Mex Beyond Tex
A journey to authenticity
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPH
Until fairly recently, Mexican food in New Orleans has been more about Tex-Mex crowd-pleasers than authenticity. This is changing. As the distinctive regional cuisines of Mexico garner closer attention in professional kitchens across the United States, here in New Orleans we’ve seen a couple of newcomers that put a purist focus on this fare. Among these are Casa Borrega in Central City and Del Fuego on Magazine Street.
Casa Borrega is interesting in more ways than one. It got its start when owner and artist Hugo Montero, who has lived in New Orleans for the past 25 years, would bemoan the city’s lack of authentic Mexican restaurants. “One day my wife Linda finally said, ‘Well why don’t you open a restaurant instead of complaining?’” Montero recalls. “So I did.”
The establishment comes across as much as a coffee shop, bar and music club as a restaurant. Stuffed with literature, media and art, it also serves as a de facto cultural center. With a style that makes creative use of reclaimed materials (Montero’s wife Linda Stone founded the Green Project), the folk-artsy feel rambles into a lush back courtyard full of quiet nooks.
At its most basic level, Mexican cuisine derives from a basic equation: a combination of Colonial European and Indigenous Mesoamerican cultures. Through this lens it shares some similarities to the architecture of New Orleans Creole cuisine, even if the results are quite different. Montero’s menu draws from four regions: Veracruz, Puebla, Oaxaca and Mexico City. It studiously avoids anything Tex-Mex or from U.S. border regions.
For starters, consider the Tamales del Día, cooked in a banana leaf and served with Mexican crème, akin to sour cream but thinner and with a sharper tang. The tinga tostado presents juicy shredded chicken spiked with chipotle peppers. And while Montero is quick to downplay the role of cheese in his fare, the Choriqueso (coarsely chopped chorizo lounging within a duvet of molten queso Chihuahua) was among my favorite dishes.
The tacos are also a good place to try a range of different styles. Achiote paste lends its distinct red flavor and complex spice profile to the pastor (grilled pork) and for the namesake Borrega, the lamb is first marinated in tequila. Additionally, many menu items are or can be made in vegetarian-friendly versions.
Bullish on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Montero points to the growing number of places opening along this stretch of Central City. His timing seems prescient as OC Haley appears at the tipping point for genuine revitalization, largely spearheaded by restaurant, cultural and food-related nonprofits, with a couple of anchors such as Jack and Jakes on the horizon. In addition, Mexican food is currently in vogue. “John Besh is opening his own taquería, and that would never have happened 10 years ago,” Montero points out.
Further down Magazine Street from Del Fuego is Araña, a Yucatán-focused Mexican taquería and cantina whose kitchen is helmed by chef Richard Papier, who brings his experience working under Guillermo Peters’ well-regarded but now-shuttered Coyoacán. The restaurant comes with a heavy party vibe, but the food is chef-driven and more serious than one might expect given the bustling bar scene. Try the queso Fundido or the Pibil tacos featuring adobo-achiote pulled pork.
In mid-June, chef David Wright opened Del Fuego on Magazine Street Uptown. Originally from the town of St. Helena in the heart of Napa Valley, Wright’s career has been largely defined by fine dining. He moved to New Orleans in 1998 and worked at a series of well-regarded restaurants, including Commander’s Palace. But it was when he was the banquet chef for the New Orleans Country Club that the idea of Del Fuego began forming in his head. “I decided that Mexican was what I wanted to do, and I wanted to take it in a different direction than the places here. Most do Americanized stuff. I wanted to go deeper and get into some of the regional cuisine.”
Del Fuego offers patio seating on a spacious covered deck that fronts Magazine Street. Beyond that is the main dining room, where the open kitchen and cheerful, bold colors create an ambiance both casual and welcoming.
The menu is diverse. “I think people forget that Mexico is really a huge country with dozens of microclimates,” Wrights says.
“You have the deserts in the north, for example, but to the south it gets tropical. It is surrounded by two different oceans and has mountains that rise up to 10,000 feet.”
Regionally, Wright’s menu draws from Baja, with dishes such as the Ensenada-style fish tacos, and the Yucatán, with dishes like his ribs cooked in the Cochinita Pibil-style in banana leaves with an achiote-spice rub. However, it’s his Oaxaca-inspired mole of which he’s especially proud. With almost 30 ingredients, this labor-intensive sauce uses garlic, onion, five kinds of nuts, three kinds of chili peppers, sesame seeds and a host of spices. “We toast everything to a beautiful dark golden-brown, grind it into paste and then cook it down for several hours,” Wright explains. The result is an intensely flavorful and aromatic paste, which is reconstituted with stock and roasted tomatoes.
Insofar as offering a more authentic level of Mexican cuisine to a city more familiar with Tex-Mex and Americanized fare, Wright was initially tentative about some of his menu items. But dishes like his Nopales – sautéed cactus seasoned with garlic, tomato and epazote, a pungent Mexican herb – have proven to move well. At the bar, Wright’s tequilas are all 100 percent blue agave.
The juice is squeezed fresh in-house, and they make their own Triple Sec.
Searching for Authenticity
1719 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Lunch Wednesdays-Saturdays, dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays
Del Fuego Taquería
4518 Magazine St.
Lunch and dinner Mondays-Saturdays