Food

From Combo Platters to Tasting Menus, Mexican Fine Dining Comes of Age

Anne E. McBride

When La Fonda del Sol, legendary restaurateur Joe Baum’s fine-dining pan-Latin restaurant, opened in New York City in 1960, its menu offered a plato Mexicano (“chile relleno, tamale, enchilada, and other Mexicana”) as part of its best-of approach to Latin cuisines. The restaurant is remembered more for its extravagant décor than its food, however, even if versions of Mexican combo platters live on.

Mexican fine dining has come a long way in 50 years—a statement true both in the United States and in Mexico, where until recently, European, particularly French, cuisines dominated the space. When Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in his hometown of Mexico City in 2000, his progressive, haute-cuisine take on traditional foods was so radical that he nearly had to close a few months in. But while it took time for diners to understand what he was doing, today Pujol has long been ranked on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and remains one of the city’s most sought-after tables, as is Cosme, the fine-dining Mexican restaurant Olvera opened in New York in 2014.

Olvera’s unapologetic embrace of his heritage both at home and abroad has turned him into the point of reference and launching pad for young Mexican chefs who are emboldened to cook from their roots without compromises (among them Cosme Chef de Cuisine Daniela Soto-Innes, who has become an authority on modern Mexican cuisine in her own right). At San Francisco’s Californios, Val Cantu’s signature dish on a nearly 20-course tasting menu is tres frijoles, a preparation of beans in three textures fearlessly adorned with caviar and gold leaves, as a silver taco holder houses a yuca shell filled with uni. The restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars in 2017, a mere two years after opening. Diego Galicia and Rico Torres opened Mixtli in San Antonio in 2013, offering a progressive Mexican tasting menu in a modest boxcar in a city that had little by way of fine dining, let alone oft-changing tasting menus featuring modernist techniques and requiring prepaid reservations.

It is unlikely that these restaurants would exist were it not for Rick Bayless. When he and his wife, Deann, opened Topolobampo in Chicago in 1989, no other fine-dining restaurant in the country focused on the kind of complex, labor-intensive sauces at the center of Mexican cuisine, among other traditional preparations rarely seen outside of their regions. The food was made with high-quality ingredients, a farm-to-table approach, and a daily-changing menu. Their more casual Frontera Grill, which had opened in 1987, was an essential bridge. “I wanted to open fine dining all around, but there was no way to take people straight to that,” Bayless says of his start. Similarly, when Mexico City native Barbara Sibley opened La Palapa in New York in 2000, she felt that the restaurant could only be casual, even if its service was fine-dining style and its preparations made from scratch. “If I opened today, I could be as fine and expensive as I feel like I wanted to go,” she notes. “There’s more appreciation for that now.”

For now, it is still easy to keep track of the number of Mexican fine-dining restaurants in the United States. Because many Mexican immigrants in the United States have been poor, it is difficult for their food to be accepted as anything but cheap, say scholars like sociologist Krishnendu Ray and historian Paul Freedman. This association with poverty—which has no impact on the overall popularity of a cuisine, as the presence of tens of thousands of Mexican restaurants throughout the country confirms—makes it challenging to break through what Ray calls “the prestige ceiling,” where fine dining comes in.

A tasting menu-only approach helps open up diners to ingredients and preparations they might not otherwise try, but will then perhaps order again when seeing them in more casual applications. Most modern fine-dining Mexican restaurants—like Cosme, Cala in San Francisco, Empellón in New York City, and Taco María in Costa Mesa—don’t have a tasting menu but offer a high level of preparation and service. As American diners continue to better understand Mexico’s seemingly unlimited culinary possibilities rooted in centuries of history and biodiversity, that number can only grow.

Fine-dining Mexican chefs rejoice that more restaurants signal a greater appreciation for their cuisine. The modern Mexican movement renders the possibilities for what they can do limitless, while celebrating their heritage.

Will it get messy along the way, with poorly conceived restaurants and hastily researched preparations? Unquestionably. But just like with other cuisines, failures will have to be considered individual ones, not those of an entire population’s food—a luxury of doubt that communities of color are rarely afforded in America. The path of acceptance goes through knowledge and deliciousness; a lot more Mexican chefs are ready to broaden it.

Anne E. McBride loves tacos al pastor.