Guacamole Is the Gateway

One of the first things you learn when you open a Mexican restaurant in New York City is that most people will order a margarita and some guacamole before ever even laying eyes on the menu.

This used to make me incredibly sad.

For a minute, I had it in my head that we needed to do away with these offerings in these restaurants if we are to ever learn and appreciate more about Mexican cuisine.

I’ve since decided that taking away something people want simply because they want it is an immature and inhospitable idea. You could probably also try to take all the pasta off of any given Italian menu as well, but that does not mean you should.

Although guacamole and margaritas are not so much of a “thing” in non-tourist pockets of Mexico, I’ve made peace with the fact that I love those items just as much as any other North American. Rather than looking at them as a distraction from the rest of the menu, I have chosen to see them as gateway drugs that can be used to get people hooked on other things.

Cooking any non-Eurocentric ethnic cuisine in New York City is a challenging game of translation.

I’m biased, but I think Mexican cuisine is particularly tricky because, to some degree, we all – chefs and diners — have an opinion on the subject. Mexico is our neighbor. Most of us have been, and, while there, have experienced something delicious and profound, so we tend to hold all other Mexican dishes to that standard. People who are from California and Texas seem to be particularly vehement in their opinions about what “real deal” Mexican cooking is. This makes sense to me given that the Mexican communities in those areas are significantly larger; growing up with great Mexican food is almost a birthright there.

Birthright or no, whether you’re in Baja or Brooklyn, the fact of the matter is that there really is no such thing as a singular Mexican cuisine. It’s as broad and unspecific a category as Italian or American Cuisine. Mexican cooking is regional and borderline clannish. You will never get two people from L.A. to agree on where to find the best fish taco. In much the same way, if you are shopping for ingredients indigenous to Oaxaca in a Pueblan market, do not be surprised if someone tells you that they simply do not exist.

The terms “traditional” and “authentic” are thrown around quite a bit when anyone talks about this subject.

I have followed authentic recipes to the letter and turned them out at both of my restaurants, and I have run into three consistently recurring problems:

  1. The core ingredients needed to produce many authentic Mexican dishes taste different in this country. The garlic, the chiles, the cilantro, etc. are simply not the same.
  2. If people do not have a reference point for the dish you are making, they have no idea if it is the best or worst version of it.
  3. People don’t just judge the picture; they also judge the frame. What I mean by this is that if you’re a half-Italian, half-Russian person from Massachusetts with a background in pastry and molecular gastronomy, then absolutely no one is going to believe that what you are executing is real Mexican cooking.

Things like this used to upset me; now, they help me define and work towards my personal goals. I do not believe that one solitary force can change the culinary landscape or perception of a cuisine. I do, however, think that with some hard work and long-term dedication, anyone can play a part in changing things just a little bit. I do not want to alter what we love about Mexican cooking in this country, but I do want to expand upon it. I want to see more Mexican restaurants be embraced while their chefs are able to enjoy the same creative freedom that their counterparts in other ethnic cuisines have achieved.

If I were to tell you that I owned a French restaurant in New York City, think about all the possible permutations that would encompass; think of all the businesses that work under the umbrella of French cuisine — bistros and patisseries, cafes and Michelin three star-level restaurants. The food served could be classic or modern. It could focus on a specific region of France, or it could weave all sorts of flavors from other cultures seamlessly into its folds. You can have a French meal that includes non-indigenous flavors like lemongrass or yuzu, without viewing it as bastardization these days. I bet it wasn’t always this way; that it was the result of conscious attempts to change things on the part of the chefs.

Most meals at either of my places still start with a margarita and some guacamole; most of them typically end with a plate of tacos. We try our hardest to make those offerings delicious and seductive bookends to a whole slew of other things we think you should try. Some of those things are authentic; some are intended to provoke a friendly debate as to what they are.

You can either make excuses and accept that things simply are what they are, or you can push.