Dining with Dave… The Taste of Mexico

Start with a great base of restauranteurs who love the traditional flavors of Mexico.  Add a few spicy newcomers to the mix and then sprinkle in some mezcal to balance the tequileros and what have you got?

The Taste of Mexico, direct from Los Angeles each October.The Taste is actually an association founded by the owners of Guelaguetza Restaurant, Fridas Mexican Cuisine, La Casita Mexicana and La Monarca Bakery to embody, enhance and promote the authentic ingredients, flavors and traditions of Mexico’s cuisine.  Each year they gather many of the top Mexican restaurants from the area and celebrate the food, culture and brotherhood that knits this community together.

This years gathering took place at the Plaza de Culturas y Artes in the heart of this great city.  Previously the Taste of Mexico had been held at St Vibiana’s, a spectacular Catholic cathedral.  But with each passing year, The Taste had finally grown too big for that venue and the search was on for a better locale.

The organizers could not have chosen a better place.  Even God smiled on their efforts with an evening of spectacular Southern California weather.  Warm and sunny during the day, the evening was the perfect temperature for this uniquely Los Angeles event.

Perhaps nowhere else in the United States could you attend an event such as this.  It was in 1769 that Gaspar Portola and Franciscan missionary Juan Crespi reached present day Los Angeles.  The Spanish influence, and by extension, the Mexican influence has continuously been part of the history of Los Angeles ever since.As you walked in you realized what a difference a change in venue can make.  Being outside in the wonderful plaza itself is a transformational experience.  This is the home of Mexican American culture.  Nowhere else in the entire world can you sense that rich history and explore the connections between Mexico and the Unites States like you can here.

Arriving early I got a chance to sample much of the food that was being offered up and talk to not only the vendors and other participants, but the creme de la creme of the Mexican food scene in Los Angeles.  The Chefs

Here’s what struck me.  Are a lot of these folks famous?  Yes they are.  Many of them appear regularly on television, are featured in magazines around the world and are easily recognizable when they walk down the street. But they are incredibly humble and understand that the food, as opposed to themselves, is the star.

Jimmy Shaw of Loteria Grill was helping serve tacos.  Fernando Lopez of Guelaguetza served up micheladas all night.  Whether it was tacos from a taco bar, ceviche from Frida, pan dulce from La Monarca or even a shot of mezcal or tequila, every one of the people I came across understood their mission.  Promote the food and flavors of Mexico.

Last year Coni’Seafood joined the taste and this year the mariscos quantity grew exponentially.  Sadly, many folks do not readily think of seafood when they think Mexican.  It’s as if we forget that Mexico has an incredible amount of coastline that touches two oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.

Many of the chefs had different variations on the classic ceviche.  Casa Cabo of Burbank brought us both octopus and halibut ceviche. Chef Vicente del Rio from Frida’s  had a triple offering that included the classic, a verde with a guacamole twist and a tropical, complete with fried plantain strips.   They were all magical and perfect for a warm fall evening in Los Angeles.Perhaps the star, at least for me was Katsuji Tanabe, chef at Mexikosher.  In spite of being given about the worst location at the event, he shone through again this year.  Last year Katsuji, the first Mexican/Kosher chef ever to win on Chopped served up an amazing tequila sorbet that stole the show.

This year, pushing all boundaries, he offered up a twist on the familiar fish taco.  Instead of deep fried white fish, he went with smelt, those wonderful little anchovy sized fish.  Dipped, battered and fried, they were magical.  I could have pulled up a table and eaten them all night.

Finally, this year we had a good representation of mezcal.  Now normally when people think of Mexican food, they think of tequila, and there was no shortage of that available.  But you can get tequila everywhere.

Mezcal on the other hand is something not showing up yet in a lot of Mexican restaurants.  Perhaps the biggest booster of this wonderful spirit in Los Angeles is Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza Restaurant and one of the founders of the Taste.Because of her influence we had some of great offerings from Wahaka, most notably their Ensamble, and got to sample a delightfully rustic mezcal pechuga from La Niña del Mezcal, a type generally unavailable here in the US.  Cecilia, otherwise known as La Niña has a winner here if she can get Americans to give it a try.

Also represented were Los Javis and Mezcal Sacrificio who offered up a really smooth joven espadin Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico, a location not normally on the mezcal radar.

But for all the good, there were also a few warning signs, at least from my vantage point.  Perhaps these are problems of success.

When the Taste first started, only the original four vendors were represented.  The crowd, while good, was much smaller than the group that flooded the Plaza.In that first year, there was a huge variety of tastes being shared and offered.  Huitlacoche tostadas and La Casita Mexicana and the bold tastes of molé from Guelaguetza stood proud alongside the arrachera tacos offered by Chef del Rio of Frida.  Last year Chef Efren Cardenas of Red O, seen in this interview I did then, was offering a memorable sope that was at once traditional in its taste, yet totally different in how it was prepared.

But those types of food require time, and maybe with the influx of more attendees, the Chefs felt a need to cut service times, resulting this year in what I felt was an over abundance of the classic Mexican taco.

It’s a small criticism, but one I think the organizers of the Taste should consider.  If you are asking people to shell out almost $100.00 with parking to attend, tell your chefs to be prepared to offer up the best that traditional Mexican food has to offer.  Tell them to be bold.  After all, you only get so many chances to get someone to try something out of the comfort zone, so why not make it the Taste?

Was it a great night?  It was incredible.  The sense of history, the great food, the addition of mezcal and perfect weather all came together in a wonderful caldo de cultura y comida.

Only in Los Angeles and only at the Taste of Mexico could this be possible!

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