The Reinvention of American Mexican Food

In May of this year, Claudette Zepeda found herself near the crest of the Popocatépetl volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla, drinking homemade pulque with a tlachiquero (traditional pulque-maker) and eating a meal that his mother had cooked on the comal. Trout lay inside charred cornhusks, rubbed with onion and garlic and the family’s homemade mole paste. A bit of extra mole lay on the side, to sop up with homemade corn tortillas.

Zepeda—who was born in San Diego, and raised in Tijuana and Guadalajara—took one bite and nearly cried.

“It was very, very emotional for me to eat this mole,” says Zepeda, the executive chef of El Jardín, a Mexican restaurant slated to open in January in San Diego. “It sounds so cheesy. But I’m sure you’ve had those bites. We’re eating and there are kids running around everywhere and dogs running around everywhere. I ate this mole and I almost shed a tear. I was like, holy shit. I was asking his mom, you put this in it and that in it? It had a completely different flavor profile. It’s the chiles that they grow.”

Zepeda has worked in restaurants since she was 15 years old. Only recently she says she’s found her calling: researching and reinterpreting Mexican food from the lens of her own bicultural background. El Jardín will use ingredients she’s handpicked from Mexico—heritage corn from Tabasco, vanilla from Papantla, chaya leaf from Yucatán, hopefully the tlachiquero’s mole paste—mingled with San Diego-area produce, and items from the restaurant’s garden. At the foundation is her goal to honor Mexican food in all of its complexity, and to push past the tacos-and-margaritas stereotype that permeates most Mexican cooking in the United States.

Taco de coliflor with a peanut mole from El Jardín. Photo Credit: Jim Sullivan.
Claudette Zepeda from El Jardín. Photo Credit: Jim Sullivan.

Like Zepeda, Mexican-American chefs from across the country are suddenly reconnecting with their roots, fusing their European-leaning culinary training and bicultural backgrounds to craft an entirely new genre of cuisine. Some call it Alta California, although it’s not just happening in California. Chefs in Texas and New York and Chicago are exploring what it means to be Mexican-American, too, melding high-quality seasonal ingredients, Chicano family traditions, and both ancestral Mexican and European techniques.

The price point is not cheap at any of these restaurants, and nearly all the chefs say they’ve struggled with customers who think Mexican food should be purchased for pocket change. The chefs have also pushed back against the idea of authenticity, fielding complaints from diners who say the food isn’t actually Mexican. They’re serving dishes that my own grandmother (a Mexican-American born and raised in Los Angeles) would not have recognized as Mexican food—things like blue corn sopes with morel mushroom mole at Californios in San Francisco, charred octopus pozole from Lalito in New York City, gorditas with fingerling potato, hoja santa, anchovies and caviar from Taco Maria in Costa Mesa; chochoyotes (masa dumplings, below) in a green garlic and chile pasilla-laced broth from Broken Spanish in Los Angeles, and fideo noodles with cauliflower and smoky Oaxacan chintextle paste from Mi Tocaya Antojería in Chicago.

Unlike this country’s previous incantations of Mexican food—which have been built by swapping out key ingredients based on what’s available, and serving a more muted version of Mexican food for the American public—this new genre tries harder to venerate Mexico, by keeping the integrity of Mexican ingredients intact. It spotlights key techniques, such as nixtamalization, that defined Mexico before the Spaniards arrived. Perhaps more importantly, it also acknowledges—for the first time in an upscale restaurant environment—that Chicanos in the United States might have a particular food story to tell and that it’s worth paying to hear it.

When Ray Garcia opened B.S. Taqueria in Los Angeles in 2015, he served bologna tacos, a dish most Mexican-Americans snacked on as kids.

“I can make great short ribs or pasta or whatever, but I make it because someone gave it to me on a piece of paper. I don’t connect to it. It’s a technique, a craft,” says Garcia, who also runs Broken Spanish and was Esquire magazine’s Chef of the Year in 2015. “This is the first time, now, where I can take something and it can connect to me—I can go back to a childhood memory or a vacation or eating at a friend’s house, and do my best to try to connect with other people who’ve had a similar upbringing or experience.”

Techuitlatl from Mixtli.
Interior of Broken Spanish. Photo Credit: Dylan + Jeni.

