Mixtli Explores Complexities of Mexican Cuisine

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Chef Rico Torres (left) and Chef Diego Galicia in the Mixtli kitchen. Courtesy photo.

Chef Rico Torres (left) and Chef Diego Galicia in the Mixtli kitchen. Courtesy photo.

At Restaurant Mixtli, cooking is an extension of culture. Chefs Diego Galicia and Rico Torres, alongside pastry chef Dennise Montano and drink-mixing master Jesse Torres, hand-make culinary fare unique to diverse regions of Mexico. During my night at Mixtli, 12 guests gathered at the Chefs’ table to enjoy nine courses inspired by street foods sold in Mexico City Metro stations. The chefs talked us through the complexity of the food by telling us about the native ingredients and local cooking techniques they used to bring our meal to life.

According to Rico Torres, the chefs realized that “Mixtli was bigger than ourselves when we got the concept down on paper.” Mixtli (Meesh-Tlee) means cloud in Nahuatl, an Aztec language still spoken in central Mexico. Like a cloud that rolls from one place to another, the Mixtli menu travels across Mexico. Every 45 days it settles over one region to feature dishes made with ingredients and cooking techniques native to that region.

The Fruta con Chile dish from the El Metro menu features pineapple, mango, and jicama. It is inspired by street food that can be found in Mexico City Metro stations.

The fruta con chile dish from the El Metro menu at Mixtli. Courtesy photo.

The fruta con chile dish from the El Metro menu was inspired by the fresh fruit sprinkled with chile powder that can be bought at many subway stations. It featured jicama, mango, and pineapple in a way that showed how street food shares flavors with fine dining. In the chefs’ interpretation of the classic dish the jicama was so delicate that it dissolved in my mouth.

Mexico has a variety of landscapes. Its rocky mountains, humid jungles, arid deserts, and coasts have different growing conditions. This variety means that the chefs get to work with a range of ingredients and, as they create dishes, show us Mexican food as we rarely see it. The restaurant’s eighth menu begins Sept. 4It offers food from Chihuahua, a state that hosts dry lands, river valleys, and forests.

The Mixtli concept is rooted in the chefs’ desires to change our culture’s ideas about Mexican food.

“Mexican food has been abused for so long,” Galicia said. He wants it to be seen as so much more than rice and beans. He compares Mixtli to a hospital because of its promise to bring back Mexican food.

Emotion fills the space when the chefs talk about their work. It’s clear that an intense respect for the people, land, and culture of Mexico drives their mission to strengthen connections to its rich culinary and cultural histories.

One way the chefs connect to the traditions is by committing to making everything in-house. Instead of purchasing mass-produced versions of tortas, masa, or tortillas, the Mixtli team makes these staples from scratch.They soak their own corn for masa and roast their own cocoa beans for chocolate.

For the El Metro menu, Jesse Torres made his own version of Mexican Coke. He started with the same base ingredients as Coke: water, sugar, caramel, caffeine, and phosphoric acid. Then he fine-tuned the flavor by emulsifying a combination of the following essential oils into the soda: lemon, lime, orange, neroli, cassia, nutmeg, lavender, and coriander. Torres’ in-house rum and coke is a customer favorite.

The chefs make chocolate from cocoa beans. After toasting the beans, they make a paste using a metate or a molcajete.

The chefs make chocolate from cocoa beans. After toasting the beans, they make a paste using a metate or a molcajete. Courtesy photo.

The team has plans to home-grow ingredients in a rooftop garden above their restaurant. In addition to all kinds of peppers and vegetables, the garden would also host a guava tree and a lime tree.

I asked the chefs why it was important to work with ingredients made in-house. First they mentioned the value of being able to control the quality of their product. The food can be as good as they are capable of making it. By making everything in-house, Mixtli has earned every bit of praise that comes its way.

This answer clicked for me when I thought of the torta bread Montano baked for the El Metro menu. As it stole the show from the also-excellent chorizo stuffed inside, the quality of home-made ingredients became apparent. Rico Torres points out the flip side when he says that taking full responsibility also allows them to grow from any criticism.

Jesse Torres spoke up about another reason making food and drink from scratch is important. He says that it’s a means of cultivating a connection to the culture represented on the menu. You’ve connected to it when “you’ve done the process and you brought it to life. You’ve connected to (the people who made the food historically) and to how they lived.”

Once the chefs can experience that connection, they can translate it for their guests. The Mixtli team doesn’t intend to be the authorities on street food or on Chihuahua cuisine. Rather, they learn from the authorities by making those styles of food using traditional techniques. Once they learn from the authorities, they can offer an interpretation of their work.

“A lot of humility goes into making these things,” Rico Torres said.

Tortillas made in-house by the Mixtli team.

Tortillas made in-house by the Mixtli team. Courtesy photo

In Mixtli’s small boxcar, the team members explain each dish and drink as they serve them. All 12 guests experience the same menu at the same time. Everyone sits together at a table adjacent to Mixtli’s kitchen. It feels very private. The intimate setting encourages conversation about the food. It also encourages general camaraderie among guests.

My table mates and I got increasingly familiar with one another as the meal progressed. We swapped drinks as we traded stories. Galicia says he can tell people have forged relationships because they come once and then they come back with the same group they met at their first dinner.

Just as Mixtli strengthens connections to Mexican cultures across space and time, it cultivates a culture of giving in the here and now. The team talks about how they use micro-sized Mixtli

grants to support members of the local agricultural community. Any tips from restaurant patrons get cycled back out to help farmers, ranchers, or artisans upgrade their equipment or do anything that will help them work more effectively. They want to help people out because they realize it takes a lot of work by a lot of people to bring the farm to the table. Rico Torres raises generosity to the level of habit, saying “it’s all the time — if it’s not money, it’s service.”

The Mixtli team at the 2014 Austin Food and Wine Festival. From left to right Diego Galicia, Cassie Ramsey, Rico Torres, Jesse Torres, Dennise Montano).

The Mixtli team at the 2014 Austin Food and Wine Festival. From left to right: Diego Galicia, Cassie Ramsey, Rico Torres, Jesse Torres, Dennise Montano. Courtesy photo.

Why is Mixtli so successful? It might be because they’re all about relationships. They use cooking to help us find connections between past and present, here and there, us and them. They feed us, but their generosity extends to helping us understand the complexity of what we eat and how food gets to our table. In any case, the food is wonderful and it feels good to be in their space.

Galicia put it best when he said, “We cook good food for people. We give a lot. We sleep like babies.”

Featured/top image: Rico Torres and Chef Diego Galicia in the Mixtli kitchen. Courtesy photo.

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