“Cheap and Crappy” Becomes“Sophisticated and Inventive”:The Modernization of Mexican Fine Dining

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

A while back, I was in La Crucecita, sitting at the Oasis Restaurant (now closed), watching a table of Americans send their nachos back for more cheese. Three times, they sent them back – the chips were drowning in Cheez Whiz. A far cry from Pujol, the famous Mexico City fine-dining restaurant established by Chef Enrique Olvera in 2000. Olvera does not serve nachos – maybe he’s never even seen them.

Nachos were created in 1940 by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya at the Victory Club Restaurant in Piedras Negras, on the Tex-Mex border in the state of Coahuila, when some women shopping in Eagle Pass crossed over and came in asking for “something different” – Nacho produced nachos. Cheez Whiz was invented in 1952 by Kraft Foods scientist Edwin Traisman and his team at Kraft Foods. While no one seems to know when Cheez Whiz met nachos, it was created for the British market to make Welsh Rarebit (Rabbit) – in the US, that’s Saltines drowning in Cheez Whiz.

According to a 2023 report from Datassential, a restaurant consulting firm, the Tex-Mex and Latin category has surpassed Italian as America’s favorite food. “Cheesy, spicy foods with Latin-inspired ingredients and preparation” are driving demand for nachos, fully loaded nachos, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas and so on (see “From Tex-Mex to Haute Cuisine,” in The Eye, July 2016). Tex-Mex, maybe Cali-Mex, is pretty much the northern picture of Mexican food – something northerners like, with limited and familiar ingredients, tailored to their tastes – ipso facto, not actually authentic.

Regional Authenticity

The first step toward Mexican fine dining came with the recognition of the variety of Mexico’s regional cuisines (see Brooke O’Connor’s article elsewhere in this issue). Diana Kennedy’s groundbreaking The Regional Cuisines of Mexico came out in 1972 (see “In Search of Diana Kennedy’s Huachinango Veracruzano” in The Eye, Feb 2023). Fifteen years later, in 1987, Rick and Deann Bayless of Chicago published Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. That same year, they opened Frontera Grill, arguably the first US restaurant featuring authentic Mexican food. According to the late Molly O’Neill, food writer with The New York Times, “There’s nothing even remotely similar to Frontera Grill … anywhere else in America.”

WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station, did a story on Frontera’s 30th anniversary in 2017. Bayless told quite a tale of being “different.” The very first guests to walk into Frontera took one look at the menu, said “I don’t know what you’re doing, because this isn’t Mexican food. You’ll be out of business in six months,” and got up and left. Frontera Grill is going strong, and Rick Bayless’ Frontera salsas are sold in most American supermarkets.

Two years after the Frontera Grill opened, Bayless founded Topolobampo, also in Chicago (Bayless now has seven Chicago-area restaurants). Zagat, a restaurant rating service based on customer reviews, said the restaurant was an “educational experience” and its “dynamite tasting menus feature food that’s wildly inventive yet still approachable.” Zagat mentioned “an excellent wine list and cocktails that are works of art; knowledgeable, passionate service and a lovely, upscale setting (remodeled with a sculptural ceiling and dramatic lighting).”

Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless based their relationships with Mexican food on variations in regional cuisine, combined with authentic ingredients and traditional culinary techniques, but Bayless also laid the foundation of fine dining for Mexican cuisine, with that wine, those cocktails, high-end service, and a setting that required architectural, interior, and acoustic design services.

What Is Fine Dining?

It’s definitely not just being famous – one of the most famous restaurants in the US is the raucous, chaotic Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston Street in Manhattan. It’s famous for the 80-odd-year-old sign “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army” and the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the film When Harry Met Sally. Wonderful as Katz’s may be, fine dining it’s not.

