Mixtli: A culinary journey through the heart of Mexico January 30, 2014Posted by Tracy in : Food, Uncategorized , trackback
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — It was only the second night that they were open for business, and the two young chefs worked madly. Barely had they had a chance to break in their new cookware when the news came: They were to have three icons of Latin American cuisine at their table: Rick Bayless of Frontera in Chicago, Maricel Presilla from Cucharamama in New Jersey, and Roberto Santibanez from La Fonda in New York City, accompanied by the Culinary Institute of America’s Latin Cuisines Advisory Board – the leadership from Diego’s own alma mater.
“That was incredibly nerve-racking,” confesses Mixtli co-founder Diego Galicia. “Trial by fire.”
The pair passed the test with flying colors; the room full of chefs ate and drank their fill, admiring the various offerings and conversing and sharing until nearly 1 a.m.
Now with kudos from all three chefs, four months of operation under their belts, a round of rousing reviews and an invitation to the prestigious Austin Food and Wine Festival’s Taste of Texas event, the pair can look back and laugh, and take it as a point of great pride. Still, they’ve a long way to go before they can rest on their laurels, and their feverish work pace demonstrates they’re leaving nothing to chance.
Mixtli, whose name means “cloud” in the ancient Nahuatl language, lies tucked away at the back of The Yard, an old railroad yard converted into a small commercial center, in a discreetly painted blue boxcar. There in the concentrated light of their tiny kitchen, Diego Galicia and Rico Torres, two young chefs of Mexican heritage, are engaging in a mission to revive the magic of a millenary cuisine.
The concept is an original one: Guests go online and buy tickets – $80 a pop – for what is intended to be more than a meal; it’s a culinary voyage aboard this boxcar, destined to explore and celebrate the vast diversity of Mexico, one state at a time. The restaurant will feature the cuisine of a specific Mexican state for 45 days; then, like the cloud that is their namesake, the menu will drift to another part of the country and start all over again.
Their goal is a lofty one, and it has several parts. First, there’s the goal of taking Mexican cuisine back from the depths of Tex-Mex cliche that prevails in the wealth of so-called Mexican restaurants that prevail throughout the country.
“This little restaurant is a hospital to heal Mexican food,” explained Diego – whose eloquence nearly matches his kitchen wizardry – “to bring it back to health, and put it where it’s supposed to be, among one of the most amazing cuisines in the world.”
Another is to provide an intimate, relaxed space for dialog between the chef and the diner. The boxcar/restaurant seats only 12, with just one seating, and Diego and Rico do it all: food prep and serving, always taking time to share thoughts and conversation with the guests.
“We believe that Mexican food is best enjoyed in a family setting, and that’s what we want to recreate here,” said Diego, who was born and raised in Toluca. “Growing up in Mexico, Sundays was Grandma’s house. So we would sit down and she would make a big meal. You don’t want to go home; you know tomorrow’s Monday, you’re going to be apart from your family… We’ve been blessed with amazing guests who have stayed for a long time. We have more wine, we have more beer – we want them to stay. When you come to my house, you stay as long as you want.”
A far cry from Taco Cabana, where he served a stint as corporate chef – “I was like a square peg in a round hole,” he laughs.
Rico, for his part, was raised on the border in El Paso, and traveled frequently to his parents’ birthplace in Zacatecas. He learned the intricacies of Mexican cuisine from family on both sides of the border, and through trial and error with his own catering business.
Their third mission is to grow and produce their own ingredients as much as possible, in their own rooftop garden, and then to provide a market and a showcase for local producers, sourcing ingredients locally and organically as much as possible. They have their own vegetable and herb garden, and they practice the ancient Mexican culinary arts of nixtamalizing their corn for masa and roasting their own cacao beans for chocolate. They’ve even started a foundation to award small grants to local growers to support their work.
A fourth mission is to simply practice their art, creating a pallet for their wild and creative imaginations. Don’t expect to see much that you recognize on your plate – even the most common items will be treated with style and grace.
Take for example the plate of wild mushrooms they served up at the Chiapas dinner I enjoyed recently. An entire woodland landscape was served up – complete with moss, wood, and cloud.
Yes, a cloud. I’ll leave it to your imagination how this was accomplished.
Other highlights of the Chiapas menu included a green papaya and ginger aperitif; roasted plantains like you’ve never seen before, arranged with tiny artful portions of black bean and doble crema; fish wrapped up with touches of tamarind and vanilla in a fragrant hoja santa leaf; a delightful little turkeytinga chiapaneca, the meat shredded and flavored in the classic sauce and served huarache-style on a handmade corn tortilla. Then there was the temazcal - borrowing the name from the ancient Mexican sweat lodge ceremony – in this case, manifested as small strips of locally grown wagyu (a departure from the Mexican, thanks to the grower of the kobe-style beef) to be cooked in an eyedropper full of chile oil on an artfully delivered hot river stone.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the wine pairings – exquisite and right on point for each serving – and the chocolate meticulously hand-ground and roasted for an aroma and flavor subtly different from any chocolate I’ve tasted.
Like the guests around Grandma’s table, we lingered and chatted and laughed and ate and drank for hours. More than a meal, it was truly an adventure.
Mixtli’s Chiapas menu will continue until Feb. 8, at which time the cloud will drift north and west to Jalisco – the land of the mariachi, tequila, birria, tortas ahogadas and jericallas. And after that?
As Diego and Rico would say, “Only the cloud knows.”