Is Barrio Cafe's Take on Mexican Food Authentic? And Does It Matter?
Alex Rodriguez This side salad is suddenly the center of a heated debate about authentic Mexican cuisine.
Editor's Note: The final post in our "Eating 16th Street" series about Barrio Cafe has drawn quite a bit of criticism, so when Sharon Salomon -- a Phoenix-based food writer, dietitican, investor in Barrio Cafe and one of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's culinary school instructors -- asked to write a guest post in response, we said yes.
Ms. Rodriguez is of course entitled to her opinion but it was the tone of her writing and what she chose to attack that left me livid.
We food writers often try to define what is meant by authenticity in ethnic cuisines. Maybe way back when cultural groups were more isolated and before there were hundreds of food magazines, thousands of cookbooks, celebrity chefs on television and before international travel was common, authentic recipes existed. But that was then. Nowadays the food world is a melting pot and no place is that more evident than in the United States.
I've never had borscht in Moscow as Ms. Rodriguez has but I grew up eating the borscht prepared by my Polish Russian grandmother. I'm not sure if my grandmother's borscht was what Ms. Rodriguez would consider authentic, traditional, genuine or bona fide. But it was borscht cooked by a Polish Russian woman who learned it from her Polish mother who probably learned it from her mother. I would be shocked if it were the same borscht that Rodriguez tasted in Russia in the 21st Century. So whose is more authentic?
Illustration by Claire Lawton Barrio Cafe was Alex Rodriguez's last stop in her "Eating 16th Street" series.
Let's talk about Alex's Barrio Café post. Of course, as kids always say, "this is a free country" and she is entitled to her opinion (even if every other critic who has ever eaten at Barrio disagrees with her).
Let's talk about whether or not a torta served with a side salad is authentic Mexican cuisine or not.
Let's see. A Mexican American chef conceived the dish. The dish was prepared by a Mexican chef using ingredients typical to Mexico although they may have been grown in the United States (authenticity does have limitations). What seems to have bothered Ms. Rodriguez was the side salad.
Silvana, who by the way was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame several years ago as well as having been nominated twice by that organization that Alex doesn't like, the James Beard Foundation (and I truly do not understand what that had to do with what she was writing about but she chose nonetheless to mention it), is a classically trained chef in addition to having learned to cook in her Mexican mother's kitchen. Most certainly Silvana is influenced both by her ethnic heritage and by her classical training.
Classically trained chefs are taught to "balance flavors". Someone with a fine tuned palate will be able to parse the ingredients in a dish but to most of us food tastes good because we can't deconstruct the dish. By adding an acidic salad dressing to the otherwise somewhat fatty torta, Silvana is balancing the flavors. There are of course many ways she could have balanced the flavors but chefs always add their own personal touches and the balsamic dressing is Silvana's.
Is Mexican food "rustic" cuisine as Alex describes it? Hmmmm. My experience with authentic Mexican food is apparently different from hers.