Growing up in Texas, one thing was undeniably clear: Processed cheese is an authentic Tex-Mex staple. The yellower, the waxier, the better.
At least, that was my upbringing. Every Wednesday night was Tex-Mex night, and every dish came out under a small mountain of gloopy cheese. Beef fajitas came with a side plate of sour cream, and chips and salsa were more or less a God-given right.
Even with the foodie explosion here in Austin over the past couple of years, it's still ten times easier to find a cheese enchilada topped with canned jalapeño slices than it is to find a deliciously pungent mole sauce.
Chef Iliana de la Vega is about to change all of that.
Hailing from Mexico City, Chef Vega made her name in the southern province of Oaxaca, a region of Mexico known for it's natural beauty, seclusion and preserved cultural traditions from the days before the Spanish invasion. Chef Vega, who first learned the cuisine from her Oaxacan mother, took the traditional dishes and refined them to their purest forms, earning international praise for her rich sauces and expert execution.
After moving to Austin in 2007 and working at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Chef Vega and her husband didn't wait long to bring their unique flavors to Texas. Opening a trailer on Rainey Street (back when Lustre Pearl was the sole entertainment inhabitant), the trailer made a name for itself by serving exceptional guacamole and delicious tacos.
Chef Vega, who first learned the cuisine from her Oaxacan mother, took the traditional dishes and refined them to their purest forms, earning international praise for her rich sauces and expert execution.
Now, nearly two years later, Chef Vega's true vision has been realized. For those whose last bite at El Naranjo was a $3 taco under the summer sun, you're in for a pleasant surprise.
For starters, the restaurant is beautiful, with clean, unfinished pine ornamenting the tall walls, giving the former house a refined yet homely touch. But it is the menu that bears the most change, as Chef Vega now has the freedom to show her true colors — those would be shades of green and red, the colors of her beloved chiles.
"In Oaxaca we have a lot of chiles, so that is my passion. We use them in many different ways. It’s just fun to work with them. There are so many ingredients, you can make so many salsas. We want to show that, too. We’re serving this chile, but we have, I don’t know, if you want a list, maybe 500. So we will keep changing them as we go."
Upon sitting down, three salsas are brought to the table that set the tone for all that is to follow. The green and red salsas are fantastic (and more familiar), but the dark-hued escabeche, a tart,vinegary sauce with onions that puckers the mouth, is truly a knockout. It's clear that Chef Vega considers these salsas more than a peripheral part of the meal.
Accompanying the salsa is a basket of freshly baked bread rolls, firm and flower-coated on the outside but gentle on the inside. Baked by Chef Vega's daughter, they let the salsa do all the talking. So where are the chips?
"In Mexico we don’t eat chips and salsa. There is nothing wrong about it, I think it is a great idea, it’s just something we don’t do. People don’t realize that we eat a lot of bread. When you get into a restaurant, the first thing you get is salsas, maybe some butter, and maybe some chiles, and bread. So what do you do with the saslas? Well, eat it with bread, period! With butter and bread, that’s how you do it. Or tortilla. But eat it with chips? No. Chips are for guacamole and for refried beans and ceviche, that’s it."
"In Mexico we don’t eat chips and salsa. There is nothing wrong about it, I think it is a great idea, it’s just something we don’t do."
The chips that do come out with the guacamole are excellent, super thick and with a major crunch, adding a nice pop to what is easily the best guacamole in town. Her dishes are tight and well composed, with each ingredient playing an integral part of the envisioned flavor. The hard-hitting, gut-punishing plates of Tex-Mex are nowhere to be found. Neither are the flamboyant, unexpected tastes of modern Mexican fusion cuisine.
"I cook traditional food. I used to cook a little more contemporary," Vega explains. "Coming to the United States and seeing what the perception is on Mexican food, that it is not exactly what is Mexican food for a Mexican, I decided to go really traditional. So, I’m not inventing or reinventing the wheel."
The result is exotic in its restraint. It is often simple where you expect complexity and complex where you expect simplicity, such as a shrimp entree over rice with a green pipián sauce. The shrimp is left unadorned with only an unobtrusive marinade, yet the pipián sauce, filled with the flavors of pumpkin seeds and beets (as well as sesame seeds, green chiles, carrots, tomatillos, green tomatoes, radish tops, etc.), steals the show with its deep earthiness and spicy kick.
While Fonda San Miguel has held the reins on traditional Mexican for decades and La Condesa has carved out the Mexican-modernist niche, El Naranjo is clearly going to be a staple in Austin for quality, authentic Mexican food for years to come. Chef Vega has a taste all to her own, one that leaves you dreaming of the southern Mexican jungle and the exotic falvors that have never made it north of the boarder.
"I have some friends that are positive that I will fall into the chips and salsa camp," she says. "We have many other good things. I don’t want the people to stuff with that. It’s delicious, but then you fill up the gut and do not appreciate the rest. I think it’s just a different perspective. Both are good. No complaints, at other places I am not judging anything. It’s just, this is another approach."
"It’s not that I know everything; I don’t pretend that. I just pretend to share what we do, what we love to do. Our perspective, our vision, what is Mexican food for us."
Now, hopefully, what Mexican food is for Chef Vega will be become Mexican food for the rest of us.