In San Antonio, the 12-seater restaurant Mixtli serves its own type of introspective Mexican cuisine, which owners Rico Torres and Diego Galicia call “progressive Mexican culinaria.” The two met at a cooking pop-up event, and their menu focuses on specific regions and historical themes within Mexico. For inspiration, the chefs comb pre-Hispanic codices, Mexican history books and old cookbooks, and they try to replicate and preserve ancient techniques. They also nixtamalize heritage Mexican corn and grind their masa in-house.

A recent dish called Techuitlatl (above), combined a spirulina cracker with avocado mousse, squash blossom puree and an aged chilmole. They’d learned about the algae and chilmole combination from a book about the conquest of Tenochtitlán.

“We started thinking, we have the ability in Mexican food to go back in time thousands of years. We can get in a time machine and go back to the 1400’s and the 1500’s and no one else can,” says Galicia, who was born in Toluca outside Mexico City, and moved to San Antonio after graduating high school.

Torres, who grew up in El Paso and spent a lot of time in Ciudad Juárez, said the first few months at Mixtli struck an emotional chord. “When we were cooking masa for the first time, something in your DNA just wakes up,” Torres says. “We were experiences dishes and flavors that we hadn’t tasted in awhile. Things I’d never made, somehow felt very familiar. Those things let me know I was on the right track.”

Carlos Salgado grew up as the son of Mexican immigrants who owned a Mexican restaurant in Orange, California. He worked in technology before deciding to pursue a career as a cook, eventually landing at Daniel Patterson’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant Coi as a pastry chef. Toward the end of his four years there, he says, he became disillusioned by the gnawing separation between who he was and what he believed, and the privileged people he served. (Coi’s tasting menu currently costs $250 per person.)

Aguachile from Taco María. Photo Credit: Anne Watson Photography.
Mole de Pollo taco from Taco María. Photo Credit: Anne Watson Photography.

“I remember asking myself and others in those times, what is the justification for the restaurants that we work in?” Salgado says. “The people I went to school with, my parents, my cousins, my aunts and uncles — a big immigrant family — I was working in a space that was inaccessible to them. I was behind glass. And that didn’t rest well with me at all.”

After a stint at James Syhabout’s restaurant Commis in Oakland (which now has two Michelin stars), Salgado was inspired by Syhabout reinterpreting and honoring the cuisine of his own immigrant parents. The idea for a new restaurant solidified: one that would serve, Salgado says, “exceptional, sustainably sourced Mexican food with a purpose and with an agenda.”

The dishes at Taco Maria fuse techniques he learned at Coi and Commis with his own ideas about how his family’s food should taste. The campechana cocktail, a dish found at nearly any marisquería in Mexico, combines blanched, peeled cherry tomatoes, Early Girl tomato water, abalone braised in dashi, and serrano chiles scraped across a shark skin grater. Taco Maria’s mole is based on Salgado’s memories of his grandmother’s mole that effused prune, raisin and warm spice flavors. His version starts with a stock base made from chicken bones, guinea hen frames, duck bones and a few pigs’ feet; it’s rounded out by Guanaja chocolate and plums that the staff dries in-house.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What does modern Mexican mean to you?’ I’m thinking, we don’t need innovations. We don’t need newness. Actually, with the challenges that are ahead of us, what we need to do is look backwards to what we’ve lost,” Salgado says. “Our next innovation is to destroy all of the convoluted culture that we’ve applied to Mexican cuisine and to just take for granted that all the prejudices and the constraints that we’ve been working under don’t exist or need to exist.”

Bill Esparza has written about the Mexican food scene in Southern California for years, and he says it’s not just happenstance that a lot of these Mexican-American chefs have European fine-dining training. It’s the only way the wider world would take them seriously, he says.

“They were accepted first because of those experiences, not because they were good chefs,” says Esparza, author of the cookbook L.A. Mexicano. “People tend to look more at those guys if they have that set of accomplishments—if they worked at the French Laundry—rather than if they’re great representatives of their culture.”

Marcela Valladolid. Photo Credit: Coral Von Zumwalt.
Hoja santa with Menonnite cheese from Barrio Café.

Silvana Salcido Esparza has been on the path longer than anyone, serving what she calls “comida chingona” (f-ing bad-ass food) at her Mexican restaurants in Phoenix. Her journey started in 2000, when she traveled through Mexico for a year after her mother died. Though her family included generations of Mexican bakers and cooks, the trip changed her life—she criss-crossed the country and dug deep into its regional traditions, learning from women cooks in Hidalgo, Juchitán de las Mujeres in the Isthumus of Tehuantepec; and in other areas of Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Puebla.

