By: Melinda Russell
As food culture enthusiasts, you probably already know Mexican food is trending upwards; and we’re not talking about stuffed burritos, over-marinated ceviche, or (extra) fatty carnitas tacos served over greasy tortillas a la plancha. Authentic Mexican food is rustic, peasant-like food that’s surprisingly light. We’re experiencing a culinary revolution of elegant Mexican food across America and talented chefs are fitting into current 2016 food trend forecasts: vegetable-focused, root-to-stem cooking, hyperlocal. Some chefs are even incorporating native Mexican ingredients—crickets, huitlacoche, fried grasshoppers, cactus, ant caviar—and making them familiar to the American palate. ¿Sabes que de alguno estas alimentos? Did you know the origins of the Caesar salad are in Mexico?
Below are six new American restaurants (and their chefs) that have already earned raving press reviews for defining the new wave of “Modern Mexican Cuisine.” We started on the west coast in Los Angeles and migrated east to New York.
Broken Spanish (Los Angeles, CA)
While fusion food may be associated with Los Angeles in the past, flavorful, rustic, smoky, authentic and modern are all adjectives that represent the pretty plates sent out by L.A. native chef Ray Garcia, Esquire Magazine’s 2015 Chef of the Year who won the national Cochon 555 competition at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival. Part of famed L.A. restauranter Bill Chait’s successful empire, Broken Spanish represents the food Garcia grew up eating and the acquired techniques he studied in European kitchens, with more creativity and fresher ingredients. Think green beans with ground grasshoppers or cricket salsa, snout with sweet potatoes, and re-fried lentils. Some of Mexico’s heaviest dishesare conceptualized from a lighter viewpoint, such as a vegetarian tamal with less cheese and filled with English peas, fava beans, and Swiss chard, and a chile relleno stuffed with potato, kale, lemon and house-made sauerkraut. One LAWeekly food writer called Broken Spanish the next Spago of Mexican food.
Cala (San Francisco, CA)
Located near the Twitter building in San Francisco, chef Gabriella Camara moved from Mexico City to open Cala in September 2015. Her ever-changing menu based on local food availability and take on California-inspired Mexican cuisine has already led her to a 2016 James Beard Award nomination. Whereas Broken Spanish has deep nose-to-tail roots, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer pointed out “there is not a single meat-based selection among the 20 or so dishes, and just about all of them are unlike what you would find at other Mexican restaurants.” The entire menu consists of seafood, like Santa Cruz abalone on a creamy pool of Serrano cream, mandolin purple potatoes and garnished with sorrel or mussel-based tamales with (extra) charred sweet potatoes, a rich mole sauce and made-to-order tortillas. Dinner reservations at Cala are stuffed like cheap, San Francisco Mission-style burritos for the next month. Luckily Camara serves tacos in a back alley behind her restaurant on weekdays from 11am-3pm.
Californios (San Francisco, CA)
What started out as a pop-up has now made a home in San Francisco’s foodie-famed Mission District. At Californios, just three public transit stops from Cala, your dining experience will be very different. On top of the odd items (grain soup, blood orange frozen yogurt, and smoked beef tongue just to name a few), there isn’t a fully detailed menu on what you will be consuming. Diners simply get a menu of each dish’s main ingredient on chef Val Cantu’s 32-seat, Mexican-influenced seven-course tasting menu, the restaurant’s only option for $57. The food mysteries and wine pairings are not revealed until after the meal—where you may eat foie gras ice cream with bruleed bananas and cajeta—but no need to worry. An alum of Austin’s Uchi and Mexico City’s Pujol, chef Val Cantu has redefined the modern Mexican cuisine experience and Eater named Californios 21 Best New Restaurants in America. Likewise the Californios beverage program is handled by his sister-in-law, who worked at The French Laundry. Cantu’s successful intimate, upscale restaurant represents the gaining popularity of a fancy Mexican food experience.
La Condesa (Austin, TX)
Chef Rick Lopez, a native Texan like Cantu, is executive chef of the James Beard Award-nominated Modern Mexican restaurant La Condesa named, after Mexico City’s millennial-driven neighborhood with a bustling nightlife. La Condesa serves lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, with a cocktail program that features over thirty different types of tequila. The menu boasts four different kinds of ceviche, made-to-order guacamoles, baby cactus salsa, quinoa-stuffed piquillo peppers (a play on chile relleno), and trendy cauliflower steak a la plancha. Praised by Modern Mexican cuisine pioneer Rick Bayless and with classical French techniques learned under Gavin Kaysen in New York City’s long established Café Boulud, Lopez’s highest achievements lie ahead of him. His food will be on display at the upcoming 2016 Austin Food & Wine Festival, where they hold an annual taco competition.
Cosme (New York, New York)
Globally recognized as Mexico’s most famous chef, Enrique Olvera brought his traditional Mexico City recipes from Pujol—consistently voted among the top 20 restaurants in the world—to the Broadway stage and opened what some critics have called the most anticipated New York City restaurant opening of all-time, Cosme. Its arrival in Manhattan’s Flatiron district was so antipicated that every reservation for months was instantly booked, two weeks prior to opening; and Olvera’s haute Mexican cuisine has exceeded expectations. Of all the chefs captivated by Mexico’s traditional ingredients, unknown flavors, ancient techniques, and botanical diversity, Olvera is the only one to whom they are a native palate. While his modern cuisine is based on the seasonal availability of New York’s Hudson Valley, you will find squash and mushroom barbacoa, ricotta enfrijoladas, 600 day mole madre, and corn husk meringue filled with sweet corn mousse, a staple of Culinary Institute of America alum’s dessert menu. Surprisingly, there’s mention of guacamole at Cosme.
What’s more, Olvera is among many celebrated fine-dining chefs who view their food as instruments of cultural and ecological preservation as much as a defining cuisine. He is collaborating with farm-to-table pioneer Alcie Waters on schoolyard gardens in Mexico City, where he also oversees Mesamérica, one of the world’s largest culinary conferences. What José Andrés is to Spanish food Enrique Olvera may be to Modern Mexican cuisine.
Empellón Cocina (New York, New York)
If there was ever a question pastry chefs can’t cook on a hot line, chef Alex Stupak provided answers by taking his chef game to the all-star level when he opened Empellón Cocina in New York’s East Village. Previously holding the Pastry Chef title at (former RCA Board member at large) Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, Stupak now owns three very modern Mexican-American restaurants throughout Manhattan; but it’s his 14 or 21 course tasting menu at Empellón Cocina that has chefs across the nation wanting to buy a new set of tweezers. As his heavily followed Instagram asserts, Empellón Cocina’s “approach to cuisine is informed by authenticity but not limited by it.” Always reasserting the Spanish verb empellon translates “to push” in English, Stupak released a Taco-inspired cookbook in October 2015 intended “to push through stale ideas about what Mexican food is or needs to be.” Tacos: Recipes and Provocations begins with an introduction “The United States of Mexico” and progresses to “neo-traditional” tortillas based around beets, rye, and chorizo. Unlike Mexican celebrity chef Enrique Olvera, Stupak’s book isn’t concerned with authenticity, where he wrote “talking about tacos gives us a chance to talk about cultural exchange, about idea appropriation, and about the way we value—or undervalue—ethnic cuisines.” Since opening in 2011, Empellón Cocina has been featured literally over 100 times by various culinary media figures.