Eduardo Pria didn't think Norte Americanos were ready for that kind of "authentic" when he opened his Fort Lauderdale restaurant in 1993, even though some of the hoitier hotels back in Mexico City were already experimenting with serving fried grasshoppers to their well-heeled clientele. "Close your eyes," he says, "and let your mind wander back to South Florida 13 years ago. Imagine a '70s TV score playing in the background."
I dutifully close my eyes. I conjure up the old Miami Vice soundtrack or, um, was that Cagney and Lacey? "There was nothing," Pria says. "Just small strip malls in the middle of nothing, in the middle of Commercial Boulevard."
Yup. I saw it. I was there. Home on brief vacation from the big cities I'd fled to in desperation San Francisco, London like most everybody else I'd grown up with. "This was before Thai restaurants," Pria goes on, "before fusion, before Pacific Rim cooking. People didn't even know how to make black pasta with squid ink. [Dramatic pause. ] And here I come with all my assortment of Mexican peppers, and I just dare to open a place!"
Pria did dare to open a place. He called it Eduardo de San Angel. He'd apprenticed in French and Spanish kitchens in Europe, Texas, and South Florida, where he'd worked under Leonce Picot, best-known for La Vieille Maison, and he had his family (his brother was also trained as a chef in Mexico; his mother was willing to help in the front of the house), and he knew Mexican food. He stuck with it. Refined the essence of Meso-American cooking, channeling it through haute French and cosmopolitan Madrid. Refused to franchise despite "dozens of offers" over the years. Eduardo de San Angel is to this day a beautiful and intimate family-run mote of gracious gourmet exotica in son-of-a-chain land.
"Even back then, I had sources for all my ingredients," Pria says, "fresh peppers from California, sun-dried and roasted chilies from Mexico, mole from Puebla. But I was scared. You can look at my menus from that first year and see I was holding back. I was skeptical of introducing these strange peppers and ingredients to the American palate. But after a year, I saw the response. I saw people were looking to be a little adventurous. And then I was free."
Then I was free. If only all our stories could end that way or maybe they all do, eventually. It's November, my favorite month of the year, complicated, mysterious, half-perverse as a good fire-roasted pasilla chili soup, book-ended by the Mexican Day of the Dead and the American feast of Thanksgiving. The twisted core of me responds to a month that begins with the children of the Americas eating miniature candy skulls and ends with a celebration of the occasion when Tisquantum, Massasoit, and 90 of their heavily armed fellow Wampanoag broke bread with the few half-starved and rickety Pilgrims who'd managed to survive their first winter on the Massachusetts coast. As historian Charles Mann tells it, the feast marked a Machiavellian plot on the part of the Indians to protect their privileged trading position vis-à-vis their blood enemies, the Narragansett. Call it NAFTA in Dawnland. Four hundred years later, we're still feasting on the genetically modified descendants of the maize and squashes the Wampanoag grew in their magnificently cultivated fields, borders straight as their claw-tipped arrows, stretching as far as the eye could see. Another scoop of cornbread stuffing? One more sliver of pumpkin pie?
The "Mexican-infused International Cuisine" Pria serves at San Angel has an origin story even older, but it too has its roots in American Indian culture. Some of the ingredients he uses go back to the 13th-century Aztec Empire and the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan before the Conquistadors conquered the land by way of smallpox, influenza, and hanta virus, that is. Take the fungus called cuitlacoche that Pria rolls inside an ancho-chili-flavored crepe ($24). Once, this mushroomy "corn smut" was as rare, as lusted-after as the French truffle.
"Cuitlacoche is a disease that grows in the corn," Pria tells me. "Not every corn husk has the disease; it was once very rare. In the time of the Aztecs, it was considered food only for the kings, so hard to find and possess that it achieved a kind of mystique."
It hasn't lost a bit of its mystery. These strange fungi are visceral, oddly shaped, so dark as to be almost black; you can see why they were beloved of Moctezuma. Pria makes a classic French crepe but mixes chopped ancho chilies into the batter. He rolls the cuitlacoche, sautéed serrano chilies and onions inside; melts a bit of asadero on top; and practically floats this dreamy, half-ancient/half modern concoction in a creamy, pale-orange sauce made from squash blossoms. The plate is dotted with tiny rounds of Puebla mole sauce, chocolaty sweet and cinnamon-infused.
