Every cuisine has its most famous dishes, every diner her go-to dish. But even your beloved pad Thai/cheese enchiladas/Alaska roll can get a little tired. Break out of that ordering rut with the help of smartypants experts who know all the menu’s secret tricks and gems.
Photo credit: StockFood
Mexico City–born chef Roberto Santibañez has been cooking his native cuisine in America for the last 17 years. He currently runs two restaurants (both called Fonda) and a new bar (La Botaneria) in New York City, has authored several cookbooks, and eats Mexican food three to four times a week. He dines at both higher-end places “for research and development” (a good gig if you can get it!) and taquerias, for the tacos he adores. Since Fonda is known for its fantastic moles and brilliant (and brilliantly simple) guacamole, we asked Santibañez to school us on how to order smarter at Mexican restaurants.
Here are his top tips:
1. Ask where the chef is from. Knowing where in Mexico your chef hails from helps you anticipate the taste of a dish; pipián, a pumpkin seed sauce, “can differ from one state to another. Puebla pipian is green, made with pumpkin seeds, but another pipián—like in Vera Cruz, is red, and [has lots of] sesame seeds.” Sometimes you can make an educated guess just by looking at the menu: “If you see that there’s a pipián on the menu, a mole, or huitlacoche, you can bet that that person either comes from Mexico City, Oaxaca, Michoacán or from [some other] main culinary region,” says Santibañez, which means “it could actually be very good.”
2. If tongue is on the menu, and you like tongue, order it. "If somebody dares to put tongue on the menu, it’s because they know it’s gonna come out well." Santibañez laughs, "In New York, if they didn’t, people would get killed!"
3. Ask what sort of mole it is. As is true of pipián, mole styles can vary wildly (particularly if the chef is from Oaxaca, the land of the seven moles). “If the person is from Puebla and they’re serving mole, you sort of know it’s mole poblano, the dark brown sauce with chocolate added, and you can expect it to be rather sweet… if the person is from Vera Cruz, that’s not going to be a chocolate mole. It has guajillo peppers, and is bright red, and spicy.” If you’re lucky, you’ll get a Oaxacan chef, and you may see the very rare black mole negro, which is traditionally saved for special occasions like weddings and funerals, and is “pretty laborious, 32 ingredients… we divide the preparation over a couple of a days. One days, we toast the seeds. The next day, we toast the chiles,” says Santibañez, who serves the dish at Fonda. (So if you see a mole negro, and the chef is from Oaxaca, order it!)
4. Find out what’s homemade. It’s common for chefs to reconstitute a time-consuming mole at least partially from a paste or a powder, which are then amped up with fresh ingredients like garlic, onion and tomatoes. Santibañez suggests finding out how much the cooks do on the premises: “‘Do you guys toast the chiles and everything?’ If they do, then that should be a good mole.”
5. It’s OK to make special requests. "If you go for brunch and they have chilaquiles… we have our Mexican [customers] that ask them to be green because they know that we will have green salsa. They know that our salsa verde is spicier.” Santibañez is always happy to make that switch, but laughs, “we can’t put that on the menu because [substititions] will put the kitchen in so much trouble.”
6. And once you’re a regular, ask about secret menus. Once you’ve been frequenting a taqueria, it’s fine to chat up your waiter to ask about off-the-menu specials. At Fonda, Santibañez says, there’s “a very, very spicy habanero salsa. All the cooks eat it at the restaurant. It’s not something we keep on the menu,” but he’ll give it to people who ask about it. And occasionally there will be a pipián or some other specialty sauce that’s on the unlisted “Mexican” menu, but not on the one in front of you. So ask!
7. It’s OK to order in Spanish. "Nobody will take offense to that," says Santibañez. "I think people will enjoy that, and when you know how to pronounce the words, people will appreciate that."
8. When in doubt, go with carnitas. There’s a reason his order is, in a pinch, carnitas: "Mexicans are pork people, just like the Chinese. I always get the pork tacos."