“You add the pork fat. Let me show you. It’s my secret weapon.” Ada Vargas went back to the kitchen and brought out a seatbelt length of pork skin, its flipside cut in two-inch sections that had been salted and cooked low and slow in the smoker.
It smelled like a colonial smokehouse and a promise. Vargas uses it in at least the chimole, a soup made from black recado seasoning, chicken, chayo squash, and hard boiled eggs. I am sure it’s found across the menu at her restaurant in Orange Walk called El Establo. Each of the dishes has that deep old school palate that screams, “I might have a wee bit of delicious pig in me.”
Vargas and her husband Albino opened the restaurant in 2005. The Vargases have lived on the land where the restaurant sits for fourteen years. Their abutting farmhouse has a large garden and livestock – it was a natural extension to add an eatery. “We always wanted to add a restaurant and we finally got together to get it open.”
North of Downtown Orange Walk, El Establo showcases Albino’s love of Yucatan antiques and Ada’s cooking skills. “We traveled around Mexico and looked for the types of places we liked. We created that here. I showed the staff my recipes and people know when I am in the kitchen.” Her right hand woman, Sylvia Flores keeps the recipes consistent and to the tatse that Ada has created.
Sylvia has worked in Belize and the US. “I know what people like and how to make the food look good.” She served me a skirt steak she had marinated overnight for El Establo’s signature Arrachera. Arrachera is skirt steak cooked on the grill, seasoned with a proprietary blend of spices. They wouldn’t budge when I asked what those spices were.
Instead, I got a smile. “We are known for our meats like the arrachera and for our salpicon.” said Ada. Salpicon is strips of grilled pork, beef or chicken, mixed with fresh pico de gallo, lime and cilantro. The mix is served with fresh crispy tortillas. I understood that with something so tasty and crave-able, things may need to be kept under wraps. Ada DID show me the salted pork belly. It was enough of an answer—a glimpse into the inner circle.
The grill and smoker are the center of the kitchen. Meats are cooked with old-fashioned finesse, creating deep smacking succulence and melt-away texture. You’ll end up eating more meat than you thought you could.
El Establo is open Monday to Saturday, 12pm – 10pm.
Indian Hill Estate, PO Box 178 Orange Walk District 501-322-0094
There are two types of recado seasoning: red and black. Both come in paste form and are used in a multitude of dishes in Belize and Across Central America.
Black recado is made from corn tortillas that have been dried and charred on a comal (a round grill). The tortillas are then milled with other spices to create a thick paste. The black is dissolved in water or chicken stock and seasons both the meat and the broth base in soup dishes like chimole, pronounced chir –moe-lay, also called black dinner.
Red recado is made from spices and annatto seeds that give sit its red color. It is used as a marinating base for meats. Either rub paste directly on meat or mix a quarter-sized pat with a bit of water and put meat in to marinate. Let it sit directly for 24 hours and cook.
Kristin Fuhrmann Simmons