It was a short two-hour journey, packed with tantalizing flavors aboard a parked railcar behind a strip center on McCullough that has proven the downfall of many a restaurant owner.
But, thanks in part to the major impact of the Culinary Institute of America’s campus at Pearl as graduates emerge to challenge San Antonio’s collective palate, the chefs undertaking this venture called Mixtli quickly have created a buzz well beyond San Antonio. Chef Diego Galicia is a product of CIA Texas and has had stints at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Moto in Chicago and Lüke in San Antonio. Mixologist Jesse Torres is poised to graduate this spring from the San Antonio campus. Chef Rico Torres has extensive catering experience, and wine partner Veronique Cecila Baretto of Vinously Speaking loves to seek out small-production vineyards around the world.
What they are offering San Antonians is something remarkably different. For one, there are only 12 seats at one community table each night. And the table is right next to the open kitchen.
Portions are small, which is great because having somewhere between eight and ten different courses, each with different beverages, would be impossible to swallow otherwise. The menu is fixed, drawn from a single state in Mexico for a period of about six weeks. Descriptions on the menu are deceptively simple, but you have no choices to make anyway.
Traditional dishes are deconstructed and given radical makeovers with locally sourced ingredients from operations such as South Texas Heritage Pork Farm, Koch Ranches and Ferrra Coffee Roaster. Ancient techniques, such as roasting cacao beans for fresh chocolate and soaking corn in an alkaline solution – nixtomal – for fresh masa, are combined with contemporary presentation and approaches to cooking, such as sous vide.
A trio of petite sopes, cakes of masa, featured three different toppings – one with swordfish, one with a scallop and one with a smoked oyster and caviar. Traditional ingredients of caldo michi, a seafood stew, never met the broth and were molded into a tiny timbal of seafood, chayote, radish and celery. The standard torta ahogada, or drowned sandwich, of Jalisco was transformed into a capped roll stuffed with braised beef with a salsa of chile arbol and a warm tomato sauce on the side for dipping. The cerdo al pastor rose far above street-food presentation to become a falling-off-the-bone-tender pork rib topped with pineapple and dabs of a cilantro salsa.
The greasy, goat birria – a chile stew – we encountered in Guadalajara many decades ago left me never wanting another meeting. But, in the hands of the chefs at Mixtli, it was translated into a moist, rare lamb chop prepared sous vide, with the guajillo chile salsa on the side. The thick tejuno, a coarse beverage made from fermented corn masa, was catapulted with an unexpected layer of flavor from a scoop of lime sorbet in the center. For dessert, yes, you do finally reach that destination, burnt sugar is hardened and cracked atop a snake of vanilla custard topped with bursts of flavor from dehydrated berries.
Beverages were harder for me to keep track of…. But all were all consumed, including cucumber and mango agua fresca; an on-premise carbonated bottle of tequila and grapefruit juice; a tequila anejo rimmed with salt combined with ground chile, salt and charales – tiny fried fish; Mexican coke; beer; Viognier white wine; Cabernet Sauvignon; a concoction of cacao and tequila; and Chiapan coffee. A deadly sounding combination of beverages if not served with food and in small quantities.
Sorry. There is only one seat available for this destination, and the last trip for this particular culinary adventure departs tomorrow night at 7 p.m.
But next week, the crew will be ready to magically transport you to the Yucatan. Tickets, including all food and pairings, are $80 per person. All aboard!
March 26 Update: Mixtli’s menu for the Yucatan experience is now posted: http://restaurantmixtli.com/menu/.