Mexican Flavor Faves Meet American Classics
Ingredients from south of the border are familiar friends to chefs
Justin Bazdarich, chef/owner of Speedy Romeo in New York City, describes his menu as wood-fired seasonal American with Italian influences, and for the most part, preparations and ingredients hew closely to that culinary path. With increasing frequency, his flavor arsenal also includes Mexican provisions, things he reaches when he wants to amp up flavors and bring unexpected nuance.
Take the grilled octopus, for instance, a dish with strong Mediterranean influences as seen in the romesco sauce, celery and crispy potatoes accompanying it. “It also has chili oil for heat, and most people wouldn’t guess that it’s made with guajillos and anchos,” Bazdarich says, referring to two distinctly Mexican chiles.
The Latin larder is deliciously rich with items such as chipotles, cilantro, avocados, limes and jalapenos that are familiar and much loved by Americans. Add to that a huge Latin American presence in many restaurant kitchens and it’s no surprise Bazdarich is hardly alone in these cross-cultural culinary exchanges.
“There is a pattern of adaptation of ingredients,” says Krishnendu Ray, chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “It takes about 40 years to move from diffusion of ingredients to the substantial spread of dishes and cuisines into the mainstream.”
Bazdarich, who also owns Oxomoco in Brooklyn, N.Y., sees it as a natural evolution that’s entirely welcome. “Americans are so familiar with Mexican ingredients that there’s no reason not to use them in new ways. Limes bring acidity, cilantro brings fresh, herbaceous brightness and chile brings heat,” he describes. “They bring flavor twists that are out of the box.”
Jesus Martinez, co-owner of La Palapa in Pittsburgh, is more than happy for American chefs to explore ingredients of his native country. “It’s important for chefs to have an open mind and try new things, and it’s absolutely OK to use them in non-traditional ways. I love to see things like chipotles and cilantro on American menus, used differently,” he says. “People want to see that creativity.”
Martinez and Jose Navarrete, his chef and business partner, are happy to engage in a little culinary borrowing themselves, mixing authenticity with innovation. “We learn about American ingredients and sometimes use them. It’s exciting and keeps things interesting and fresh.”