Join the Chef's Roll community, click here to get linked into a world of opportunities.

Mexico Moderne

Mexico Moderne

by Irene Virbila

A new generation of chefs from across the border are bringing their sophisticated contemporary Mexican cuisine to diverse American cities like Houston, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. These very serious restaurants can easily hold their own against the best of any genre— in fact, one is from Enrique Olvera, a Mexico City chef who has two restaurants on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. A meal at any of these modern Mexican spots is sure to be revelatory.

|   Enchiladas with red salsa and crema at Atla in New York City.

Atla, New York City

When Mexico’s most influential chef, Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City, opened Cosme in New York City, you couldn’t get in for months. Now he’s gone casual with an affordable, all-day concept called Atla: That’s big news considering he has not one, but two restaurants on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (Pujol, ranked the best restaurant in Mexico, is No. 20, while Cosme holds the No. 40 spot). Atla’s menu, conceived with Daniela Soto-Innes, the young, hypertalented head chef of Cosme, just works. I would have breakfast here (available until 4 p.m.) every day if I could. Start with a cup of traditional sweetened café de olla and some irresistible, impossibly flakey churros or a bowl of chia oatmeal. And then, maybe—just because I love them—two perfect chicken enchiladas with green or red salsa. Even better, order them divorciadas (divorced)—half red, half green. Chilaquiles sprinkled with flax seeds are terrific, too, and you definitely have to order the dreamy guacamole piled high with herbs—cilantro, basil and tarragon— crowned with a jaunty giant chip. I wouldn’t say no to another glass of the refreshing fermented pineapple drink called tepache either.

Atla, 372 Lafayette Street,
New York City,

|   Xochi’s Tlayudas, a Oaxacan street food with tortillas cooked over wood and topped with grilled skirt steak and black beans.

Xochi, Houston

This year the James Beard Foundation named Hugo Ortega as “Best Chef: Southwest,” an award long overdue. Ortega’s restaurant Hugo’s remains a beloved fixture in the Houston dining scene, but his latest project, Xochi (pronounced so-chee) is garnering all the attention right now. Inspired by the flavors of Oaxaca, Ortega delves deep into the intricacies of the Mexican state’s glorious cuisine—reveling in rare chiles, indigenous herbs, heirloom corn and even Oaxaca’s cherished grasshoppers. Try the tender masa cakes topped with roasted pork ribs or the triangular blue corn tetelas perfumed with hoja santa and filled with cheese and mole coloradita.
And for the mole aficionado, his mole tasting menu is a little bit of heaven. Platos fuertes include Texas black-footed chicken in a deep, velvety mole negro and dry-rubbed pork shank with Istmeño peppers and roasted pineapple. Desserts from Ortega’s younger brother, Ruben, are sophisticated riffs on chocolate and cacao (they roast and grind their own). I’m coming back for a quintessential Oaxacan street food—tlayudas (giant tortillas cooked over wood) topped with grilled skirt steak and black beans.

Xochi, 1777 Walker Street,
Houston, TX, (713) 400-3330,

|   Chef Maycoll Caldéron of Tinoterera in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

Tintorera, Los Angeles

Maycoll Caldéron, chef at Mexico City’s Huset, lucked out by snagging a primo outdoor space in Silver Lake for his first American restaurant, Tintorera. Named for the kitschy 1977 shark-hunting thriller, Tintorera pays tribute through its décor to Acapulco’s golden years in the 1950s (everything is vintage and comes straight from Mexico).
The seating is entirely outdoors on a romantic patio strung with lights and fringed with palms and giant bird of paradise plants. Vines clamber up a tall brick wall embellished with a mural of the goddess of the sea surrounded by sharks. Caldéron gets the restaurant’s seafood fresh every day, as well as, most importantly, fresh masa for the tortillas. His signature tuna tartare with jalapeño emulsion, radishes and avocado is terrific.
The kitchen turns out some killer ceviche and aguachile, too, but the dish closest to his heart is his mother’s arroz con pollo suffused with a saffron-accented adobo. For dessert, his mezcal ice cream with sal de gusano (agave worm salt) is brilliant. Behind the bar is David Mora, one of Mexico City’s top bartenders; Caldéron, meanwhile, oversees the wine list himself, filling it with crisp, minerally whites from Baja California, South Africa and New Zealand that pair especially well with his seafood-centric cuisine.
In addition to mezcal, the bar stocks small-batch, lesser-known Mexican spirits such as Sotol, Raicilla, Bacanora and a liquor distilled from an agave called sisal. The best thing? Tintorera is open through the afternoon and into the late-night hours.

Tintorera, 2815 Sunset Boulevard (Silverlake),
Los Angeles, CA, (323) 741-0055,

|   Chef Gabriela Cámara of Cala in San Francisco

Cala, San Francisco

Two years ago, famed Mexico City chef Gabriela Cámara moved to San Francisco and opened Cala, a contemporary Mexican seafood restaurant. A Bay Area cousin of her wildly popular Contramar in CDMX’s Roma Norte, Cala is still one of the hardest reservations to secure in S.F. It’s fascinating to see the way Cámara has adapted Contramar’s iconic dishes to celebrate California ingredients. Her famous tuna tostadas are made here with smoked trout, chipotle, avocado and fried leeks. She makes an abalone version, too, and tops grilled local oysters with carnitas and nettles—now that’s bold. Enfrijoladas (tortillas dipped in black bean sauce) are garnished with queso fresco, soothing purslane and a fried egg.
As a main course, you’ll want the lamb barbacoa served with freshly-made tortillas and the grilled, butterflied rock cod for two smeared with a spicy salsa verde. And don’t forget to order her sumptuous blackened roasted sweet potato with marrow bone salsa. Weekend brunch is always a sellout, so it’s wise to reserve well ahead. If you can’t get in for dinner, go for lunchtime tacos on weekdays in the back alley: It’s standing service only, but so good.

Cala, 149 Fell St.,
San Francisco, CA; (415) 660-7701,