Ambitious new restaurants are taking Mexican cuisine upscale with premium ingredients and innovative ideas
Despite being one of the most popular cuisines in the United States, Mexican fare often faces a perception that it’s for casual dining only. For years, Mexican restaurants have proliferated in the budget and mid-range categories, but have found high-end success elusive. Fortunately, this culinary wrong is being righted as a new class of restaurateurs continues the work of pioneers like Rick Bayless in establishing a place for Mexican food in the world of fine dining.
“Mexican has always been marginalized as a cheaper food, and it was difficult to break through,” says Faiz Ally, chef de cuisine at Poca Madre in Washington, D.C. “We wanted to take it in the other direction.”
In the case of this intimate, 65-seat restaurant from chef Victor Albisu, its success in a segment dominated by Italian, French and Japanese establishments came from a willingness to shatter expectations.
“Poca Madre basically means badass or really cool, and the name is something we use as guidance as we prepare the menu. We ask, ‘Is this dish poca madre? Does it live up to that name?’” explains Ally. “We wanted to be forward-thinking and aggressive, and it’s that alternative mindset that allowed us to push the envelope.”
This point of view can be tasted in the restaurant’s mole de la casa, a derivative of traditional mole poblano that makes such substitutions as golden raisins for red raisins and foie gras in place of lard.
“You could go to a hundred Mexican restaurants and 99 are definitely not putting foie gras into their classic mole,” he continues. “We’re utilizing a different ingredient, something that may not be commonly used and is more high-end, to fulfill the role of a classic ingredient.”
At Brooklyn, New York’s Leyenda, some of the city’s most exquisite cocktails are matched with equally elevated food pairings from the kitchen of chef Jorge Romero, a native of Morelos, Mexico.
“We use fresh, local ingredients,” Romero says. “For our steak, we buy a higher quality cut, and for our chicken dishes we use organic chicken.”
And when cheese is called for in a recipe, they always go for the good stuff.
“In my fava bean empanadas,” Romero continues, “I have drunken goat cheese, and I use Humboldt Fog cheese for my poblano relleno.”