Mention Mexican food and many people think they already know the score. They start picturing tacos and burritos, chips and salsa, gobs of sour cream and rivers of melted cheddar. These are the touchstones of Tex-Mex cooking. That’s what many of us were raised on when it came to Mexican food. And, for the record, I love that stuff still.
But consider how the differences stacked up during a meal at Del Fuego Taqueria, a Uptown eatery that is part of a wave of new Mexican restaurants arriving in New Orleans.
The meal started with chips and salsa, though the chips were big, palm-sized tostadas, still warm in their basket, and the salsa, one of seven on the menu, was a deep, dark, smoky, chipotle and garlic concoction. Tacos, built with fresh, toasty-tasting soft corn tortillas, were filled with roasted goat — rich, pleasantly chewy, a little gamy and cut by the bright, ripe guajillo chiles. For dessert? A tres leches cake, but here with a sharp slash of ginger, a toasted meringue cap and little cubes of macaroons strewn like coconut croutons over a scoop of plum ice cream.
There is a lot more to Mexico cooking than Tex-Mex, and more of its rich diversity is beginning to show up in New Orleans as a bumper crop of new Mexican restaurants move in and stake out their own turf. Del Fuego Taqueria is just one of many new recent examples that have come in fast and frequent.
In the past few months alone, the Middle Eastern restaurant Byblos on Magazine Street was converted into the Mexican restaurant Araña. The pan-Asian eatery Lucky Rooster was turned into another location of Juan’s Flying Burrito. And the upscale seafood restaurant RioMar in the Warehouse District became a super-casual, counter-service cantina called Tacos & Tequila. Uptown there’s the unrelated Tacos & Beer, the expansion of a Slidell concept, and in the Warehouse District there’s the tucked away taqueria La Casita.
In October, the homegrown celebrity chef John Besh and his Food Network friend chef Aaron Sanchez opened their new Mexican restaurant Johnny Sanchez in the CBD, and in Central City there’s Casa Borrega, the taqueria and music venue with one of the nicest patios in town.
These are all recent additions joining the area’s longer-running Mexican restaurants. So why are they getting so much company now? Well, restaurateurs seem to like the taqueria format — which can be casual, relatively inexpensive and social. That all speaks to bigger dining trends afoot right now. Heck, a lot of Mexican food has been gluten free before gluten free food was cool.
But then these new eateries align with another trend, with diners taking a greater interest in the roots of a cuisine, in the regional differences and variety that restaurants can bring to the table when they mine more of a cuisine’s source material. We’ve seen that happen with Italian food, and now it looks like Mexican is getting its due. Still, there are plenty of familiar signposts along the way. After all, at any of these restaurants, tortillas provide the framework and, as the parade of margaritas attest, tequila is still the lifeblood.
Araña Taqueria y Cantina
3242 Magazine St., (504) 894-1233
1719 O.C. Haley Blvd., (504) 292-3705; www.casaborrega.com
Del Fuego Taqueria
930 Poydras St., (504) 304-6615; www.johnnysanchezrestaurant.com
Juan’s Flying Burrito, CBD
515 Baronne St., (504) 529-5825; www.juansflyingburrito.com
634 Julia St., (504) 218-8043; www.eatlacasita.com
Tacos and Beer
1622 St Charles Ave., (504) 304-8722
Tacos and Tequila
800 S Peters St., (504) 525-3474; www.tntnola.com