Ask a handful of chefs their definition of modern Mexican cuisine and you’re likely to get a handful of different answers. That said, a few distinct themes seem to be running through the Mexican offerings on menus today, namely freshness, a fusion of flavors and cultures and, despite that fusion, a sense of authenticity.
“[Modern Mexican is] opening people’s minds of what’s down there and doing it in our own American way,” said Tim Hockett, chef and partner of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago. “It’s also gotten a lot healthier.”
Hockett oversees the menu at Tallboy Taco, Lettuce Entertain You’s fast-casual Cal-Mex restaurant in Chicago. The menu features eight tacos that are built around proteins that have been infused with flavor through techniques such as marinating, smoking, roasting or braising, but that have minimal toppings to ensure they remain California light yet full-bodied Mexican. Among the offerings is the Pork al Pastor taco, with marinated, spit-roasted pork shoulder, onions and lime; and the Cowboy 12-Hour Smoked Brisket taco, made with smoky meat and topped with salsa arbol and cilantro.
Steak tacos at Los Chingones. Photo: Los Chingones
“I love Mexican fare because of its combination of sweet, sour, spicy and salty,” Hockett said. “That introduced into American barbecue is a unique twist. It doesn’t feel like two cultures coming together. It feels like something unique.”
Also making Mexican modern through fusion is Richard DeShantz, chef of täkō, an Asian-meets-Mexican concept in Pittsburgh, Pa. DeShantz showcases the coming together of the two distinct cuisines in his Korean tacos and duck tacos. The Korean taco, made with wagyu shortrib, peanuts, fermented cucumber, nappa cabbage and cilantro, is a play on bulgogi (which means “fire meat” in Korean), while the duck confit with hoisin, scallions, cucumbers, pickled peppers, mint and cilantro, is a play on Peking duck.
"Asian and Mexican flavors are a natural pairing — both cuisines are technical, sauce driven, spice heavy and showcase depth of flavor,” DeShantz said. "Looking at the menu and the dishes here at täkō, I wanted to think about how I could incorporate Asian flavors into Mexican dishes, and vice versa.”
His pantry also includes Mexican items such as chorizo, Chihuahua cheese and roasted poblano peppers.
“To me, the idea of modern Mexican is taking the classic cooking techniques and ingredients and trying to elevate them to a new level,” DeShantz said. “At täkō, I like to take Mexican ingredients and find ways to improve upon them, while still respecting the ingredient itself.”
For Troy Guard, chef and owner of Los Chingones in Denver, modern Mexican is “badass Mexican — sassy, spicy, sometimes irreverent, and always an adventure.”
“We’re moving away from Mexican-American food, and becoming more authentic, meaning we’re getting the best ingredients and we’re showcasing bold flavors,” Guard said.
Guard highlights those bold flavors and uses unexpected proteins in his selection of signature and featured tacos that include proteins such as red chile pork shoulder, lamb neck, beef cheek and octopus, and sometimes kangaroo, snake or camel.
Guard also offers a selection of other hot and cold dishes, such as Tres Pig Nachos, made with pinto bean dip, pico de gallo, crema, pickled jalapeños, Sriracha-lime aïoli, bacon, house-made chorizo and pig ear; and Braised Goat Taquitos, made with guacamole, pasilla peppers, crema and slaw.
At Taco Bamba in Falls Church, Va., chef Victor Albisu takes a chef-driven approach to modern Mexican, both figuratively and literally. Albisu’s menu of tacos, soups, tortas and more features traditional preparations and flavors in innovative chef-driven dishes. In addition, Albisu recently launched Taco Bamba’s Guest Taquero Series, a monthly event in which a DC-area chef is invited to create a taco of the month and come into the restaurant one evening to serve their creation and talk tacos. First up is Tim Ma of Water and Wall in New York City, Chase the Submarine in Vienna, Va., and the forthcoming Kyirisan in DC itself, who will be offering Tim Ma's Krusty Krab Taco, a corn tortilla stuffed with seared Maryland crab, green Goddess dressing, spicy slaw and chicharrones.
“Our customers are more and more informed about the intricacies of Mexican cooking, and are always excited to try our new takes on traditional Mexican cooking,” Albisu said. “Their curiosity is gratifying.”