Food & Drink
Sponsored by

11 chefs sound off on the state of modern Mexican food

Sponsored by
Corn Shots courtesy of Porfirio's

Fellow Americans, the state of Mexican food in this great nation is strong, but don't just take our word for it. To prove just how far this cuisine has come and continues to go, we rounded up 11 of the most innovative, brilliant, and downright wizard-like culinary artists specializing in Mexican comida and asked them a series of burning (we already said "comida", please don't make us use "caliente") questions. Peep their answers and some of their tummy-rumbling, genre-defying dishes for yourself.

Ceviche
Ceviche courtesy of Alma Cocina

What's a Mexican dish most people have never had, but need to try once in their life?

"Escamoles. It's something that not many foreigners try. They're edible larvae of ants that are normally pan-fried. They kind of resemble corn kernels and have a buttery nutty taste. "
- Jesus Oñate, La Urbana, San Francisco

"Chochoyotes. It is a dish featuring braised chicken, mole amarillo and masa dumplings. It’s on my menu, and I want everyone to eat it -- from Arkansas to Connecticut to North Dakota."
- Rick Lopez, La Condesa, Austin


"Pickled pigs feet!"

- Susan Feniger, Border Grill, Los Angeles

"A freshly made nixtamal corn tortilla filed with mole pobalano sauce and real cotija cheese. It's a comfort food like a slice of toasted freshly made bread slathered with organic cultured butter".
- Lisabet Summa, Rocco's Tacos, Orlando

Quesadilla Rustica
Quesadilla Rustica from Bodega Negra

What mistakes do chefs make when they try to modernize Mexican food?

"I see more and more chefs put the word 'mole' on menus. That's like saying, 'Here, this dish comes with sauce'. There's so much that goes into each type of mole, and generalizing it cheapens the techniques they comes from".
- Colin King, Oyamel Cucina, Washington DC


"Don't try to rewrite the whole cookbook on Mexican cuisine when it comes to a taco".
- Chad Clevenger, Alma Cocina, Atlanta, GA

"As long as you don’t overthink things, you’re good to go. But people don’t wanna eat poblano ice cream".
- Natalie Oswald, Chilam Balam, Chicago, IL

Corn Salad from Bodega Negra
Corn Salad from Bodega Negra

What's one huge misconception about Mexican food?

"We still get people surprised that there are mushrooms in our dishes, and Mexico’s one of the largest producers of mushrooms in the world. It’s actually laughable. We’ll have flying cars before we understand our sisters to the south". 
- Alex Stupak, Empellon, New York, NY

Peking duck tacos
Peking Duck Tacos from Bodega Negra

What does "modern Mexican" mean to you?

"A modern Mexican restaurant is one that exhibits identifiable characteristics of current dining trends. It departs from classic Americanized Mexican cuisine that’s been in vogue since the 1950s".
- Lisabet Summa, Rocco's Tacos, Orlando

"It means taking a traditional dish and then elevating it. Like a cauliflower taco with raisins and capers at Jean-Georges".
- Chad Clevenger, Alma Cocina, Atlanta

"It’s a new reading of an old text, the eyes of an outsider looking at something that’s been there for a millennium. We try to never replicate because replication is an exercise in futility".
- Alex Stupak, Empellon, New York, NY

Chicken Panuchos
Chicken Panuchos courtesy of Border Grill

What's the most surprising ingredient you've used?

"Chapulines (grasshopers), chivo (goat), cholla buds (cactus flower buds), cesos (brains)... the list is endless".
- David LaForce, El Vez, New York City

"Burnt chillies until they're almost ash. We got the idea after taking our executive chefs down to eat street food for a day in Tijuana".
- Susan Feniger, Border Grill, Los Angles

"Grasshoppers. I love them personally, but all of the sudden they’ve become trendy. So I give people what they want: bugs in tacos!"
- Rick Lopez, La Condesa, Austin

 

Chochoyotes
Chochoyotes courtesy of La Condesa

Is Mexican food THE best food?

