When chef René Redzepi was developing his most recent international pop-up, Noma Mexico, one of the first things he did was contact Rosio Sanchez, who spent years as Noma’s pastry chef, and who Redzepi often calls one of the best cooks he’s ever worked with.
It’s easy to see why Redzepi would want Sanchez to join him and his research team as they traveled throughout Mexico, eating and brainstorming the Noma Mexico menu. Two years earlier, the Cordon Bleu-trained, Chicago-born, first generation Mexican American had left Noma to open the first of two critically acclaimed taqueria pop-ups, Hija de Sanchez, where she stone-grinds Oaxacan corn for her tortillas and offers a rotating menu, including tacos al pastor, beer-braised barbacoa tacos and crispy-fried fjord shrimp tacos with garlic-chile oil.
In May, Sanchez, 31, will fly to Los Angeles from the Tulum-based Noma Mexico to collaborate with L.A.’s Jessica Koslow of Sqirl for a special Food Bowl event. Recently, Sanchez phoned in from the Yucatan peninsula to talk about small bee larvae, her tres leches paleta and why she stubbornly keeps micheladas on the Hija menu.
On the menu, there’s spring cactus with ant paste, and cold masa broth with lime. What didn’t make the cut?
Rare wild bee larvae. When you roast it in oil, it’s really tasty, very satisfying. But the larvae that we had was really small compared to the bees we’re used to dealing with in Denmark. So, getting the right amount out of the comb, it was never going to happen, unfortunately.
Share one of your favorites.
The giant melon clam [from the Gulf of California], served raw with some spices, beach greens and lime.
So far, what’s been eye-opening about running an outdoor jungle-side restaurant on the shore — besides the view of the Caribbean?
For me? The logistics. You’re on this strip of beach and it’s quite difficult to get the things you need. In Mexico City or Oaxaca, the chefs just go to the market in the morning every day, bright and early, and get what they need. But in this case, you can’t — the market is a few hours away. And we’re getting a lot of ingredients from Mexico City, Oaxaca, Ensenada. It’s crazy. But it’s happening! We have a guy who is in charge of only that and he has a team of people helping him.
What was the first Mexican-influenced dish you ever made at Noma?
That was a long time ago, maybe 2012. I made little tacos with veal hearts and nixtamal-ized grain tortillas. It was really fun to think about how I could replicate tongue tacos, which were my favorite when I was younger.
What sort of taste memories guided you when developing Hija de Sanchez?
My mom was from Guanajuato. My dad was from San Luis Potosí. I grew up eating what they made: immigrant family food. We had tortillas with everything. Pozole. A lot of stews and mole on holidays. All of that has definitely influenced Hija de Sanchez, because it’s all the things I really craved. We also do paletas, but a little more sophisticated, like my tres leches cake paletas. It’s basically frozen tres leches cake on a stick. Growing up, I always had tres leches cake on my birthday. So for me, it’s like a birthday cake paleta. It’s a fun thing to channel my youth through.
When you first opened your taqueria, customers often referred to tortillas as “pancakes.” What else perplexed your Danish customers?
The michelada. It’s the most iffy one on the menu. So often someone will order it and then later, I’ll see the poor michelada sitting there still full. I’d rather we don’t sell them a michelada than throw it away or have them go, “Ugh.” At first, I was like, “Oh, my god. They hate it.” But now I make sure that when someone orders it they’re told, “Just so you know, it’s chile and lime juice and it might be very weird for you.” People in Scandinavia don’t have a history of eating for spice. Everything is very mild. So if you’re going to order something like a michelada, it’s like drinking a bomb. It’s like, “What … is this?” I’m still not going to take it off the menu. It’s for the people who come, know what a michelada is and just go crazy.
When it comes to what you’re doing at Hija, Mexican-style cheese is foundational. How did you solve that problem?
Have you ever had dairy in Copenhagen? It’s the best dairy I’ve ever had. We found this small Italian company, La Treccia, in Copenhagen that already made mozzarella and organic cheeses for other restaurants and I said, “Would you want to try to make Mexican-style cheeses for us?” Now they make cheese for us twice a week — queso fresco, quesillo and cotija style. Of course, it’s never going to be the same, but I think it’s amazing. I can’t tell the difference — except for maybe it’s slightly better, because of the quality of the dairy.
At Hija, you use corn and dried chiles from Mexico, your tomatoes are imported from Italy. What locally sourced ingredients have surprised you?
When we first opened I was like, “We need masa, tomatillos and good cheeses.” You know how Mexican salsas are often made with tomatillos? The tomatillos were definitely not going to happen here. They’re available but super sweet, not the same at all. So we substituted very high-quality green gooseberries, and I actually love that. I think it’s perfect. It’s not even a substitute — it’s its own thing now. Our gooseberry salsa will hold up against any tomatillo salsa. It’s very tart and very tasty.
How did you find employees who understand Mexican flavors?
There are people from Chile, Spain. But the visa issue is so hard, so we don’t have that many people from Mexico. In L.A., Chicago and New York, Mexicans are all around: You say, “Make a tomatillo salsa,” and there might be some tweaks, but they more or less know how to make it. Here, you have to teach every single thing. For example, we have a tortilla machine and we make masa every day. The first time you ask a European employee to make the tortillas, they’re so panicky. Then a Mexican shows up, looking for a stage and you say, “Make the tortillas,” and they just start making them.