PHOTO: ALEX LAU
Lengua Madre, which translates to "mother tongue," lives in an unmarked building on Constance Street in New Orleans. From the moment you glimpse the glow of the hot pink light emanating through the small window on the door, you know you're in for an adventure. There are no giant goblets of frozen margaritas here, or gargantuan menus of combination platters, or giant vats of bubbling queso. Instead, you'll find sophisticated cocktails that highlight more obscure Mexican spirits like pox, Mexican corn whiskey, and Oaxacan gin, and chef Ana Castro's affordable five-course tasting menu.
A meal starts with tiny clay shot glasses of a wonderfully saline and deeply umami shrimp broth. "It's inspired by a really traditional little shrimp broth that they give you at seafood restaurants on the coast and in Mexico City," she says. A monochromatic masterpiece of beets with mole, featuring hibiscus and cherry powder and topped with rose powder, arrives shortly after, garnished with a flurry of pomegranate arils as if they were jewels nestled on a brooch. Castro, who is often inspired by art, frequently toys around with mole on the menu, embracing its colorful variants, depending on what produce is available. Her team nixtamalizes their masa in-house, and that shines in the tlacoyo, which features a thick, oval-shaped base as a vessel for toppings. Castro's version is loaded with beans cooked in the style of her grandmother (with a clove of garlic, onion, a little cinnamon, and exactly one star anise) and topped with ribbons of lacto-fermented daikon.
Lengua Madre is Castro's ode to both the strength and the whimsy of Mexican cooking. The restaurant is a joyful, thoughtful creation that almost didn't exist. Just a few years before opening it, Castro was ready to give up a career in restaurants. She had been passionate about food from a young age, but the toxic kitchen culture—rampant drug use, unbridled anger, objects being thrown, and insulting comments on her body—in some of New York City's top restaurants, where she'd spent a large part of her culinary career, had stripped her of her love of cooking completely. "I remember having panic attacks in the cooler," she recalls. "Or sitting in the shower, just praying to be able to get through work." One day, she packed her belongings into a minivan and drove to New Orleans, where her younger sister Lydia was living.
"I was really burned out from cooking," she says. Castro was planning to work a mindless job at a nondescript restaurant, save some money, and then move on, but Lydia pleaded with her to reconsider and give her passion for cooking one more shot in New Orleans.
"Lydia told me, 'You're good at what you do. So you should at least try to find work at an actually good restaurant,'" recalls Castro. "She was like, 'I understand if you don't want to be a sous chef or anything, but at least go be a line cook somewhere.'" She landed a job as a line cook at Coquette, the beloved modern Southern restaurant from chef Michael Stoltzfus, and soon took on a job as a sous chef at Thalia, his now-shuttered Italian venture.
Castro could breathe again. "I found a group of people who were laid-back, supportive, yet knew how to have a good time and also knew how to get some rest," she says. "I was really welcomed by a community, and my sister was here, and I remembered what an integral part of my life she is."
Once Thalia shut down, Stoltzfus suggested Castro open a concept in the now-empty space. "I think it should be modern Mexican food, done your way," he told her. Even though Castro was raised in Mexico, she had never worked in a Mexican restaurant until she built Lengua Madre. "I consider myself super lucky because I was raised with ancestral knowledge," she says. Now, she uses Lengua Madre as a jumping-off point to introduce diners to the magic and depth of Mexican cuisine.
She opened in 2021 with a promise to herself that Lengua Madre would, above all, have a healthy working environment. "I really think that we should move away from looking at kitchens as a merry band of misfits. It's a professional workspace that requires professional conduct." Today, Castro is delivering on that promise. "There are no natural-born leaders," she says. So she spends her free time studying articles from MIT and the Harvard Business Review about topics like communication framework and radical candor.
And she's looking to the future. She hopes to one day have a spot focused on seafood dishes and another that serves up Mexican breakfast. But most of all, she'd love a place that further explores nixtamalization and teaches people how to do it themselves, in their own kitchens. "I would love to continue the tradition of passing knowledge forward."
Lengua Madre, 1245 Constance St, New Orleans, LA, lenguamadre.com
Meet all of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2022: Warda Bouguettaya | Damarr Brown | Ana Castro | Calvin Eng | Tim Flores and Genie Kwon | Melissa Miranda | Justin Pichetrungsi | Emily Riddell | Rob Rubba | Caroline Schiff