When it comes to Mexican cuisine, Chicago is often overshadowed (or perhaps completely eclipsed) by cities in California, Texas, and the American Southwest. That’s not surprising, considering it’s located 1,300 miles from the border. But shifting demographics have transformed the Windy City’s culinary landscape to the point where taquerías are probably as common as the traditional Chicago hot dog stand.
Nearly 700,000 Mexican immigrants call the Chicago metropolitan area home, which means it’s now the Second City in terms of native-born Mexican residents. Only Los Angeles has more. To frame it another way, Chicago is home to more Mexicans than the city of Veracruz.
The city is also home to Rick Bayless. With his restaurants, books, and popular PBS television show, Mexico-One Plate At a Time, the world-famous chef has spent the past thirty years extolling the virtues of Mexican cuisine. His efforts have been so successful that in 2012 the Mexican government named him to the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor it can bestow on a foreigner.
I recently spoke to the James Beard Award-winning chef and Top Chef Masters champion about Mexican-immigration, his new book More Mexican Everyday, and why Chicago just might be home to America’s most authentic Mexican food.
How have attitudes toward Mexican food changed since you started Frontera Grill back in 1987?
When we first opened up, I put this really great bowl of Texas chili on the menu, because I thought even if people come in and look at our menu and think “I have no idea what this food is,” at least I could give them something that would be like a touchstone. People would walk in and look at the menu and have absolutely no idea what to order because they’d never heard of any of the food. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Hardly anybody even knew what mole was mole was when we opened up, and now we have to have two or three on the menu at all times or people complain. “That’s what I came here for!” The knowledge of what people are eating in Mexico is just so vastly greater.
Now, does that mean that when people say “Mexican Food” in the United States they’re thinking about what people are eating in Mexico? No. That’s really not the case. The burrito they get at Chipotle is still Mexican food to them. But at least someplace in their mind they realize that “ya know, the food in Mexico is different than what we call ‘Mexican food’ here in the United States.”
And number two, there are different regions of Mexico. They couldn’t necessarily tell you what they are. But they’re aware that there are some regions. So if I say, “This is a dish from Veracruz,” ears will perk up and people will say, “That’s on the coast, right? So this is a seafood dish,” or something like that. So people are aware that it’s not fajitas and nachos when you go to Mexico, it’s a different cuisine. Even though they might find their regular Mexican-American fare to be really comforting. And I mean, who doesn’t? It’s what you’re raised on.
Is that culinary evolution what made you want to write a follow-up to Mexican Everyday?
Things have changed so much in the U.S. 10 years since the first volume of Mexican Everyday. I’m a real advocate of people cooking at home. But when they go to a farmers’ market or Whole Foods, and they see this overwhelming variety of stuff, almost everything goes into a pasta dish because that’s the default answer. There is so much more stuff you can do with all of this. And for people who like my flavors, I wanted to give them the opportunity to understand how to be very flexible in the kitchen.
Why did you choose to open in Chicago and not Los Angeles?
I was living in L.A. in the 1980’s and I was finding more of the regional products from Mexico in the grocery stores in Chicago than I was finding at that moment in L.A. Now L.A.’s changed a lot since then. But it was very clear that there was this Mexican-American culture in Los Angeles that was really, really strong. And I came to Chicago, and man, there was no sense of a Mexican-American culture. It was Mexican culture here. You could go to your little neighborhood restaurant that was owned by a Mexican family, and whatever they made in the back was what grandma made. They weren’t hardly thinking past that. “This is what our family makes, take it or leave it.”
Again, L.A. has changed now. But back in the 1980’s, the lay of the land was quite different.
So I fell in love with Chicago. But it all came together when I went to the place that we buy our corn masa and that was El Popo down on 21st street. I got some masa, came home and started making tortillas out of it and I was like “Oh my God, this is the flavor I want to offer to guests in my own restaurant.” And it sort of cinched it for me that Chicago is where I wanted to do business.
How does the fact that Chicago’s Mexican population is so geographically removed from Mexico affect Mexican food we see here?
If you go through the Southwest, there’s a history of Mexican food. I grew up in Oklahoma just north of Texas, and we ate Tex-Mex food, and that’s got it’s own flavor. New Mexico flavor is different. The Arizona flavor is different. Certainly California flavor has its own feeling. So even though you might have a recent immigrant there, just like anywhere else, people start to cook like the people around them. So you get these distinctive flavors throughout. Well, Chicago has the shortest history of any large Mexican community in the United States. So what you get here tends, to me, to be just a tiny bit more clear to the origin of the people who are doing it.
There are a couple of carnitas places that I really love, Carnitas Uruapan and Carnitas Don Pedro. They’re both from the state of Michoacán originally. The fathers started it, and now the kids are running it, so you get these people who came from that place. And the only thing they knew to do was build out their restaurants exactly like they were in Mexico. So you get this clarity of flavor that comes from that kind of approach to things.
What sets the Windy City apart from cities that are more commonly associated with Mexican food?
Plain and simple: the tortilla. I would put the tortillas that are made in Chicago up against anyone’s in the United States. And honestly, except for the handmade ones that you find in some of the markets in Mexico, I would put the tortillas we make here in Chicago up against anyone’s in Mexico as well. And there’s a reason for it. This is the Corn Belt and a whole lot of the corn that’s being ground into the masa for making tortillas in Mexico is actually coming from the American Midwest.