Fungi, chilies, and squash blossoms date back to the Aztecs, but Mexico didn't develop asadero, a stringy, whole-milk curd cheese, until Europeans started importing their sheep, goats, and cattle into the New World. Native Americans are more or less lactose-intolerant. Thanks to the influence of Spanish and French cheese-eaters in Mexico, you'll find in Pria's dishes homemade cow's milk cheese (in the pasilla chili soup, along with sour cream), goat cheese (in the stuffed filet mignon), asadero (in the crepes), Monterey jack (in the grilled sliced eggplant roulade au gratin), and fresh panela mild, white, and crumbly (in a dish of pan sautéed gulf shrimp). The crepe, of course, is another French import absorbed into Mexican cuisine.
A special soup when we visited was the chicken pozole ($12), which Pria says is one of his great favorites. Classic pozole is usually made with pork and hominy Pria riffs on the less common Pacific version from Jalisco, which uses chicken instead of pork and substitutes fresh fire-roasted corn kernels for the hominy. The result is a brighter, more complex flavor and texture, sounding peak notes of jalapeño and cilantro.
Avocado, tomatillo, serrano, jalapeño, jícama, achiote the words themselves are as lovely and evocative as these needle-sharp, fleshy, searing, smoky, reticulated, dusty flavors. The most foreign of the foreign, though, is the cactus paddle (an appetizer, $12), a true exotic. If you've never tasted oil-brushed, grilled nopales (and most of us haven't), imagine a vegetable cross of eggplant, portabella mushroom, and okra. Pria makes a sandwich of the paddles, filling them with grilled pork loin marinated in achiote (used in quantity, the spice has a flavor similar to saffron), adding a touch of guajillo chili sauce. It's a mouthful of diverse flavors and textures the pork chewy and sour, the cactus slippery and sweetish.
And then there are the thoroughly modern touches. Sashimi-grade loin of yellowfin tuna dusted with roasted pistachios. North Atlantic calamari, ubiquitous menu filler, but this time marinated in guajillo chili-infused garlic and olive oil with homemade pickled onions and smoked chipotle chili vinaigrette. Another menu standard, a crab cake appetizer ($15), is infused with Mesoamerican spirit: Chunks of Florida blue crab are rolled in yellow corn and pan fried for a toothsome texture far from the mushy bread-crumb-and-mayo-stuffed New England version; they're served with a deep red-brown chipotle sauce and chocolaty mole. Seared Keys yellowtail gets the treatment with pico de gallo and cilantro. A trio of tiny, tender, and ruby-centered Colorado lamb chops ($32) is brushed with fresh cilantro garlic oil and served with a wild mushroom-stuffed tamale and a miniature corn-husk boat of puréed black beans scattered with queso fresco. Even a grilled petite filet mignon ($32), pan-seared, luscious and pink, comes done up in a pepper brandy sauce alongside marinated roasted red peppers and a silky, fresh masa tamale steaming in its husk.
A tray of desserts brought around after dinner looks delicious, but we are too stuffed to do more than split the sabayon ($8) three ways ("Ah," our server sighs, "this is my favorite") a whisper-soft egg-yolk foam laced with kahlua and blanketing piquant jolts of strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry like shocks of lightning in an equatorial sky.
Between the years 1518 and 1623, the native population of Central Mexico dropped from 25 million to 700,000 decimated mainly by diseases carried over in the lungs, provisions, and domesticated animals of the Europeans. It's hard to say what we might be celebrating this month if the kingdom of the Aztec Triple Alliance had lived and thrived. As it is, Thanksgiving's a holiday as loaded as a double-barreled musket. The cactus and the chili peppers and squash blossoms Eduardo Pria serves with such grace and flare are the little we have left of a once wildly rich and articulate culture; the compatible marriage of these to French and Spanish foodways are like the gleanings of an alternative, now impossibly foreclosed history. "Be it jade, it shatters. Be it gold, it breaks. Not forever on earth; only a little while here," the ancient Mesoamerican poet Nezahualcoyotl wrote. In our brief interval, it's worth giving thanks for a little bit of culinary artistry that has survived all incursions.