SINGAPORE — It was a Mexican fiesta like no other. There were pinatas, live chickens in the street and men in dashing sombreros. Mariachis played "La Adelita," "La Cucaracha," "La Bamba" and other Mexican favorites. And there was lots to eat and drink--grilled fish on a stick, just like they make it in Puerto Vallarta; quesadillas, nachos, chalupas, fruits and vegetables dusted with chili powder; margaritas, sangria and much more.
All this happened south of the border--way south, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula in Singapore. Yet the authenticity was remarkable. There was even a Tijuana-style photo setup where you could stick your head through a hole beneath an enormous sombrero.
Of course there were certain differences. The beer cans (Singapore's Anchor brand) cooled in a jumbo Chinese pot. The grilled fish was a local type called kambong. The fruit stand displayed mangosteens and rambutans along with oranges and bananas. The mariachis were Filipino. And a large share of the participants had surnames like Chan, Tan, Koh and Wong.
The occasion was the second anniversary of what is a rarity in Singapore, a Mexican restaurant. El Felipe's Cantina is the project of a one-time Californian, Phillip J. Gibson. Gibson works for an international insurance brokerage firm and runs restaurants on the side. He has two in Singapore--the cantina and another called Waves, which aims at contemporary California cuisine. They face each other across a street called Lorong Mambong in a part of the city that is known as Holland Village.
The street outside of Waves was blocked off for the fiesta and enclosed in a wooden framework strung with colorful bunting. An enormous mural of a mission church looked down on a riotous scene of watermelon eating, pinata breaking, balloon bursting and a chile-eating contest.
Joe Pennetta, an expatriate New Yorker, won the chile contest by downing 16 pickled jalapenos in 75 seconds. His technique: "Eat 'em and don't think about how they taste." Pennetta, who works for an oil service company, won a squawking chicken and two bottles of Passion sparkling wine from Australia. A plate bearing his name will be displayed in El Felipe's Cantina for a year.
Mexican pottery--the real thing--was on sale. And tiny Mexican mugs were awarded to guests who tried a shot of tequila Mexican-style, with lime and salt. Two blenders spun out a steady stream of margaritas flavored with Minute Maid frozen limeade concentrate. And there was sangria made with French red wine.
At the cantina, margaritas come in salt-rimmed Kerr mason jars. The menu runs to American-style combination plates with the usual trimmings--pinto beans and rice, guacamole, tortilla chips and green and red salsas. Chiles, tortillas and canned tomatillos are imported from California. Gibson uses only pickled jalapenos because he finds them more flavorful. In place of expensive imported Monterey Jack cheese, he employs a blend of Cheddar and mozzarella cheeses.
"Avocados in this part of the world are tasteless," Gibson commented, so he relies on Calavo canned avocado puree for guacamole. The pinto beans are purchased in Singapore. And El Felipe's "Mexican" rice is made with long grain rice from Thailand.
A small restaurant, the cantina is as colorful as the fiesta that marked its anniversary. The decorations are bona fide Mexican, but may have only a short stay because everything is for sale. When friends go to California, Gibson dispatches them to Olvera Street to buy replacements. Or he picks up craft items during trips to Mexico. Tiny serape coasters, burro pinatas, bark paintings, spangled sombreros and paper flowers were among the decorations during fiesta week.
Manager Andy Yap, who cooked in the restaurant's early days, and Gibson supplied recipes for several of El Felipe's specialties. Among them are the green and red salsas, which go with chips and also add spice to some of the dishes. The red salsa is spooned onto nachos, and the green salsa serves as marinade and topping for El Felipe's chicken enchiladas. The enchiladas appear on a typical plate, Felipe's Combination, which also includes a cheese enchilada, ground beef taco, rice, pinto beans seasoned with chili powder and a salad of sliced tomato and shredded lettuce.
MARGARITAS IN A JAR
5 ounces tequila
3 ounces Cointreau
1/2 (6-ounce) can frozen limeade concentrate
Combine tequila, Cointreau and limeade concentrate in blender. Add a few ice cubes and blend until frothy. Serve in salt-rimmed 1/2-pint canning jars. Add more ice if desired. Makes 4 servings.
1 (750-milliliter) bottle dry red wine
1/2 cup Cointreau
1 (10-oz.) can club soda
Combine wine, Cointreau, club soda and orange slices. Serve over ice. Makes 6 servings.
1/2 cup oil
4 corn tortillas, each cut into 6 wedges
1/2 chicken breast, boiled and shredded
1/4 cup Red Salsa
3 canned pickled jalapeno chiles, sliced