For urbanites like me there’s always something unnerving about transversing the city’s limits. Familiarity, albeit of the mind-assaulting megalopolitan variety is immoderately comfortable. Last year, my friend, the multi-talented chef Joe Cervantes had invited me to drive to a gem of a restaurant, unknown to me, far outside my comfort zone.
We were privy to a memorable repast of earthy, honest, beautiful food. “The chef is one of the best in the country,” Joe had assured me, and I tend to agree.
So, when, months later, I was called apon to organize an expedition of culinary experts to Evoka, located two hours east of city center, I met with enthusiastic resistance. Paulina, Juan Pablo, Di and Juan loved the metaphysical idea but bowed out when professional duty called. Five were finally rounded up. The chef had sent a comfy chauffeured van our way, well stocked with drinks and a fruit basket – he was well aware of the necessity of softening the blow. We sped our way east past increasingly sparse blight and through the lifeless bog that was once Lake Texcoco. “Why couldn’t he have put it in Colonia Roma,” moaned one cohort. “Pedregal would do…” Ana added.
Recently a marvelous phenomenon has been unfolding outside the inner circles of our tightly walled gastro-world. Kitchens run by talented young chefs have been springing up like chanterelles around the country, putting to rest the axiom that sophisticated food is nowhere to be found outside Mexico City proper. Most “provincial” cities, even those such as Oaxaca and Puebla renowned for their cuisines, provided amazing local regional specialties but dowdy, unimaginative fine-dining options. The best eating in Guadalajara, Tijuana, Monterrey, Morelia, Mérida or San Miguel de Allende was in the market, the street or at home and there’s nothing wrong with that. But refined regional specialties were impossible to procure. As a culinary renaissance blossomed in a few select neighborhoods of the capital, the boonies stayed firmly planted in gustatory bleakness.
Then, four or five years ago, a new generation of often internationally trained chefs started to shed the remnants of Malinchismo and return to their roots, both figuratively and literally. The aforementioned cities now feature farm-to-table fine dining establishments that pay homage to local tradition. A few unlikely spots are host to the most innovative restaurants in the country – Pablo Salas’ Amaranta, located in dowdy downtown Toluca or Gourmet MX whose owner Gabriela Ruiz chose to nestle in her native Villahermosa, a town that is anything but ‘hermosa’, are paeans to both those area´s rich culinary histories and the perseverance of these talented chefs. The brilliant Francisco Molina was a pioneer of this movement. He opened Evoka outside of the quiet provincial capital of Tlaxcala four years ago when he was only 23 and has committed to helming his superb kitchen with a rare sense of dedication.
Evoka is located on a non-descript street in Apizaco, a town on the outskirts of Tlaxcala proper. The building is gaudy– “it looks like a hotel de paso,” quipped Joachim – but it is tastefully done inside. The generically urbane setting belies the carefully assembled and constantly morphing menu that includes seven Entradas and eight plates principles. We, the only customers on a quiet Tuesday, were treated to a fine tasting menu.
Tiny little croquettes made of local corn started the proceedings; they nestle on a bed of the golden corn kernels they are made of like canary eggs in a nest and taste of the earth.
The chef then abandoned the minaturist mode and sent out a sopa de jitomate asado – roast tomato soup. This might seem generic but it is garnished with crispy little “croquetas” of huazontle ( the green related to amaranth) and gorgeous edible wild flowers that caress the heart as well as the palate.
A cute little torta apizaquense, perched on a beach of blue corn kernals – local of course – contains a milanesa of very good rib eye, a blue corn chalupa and xoconostle sauce. It is salty, sweet, sour and full of umami – a balance astutely struck.
Mole del pueblo, as presented, resembles a molten chocolate dessert. It’s a pretty brown-black disk of pulled turkey covered with sauce and decorated with almonds and verdant leaves. It’s deceptive as it looks like a dark poblano, but wears its richness on its sleeve, that is to say, it is really a simple sauce of pasilla chile, pureed plátano, pulque and masa.
The act of savoring it is not the lengthy adventure that one experiences when analizing the complex Oaxacan or Pueblan moles – it is a simple, joyful burst of smoke, sugar and perfume and is unassailable.
I recalled, from the previous visit, a lighter reddish mole ladrillo poured over a chunk of bass, rounds of fried camote, greens and chilacayote that had been steamed in a maguey leaf. This mole, unlike its darker cousin, is light, fruity and allows the fish and vegetables to be the stars of the show.