Mexican food: the real deal

Time Out speaks to acclaimed chef Richard Sandoval

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If ever there were a time to liberate Mexican cuisine from its much-maligned reputation, it would be now: Mexican Independence Day is on Friday September 16. Over the years, authentic Mexican food has fallen foul of the prevalence and popularity of Tex-Mex cuisine – hybrid dishes such as burrito and crispy tacos filled with ground beef, cheese and sour cream. Yes, we know it’s difficult to beat a good burrito when you’re after filling fast food, but Mexican cuisine is not limited to quick-fix dishes.

It’s actually one of the most multi-dimensional cuisines around, according to acclaimed Mexican chef Richard Sandoval. He visited Dubai recently to tinker with the menu at his award-winning restaurant, Maya by Richard Sandoval at Le Royal Méridien, as well as putting together a tasting menu to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.

‘When Tex-Mex first came about, the food was very one-dimensional: everything had melted cheese, and sour cream, everything came with lettuce,’ laughs the Mexican chef, who now runs 22 restaurants globally. ‘Each [Tex-Mex] restaurant seems to have three different sauces and puts them together in 10 different combinations, and that’s their menu.’

Sandoval needs only to refer to the hundreds of different chillies used in authentic Mexican cuisine to illustrate just how diverse and flavourful his country’s food is. ‘It’s one of the most amazing cuisines out there, but it was never showcased at that level,’ he explains. He attributes the lack of authentic Mexican food to the overwhelming prevalence of Tex Mex, meaning that people in the US and beyond had no real point of reference. ‘It was difficult for anyone to make a comparison. People weren’t seeing Mexican and Tex-Mex as separate cuisines, so it got lost in translation.’

Sandoval isn’t offended by Tex-Mex; he believes, diplomatically, that there’s a place for everything. His problem is that Mexican cuisine is judged by Tex-Mex standards. He explains that when he opened Maya in New York, guests would ask how he could justify charging US$50 (Dhs180) for a meal when they could spend US$5 at Fajitaville Grill. ‘People weren't making the right comparison,’ he concludes.

To clarify the differences between authentic Mexican and the US hybrid, Sandoval uses the humble taco as his case study. Not only is the taco synonymous with mainstream audiences thanks to, um, Taco Bell, it is also one of the most prominent foods in Mexico. ‘When I first went to live in the States, I saw taco on the menu,’ remembers Sandoval. ‘When I ordered it, I got this hard shell with ground beef and sour cream and melted cheese. That’s not a taco. Well, it’s a taco, but one that’s been taken in a different direction. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just different.

You find tacoreas on every corner in Mexico. People make corn tortillas – not with a hard shell – and normally they’ll be served with roasted tomato sauce and a fresh salsa. Then there’s the stuffing. My favourite is the tacos al pastor – pork, marinated with different chillis such as guajillo, ancho, and pineapple – but you can also have steak, chicken, braised meats or carnitas, which is like a pork confit.’

And what of the burrito? ‘If you go to Mexico, you won’t find a burrito,’ says Sandoval decisively. ‘But there’s nothing wrong with a burrito – you put tortilla, beans, rice and a nice protein together and it’s going to taste great!’

In today’s increasingly multicultural society, authentic Mexican food is undergoing a resurgence. The Latin community in the US, for example, has grown significantly over the past decade, resulting in more authentic Mexican eateries opening on the west coast of the States. ‘These pockets are showcasing authentic Mexican food,’ says Sandoval. ‘People have the opportunity to see the real deal.’

Meanwhile, it seems Sandoval is leading a one-man crusade to introduce the Middle East to high-end Mexican cuisine. His Doha-based restaurant, Pampano, was named Best Restaurant in the Time Out Doha Restaurant Awards, while Maya scooped the award for Best Latin American venue in Dubai. The city’s diners can also look forward to a second restaurant opening, in tower two of Grosvenor House. Sandoval is keeping quiet about the project, but promises ‘a few nice surprises’. If any are as surprising as the unavailability of burritos in Mexico, then Dubai’s dining scene is in for an enlightening culinary treat.
Try authentic Mexican dishes from the new menu at Maya by Richard Sandoval, Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort, Dubai Marina (04 399 5555)

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