We asked the country's foremost expert on Mexican food to tell us about the innovators driving the cuisine forward in the United States today.
You don't just sit down with Bill Esparza for a quick chat—talking to America's most knowledgeable writer on the subject of Mexican food is something that can stretch out into hours, sometimes a whole day. He is a man who always seems to have a lot on his mind, and not just about food, but the politics of the stuff, too—everything, really, that we talk about, when we talk about food in America today. Its origins, the evolution, the contribution that immigrants have made and continue to make, the concepts of cultural appropriation, the various people caught in shameless acts of Columbusing—it's typically a lot at once, but it's always exhilarating, and you're always left wanting more.
It's not like he can't talk about anything else—Esparza had another, fascinating life in the music business, before he decided to delve into food blogging. He eventually worked his way up to become the go-to on the subject not only of Mexican food, but of all types of Latin American cooking, in a city that's positively drowning in the stuff. After years of covering the scene for everyone and anyone, after hosting juried taco festivals and making countless media appearances, Esparza, probably one of very few people who could annoy Rick Bayless enough to get blocked by him on Twitter, has finally put out his first book.
The subject, you might have already guessed. Called "L.A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places," the richly visual tome is a love letter to the heritage, present and continued evolution of Mexican cooking in Los Angeles. On a recent morning, I managed to track him down to ask him a question that I'm guessing he's only too happy to answer: Who are the best, most interesting, most innovative Mexican chefs, working in America right now? Whom do we go to, to taste and see the future of Mexican food in the United States? After about an hour and a half, we got something approximating a list. Ready? Let's take a ride.
Wes Avila Los Angeles
"Wes is the liberator of the modern Mexican taco," says Esparza of one of the country's most innovative taqueros still working out of a truck. (Avila will soon open his first brick-and-mortar, in LA's Arts District.) "He's created a whole new style. which is hard on such a simple canvas as a tortilla. Other people had used tweezers on tacos before, but never to create something so delicious, so interesting. His style is fully formed, everyone else is in development. Avila took a short time to develop his own unique style. How many people have done that?"
Carlos Salgado Costa Mesa, Calif.
There's a reason why Taco Maria, a snug, tasting-menu focused joint roughly an hour from most places in Los Angeles took the number five spot on Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold's 101 Best Restaurants list, just out this week—Salgado is just that good. An Orange County native, he first blipped on the radar of SoCal diners after launching a taco truck back in 2011, his (to most eyes) illogical follow-up to decade or more of toiling in various Michelin-starred (Coi, Commis) kitchens up in the Bay Area. The truck begat the sleek little fine-dining spot where you find him today, and while you can still get tacos here, it's really all about the four-course prix-fixe menu of what Salgado likes to refer to as Chicano Cuisine.
Enrique Olvera New York
In a city where certain people who've figured out how to get diners to pay upwards of $10 per pretty basic taco are still held up as examples of how Mexican cooking has so greatly improved (it's still really not great), let's just call it a minor miracle that one of Mexico City's top chefs was able to airlift in, open, and sustain not one, but two restaurants—the dreamy, very fine Cosme first, the more casual, but no less chic Atla, second. A true trendsetter, Olvera's Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, was sending shockwaves around Mexico and the cooking world at a time when New Yorkers were still wrapping their heads around the guacamole at Dos Caminos.
Carlos Gaytan Chicago
Arriving in the Windy City at age 20 and working his way up from nowhere, Gaytan opened Mexique in 2008, becoming the first Mexican chef to ever go home with their own Michelin star, back in 2013. In true Midwest style, he's still at it, applying classic technique to Mexican flavors both familiar and unfamiliar—it's fine dining, but in a cozy spot just far enough from the heavily-touristed downtown and the so-hot-right-now dining scene to the west, that almost it feels like the terrific neighborhood joint every American neighborhood deserves.
Ricardo Diaz Whittier, Calif.
A pioneer of what Esparza refers to as Alta California cuisine, Diaz helped make the old-school taco de guisado a Los Angeles hipster must-have (Guisados), he made the Mexican torta a thing you go to the deli for, just like you would an Italian sub (Cook's Torta's), and he started turned an old-school mariscos joint in a quiet suburb into a banging Mexican gastropub of sorts (Bizarra Capital). "He introduced the notion that Mexican American cuisine could be contemporary, and not just something that you've brought back from Mexico," says Esparza. "He took the Mexican-American voice, and the way we eat, into a restaurant."
Gabriela Cámara San Francisco
Every food tourist that makes their way to Mexico City either goes to Contramar or is, at the very least told to go to Contramar, Cámara's famed, upscale casual seafood spot in the Roma Norte neighborhood—what many of them might not know is that they could also just go to San Francisco, where she's run one of the country's top Mexican restaurants, Cála, since 2015. A celebration of seafood, just like Contramar, things are perhaps even more elevated, more daring, more modern here—not that you've got to sit down for the full treatment; there's a taco window out in the alley, too.
Ray Garcia Los Angeles
A native Angeleno, Garcia's Broken Spanish—and its much-lauded elevations of humble staples like the chicharron—is a fine-dining star of the nascent Alta California cuisine; opening a modern Mexican restaurant in downtown Los Angeles was quite the scene change for Garcia, who previously helmed a very different restaurant altogether at a hotel in Santa Monica. His leap into the future appears to have paid off; there's even a casual spin-off, the daring (some might say slightly tweaked) B.S. Taqueria, a few blocks away.
Diego Hernandez Los Angeles
Another top chef from south of the border, this time just south of it, Hernandez became world-famous for his bold, tasting-menu restaurant—Corazón de Tierra—located on a beautiful piece of lan in the beautiful Valle de Guadalupe wine region, just an hour or so from San Diego. After landing a spot on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list, Hernandez is now bringing his ultra-modern style to a particularly upmarket patch of Los Angeles. The going hasn't been smooth, but there's promise. :A bumpy start in Los Angeles shouldn't take away from his accomplishment, anymore than any other chef that's had challenges, which is most of them," says Esparza. "Hernandez is still a badass, great chef and I have no doubt he'll figure things out."
Eduardo Ruiz Los Angeles
Known best as the guy who got people to drive from all over Southern California to the working-class suburb of Bell to eat dinner—Ruiz' Pan-Latin Corazon y Miel was a smash hit, in its time—he's now working with others on two very different concepts, Chica's Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles, and on the menu at Public Beer & Wine, a very Long Beach-y spot in Long Beach, but probably one of the few craft beer-crazed bars where you can order proper, slow-cooked barbacoa.
Silvana Salcido Esparza Phoenix
Almost a household name in the Valley of the Sun at this point, the self-described creator of comida chingona (for the sake of politeness, let's just say that means something like 'bad-ass food') first reeled in Phoenicians with her homey, familiar cooking at Barrio Café, followed by subsequent spin-offs—now, she's kicked things into high-gear with the recently-opened Barrio Café Gran Reserva, a home for thoroughly modern Mexican cooking. Once again, Phoenix is in love.