The Rise of Modern Mexican Cooking in Oaxaca

Ask those in the know about global food trends and, undoubtedly, one of their answers will be “Modern Mexican.” Paying tribute to the complex and, in many cases, ancient food traditions of Mexican cooking, chefs are upping standards and price tags by taking classic ingredients and time-tested recipes and giving them a fresh, fine dining-oriented spin. Of course, Mexico City is at the epicenter of the movement, with Pujol, Quintonil, MeroToro and countless others drawing in diners from all over the globe.

But modern Mexican has also taken the rest of the world by storm, notably in the United States. In New York, Enrique Olvera’s Cosme has appeared on countless best lists and won numerous awards. Rick Bayless’ restaurants in Chicago continue to hold strong, and unsurprisingly, Southern California is home to several excellent options, such as Carlos Salgado’s Taco María in Orange County (not a taco shop) and Ray Garcia’s Los Angeles hot spot Broken Spanish.

Perhaps most telling, though, is Hoja Santa, a Mexican fine dining restaurant in Barcelona. Albert Adrià, of Adrià brothers and El Bulli fame, teamed up with Mexico City native Paco Méndez in 2014 to make modern Mexican a reality in a city often lauded for its food culture. Unlike the United States, the relationship between Mexico and Spain, in general, is a bit more tenuous; the two countries’ only modern connection has been that refugees from Spain’s civil war in the 1930s were generously taken in by Mexico. Both Adrià and Méndez were scandalized by the commodification and disrespect shown to Mexican food around the world, and so set out to do in Spain what Rick Bayless had done in the United States. Even more telling is that they named the restaurant Hoja Santa: a heart-shaped, aromatic herb commonly used for cooking in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. What they knew — and the world was waking up to — was that Oaxaca had long been considered the epicenter of Mexico’s traditional food culture.

Known as “The Land of the Seven Moles”, Oaxaca’s cooking history originates from its strong indigenous roots; notably from the Zapotec and Mixtec tribes, which continue to thrive today. Many of Oaxaca’s most popular dishes, mole, tamales in banana leaves, tlayudas, for example, are from these traditions. The cuisine’s use of cacao, hoja santa, agave, corn, black beans, and the smoky chile pasilla Oaxaqueño, which is grown only in the state, can also be traced back to pre-colonial times. Theirs is a tradition of resourcefulness and creativity: insects have a rightful place at the table, be it seasoned grasshoppers called chapulines; chicatanas, which are giant winged ants; or sal de gusano, otherwise affectionately known as “worm salt.” Quelites, an umbrella term for wild greens, are a staple in many dishes, as are a multitude of different kinds of mushrooms, including the magic kind. Tasajo, which is dried, lean beef, is a favorite meat. Flavors are complex and layered, often requiring laborious preparation with multiple ingredients.

Oaxaca’s cooking history originates from its strong indigenous roots; notably from the Zapotec and Mixtec tribes.

With a bounty of riches at their fingertips, it’s hardly surprising to find that Oaxacan chefs in the state’s capital city, Oaxaca de Juarez, are embracing modern Mexican in full force. Mexico’s most famous chef, Enrique Olvera, is the rumored backer behind Criollo, which has chef Luis Arellano, a Oaxaca native and Pujol alumnus, at the helm. Set in a courtyard that is warm and rustic, and taking a page from Olvera’s stylings and sensibilities, Arellano has consistently delighted diners with his contemporary takes on classic flavors and presentations in the most buzzed about restaurant opening in Oaxaca in years. While at Casa Oaxaca, one of the city’s storied favorites, and a noted inspiration for Albert Adrià’s Hoja Santa, one of the region’s pioneers, Alejandro Ruiz, continues to thrive.

Pitiona, which is just down the block from the city’s most famous landmark, the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, is the brainchild of Jose Manuel Baños Rodriguez. He, too, was born in Oaxaca, in the western city of Pinotepa and received his culinary education in the kitchens of Spain’s best restaurants – notably, El Bulli and Arzak. Pitiona is a verbena-like herb also ubiquitous in Oaxacan cooking, so it was a fitting name for the restaurant, which opened in 2010 and whose recipes draw from Jose Manuel’s experiences cooking with his mother and grandmother. He uses only local ingredients and riffs on traditional preparations: one well-known dish is roasted lamb with rosemary ice cream. Another, beef tongue in chile adobo, topped with potato foam. The menu changes monthly, but what’s certain is that it’s one of the region’s most exciting restaurants.

Just around the corner, also across from Santo Domingo de Guzmán is Los Danzantes, a hidden, open-air dining room tucked behind the storefront for the Del Maguey mezcal’s city operations and an upscale textile store. Designed by Mexican architect Alejandro D’Acosta, who is well known for his work in Baja California, the space captures the magic of Oaxaca city by forcing you to look up to the starry sky or passing clouds. The name, a throwback to the ancient statues that reside at the nearby ruins of Monte Alban, signals that the diner is in for a true Oaxacan treat. Chef Hugo Arnaud Zarate delivers, with a delicate appetizer of hoja santa, the classic Oaxacan herb, and quesillo, griddled to perfection. Mini tuna tostadas bring Oaxaca’s fishing culture to life and are infused with jalapeño and sesame seeds in a break from tradition. Not to be missed is their house mezcal, which they’ll proudly discuss at length when prompted.