"Yes it is! That's an opinion, but it's up there with the best cuisines in the world without a doubt".
- Jesus Oñate, La Urbana, San Francisco

Pollo rostizado picante
Medio pollo rostizado picante courtesy of Porfirio's

Does cilantro taste like soap to you? Is it even possible to be a Mexican chef if it does?

"No way! I love cilantro too much! For a long time I had a plant growing outside my bedroom."
- Lisabet Summa, Rocco's Tacos, Orlando

"If cilantro tasted like soap on a daily basis, it would definitely make cooking this cuisine a lot more difficult".
- Chad Clevenger, Alma Cocina, Atlanta


"I think some people start to hate cilantro in the womb".
- Rick Lopez, La Condesa, Austin

"That’s just a chemical imbalance -- they’re not allergic to it. Luckily, I’m not one of those people. But they'd just have to power through it".
- Michael Armstrong, Bodega Negra, New York City

"No, absolutely not. The same thing with onions and garlic…if you don’t like those, forget about it. In almost everything that is Mexican, you’ll find those flavors".
- Natalie Oswald, Chilam Balam, Chicago

"Thank goodness I am not one of those people".
- Colin King, Oyamel Cocina, Washington DC

Elotes from Alma Cocina & Chochoyotes from La Condesa
Elotes courtesy of Alma Cocina & Chochoyotes courtesy of La Condesa

Do you think the quality of Mexican food is the best it's ever been in America?

"Chefs are idolized, so naturally fans demand the best and always want more bang for their buck. Mexican food is a force to be dealt with."
- Rick Lopez, La Condesa, Austin

"Just look at all these other ethnic cuisines that are jumping into the Mexican restaurant game -- it's where it's at!"
Jesus Oñate, La Urbana, San Francisco
 

"Restaurants today are offering some of the best Mexican food ever."
- Lisabet Summa, Rocco's Tacos, Orlando

"Without a doubt Mexican food is the best it as ever been. Mexican has moved from the sloppy old combo plates to great dishes with bright flavors."'
David LaForce, El Vez, New York City

Berkshire pork chop
The Berkshire pork chop courtesy of El Vez

What's the future of Mexican food look like?

"Come hell or high water we were going to grind our own corn and make our own masa. Thirty years ago in New York City, having fresh pasta in an Italian restaurant was rare, now we demand it. The tortilla is where that has to begin."
- Alex Stupak, Empellon, New York, NY

"It's not going to be limited to food but include cocktails as well. The first cocktail that comes to mind when you think Mexican is a margarita, but there are so many other traditional drinks. For example, Josefinas, which are made with mezcal".
- Luis Miguel Cortazar, Porfirio's, Miami

"The richness of the cuisine and the vast regionalism make it one of the great cuisines of the world.  Look at the induction of Mexican Cuisine into the Unesco preservation for 'intangible cultural heritage of humanity'.  More and more great Mexican restaurants are on the way".
- Lisabet Summa, Rocco's Tacos, Orlando

"I hope that restaurants change people’s perception of Mexican food. And when they go out to eat it, they aren’t just looking for guacamole. Americans kind of define Mexican food as chimichangas and burritos. Guests come in here and might be like 'Oh you, you don’t have fajitas or queso dip!'. And that’s not all Mexican food is, you know?"
- Chad Clevenger, Alma Cocina, Atlanta

Molacajete
Molacajete courtesy of Rocco's Tacos

Is modern Mexican underrated in the culinary world?

"The perception of the old cheap combo plate, a hard shell taco and cheese enchilada with refried beans and rice, is on its way out".
- David LaForce, El Vez, New York, NY

"The cuisine itself is definitely not underrated. People talk about it all the time. It’s a course in major culinary programs. It’s even a focus on one campus in San Antonio, Texas."
- Rick Lopez, La Condesa, Austin

"I believe in some ways, yes. Even back in the 80s, there were amazing, fresh ingredients in Mexico. They were doing things with juices in the 80s that we never even thought about doing. 
- Susan Feniger, Border Grill, Los Angeles

"It's gaining much respect in cities like New York city, Chicago, and many places in California but overall I think it is still very underrated".
- Jesus Oñate, La Urbana, San Francisco
 

"Definitely, but it's changing for the better".
- Michael Armstrong, Bodega Negra, New York City