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Templo del Cielo (Cancun, Mexico)
|Gladiolas No. 8 and 10,|
Reviewed by: Harley Spiller
Summer Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(2) page: 26
It is no longer surprising to find Chinese restaurants in small corners of the world, but finding a world class Shanghainese restaurant in Cancun was thrilling, especially so because so much of the city is a horrifying ultra-commercial gash in the heart of the gorgeous Carribean ecosystem. The economic lifeblood of Mexico's Quintana Roo state, just an hour's flight from Havana, Cancun is a giant strip of hotels and Hard Rock Café clones vying for tourist dollars with garish buildings and slushy sugary slurries improperly called cocktails. The local yellow pages lists a handful of Chinese restaurants among trillions of fast foods and Americanized Mexican joints as lame as the 'mild jalapeno' farces they feed the gringos.
There are four locations for the chain called Hong Kong; three for Kong Kee de Cancun; two for Resaurantes Asiaticos, and one each for El Meson de Shanghai and Mama Wang, but we have an introduction from Havana, a note from one of Tien Tan’s chefs, scrawled in Chinese on the back of a business card for Templo del Cielo restaurant in Cancun. It says, in Spanish: “Today two American friends will come to your store to look around so if possible they will have a meal. Thanks.”
Remarkably, my traveling partner spoke the same little-known language as the person to whom our introduction card has been addressed, from the small island of Ding Hai in the Zhoushan Archipelagos near Shanghai, and we are able to place a special order. The law ban (or boss) knows exactly which foods have been missing in our meat-heavy Cuban diet, and he steers us to order a Northern Chinese style feast that also serves as a veritable antidote to Cuba’s currently uninspired cuisine. The Chinese have little delineation between food and medicine and in this case the Chinese food serves as hearty tonic after a week of bad stomach, perhaps due to exceedingly high mineral contents in Cuba’s bottled water.
By both Chinese and Mexican standards, Templo del Cielo is an upscale place, known to care for the less-than-fifteen native Chinese residents of Cancun, all of whom live in the same neighborhood. Hidden on a small side street, it draws a mix of cosmopolitan tourists and sophisticated locals, accommodating their requests and introducing as much authentic cuisine as they feel customers will enjoy. A dish of deep fried chicken is described to a Michigan family as 'Kentucky Chinese' and the family scarfed the new dish with gusto. Gorgeous hand-carved wooden placards welcome diners with poignant Chinese proverbs like" 'To drink 1000 cups of wine with intimate friends is not enough' and 'Human love in good times can keep 10,000 tears away.'
First we refresh our stale palates with Coronitas (seven ounce Corona beers) with lime, and a cold dish of sautéed celery with salted pork snippets. Then we scorch our palates with Ma Po To Fu, medium hot. It is exceedingly spicy and we are told that the chef, a friendly and seriously skilled young man knows how to make hot peppers hotter, quite a nifty trick especially when given the tremendous range and superb quality of the indigenous Mexican hot peppers. It is interesting to note that the type of hot pepper eaten by many campesinos (or farmers) in Cuba is called Aji Cachucha, but in Mexico, larger versions of what seems to be the same pepper is called Chile Habanero (or the Havanan pepper). The ones we taste in the Pinar del Rio province of Western Cuba, home of the world’s finest tobacco farms, are not as hot as those in Mexico and it appears that Ajis Cachucha and Habaneros (also known as Scotch Bonnets) may be relatives with differing heat levels.
We are treated to the Chinese legend of the mighty little green hot peppers of Yunnan known as shirt-button chiles. The people of Yunnan say they have no appetite until their taste buds are jump-started by hot pepper; and farmers are known to carry particularly hot peppers in a shirt buttonhole. The little scorchers are so fiery that Yunnanites stir them three or four times through soup, dry them off and tuck them back into their buttonholes, for repeated future use.
Imaginations a-tingle and taste buds reanimated, we proceed to dispatch a classic homestyle Ding Hai dish, bean sprouts with carrot and hot pepper; hot and sour soup that achieves creaminess without cream; warm, potted aromatic beef similar to pot roast; and cold, bony slices of gingered chicken Hainan style, which also comes in a brandy flavored version. Do not be swayed by the dozens of taquerias, gordarias, and other local snack vendors in the park near this discreet wonder in downtown Cancun. Head straight for Templo del Cielo Chinese restaurant; Gladiolas No. 8 1nd 10. It is adjacent to the very reasonable Hotel Lucy. Contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Harley Spiller travels extensively, collects take-out and regular menus, and adores Chinese food. He sends thanks to Ken Takakura, Orlando Quiroga, Yumiko Ota, Tzu Chi Yeh, Carmen Eng Asuay, Guicho y Elizabeth, and the kind staff at Tien Tan. And, he wants to make two corrections in his article about Cuban food in the last issue of 'Flavor and Fortune.' They are that the correct spelling should be Cochinita Picil, and it is not Pioneer Village, but rather Pioneer Square.