Gerardo Vasquez is one of the sushi chefs at Culichi Town, one of several restaurants in Southern California that offer Mexican sushi. Vice’s “Munchies” series created a mini-doc about Culichi Town and its distinctive dishes. Here’s what we learned:
Culichi Town gets its name from “Culichi,” the nickname used to describe someone from Sinaloa.
As we reported a few days ago, Latin American chefs did pretty great at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Singapore. Latin American fine cuisine got a total of nine spots in the list, and two in the top ten. This is quite an achievement for a region that is relatively new to fine dining. Cities like Mexico City and Lima have just become culinary epicenters thanks to visionaries that have translated tradition into modern masterpieces. However, credit is due to the centuries of cultural remix that has produced legendary dishes. Indigenous, colonial and other influences come together in the plate and wow judges and patrons. If these places have something in common, it is the inquisitive nature of their lead chefs. They went deep into the cultural roots of their countries, even finding new ingredients to achieve creativity and perfection.
We have to pay respect to the traditional recipes and the many years (and sometimes centuries) of experimentation by everyday cooks that led to these awards. So, we have listed some of the traditional influences that these restaurants have had. Sometimes it was all there already, and chefs just took it a step further! The restaurants in this list range from the high end to a Brazilian eatery that is relaxed and not expensive at all.
At number 6: Central (Lima, Peru), Best restaurant in South America, Influenced by: ancient, indigenous Peruvian food
This is the flagship restaurant of kitchen wizard Virgilio Martínez Véliz, who travels deep into each region of his home country to fund ancient ingredients. He collaborates with indigenous men and women to learn about traditional ways of cooking. He has introduced ingredients such as the Amazonian piranha into the menu. His drive to experiment has made him a celebrity chef the world over. You can learn about his journey in S3E6 of the Netflix show Chef’s Table.
At number 10: Maido (Lima, Peru), Influenced by: traditional Japanese cuisine with a Peruvian twist and local ingredients
A testament to the ethnic diversity of Peru. The Japanese immigration in Peru has been constant and has led this ethnic minority to have a vibrant place in the social, cultural and political life of the South American country. This restaurant is let my “Micha” Tsumura, who offers a Nikkei experience that includes classic Peruvian seafood such as sea urchin and sea snail. Lima is certainly keeping up with cities such as New York, Tokyo, and Paris, which are usually the leaders of the pack.
3. At number 12: Pujol (Mexico City, Mexico), Best Restaurant in North America, Influenced by: traditional Mexican food, particularly from Oaxaca
Enrique Olvera has established himself as one of the main voices of the global fine art circuit. In his flagship Mexico City restaurant he offers dishes that use indigenous ingredients, particularly from the colorful region of Oaxaca. His team makes tortillas by hand, grinding species of corn that are rare. Olvera is not shy to experiment with ingredients that might seem “weird” to Western patrons, such as chicatana ants. A delightful experience that needs to be tasted to be believed.
4. At number 23: Cosme (New York City), Influenced by: traditional Mexican garnachas
A New York restaurant with a 100% Mexican soul. Created by Olvera and led by Mexican chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who has revealed herself as a unique culinary voice and was named the World’s Best Female Chef 2019. She serves Modern Mexican food that is inspired by the crunchiness and glorious saltiness of Mexican street food, or garnachas. If you want to take your carnitas, infladitas, and tamales to the next level, then this is the place for you. Sinful delights all around. By the way, the kitchen is 50% female, which goes hand in hand with the chef’s ideas of equality. She also employs people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, both from the United States and overseas.
5. At number 24: Quintonil (Mexico City, Mexico), Influenced by: traditional Mexican cuisine
The brainchild of chef Jorge Vallejo (who used to work at Pujol) is a tribute to the postcolonial flavors of Mexico. If Pujol strived to bring back ancient recipes, Quintonil offers new interpretations of classic everyday dishes such as tostadas de cangrejo and the luxurious escamoles (ant eggs). Even dishes that your abuelita might have made, such as Huazontles or salpicon, are featured here. Look at their take on a flauta in the photo above.
6. At number 26: Boragó (Santiago, Chile), Influenced by: ingredients from Chile’s geographical diversity
Rodolfo Guzman is a raising rockstar. Like Peru’s Central, this restaurant features ingredients from every corner of the country. Rodolfo gets ingredients from the Atacama desert, all the way down to the frigid Patagonia landscapes. Have you ever tasted flowers? Well, here you can: the signature dishes is a blend of roasted flowers, Van Gogh style!
7. At number 34: Don Julio (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Influenced by: traditional asado techniques
They say that if you are going to do one thing, you do it the best you can. This restaurant led by Pablo Jesus Rivero might make the best steak in the world. Following the traditional ways of cooking meat in the Pampas, cuts like rump steak and skirt steak are cooked to perfection. Sweetbread empanadas are also a standout. The decor follows the aesthetic of a 19th-century country estancia, when European pioneers made their way into the depths of the nascent country.