She opened Barrio Café in 2002, has been nominated for the James Beard Award multiple times, and named a top chef locally numerous times. Her newest restaurant, Barrio Gran Reserva, includes a chef tasting table, which she says can finally unveil the more experimental, fine-dining side of Mexican food that she’s been longing to cook. One dish she’s currently playing with is imported Mennonite cheese from Chihuahua stuffed with hoja santa, and topped with grilled pineapple, chile oil made from nine types of chiles, roasted crushed peanuts and sesame (above, right).

“All I ever wanted to do with my life is to better represent Mexican cuisine and my culture, because that’s all encapsulated into one thing here in the United States,” Salcido Esparza says. “In the United States, my brown skin and the nopal that I carry proudly on my forehead, and my family legacy, forces me to speak up, to be a radical warrior for my culture… and to say wait a minute, you guys aren’t telling the whole truth. You’re representing chimichangas, and fajitas, and fried ice cream with yellow cheese over it as Mexican food and that’s not the truth.”

New York City does not have depth of mexicanidad that exists in California, the Southwest and Chicago, but Mexican chefs there are pushing the boundaries. Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera has earned raves for Cosme, his upscale Mexican restaurant that opened in Flatiron in 2014, and his newest spot, Atla, a more casual café in NoHo.

At Lalito in Chinatown, Gerardo Gonzalez is fine-tuning a specific style of California-influenced Mexican food that he hinted at with his previous restaurant, El Rey. Lalito’s menu is whimsical and genre-bending, with items like shishito peppers en nogada (a riff on the iconic chiles en nogada) and a curried chickpea huarache. For his lamb barbacoa—a dish based on the birria he ate at his Jalicense family weddings growing up—he tosses lamb ribs in a warm spice rub, and tops them with a concentrated, sharp sauce of chiles, vinegar, and raw white onions.

Gonzalez, who grew up in San Diego, says he purposely didn’t publicize Lalito as a Mexican restaurant, because he was nervous that locals wouldn’t understand his approach. Some customers still complained when the restaurant first opened that guacamole or tacos weren’t on the menu, he says.

“It is, at its core, California food, because at my core, I’m Mexican, I’m Mexican-descendant, and I’m born and raised in California,” Gonzalez says. “Opening up Lalito made me start to at least talk about this kind of stuff — what it means to be an American-born Mexican. Having connections and roots to a culture that’s literally 15 minutes away from your parents’ house, but also not feeling like you can take complete ownership of that. And being surrounded by a culture, it’s what you know and it’s that what you grew up with, and you can’t feel connected to other people that didn’t experience this.”

Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Café.

Outside restaurants, Mexican-American home cooks are hungering to know more about their own food, because there are still relatively few accurate portrayals of the cuisine in mainstream media. Marcela Valladolid, the Food Network TV personality and cookbook author, has built a career out of challenging more stereotypical notions of Mexican food. She always figured her audience was more mainstream America, but at a recently book signing for her new cookbook Casa Marcela, 500 people showed up. Most were Latino.

“Ninety-nine percent of those people spoke Spanish and were mostly of Mexican descent. And they were the ones cooking my recipes,” Valladolid says. “They were saying thank you for teaching me the easy way to hold on to these recipes… and that has been the biggest surprise of all.”

The restaurant chefs know, of course, that they’re among the very few Mexican-American chefs in charge of high-end restaurants in the United States, and many are looking at how they can shape the next generation. Zepeda says she mentors a cook who’s a DREAMer, an undocumented person who was brought to the United States from Mexico as a child. He wants to learn more about Mexican cooking, but he can’t travel to Mexico because of his immigration status, she says. He’s also nervous that he won’t be taken seriously if he cooks Mexican food.

Ray Garcia says one of the unexpected results of opening Broken Spanish is that it’s become a destination for cooks who want a serious culinary experience. They don’t have to start out at French and California Mediterranean restaurants, like Garcia did when he started his career.

“We’ve had people all over the world say we want to learn, we want to stage, we want to spend time with you,” Garcia says. “It wasn’t the reason I opened up the place. But now, to see it’s been this lighthouse —whether they grew up as Mexican-American and they see this as a place to tap into their culture and learn, or it’s someone who grew up in the middle of the country and they don’t know this food, we can be that place for them.”

Header Image courtesy of Taco María. Photo Credit: Anne Watson Photography.