We spoke to chef Alfonso Cadena about why he lined the walls of Guadalajara’s Hueso with thousands of animal bones, and what happened when El Chapo’s sons were kidnapped at gunpoint at his other restaurant, La Leche.
With more than 10,000 bones lining its walls, Hueso sounds like a fairly nightmarish place to have dinner.
There is no sign outside this Guadalajara restaurant; just a single bone hanging ominously from the white tiled exterior. But once you step inside and see the animal bones artfully fixed to its whitewashed walls, any thoughts of macabre catacombs are quickly forgotten. With chunky whale bones, a whole snake skeleton, and even a tiger skull on display, it feels more like a mash-up of a natural history museum and a modern art exhibition.
"For a chef, a bone represents flavor," 45-year-old chef Alfonso Cadena tells me. "Besides, at the end of the day this is the truth behind cooking: a lot of what we're eating comes from bones, tissue, and nerves."
Hueso, which unsurprisingly means "bone" in Spanish, is Cadena's second restaurant after the acclaimed La Leche in nearby Puerto Vallarta. Since hosting an episode of Chef's Night Out there in late 2015, he and his team have cooked for rock stars and former presidents, and even got caught up in a dramatic confrontation between cartel gunmen and the sons of the world's most notorious drug lord. None of that seems to have fazed the man who runs two of Mexico's best restaurants and is now preparing to launch a third.
Cadena opened Hueso in 2014 in partnership with his old friend and former bandmate Juan Manuel Monteón. Set in a converted house in Guadalajara's leafy Lafayette neighborhood, it took nine months for their respective brothers, an interior designer and an architect, to turn their unique vision into reality.
"We wanted a unique space where we'd fall in love with coming to work every day," Cadena tells me. "At first, when we told people about the bone concept, they were like, 'What are you doing?' but the challenge was to do something apparently repulsive and make it aesthetically pleasing."
With shark, bear, deer, wild boar, and many other animal bones all competing for wall space , it is certainly "a unique space."
Aside from the bones, one of Hueso's most striking features is the singular wooden table that sits up to 54 people in front of the open kitchen. Cadena explains that he wanted to sit different groups of diners side by side to encourage them to talk and share with one another. This uncompromising seating arrangement also demonstrates that his customers are all equally important, regardless of their fame or social status.
"We had Blur come in after playing a concert," Cadena says. "We've also had Mexican bands like Café Tacvba and politicians like [former Mexican president] Felipe Calderón. Some artists want to be in their own private area but the guys from Blur were happy eating next to everyone else and chatting to everyone."
Unfortunately for Cadena, his restaurants have also drawn members of Mexico's criminal elite.
La Leche made international headlines last summer when a group of men armed with assault rifles stormed in late one Sunday night. Dramatic CCTV footage showed a party of stunned diners dropping to the floor as the assailants abducted six men at gunpoint. It was later revealed that the victims included the sons and heirs of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the jailed billionaire leader of the Sinaloa cartel. The aggressors were members of a rival cartel.
"I never thought something like this would happen," Cadena says. "I wasn't there that night but the waiters all dropped to the floor and the gunmen told them not to look up at their faces. I think it took just 34 seconds for them to come in and take away the people they were after."
No shots were fired and the victims were eventually released after days of intense negotiations between the cartels, but the incident threatened to scare off customers and tarnish La Leche's reputation.
"I thought one of two things will happen now: the place will never recover or this will be the best publicity campaign imaginable," Cadena recalls. "Fortunately, it was the latter. We were very lucky because in such an unwanted, high-profile event there was no bloodshed. We were moved by the support we received afterwards from local restaurants, the Puerto Vallarta community and everyone that knows our work."
Undeterred by that experience, Cadena has kept doing what he does best: cooking up some of the tastiest food in Mexico. Hueso's ever-changing menu features finely crafted dishes such as mussels in beef broth, braised short ribs, bone marrow with scallops, and veal tongue with salsa verde and charcoal oil. The crème brûlée is also insanely good, and if you're lucky enough to come when the sweetcorn ice cream is on the menu, you mustn't leave without trying it.
"The truth is the menu changes depending on whatever the fuck I feel like cooking," Cadena says, laughing. "We like to have the freedom to change things however we please. If we didn't come up with excuses to escape from daily monotony, then we'd go crazy."
The menu also varies in accordance with which fruits are in season, what seafood is freshly available each week, and how the weather and temperature affect people's preferences. Cadena places great importance on only using the finest quality ingredients, with the fruit, vegetables, poultry, and seafood all sourced here in Jalisco state, while the red meat comes from his home state of Sonora, an area famed for its beef.
The drinks menu, curated by Monteón, features a selection of Mexican craft lagers, high-end biodynamic wine, and distinctive cocktails such as the agave sour, made with mezcal, tequila, orange, lime, egg white, and agave syrup. Hueso's meticulous mixologists even make their own syrups and pre-Hispanic beverages like tejuino and tepache for use in the constantly evolving cocktail list.
Cadena and Monteón are currently busying themselves with their next venture, a restaurant called Carboncabron that's about to open in Los Cabos. In contrast to the all-white Hueso and La Leche, the whole place will look blackened and charred, as if it had just burnt down.
Despite his obsession with stunning aesthetics, Cadena insists there's no great secret to the success of his restaurants.
"It comes down to my instincts," he says. "We're not trying to be innovative—we just want people to feel good."