Enrique Olvera, Mexico’s most prominent culinary ambassador, wants the world to better understand an unassuming ingredient: corn. In his restaurant Pujol, a tasting menu is dedicated to the modest taco, cooked from a corn tortilla, served according to the Japanese "omakase" philosophy.
Ranked as the best restaurant in Mexico, Pujol is 12th on the list of the 50 Best, which rewards the 50 best restaurants in the world. About three years back, Olvera relocated his iconic Mexico City-based fine dining establishment Pujol to a more spacious, minimalist, mid-century modern bungalow 11 blocks away. Since the reopening, the Chef has launched a tasting menu dedicated to the humble taco. That’s quite a statement. Olvera has set out to elevate the staple Mexican ingredient and show that it deserves its place in a fine dining atmosphere. In fact, his establishment is ranked the best in Mexico, coming in at number 12 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
At Pujol, guests who opt for the taco omakase* get up-close-and-personal with corn. The 10-course adventure flows naturally from tacos and tostadas to a folded tortilla enveloped in a sauce aged for 2,038-days known as mole madre or “mother mole”, Olvera’s signature take on the classic Mexican sauce.
And while Olvera embraces his heritage, he weaves it together with influences from around the world and particularly Asia, through unexpected takes on tofu or by lacing a hoja santa rock cod taco with kimchi. Our chronicler Kat Odell caught up with the chef to learn about his work with this ingredient and how time spent in Japan inspired him to launch Pujol’s taco omakase* menu.
How does Pujol’s taco menu differs from the dining room menu?
The taco bar is a different experience – in meal structure and in service – from the one on offer in the dining room. Of course, the quality is the same, but it offers an easier rapport with the team behind the bar, so in a way it is more casual. Like the taqueria experience, you can come alone, talk with your neighbors, and make some friends while sipping a beer.
Tell us about your inspiration for starting a taco tasting menu.
The idea was to bring street food into a new context, taking amazing ingredients and preparing them with the utmost care.
What are some examples of regions in Mexico where you’ve sourced ingredients for this menu?
We take beautiful lobsters from Baja California, octopus from Campeche, and heirloom corn from Oaxaca.
Tell us about some of the uniquely Mexican techniques involved in preparing your tacos.
We make our tortillas from nixtamal. This pre-Hispanic technique consists of boiling corn with calcium hydroxide and salt and letting it soak overnight. Then we grind the corn into masa with a molino (mill). The current shift towards fine dining has made us aware of the possible sophistication of popular cuisine. The tortilla offers many more possibilities than we imagined. It is the emblem of our culinary heritage.
Are there any overlooked features about the taco menu that you’d like people to notice?
I definitely would like them to acknowledge the importance of corn. Customers – especially Mexican customers – tend to overlook corn, because it is so commonplace. Our main intention is to convey to our patrons the importance of heirloom corn as sustainable, delicious, nutritious and culturally relevant. The flavours of corn vary with growing areas, varieties and farming techniques. It’s not an easy message to get across, but people are slowly becoming more receptive.
One of your signature dishes is mole madre. Tell me about its significance, and why you choose to serve it both in the dining room and at the taco counter.
The sauce itself is very complex. We’ve been reheating the same mole madre for almost six years. Since it’s one of Pujol’s favorite dishes, we offer it on both menus and it is served on a tortilla in the taco menu.
The idea of a taco omakase* sounds very Japanese, and yet you apply to one of Mexico’s most famous foods. How did Japan influence you in choosing this style of service?
My trips to Japan were influential in choosing the omakase approach. I regularly came across sushi as a street food, and I saw how it can be transformed into a meal of Michelin category. We decided to do something similar with the taco: to elevate the basic concept, bringing in premium ingredients and creative combinations. That’s what I admire about Japan’s food culture: an exquisite respect for ingredients, from start to finish.
I noticed that some of the taco toppings feature international touches such as kimchi and tofu. Has your approach always had global influences, or is this a new feature?
A little bit of both. As a chef I am always seeking out new flavors. Inspiration can make its way through in the form of ingredients, recipes or techniques. It’s a subjective process.