Mexican Food Enters the Fine-Dining Realm

Chefs like Gabriela Cámara and Enrique Olvera are increasingly experimenting with a beloved cuisine, garnering rave reviews and Michelin stars along the way.

Dishes are set in the kitchen for a brief moment before being taken out to diners at Cosme in New York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

The dollop of pineapple puree that accompanies the cobia al pastor ($24) at New York City’s Cosme looks more like modern art than food—a bright burst of yellow surrounded by the white canvas of a bowl. The tamal de cazuela with sea urchin and charred habanero-leek relish at San Francisco’s Cala ($20) is just as visually striking, arriving at the table with its deep purple spikes still intact.

Say “Mexican food” to many Americans, and burritos bursting with rice and beans or enchiladas drowned in tomatillo sauce probably come to mind. But the dishes rolling out of the kitchens at Cala, Cosme, and emerging restaurants in between are increasingly taking a beloved cuisine into the fine-dining realm. Not only are they challenging the idea that Mexican food means cheap and fast, but they’re trusting that Americans will pay top dollar for quality ingredients prepared in novel and creative ways.

While restaurants like Eduardo de San Angel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the Michelin-starred Casa Enrique, in Queens, New York, have long served upscale Mexican cuisine, over the past few years, a number of restaurants have started to experiment with its customs, moving away from “traditional” or “authentic” dishes toward plates that adapt or entirely reinvent the genre.

Beyond Cosme and Cala, there’s Mexique in Chicago, and Hugo Ortega’s Caracol in Houston. Bracero in San Diego dishes out $17 small plates of carrot aguachile with local tuna, scallops, ginger, ghost pepper, smoked steelhead roe, and cashews. Washington, D.C. has José Andrés’s Oyamel. There are certainly others, and no two seem to look the same. But industry observers and chefs say they see a relatively new recognition among both restaurateurs and diners in the United States that Mexican fare has a place in the fine-dining world.

A cook puts finishing touches on the tlayuda, a Oaxacan specialty, before it goes out to the dining room at Cosme on March 3, 2016. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Gabriela Cámara, who opened Cala in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley last September and is the brain behind Mexico City’s renowned Contramar, said she thinks the shift began about five years ago. Enrique Olvera at Cosme (who also runs the much-lauded Pujol, a short drive from Contramar) pegs the “moment” at about two years ago.

Fine dining as a whole, Cámara said, is a growing industry, but not in the traditional, stuffy, white-tablecloth mold. Instead, it’s evolved into something that Cosme and Cala represent—embracing the casual, the innovative, and even the experimental, as long as quality remains central to the dishes being served.

Cámara said she wouldn’t have been able to make dishes like her halibut ceviche verde with fennel, radish, and sorrel ($22) work without the proliferation of sushi restaurants in the U.S. The migration of sushi, she thinks, opened people up to the concept of not only eating, but paying top dollar for, fresh raw fish.The uni tostada with avocado, bone-marrow salsa, and cucumber at Cosme, a snack-sized portion for one or a few bites if shared, costs $19. The slightly larger crispy octopus dish with hazelnut mole, paired with pickled potatoes and watercress, is $29. The average tab runs around $70 per head.

The crispy octopus with hazelnut mole, pickled potatoes, and watercress at Cosme (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

While the National Restaurant Association doesn’t have hard data on the number of upscale restaurants in the U.S., or upscale Mexican spots specifically, its research suggests that half of Americans eat Mexican food at least once a month, and that almost everyone is familiar with at least some form of Mexican food.

But there’s quite the variation when it comes to conceiving what Mexican food looks like. As the journalist Gustavo Arellano has noted, tacos first arrived in the United States during the Mexican Revolution. As their popularity grew, restaurants serving Mexican Americans a taste of home expanded to serve a broader array of patrons, who sought out food they saw as “authentic.” (For decades, many Americans put Tex Mex and even Taco Bell in that category.) “The idea of authenticity has driven the popularity of Mexican food among Americans for 100 years,” Arellano told the Christian Science Monitor in 2014. “Once they’ve eaten a dish enough that it’s no longer ‘authentic,’ they go and try to find the next authentic food. At one point, people thought Taco Bell was authentic Mexican food. It was exotic. Now it’s the new synonym for McDonald’s.”

That constantly morphing definition of what constitutes “authenticity” may have carved out space for people like Olvera and Cámara to create Mexican food that either disregards or redefines the term. The National Restaurant Association found that two-thirds of young people say they eat a wider variety of ethnic foods today than they did five years ago, suggesting many diners have more adventurous palates. Moreover, gourmet food often finds its way to social media, making the visual component more important than ever (that dot of pineapple puree at Cosme appears regularly in Instagram posts). Hugo Ortega, who’s opened several high-end Mexican restaurants in Houston, puts it this way: “Some of us have been digging into this for years, but it’s happening now because the audience is ready.”

At the same time, chefs and food writers have finally discovered what Mexico City has known for decades: that the city is a vibrant mecca bursting with innovative cuisine. “Mexico City became a favorite for chefs,” Olvera said. “They realized Mexican food is not what they thought it was.” The evolution in upscale dining, the growing popularity of ethnic cuisine in the U.S., and the increasing ease of access to Mexico itself—have coalesced to allow a growing number of high-end, often seafood-focused Mexican restaurants in the United States to flourish. “It’s the moment that allows it,” Cámara said.

