Mexican fare shakes its heavy reputation with simple approaches to lighter, brighter plates.
This article first appeared in the 1 August 2007 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 here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Drape just about anything with mounds of melted cheese and sour cream, and diners take quick notice. If the food is Mexican in origin, interest escalates even higher. But as perfectly suited as the duo is to south-of-the-border-style recipes, it is far from the only way to deliver the amped-up flavors consumers seek in Mexican food.
A variety of easily accessible ingredients helps accomplish the goal. Piquant chiles, tart citrus juices and high-impact spices and seasonings embolden colorful salsas, sauces and marinades, while crisp, refreshing slaws and salads substitute for starch-rich sides. Meanwhile, chefs create recipes that rely more on the grill and less on the fryer, and weave fresh, seasonal produce throughout menus.
"What [chefs] don't always realize is that with really good ingredients, you don't need a whole lot of heavy additions," says Executive Chef Jon-Paul Hutchins of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona.
At the school's upscale L'Ecole Restaurant, students learning Mexican and other international cuisines are encouraged to let fresh, quality products speak for themselves-for example, adorning fresh fish with just a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of cilantro, Hutchins says.
Reducing fat and calories is an added bonus in some approaches, but the true goal is building lighter, livelier dishes that still deliver big, bold flavors.
One lighter inspiration is traditional Mexican seviche-pristine seafood "cooked" in citrus juices and often tossed with chiles and cilantro-but diverse ideas abound on menus. Quick-service offerings include juicy, citrus-marinated rotisserie chicken from San Antonio-based chain Taco Cabana. Executive Chef Tom Siegel bathes roasted chayote in lime juice, olive oil and black pepper at the University of Montana in Missoula. And Chef-partner Jeremy Lycan combines rich, satisfying sweet-corn-and-chipotle broth with summer squash and cilantro oil at contemporary-American restaurant Niche in Geneva, Ill.
Straight from the Source
Lycan, who once taught a culinary-school course on foods of the Americas, says Mexican flavors are ingrained in his cooking philosophy-an influence evident in his sweet-corn soup.
"We make rich, dark chicken stock and infuse it with corn cobs and dried chiles," he says. The stock is then strained and the sides of the cobs scraped with the back of a knife, releasing starch into the liquid base. "After cooking another 15 or 20 minutes, it thickens a bit, and we finish it with cilantro oil for these subtle, little beads of bright green-colored goodness," Lycan adds.
On-location experience gives a big boost to chefs seeking the clean, simple flavors inherent in many of Mexico's traditional preparations. On a recent trip to Mexico, Frank Scibelli-chef-owner of two-unit concept Cantina 1511 in Charlotte, N.C.-spent time cooking with top chefs Patricia Quintana and Enrique Olvera.
Quintana's simple approach to seafood stirred Scibelli to create bouillabaisse-style fish stew with shellfish, white wine and guajillo-chile-and-tomatillo salsa for his Mexican menu. From Olvera, he was inspired to create refined approaches to street foods, as in updating tacos al pastor by swapping slow-cooked pork for achiote-marinated sea bass. The pan-roasted fish is fanned over corn tortillas and garnished with pineapple, lime zest, cilantro and pineapple crema.
Studying in Mexico under chefs including Roberto SantibaÁ±ez, Rick Bayless and Susana Trilling supplied University of Montana's Siegel with lots of fresh ideas. He now prepares black beans in broth with chiles, onions and epazote instead of serving refried beans. To punch up proteins, he builds chile-based recipes such as tangy roasted tomatillo sauce made with onions, garlic and vegetable broth, and enchilada sauce that incorporates roasted guajillo chiles and tomatoes. Moderation and balance help him achieve his goals.
"The proteins we use are not buried in sauces; they're highlighted by them," he says. "We sprinkle cotija cheese over a dish instead of having melted Cheddar slathered from side to side, and we use lighter crema, not thick sour cream, for drizzling."
Lubbock, Texas-based Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy is making strides toward lightening its menu, both in terms of fat and calories and with fresher, livelier flavors, says Chief Operating Officer Dirk Rambo. Among recent efforts include a switch to trans-fat-free frying oil and the introduction of a vegetable-medley side dish.
Abuelo's also strives to impart flavor by minimizing heavy sauces and garnishes. Grilling beef, chicken and seafood over a wood fire built from oak, mesquite and hickory is one effective flavor-enhancing method. Another is the use of a seasoning blend of chiles, cayenne pepper, salt and other spices.
Subtly scaling down portion sizes is one tactic Corporate Executive Chef Nathan Slattery uses to keep meals from weighing down diners at Los Angeles-based chain Pink Taco. After joining the upscale-casual concept in April, Slattery traded 15-inch flour tortillas used to make burritos for 12-inchers. For fillings, he replaced braised chicken and beef-which because they compact when cooked require more to cover each burrito-with grilled proteins marinated in achiote paste, garlic, Mexican oregano and olive oil.
Bright, bold accompaniments such as tomato salad and jicama slaw offset rich center-of-the-plate items. For garnishes that deliver on flavor and visual appeal, Slattery experiments with multiple takes on pico de gallo using tomatillos, mangoes, pineapples and other fresh produce.
"The great thing about Mexican cuisine is that there are so many unique ingredients, and the cooking styles are so versatile. It's not really that difficult to make this lighter fare," he says.
At Border Grill, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based concept with a second location in Las Vegas, Chef-owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger use acidic elements such as citrus, vinaigrettes and pickled vegetables to perk up their lively Mexican menu-from which some items soon will be featured at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho's contract-foodservice accounts in Southern California.
Crunchy, pickled red onions enliven beef-brisket burritos, while fresh companions such as Persian cucumbers and sweet peppers; roasted corn; and watercress with cucumbers in house-made yogurt dressing complement grilled skirt steak. Vivid salsas-one recipe calls for oranges, lime juice, red onion and chiles-decorate tortas, while citrus slaw or watercress tossed in vinaigrette makes a refreshing foil for rich dishes such as carnitas.
"Even though some recipes can be rich and heavy, there is a balance when you add these acidic elements-it completely changes the end product," Feniger says.
California produce also boosts Border Grill's menu, in on-the-plate accompaniments as well as in salads such as grilled pear and endive with pickled jalapeÁ±os.
At Mamacita in San Francisco, Chef-owner Sam Josi also melds local produce into his upscale Mexican menu. In season, green beans, asparagus, fava beans or sweet potatoes partner with pumpkin-seed-crusted tuna, while sautéed corn and English peas make an inviting bed for seared scallops. Creativity also plays into Josi's light, fresh approach. A twist on fried fish tacos features seared tuna crusted with quinoa, while a play on Italian caprese salad offers heirloom tomatoes layered with tortillas, queso fresco and pumpkin-seed pesto.
Fast and Fresh
Latin-themed quick-service and fast-casual concepts compete with a new crop of crisp, refreshing salads.
Mango Chipotle Salad: Tortilla shell filled with romaine, chipotle-glazed grilled chicken, avocado, Cotija cheese, mango salsa and chipotle vinaigrette.
Baja Fresh Mexican Grill
BBQ Ranch Chicken Tostada Salad: Grilled chicken, romaine, BBQ black beans, corn, poblano, tortilla strips, cilantro and Cotija cheese with ranch and BBQ sauce.
El Pollo Loco
Chicken Mango Salad: Adobo chicken over shredded romaine with tropical mango salsa and lime vinaigrette in a tortilla bowl topped with cheese and sour cream.
Qdoba Mexican Grill
Cabo Salad: Choice of meat with black bean-corn salsa, tortilla strips, romaine lettuce and ancho-chile dressing.
Taco Del Mar