Fiesta of Flavors

30 June 2006
Fiesta of Flavors

Casual Mexican menus attract customers with the straightforward appeal of street-inspired fare and the allure of authentic ingredients.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Flush with success in a marketplace of adventuresome palates, Mexican restaurants are delving into Mexico's diverse culinary landscape, rediscovering everything from the simplicity of street food to an abundance of regional recipes and ingredients.

In chain restaurants, independents, universities and business-and-industry settings, the cuisine is thriving, not only in traditionally ethnic urban centers such as Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles but also in cities from Portland, Ore., to Providence, R.I. Such widespread appeal is a testament to the Mexican sector's strength, evidenced by sales that grew 18% to $15.4 billion in 2004.

Freshly made, simply prepared and easily eaten out of hand, street foods such as tortas, gorditas and sopes fit the call for quick options that deliver taste and value.

"It's very social and casual, not serious and heavy," says owner Holly Grabelle of the street food-inspired options at 4-month-old El Bocadito in New York City.

Consumers' desires for quality products, bold flavors and adventurous dining experiences are prompting subtle but unmistakable shifts on Mexican menus, skewing them toward regional preparations and more-authentic ingredients.

Oaxaca, known for earthy, complex moles, the Yucatan Peninsula, where the unique flavors of achiote and sour orange bring verve to many preparations, and Veracruz, with its abundance of fresh seafood and tropical fruit, are the most commonly explored regions. Also on the rise are culinary references to the rich cuisines of Puebla, Jalisco and Mexico City.

Regional Routes

At Adobo Grill in Chicago, Chef-partner Freddy Sanchez draws mainly from Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Veracruz to create snacks called antojitos. Dishes include barbacoa-style chicken tamales with ancho-chile salsa, salbutes de pollo (mini-tostadas topped with achiote-marinated chicken) and seviches of tuna, shrimp and scallops.

"Street food is great comfort food. It's got a very home-made feel," says Sanchez.

Zarela MartÁ­nez, chef-owner of Zarela in New York City, says this renewed regional focus is part of the constant reinvention that has kept her restaurant thriving for nearly two decades. Most dishes are influenced by Veracruz and Oaxaca, but the restaurant also offers special "gastronomic tours" of less-frequently explored Mexican states.

MartÁ­nez introduces diners to ingredients that are uncommon on this side of the border. Pepicha, a subtle, grassy herb, seasons many dishes, while small florets of huazontle, a broccoli-like vegetable, are boiled, beaten with eggs and formed into patties that then are wrapped around cheese and fried.

Ingredients and cooking preparations native to nine Mexican regions shape the menu at Zona Mexicana, a recently introduced retail brand from Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, The Americas Division. The contractor recruited Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., to develop a menu celebrating Mexico's culinary zones, says Dave Hoemann, vice president of creative services and marketing for retail brands at Compass.

"We were stuck with old-school, Americanized Mexican offerings for our accounts, and we made a conscious effort to move away from that with Zona Mexicana," he says. "We felt that the way other ethnic tastes continue to regionalize, it was the natural progression for Mexico too."

Guests can customize travel-friendly items (burritos, tacos, salads and rice bowls) with protein choices including pollo verde from Nuevo Leon, beef barbacoa from Jalisco, carnitas from MichoacÁ¡n and chicken tinga from Puebla. Toppings such as cotija cheese, pumpkin seed-and-arbol-chile salsa and cilantro also move beyond the mainstream.

Street Smarts

Lucero MartÁ­nez-ObregÁ³n, chef at 3-month-old Zocalo Taqueria and 10-year-old Zocalo Creative Mexican in Atlanta, says her family's restaurants gain loyalty by serving regional foods not found in other local Mexican eateries.

At the taqueria, tacos introduce diners to fillings such as pork al pastor from Mexico City (marinated overnight and cooked over a rotisserie); battered, fried tilapia with creamy arbol-chile salsa from Acapulco; and puerco pibil from the Yucatan (pork marinated in citrus and achiote).

The appetizer lineup finds nary a nacho in sight. Chickarees de queso are MartÁ­nez-ObregÁ³n's take on the crunchy deep-fried snacks popular throughout Mexico. asadero cheese-also known as Oaxaca cheese-is spread on the flat-top in a circular shape, cooked until crisp, rolled and served with salsa verde. For cabalettas asides, another traditional dish, a type of scallion called cambray onions are grilled whole with plenty of lime and salt.

At Oyamel, Chef-partner José Andrés' Mexican antojitos-driven concept in Arlington, Va., a menu built on the cuisines of Puebla, Oaxaca and Mexico City features less-common but approachable ingredients.

Prickly pear cactus paddles called nopales are cropping up in many kitchens; at Oyamel, they are lightly blanched for salads. Hibiscus and prickly pear flowers bring distinct flavors to sauces, dressings and beverages. The petals are steeped in water that is reduced and mixed with oil, vinegar and other additions.

Andrés, a protégé of famed chef Spanish chef Ferran AdriÁ , readily takes cues from street food. His version of sabanitas, a fruit salad native to Mexico City, matches sliced jicama and pineapple with serrano peppers and amaranth leaves. The mixture is dusted with piquin chile powder and tossed in pineapple vinaigrette.

