Though Mexican food began with tiny family restaurants in immigrant neighborhoods and roadside taco trucks, it has now blossomed into an increasingly celebrated fine dining category that even includes a two-Michelin star restaurant, where culinary fusion pioneers new combinations. Yet, for most of today’s new wave of Mexican restaurants, the innovation is in the return to forgotten but tasty traditional techniques and flavors.
The culinary world has come a long way since the pioneering work of Elena Zelataya, whose 1958 cookbook Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking attempted to dispel, as Mayuk Senh writes (in his book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America), “the misperception that Mexican food was ‘always searingly hot, exotically and overly spiced, and heavy.”
John Shoup, CEO of Great Chefs TV, recalls the trend taking off in the 1980s, fueled by Chez Panisse alum and superstar chef Jeremiah Tower at Berkeley’s Santa Fe Bar and Grill and Mark Miller in Santa Fe. The latest wave of Mexican upscale or middle-tier chefs is more likely to be of Mexican descent.
After crossing the border as a teenager, the now renowned Nopalito chef Gonzalo Guzman started life in the U.S. as a dishwasher, rising slowly through the ranks to become part of the cooking staff and eventually having his own restaurant. In 2018, he won a James Beard award for the Nopalito cookbook he wrote with Stacey Adimando, based on his childhood cooking, the basis for his farm to table San Francisco restaurant, a casual indoor-outdoor spot in the Haight.
“To me, the Mexican restaurant food I tasted when I came to the U.S. was nothing like the food I had at home in Mexico. The corn tasted different– it had a synthetic aftertaste–and I was really not happy with it,” said Guzman. “Restaurants were just buying packages that you could just go to the store and get. No one was willing to make things from scratch–meaning getting good corn, grinding their own corn, and making things from scratch. So I wanted to change that. And that’s kind of what I did.”
Just as the 1980s wave of Mexican cuisine relied heavily on the then-novel ingredient of blue corn, today’s wave puts corn at the center, but it’s more likely to be heirloom masa that has been nixtamalized (soaked and house-ground) and is then used in house-made tacos, tamales, totopos and more.
While Nopalito occupies a middle tier of Mexican dining, Californios, also in San Francisco, has taken Mexican food to the realm of two Michelin stars, the highest in the Mexican cuisine category. Michelin lists 6 one star Mexican restaurants in the U.S., including three one stars in Manhattan.
Michelin describes Californios’ fare as including an “Oaxacan green masa tart filled with smoked sturgeon mousse, or a mini infladita filled with guajillo chileatole and crowned with Hokkaido uni. A sliver of grilled Cavendish banana is then presented with savory dulce de leche mounted with caviar.”
While this kind of elite Mexican-European fusion is not to everyone’s taste, the trend toward more fine dining tiers of fine Mexican dining is finding favor after years of chef-fueled curiosity and success.
British-born recipe hunter and cookbook author Diana Kennedy (1923-2022), who called herself an “ethno-gastronomer,” discovered the food of Mexico, region by region, and encouraged by Craig Claiborne, began teaching and writing, penning nine culinary books based on her field research.
Then came the next wave–Miller with his Santa Fe-based Coyote Cafe in 1987 (and later cookbooks), along with Chicago-based Rick Bayless of Frontier Grill fame, who earned one Michelin star for his Topolobampo restaurant and has six books, 12 seasons of TV shows, and seven James Beard awards.
Mass market chains like Taco Bell, founded in 1962, offered a parallel universe that popularized Americanized Mexican foods–one that has now grown to 7,000 fast food outlets. The eco-friendlier, more upscale Chipotle, founded in 1993, now has 3,182 outlets. In total, experts say there are close to 50,000 Mexican restaurants in the country.
But it’s innovation at the top end that is fueling culinary interest and leading to growth from diners recovering from the pandemic, who now want to get out of the house and enjoy meals out.
“What’s happening now is that people are craving those types of experiences and flavors, but they’re looking for a higher-end consumption experience,” says Alex M. Suskind, Professor of Food and Beverage Management and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Cornell University. “We’ve seen this happen with Japanese food. We’ve seen this happen with Chinese food, and we’ve seen it happen with Italian food…it’s moved through the different cultural categories of cuisine. We’re just seeing the same thing now repeat itself with Mexican cuisine.”
As an example, Susskind pointed to the fast-growing, New York-based, Mexican mini-chain Dos Caminos with a full high-end bar and broad menu.
Like Nopalito (which uses mainly organic ingredients), Dos Caminos’ website lists its eco-friendly and artisanal suppliers, dovetailing with the trend toward better ingredients and more transparency about sourcing.
Dos Caminos currently has four locations in NYC and has announced plans to open three new ones–another in NYC, one in Charlotte, N.C., and another in Atlantic City.
“These types of restaurants are popping up all over the place because there is demand for a higher quality, higher level experience, as opposed to the bodega style of restaurant,” said Susskind.
Clearly, Mexican food’s old reputation as just cheap street food has expanded into all tiers of the food world and broadened to build on the talents of a new generation of chefs and diners with more sophisticated palates who appreciate its many spices and flavors.