In 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine received UNESCO World Heritage designation as a cultural treasure, but the joints that serve most Americans must not have gotten the memo.
Many serve a half-baked version featuring beef and chicken as the main proteins, accompanied by cheese, tortillas, rice and beans in a dizzying array of combinations labeled numerically to make ordering simpler. Burrito chains bring another uniquely American dimension, and while they may be wildly successful from a commercial standpoint, they don’t make them like your abuela used to.
If not sophistication, there is a certain efficiency to “American Mexican” cuisine. But the Mexican government’s Atlanta outpost is betting that Americans with more discriminating palates will also make more informed travelers, benefiting the bilateral relationship and the Mexican economy.
“Food is a very strong ingredient now for modern tourism. One of the stronger strategies to promote tourism is to promote Mexico as a gastronomic destination,” said Javier Diaz de Leon, Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta.
For Mexico that’s key, given that tourism accounts for 7.4 percent of gross domestic product and sustains 4 million jobs in the country, according to one report.
Delta Air Lines Inc. made a bet on U.S.-Mexico travel last year by launching a joint venture with Aeromexico that expanded the number of nonstop destinations from Atlanta to Mexico and gave Delta travelers access via codeshare to 52 Mexican cities.
Mexican embassies and consulates around the world are using chefs as part of their outreach, to the point that the government has vetted a select few as “gastronomic ambassadors” charged with bringing Mexican flavors to the world, Mr. Diaz said.
“We believe very strongly in using food as a cultural bridge, and I don’t see any reason we’re going to stop doing it,” he added.
That initiative has been on display in Atlanta in recent weeks. Even two days before a Sept. 15 Mexican independence bash at Georgia Power, the consulate hosted a tequila tasting.
The week before that, Atlanta was on the receiving end of some dinner diplomacy, with two renowned chefs from the city of Merida making appearances — and more importantly, their signature dishes — around the city.
David Cetina, chef at La Tradicion in Merida in the state of Yucatan (accessible on a nonstop Delta flight) said it’s not surprising that few re-creations of traditional Mexican food exist in the U.S. It’s hard to find the right spices and ingredients, much less cooks with the blend of formal education and downhome experience required to master the art of even a single regional cuisine.
“We don’t see the flavors we’re accustomed to,” in the U.S., Mr. Cetina said. Missing in action often here is one of the unsung heroes of traditional Mexican food: smoke.
Mr. Cetina started cooking with his grandmother at age 5, learning dishes like cochinita pibil, pork braised with achiote (annatto) and sour orange juice, then (traditionally at least) smoked in a pit, with flavors varying depending on the type of leaves and wood burned.
Both Mr. Cetina and Ricardo de la Vega, who runs the Frida restaurant at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya hotel in Playa Del Carmen, prepared these and other foods for hungry guests at No Mas Cantina in downtown’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood at a Sept. 5 dinner hosted in part by the Mexican Tourism Board’s Atlanta office.
No Mas has become ground zero for Mexican culinary outreach in Atlanta, being among the rare places paying homage to the breadth of Mexican cooking. The large, colorful space, fashioned from a former warehouse, is bursting with art and home goods the proprietors source directly from artisans all over Mexico. In June, chefs from Yucatan state made the trek up to Atlanta to help tourism authorities pitch local travel professionals on their Mayan ruins, beaches and, of course, food.
Starting Sept. 15, the restaurant is spending each of the next four weeks highlighting dishes and cultural tradition from a different Mexican state, from the black mole and alebrijes (painted sculptures) of Oaxaca to the tortas ahogadas (“drowned” fried pork sandwiches in sauce) and Mariachi musicians of Jalisco.
For his part, Mr. de le Vega used the showcase to demonstrate how one can innovate while staying true to tradition, using duck for a new twist on tamales.
Back at the Frida restaurant, among his many creations is a special chileatole, a thick, cornflour-based soup originally created in the state of Puebla— only his is fortified with a bit of lobster. With 80 percent of Frida’s patrons coming from abroad (mostly from the U.S.), Mr. de le Vega prides himself in making food that is accessible to foreigners while grounding them in Mexico. Both he and Mr. Cetina are among the five chefs to be featured at the Oct. 10-14 culinary festival at the Grand Velas.
Their visit is part of a steady procession of prominent voices for Mexican cuisine in recent years. Celebrity chef Zahie Tellez took a similar circuit during a May 2017 visit, teaching local audiences how to make green mole and other specialties. She was followed in November with TV chef and cookbook author Pati Jinich, who joined Chef Todd Ginsberg at The General Muir for a fusion of Mexican and Jewish cuisine.
Ms. Tellez’s Atlanta connection also began at the Grand Velas, which is where the editors of Atlanta-based TravelGirl magazine encountered her. They eventually made her the first Mexican to grace the cover.
In an interview with Global Atlanta, Ms. Tellez said she wants to cry when she sees what passes for Mexican food in the U.S.
A native of Mazatlan on the Pacific coast, she grew up making aguachile, a seafood dish of water, pepper and coriander where the fish is “cooked” in lemon juice, similar to a ceviche. Her father, a carpenter, made her a stool so she could reach the stove at an early age. With her mother hailing from Lebanon, she had a broad exposure to other flavors as well.
“The tables in my house were extraordinary,” she said.
The evolution of even the most fundamental of Mexican recipes — mole — hearkens back to this uniquely Mexican mix of cultures, she said. (Her grandmother made the local variant with a metate, a sort of flat mortar and pestle made with volcanic rock.)
“(Mole) is a pre-Hispanic dish, and then when the Spanish conquered Mexico, they brought with them cinnamon, lard, wine, onion, pork, beef, so can you imagine how the recipes were enriched?”
Even if Mexican food is based on the three main staples of corn, bean and squash, she said, the flavors change with the geography.
“We have 62 different types of corn; we have 145 different types of chiles. You can imagine all the combinations, all the flavors around that.”
An economist by training, Ms. Tellez started cooking at 31 and stumbled into a TV career, where she’s had shows on the El Gourmet and Discovery networks. She “goes deep” on the history behind the dishes she loves to make, like posole, a stew made from chiles, hominy and pork.
She hopes to educate her countrymen about their own culinary history while countering “misunderstanding” she sees in the U.S.
“I think that people think that the taco is our best dish, and it’s a lie,” she said, calling the tortilla just a container for the marvelous sauces and meats that represent a chef’s real talent.
But even if they aren’t perfect, the proliferation of Mexican restaurants around the U.S. means Americans are open to tasting more from their neighbors, Ms. Tellez said, a fact reflected both in the taquerias of Buford Highway and the growing number of local pots like Nuevo Laredo, No Mas and Mezcalitos, which bridge Americans back to the more traditional fare.
Mr. Diaz, the consul general, agreed. Even if they don’t know its extent, most Americans at least say they like their neighbors’ food, and that provides a solid foundation to build on.
The consulate hopes to give them a digestible taste of a country that of 31 states that would take a lifetime to really grasp, said Mr. Diaz, summing up with a quote from the late chef and food/travel writer Anthony Bourdain:
“I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.”