Baby Quesadilla with quesillo, lime cream thyme and black pepper at El Destillado. Photo credit Roberto Gomez.
Octopus salad with avocado & purslane from Pitiona Restaurant; photo credit Elexia de la Parra.
Suckling pig taco from Pitiona Restaurant; photo credit Elexia de la Parra.

Acclaimed former Mexican Top Chef, Rodolfo Castellanos, a French-trained cocinero who has worked in top global kitchens before landing back in his home state of Oaxaca, opened Origen with his wife, Lizette, in 2011. One of his favorite dishes is an octopus and sweetbread tlayuda, which is a nod to the cuisine’s historic inclusion of both meat and seafood. This preparation also dresses up a common criollo, or street food with gourmet ingredients. Another customer favorite is his version of fideo seco, which is made using black beans and is garnished with queso fresco and chorizo. His version of burrata uses quesillo, that salty, squeaky, stringy cheese native to Oaxaca. Perhaps most compelling of all is the suckling pig, which comes in a chicatana manchamantel, a typical red sauce made from ancho chiles.

Castellanos is also helping to mentor other chefs, in particular a trio from the United States who recently set up shop in town. Their restaurant, El Destilado, is Oaxaca’s most controversial and exciting experiment: run by Americans, stocked with uncertified and small-batch mezcals and using local ingredients but not necessarily traditional techniques or recipes. Opened in late 2015, El Destilado is the creation of Jason Cox, who originally came to Oaxaca in search of mezcal, and his former roommate, Joseph Gilbert, who used to work at Origen. The duo met chef Julio Aguilera while they were working at San Francisco’s acclaimed Saison. Aguilera was eventually lured to Mexico on the promise of their new restaurant, and while Gilbert helps in the kitchen and runs the beverage program, Cox handles mezcal, as well as the rest of business administration.

“Oaxaca has a rich tradition of seasonal cuisine, what to prepare, how, and when. But neither of these guys have that background, so they have the same watercolors as everyone else, but they’re using a completely different canvas.” – Jason Cox

For Cox, mezcal bears similarities to wine, and he focuses on acquiring little-known distillates from small producers in several different states. Agave variety is a key focus, as are different methods of production. “For me, I discovered I could learn about Mexico’s traditional community and culture through the lens of mezcal — the customs, history. You can meet your distiller, feel the earth, smell it and taste it. Something that’s incredible about the drink is that throughout the country there’s no one overriding consensus on how to make it, so it remains the perfect lens to view the country through.”

Because of the variety of flavor profiles, mezcal is the perfect accompaniment to food. He and Gilbert often talked about what they liked and disliked about modern fine dining, and decided they could offer something different, without pretense. “More personable, relaxed, and casual, but still done correctly. Good food without the rigor of traditional fine dining,” Cox explains. El Destilado was born out of that ethos and stays true to its word, offering both a tasting menu and an a la carte option in a cozy, smartly-designed yet unstuffy restaurant.

They are religiously committed to using local and in-season products, with a significant twist. “You put these ingredients in the hands of Julio and Joseph and it’s incredible what comes out,” continues Cox. “Our instinct is to say, ‘Hey, what can we do with this?’ Oaxaca has a rich tradition of seasonal cuisine, what to prepare, how, and when. But neither of these guys have that background, so they have the same watercolors as everyone else, but they’re using a completely different canvas. It’s exciting for our guests to see local ingredients used in different ways.”

To give some examples, a unanimous favorite of many people who dine there is their linguine with chorizo, bottarga, and XO sauce. It’s intensely memorable, and while completely non-traditional, distinctly Oaxacan in its flavors and textures. Another riff is the creamy egg, still in its shell and topped with bean purée, lime crema, and chorizo – a savory Oaxacan parfait. Mole pipian, a green pumpkin seed sauce usually served with a dry-aged poultry, is instead served with octopus.

However, not everyone is completely on board. Some local chefs have embraced the trio’s arrival, including Castellanos, who Cox calls, “a hell of an ally.” He also credits the team at Boulenc, an artisan bakery in the city, for showing them the ropes of doing business in Oaxaca as non-Oaxacans. There are other big names who have yet to dine at El Destilado, though, for example Alejandro Ruiz of famed Casa Oaxaca, which is around the corner. Whispered speculation centers on the old guard pushing back against intrusions on their turf. In a land where heritage is king, it’s not hard to understand why.

Whatever the sentiment, the winds of change have arrived in Oaxaca and aren’t showing signs of slowing down. Cox and his team relishes the discomfort some diners might feel about El Destilado’s concept, as it provides the opportunity to achieve an unassailable conversion moment. While innovative local chefs have their hometown chops to help them out, they will often encounter those who think a deconstructed traditional dish at double street prices is heresy. For the rest of the world, which includes the tourism sector, it just means there’s more ways to access the vast culinary culture they came to discover. Around the world, Mexican food may be erroneously labeled cheap, street food, but the modern Mexican movement is showing the world that even in a place as rooted as Oaxaca is, growth is both important and inevitable.