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Take it to the Mex

Americans love tacos, burritos, and nachos. Now Mexican menus are digging deeper to offer fresher, authentic fare. When Mexican cuisine first gained a foothold north of the border, the menus were geared to gringos. Milder, "Americanized" versions of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and tamales were standard selections, often served in combo plates with mounds of refried beans and rice. To get "real" Mexican food, diners had to travel to states like California, New Mexico, and Arizona where more authentic fare was dished up at small mom-and-pop eateries. These days, U.S. cities of every size boast at least one bona fide Mexican restaurant, and chains like Chipotle, Rubio's, Chevys, Baja Fresh, Qdoba, and El Torito— all of which are offering more authentic and regional dishes—are all over the map.

The Azteca Mexican Restaurant group is an operation that grew from one 24-seat storefront in Burien, WA in 1974, to its current size of 34 units located throughout the Pacific Northwest and Florida. Jose Ramos, owner and founder of Azteca, recruited his three brothers, Hector, Jaime, and Victor to help run the original storefront and expand the business. Now second-generation Mateo Ramos, VP of operations, is supervising the concept's first major menu re-do of the 21st century.

"We're updating some Azteca favorites with modern flavors, enhanced spicing, and more sophisticated ingredients and presentations," he says, all in an effort to make the menu "edgier." For example, a favorite seafood entree—Mariscos Mojo de Ago—is currently sautéed with mushrooms in butter and garlic; Ramos' intention is to pump up the flavor with more seasonings while preserving the inherent healthfulness of the dish. "We'll also be introducing other sautés, adding more fresh produce and bolder sauces, like chipotle, to the mix," he notes.

While combination plates featuring enchiladas, tacos, chimichangas, and tamales are still top sellers, more unusual, authentically Mexican preps are catching on with customers. These include Azteca Diablo Chowder, made with shrimp and garnished with cilantro and cotija cheese; Borrego Azteca, marinated lamb shanks with pico de gallo and avocado; and Molcajete, sautéed chicken and beef in a mushroom, onion, and tomato sauce topped with jack cheese. Azteca's average check is $33 with drinks.

At Vivo in Austin, TX, owner Roger Diaz is reinterpreting Tex-Mex for today's diners—a move initiated by his mother in her landmark San Antonio restaurant, La Fiesta Patio Café. Typical Tex-Mex fare, heavy on meat, beans, and lard, is represented by chili con carne, hard-shelled tacos, and nachos—items you wouldn't find in Mexico. But the dining public has embraced these Americanized dishes, so the Diaz family is giving them a lighter, more refined touch.

"We push the envelope with Tex-Mex by using different cooking techniques and fresher ingredients," says Diaz. "Our food has a healthier angle without sacrificing the vibrant flavors." As an example he cites Vivo's nachos, explaining how he "turns the concept around" by crowning the crispy chips with a fresh-tasting topping of guacamole, alfalfa sprouts, and pico de gallo ($7.95). Diaz's mom also came up with slimmed-down refried beans—she removed the lard and substituted canola oil, then left in the cooking juices that collected. The extra moisture eliminates the need to refry the pintos in fat. And her salsa verde contains no sugar or lard. Instead, tomatillos are mixed with the characteristic spices, then pureed with iceberg lettuce to add moisture and texture. Although Vivo's specialty puffy tacos aren't the lightest of entrees, they certainly are crowd pleasers that differentiate the restaurant. To make the signature shells, a thick sheet of corn masa dough is submerged in hot oil and as it cooks, a spatula is laid in the middle so the dough puffs up around it. The crevice that forms is stuffed with a filling; guacamole or spicy tofu with lettuce, tomato, and cheese goes for $8.95.

Those desiring non-fried fare may opt for the seafood tacos ($9.95). These start with tortillas that are brushed with olive oil and griddled, then filled with grilled shrimp, Oaxacan cheese, and a drizzle of chipotle mayonnaise. "The shrimp, cheese, and mayo—which we call 'baja sauce'—make these truly unique compared to the typical fish taco," says Diaz. With an eye on health, Vivo serves its entrees with whole-grain brown rice.

Capturing the health-conscious customer has always been a priority for the Wheat Ridge, CO-based Qdoba Mexican Grill. The 100-unit chain's emphasis on fresh-ingredient soups, salads, and burritos, and grilling as the cooking method of choice for chicken, beef, and veggies, support that goal. But flavor gets top billing, too, says VP of marketing Karen Guido.

