Mexican Cuisine

Taste of Food·Food — Mexican Kitchen in California

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Ray Garcia loved Mexican food and could always be seen at carniceria’s butcher shop. His most cherished food memory is of him taking a brown paper bag covered with oil, reaching into it with his small hand, pulling out a piece of fried pork skin, and enjoying the crispy, golden fat while hanging out with his family at a Mexican meat market.

Decades later, when he was preparing to open a modern Mexican restaurant, Broken Spanish, he figured out how to add a favorite childhood snack to the menu. But simply replicating the taste of his childhood with a variety of spices and a good pig skin was not a challenge for him. Because in his eyes, “the crispy fried pork skin is really amazing, but is this the best way I can use this ingredient?” “I wanted to present it in a new way that would make diners feel something they’ve never tasted before.” So he applied the skills he learned at the upscale restaurant at the Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel to his reinvention of fried pork skin. The result is a crispy, garlicky roast of pork belly with lovely sprouts, and his way of putting a new face on a classic snack in fine dining.

Black pudding with arugula at Ray Garcia’s restaurant Broken Spanish

Crispy pork belly at Broken Spanish

Garcia is not alone. Throughout the so-called Golden State, chefs who share his Mexican heritage are spreading their country’s traditional cuisine without letting themselves be trapped by the way traditional Mexican food is presented. Chefs are combining fresh seasonal ingredients, childhood tastes, culinary prowess and stunning creativity to show Americans where Mexican food stands in the world’s cuisine.

At Broken Spanish in Los Angeles, Cala and Californios in San Francisco, Taco Maria in Costa Mesa and El Jard in San Diego, each restaurant needs to incorporate local culture into its menu before it opens, To showcase traditional, unique and culturally inclusive Mexican cuisine. The creators behind them are able to ride the growing wave of inclusion in professional kitchens. While Mexican chefs still don’t have the same opportunities to be hired as white chefs, their horizons are broader and broader than ever before. “We live in a different country than our parents did,” Garcia says. “Now we can come out from behind the kitchen, get our message heard, and use professional business language to attract more investors.”

El Jard in house salad

Dinner options at El Jard in include seasonal specials as well as signature dishes

Having cut his teeth in the industry, Garcia had the opportunity to hone his cooking skills by running Fig Restaurant at the Fairmont in Santa Monica. Carlos Salgado, who works at Taco Maria, works under chef Daniel Patterson at the Michelin-starred Coi in San Francisco. However, these glittering credentials are not enough to make Mexican food a true star. Even as chefs rise through the ranks at these famous restaurants, the platform for culinary success remains the restaurants that serve primarily European fare. While the state of Mexican food remains difficult, a necessary and subtle shift in the mindset of cooks and diners is taking place in food culture. The transition will finally take place within the next decade.

“The trend now is to show who you are (what you use, what you taste),” says Gabriela Camara of Cala, a seafood restaurant. “It lets you let go of your preconceptions about certain foods that deep down you love but don’t feel appropriate to serve in a fancy restaurant.” Camara, for example, mixes sashimi with citrus on Tortilla chips, a seaside snack served in high-end restaurants. Or “In the old days, you wouldn’t see tostada on the menu of any decent Mexican restaurant. It wasn’t fine food for a restaurant, you’d find it at a beach stall. “Camara redefines tostada, made with trout, avocado, sauteed leeks and spicy mayonnaise, a combination that balances acidity, spice, saltwater and fat. “That’s what modern Mexican food is all about.”

Cala’s halibut with fennel and radish

California’s status as a leader in modern Mexican cuisine owes much to its citizens. About 12 million of the state’s nearly 40 million residents are Mexican. This group has led to a proliferation of simple Mexican restaurants and taco trucks. “There are natural environmental advantages to cooking Mexican food here because more people know Mexican food and are receptive to spices,” Camara said.

California diners’ knowledge and understanding of Mexican food can be reduced to just two dishes. Because some people don’t want to deviate from dishes they’ve already decided on in their heads when eating out, it frustrates chefs. “It’s not just enchiladas, burritos, French fries and spicy tomato sauce,” says Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, the chef who works at El Jardin. “I don’t want to ignore the variety and delicacy of Mexican food for the sake of turnover.”

Pickled pearl and onion bean Puree with caviar

Even though these chefs cook Mexican food at a high level with better ingredients and technical skills, they still can’t charge the same fees as French restaurants. “Our food actually has more history than French food,” Zepeda-Wilkins said. “But just because we’re a third World country, Mexican restaurants don’t have the same quality as French restaurants.”

Because of this, they have to contend with cheap food. “I overheard a customer at the restaurant say, ‘$14 for a tamales? That’s crazy! “When a customer sees a word in Spanish or the name of a Mexican dish, they’re already mentally estimating the price of a tamale based on the one they bought from the corner store, not the four ounces of herbivore lamb, seasonal mushrooms, corn you bought and expertly rolled it into a fresh tamale. The reason is that Mexican food, cooked with the same quality ingredients, costs much less than French or Californian food.”

Dinner options at El Jard in include seasonal specials as well as signature dishes such as Mayan octopus

Despite the resistance these chefs faced early on, there is a growing appreciation for their modern Mexican cuisine that retains tradition and adds creativity, and a willingness to try and pay for it. “Now we have a completely different situation than four years ago, when people would pick up the menu, put it down and leave the restaurant,” Garcia said. Since opening, they’ve racked up plenty of accolades: Californios already has two Michelin stars, and the late famed food critic Jonathan Gold named Taco Maria the LA Times’ restaurant of the Year in 2018.

The chefs, who have established their own restaurants, are keen to cultivate chefs who are willing to use their excellent cooking skills to spread the word about Mexican food, as well as having an original perspective on food that has the potential to create a more contemporary Mexican cuisine. They are sparing no effort to promote the development of Mexican cuisine, gradually changing people’s concept, adding creativity to feelings and taste to bring diners unprecedented taste feast. “Mexican food used to be labeled as cheap, cheap, crappy food, but now Mexican food can also be a sophisticated delicacy,” Camara said. “There’s a strong cultural pride in the development of food that they didn’t feel a few years ago, and that’s probably the power and appeal of food.”

 

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