Not long ago, when people craved Mexican food in the U.S., they were thinking of the not-so-authentic, inexpensive versions of tacos, burritos, and nachos. Recently, however, chefs have begun focusing in on Mexico’s diverse range of cuisines to a ravenous audience, finding that there’s just as much love for mole and pozole as there is for quesadillas.
From chefs who are cooking the food of their childhoods to modern menus that are turning to Mexico for a bit of inspiration, it’s clear that these delicious dishes are making their mark in the U.S. “We’re living in a post-Chipotle era,” says Michael Parlapiano, creative director for The Culinary Edge, a restaurant consulting group in San Francisco. “We’ve gone from Tex-Mex to a more broad-based understanding of Mexican food, and with that proliferation throughout the country, we’re going to see people starting to specialize.”
Mexico’s diverse geography creates an equally wide range of cuisines. Along the Gulf Coast, seafood reigns supreme with dishes featuring fresh fish, lime, and chile, while the Yucatan Peninsula brings together global influences including Lebanese and Caribbean for food unlike anywhere else in the country. And though Oaxacan moles are relatively well-known outside of Mexico, the region also offers specialties like chapulines, or fried grasshoppers, which are popping up on menus in the U.S. with increasing frequency as insects become a more popular source of protein.
The move toward regional Mexican cuisine is most notable in fine dining at the moment, says Parlapiano. At Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in Washington D.C., chef José Andrés serves Sinaloa-style smoked fish that is cooked in a traditional broth and served in crispy house-made corn tortillas, pickled slaw, and a chile pequin salsa, while New York City’s Cosme features an Oaxacan specialty called tlayuda, a crispy tortilla layered with beans, meat, and cheese. Ingredients like achiote, an earthy spice that imparts a vibrant reddish-orange color to food, are showing up on menus all over.
Parlapiano predicts that this fine-dining trend will begin to trickle down to more casual restaurants in the near future. “We’ll likely start to see more specific regional dishes on mainstream menus. Torta ahogada, the popular Guadalajaran sandwich covered with a spicy chile sauce, is the perfect example—those types of dishes are going to come into the spotlight, bringing the region with them,” he says.
Research by SupHerb Farms, which supplies vegetables and herbs to restaurants, backs up Parlapiano’s predictions: the company’s survey found that 48 percent of consumers of all ages were deliberately seeking out food from various regions in Mexico. For millennials, that number is even higher at 66 percent.
Restaurants are capitalizing on that interest with a range of creative options, from modern twists on classic dishes to faithful re-creations of hometown favorites. “Regional Mexican only grows in popularity when more and more people realize that Mexico is not stuck in tacos and ceviches,” says Ross Henke, executive chef at Quiote in Chicago.
Henke’s menu takes a playful tone with traditional Mexican dishes, offering options like an Oaxacan chicken mole topped with granola and trout served with a nutty brown butter salsa macha and potato chips.“The more open-minded people become, the more willing they will be to dive into the modern techniques and flavor combinations that have been popularized in the last few years,” Henke says. “The talent of chefs and the quality of ingredients flowing through Mexico right now rival any country or cuisine, hence the giant influence on our kitchen at Quiote.”
While restaurants like Quiote draw inspiration from all across Mexico, there are also restaurants that have decided to take a deep dive into a single region. Estrella in Atlanta, for example, focuses on the flavors of the Yucatan. “We opened Estrella due to our belief that there is finally genuine interest in understanding the various regions of Mexico,” says cofounder Scott Wilkins.
The Yucatan’s global influences are evident on Estrella’s menu, which features roasted cauliflower with salsa verde and burrata, as well as the region’s popular sikil p’aak, or pumpkin seed sauce, in which pumpkin seeds are ground with tomato and habaneros and eaten with tortilla chips as a starter.
“As people become more food-curious and with widespread access to Instagram and the internet, everything feels more readily available,” says Parlapiano at The Culinary Edge. “Now, people can watch someone in Mexico preparing traditional dishes, and that gets people excited to try them for themselves.”
And it’s not just diners who are excited.
“It’s a special time in our kitchen and our part of the culinary world,” Henke of Quiote says, noting some of the new flavor combinations he’s working with, like fermented cilantro stems with pomegranate seeds. “We have a lot planned in our future.”
Oaxaca is known for its moles, which are being modernized like in Quiote’s Oaxacan chicken mole topped with granola, but the region also offers specialties like chapulines, or fried grasshoppers, which are becoming more popular as insects are accepted as a source of protein.
Bringing together global influences from Lebanon to the Caribbean, there’s a lot to play with in Yucatan-inspired cuisine. Tlayuda—a crispy tortilla layered with beans, meat, and cheese—can be found at New York City’s Cosme, while Estrella in Atlanta narrows in on the cuisine offering elements like sikil p’aak, or pumpkin seed sauce.
Experts predict more specific regional dishes like the Torta ahogada, a popular Guadalajaran sandwich covered with a spicy chile sauce, will start popping up on not just fine-dining, but also mainstream menus.