Born in Mexico, based in New York City, restauranteur-consultant-teacher Roberto Santibañez strongly believes using great Mexican ingredients and keeping the true Mexican flavor profile are the keys to making Mexican menu items authentic and delicious.
“The ingredients are what make Mexican cuisine what it is,” Santibañez says. Two components he promotes a lot in his teaching, interviews and TV appearances are the correct use of masa (dough for tortillas) and chiles in Mexican cooking.
Adding dishes to the menu that prominently feature chiles is a great way to add interest, fiery flavor and authenticity to your menu, Santibañez says. (see recipe for Cauliflower and Goat Cheese Chiles Rellenos)
Don't worry about overpowering the general public; Americans are more daring than ever when it comes to hot and spicy flavors.
You can learn more about the many chiles of Mexico in Santibañez's cookbook, Rosa's Mexican Table (Artisan 2007). He has another cookbook in the works.
Santibañez says the “true jumping-off point” of his career was returning from years of world travel to Mexico City to cook for the Foreign Affairs Ministry. It was there, he says, that he rediscovered the delicious complexity of true Mexican cuisine.
After many successful forays into the restaurant world, Santibañez is now on the forefront of the fast casual mobile food concept as culinary director of The Taco Truck in Hoboken, NJ.
Recently, FM asked Santibanez how FSDs can make foodservice Mexican fare more authentic and exciting.
“Add just two simple salsas to your serving line. Pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa are two of the best to add. That one change will make a much fresher flavor profile for many things already on your menu.
“For the pico de gallo, don't be afraid to add some acidity with lime; otherwise, you're just selling chopped tomatoes. (Pico de gallo is Spanish for “rooster's beak.” The main ingredients are traditionally tomatoes and peppers, usually jalapeño or serrano.) Also, pico de gallo contains less liquid than salsa.
“People really love tomatillo salsa (also sometimes called “salsa verde,” made with tomatillos, onion, cilantro, lime juice and jalapeño or Serrano peppers). They love the tartness of the tomatillo. (Tomatillos are often called “green tomatoes,” and look like a small, hard green tomato covered in a husk. But they are actually part of the nightshade family, related to gooseberries.)
“The chile is the buddy of the sauce. Mexican sauces are made great with chiles, and a good chef will know their chiles, or else you can't get the flavor profile right. Every chile has its own character.
“The American palate is ready for more spice. If you tasted food from the Chipotle chain five years ago, it was much blander than it is today. Americans now want brighter, stronger flavors.
“Be careful with cilantro. If you use too much, it can be unbearable
“One thing that you don't see in too many foodservice settings is chiles rellenos (literally translated as ‘stuffed peppers.’) They can be done properly by making sure you roast them well, peel and seed them, and then stuff them with something really flavorful.
“Chiles rellenos can be stuffed with a variety of things: shredded meat, different cheeses, rice, black or pinto beans. Even cauliflower can work.
“Enchiladas are another great item to have on your menu. Make the sauces authentic by adjusting the heat level. People never think about the way sauce coats the enchilada. It's a thin layer, so you want to make the sauce a little hotter than usual. Enchiladas are one dish that you can add to a menu that really says ‘Mexican.’
[Don't Get] Lost in Translation
Americans are ready for more authentic, spicier Mexican fare. Using the original Spanish-language names of menu items adds to the authenticity, but customers may be intimidated. With a brief translation, you can have it both ways:
|Carnitas (Shredded, fried pork)|
|Chimichanga (Deep-fried meat burrito)|
|Chiles Rellenos (Stuffed peppers)|
|Crema (A thick cream similar to sour)|
|Picante (Spicy hot)|