Helping a Chef Do Taco Research Might Kill You
I joined the team behind LA's Chicas Tacos on an R&D trip to Mexico and came close to a delicious death by food and booze.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in January, 2016.
It's about 9 in the morning and I'm staring at the most beautiful tacos I've ever seen. They're so good-looking (and good-tasting) that I want to kiss the maker of these tacos, a man named Max Enriquez who runs the food truck Quetzalcoatl in LA's Arts District.
I would have never found tacos like these on my own. I owe the pleasure to the team behind Chicas Tacos, a tiny taco shop in Downtown Los Angeles, with whom I'm traveling to Mexico today. The team often crosses the border on R&D missions, finding inspiration for their LA operation.
Chicas Tacos chef Eddie Ruiz, co-owner Chris Blanchard, their publicist Max Block, and I hover over the tacos, our breakfast before we hit the road. Eddie goes back to order the Omega 2, a quesadilla piled with gorgeous vegetables and cheese. I am in heaven.
We pile into Blanchard's Jeep and set out for Mexico with full stomachs and a very full agenda. Our first stop is Caesar's, the home of the Caesar salad, which spurred the creation of Chicas' fish taco. The Chicas restaurant concept was a product of Blanchard's time doing missionary work in Ensenada and Ruiz' family ties to Northern Mexico, so a Caesar salad fish taco actually makes a whole lot of sense.
We drink amber lagers and white wine from Valle de Guadalupe—Mexico's burgeoning wine region as well as our next destination on the trip—and eat Caesar salad prepared from scratch tableside before lumbering back to the car to continue the mission. I am buzzed, stuffed, and happy not to be the designated driver.
The route Valle de Guadalupe is idyllic. The Pacific ocean shimmers in the sunlight, the year's heavy rains have transformed the landscape into a lush sea of green. Even a seaside Home Depot looks somewhat picturesque, given the surroundings.
We turn inland and the scenery changes from beachy cliffs to rolling hills of farms. Some gnarled, naked grapevines start to pop up and soon we are in the Valle.
"That lady makes pretty good cheese," Ruiz says, motioning to a tiny signless roadside hut off the windy highway. He knows these insider secrets because he has roots here. His uncle used to be a prominent architect in the area before he passed away. He has more family living slightly north in Tecate. He spent three months living in town learning about the food, the farms, and the wines.
Off in the rocky distance, we spot some modern cube-shaped pods poking out of the hills. It's Encuentro Guadalupe, an eco-lodge, winery, and restaurant where we're posting up for the night. We get a tour of the property and wine cellar, then go to the restaurant to see what Encuentro's chef Omar Valenzuela is up to.
It turns out he's up to a whole lot. Seven years ago, the young chef was a barista, just starting to dabble in cooking. Now he's what the kids call "crushing it." Each course he drops off at our table is better than the next. We start with warm oysters with dill oil and apples, move on to a beef tartare tostada with cured egg yolk, then a salad of fat smoked tomatoes with avocado puree, fried quinoa, and local cheese.
I'm not even hungry when we get to the duck confit with burnt onion and orange sauce. I'm dead by the time Valenzuela puts down flan and cherry pie.
"I'm glad this food is being done out here," Ruiz says. "You're going to come out here and say, 'I want a plate of enchiladas'? Fuck you! You can quote me on that."
The Valle is not the place you visit for enchiladas. It's a place to sample creations from some of Mexico's best and brightest chefs. The area is rife with amazing restaurants, and we don't have much time in town, so we head to second dinner at Javier Plascencia's Finca Altozano.
Eddie orders the chocolate clams. "They're one of my favorite things on the planet," he says. He has his DSLR camera in tow, documenting all of the eating and drinking going on, filing away the food memories for future reference. We get some dense, nutty bread, tender beef brisket, octopus, and bone marrow. I am as stuffed as the stuffed zucchini we demolish.
I'm a heavy, sloshing skin bag of food, Valle wine, and mezcal by the time we get back to Encuentro. It's not time for bed—it's time for alcohol again. We sample more vino from the Valle, mezcal from Oaxaca, and pick the brain of our bartender, Abimal.
The next morning I feel horrible. Not only am I reeling from the onslaught of food from the day before, but I have a shitty head cold. I want to stay in my modern eco-pod bed forever, but there's a lot to do today.
By the time I get to the breakfast table, Ruiz has already been on a hike around the Encuentro property. Blanchard took a morning swim. How? Why? Who are these people?
We have more than a handful of places to eat and drink at, yet can't say no to trying all that chef Valenzuela has to offer for our morning meal. He starts to skip as he turns the corner to fire dishes—lots of dishes. There is absolutely no reason we need a six-course breakfast, but here we are.
We are powerless against the barrage of brioche with smoked apple marmalade; French toast with house-made brioche, blueberries, and lavender; eggs benedict with duck pastrami and roasted peppers; red and green chilaquiles; machaca jugosa with braised beef, fried guerito pepper, avocado, and a sunnyside-up egg.
"Can we do something like this at Chicas?" Blanchard asks Ruiz. They're launching their brunch menu soon and still fine-tuning the plans. The guys hash out more details as we eat.
We go on to wine taste around the Valle. It's hot and dry; the roads to the wineries are mostly unpaved. This is not Napa, and it seems that nobody around here wants it to be either.
"Right now is very fragile, we're growing like crazy," Vinedo Las Nubes winemaker Victor Segura tells us of the budding wine region. "We are like a 13-, 14-year-old growing fast. We need to be careful."
Like other winemakers we talk to, Segura is adamant about the Valle not being a copy-and-pasted version of Napa. If anything, the Valle is closer to California's Paso Robles, but with better food, he says.
We have to cut our tasting short to eat more of that good food, this time at one of the best restaurants in Latin America (according to the Pellegrino list, that is): Corazón de Tierra by chef Diego Hernández Baquedano. Garden manager Claire Acosta gives us a tour of the restaurant's bountiful garden before we sit down to a tasting menu lunch, inviting us to try black mustard greens and baby daikon pods.
Inside the dining room, Acosta's efforts come to life in course after course.
"It's balanced, it's well-executed, technically sound," Ruiz gushes after we finish the beets with queso oreado and garlic paste. "Rules that apply to your successful LA restaurants don't always apply elsewhere."
For example, these beets. They're roughly cut with some of the stems still intact. They're cooked al dente. Ruiz says that sort of thing wouldn't fly in Los Angeles, nor would the warm oysters with dill butter that we started the meal with.
Something that would work back home is the drinking water situation going on in the Valle. Lots of spots including Corazón de Tierra infuse their water with herbs like rosemary. Blanchard says he's going to stop infusing the water at Chicas with expensive strawberries and get on the herb train.
The sun is starting to set and we heave ourselves back into the Jeep to drive back to California. We stop at Ruiz' pickled pepper guy on the side of the road on the way out of town, and the guys score some local honey and olive oil to add to their collection of wines purchased throughout the day. I shut my eyes and embrace the bumpy road ahead.
Dusk gives way to dark as we roll into the border town of Tecate. It doesn't seem possible, but there's one more stop for food before we finally call it a day. This time we're breaking for tacos at a place Ruiz has eaten at for 15 years: Tacos El Guero.
After eating a number of the best everythings of my life throughout the day, I decide that the suadero taco at Tacos El Guero is hands down the best taco of my life. I started the trip wanting to kiss a taco maker in the Arts District; now I want to marry every cook at Tacos El Guero. I need to lock one of these guys down forever.
A quartet of cowboy hat-wearing, mustachioed musicians arrives to serenade the diners. Like Ruiz and Blanchard, I am inspired.