The universal appeal of street food is driven by handheld, big-flavor items, says Robert Del Grande, chef-partner at Taco Milagro; one unit is open in Houston and two more are under construction.

"It's that idea of using the taco or burrito as a plate and you put all the ingredients on it," Del Grande says. "At the restaurant, we have a big salsa bar with pickled vegetables, onions and chiles, and everyone adds their own little voodoo to their taco and rolls it up."

Taco Milagro's main dining area has table service, but an integral part of the eatery is the cantina-style bar where customers can order tacos, tortas and other snacks such as flautitas with Jack cheese and chipotle cream, and spicy shrimp tamales with poblano sauce, pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese.

Universal Flavors

Introducing diners to new ingredients and preparations is easier when kitchens and waitstaff are on board with the efforts. SeÁ±or Frog's Restaurants, a 13-unit, Cancun, Mexico-based chain, opened its first U.S. unit in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last June and plans locations in Honolulu and Las Vegas as well. Most customers are American, even at restaurants in Mexico and the Caribbean, so the menu's glossary of Mexican culinary terms is integral to the dining experience.

Grilled nopales accompany several dishes, as do esquites, a traditional Mexican street food of corn cooked with chiles or chile powder, mayonnaise, lime and sometimes cheese. The menu also introduces diners to rajas, poblano chiles that are charred, peeled, seeded and cut into thin strips; panela, a fresh, mild, crumbly white cheese; and cajeta, a milky caramel sauce.

"People still like to hear about these items firsthand from the waiters, and that is part of our training," says Jorge Hinojosa, vice president of development for parent company Grupo Anderson's. "But a lot of people will just go ahead and try something new without asking, and that is a big change from what we were used to in the past."

Las Comidas Mexican ingredients and preparation styles worth exploring:

  • Achiote paste: made with ground annatto seeds, herbs and spices

  • Al pastor: meat slow-cooked on a spit

  • Asadero cheese: semi-soft white cow's-milk cheese also called Chihuahua or Oaxaca cheese

  • ChicharrÁ³n: crispy, puffy snack made from pork skin

  • Chilaquiles: corn tortilla strips sautéed with chiles, cheese, shredded chicken or beef; sometimes layered like lasagna and baked

  • Elotes: corn on the cob, usually sold on sticks by street vendors, spread with mayonnaise and cheese and sprinkled with chile powder and salt

  • Esquites: traditional Mexican street food of corn (elotes) cooked with chiles or chile powder, mayonnaise, lime and sometimes cheese

  • Gorditas: thick tortillas made of masa that are fried and stuffed with meat and/or vegetable fillings

  • Hoja santa: an aromatic herb used as a wrapper for fish, pork or poultry in manner similar to corn husk or banana leaf

  • Huaraches: oval-shaped masa tortilla topped with meats, cheeses and vegetables

  • Huitlacoche: mushroom-like corn fungus with smoky-sweet flavor

  • Nopales: paddles of prickly pear cactus (spines removed); often boiled or grilled

  • Recados: a variety of herb-and-spice marinades and pastes used on meat, fish, poultry and grilled vegetables

  • Sopes: small, fried masa bowls served with a variety of fillings

  • Tinga: shredded pork or chicken slow-cooked in spicy chipotle-chile sauce

Noncommercial's Mexican Originals

Unique, proprietary retail brands are one more way contractors use to distinguish and personalize client services in the competitive noncommercial sector.

Salsa Rico Fresh Mexican Grill, The Retail Brand Group unit of Sodexho USA, Allentown, Pa.
Accented by the flavors of the Baja Peninsula, this 24-unit concept centers around fresh-grilled proteins and four salsas made daily. Tacos, burritos and fajitas are core menu items, but quarterly promotions such as Mesa Chicken Flatbread Sandwich (r.)-with marinated chicken thigh meat rolled into flatbread with Monterey Jack cheese, lettuce, chipotle sour cream and avocado-corn salsa-keep things fresh.

Sequoia Grill, Parkhurst Dining Services (Eat'n Park Hospitality Group), Pittsburgh.
Mexican/Southwestern flair inspires possibilities at this food-court grill station, one of the contractor's 13 retail brands. Chefs for each account create their own menu specials such as Executive Sous Chef Jennifer Richmond's chipotle-barbecue flank steak, cumin-custard marinated salmon sandwich and roasted corn-and-cilantro salsa at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

Tortilla Fresca, Aramark Corp., Philadelphia.
Choices for burritos, fajitas and quesadillas at the 24-unit, fast-casual campus concept include portobello mushrooms as well as chicken, steak and veggie offerings. Breakfast, options include Taco Huevos y Papas (scrambled eggs, cheese, hash browns and pico de gallo in a warm tortilla) and Omelet Mexicana.

Zona Mexicana, Compass Group, The Americas Division, Charlotte, N.C.
Chef Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., consulted for this recently debuted brand with three units open and nine in the works. Campus and business-and-industry locations offer a limited menu of burritos, tacos, salads, rice bowls and nachos with fillings drawn from nine Mexican regions. Airport eateries will add tequila bars, antojitos such as quesadillas and green-chile corn chowder, and tortas.

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