Lunchgoers share plates at Cosme, in New York City's Flatiron District, on March 3, 2016, where a tab can run you upwards of $70. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

And there is a definite “moment.” The New York Times put Cosme at the head of its list of top restaurants in 2015. The sleek Flatiron District spot (Olvera is partial to the clean modernity of Japanese design), “dared New York to see Mexican food in new ways,” wrote the restaurant critic Pete Wells. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer wrote of Cala, “I haven’t been to every Mexican restaurant in the United States, but I’ve been to many that were considered the best. From my experience none can beat the sophistication of Gabriella Cámara’s [sic] Cala,” naming it his favorite new restaurant of the year. The high-end Mexican spot Hugo’s and the seafood-focused Caracol, both by Ortega, who for several years has been a James Beard-award finalist, both rank in the top 10 of the Houston Chronicle’s 2015 roundup of restaurants.

Money, as always, is a driving force, and has implications when it comes to who gets to, or has the right to, serve “ethnic cuisine.” For centuries, immigrants from all over have arrived in the United States and opened restaurants, sometimes to serve people from their homelands, sometimes for a wider audience, often as a way to preserve their heritage. Particularly when it comes to Mexican cuisine, the establishments opened by Mexicans have tended to be low on overhead (think tiny burrito outposts in San Francisco’s Mission District, or the plentiful breakfast taco stands in Austin and San Antonio). In many cases, these establishments were developed first and foremost to serve working-class Mexicans, and featured traditional meals that reminded diners of home, or low-cost-but-filling tacos and burritos. It’s mostly been non-Mexicans like Rick Bayless, the Oklahoma native who was tapped to cook at a White House state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, or the Spaniard José Andrés, who have garnered attention for the expansion of upscale Mexican cuisine.

A few dishes are prepared to go out for the dinner rush at Cosme, in New York City's Flatiron District, on Thursday, March 3, 2016. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

While this smacks of cultural appropriation to some—just read the beginning of The New York Times’ review of Cosme for a taste—it doesn’t bother Olvera a bit. “If you think that the best is in the past, I think that’s kind of depressing,” he said. It’s that mindset that allows him to enjoy something like a Korean taco, or a lobster taco ($39 for three) at Empellón Cocina, the brainchild of the Massachusetts-born Alex Stupak. (Olvera said he was initially “kind of offended” when Stupak served him a taco, but then realized he was “doing something fantastic.”) The idea that Mexican food has been somehow appropriated by others in a negative way, he said, is absurd. “If you’re against that, you’re not Mexican. It’s that simple,” he said bluntly, noting that mole borrows ingredients from all over the world. “Cuisines are always evolving.”

It’s worth pointing out that Olvera learned to cook at the vaunted Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hyde Park, and has more connections and access to capital than many Mexican Americans who may resent the fact that white chefs like Bayless benefit financially because of unequal access to opportunities they will never have. But Mexico’s burgeoning middle class is now producing more wealth and more opportunities for Mexicans to both launch and dine at restaurants north of the border. Cámara, Olvera, and Ortega are all immigrants. Cámara moved from Mexico to the United States recently, while Olvera still splits his time between the two countries. Ortega immigrated as a boy in the 1980s.

One reason it has taken longer for Mexican food to break into the fine-dining landscape than, say, Chinese or Italian cooking, likely has to do with immigration patterns. There have been hundreds of high-end Italian and Chinese restaurants for decades. But Italian immigration to the United States peaked in the early 1900s, and that cuisine aligned more closely with the existing European-American palate. Most Italians in the United States today were born and raised here, and they’ve had greater access to education and economic opportunity than more recent immigrants. (It’s worth acknowledging that the traditional trattoria has also evolved beyond the checkered tablecloth stereotype in recent years, too.) Chinese immigrants have tended to have higher incomes than Mexican immigrants, and some have had the ability to self-fund high-end restaurants. Increasing economic opportunities may give rise to other Mexican fine-dining establishments. So far, though, few are as innovative and upscale as Cala and Cosme, and also conceived and run by Mexicans.

Ortega said that while he has relished receiving family recipes dating back to the 1940s from friends, and mourns “some of the wonderful recipes that, just like time, have disappeared,” he does not feel responsible for preserving them, or filling some representative role. His approach to old recipes is more investigative; he’s interested in what he can learn from them and incorporate into creations all his own. Cámara too understands where the tendency to look for greater meaning comes from, but said she’s “really not concerned with making a cultural point in terms of rescuing traditions or presenting myself as a true representative of Mexican food ...  It’s so heavy with history that I really think I am just trying to make a good restaurant.” Where it used to be difficult to get quality, authentic ingredients for some dishes, San Francisco, she said, offers the ability to import a few ingredients and put together a complex dish that goes beyond tacos.

Chef Enrique Olvera sits in his restaurant, Cosme, in New York City's Flatiron District on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Olvera's flagship restaurant is in Mexico City. Cosme is his first venture in the United States. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Cámara said she isn’t denigrating tacos; in fact, a taqueria at the back of her restaurant offers them as a to-go lunch option. Olvera’s favorite thing to eat is avocado tacos, and Ortega said he’s not interested in criticizing tacos, either. The bad part, he specifies, is that “people think tacos are everything. It’s just one little element [of Mexican cuisine] that got to be popular.” Cámara points out that the complexity and richness of Mexican food has long been noted and admired by the likes of Diana Kennedy, the British expat renowned for chronicling Mexican cuisine. It’s just that other people are finally waking up to the fact.

Olvera suppresses a grimace when asked if Cosme represents something bigger. “I do this because I love it and there’s no other reason,” he said. Olvera also pushes back at the idea of his restaurant serving as a vehicle to elevate people of color in an industry that is still largely white and male at the top. “I never hire for any reason but passion and talent,” he said. But he does acknowledge that he, Cámara, and a handful of others are paving the way. “I think we’ve opened a door for other Mexican chefs,” he said.