Fine dining isn’t just the food, either. It’s the experience of eating the food. Of course, the ingredients must be of the highest, freshest quality; the flavors unique; and the dishes exotic, abetted with touches of “modernist cuisine”; and the presentation geared to showcase the food with elegance. In a fine-dining restaurant, you might even be told about your experience – one Topolobampo menu divides the dishes into “Vibrant,” “Fresh,” “Ancient,” “Soulful” “Complex,” “Enchanting,” and “Luxurious.” Beyond the food, fine dining requires impeccable, luxurious service. The setting and atmosphere must enrich the experience. And the prices match it all.

Fine Dining Mexican Style

Mexican fine dining has many characteristics, but that touch of modernism seems to be the key. “Modernist cuisine” takes its identity from a six-volume tome of the same name, subtitled The Art and Science of Cooking (2011). Remember nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s? Lighten up elaborate French cooking? “Tender crisp” green beans? Modernist is that, but with science, especially in terms of chemical interactions in cooking and the techniques and elaborate equipment that control those reactions. Baked potato foam? Sous-vide, anyone?

“Modern Mexican,” first officially noted in 2017 by New York Times food writer Julia Moskin (named for Julia Child), is a “movement, inside and outside Mexico, to finally vanquish the rice-and-beans stereotype and to celebrate its vast and sophisticated cuisine.” The 25-year-old movement is led almost exclusively by chefs, both male and female, whose reputations have established multifaceted careers that have disseminated the dishes of modern Mexican cuisine around the world.

Gabriela Cámara
Starting a restaurant to celebrate a cuisine is a massive undertaking, but it began with a simple concept in Mexico City. In 1998, Mexican-Italian Gabriela Cámara, just 22 and finishing up her art history degree, opened Contramar in the Condesa/Roma area of Mexico City. The area was on the cusp of gentrification, still filled with artists.

Cámara and her friends would go on holiday to Zihuatenejo and eat fresh fish, simply prepared, on the beach. She was not so much interested in a fine-dining establishment as she was in those beach dishes made with Mexican fish straight from the sea, rather than the customary frozen European fish. The neighborhood is now upscale and Contramar has become a top fine-dining restaurant. Open only for lunch (in CDMX, that’s noon to 6 pm during the week, 11 am – 8 pm on weekends), Contramar is the modern version of the family lunch table, lunch being the most important, interesting meal of the day.

Cámara opened Cala, a fine-dining Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, in 2015; she closed it in 2019 to join President López Obrador’s administration as a food-policy expert. Her 2019 cookbook, My Mexican Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions, marks her concern with food policy, production, and consumption. And culture: In a 2019 Robb Report article on Mexican fine dining, Cámara said, “People think Mexican is cheap, crappy food. But now Mexican can be super sophisticated. That gives people a cultural pride we didn’t see even just a few years ago.”

Enrique Olvera
Olvera was born in Mexico City in 1976. In high school, he started cooking for friends; word got around that his dinners were superb, and he decided to become a chef – not a glamorous or high-status career at the time. Olvera went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, north of New York City. He received an associate’s degree in 1997 and a bachelor’s in 1999.

When he went back to Mexico City, he cooked for his parents’ friends, who turned out to be his first investors. He opened Pujol in Polanco in 2000, but it was rocky going at first. Since there had never been a fine-dining restaurant that served Mexican food anywhere, not in Mexico, not in the rest of the world, what it was supposed to be like was unclear. At one point, according to a 2017 article on the travel site Culture Trip, Olvera felt disconnected from the whole enterprise, feeling that he was “using Mexican ingredients, but not to make Mexican food.”

Olvera went to Oaxaca and took a look at their cuisine, quite different from the cooking around Mexico City. It gave him ideas about how to use new-to-him ingredients in unique ways that would still be true to Mexican culture and to the idea that food is a way to be happy, to celebrate. Gradually, Pujol succeeded, to great acclaim.

