoman who created and operated the original Bazaar Del Mundo for more than 30 years, and made it one of the most successful tourist destinations. She lost the lease of the land and buildings so she downsized and relocated at the edge of Old Town, to land she owned on Taylor Street. The shops continue to offer specialty and Mexican-inspired treasures of colorful accessories for the home, plus fashion, arts, crafts and collectibles.
Another excellent reason to visit the shops is their location, next door to Casa Guadalajara. This restaurant is also owned by Diane Powers and reflects her enormous sense of style and attention to detail. The interior of the restaurant has been lovingly decorated with authentic Mexican art, pottery and furniture, filled with vibrant colors and rhythmic guitar and Mariachi music.
The back patio is a remarkably comfortable setting. An amazing tree spreads its leafy boughs to provide shelter from the sun and wind. Large umbrellas keep away what little sunlight filters through the leaves. Strolling guitarists entertain with pleasant melodies. It is one of my absolute favorite places for a casual weekend lunch.
The Chefs De Cuisine Association of San Diego, a nonprofit organization of premier chefs and purveyors who are deeply involved with the San Diego community, recently named Casa Guadalajara's executive chef Jose Duran chef of the year. The organization raises funds for less-fortunate residents through activities such as the Fallen Officers Fundraiser and the Iron Apprentice Competiton. Chef Duran has been an active participant in these works for more than nine years.
The menu at Casa Guadalajara is traditional. Portion sizes are large and generous. The salads are popular, lots of greens, eggs, avocado and chicken. Some are served in sizeable flaky tortilla shells, which are edible plates. Fajitas come out on fragrant, steaming platters -- chunks of chicken, beef or shrimp with peppers, onion and other vegetables to be wrapped into handmade tortillas the size of dinner plates. The spicy mole sauce on the Pollo Mole Poblano is fabulous. Combination dishes, served with rice and beans, allow different authentic flavors to mix and meld together. I recommend the chile relleno, tamale, enchilada dish for the varying flavors and textures. The Puerto Nuevo Trio tastes even better than those served south of the border, with lobster, bacon-wrapped shrimp and sea bass grilled in butter, garlic and cilantro.
Chef Duron's signature dish is Pescado a la Naranja, sea bass with an orange juice sauce that is so appealing it won the top trophy this year at the International Seafood Cooking Contest in Ensenada. His recipe has been published in several cookbooks.
Casa Guadalajara is at 4105 Taylor Street in Old Town. Call (619) 295-5111 for information and reservations.
For another taste of Old Mexico, be sure to visit the Tequila Expo being held now through Sunday at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Avenida Revolucion in the heart of downtown Tijuana. Tequila is the national liquor of Mexico and is now being recognized by cognoscenti worldwide. More than 300 brands of tequila are featured and appetizers are served. Music and folkloric dancers offer entertainment. The Tijuana Convention & Visitors Bureau and CANIRAC partially sponsor the event.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.