Hola Mexico! Head chefs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi on all things Mexican cuisine
How popular is Mexican cuisine in the region?
Maria Gallegos, Mexican chef, El Sombrero: I think it is popular and has really grown over the last 10 years. There is a very strong Mexican and Latin influence in the UAE, but I want to show guests there is more than just burritos.
Lara Said, chef, La Carnita: We feel that the popularity and demand for Mexican cuisine is increasing rapidly, especially as people realise there is a lot more to it than fajitas and re-fried beans. It appeals to people’s taste buds, thanks to its vibrancy, flavour combinations and great aesthetics.
Juan Flores, executive chef, Loca: Mexican cuisine has become very popular in the last three years. We have been open for nine years in Dubai and the craze of Mexican has really sprouted everywhere. From fast casual to fine dining. It’s currently one of the popular UAE food trend.
Rene Alejandro Manzanilla Vela, chef de cuisine, Luchador: In my opinion, Mexican cuisine hasn’t yet been fully discovered in this region. The majority of our guests still confuse authentic Mexican cuisine with one of the variations known as Tex-Mex. That being said, I have found that the Latin culture is one that is well appreciated in the region, and most people are also very willing to discover new things.
Manuel Antonio, head chef, ZOCO: Mexican food is popular not just in the UAE but in all the world. Mexican food was appointed by the UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, so almost everybody no matter where they are in the world has tried a Mexican delicatessen.
How close to truly authentic is your preparation of Mexican cuisine?
Gallegos: I find it is always important to cater to your audience whilst providing an authentic dish. I tend to put a lot more cumin here in the marinade than I would back home which I found is used a lot in the local cuisine.
Said: The key ingredients to our dishes are certainly authentic. We import many items directly from Mexico and provenance is important to us. That being said, we certainly put a decidedly North American spin on the dishes, using a combination of flavours that brings our customers uniquely epic street food.
Flores: Both our head chefs (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) are from Mexico so things are pretty authentic with us. We have managed to stay true to the Mexican ingredients as the food is so diverse and has so many layers it’s easy for the local market to find something they like.
Vela: We definitely try to adapt our food and tastes to the local audience by tweaking some of our recipes, which also allows us to be a bit creative. Our preparations are all 100% authentic. That isn’t the same as being traditional, but we preserve most of the cooking techniques and ingredients to execute our recipes.
Antonio: We have traditional recipes, we follow the lines of our family kitchen, we share the same food as you can find in my grandmother’s house. Most of our food follows our ancestors’ heritage, such as the fried beans, empanadas, tacos dorados, tortas, etc. We have some fusion items that I learnt all around the world before I arrived here in Dubai like the ceviche, octopus and sea bass, that includes basic preparation from Mexican cuisine and some Spanish, Italian, or Latin American influence.
What would you say are your biggest challenges?
Gallegos: To change the minds of people about the concept of Mexican cuisine. To provide new dishes for people to try the real Tex Mex with real Mexican flavour to transport people to feel like they are in Mexico and eating a home cooked meal.
Said: Without a doubt, the biggest challenge in the kitchen is finding that sweet spot between delivering the best quality to the customer, whilst remaining approachable to our customers. We want to be seen as an exceptional food venue that is accessible to the majority of people.
Flores: Staying relevant with so much competition in our food sector and to alter people's preconceptions of Mexican food — that Mexican food can be fresh, light and has so many variations on flavours. But fortunately for us we have a very loyal following, strong fan-base, prime locations, and we have a good price point which always helps.
Vela: Life is full of challenges, none of them too big or too small. Sometimes the distance is hard, being far away from family and the culture that I’m used to, but being able to cook delicious and authentic Mexican cuisine at Luchador is definitely a plus.
Antonio: I think it’s all about being the best Mexican restaurant in the UAE because there is a lot of Mexican and Latin restaurants now and almost all of them are doing the same, trying to look fine dining, following new tendencies and don't respect the essence of our gastronomical culture. I like to think we are serving our family and I want our customers to feel that, the warmth of their family house with the meal that my mother, father or grandmother would cook for me.
What is the latest trend in Mexican cuisine?
Gallegos: To go back to the Mexican roots, by making Hispanic food with a Mexican twist. To plate food in a modern and contemporary way with a lot of insect dishes, such as ant eggs.
Said: Undoubtedly it’s the adaptation of Mexican cuisine in street food concepts. La Carnita started out as a pop-up and together with food trucks, they have been responsible for Mexican cuisine reaching a larger number of consumers. We take street food up a notch, creating a unique dining environment and delivering our brand of modern Mexican food with a little swagger and a smile.
Flores: The global trend for 2018 was veganism and in Mexican cuisine it’s easy to stay true and offer vegan and vegetarian food, since so many items are plant based.
Vela: Mexican cuisine is well known for its contrast. In my opinion, the latest gastronomic revolution in Mexico is the signature cuisine, where you are able to play with your backgrounds and with the ingredients — either local or imported — to enhance the experience of the guest.
Antonio: Now they are going back in time, a lot of regional cuisines are getting popular. They have started to use our ancestors’ way, they cook with wood in a mud vessel, use wild ingredients that modern people have already forgot, and some of them mix it with a range of new techniques. ©