By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
I planted four pepper plants last weekend serranos, poblanos, sweet reds, and pequins. But my Mexican next-door neighbor, Roberto, tells me to abandon all hope. "The soil is different in Mexico from here," he says. "No offense to you. But your chilies won't taste like they do in Puebla."
Roberto brings back a special blend of mole whenever he goes home to Puebla, a city renowned for its magic mixture of dried ground peppers, raisins, and cacao beans; and he hauls back as many bottles of tequila as he can carry. He swears they too taste unlike anything I'll ever get my mitts on here. I believe him; Roberto is so food-forward, he knows every Mexican café between Boynton Beach and North Palm Beach he frequents each for a single dish. One has great barbecued goat tacos and another a fantastic chile relleño. A third is the only place he'll eat the tripe and hominy soup called menudo (a famous Mexican cure for hangovers).
It's a problem, isn't it? Mexican restaurants in Florida don't always dish up the food you remember from your forays through San Miguel or Colima. For me, it all comes down to the tortilla; I almost never find one here that tastes anything like the Mexican version, and honestly, it's no wonder. Who wants to go to the trouble anymore the boiling with limestone, the grinding and pounding by hand, the cooking over an open flame?
Still, there's a renaissance in Mexican cooking going on now that extends far beyond tortillas. Sometimes called nueva cocina Mexicana, it took off in Mexico City a decade ago (in many cases under the impetus of female cooks and chefs), spread to New York, and is these days freshening up even our own brackish backwaters. The big names in the business include Richard Sandoval, who owns a string of restaurants around the United States and Mexico; cookbook author and consultant Patricia Quintana; former Mexican Culinary Association President and Chef Alicia D'Angeli; and restaurateur Roberto Santibáñez. Santibáñez ran an acclaimed upscale Mexican restaurant in Austin; in 2002, he was hired as culinary director of the Rosa Mexicano empire. The original Rosa, opened in New York in 1986 by late Chef Josephina Howard and two partners, Dan Hickey and Doug Griebel, was widely considered the first gourmet Mexican restaurant in Manhattan.
Now Rosa, under the aegis of Santibáñez, has opened in Palm Beach Gardens, the northern tip of the county (one is scheduled for Miami as well). Which gives us rather more than our fair share of interesting Mexican chefs. There's Anthony Brodziak at Silvana in Boca Raton (he worked as a sous chef in several of Sandoval's New York enterprises and was a student of D'Angeli's in Mexico City). There's Eduardo Pria a Mexico City native trained in French and Spanish kitchens at Eduardo de San Angel, a restaurant many Lauderdalians consider the gold standard of Mexican cuisine. Sandoval's Tamayo had a brief, shining moment at CityPlace but has since closed. All of them draw on traditional Mexican foodways and ingredients chilies, squash blossoms, chocolate, chrysanthemums, tomatoes, posole, and huitlacoche, a corn fungus some stretching back to the Aztecs (the Four Seasons in Mexico City has served fried grasshoppers). Rosa Mexicano, opened a couple of months ago, offers the huitlacoche(on a wild mushroom quesadilla) but not the bugs.
Well, there is one bug. You still can't get in on weekend nights at least not without scheming. If you want dinner, go midweek and make your reservation a couple of days in advance. Or have lunch; the food is exactly the same but a couple of bucks cheaper. There's no wait and no need for reservations. A couple of Mondays ago around noon, the place was positively serene in comparison to the impossible scene on the previous Thursday night. A third of the lunch tables were filled with tourists, another third with what looked like Mexican couples and families, most of them drinking margaritas and ordering bowls of guacamole, which indicates anyway that the place has found favor with persnickety expats.
That guacamole ($10 at lunch, $12 at dinner, serves two) is, I'm sorry to say, the best I've ever tasted. It trumps even my own recipe; the guacamole guy (or, sometimes, gal) has a steadier, quicker hand than I do, which means the result is pristine, glistening, and very green. They mash chopped onion, salt, and jalapeños into a paste inside a big lava stone mortar, or molcajete, tableside. Next, in an instant, a couple of ripe Hass avocados are sliced and diced, then given a few turns with more chopped onion, tomato, lime, and cilantro. With these unctuous chunks of perfectly seasoned silk, you get fresh corn chips, soft tortillas, and two kinds of sauces a salsa verde cruda made with green tomatillos and a brick-colored salsa molcajete of smoky peppers. We ordered the guacamole on Thursday night and kept the bowl on our table right through dessert we couldn't stand to forgo even one last swipe with an index finger after we'd polished off our cheesecake and double espressos.