Signatures like the Poblano Pesto Burrito, made with marinated grilled chicken topped with a sauce of roasted poblano peppers, cilantro, almonds, and pine nuts, and the Chicken Mole Burrito with a spicy mole sauce (both $5.49) sport bold flavors and authentic interpretations. And grilled vegetables, long a Qdoba option, have recently been reworked to eliminate the scallions and "polarizing" eggplant. The new red bell pepper, yellow squash, and zucchini mix is zipped up with garlic-herb seasoning.

"Over the past year, we decided to gradually improve some of our current menu items, giving them a fresh, flavorful spin," Guido notes. She cites as another example a spinach-artichoke quesadilla, currently in test as a line extension.

At La Palapa, a fine-dining restaurant with two locations in New York City (avg. check, $50), the regional home cooking showcased in Mexico City is at the heart of the menu. To replicate this style—which draws on the traditions of Puebla, Oaxaca, the Yucatan, and other regions— co-owners and chefs Barbara Sibley and Margaritte Malfy fill their larder with fresh Mexican ingredients and cook everything from scratch. "We want our guests to feel as if they're taking a trip to Mexico City," says Sibley, who grew up there. With foodstuffs such as huitlacoche (corn mushroom), avocado leaves, cactus paddles, and a wide array of chilies ready to go into dishes like Crepas de Huitlacoche with poblano crema and Chihuahua cheese and Tamal de Vagre (spiced catfish and cactus paddles baked in cornhusks with fresh epazote leaves and jalapenos), it seems almost possible.

The pair is so picky about procurement that if they can't get a product fresh from Mexico, they find comparable local sources or create it themselves. They make their own Mexican-style crema (a thin crème fraîche or sour cream) and cheese (queso fresco) with organic milk from a local dairy and shop the neighborhood farmer's market for wild greens like lambs quarters, purslane, and epazote. Moles are hand-ground from nuts and seeds to grace not only chicken and pork, but muscovy duck ($16.95). Menu items such as Mexico City Plaza-Style Corn on the Cob with lime, mayo, chile piquin, and queso cotija and Pescado al Pipian Verde with Yucatecan pumpkin seed sauce, saffron rice, and Swiss chard combine the best of both worlds.

"We don't need a freezer or steam table in the kitchen, since everything is cooked fresh and to order," Sibley explains. "For that reason, our food is inherently healthy."

The La Palapa duo is fussy about their cocteles too. Here, the ubiquitous margarita gets gussied up with fresh flavors like hibiscus, blood orange, tamarind, and ginger, and the glass can be rimmed with chili-piquin salt. A choice of no fewer than 15 tequilas is available to spike the drink or sip on their own, as is a selection of beers and sangrias. To help guests make informed choices, Malfy has developed a tequila tutorial for the service staff—a companion to the La Palapa Mexican food dictionary she created.

Also hailing from Mexico City is Adrian Valdovinos, chef at the 80-seat Tortilla Press in Collingswood, NJ (avg. check, $20 without drinks). He prepares traditional favorites, including enchiladas, enmoladas (enchiladas filled with mole), and quesadillas, but likes to ratchet them up with unique ingredient combos or presentations. For Cinco de Mayo, he developed quesadillas with crunchy corn, epazote, avocado, and cheese, and a new burrito featured a filling of sweet potatoes and mushrooms ($12). But his best sellers fall in the seafood category.

Grilled tuna with root vegetables, fresh pineapple, and pineapple-sun dried tomato salsa seasoned with habañeros and cilantro ($17.50), is a guest favorite. "I like to make my seafood dishes light, but I'm surprised at how spicy customers like their food these days," Valdovinos says. "The spicier the better." Also high on the list are Honey Lime Scallops with a coating of gaujillo chile puree ($16) and Ceviche Salad ($10.50).

Valdovinos gets noticeably enthusiastic when he describes his ceviche salad—a dish rooted in his culinary heritage. Two different raw fish combos go into the preparation; one is a traditional mix of salmon, scallops, and shrimp, the other, yellowfin tuna tossed with cumin, garlic powder, ground ancho chile, cilantro, salt, lime juice, and oil. The mixtures marinate for eight hours, then are tossed with diced mango, papaya, cucumber, and avocado. "I form each with a ring mold to make an impressive arrangement and place the rounds over spring mix with cherry tomatoes and citrus vinaigrette," he explains. The double impact of fresh sea flavors coupled with the eye-catching presentation make this salad a top seller at the Tortilla Press.

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