The crazy thing about traveling to other countries for work or festivals is that you rarely get a chance to truly absorb the culture, nuances, and lifestyle of the cities you visit. Whether it’s something domestic like California for Coachella or New Orleans for Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, or something international like Czech Republic for Let It Roll or Amsterdam for Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), you’re there for a reason and the surrounding cities are little but bypasses to your primary goals. With this in mind, I planned my trip to Monterrey for Mexico’s Pa’l Norte accordingly.
Pa’l Norte is essentially Mexico’s Coachella. Where the real Coachella ushers in around 125,000 attendees per day, Pa’l Norte 2017 and 2018 both broke their own records, reaching 85,00 and 105,000 per day, respectively. The festival grounds are massive, located in the heart of Monterrey’s Parque Fundidora, formerly owned by the Fundidora de Fierro y Acero de Monterrey steel company that was largely responsible for industrializing Monterrey in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Journeying from one end of the park to the other is a true test of patience and physical endurance. As a result of these numbers and the impact on local economical growth, Pa’l Norte is widely considered one of (if not) the most successful festivals in Mexico and Latin America.
The lineups have historically featured a wide range of talent with a strong emphasis on local and national artists and musicians. In past years, they’ve welcomed global acts like The Killers, Foster The People, Snoop Dogg, Imagine Dragons, 311, Two Door Cinema Club, Kaskade, and Nicolas Jaar amongst countless others. This year, the lineup featured headliners Muse, Queens of the Stone Age, Justice, Franz Ferdinand, and Mexico City rap group Molotov. This year was arguably the most stacked of the past six years. If that sounds like a weighty list of names, I can tell you the list of local talent far outweighed the headliners. In fact, most of the festival-goers can be seen at the smaller stages to catch their favorite hometown heroes.
Back to the original thesis. How can one take in all that a new city has to offer besides for that which you are there? I set out to find the best way to approach a city I’d never been to, and a country I’d only been to a handful of times. What do I love more than anything in the world? What must I try, do, and experience that I can’t try, do, or experience back home? Well, that’s easy:
Food and photography.
My mind was made up, my bags packed, a thoroughly detailed map of all the restaurants and sights I wanted to hit, and about eight cameras (film SLRs, TLRs, point-and-shoots, 3D toy cameras, and my trusty Canon 6D DSLR) and more film than I could reasonably blast through in a weekend, I was off to Monterrey on a lone wolf mission to experience everything the city had to offer by way of music, food, and sights.
My first night in town was fruitful beyond my wildest imagination. I met a couple on the plane ride from Los Angeles who were Monterrey locals. We talked a bit, and I told them about my mission. I found out they were close with Felipe Chapa, the owner behind La Nacional and Gallo 71, two of the topmost restaurants on my list. Jackpot. They made some calls and I secured the last reservation at Gallo 71 that very night.
I met up with some friends who were also in town for Pa’l Norte and set out for the restaurant, famous for its high-end Northern Mexican cuisine. The couple on the plane gave me some recommendations, but little did they know I already had a pretty thorough idea of what I was getting into. We ordered:
As we waited for our table, the hostess handed us each a bottle of Heineken. The perfect aperitif.
Margarita con Mezcal
Sweet, salty, citrus, fresh, bold.
Tacos de Filete con Tuétano
Meat was the perfect cook temp. Salty but full bodied. Sharp flavors and complex. Buttery. Bone marrow sneaks up like a tastebud assassin. Fresh made tortilla.
Ribeye Volcano Tostada
Succulent. Cheesy with a hard tostada crunch. Your dream tostada. Glued together with soft beans and mild cheese. Sharp flavor with a lingering aftertaste that evolves into more complex notes with every passing breath. Sweet onions and cilantro bring this to the level on which it was always destined to be.
Salsa de Molcajete
Warm, mild full-mouth spice. Smokey. Dark.
Queso blanco. Mild but flavorful. Melty cheese fits perfectly in any meal. This particular dish is the perfect addition to any multi-course meal. But eat it fast, because it doesn’t stay melty for very long.
Betabel Asado (roasted beets over strained yoghurt)
Not too earthy, sweet and pungent. Arugula adds a spicy bite. Spicy. Soft crunch texture that falls into your teeth. Creamy yoghurt. Fresh ceviche flavor. Best beet I’ve ever had.
Soft sashimi texture (delicate crunch like fresh yellowtail). Bright, citrusy ceviche flavor on butter cracker.
Rare, perfectly tender.
Mexican flavors, perfectly tender with skin that holds so much flavor. Salty tomato base. Mild light white fish with a snapper/tilapia consistency. Cooked perfectly, flaky. Worcestershire. Pescatarians-who-reluctantly-gave-up-steak, rejoice! This fish tastes like a deep red, medium rare filet with all the trimmings.
This probably sounds like a lot of food, but that’s because it definitely was. The most surprising element of the entire night was the check, which was a fraction of what a similar meal would cost at an American restaurant of this calibre. We made out like bandits, but the weight of all the food definitely slowed us down walking out of the restaurant.
Gallo 71 (above via Facebook)
The next morning, I prepared for the first day of the festival. I packed an armful of film, five of my cameras, then headed out. I was still full from Gallo 71, but I knew getting food into my system would sustain me throughout the day. Luckily, quenching any thirst wasn’t a problem; there were beer vendors every five feet of the festival (2 beers for 100 peso).
To get the most of breakfast, I hit two of the taco trucks on the festival grounds.
