Three new caterers use fresh ingredients and authentic methods to make Mexican food that goes beyond Tex-Mex and tacos
Blame it on at least two decades of feasting on ajwain-speckled corn chips doused with molten yellow cheese and half-and-half corn-and-beans enchiladas soaked in a sweet-spicy tomato sauce, but we are bored of nearly all the 153 restaurant options listed on Zomato.com under the “Mexican category" in Mumbai. The more or less legitimate ones include the founding fathers of the Indianized Tex-Mex Cream Centre and New Yorker on Chowpatty, neighbourhood Udupi coffee houses like Sukh Sagar, Andheri’s long-standing Tex-Mex favourite Sammy Sosa, the city’s first Taco Bell outlet at the Oberoi Mall in Goregaon, even Starboard at The Taj Mahal Palace at Apollo Bunder.
Homegrown cantina chain Sancho’s, which started in New Delhi, arrived in Bandra (West) in 2010, and in the last four years, we’ve seen more Tex-Mex joints open and close in the city than ever before. There was Amigos from the makers of Mia Cucina in Versova, a Chicago-based fast-food franchise called Taco Fresco, in the same lane as Sancho’s off Linking Road, and we’re already placing bets on the impending closure of Mexiloko in Colaba. This new Tex-Mex fast-food brand—set up by a team that includes Sameer Uttamsingh, who works as the brand head for Dish Hospitality, the company that operates Sancho’s—is easily the most unremarkable opening of the year with its subway-style set-up that dishes out some of the most stale and uninspired Tex-Mex we’ve tasted so far.
Luckily, there are three small-scale caterers who love authentic Mexican cooking and fiery Tex-Mex street food beyond nachos, enchiladas and quesadillas made up of processed cheese gloop, layers and layers of tasteless iceberg lettuce and heavy, greasy fillings that give Mexican cuisine a bad name.
Joel Dsouza, owner and founder of the Goregaon-based Crumbs to Gourmet Catering Services, participated at the Lil Flea market organized at the Reclamation Grounds in Bandra in April. Even in the blistering summer heat, we were able to greedily wolf down second helpings of Dsouza’s Smoked Paprika Pork Tacos, made with a filling that was fermented over three days in vinegar, quite like the Goan-Portuguese favourite sorpotel, and topped with a salad of microgreens and a light sour, cream-like dressing. His Shredded Mango Chicken Tacos had juicy meat of chicken thighs slow-cooked for 4-5 hours with the pulp of Alphonso mangoes, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, onions, tomatoes and guajillo chillies imported from Mexico. Dsouza offers a meal for a person—starting from ₹ 850, excluding service charges—comprising five starters, four main courses and a dessert.
Ice Apple’s Aloysius Dsilva.
In less than a year, Dsouza was faced with the tough decision of increasing prices (all the items were priced at ₹ 50-225) or skimping on imported ingredients like guajillo chillies, Aleppo peppers, Mexican oregano, sweet basil, avocado oils and herb oils.
Unwilling to compromise on quality, he brought the shutters down on his maiden venture and set up the Crumbs to Gourmet Catering Services a little over a year ago. “Mexican food is all about the flavouring that comes from the chillies and local seasonal produce," says Dsouza. “I haven’t been able to find or replace the chillies and other spices I currently import from Mexico. On the up side, these days I can manage to procure certain varieties of cacti and blue corn from places like Himachal Pradesh."
As a “gourmet" enterprise, Dsouza says that not only is he able to cook with the ingredients he chooses without worrying about the end cost as much, but he also has the flexibility to focus on recipes that are not dictated by mass demand. So, for instance, while his current Mexican selection includes live fajita counters and plenty of tacos, the authentic Mexican and fusion mains like Caldo de Albóndigas (lamb meatballs cooked in a rich tomato broth), Guajillo Chilli Fish Steak with Baby Tomatoes and Black Olives, and Smoked Paprika Prawns in an Ancho Garlic Sauce outnumber the run-of-the-mill condiments and snacks like nachos.
Dsouza attributes his style of cooking to the chefs he respects: Adán Medrano’s, author of Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage In Recipes and Rick Bayless, who won the 2009 season of Top Chef Masters, a reality cookery show in which he beat 23 other renowned chefs from the US, much to the surprise and annoyance of his rivals, celebrity chefs Hubert Keller (French cuisine) and Michael Chiarello (Italian cuisine). Bayless, reportedly one of US president Barack Obama’s favourite chefs, had put Mexican on the list of modern “haute" cuisines in the US.
Another Mexican chef in the city is Aloysius Dsilva, who set up his catering company, Ice Apple Food Services Pvt. Ltd, in early 2011 after a five-and-a-half-year stint with Dish Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. After serving over eight years on cruise liners that frequented the major ports of Mexico, Dsilva was part of the team that helped set up the first two outlets of Sancho’s in New Delhi, and the first one in Mumbai. Luckily, like Dsouza, Dsilva likes to infuse innovation and a sense of adventure into his Mexican menu.
DSilva hosted a live taco station at the Bombay Local food pop-up in May—we were extremely impressed by the grilled mushroom filling cooked in a chipotle-spiked barbecue sauce served with a roasted tomato salsa cooked with scallions, a scathing habanero sauce and a tangy mango salsa. Dsilva says he is experimenting with a vegetarian version of the popular deep-fried dessert churros with dipping sauces like salted caramel, toffee and chipotle chilli chocolate. “A hot churros and ice-cream counter can be the next big thing at parties," he says.
Ice Apple has a wide range on offer—one can opt for just nacho bars (starting at ₹ 1,200), or order moles, enchiladas and fajita stir-fries by the kilo for house parties (priced at ₹ 850-2,200 per kilo), add a live counter for tacos, burritos or fajitas to an existing party spread, or get the company to cater for an entire party with the works—servers, hot plates, live stations, cutlery and crockery (starting at ₹ 1,000 per person).
The newest Tex-Mex brand in the city, with an all-vegetarian menu, is Mexican Express by the husband-wife team of Ankit and Purvi Shah. Their super-sized burrito wins over Sancho’s and Taco Bell by a landslide, with its perfectly cooked bed of Mexican-spiced rice, locally sourced, refried black beans, a slightly tart but still very hot chipotle sauce, a creamy cilantro dip and home-made sour cream, all wrapped up in a freshly baked corn-flour tortilla.
Ankit, who got hooked on Mexican cooking while pursuing a master’s in information systems at New York University, US, says their menu ditches all-time favourites like nachos and tacos for dishes the couple has personally perfected over the last couple of years to entice younger diners.
The Shahs swear by the “fresh only" mantra followed by their favourite restaurants, like Dos Caminos and Rosa Mexicano in New York City, and are hopeful of introducing concepts like a live guacamole bar in the city soon.