Mexican cuisine lost a lioness in late July when Diana Kennedy died at her remote ranchito in the state of Michoacán.
The sour-tongued scholar and cookbook author has almost single-handedly elevated the country’s cuisine to the ranks of the world’s greatest thanks to her meticulous recording of recipes gleaned from sometimes arduous travels. His approach was almost archaeological: once on paper, the recipes became sacred writings, allowing few changes.
Rico Torres and Diego Galicia, owners of Mixtli in San Antonio, are also fascinated by Mexico’s regional cuisines, but their approach could hardly be more different.
Mixtli means “cloud” in the native Nahuatl language, which seems appropriate. Like a cloud, the restaurant seems to float above its country of inspiration, pausing to reflect on the popular foods and traditions below. A traditional recipe can become a stepping stone to something entirely new. The respect lies not in strict adherence to custom, but in the honesty of Torres and Galicia’s approach to place and product.
The restaurant’s tasting menu, which changes regionally inspired each quarter, is currently on hiatus in Ciudad de México, one of the world’s great metropolises. Mixtli dubbed this iteration “500 Years of Mexico City,” and that’s a lot for anyone to ingest in 10 courses.
Fortunately, the experience starts small with bread and butter. This service will be your first introduction to the type of cuisine that Mixtli leads – female-dominated and entirely passionate, a fact that becomes evident when the plates are presented and described by the people who cook them.
The homemade bread may not be anything exceptional, but it is the occasion for a speech on the introduction of wheat to Mexico by the Spaniards. Butter wouldn’t have existed at the time of the conquest, but it’s made unique here by its blend with smoked chilli seeds, and the wick-heated duck fat provided to pour it all in is the perfectly logical extension of the watery realm that was Tenochtitlan before Cortez.
To continue, the dish La Gran Tenochtitlan (or “Jewel on the lake”) also evokes the body of water on which the Aztec capital was located. It contains spirulina, an aquamarine liquid replacing an algae-like “moss”, which was once harvested from its shores. We also encounter here for the first time very important corn with a slice of sweet potato and a chiffonnade of romaine. The creation is refreshing and a clever mix of old and new.
Crab and crunchy trout roe continue the theme of water in the Xochimilco course, expressing both the waters and the chinampas, or floating gardens, which have been called the “last living link of Aztec civilization”. Thin pieces of squash speckled with chili encircle the crab and eggs, evoking the earth mipaor multi-crop cornfields, which persist to this day.
The Tomatl course, we are told, refers to the tiny tomatoes that were the forerunner of today’s county fair behemoths. They’re moistened with fermented tomato water, topped with a contemporary buttermilk sorbet and accompanied by a crispy blue corn taquito stuffed with smoked avocado puree and edged with a collar of plump purslane leaves. Together, the ingredients add up to a profound experience.
My first disappointment came with the course called Mixiote. The wrapped bundle is historically bound with a translucent membrane extracted from maguey leaves and can be crafted with any main ingredient, from rabbit to fish. As it is difficult – sometimes even illegal – to stock up, cooks generally substitute parchment paper or banana leaves. The Mixtli filling, although presented on paper, appeared to have been cooked entirely outside of its wrapper. The combination of redfish, rajas de poblano, and braised greens, all washed down with a masa-thickened chileatole, was appealing on its own, but it felt like a missed opportunity.
If you choose to add the evening’s wine pairing option ($60), you’ll find bottles from as far away as Slovenia, but none from Mexico – a shame given the country’s recent advances. Nevertheless, the options are generally good and sometimes almost overshadowed by the food.
Such was the case with the pork al pastor, its Lebanese roots noted, but its execution is no higher than any of the many such tacos in the city. A previous offering involving a sweet and sour xoconostle, or cactus fruit, offered a glimpse into Mexico’s Spanish Baroque heritage with its stuffing of dried fruits and nuts and a mole of the same fruit with güero peppers. It could not be reproduced elsewhere.
Perhaps in a nod to present-day Mexico City, a beef dish with cocoa and coffee-crusted tenderloin was the final savory dish. The beef was beautifully cooked, but the standout aspect of the dish was a side mash of fermented garlic and black beans and a halo of huazontle – sometimes called Aztec broccoli – surrounding a mash of chicatanas or flying ants. Prized by the Aztecs, the ants are still harvested today and perfectly embody the more than 500-year-old history of Mexico City.
Mixtli brilliantly evoked the millennial gods of corn and cocoa in the dessert presentation, in which a pastel de elote, mango, chocolate and pomegranate all played a part.
If you choose to embark on this gastronomic journey, a shot of mezcal from the adjacent bar seems fitting to toast your completion of such a comprehensive course in culinary history.
Progressive Mexican Culinaria Mixtli
812 S. Alamo Street | (210) 338-0746 | restaurantmixtli.com | Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight
Prices: The tasting menu, available by ticketed reservation only, is $160 plus fees, taxes, and tip. Wine pairing is an additional $60.
The lean: Mixtli is dedicated to the diverse cuisines of Mexico, presented in a regional or themed tasting menu that changes quarterly. Traditional recipes serve as springboards for contemporary interpretations, sometimes using ancient ingredients like flying ants. The current theme “500 years of Mexico City” lasts until September 24.
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