The San Angel InnThe first time we visited Mexico—in EPCOT’s World Showcase—we fell in love with the place. All of it. And at the core was The Gran Fiesta Tour, starring the Three Caballeros. We boarded a boat to join Panchito and José in their desperate search for their partner, Donald, so the show in Mexico City could go on. That search took us from Mexico’s ancient past to its modern incarnation with a thriving cosmopolitan city, and in between we experienced some of the country’s traditions and artistry, tropical beaches and water sports. And everywhere we went, Donald had left his mark. By time the amigos—SPOILER ALERT—are reunited, we’ve learned about Mexico, want to book a trip to Mexico, and remember why Donald is Donald.

But here’s the point: As our boat rounded the first corner, taking us slowly past a glowing Mayan pyramid with an active volcano beginning to unleash its power in the background, there to the right is the San Angel Inn restaurant nestled between the rainforest we were floating through and Plaza de los Amigos with its eternal evening sky.

We knew we had to eat there one day.

Three years later that day finally came. The demand, after all, is high, so it’s not a place you can just decide on a whim to dine at. We learned that the hard way two years running (sad, but true). So, for this reason and that, it took awhile before we opportunity presented.

Finally, finally, finally!

Our lunch reservation was on the early side of lunch: 11:30 am, which was the closest we could get to the “real” lunch hour on the one day we could work in a World Showcase lunch. The restaurant was all dressed up and awaiting its first guests for its first service of the day. Still, we were asked to wait. Still, we were so excited to finally, finally be doing this we didn’t question. Until… we were brought to a very romantic table in a dark little recess between the check-in counter and a wall. We could just barely make out the Mayan pyramid in the distance. The volcano was completely out of view. The disappointment was so palpable it could’ve had its own table setting. Amy stepped out of herself and spoke up: “By any chance could we get a window seat—it’s our anniversary.” And she wasn’t making it up just to get a better table—we were wearing our Anniversary badges and everything!

We’d made a ripple in the restaurant’s continuum and the hostess told us to wait while she checked to see if something was available. Mark could see Amy’s ire percolating and quietly diffused the bomb: “Notice how few tables for two there are?” She hadn’t. All she was thinking was, “It’s our anniversary, we’ve waited all our lives for this, it’s 11:30 in the morning, and we want our goddammed window seat!” Fortunately, the hostess was able to pull a miracle out of her terminal and seat us at a table for four, front-row center to the pyramid, volcano, and all the boats passing by in search of that troublemaker Donald.

The light level at the San Angel Inn is set permanently to “romantic,” with the tables lit solely by candlelight. We took turns holding our menus to the flame (being careful not to ignite anything) so we could see the choices.

We came for the view, but we still had to eat.

The San Angel Inn’s menu is not your traditional Mexican restaurant menu: You’re not going to find massive “combinaçiones” overflowing with saucy enchiladas, burritos, tamales and tacos, all accompanied by Mexican rice and frijoles and sheeted in melted cheese and dollops of guacamole and sour cream. That might be a pro or a con, depending on your taste (La Cantina de San Angel, across from the Pavillion, has more traditional offerings, albeit limited). For Us, who have no shortage of Mexican restaurants—authentic to touristy to trendy, modern “takes”—we appreciated entree choices, like, “Camarones a la Diabla” (roasted shrimp with poblano rice with yuca puree and cascabel chile sauce) and Loma de Puerca en Pipian (pork tenderloin served over roasted vegetables with a sauce of pumpkin, chiles and almonds).

At the brunch hour, we would’ve preferred a brunch menu, but such is life and we weren’t to be daunted. As the first boat passed between us and the Mayan rainforest, we gazed into each others’ eyes with glee and love combined. We couldn’t believe we were finally here—and look where here was: front-row center! We were sharing a giddy squeal, just on the inside. Already there was no way we could be disappointed.

Then the waiter came by and introduced us to the salsas.

The one like ketchup was described as “spicy.” Really, it was just a bit sweet with a little hint of heat. The green one had a little bit of tang, but was mostly oily. So okay, the salsas did manage to disappoint; but the chips were good. Often it’s the other way around.

We shared the Pescado a la Veracruzano (mahi-mahi with capers, olives, bell peppers, Spanish onions, and tomatoes, served over poblano rice) and the Loma de Puerca. The flavors weren’t as big as we’d expected, but the quality of the fish and pork were top-notch and everything was prepared and cooked to perfection. In fact, we felt like we’d had a satisfying and healthy meal without the usual regret that often comes with traditional Mexican “platos.”

Then came dessert. Which we hadn’t ordered. It was the price of our anniversary badge. As much as we thought we didn’t really have room—or a desire—for dessert, the Helado de Dulce de Leche (caramel ice cream) was delicious, decadent and decidedly one of the better decisions we didn’t make.

The decision we shouldn’t have made

Our San Angel Inn experience was so everything we’d hoped it would be we decided to do a repeat the following year without any discussion or devil’s-advocating. We made our 11:30am lunch reservation for our very last day of our trip.

Our table for two was acceptably within view of “the stage,” so we accepted it without squawk, and particularly since we had no birthday or anniversary to invoke to our favor. Our little candlelit table was intimate and romantic, and we toasted a wonderful trip.

Then the salsas came. The spicy ketchup one was a little more ketchup-y and the green oily one was a little oilier (but just as green).

The View from <em>San Angel Inn</em>

Amy was in the mood for a chile relleno. Unfortunately, that was on the dinner menu only, so she ordered the Enchiladas Verdes with pulled chicken and a green tomatillo sauce. Mark reprieved the pork loin, which was just as succulent and tasty as our collective memory had logged. But the enchiladas were more like soft tacos that weren’t soft and the pulled chicken was really minced chicken that oozed out the end when Amy tried to cut into it. The tortilla soup was pleasant, and the chips were just as good as before. The fact was, we just shouldn’t have tried to duplicate perfection.

But ohhhh, that view…

When you live in Southern California, where authentic Mexican cuisine is plentiful and varied, it’s impossible not to be critical. And yet, having a front-row seat to an ancient Mayan pyramid and an active volcano that shoots fireballs and spews lava as touring sightseers sail past in search of Donald, all the while sitting beneath the twilight Plaza sky, it kind of doesn’t matter if the salsa doesn’t spill when held upside down.