Boston has long pigeonholed Mexican cuisine as a genre made up of tortilla chips, guacamole, and burritos. But those days are slowly coming to an end — local restaurateurs with growing chains are working hard to change the experience of Mexican food for Bostonians.
At Tenoch’s three restaurants and one food truck, for example, diners indulge in the restaurant’s take on tortas, large Mexican sandwiches made using the traditional flat telera bread. At El Centro, which has locations in Belmont, Brookline, Dedham, and the South End, one can feast on tacos light, served on lettuce instead of tortillas as a tribute to the famous Jass Light taqueria in Hermosillo, Mexico. And at Chilacates, which opened its first location in Jamaica Plain in 2015 and now has five locations in Greater Boston, visitors dig into an assortment of tacos constructed with traditional meats like al pastor, carnitas, and lengua.
“Get out of your comfort zone,” says Allan Rodriguez, the owner of El Centro. “It’s more than Corona, quesadillas, guacamole, and burritos. Go and try a nice mole from scratch. Go and try some pozole. Ceviche is the freshest seafood you’ve ever eaten.”
The owners of these restaurants also recognize that Bostonians are doing their part and becoming better educated about Mexican cuisine.
“People have traveled, so you cannot fool them,” says Rodriguez, who opened the first branch of his mini-empire of El Centro in the South End in 2011. “You cannot fool any Bostonians anymore about Mexican food like you could have 15 years ago.”
Tenoch co-owner Alvaro Sandoval’s forthcoming Medford restaurant, El Tacuba, will hinge on his feeling that Boston is ready for more. He told Eater that the restaurant and tequila bar will feature seafood, preparations, and ingredients inspired by his home state of Veracruz.
The menu will include pescado a la Veracruzana, a classic dish from the region made with white fish, tomatoes, capers, and olives. And he doesn’t plan on modifying the food to cater to the Boston palates of old.
“We use the same recipes that we make at home,” Sandoval says. “We are from Veracruz, and that inherently influences our style and our ingredients. We come up with unique combinations in our own kitchens based on our own tastes, or things that we grew up eating.”
But Sandoval feels that getting people to try some of these new foods comes down to two things. “First, people are very visual,” Sandoval says. “If they don’t know what flor de calabaza (squash blossom) or huitlacoche (corn mushroom) is or looks like, they’re not likely to order it, but they are so delicious in our quesadillas at Tenoch. Once people see it, it becomes more accessible.”
The other thing is word of mouth. “Often when we have tamales, they sell out right away because people tell each other,” Sandoval says.
Though Rodriguez grew up in the north of Mexico, he takes a fusion approach with El Centro. Diners will find dishes from his home state of Sonora, like carne asada tacos and caramelos, which are tacos made with grilled beef and topped with melted Chihuahua cheese. But he told Eater he also offers mole inspired by the versions made in Oaxaca, far south from Sonora, and sopes, which are more often found in the central and southern regions of Mexico.
The restaurant business is in Rodriguez’s blood — his family owned restaurants and taquerias and a torta shop when he was a child growing up in Hermosillo, Mexico, close to the Arizona border.
“I have my father’s recipe for homemade flour tortillas; I have my grandma’s recipe for the same churros I was selling on the streets when I was 10 years old,” he says. “So that’s what inspired me. I was always in the kitchen.”
Unlike the owners of El Centro and Tenoch, Chilacates owner Socrates Abreu is not from Mexico; he is Dominican-American and grew up eating the food of his parentage. But after traveling to Sonora, Mexico, in 2010 for a wedding, he fell in love with the cuisine, such as carne asada and seafood found along the Sonoran coast, especially ceviche. He and his wife already knew they wanted to own a restaurant, and after that trip, they decided it should serve some of these things. One restaurant has turned into five, with one more on the way.
“When we went to my brother’s wedding in Sonora, we were tasting a lot of the food and we were like, ‘Damn, no one cooks like this in Boston,’” says Abreu. “So we came back and my wife was like, ‘You’ve got to open a Mexican restaurant.’”
While he doesn’t employ the technique in his Chilacates kitchens, Abreu said he loves the way Sonorans grill meat over a wood fire. Chilacates focuses more on meat cooked for longer periods of time, like carnitas, lengua, al pastor, and chicken tinga.
Abreu also says that being Dominican, he feels a kindred spirit with cuisine from the Caribbean side of Mexico. His sister-in-law Kaurys Ramirez, who is also his head chef and business partner, is married to a chef from Acapulco, which Abreu says has also had an influence on the menu.
“I think we’re doing a little bit of a combo, taking something from here, taking something from there,” says Abreu.
Abreu continues to travel to Mexico to procure ingredients, like dried chiles and various spices (though he’s taciturn about which spices, exactly), and to learn more about the culture and the cuisine. And while he’s pleased when anyone enjoys the food from his restaurants, he’s especially so when Mexicans have positive feedback.
“I have so much respect for their culture,” he says. “And when we have Mexicans come in and eat the food and they’re like, ‘Yo, I can’t believe you’re Dominican!’ that means the world to me.”
Despite the relatively recent influx of more traditional Mexican restaurants, Greater Boston is still dominated by squarely American eateries like gastropubs, new American bistros, sub shops, and mediocre pizza parlors. For American diners without fundamental knowledge of Mexican cuisine, diving in can be intimidating, but the restaurateurs have advice.
“If we see customers playing it safe every day, it’s our job to help them get out of their box,” says Abreu. “I’ll say ‘Taste this lengua, tell me what you think about it.’ Don’t just eat grilled chicken every day.”
“Be adventurous,” adds Sandoval. “If you don’t know what something means or is, just ask us. Try out our sauces; they’re not all spicy. There’s something for everyone.”