Modern Chefs Are Taking Traditional Street Food Inside and Adding a Gourmet Flourish
It is a blisteringly hot day in Oaxaca, the gastronomic capital of southern Mexico, and the brightly hued streets are quiet with lazy dogs and closed shutters. However, Pitiona, a smart but simple restaurant located in a restored colonial house on 5 de Mayo St., is still abuzz from a late-lunch crowd. Bottles of aged mezcal are lined up behind the bar—this is the home of the distilled, smoky agave spirit after all—and some are being passed around.
Run by chef José Manuel Baños Rodríguez, who worked at El Bulli in 2007 before returning to his hometown, Pitiona (www.pitiona.com) takes traditional Mexican dishes and adds its own modern refinements, while also incorporating pre-Columbian ingredients.
Pitiona chef José Manuel Baños Rodríguez
Small ceramic spoons carry delicate foam that conceals ants lightly fried in chili. A salad arrives smoking, with the curls forming around crisp lettuce leaves and tomatoes. The aroma of chipotle emanates from a steaming bowl of black-bean soup, as spheres of string cheese explode in the mouth. Pork comes with a rich chichilo mole, in which the sauce ingredients have been gently charred, lending it an earthiness. For dessert, a chocolate tortilla comes cigar-shaped, concealing xoconostle (a type of cactus) marmalade.
While Mexico is famous for its sensational street food and home cooking, it is only relatively recently that chefs, like Mr. Rodríguez, have been adding a gourmet touch to the traditional cuisine.
“We have the best ingredients around the world. Now we can lead the revolution with great restaurants,” says Mr. Rodríguez, who plans to open a similar restaurant in InterContinental’s Presidente hotel in Mexico City in June. “We are now able to prepare food a little more technically, more sophisticated,” he continues. “We need to show the world that it is more than just home cooking.”
Pitiona’s noodle soup with floating cheese
In Mexico City, at Azul Condesa (azulcondesa.com), in a converted house in the hip neighborhood of Condesa, the power dinner is in full force. Every time a new group enters, it takes them a good 15 minutes to get to their table, once the full rounds of air kissing have been completed. It isn’t just the social hub; the food is outstanding.
Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, one of the country’s most famous chefs, has spent the past 20 years trying to change the way Mexican food is perceived. His first restaurant, Azul y Oro, which opened 12 years ago in a culinary school, was one of the first gourmet Mexican restaurants in the country. Now, with Azul Condesa, which opened in 2011, and Azul Histórico (azulhistorico.com), which opened in January, he spends months trawling the far reaches of the country, researching regional dishes and bringing them, along with the local ingredients, back to his own restaurants.
Exterior of Pujol
Presentation is key. Here, a ceviche is served in a perfect circle, topped with diced avocado, framed with a delicate soy, lime and orange-juice sauce. Organic hibiscus-flower enchiladas are served with a gloriously pink tomato and smoky chipotle sauce. A little pillow of sea bass comes with a delicious pumpkin sauce, offering a little kick at the end thanks to a habanero chili. Dessert is a delectable soursop mousse, with black sapote and raspberries. Exotically named fruits, vegetables and spices jump at you from every menu page.
“In the past when you studied cooking here, it was all international cuisines, but now things have changed a great deal and they are finally teaching about Mexican food,” Mr. Zurita explains, attributing the revolution in gourmet cuisine to the metamorphosis in Mexico’s cookery schools. “This means that now there is a new generation of chefs in the country who are educated in the ways of Mexican cuisine and it is changing the scene.”
Changing that emphasis has allowed chefs to rediscover the diversity of local ingredients, such as chili, which don’t have to be hot to be tasty. “We have to give the chili a chance to perform,” Mr. Zurita says. “A lot of people think chilies are only hot and spicy, but they have wonderful flavors and some are very mild. Unfortunately, the image of the country is that we are eating chilies all the time.”
To prove his point, Mr. Zurita spotlights a different ingredient or dish each month, from mole to mangoes to food from a specific region, such as the Yucatán or Tabasco.
Different is also what customers get at chef Enrique Olvera’s gourmet restaurant Pujol (pujol.com.mx), in the smart neighborhood of Polanco, where the dishes are works of art. Here, the prosperous and international set arrive in dresses and vertiginous heels; hair is big and wallets are bulging.
The meal starts with an earthenware pot with hickory smoke pouring out of the top. Inside, beautiful, smoked mini-corns bathe in coffee mayonnaise and ant powder. Tasting menus come with Mexican wines or mezcal and beer. In the seafood tasting menu, a shrimp taco appears as a paper-thin layer of avocado wrapped around a spiced shrimp interior. An oyster is served topped with a rosemary flower and a gentle foam of vanilla. A lemony tortilla comes with thin slices of chili-marinated snook (a type of white fish) and topped with pineapple salsa; it is a posh take on street food, and eaten in the same way—with the fingers. Some of the dishes are traditional Mexican with a twist; others are international cuisine with a Mexican spin.
Nearby, inside boutique hotel Las Alcobas, chef Martha Ortiz is causing something of a stir with her gourmet restaurant Dulce Patria (dulcepatriamexico.com), where dishes showcase the diversity of the country’s huge array of ingredients.
Dulce Patria’s interior
Her restaurant is feminine and flooded with light, with pretty arrangements of gladioli and cacti on the tables. Squash-bloom soup comes with toasted almonds, poblano chilies and turmeric cream. Duck is served in a rich mole negro, with a banana leaf and corn-flavored rice. Not for the fainthearted, a grilled red and green salad comes with Oaxacan string cheese, epazote (an herb native to Mexico) and a liberal sprinkling of grasshoppers. Desserts are equally inventive: A creamy mamey (a Mexican fruit) custard features gold leaf and red carnation preserve.
“It has taken a long time to get to this stage,” says Ms. Ortiz, who was born into a family of artists and intellectuals, and first studied political science before realizing her passion lay with food.
“We didn’t have Mexican restaurants before,” she says. “We had cantinas and international restaurants. Until recently, it was a poor country.”
Across the board, these chefs say the national psyche has shifted. “Everyone used to cook, but now it is a working society more than ever, so people won’t go home for lunch,” Mr. Zurita says. “And when you go out, you don’t want that food. People want something different.”
Ms. Ortiz agrees. “People here have started feeling very proud, as food is culture,” she explains. “My dream is that now people all over world will start recognizing the prestige and beauty in our food. It is Mexico’s time.”
Write to Jemima Sissons at email@example.com
Published at WSJ.com