El Pastorcito Taqueria
Three steak tacos
Orange salsa was 🔥🔥. Yellow was sweet and smokey. 16 peso each. Steak cooked well-done but solid rating by taco truck standards. Flavors simple but satisfying.
Quesadilla burrito with steak and cheese
Filling, satisfying, savory, tortilla cooked on grill top. The cheese and meat combination lended itself to the perfect mix of savory, bold, and filling. Yellow salsa wasn’t too hot, but definitely had a flavorful kick.
Around lunchtime, I hit the artist hospitality area where they were cooking Cabrito al pastor, a local Monterrey dish consisting of roasted goat splayed on a spit over an open-air pit of slow-burning charcoal embers without seasoning. It was an incredible sight to behold.
The cabrito tacos were served simply; nothing but the meat and tortilla with your choice of pico de gallo and salsa. The flavor was mild, like marinated jackfruit. The texture was similar to jackfruit as well. Firm and a bit stringy. The salsa packed most of the flavor. Moderate with a light kick, more flavorful than spicy. It completed the flavor profile of the whole dish in a simple yet comprehensive way.
After a long day of walking, listening, experiencing, drinking, eating, shooting, and everything in between, it was time to head out. It was getting pretty late, but we were all pretty hungry. I and the crew I left with decided to hit a legendary local taqueria called Taqueria Madero at the suggestion of our cab driver.
Everything about it was beautiful. Even though it was late, the night didn’t deter the swath of people reveling over tacos and drinks. The way Madero was set up is an open storefront of tables with the “kitchen” being a simple grill top outside on the sidewalk. We took a seat and ordered our food. More tacos, obviously.
I ordered the bisteak, carne asada, pirata (which translates to “pirate”), and machitos with a cold Mexican Coca-Cola. All of it was delicious, but only after we left did I find out what machitos is (yeah, I took a gamble on my order). If you’re familiar with the famed Irish dish known as haggis, machitos is basically the same thing, but with goat organs and intestines instead of sheep. Now, the thing about these “organs” is that they may or may not include the reproductive organs of the goat.
So yes, I am under the impression that I ate goat penis in Monterrey.
Fast forward to the next morning, Saturday. I needed a break from tacos (*GASP* I know, blasphemy) so my friend and fellow dance music journalist John Ochoa and I hit Barrio Antiguo in search of something more suitable to get our day going. I had heard of this amazing place with amazing food, multiple menus (with vegan options), and breathtaking atmosphere and architecture. The place is called Trece Lunas, and it’s known as a place to have “slow food.” This means that when you come to Trece Lunas, you stay at Trece Lunas and eat, drink, talk, and revel for a long while. It certainly was a nice change of pace.
THICC whipped cream, coconut shavings, cherry, chocolate drizzle.
Positively refreshing and palate cleansing.
Chilaquiles con Pollo y Huevos
Probably the best chilaquiles I’ve ever had. Problem was my stomach was still packed to the brim from the past two days that I could barely finish it.
Beef, pepperoni with cheese, ham with cheese. Not bad, but not my personal favorite.
Tastes JUST like real seafood ceviche. Citrusy, refreshing. Served on a crunchy corn tostada.
After our foray into Mexican breakfast/comfort food, we set off to explore Barrio Antiguo. Of all the places we visited, Libreria Conarte and Artstudio were by far the most visually stunning. The Conarte library is a library/bookstore hybrid that focuses on the niche art communities within Monterrey and Nuevo León. The interior design was something out of a sci-fi novel. Though we didn’t go inside Artstudio, the outside is what really catches your eye. Bright blue architecture with hanging plants, colorful accents, and set of benches on which to relax and read.
Barrio Antiguo is by far my favorite part of Monterrey, besides the hike through Parque Ecológico Chipinque I took on Sunday. After exploring a bit more of Barrio, John and I headed back to Parque Fundidora for day two of Pa’l Norte. After the huge meal at Trece Lunas, festival food was a tough sell. I did manage to nail a few more artist hospitality tacos, and a surprisingly well-put-together ahi tuna poke bowl. The drinks at the festival, besides the seemingly endless flow of beer, were just as good and well-thought-out as the food. It was refreshing to see an organization put so much effort into crafting a comprehensive and patron-oriented festival experience.
For our last meal in Monterrey, we hit Tacuarines, another illustrious hole-in-the-wall taqueria. The welcome we received from the guys behind the grill was the warmest we’d gotten all weekend, and that’s really saying something. We ordered:
Corn tortillas were the best I’ve had so far.
Quesadilla (no meat)
Queso blanco melted to perfection. Stayed warm and melty the whole time. Pretty big, too.
Orange salsa was full mouth spice but not overpowering. Green salsa was creamy and sweet with a light kick. Guacamole on every table.
Overall, I had zero complaints about the food at Pa’l Norte — a stark comparison to the food and refreshments of your average American festival. It was clear that Mexico’s thriving food culture permeated through every inch of Monterrey. The food of the surrounding city absolutely blew me away; more so than I had initially hoped while scheming this mission. The next time I visit Monterrey won’t be soon enough, but I walked away with an amazing cookbook from the Conarte Library. Hopefully my own hand can bring some of those delicacies back home to Los Angeles.
Recesky TLR DIY
Olympus Stylus Zoom 105
Olympus Stylus Epic DLX
Minolta Hi-Matic AF2
Canon EOS 6D
iPhone 8 Plus
Kodak Portra 800
Kodak Portra 400
Kodak Ektar 100
Kodak Elite II 100 (expired)
Fujifilm Pro 400H
Fujifilm Acros 100
(photos in no particular order)