A dollop of pineapple puree that accompanies the cobia al pastor ($24) at New York City’s Cosme looks more like modern art than food—a bright burst of yellow surrounded by the white canvas of a bowl.
The tamal de cazuela with sea urchin and charred habanero-leek relish at San Francisco’s Cala ($20) is just as visually striking, arriving at the table with its deep purple spikes still intact.
Say “Mexican food” to many Americans, and burritos bursting with rice and beans or enchiladas drowned in tomatillo sauce probably come to mind. But the dishes rolling out of the kitchens at Cala, Cosme, and emerging restaurants in between are increasingly taking a beloved cuisine into the fine-dining realm. Not only are they challenging the idea that Mexican food means cheap and fast, but they’re trusting that Americans will pay top dollar for quality ingredients prepared in the novel and creative ways.
While restaurants like Eduardo de San Angel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the Michelin-starred Casa Enrique, in Queens, New York, have long served upscale Mexican cuisine, over the past few years, a number of restaurants have started to experiment with its customs, moving away from “traditional” or “authentic” dishes toward plates that adapt or entirely reinvent the genre.
Beyond Cosme and Cala, there’s Mexique in Chicago and Hugo Ortega’s Caracol in Houston. Bracero in San Diego dishes out $17 small plates of carrot aguachile with local tuna, scallops, ginger, ghost pepper, smoked steelhead roe, and cashews. Washington, D.C. has José Andrés’s Oyamel. There are certainly others, and no two seem to look the same. But industry observers and chefs say they see a relatively new recognition among both restaurateurs and diners in the United States that Mexican fare has a place in the fine-dining world
Gabriela Cámara, who opened Cala in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley last September and is the brain behind Mexico City’s renowned Contramar, said she thinks the shift began about five years ago. Enrique Olvera at Cosme (who also runs the much-lauded Pujol, a short drive from Contramar) pegs the “moment” at about two years ago.
Fine dining as a whole, Cámara said, is a growing industry, but not in the traditional, stuffy, white-tablecloth mold. Instead, it’s evolved into something that Cosme and Cala represent—embracing the casual, the innovative, and even the experimental, as long as the quality remains central to the dishes being served.
Cámara said she wouldn’t have been able to make dishes like her halibut ceviche Verde with fennel, radish, and sorrel ($22) work without the proliferation of sushi restaurants in the U.S. The migration of sushi, she thinks, opened people up to the concept of not only eating but paying top dollar for, fresh raw fish.The uni tostada with avocado, bone-marrow salsa, and cucumber at Cosme, a snack-sized portion for one or a few bites if shared, costs $19. The slightly larger crispy octopus dish with hazelnut mole, paired with pickled potatoes and watercress, is $29. The average tab runs around $70 per head.
While the National Restaurant Association doesn’t have hard data on the number of upscale restaurants in the U.S., or upscale Mexican spots specifically, its research suggests that half of Americans eat Mexican food at least once a month and that almost everyone is familiar with at least some form of Mexican food.
But there’s quite the variation when it comes to conceiving what Mexican food looks like. As the journalist Gustavo Arellano has noted, tacos first arrived in the United States during the Mexican Revolution. As their popularity grew, restaurants serving Mexican Americans a taste of home expanded to serve a broader array of patrons, who sought out food they saw as “authentic.” (For decades, many Americans put Tex Mex and even Taco Bell in that category.) “The idea of authenticity has driven the popularity of Mexican food among Americans for 100 years,” Arellano told the Christian Science Monitor in 2014. “Once they’ve eaten a dish enough that it’s no longer ‘authentic,’ they go and try to find the next authentic food. At one point, people thought Taco Bell was authentic Mexican food. It was exotic. Now it’s the new synonym for McDonald’s.”
That constantly morphing definition of what constitutes “authenticity” may have carved out space for people like Olvera and Cámara to create Mexican food that either disregards or redefines the term. The National Restaurant Association found that two-thirds of young people say they eat a wider variety of ethnic foods today than they did five years ago, suggesting many diners have more adventurous palates. Moreover, gourmet food often finds its way to social media, making the visual component more important than ever (that dot of pineapple puree at Cosme appears regularly in Instagram posts). Hugo Ortega, who’s opened several high-end Mexican restaurants in Houston, puts it this way: “Some of us have been digging into this for years, but it’s happening now because the audience is ready.”
At the same time, chefs and food writers have finally discovered what Mexico City has known for decades: that the city is a vibrant mecca bursting with innovative cuisine. “Mexico City became a favorite for chefs,” Olvera said. “They realized Mexican food is not what they thought it was.” The evolution in upscale dining, the growing popularity of ethnic cuisine in the U.S., and the increasing ease of access to Mexico itself—have coalesced to allow a growing number of high-end, often seafood-focused Mexican restaurants in the United States to flourish. “It’s the moment that allows it,” Cámara said.