Tag Archives: Talavera

My Favorite Dishes of 2016

As 2016 began, it was planned that Nick, me and the kids — Holly, the 11-year-old pitbull and our 7-year-old Frenchie, JJ — were moving to Denver from Phoenix. Our intention after twelve months in the Sonoran Desert was to relocate to the Mile High City for his work. Our last stop was the Rocky Mountains. However, after all that, we have found ourselves back in Southern California, where we had originally started. Not in Los Angeles – coming full circle — but in Newport Beach, behind the Orange Curtain. Still for Nick’s work, but with a fluffier job description.

It’s a good location for us. Far from the histrionics of the world’s entertainment capital. Yet, we discuss missing Camelback Mountain rising out of the valley, the vast blue skies and, of course, the food. Phoenix taught me that good eating can be found anywhere if you are looking for it. It doesn’t have to be in one of the anointed culinary islands such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

While living in Phoenix, I discovered deep blended roots of Mexican and Native American food. Indeed, it’s common for local hunters born of Mexican descent to shoot game such as moose or elk during the holiday season. The braised meat is then turned into Christmas tamales and frozen to eat throughout the year. It’s a practice that goes well beyond the area’s 114 years as a state. Originally, Mexican settlers joined with the natives crafting unique food and then in turn, became Americans when the 48th state entered the Union.

I bring this up because I read a well-known restaurant writer’s suggestions of “best food trends”. In her lengthy piece, she proffered gastronomic extravagances in Copenhagen, Paris, and of course, the Big Apple which is where she is based. I can always choose what is great elsewhere, from Singapore to Argentina, France to Greece. However, I think it’s our duty to describe what is “great” in America. Our culinary prowess is the myriad of cultures creating our nation – borrowing from here and there, making our own indigenous taste profiles such as fried chicken, pot roast or apple pie. Derived from other places, but made here crafting American comfort. We need to recognize that we are great, looking only to our dinner tables.

Unlike the writer, who travels often, I didn’t get on a plane this year except a roundtrip to Vegas and Phoenix. After almost two dozen countries and nearly 250 cities, I’m not big about getting on planes anymore; plus, I love the dining scene in smaller cities such as Phoenix, Portland and even in Orange County, California. They aren’t massive but what’s cooking is robust and lively.

As go into the new year, as a nation, we have dreamed up all types of unique food – Mexican-Korean tacos, Japanese sushi with Brazilian flavors, Thai with Texas BBQ– turning it into one melting pot of goodness. The ingredients simmering on the American stove is where we have always been welcoming, tasting little bits of this and adding some of that. Authentic American flavor is made from our fusion of cultures right here at home and it’s always been great.

Hoja Sante stuffed with Mennonite Cheese, Gran Reserva Barrio Café : Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (Phoenix, Arizona).

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza should be a nationally recognized chef and it’s a shame she’s not. She is a proud Mexican American born in the United States and is un-WASP-like most Food Network stars such as Giada, Rachel or even Paula Deen.  At her five restaurant mini-empire based in Phoenix, her cooking is Mexican but with European techniques. At Gran Reserva Barrio Café, her new restaurant which opened in spring 2016, Esparza’s creativity is evidenced in the simplicity of a melty hunk Mexican Mennonite cheese, wrapped burrito-like in a large hoya sante leaf and served with two smoky chili pastes. Simple. Traditional and yet still other worldly.

Image result for Hoja Santa Gran Reserva Arizona Latinos

The indigenous plant is not commonly found north of the border, and when it is, it’s usually used in stews and braises. Esparza uses it whole, instead of strips, allowing the anise flavor to compliment the queso’s milky texture. The venomous bite of the peppers is nulled by the dairy and leaving only smokiness. Texturally, the crunch of the leaf, emission of creaminess and a nullified heat is eye-opening. As I sat eating the dish, along with interviewing the Phoenix-based chef for Arizona Latinos, she imparted the history of the Mexican Mennonites and how they are still important to the agriculture of the country.

This gooey delicious dish is modest, and that’s what makes it brilliant.

Chicken Liver Pasta, Sotto:  Chef Steve Samson (Los Angeles, CA)

On a media tasting invite, I went through a selection of items chosen by Chef Steve Samson at his almost six-year-old restaurant Sotto. The cozy space is inviting with blue walls, wooden tables and chairs as is Mr. Samson, who is one of the kinder cooks in the culinary world.

Going through his menu, which is all yummy the standout, became the housemade Rigatoni tossed with Chicken Livers, Parmigiana Reggiano and Porcini. It’s a daring dish for Angelenos to embrace. First, there are the carbohydrates but second the livers aren’t normally found on regular menus much less Italian. Having traveled often to Italy, I didn’t recall pasta and innards used in this way and asked Samson where it was based. It was his unique twist on the typical Bolognese ragu. Instead of throwing away something tasty, he invented this earthy and rustic dish. I’m not fond of chicken livers – and I don’t know many people who are – but this I would eat every day for the rest of my life.

