In the heart of Mexico is an emerging natural wine region that also boasts an abundance of hot springs; dozens of artisanal cheese factories; lavender fields in a neighbouring ghost town, Mineral de Pozos, dotted with abandoned mines and beer spas; and a desert botanical garden, El Charco del Ingenio, home to rare indigenous species. Mixologist-driven rooftop bars abound, offering spectacular panoramas of the dusty rose and sunflower-hued buildings below.
This is San Miguel de Allende, and I was first lured here two years ago, after my award-winning Burmese restaurant, Thamee in Washington, D.C., shuttered during the pandemic. I accepted the offer of my friend Marcelo Castro Vera to stay at El Nidal, the container hotel and vineyard where he makes funky, bold natural wine in clay vessels, about two hours from San Miguel.
Since then, this former Spanish colonial town has become home, and as the mother of twins born here just six months ago, I’ve made it my mission is to know everything about it. You’ll have to veer off the cobblestone path to enjoy these cultural and culinary riches, which is precisely what makes each place on this list worth visiting.
For a “cruffin” worth all the calories: Panina (Stirling Dickinson 3)
Along Stirling Dickinson, a road named after the influential, late American expat, vibrant street art leaps out at you from all sides. On an inconspicuous corner is this slice of Paris. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a peek into the lively workshop, where women bakers hum and laugh while they work. This simple yet sophisticated café is inspired by the Spanish word for bread, pan, and the childhood nickname of the owner, Paulina Carreño. Above all, Panina is an uncomplicated ode to sourdough. Here, you can also take cooking classes, camp out on the ivy-lined patio with a sumptuous flat white, or sample the house-made kombucha. Do not skip the “cruffin,” bathed in butter, stuffed with chocolate and dusted with pistachios. It’s obsessively layered like a perfectly flaky mille-feuille, but shaped like a muffin.
For natural wine in an intimate cellar: Xoler (Insurgentes 60)
Hidden in plain sight on a busy corner of San Miguel’s downtown, Xoler delights with a steady supply of local natural wine favourites Garambullo and Octágono, charcuterie boards served with warm, crusty bread slices, and gourmet tacos for more substantive noshing. (While you could easily miss this wine bar, look for the cheery lemon façade of the public library across the street.) Reservations are not required, but come early: Demand is growing for a seat at the romantic circular bar and its adjoining tables. Thanks to its subdued decor and lack of flashy signage, serious spirit lovers and locals outnumber tourists in this tiny temple of wine.
For farm-to-table dining, right at the farm: Naakary (Carretera a Jalpa Km 4.2 Sosnabar)
Run by emerging chefs Alexis Torres and Roxana Prieto about 30 minutes outside downtown San Miguel, this hearth-driven farm aspires to be Mexico’s answer to the Hudson Valley’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The pair’s admiration for Copenhagen’s Noma is also reflected in their ferment-forward tasting menus ($120 each, reservation required). Recent highlights include experiments with spongy bizcocho cakes topped with charred pineapple; year-old kimchi-cured duck egg yolk; fermented tomato jam with yellow pear tomatoes and basil atop wonton slivers; and spiny cucumbers that double as serving bowls. As the sun sets over the mountain ranges and cilantro blossoms, you’ll be transported by the owners’ earnest take on ancestral agriculture.
For designer-curated Mexican goods: Distrito Soma (Estación del Ferrocarril, Lupita 2)
In one of San Miguel’s lesser-visited areas on the edge of town is Distrito Soma, an upscale design and gastronomy hub that includes austere shops attentively curating a single type of item. The industrial complex houses the best of the town’s contemporary art and unique home goods under one roof, from massive glass-blown and wicker lamps to upcycled kimonos. Though San Miguel is already regarded as an artist’s paradise, Distrito Soma — along with the similarly chic La Modernista, Mixta, Bruna, Dôce 18 and Mesón Hidalgo — will likely solidify this UNESCO World Heritage site’s status as a global design capital.
For a trippy art experience: The Chapel of Jimmy Ray (Temazcal 3, La Cieneguita)
About 20 minutes outside San Miguel, the Chapel of Jimmy Ray is love or hate at first gate. At the entrance of Casa de las Ranas (Frog House), its alternate name, a peach-coloured dome hovers over indigo frogs, emerald snakes, attentive cacti, and a hodgepodge of mixed media in technicolour. This was the private home and gallery of the late artist Anado McLauchlin, whose legacy is now maintained by his husband, Richard Schultz. Within seconds, outdoor mosaics on every available surface will overwhelm your senses. The eccentric muralist’s immersive home, workshop and collection of works by local artists are a maximalist ode to found objects, the divine and past pets. Reservations required.
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