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Bennett: Think you know Mexican food? Think again

Bennett: Think you know Mexican food? Think again

Carlos Salgado doesn't see borders. Or, rather, 2016 is the year he feels more comfortable crossing them.

It's something he does both literally and figuratively as one of the main flag-bearers of Alta California cuisine, a creation of Mexican American chefs in Southern California who, in the last few years, have been fusing the skills and techniques honed in California's fine-dining kitchens with the flavors and pride of their Mexican roots.

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Mexican food, Salgado says, is the definitive cuisine of our region, which was once part of the country's northern territory. And while it might not seem to align with our understanding of what is "authentic" Mexican food, it's really no more different than dishes from the state of Yucatan in the south are different from those of Baja in the north.

"Culturally and agriculturally, California is Mexico," Salgado said on a recent Friday night, sitting on a bench near the front door of his highly acclaimed ode to Alta California, Taco Maria, inarguably the best restaurant in Orange County right now. Inside the intimate OC Mix space, a sold-out dinner with Enrique Olvera, Mexico's legendary modern Mexican chef, is underway, culminating the restaurant's unprecedented third-anniversary guest-chef dinner series.

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"[California] just so happens to be occupied by many, many different cultures and races and nationalities, but the history is so profoundly Mexican that I think it's a naturally emerging inspiration."

Carlos Salgado and Javier Plascencia in the Taco Maria kitchen during Plascencia's guest-chef dinner in October.
Carlos Salgado and Javier Plascencia in the Taco Maria kitchen during Plascencia's guest-chef dinner in October. (Courtesy of Anne Watson Photography)

You can taste the inspiration of the rich culture of Salgado's parent's homeland merging with the dedication to seasonal ingredients he learned working at Michelin-ranked restaurants in the Bay Area in things like Salgado's tortillas, crafted from heirloom corn imported from small Mexican farmers and nixtamalized on site at his 3-year-old Costa Mesa restaurant.

Or in his tangy aguachile, which sometimes appears on Taco Maria's nightly tasting menu, with raw marinated seafood bobbing around in Baja California olive oil with kumquats or cucumbers and whatever market sprouts and herbs were available that day.

For Olvera's guest-chef dinner, the two collaborated on a tasting menu that began with a quintessential Alta California-style amuse bouche — local uni with a dollop of seaweed-infused guacamole atop a crunchy, fatty square of snacky chicharrón. The main courses took Southern California's Asian food influence even further: a slightly crispy Chinese-inspired bao filled with slow-cooked beef birria that could have passed for a fancy salbute; and Peking duck breast, accompanied by pickled vegetables and a teriyaki sauce sweetened by Latin America's unrefined cane sugar, piloncillo.

"[Taco Maria is part of] this beautiful and vibrant food culture in Southern California that's mixing different flavor combinations," Olvera, who owns the groundbreaking 16-year-old restaurant Pujol in Mexico City, said while sitting with Salgado outside Taco Maria. "I think there's a beautiful thing about not caring about where things come from in a cultural sense."

Taco Maria's guest-chef dinner with Javier Plascencia included this dessert made with red heirloom corn topped with a slightly soured cream.
Taco Maria's guest-chef dinner with Javier Plascencia included this dessert made with red heirloom corn topped with a slightly soured cream. (Courtesy of Anne Watson Photography)

To both Olvera and Salgado, modern, or "nuevo," Mexican food is somewhat of a myth. Traditional Mexican food has historically been driven by the agriculture of the region, and the modern ideas currently pushing the limits of the cuisine both in Mexico and the U.S. are really just old ideas coming back to the forefront, albeit filtered through uncommon global connections only today's chefs could make.

"There's no 'nuevo,'" Olvera insists. "Traditional Mexican food is whatever the community does with what is produced that day. It can't be traditional if it was not produced that day."

A lot has changed in O.C. dining in the five years since Taco Maria launched as a gourmet food truck before going brick-and-mortar in 2013. And despite an insistence on making everything in-house day of, chefs like Salgado haven't always been this secure with the urge to experiment.

The U.S. is notorious for upholding the idea that Mexican cuisine can only be only quick, affordable grub — wet burritos and cheese-loaded, hard-shell tacos undeserving of fine china or a glass of wine — something Salgado witnessed first-hand growing up in his family's hole-in-the-wall Mexican-American restaurant, La Siesta, which has served Orange for almost 40 years.

Even in Mexico when Olvera first started Pujol, he says, Euro-centric restaurants dominated the upscale landscape and Mexican food had been relegated back into homes and small family-run restaurants called fondas.

"I saw [my parents] martyr themselves against these perceptions that people have not just against Mexicans but against Mexican food, and it was infuriating. I knew that I was not going to accept those notions," Salgado says.

"I thought if we take the position that Mexican food is as valuable as any of Europe or Asia's cuisines and we humbly held it and made no apologies and cooked with our sensibilities and were warm and welcoming and did good consistent work, we could help to push forward this idea that Mexican food isn't only cheap working-class food."

Carlos Salgado, left, chef and owner of Taco Maria, with Enrique Olvera at the Costa Mesa restaurant.
Carlos Salgado, left, chef and owner of Taco Maria, with Enrique Olvera at the Costa Mesa restaurant. (Courtesy of Anne Watson Photography)

Moving away from making luxury versions of tacos and other identifiable (what Salgado calls "format") Mexican dishes, Taco Maria has carved its own niche within the growing Alta California landscape.

In addition to being the only restaurant of its style and caliber in Orange County (in L.A., there are about a half-dozen eateries of varying price points that represent the movement), Salgado earns accolades for using Taco Maria to express his values and ever-evolving worldview, which includes continuing to explore what it means to be Mexican American in these political and cultural times.

After three years serving tasting-menu meals from inside his small food-court-situated restaurant, this year, more than ever, he sees a world without borders, one where Southern California is merely an extension of Baja California, and by proxy, all of Mexico.

A literal border might remain between the two countries, but by crossing that border to cook with all-star chefs in Mexico and inviting those chefs to cross the border and cook here, he's continuing a powerful cultural exchange that goes back centuries.

This fall's guest-chef dinner series — which also included Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia and Diego Hernandez, who cooks in the heart of Baja wine country — is a reflection of the symbiotic exchange of ideas that has long defined border cuisine. And it's one that will continue to push modern Mexican cuisine into the future.

"I feel more Mexican now than I've ever felt. I also feel more proudly Mexican American than I've ever felt," says Salgado. "Growing up I felt like I'm not really Mexican and I'm not really American and what am I? The same can be said for the restaurant.

"How offensive are our interpretations of Mexican food to Mexicans? At the same time, Americans have their ideas about what Mexican food should be, and so of course Taco Maria isn't Mexican. It's both and it's neither. It's about the spaces between ... I think."

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SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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