 

Jardineros (Garden) Tacos, Taco Maria: Chef Carlos Salgado (Costa Mesa, CA)

Taco Maria is a high-end eating experience much like the Rick Bayless’ chain Red O or even Phoenix’s independent Barrio Café (see above). White tablecloths, waiters with crumbers and sparkling water served in wine glasses, my type of my place, where a diner feels special. Located inside a mall within a mall, it is an indoor-outdoor space which is a good showcase for the unique tastes presented by Chef Carlos Salgado.

Much has been written about Salgado and for good reason, his fusion of California agricultural and Mexican cooking produce, arguably the country’s best tacos. Ordering a la carte during lunch, there are a five varieties of the national south of the border food: chicken, beef, pork,  fish and vegetarian. Exceptional eats every single one, wrapped with the housemade delectable blue corn tortillas found only at Taco Maria. (B.S. Taqueria gets their masa from here too.) The standout is clearly the vegetarian (jardineros) made with shitake mushroom chorizo, a crispy potato and queso fundido. Separately, each one would make a great filling but together, they create something truly different. The minced fungi spiced with traditional south of the border flavorings texturally give the chorizo a meat-like consistency. However, it’s the flavor which is a standout.

Pasta dishes, Tratto: Chef Chris Bianco (Phoenix, AZ)

Legendary chef Chris Bianco is  renowned for Pizza Bianco. Matter of fact, his pizzas have been called the best in the world by former “Vogue” food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. Therefore, when someone invites you to Tratto, his new restaurant which opened in early summer 2016 in the same mall as his world-renowned pizzeria, you go – but not for his pizzas. At his new space, he has opened his creativity to showcase other goodness derived from Arizona farmers; mostly notably, the wheat growers.

Bianco does everything else but pizzas. Old-fashioned, Italian food but a real display of southwestern growers. I don’t mean peppers, tomatoes and cheese but bold pairings such as beets and gorgonzola roasted in a fig leaf. All ingredients are sourced from the 48th state, crafting Italian food. Don’t question it but eat his handmade pastas which are carefully crafted by Bianco. Get off the carb diet and have a bit of heaven.

Beef Tenderloin with Mole Negro, Talavera at Four Seasons Scottsdale: Chef Mel Mecinas (Phoenix, Arizona)

To reiterate, I’ve listed the dishes I’ve eaten over the course of the year which I remember fondly. Eating them, at the restaurant, the conversations around them and how good they are. Nothing comes as close to Chef Mel Mecinas and his mole negro and beef tenderloin.

Mole is probably one of the world’s most difficult sauces to make. Consisting of more than two dozen ingredients ground and simmered into a liquid, resulting in something edible which is complex, luscious and fortifying. Fish is too delicate for the earthiness but lean cuts of meat provide a great experience to taste the Mexico pottage which is what diners get at Talavera under the capable hands of Chef Mecinas.

Unfortunately, he no longer works at the restaurant where he was the Executive Chef for more than a decade. Greener pastures beckoned. However, one day I hope the world gets to eat his extraordinary mole.

 

i8tonite with Chef Mel Mecinas: Executive Chef, Four Seasons Scottsdale and Chicken Posole, Oaxacan-style

Chef MelFour Seasons Executive Chef Mel (full name Meliton) Mecina’s story is the stuff of American dreams. Currently, overseeing the five kitchens of the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North and its culinary staff, Mecinas is a self-taught chef. He unwittingly followed in the footsteps of many well-known kitchen individuals who never attended a formal cooking school; internationally known chefs such as LA’s Suzanne Goin (Lucques, AOC), Tom Colicchio (Craft, judge on “Top Chef”), and British cooking phenomenon Jamie Oliver and the late Charlie Trotter.

Talavera. Photo courtesy of Four Seasons.
Talavera. Photo courtesy of Four Seasons.

In 1987, an 18-year-old Mecinas followed his father from Oaxacaand worked in the prep area of a Los Angeles chain restaurant, washing dishes.  Graduating to kitchen prep (i.e. chopping lettuce) after several years, Mecinas applied for a kitchen position at famed chef’s Joachim Spilchal’s Patina prior to opening. It was paying out another fifty cents more per hour than his current employment.

After being hired, Mecinas quickly realized his personal desire to beTomato Salad a chef, not just another worker chopping mise-en-place. And so, he pursued the calling with vigor under the tutelage of Splichal, known as one of North America’s great French culinary technicians.  Mecinas apprenticed and soaked up food information. He was so eager to learn the craft of cookery that Mecinas often came to work two to three hours ahead of schedule, getting his station in order. Once he finished, he would watch and learn from other chefs in Splichal’s kitchen as well.

Proof. Photo courtesy of Four Seasons.

