the new mexican gastronomy

IMG_2820When chef Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood almost 14 years ago, the budget was so small that his wife had to paint the walls. Things have changed at what is now widely considered Mexico’s best restaurant, with its platoon of 27 cooks. The subtly lit interior is like a fine suit: understated and elegant. Service is hushed and artful – if just a bit quirky – so you can focus the food. One of the leading exponents of new Mexican gastronomy, Olvera is deeply immersed in his cultural legacy. Dried insects feature heavily, like in the elotitos tatemados, a take on Mexican street food: smoked baby corn glazed with coffee mayonnaise and dusted in salty ant powder. Brilliantly served in a hollowed out gourd, it’s an addictive umami snack. In a minimalist version of the salad course, acidity and herbal freshness are explored in foraged wild greens, pinon, and native seasonings. Olvera continuously re-invents traditional dishes and their presentation—you might not recognize something as a flauta, a taco, or a tamale, but with an artist’s flair for combining regional ingredients and modern techniques Olvera lays a foundation and builds on it to create something new. If Pujol is any indication of how sophisticated (yet wholly unpretentious) fine-dining in Mexico can be, I’m in for a whole lot of sensory overload.

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red hooked on food trucks

Contrary to what I had always been led to believe, Brooklyn’s celebrated Red Hook food trucks are not Mexican but a veritable Pan-American exposition of south-of-the-border flavors – with particular attention heaped upon the cuisines of Central America. I trekked out to the soccer fields where the trucks set up shop each weekend – just south of a huge tract of public housing and west of the bend in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as it meets the Gowanus Canal – in search of the authentic huaraches, sopes, and tamales that occasionally haunt my daydreams only to discover ceviche, a crazy-delicious take on traditional horchata, and something called pupusa. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. At the easternmost stall on Bay Street, the mixto ceviche comes Ecuadoran-style, in a sweet and sour stew brimming with lime, red onion, cilantro and a substantial quantity of shrimp, squid, octopus, and fish that belie the thrifty $9 price tag. Add a few spoonfuls of the fiery green hot sauce and you’ll want to finish by drinking down every lick of the remaining broth. An icy horchata is the perfect complement to all that sweet and sour fire. However, unlike the traditional rice and water variety I’ve encountered, the Honduran version offered here incorporates milk, cinnamon, and peanuts to bring a whole other dimension of savory and salt flavors to the forefront. Round one over, I head to the line forming for pupusa, a traditional grilled corn cake from El Salvador that traces its roots back to the Maya. Resembling a tortilla, it can be stuffed with a variety of meats, cheese, or vegetables. I opted for cheese and loroco – a traditional flower bud heretofore alien to me – and watched as the pupusera shaped the dough and stuffed it to order. Accompanied by pickled coleslaw, tomato salsa, and onions, the loroco had a complex taste similar to the flavor of sea beans. I could have easily gobbled another. One thing was certain: this was no street fair arepa, thank you very much. Sated, stuffed, I nevertheless pined to continue eating my way across the continent. Yet for once I practiced a smidgen of self-control, opting for a fresh mango dusted with lime and chili, those twin ingredients which so often elevate Latin food to a sublime place worthy of the occasional gustatory daydream.

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