We have this amazing group of people who have for decades been making tortillas by boiling the corn and grinding the corn. And yes, there are places around the United States where they are doing that and they are doing that brilliantly, but I think we have an incredible concentration of them here. So when you get a concentration of them, the competition goes way up, and everyone’s trying to do it better and better and better, and I love that. Because I don’t care how good the filling is; if the tortilla’s crappy, that’s what you think about. That’s your first flavor and texture that you get in your mouth.
What are the main regional influences you see in Chicago’s Mexican community?
In Chicago most of the people that are from Mexico that I work with have some ties to the state of Guerrero. Now, that’s not common. You don’t hear that very many places. Chicago does have a lot of people from Guerrero, but our restaurant in particular has a lot of people from Guerrero, partly because, ya know, we’re looking for someone for a kitchen job or a server job or whatever, so through friends, they come and apply.
Mexico City plays a huge role in Chicago’s Mexican population as well. And that’s a different group of people. They don’t have that strong regional affiliation. It’s like if you say you’re from New York.
So, more cosmopolitan?
Well, cosmopolitan in a funny way, almost like they’re from another country. The people from Mexico City have that sort of funny “I am from this great big city and we have everything, and we don’t need your provincial ways,” kind of thing. We have a number of people, actually fewer right now, but in the past we’ve had a lot of people from Mexico City.
And there’s an organization of people from two states here, which always means they’re second and third generation, because that’s kind of when you move out of your immigrant status, and you’ve got some people in the community that have been successful in their businesses, and now they want to give something back. And it’s interesting that the biggest one of those organizations is people from Durango in the northern part of Mexico. Now, I’ve never met anyone from Durango in Chicago except through an organization like that, because I don’t think there’s much immigration. I think that came a long time ago, and those people settled here.
The other place that you will find is Michoacán. And we do still have some immigration from Michoacán, or we have had immigration from Michoacán.
Most immigration from Mexico has slowed. There was a piece in The New York Times not to long ago about how there’s actually more immigration going now from the States to Mexico than Mexico to the States. It has to do with the fact that it’s gotten so incredibly expensive to open businesses in the United States and it’s not to open them in Mexico. And so a whole lot of people who are opening Internet businesses and stuff like that are moving by the droves to Mexico because they can set up shop there and make their fortune. It’s a very interesting thing that the tide has turned in another direction. But I don’t think there’s that much immigration coming from Mexico to the States anymore. It got too hard.
In Chicago, it used to be you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a hotdog stand. Today, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a taco stand. With so many options, how do you discern if a place is worth your time—do you have a litmus test?
The first thing that I would look for is the presence of all-natural raw ingredients, because in Mexico, there wouldn’t be any processed anything. So if you look around and you see cans of tomato sauce or tomatillo sauce or something like that, that’s probably not a very good place. I look for just basic raw ingredients. And usually at a taqueria you can see. It’s like being at a street fair, and you can see everything in front of you.
I would look to see if they were making their own tortillas. And if they were making their own tortillas, it would go super high on my list. If they’re taking that kind of care, they’re probably doing everything else right, too. And if they’re not, it doesn’t mean anything to me. They could getting fresh tortillas from a place I talked about before, and reheating them on a slightly greasy griddle, and it could be just perfect.
So it’s not a deal breaker, it’s just a good sign?
It’s just a good sign. And I would look to see what kind of offerings they had. If it says things like fajitas with red and green bell peppers, (sigh) that’s an American dish. It’s not a Mexican dish. Nobody in Mexico would be eating that stuff. Well, unless, they think they’re eating American fare. So I wouldn’t want to see that. I want to see something like a side of roasted poblano rajas. That would tell me they were doing it all right, because you have to roast and peel those things from raw, and they’re so delicious.
Then I would look to see if they have carne asada taco, do they give me a choice of a couple of different kinds? Can it just be the cheap beef steak from the grocery store, and that’s your kind of an entry level one. Or are they also doing some skirt steak? And yeah, it’s gonna cost a little more. Or sometimes they’ll do this utility-grade rib eye, for that. I would choose the skirt steak, but the rib eye sounds like it’s fancier. That would tell me they’re aware that their are different levels of quality.
Any other telltale signs you’re looking for?
I would look to see what their salsas look like. If they look like they are out of a jar, then that would be a real deterrent for me. But if it looks like it’s homemade, and it’s got some nice texture to it, if there are three or four that I can choose from, then all the better. If they’re always putting onions and cilantro on every single taco, that’s probably a good place because that’s sort of a standard garnish. Does the guacamole look like it was freshly made? Do they offer, like they do in Mexico a lot of times, caramelized onions to go with your steak taco? That’d be a great thing.
And then the classic thing in the taqueria is really two accompaniments. One would be the nob onions. Not green onions; the ones that are bulbus on the end. Are they griddling those or grilling those, depending on what kind of setup they have? They serve that with a wedge of lime and some coarse salt on it. It’s one of my favorite things. And then usually they’ll offer a cup of beans that are like charro beans. They’re often times whole pinto beans, and they’ve got little flecks of green chili and cilantro and some tomato in there. And if they’re made in a really classic way, they’ll have bacon in there, as well. You’d get extra credit from me if I saw you had the charro beans to offer, as well.
When you burn out on Mexican food, what do you like to eat?
I flip 180 degrees and I eat Japanese food, because it is almost the complete antithesis of (Mexican). A good bowl of ramen wakes up my palate in a completely new way.
I’m one of those chefs that actually eats ten meals a week at my own restaurants. On the weekends I cook two meals for my wife and I, and then we go out for two meals. And when we go out, we’re mostly aiming toward something like Japanese or maybe Thai because the flavors are so different from what we work with all the time.
More Mexican Everyday is available now from Amazon and other booksellers.