It was truly an auspicious start and for almost a decade Patina taught him well. Other opportunities began to arise for Mecinas which included the Four Seasons. He started working with the luxury hotelier in Los Angeles and eventually headed to Santa Barbara.  It was at the latter where Mecinas cooked one of the courses for the late Julia Child on her 90th birthday, a very special career moment.

TalaveraOver the past nine years, Mecinas has become the culinary spokesperson for Four Seasons Resorts Scottsdale at Troon North. It’s difficult for even the most accomplished chefs to highlight one gastronomic character of their restaurant. With finesse, Mecinas manages to discuss several epicurean personalities from an al fresco poolside dining stage, a casual American fare complete with pretzel knots to a signature steakhouse that brings in the area’s residents. His cooking and affable personality are highlighted in food stories from the Arizona Republic,  Phoenix New Times and Phoenix Magazine. Lastly, in August, he returned from a whirlwind media tour cooking in New York City and at the famed James Beard House. Mecinas kitchen skills are not only a showcase for the resort but also for Phoenix’s food scene.  As Mecinas star gains momentum, so will Arizona on our nation’s stage about great food.

Chef’s Questionnaire: 

PRINT USE Proof! (183 of 305)How long have you been cooking? 28 Years.

What is your favorite food to cook? Gnocchi, you can add almost any herb or spice to it – I love that it is a blank canvas.

What do you always have in your fridge at home? OJ, haricot vert, pickles, Greek yogurt, tortillas, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, garlic — all the items needed to spice up a dish.

Image result for greek yogurt

What do you cook at home? Everything! I am not a chef who only cooks at work. I love to cook everything even when I am home with my family. I’m in the kitchen, and my wife does all the things around the house —  I am so thankful for that type of teamwork. I wouldn’t be successful without her.

For breakfast, I’ll make chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, enfrijoladas or French toast, but I’ll admit that when I’m tired, the family eats cereal!

I’ve made lunch for my son since first grade, so I still love to do that. It has sentimental value to me.

What marked characteristic do you love in a customer? I love when guests come in the door excited to try something new and have an open mind to their dining experience. When guests order our 6-course “Taste of Talavera,” and say, “I’ll let the chef decide what I eat tonight” – that is what I love.

What marked characteristic do you find unappealing in a customer? Customers are all unique and have different needs and expectations, which I always strive to exceed. It is disappointing when guests feel like we did not try to give them the best dining experience. A lot of hard work and passion goes into each dish and sometimes guests don’t see that. But it does provide good motivation – we just try harder next time!

Tupperware, Rubbermaid, or Pyrex?  Pyrex

Beer, wine or cocktail?  Most of the time, I drink wine. Every now and again, I drink a Negroni.

Your favorite cookbook author? Michel Bras from Laguiole, France.

 

Your favorite kitchen tool?  A sharp knife and my heart (you have to cook with your heart).

Your favorite ingredient? Salt (if the food has no salt there is often no flavor) – it is a delicate balance.

Your least favorite ingredient? Turmeric.

 Least favorite thing to do in a kitchen? Sit in my office doing office work. I want to be on my feet in the kitchen with my team.

Favorite types of cuisine to cook? Besides Mexican, I love Spanish, French, Italian and anything with Asian flavor.

Beef, chicken, pork or tofu?  All of it!

Favorite vegetable?  Avocado.

Chef you most admire?  Charlie Trotter.

Food you like the most to eat?  Salami, cheese, olives – I prefer salty and savory over sweet.

Food you dislike the most?  Brain (Mostly used in tacos, luckily very few places use it!)

How many tattoos? And if so, how many are of food? None, which is rare among chefs these days! I would like to get one in the future, but I’ll have to personally design it.

Mel Mecina’s Chicken Pozole, Oaxacan Style Yield: 8 servings

 Ingredients:

  • 4  Large diced chicken breast
  • 2 lbs tomatoes
  • 1 quart of water
  • ½ medium white onion
  • 3 each of dried gualillo chiles
  • 5 each of chile de arbol,  toasted
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 3 cups hominy
  • 2 cups green cabbage, finely julienne
  • 2 cups thinly slice radish
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 cup minced red onions
  • 2 limes cut into wedges
  • 1/2 cup of oil
  • Salt and Pepper

 Broth. Put the tomatoes, seeded guajillo and chile de arbol into sauce pot with some water to cover. Cook over medium heat until soft. Transfer to a blender. Add the onions and garlic. Puree to a textured sauce.

 Chicken. Heat the oil in a large sauce pot. Add the chicken and sear for a few minutes. Add the tomato-chile puree and the remaining water. Bring to a boil. Add the hominy. Season with salt and pepper. Let simmer for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Serving. Pozole is a traditional Mexican dish that will be a showcase on any festive occasion. The recipe and ingredients differ according to Mexican regions and states. The garnish might be the same as traditional condiments served on the side: julienned cabbage, radishes, cilantro, onions, and lime.

The End. Go Eat.