With Pujol on a solid footing, Olvera went back to New York, assessed the restaurant scene and in 2014, opened a new restaurant, Cosme, on East 21st Street off Fifth Avenue, and then in 2017, the more casual Atla on Lafayette Street in Noho. Interviewed by CNN when Cosme opened, Olvera said, “I want Mexican food to keep moving. I understand that we have beautiful traditions. I feel very proud of those traditions, but I want to keep on building new traditions for the next generations.” Olvera has other fine-dining restaurants in Oaxaca City, San Miguel de Allende, and Los Cabos. Modern Mexican Takes Off In the space of two years, well-known chefs opened four more fine-dining Mexican restaurants in CDMX, all in the posh areas of Polanco and Roma Norte. In 2010, Elena Reygadas, trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, opened Rosetta in Roma Norte. She now has four more CDMX restaurants – Panadería Rosetta, Lardo, Café Nin, and Bella Aurora.

Martha Ortiz was a political science/sociology major when she did a study of social mobility in Milpa Alta outside Mexico City and realized the critical role of food in social structure; she went on to cook in kitchens around the world before returning home. In 2003, she opened Áquila and Sol in Polanco as a showcase for regional styles from across Mexico. It was unusual for women to be owner/operators of restaurants, so when, in 2008, the city counted her parking spaces and found only 90 rather than the required 91, they shut her down. Ortiz opened Dulce Patria in 2011 in Polanco, which fell victim to the pandemic. She has moved on to Ella Canta in the Intercontinental Hotel in London (opened 2017), and is now in charge of Tuch de Luna, a restaurant at the Mayan Riviera resort La Casa de la Playa.

In 2012, two chefs who had been with Olvera at Pujol opened restaurants; Jorge Vallejo and his wife Alejandra Flores opened Quintonil in Polanco and Eduardo García opened Máximo Bistrot in Roma (recently moved to the Álvaro Obregón neighborhood). Vallejo graduated from the Centro Culinario Ambrosía in Mexico City; in 2019, he opened Ixi’im in the luxury hotel Casa Chablé, near Mérida in the Yucatán. García trained at the culinary school at the Art Institute of Seattle. With his wife, Gabriela López Cruz, Garcia also operates Havre 77 and Lalo! in Mexico City.

Beyond Mexico City, Baja California has Laja, opened in a renovated hacienda in Ensenada by chef Jair Téllez in 2000. It’s what in the US we would call an organic farm-to-table restaurant. Laja is now run by a Téllez protégé, Rafa Magañez. Malva is also in Ensenada, also a farm-to-table establishment, and was opened by chef Roberto Alcocer in 2014, after working in fine-dining restaurants abroad. Rodolfo Castellanos opened Origen in Oaxaca in 2011, after studying at the Culinary Institute of Mexico and receiving the Turquois scholarship to study in France. Castellanos is able to marry French and Mexican elements in his cuisine – he was Top Chef México in 2016.

Are We All Good with This?

W-e-l-l-l … not everyone thinks that moving from “traditional” or “authentic” dishes toward menu items that “modernize” the cuisine is properly respectful of the culture. New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells, speaking of the newly opened Cosme in 2015, discussed New York’s new obsession with Mexican restaurants. Some empire-building chef decides to open a new restaurant specializing in “some other nation’s food. By the time the news releases are ready, a week’s vacation has become a research trip, and a snack bought with pocket change has become a $13 appetizer.” The resulting restaurants “present, some more convincingly than others, a chef’s south-of-the-border fantasies.”

Wells sees Olvera as using reverse cultural appropriation in creating Cosme. He did his research in Manhattan to see what the menus, the cocktails, the customers, and the settings were like. Cosme shows an “uncannily state-of-the-art instinct for what New Yorkers want when they go out for dinner.” The cooking “sails right over ideas like tradition, authenticity, and modernity,” using underpinnings from Mexico and fresh local ingredients to give diners “a thrill.” Wells would no doubt find echoes of Cosme “deported” back home to Pujol – by the way, he LOVED eating at Cosme!