Tacos and mole may be some of our favorite foods, but there's so much more to Mexican cuisine than the select canon that occupies most Mexican American menus today. Fortunately, however, more and more restaurants are featuring regionally based food from states like Oaxaca and Jalisco, giving curious diners the opportunity to explore some of the lesser-known but no-less-delicious foods from our southern neighbor. If you call yourself a Mexican food lover, there's never been a better time to eat out.
Take Saint Louis restaurant Nixta, which opened last November and has just been named a finalist on Bon Appétit's Best New Restaurants list. Although owner Ben Poremba says he "didn't create Nixta solely to educate anyone," Guanajuato-born chef Tello Carreon is churning out dishes that are bound to expand some horizons.
The restaurant's version of the Oaxacan street food, tlayuda, for example, brings to the table a regional specialty not seen in many restaurants in the Midwest. "It's essentially a large thin tortilla that's toasted, and then topped with a variety of ingredients, resembling a thin-crust pizza," Poremba explains. Traditionally, the corn used for the tortillas is high in starch, which means they're sturdier than the tortillas you wrap your breakfast burrito in. It's also strong enough to hold up to dinner-plate-size proportions, as one tortilla supports toppings that typically start with refried beans, pork fat and queso fresco, and might also include shredded lettuce, avocado, salsa, chicken or other meat. "We top ours with carrot-coriander salsa, burrata, seeds and herbs," Poremba says (see the recipe).
The pizza-like snack isn't difficult to find in Los Angeles if you know where to look, and Chicago recently got its own influx of tlayudas. In NYC, Alex Stupak just started serving them at Empellón Al Pastor. But Christine Wilmes, Saint Louis native and proofreader at local food magazine Feast, says that even though there are several tiers of Mexican restaurants in the city, Nixta is doing something different. "I'm not aware of anything else locally that's its peer." Gushing about a recent visit to the restaurant, Wilmes says, “Everything was delicious, but surprisingly the black bean hummus stuck with us the most. Every element was simple but executed perfectly, and it resulted in a really memorable dish.”
On the East Coast, chef/partner Bob Truitt and beverage director/general manager Meaghan Montagano are bringing Mexico City to Brooklyn with Casa Pública, a North Williamsburg restaurant that opened in June. Truitt, formerly of El Bulli and Morimoto, says he's inspired by his wife, who's from Mexico City. "We travel there frequently to visit family and friends; it's our second home," he says. "The most important part [of the restaurant] is that the food tastes like Mexico—the same flavors and smells that inspired me from the beginning."
Expect home-style regional dishes like queso; ceviche, like the tostadas de atún, which comes with tuna, avocado crema and chile oil; and larger dishes, like flor de calabaza, squash blossoms stuffed with requesón, herbs and Swiss chard. Meanwhile at the bar, Montagano, who hails from La Sirena, is slinging cocktails, pouring frozen drinks and mixing a serious michelada program you'll definitely want to explore. You'll find the usual suspects (i.e., plenty of mescal), as well as lesser-known ingredients, like mole bitters and aji amarillo, an orange chile paste (though more Peruvian than Mexican), mixed into the El Chupacabra, a michelada-based cocktail.
Though no stranger to Tex-Mex, Houston is home to a full range of regionally focused Mexican restaurants; it's arguably one of the best big cities for Mexican food in the country. Longtime staple El Hidalguense "draws Mexican families eager for a taste of home," with dishes like barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo, lamb cooked in maguey leaves, and chavito asado al pastor, or whole goat. While beloved Las Cabamas Restaurant showcases the seafood-heavy dishes of Veracruz.
On the other end of the spectrum, opposite from these home-style restaurants, is newcomer Xochi, which Eater just declared one of the 12 best new restaurants in the country. The fancy Houston hot spot, which opened this winter, recalls the trendiest restaurants in Mexico City, serving complex and delicate dishes built with indigenous ingredients all the way down to the garnishes.
Of course, Mexican restaurants with a regional focus aren't a completely new phenomenon, but as they open in greater numbers and continue to attract national attention, they broaden the understanding of what Americans perceive as Mexican food—and if that means more tlayudas, consider us in it for the long haul. Whether you're looking for an education or not, these are the restaurants serving some of America's most exciting food right now.
Teresa Finney is a California girl and food writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow her on Twitter at @teresaafinney.
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