“We also need to start to talk about how Mexican cuisine doesn't really exist — that there is an incredible regional diversity,” chef Enrique Olvera said in a 2011 interview with Eater. “People need to stop talking about ‘Mexican cuisine’ and instead talk about Oaxaca, Veracruz, Merida, the Central Valley.”
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions I get these days is “I’m going to be in LA —where do you recommend I go for some really good Mexican food?” After a recent trip to the Mexican state of Tabasco, which completed my mission of dining in every state in Mexico, I have to agree with Olvera on this one.
I don’t know what Mexican cuisine is, but I do know Sinaloan, Oaxacan, and Chihuahuan — the regional differences between the 31 Mexican states, their subregions (Oaxaca alone has eight), and the capital (32 regions in all) are as distinct as the national cuisines among the European Union countries.
For decades, restaurant critics pursued various paths to earn the public trust. Craig Claiborne studied at a Swiss hotel school prior to joining the New York Times in 1957. In an email to Eater LA, former restaurant critic Gael Greene writes: “For 10 years before New York Magazine launched, my husband and I were becoming early foodies. We explored new restaurants. We saved our money to go to expensive supposedly ‘gourmet’ restaurants — I cooked and took cooking lessons.”
But covering the various Mexican cuisines in Los Angeles, as well as other cultural gastronomies, is a “Sisyphean task” according to former Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons, who wrote me this in an email: “Just when you’ve figured out one regional Chinese cuisine, another pops up. And the same for Mexican, Central American, Southeast Asian.”
I agree, but there’s frustration brewing among some of LA’s Mexican chefs and restaurateurs, who note a bias when it comes to covering Mexican cuisine — that it’s only perceived as legitimate if you had your spicy food cooked on a rusty grill in a back alley or if you bought a sloppy plate of greasy carbs at 2 a.m.
Recently, a pair of unflattering reviews of chef Daniel Godinez’s Maestro, by LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and LA Weekly’s critic Besha Rodell, have some local Mexican chefs and industry insiders scratching their heads.
Modern Mexican cuisine as a concept is 20 years old, yet most American critics haven’t been exposed to the developments and innovations that have passed through two generations of Mexican chefs. Nor do the critics recognize that Mexican cuisine has specific categories.
Taquerias, fondas, and contemporary kitchens aren’t homogeneous styles, but they’re often conflated in the U.S. For some inexplicable reason, traditional Mexican stands, hipster taquerias, “combo plate” joints, specialists, Cosmé, and even local LA heroes Chichén Itzá and Guelaguetza are all lumped together on “Best Mexican” lists.
This might explain the My Taco paradigm, which is half-baked. We don’t expect our restaurant critics to be Mexican food experts, but it seems off to compare arbitrary and mismatched dining experiences. No critic has ever used the pasta at North Hollywood’s old-school Little Toni’s as a worthy comparison to a modern Italian restaurant. It’s equally egregious to compare a restaurant like My Taco to Maestro.
Rodell’s review legitimately “quibbled” about plating and flavors, but when she claimed Godinez’s food was “lacking bold flavors,” did she really mean that it wasn’t as “bold” as the street version? That because it didn’t make your ass burn, it was just bland?
The modern Mexican kitchen isn’t just a fancy fonda — the chefs are cooking with a range of sensibilities using classic techniques, but when they riff on tradition, it’s unreasonable to reduce the comparison to the “bold” flavors of street vendors.
Gold went even further, dragging Danny’s barbacoa aspirations down to a place like My Taco, a casual spot that serves messy plates of carne asada fries (which he so eloquently described in a 2007 piece for LA Weekly). It’s pretty reductive to compare the styles of barbacoa from My Taco, Commerce’s Aqui es Texcoco (which uses a traditional Texcoco pit-style roast), and Maestro’s barbacoa, which is inspired by Danny’s investigations of the barbacoa stands in the Valle de Teotihuacán.
Maestro’s mole, as well as many of the flavors of Danny’s kitchens, come from Guerrero, where he spent the first 17 years of his life before moving to Mexico City. Should Danny’s Guerrero-style mole only be compared to Guelaguetza’s mole negro, which is a specific style associated with chef Maria Monterrubio’s hometown? Mexico has more than 300 types of moles and they are all very different.
I recently dined at Maestro, and what stood out about my experience is that Danny Godinez, like many of our young Mexican chefs, is still finding his voice. The ceviche was flat and uninteresting, but I found the barbacoa to be delicious, as well as several other items. Besha Rodell has been making restaurant reviews great again, and Jonathan Gold continues to be a champion for the flavors of LA, but Mexican cuisine in the second-largest Mexican city on the planet deserves to be judged the way other cuisines here are judged. These chefs ought to be measured by how successful they were in executing what they were trying to do.
CNN’s Parts Unknown recently shot in Los Angeles; the show will likely place Anthony Bourdain at the forefront of LA’s Mexican cuisine discussion. It’s exciting, but part of me wishes that our own respected food critics were first to the table, to inspire our Mexican chefs in the same way that they’ve supported the Roy Chois, Michael Cimarustis, Nancy Silvertons, and the Jons and Vinnys of Los Angeles.