8. At number 39: A Casa do Porco (São Paulo, Brazil), Influenced by: Brazilian working class cooking
Pork is a relatively easy stock to raise, and it has been a staple in the diets of Brazilians for centuries. Chef Jefferson Rueda reimagines everything you can do with pork. He raises the pigs on a diet of vegetables, slaughters them in house and uses every single part of the animal, making items such as blood sausages. The degustation menu is a culinary experience that also includes beans, cabbage, and banana, other staples of Brazilian home kitchens. The owners strive to make the restaurant accessible to the community, so prices are far from exorbitant. You can dine for $13 dollars.
9. At number 49: Leo (Bogotá, Colombia), Influenced by: indigenous uses of local fruits and vegetables
Chef Leonor Espinosa has become a celebrity thanks to her bubbly personality and her use of little known ingredients such as corozo fruit, arrechon (a supposed aphrodisiac) and bijao, a banana-like plant. She learns from communities and their gastronomic traditions, creating dishes that include, for example, a crunchy coating made from ants. The menu explores different Colombian animal and plant species. A map shows where each one was sourced. The chef also runs a foundation FUNLEO, which aims to identify, reclaim and enhance the culinary traditions in Colombian communities.
Any foodie with a Netflix subscription is at least aware of the Netflix original docu-series “Ugly Delicious.” Each episode takes a cultural look at staple foods like pizza, fried rice, and tacos. Hosted by David Chang, each episode is essentially a visual essay of a taken-for-granted cuisine. The team travels to the birthplace of the food and sees how it’s evolved in its different iterations around the world.
During the taco episode, the all-male team travels to San Bernadino, California to Holland to Mexico to understand what makes a good taco. They even go to Taco Bell and the restaurant that “inspired” the franchise.
Along for the ride is taco expert and Mexican-American foodie Gustavo Arellano.
We first see the team driving around Los Angeles past rows of food trucks. When asked what are the tell-tale signs that set apart one taco truck from another, Arellano gives these non-Spanish speakers these pro tips:
Find a menu that includes words you’ve never seen before. That means the food will be regional and not mass-produced.
Go where the “salsa game is strong.” Especially if they’re just giving away roasted serrano peppers.
Look for the homemade tortillas. If you see a bag of mass-produced tortillas in sight, walk away.
Chang is a New Yorker. He didn’t get tacos until he rolled through Los Angeles.
“This is definitely much better than the ‘Taco Night in America’ type of taco,” he proclaims after a single taco de camarones. That’s because Mexicanos run LA taquerías, Mr. Chang.
Eventually, Arellano takes us to ground zero of the Taco Bell franchise.
After a quick trip to Taco Bell, Arellano, who authored “Taco USA,” takes viewers to the eatery that inspired a now global fast food franchise meant to represent Mexican cuisine.
Mitla Cafe’s home is San Bernardino, a community born out of being a road-side stop off Route 66.
The restaurant has been around since 1937.
At this point, the country is just edging out of the Great Depression. San Bernardino was heavily segregated. Mexicans were only allowed to live on the west side of the city, where Mitla first opened its doors.
The real story of Taco Bell begins with Lucia Rodriguez.
She had emigrated from Tepatitlán, México to California and brought her recipes with her. According to her grandson and now the owner of Mitla, Michael Montaño, “These are her recipes. Those are the things that were available to her: ground beef, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce. She made it work.”
True to its original menu, Mitla has been a home base for immigrant assimilation.
“When my grandmother opened the restaurant, she wanted to have American style food on the menu,” Montaño tells “Ugly Delicious.” “The first item on the menu is a T-bone steak.”
Mitla became a home base for the Mexican community to gather and strengthen. The story goes that the local activists that would take up booths at Mitla went on to form the Mexican Chamber of Commerce.
Taco Bell founder, Glen Bell, saw an opportunity and decided to steal the recipe.
Bell would eat at Mitla every day after work, trying to deconstruct their taco. According to Gustavo Arellano’s book Taco USA, Bell befriended the staff and family at Mitla Cafe, eventually making his way into the kitchen to learn the family secrets.
Glen Bell was making hamburgers across the street, but the original McDonalds was creating competition.
This guy was just looking for a way to make money. He knew how to make a hamburger, but McDonald’s was creating too much competition.
Bell opened up the first Taco Bell in Downey in 1962.
With the start of a fast food franchise that would normalize and make Mexican food mainstream, Taco Bell was born. Now, the Montaño family recipes are met with criticism from Latinos who don’t know the story–that they serve fake Mexican food.
The original flavors, story, and heritage still reside in San Bernadino with the Montaño family.
We are so glad Arellano asked Montaño, “How do you feel that your family’s recipe—your heritage—was taken by Glen Bell and turned into a multi-billion dollar empire?”
Montaño is ultimately proud that his family recipes have forever given America a little more flavor.
“We don’t talk about it in the terms of what could have been or what he did to us or anything like that,” he tells Arellano. “It’s more of like look at our connection to the history of food in this country. When you hear stories of salsa being the No. 1 condiment, or that tortillas are right there next to the wonder bread … that’s what the country’s about.”
“That’s what the immigrant story is about—is assimilating but not only assimilating to the culture, but having that predominant culture assimilate some of your beliefs, some of what you do well and make it part of the general population.”