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Pilar Ortiz and the Power of Personality

by Don Day

I don't remember their exact words. But it went something like this.

"I don't get Trip Advisor. A little hole in the wall like El Pato is constantly in the top ten and a gorgeous place like Bovine is down in the 200's."

I could have taken it a step further. How can Bovine be one of the 120 best restaurants in all of Mexico according to the Guía México Gastronómico and not even be in the top 120 in San Miguel?

I have an answer. And I think it's a definitive answer. Bovine has the super chef Paul Bentley but El Pato has the super charmer, Pilar Ortiz.

Since his appearance at the opening, I have never once seen Paul Bentley at Bovine. At El Pato, I've seen Pilar Ortiz and/or Jose Luis Ortiz every time I've been there.

If Chef Jose Luis, the other half of both El Pato and Pilar Ortiz, spots me from his open kitchen as I'm walking down the bleak and dusty road that leads to their restaurant, he gives me one of those hand-twisting royal waves. If Pilar sees me from the dining area, she rushes, almost runs, to the door, arms open wide to welcome me.

Is it because she knows I have a food blog? Sure, that's part of it. But when a couple arrived just after us last week, she was quickly out in the parking area and helping them out of the car. Pilar Ortiz calls me honey, she calls me dear, she makes me feel special. She makes everyone feel special. And making you feel special, making you feel that you're having an experience you won't have in your own home, is what takes a restaurant to the top of Trip Advisor.

El Pato is a barbacoa joint... and, yes, I like joints. Every night except Monday, Jose Luis Ortiz preps a whole young lamb, spices it, wraps it in agave leaves, puts it into a pit with hot coals and, eight hours later, brings it, the juices that have dripped into the pan under it, and Pilar Ortiz to El Pato.

Then, it's time for Pilar to work her magic. She tells you how happy she is to see you, how much she's missed you. And I really think she has missed me because I know I've really missed her. And, of course, I've missed her barbacoa.

I tell her I like the way her hair looks these days and Pilar's hands go up to her face.

"Do you think so? Do you really think so?"

Is she really this shy, this bashful? I think she might be.

Pilar then leaves you alone. Leaves you to sit where you choose to sit. She gives you a couple of minutes to settle in. Then chugs across the gravel floor. She tells you once more how much she's missed you, asks about your family and asks what she can bring you.

"Barbacoa? Mixiotes (that's the juices that dripped into the pan)? Middle of the table? And to drink, dear?"

El Pato doesn't stock Casa Dragones tequila, doesn't offer Pellegrino water (almost essential if you want to make it into the Guía Gastronómico).

"We have Coca Cola. We have Coca Lite. We have bottles of water. Sorry we don't have very fancy drinks."

The beverages arrive. The toppings arrive along with a heat warning with the one with the chunky red bits. The bowl of rich lamb arrives. The mixiotes arrives. The tortillas arrive.

"Be sure to let me know if you want more tortillas, love. I can make you more."

I'm able to walk to two good barbacoa joints from my home. It takes wheels for me to get to El Pato. Do I choose El Pato because they've got better barbacoa. No, I do it because they've got Pilar.

Pilar Ortiz isn't the only person to make me feel special in a San Miguel restaurant. Marco makes me feel special at Casa Nostra. Mario makes me feel special at Mario's. Tua makes me feel special at Inside Cafe. Dila makes me feel special at Dila's.

And they're all at or near top of Trip Advisor's rankings. And not one made it into the Guiá Gastronómica.

With less than proper table manners, I drain the final juice from the bowl of mixiotes. We pay the ridiculously cheap $240 bill.

We walk to the door. Jose Luis and Pilar follow behind us. Pilar tells me once again how much she missed us. She calls me her angel. I feel very, very special.

El Pato Barbacoa y Mixiotes is located just south off Calzada de la Estacion down a signless street that's just east of the bus station. It's worth the struggle to find it. The restaurant is open every day but Tuesday from 8:00 am to 2:00pm, but might close earlier if they run out of lamb.

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Glenn Griffin writes about food and wine in San Miguel under the pseudonym Don Day. You'll find his blog at www.dondayinsma.com

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