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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Developing the Menu at a Mexican Restaurant

For the first time in my culinary career I’m involved in the development of a restaurant’s menu from zero to reality. To my great excitement this menu, and restaurant, happen to be Mexican. Menu development is a rewarding, frustrating and and creatively demanding process, with the added benefit of eating–a lot of eating. Tasting meetings with chips and salsas from 10 or more area restaurants, two days of making batch after batch of guacamole, eating every taco on the menu at several popular Mexican restaurants … My thought process is largely occupied with food, but as of late, with a stomach full of corn tortillas, carnitas, carne asada, guacamole, every type of salsa imaginable and then some more corn tortillas, it is hard to think of anything else but Mexican food.

Every day is eating, breathing, sleeping (and dreaming) about Mexican food and what a Mexican restaurant should be, what should be served, stereotypes to avoid, and what kind of culture it should promote. All this led to the development of a field guide of What Not to Do at a Mexican Restaurant:

1. Guacamole table-side theatrics would be eliminated. The rainbow of ingredients being whirled through a dinning room in a pushcart is highly appealing, and the swishing of utensils as the mash and mix are likely entertain even the most jaded dinner, but almost every example I have tasted has been an unbalanced, under-seasoned, overpriced yet beautifully presented dish. Producing a perfect dish to order on a busy Friday or Saturday night is taxing enough on its own, without the added factor of public performance while being asked for a water refill, to clear empty plates or for more corn chips.

2. American eaters love free filler foods: stale bread at Italian restaurants, squeaky popcorn at a bar, baskets of cardboard tasting chips and runny tomato salsa at a Mexican restaurant. The concept of a dish consisting of nothing but chips and salsa is a foreign one at restaurant in Mexico, at least one located away from the border region or tourist zones where American tastes are frequently catered to. Antojos, snack foods served as appetizers in bars and restaurants in Mexico are far more varied than chips and salsas: crunchy spiced Japanese peanuts, pickled vegetables, seafood cocktails as varied as the Mexican coastline, cheesy and cheeseless quesadillas made with thick corn tortillas and stuffed with meat, squash blossoms and mushrooms … Generally, nothing that is free at a restaurant is worth the cost. Stomach space is a precious commodity with me and I hate to waste it on an unremarkable free filler snack. If chips and salsa must be present, embrace it as a dish worthy of the chef’s attention, and as another means to feature culinary talent.

3. The salsa bar. Almost always messy, probably needs attention and did someone just drop the ladle into the salsa I actually wanted? This is the place where a restaurant’s unwillingness to display a personality or make a decision for the customer comes through: Appeal to everyone! Give the customer the perception of extra value by giving them enough choices as to be mind-numbing. Give the salsa away for free but charge for the chips. Stop the madness, take out the salsa bar and put in some extra much needed tables.

4. Heavy emphasis on Mexican sodas. Mexicans might as well be called the Hummingbird People, being sugar loving soda consumers, but there is also a rich tradition of fresh fruit waters– aguas frescas–and fermented fruit and grain beverages that is often ignored in the American market. That Mexican Coke may be great and made with real cane sugar, but it pales in comparison to an agua de jamaica, or hibiscus water. Add a shot of tequila to that or any other agua fresca, and you might as well forget about that sour mix bottom shelf margarita on special for happy hour.

5. Month-long promotion of the dreaded 5th of May “holiday,” or “Cinco de Drinko” as it has become known. That’s Mexican Independence Day, right? To AB InBev, the multinational beer giant and proud owner and distributor of Corona, it might as well be Mexican Christmas. I have no objection to the consumption of cold Mexican beer, but the rampant manipulation of what is a minor and regional holiday in Mexico into a nationwide American drinking event with the unintended consequence of ensuring the continued existence of said beer is what I have a strong objection to.


Lime Marinated Beef

This dish falls somewhere between a tartar and a ceviche, using lime juice to cook the beef. User a high quality grass-feed beef for this recipe. A tart, spicy and salty dish, it is the perfect companion to cold beer, or tequila spiked agua frescas.

8 ounces ground sirloin, ground or chopped

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice

1 ounce tequila

1 clove of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

1/2 small white onion, finely chopped

1 medium tomato, small diced

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, loosely packed

2-3 serrano peppers, finely minced, stems and seeds removed

1-2 radishes, halved, then thinly sliced

1 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper



Combine the ground sirloin, lime juice, tequila and garlic in a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate for 4 hours. If you do not have a meat grinder at home, the sirloin can be lightly pulsed in a food processor with a chop setting, being careful to not over process. Otherwise it can be cut into small dice with a sharp knife. Placing the meat in the freezer for approximately 30 minutes will facilitate this process.

Remove the garlic clove, and mix in the chopped white onion, minced serrano peppers and salt, combining well. Cover, and refrigerate for an additional hour. Add the chopped tomato, cilantro, sliced radishes and black pepper. Taste for additional salt, if needed.

Drain excess liquid before serving, and pair with sliced avocado, pickled jalapeños and carrots, and with either warm corn tortillas or tostadas.




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