The Mexican Momentum
from Siesta to Fiesta
There is something so compelling about Mexican cuisine and customs.
Whether you have experienced Mexican haute cuisine in Cabo, serenaded by soft guitar and Pacific breezes; or whether you’ve joined the conga line at Senor Frogs in Cancún during spring break — you get the appeal. The upbeat music makes you move; the relaxed, friendly attitudes of the people make you smile; the tropical flowers and colorful décor heighten the fiesta mood. And the food is so flavorful and varied — everything from the freshest ceviche to the juiciest burrito — it runs the gamut from delicate and savory to substantial and fiery.
Mexican cuisine has stood the test of time in the United States, consistently sharing the trifecta of top concepts with Italian and Chinese. In fact, according to Aimee Harvey, managing editor of global content for Technomic, it is the most popular ethnic cuisine. “Mexican cuisine has gone mainstream in the U.S.,” said Harvey. “It is well-entrenched on all kinds of menus across the country.” We asked Harvey to characterize authentic Mexican cuisine in contrast with Tex-Mex, which is more prevalent in the U.S. “Authentic Mexican cuisine is very simple. Not a lot of ingredients are used. In coastal cities, fresh fish and seafood are minimally enhanced to allow their natural flavor to stand out. Street tacos in Mexico City usually contain just meat, onions and cilantro. Tex-Mex is more elaborate, offering diners more options for their tacos and burritos.” Customization of Mexican menu items continues to grow at about five percent each year. According to Harvey, menus in general are contracting. “Smaller menus allow operators to showcase their specialties. However, in the past year, we’ve tracked a 67 percent increase in taco appetizers at major chains in the United States.”
The food contributions born and bred in Mexico are widespread. Corn is likely the most important. It was domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago, and sustained Native Americans the same way that rice did in Asia. Beans are another plentiful and nutritious mainstay of the Mexican diet. Chili peppers were in use in Mexico at least 6,000 years ago. Chocolate, tomatoes, avocados –
all came out of Mexico.
Lots of the spectacular foods that the world takes for granted today can be traced to Mexico. Spanish conquistadors were responsible for first introducing the rest of the world to many of the foods they found in Mexico. More recently, we must give due credit to modern day chefs in Mexico and the United States for further solidifying our love of Mexican foods. Outstanding American chefs have found themselves so inspired and captivated by the foods and cooking techniques of Mexico that they have centered their entire careers on this focus.
Chef Rick Bayless
Chef Rick Bayless was born in Oklahoma to a multi-generational restaurant family. This authenticity seeker has spent much time in Mexico, and has parlayed his love of the country’s food into a culinary dynasty that includes world-famous restaurants in Chicago. Bayless opened Frontera Grill to much critical acclaim in 1987. Next came the more upscale Topolobampo in 1991. In 2009, the fast-casual Xoco began serving classic Mexican soups and sandwiches and bean-to-cup Mexican chocolate. The Frontera line of salsas, cooking sauces and organic chips are sold at retail from coast to coast. Bayless owns seven James Beard Awards in several different categories. He’s published nine cookbooks, and was nominated for a daytime Emmy for Best Culinary Host. His current TV series, “Mexico—One Plate at a Time,” appears on Public Television across the country. The Government of Mexico honored Bayless with the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle — the highest decoration bestowed on foreigners whose work has benefitted Mexico and its people.
Chefs Mary Sue Milliken & Susan Feniger
Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were both successful French chefs at a time when there weren’t too many female peers. In 1985, these two intrepid women set off in a VW to explore firsthand the authentic foods and cooking traditions of Mexico. They felt compelled to make the trip because they had become so enamored of the dishes prepared and shared by Mexican cooks in the back-of-the house at U.S. restaurants. After their travels, Milliken and Feniger felt compelled to open Border Grill in Los Angeles, serving modern Mexican cuisine. The chefs have since expanded the borders of Border Grill many times, adding locations in Santa Monica and Las Vegas. They also have two Border Grill food trucks in L.A., and two locations at L.A. International Airport. The chefs have co-authored numerous cookbooks, and together starred in nearly 400 episodes of the Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales.” Milliken and Feniger were honored in 2013 with the California Restaurant Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award; and in 2014, they were welcomed into the Menu Masters Hall of Fame.
There is also a wealth of incredibly talented Mexican-born chefs and chefs of Mexican descent showcasing authentic specialties in the United States. Here are several from two generations:
Chef Hugo Ortega
Hugo Ortega is a native of Puebla, Mexico, and one of the foremost chefs making his mark with Mexican in the U.S. today. This versatile trendsetter operates Backstreet Café (seasonal American), Hugo’s (regional Mexican) and Prego (neighborhood Italian) in Houston. Several years ago, Ortega premiered Caracol Mexican Coastal Cuisine, also in Houston, paying homage to the abundance of fresh Mexican delicacies from the sea. Ortega wanted to showcase the authentic regional and historic dishes of the sixteen states sited along its vast coastline, either on the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean. In 2003, Ortega and his brother Jose Luis, who is also a chef, refined their technique for making conch ceviche together on the beach in Playa del Carmen. He named Caracol, which means “conch” in Spanish, in honor of the occasion; and ceviche is, of course, one of the specialties of the house. Chef Ortega has published several cookbooks, and has been nominated this year by the James Beard Foundation as “2016 Best Chef: Southwest.”
Chefs Zarela Martinez & Aaron Sanchez
Aaron Sanchez has followed in his mother’s footsteps. She is Zarela Martinez, who was born in Mexico and began her cooking career in Texas. She operated the acclaimed Zarela in New York City from 1987 to 2011. Both mother and son mentored under Chef Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans, and Sanchez began his culinary career helping his mother with her catering business. Sanchez, who was born in El Paso, Texas, was executive chef at both Paladar and Centrico in New York. He is an author and prolific TV personality on the Food Network, most recognizable as a co-starring judge on the hit show, “Chopped.” In 2014, Sanchez teamed up with fellow James Beard Award winner, Louisiana Chef John Besh, to open Johnny Sanchez in Baltimore -- followed by another in New Orleans. The restaurant is described as a “chic authentic taqueria that embodies the warmth of traditional Mexican cooking with the fun and genuine hospitality of New Orleans.” The menu promises an authentic Mexican experience.
When it comes to ethnic cuisine, Mexican food is one of the tried-and-true winners. If you have a suspicion that your menu is taking a bit of a siesta, perhaps it’s time to change things up with a little fiesta. The next time you tackle menu engineering or just decide it’s time for a bit of tweaking and refreshing, consider adding some of the fabulous specialties that have come out of Mexico.
Visit the websites of the restaurants listed here and other successful Mexican concepts, examine the menus and strategize ways that your operation can incorporate Mexican winners into your current offerings. Do not be daunted by stories of the difficulties of preparing mole sauce or ceviche. Start by putting your own trendy spin on the more basic items — such as buffalo burritos with chilis and fresh Mexican cheese; shrimp and heirloom tomato tacos; and sizzling vegetable fajitas with sriracha-spiked polenta. If your customers approve, expand from there.